With its white-washed villages infused with lush, ancient olive groves roamed by goats, picturesque tavernas and a series of beautiful sun-drenched beaches including the totally deserted kind, Patmos is the kind of Greek paradise dreams are made of.
Besides its rich offerings of the obviously idyllic and its draw for the rich and famous, Patmos is best known as the island on which St. John received his visions from God while exiled in a cave. These, once written down, became ‘Revelation’ – the last book of the Christian bible and it is for this reason Patmos is often dubbed the Jerusalem of the Aegean as a steady stream of pilgrims arrive from every corner of the world. Both the Christian faithful and those with no religious beliefs whatsoever visit the sacred cave along with the island’s other principal site –the treasure-filled monastery which grew up around it.
Perched high on a hill, the almost 1,000 year old Monastery of St. John is immediately visible when approaching Patmos by sea, its imposing surrounding walls built to protect it from invaders and pirates. Spilling down the hill from here is the island’s capital, Chora, a charming and atmospheric maze of passageways peppered with late medieval churches and the grand villas which were built by the wealthiest citizens centuries ago. Together, the cave, monastery and historic town make up this Dodecanese island’s trio of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Cultural, religious and historical significance aside, beautiful Patmos is also an island for nature lovers. Surrounded by the vibrant marine blues of the Aegean, the island away from the picturesque port of Skala and its historic capital has dramatic cliffs, tiny coves and swathes of unspoiled countryside crossed by walking trails. If you choose to follow these you can feel as if you are a million miles from anywhere although in reality nowhere on Patmos is very far from anywhere else, something that puts the entire island and all its treasures at your fingertips.
A Morning on Patmos
Where better to begin your Patmos adventure than the island’s historic monastery town of Chora. After getting wonderfully lost in this magical maze you can continue your morning with a visit to another of the island’s relics of the past – the Patmos Windmills
Chora –The Island’s Monastery Town
Compact Patmos only has two sizable settlements –its port town of Skala and its capital Chora, the town which grew around the imposing monastery which perches at the very crown of the hill just above it. A delightful late-medieval maze of winding alleys and stone stairways linking a collection of squares, grand villas which once belonged to wealthy merchants, tiny white-washed dwellings which date back to the 1500s and charming churches make walking the cobblestones of Chora feel like stepping through a portal into the past.
If you are familiar with the Greek islands you may already know that capitals are often given the title ‘chora’ which simply means ‘town’ so with its ambiguous title the settlement is also referred to as Patmos Town or sometimes just Patmos.
Taking on the appearance of a castle, the Monastery of St. John was of necessity fortified to protect it from a series of attacks from both international powers and pirates. With such formidable refuge so close at hand a town grew up around the monastery and during times of danger the townspeople would retreat behind its towering walls, alerted by monks ringing the monastery bells. Dating back to the late 1200s, the majority of what still stands in Chora is from the 15thto 18thcentury when the town enjoyed a period of prosperity, earlier structures having succumbed to raids, earthquakes or just age.
Simply wandering where your feet lead you within this labyrinth is a lovely way to explore, never quite knowing what will be around the next corner or at the top of a set of stone steps. However, there are some highlights which you won’t want to miss.
One of these is the spectacular views from the site of the former market place -Platia Lotza or Town Hall Square -where you will find both the almost doll-house-like Town Hall dating from the late 1800s and a bust of Emmanuel Xanthos, a Greek freedom fighter. Visitors often congregate here to snap a panorama which takes in an incredible number of islands including Samos far off to the north and Lipsi to the east with even the Turkish mainland beyond it visible.
The town has a collection of little churches and monasteries which you might stumble upon by accident while others are on a slightly grander scale. Arguably the finest of these is the Holy Monastery of Zoodochos Pigi, actually a convent that dates back to the early 1600s when it was founded by an influential abbot from the Monastery of St. John. As an active nunnery you are not able to enter beyond its tranquil courtyard and its small church with its frescoes and icons from the 1600s but this plant-and bougainvillea-filled area is enchanting and worth a visit for that reason alone.
Morning Coffee on Patmos
Once you decide it is time to pause in your explorations of Chora for a coffee you won’t be short of options. Most of the town’s choices are of the tiny kind functioning as café, bar and restaurant all in one and which you may already have stumbled across in your wanderings, tucked away somewhere. One lovely spot to head is Levia Square, the closet thing to a lively area in town, where a handful of cafes and bars can be found.
For coffee with a view make your way to Jimmy’s Balcony which has a panorama so magnificent you might find it hard to tear yourself away. This elevated spot with its canopied terrace allows your eyes to roam as far as Skala and the bay it sits on as well as the entire northern third of the island. You can also see the historic windmills from here which will be your next stop after your morning pause.
