Image from www.haniotika-nea.gr
Emblems of faith and resistance, the monasteries of Chania have something for all: Alluring architecture, artful frescoes and reliefs; religious relics, historical remnants and modern-day, edible souvenirs. And that’s not to mention their gorgeous settings and views or captivating backstories.
Chania in Crete is blessed with some of the world’s most stunning beaches – but this is not its only claim to fame. You’ll find plenty of fascinating things to see and do here, even when it’s not bikini weather. Natural wonders aside, the island’s former capital has a long and turbulent history whose traces are now found in ancient monuments and archaeological sites; amid the alleyways of its surviving old town; but also in its awe-inspiring religious centres: Climbed on high cliffs or stretched out in fertile valleys, these imposing antique structures come with all-sweeping views and a wealth of tales to tell. Beacons of Orthodoxy, the monasteries of Chania stand as living testaments of Crete’s great past, attesting to the locals’ deep-rooted spirituality and faith.
A short history of the monasteries of Chania
Byzantine Nicephorus Phocas liberated Crete from the Arabs in 961 AD and what followed was a period of a cultural renaissance, which continued well into the Venetian era. Most of the monasteries of Chania were founded during this time – and remained pivotal even under the long-lasting Turkish yoke.
By 1648, most of the island had fallen into the hands of the Ottoman Empire. With the latter imposing strict restrictions on the local Orthodox and Catholic populations, the monasteries of Chania became hubs of resistance in the Cretans’ struggles for liberation over the next two and a half aeons: They were, in fact, the only places where Christians could find shelter and organize their military operations, and this is why they were frequently attacked and brutally destroyed by the Turks. Marked by violence and loss, but also an entrenched commitment to freedom, this era forged the Cretans’ character and strengthened their religious convictions. Symbols of martyrdom and hope alike, the monasteries of Chania nowadays attract history buffs, art and architecture lovers, religious tourism enthusiasts and peace and quiet seekers. Let’s take a look at some of the most important.
3+1 must-see monasteries of Chania
Built on top of a promontory right above the famous Elafonissi beach, Panagia Chrissoskalitissa is a 17th-century all-white monastery dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. Its name means “golden steps” and is surrounded by captivating myths. One version says that this is because one of its 90 steps is golden, but only those with a pure heart can see it. Another story claims that the whole staircase was originally made from gold, but that gold was extracted and given to the Sultan in lieu of tax. Legend also has it that Turkish soldiers attempted to loot the monastery on the Easter of 1824, but then a swarm of bees attacked and stopped them at the entrance. During the Turkish occupation, Chrysoskalitissa purportedly hosted a forbidden krifo sholio – an underground school for teaching Greek, as well. Gorgeous scenery and fascinating tales aside, the still fully operational monastery features a museum with displays and relics from the Cretan Revolution.
Agias Triados Tsangarolon monastery
Located on the stunning Akrotiri peninsula, just 15 km from the town of Chania, the Patriarchal Monastery of Agia Triada is one of the wealthiest and that’s not to mention most spectacular in the whole of Crete. Dedicated to the Holy Trinity, it was built in the 17th-century by Venetian nobles and scholars Jeremiah and Laurentio Tsangarolon. With marked Renaissance architectural influences, it boasts ornate church exteriors and a beautifully tended, flower clad, inner courtyard. There is also a museum with a large collection of woodcarvings and icons. The monastery is nowadays flourishing, as it has managed to find its way into the present with the production and distribution of organic olive oil, wine, honey, vinegar, and high-quality olive oil soap. Surrounded by extensive vineyards,
Agia Triada was one of the few wineries on the island that was making wine from Romeiko grapes long before this variety became popular among the connoisseurs: Until recently shunned by local sommeliers and producers, Romeiko is now one of the stars of Crete’s up and rising wine scene, and well worth the try!
Monastery of Gouverneto
Built at an altitude of 260m, Gouverneto or Our Lady of the Angels was inaugurated in 1537 and is one of the oldest monasteries of Chania and Crete. With Renaissance and Baroque influences, it looks like a Venetian fortress from afar. Inside there is a rectangular courtyard dominated by a dome church with an ornate façade – the monsters carved in relief are one of its most striking features. Next to the church, there are two chapels dedicated to Agioi Deka (the Ten Saints of Crete) and Saint John the Hermit. A small museum with ecclesiastical art and relics is also included on the premises. Outside to the north, you’ll find a paved footpath leading into the Avlaki Gorge running down to sea level. As the story goes, this is where Saint John the Hermit, the monastery’s founder lived. Walk for about 20 minutes to discover the famous Αrkoudospilios (Bear Cave). According to myth, the great rock inside the cave was a bear that was turned to stone. Venture a bit further down to find Katholiko Monastery and the church of St John the Hermit. This hard-to-reach area hosted one of Crete’s most important centres of asceticism in the 11th-century. The former hermits’ caves and the remnants of the quite elaborate ecclesiastical complex which was constructed there in the 17th-century are still visible today.
Gouverneto is located in Akrotiri,19 km north of the town of Chania. It’s just 4 km from Agias Triados monastery, so a good idea would be to combine a visit to both.
Monastery of Agios Georgios Karydi
About two kilometres east of Vamos in Apokoronas, a few minutes drive away from the Adeste Chania Luxury Villas, the monastery of Agios Georgios was founded around 1600, in the hamlet of Karydi. During the Turkish occupation, the village was however destroyed, as its inhabitants were asked either to abandon their homes or renounce their religion. Out of the ten families, four decided to convert to Islam and become Muslim. With newfound zeal, they asked that the church of Agios Georgios turns into a mosque; but the local priest held his ground. He had to pay excruciating taxes, though, so he asked the monks at Agia Triada to help him. In return, Agios Georgios passed into the control of its wealthier partner in 1720. Towards the end of the Turkish occupation, Christians in Crete were gradually given more freedoms by their oppressors. One of the most benefited was the Monastery of Agia Triada. More and more monks thereafter came to Karydi and built a new, bigger church. In 1829 the Turkish authorities granted the monastery a license to produce Crete’s liquid gold. ie. olive oil. This brought about more jobs and development. Completed in 1863, the vast olive oil press is particularly impressive, with stone arches and unique millstones – the likes of which are not to be found in any other olive oil press in Crete. In its heyday, Agios Georgios boasted some 3.600 olive trees, with a corresponding production of 25,000 barrels per year. The monastery was ultimately abandoned in 1923 and most of its property was bestowed to the Balkan and Asia Minor wars veterans. Since 1996 it operates as an independent monastery with an onsite church featuring 1880s frescoes, as well as St. George’s relics.