Even closer to the windmills is the lovely Pleiades Bar Restaurant which also comes with views of the spectacular kind. Located on Sapsila hill, this venue offers a touch of elegance to your coffee break with tables set around the establishment’s pool, fronting their pretty stone buildings. Your gaze, however, will almost certainly be turned the other way to the seemingly never-ending panorama of Aegean blue and the small island of Pilafi sitting just off the coast. The chic setting and amazing views are topped off with warm welcomes and good service.
The Patmos Windmills
Just east of Chora and close to the Monastery of St. John can be found a picturesque collection of three historic windmills. From their elevated location, high on a hill to take full advantage of the winds for turning the sails and with their distinctive shape, this stone-structured trio –each capped with a cone and each turning a wheel of spidery arms –is notably visible as you approach the island by water. Two of the windmills are 16th century constructions, the third dates from 1863, and all three today represent a bridge connecting the island’s past to its future.
For hundreds of years the windmills were used to produce flour, their inner mechanisms worked by wind power to grind the corn. Finally made redundant in the 1950s when more efficient methods were used, the windmills were abandoned and left to the elements for more than half a century. In 2010 they were restored, not simply to preserve the past but with a view to putting them back to work at what they were built for and to help in creating a greener island future.
You can step inside one windmill to see the milling process in action while the other two serve the island by creating electricity from wind power and aid water production respectively. Besides the windmills themselves, the hill location offers some glorious views of the surrounding sea and island.
A Morning Alternative to the Windmills
If you would prefer to stay in the town of Chora after your coffee break a great alternative to the Patmos Windmills is the Simantiri mansion, still a private residence but with the upper floors set up as a museum. Sometimes marked as the Folklore Museum on maps, Simantiri House is one of the oldest dwellings still in existence on the island, dating back to 1625, a few years after the nearby convent, and is filled with curios, antiques and a few rare gems. More than anything else this villa allows you to walk back in time to see how the island’s wealthy families lived in the past two centuries.
With beautiful traditional architecture, this small museum’s collection spans the 15th to 19th centuries, amassed by the family over the last 200 years. Among other things it houses antique furniture, some valuable paintings, silverware from Russia, exquisite antique embroidery, old photographs, religious icons and some interesting curios such as the crib from 1913 and a dental-wheel worked by foot pedal.
The house has been in the same family for eight generations and its current owner -Morfousa Simantiri –offers tours around the house, enriching your visit with first-hand accounts and interesting facts regarding how some of the objects came into the family’s possession.
Lunch on Patmos
For the gastronomically passionate Patmos is something of a treat and so good is the general standard here you would be hard pushed to find an unsatisfactory meal. Options range from ouzeries and traditional tavernas to elegant up-scale choices, especially around Skala.
Food quality aside settings also tend to be idyllic whether you choose to dine in one of its two towns surrounding you with history, at one of the wealth of beaches, out in the countryside or perched at some elevated spot with magnificent views.
Among the best on the island in this latter category can be found just a two-minute walk from the island’s most famous monastery. Located down a small alley, Loza opens out onto an open-air split-level terrace and seeing as it shares such a close locality with the hill-top monastery has a view to take your breath away. Lunching here allows your gaze to sweep over Skala and the port, the north of Patmos, the sparkling sea and the neighboring islands beyond so, if it is Dodecanese panoramas you are looking for, it really doesn’t get any better than this. Take your pick from spots in the sun or shade and besides the more conventional dining tables and chairs there are cushioned sofas from which you can enjoy a glass of wine as you peruse the diverse menu.
With a traditional atmosphere and a quality Greek-cuisine focus, Loza is known for good service and welcoming staff as well as some interesting twists on its traditional dishes. Try the moussaka pancake for example or the Greek sausage in an orange sauce for some texture and flavor combinations you might not have experienced before. There are plenty of seafood choices such as shrimp in ouzo and octopus while the salads here are inventive and filling, offering such options as a green leaf base with caramelized figs and Greek cream cheese or the generous salmon salad with lemon, yogurt and dill.
For a nearby seaside choice head to Grikos, less than three miles from Chora where you will find Ktima Petra.This lovely little rural taverna is a great place to sample local cuisine in a beautiful setting while at the same time giving you sea views. Old stone walls and shady trees surround the restaurant’s terrace which is steps from the water’s edge.
Being part of an estate that grows its own vegetables means you can be sure of ultimate freshness while generous portions and good value can also be added to this taverna’s plus column. With food prepared in either their wood-burning oven or over a grill, options include everything from stuffed peppers to goat casserole, the latter being the establishment’s signature dish.
An Afternoon on Patmos
Your afternoon on Patmos continues with journeys into the ancient past and with explorations of what are arguably the island’s two brightest jewels –the Cave of the Apocalypse and the Monastery of St. John.
If you lunched at Loza you might prefer to reverse the order of visiting to that given here as, being so close to the monastery, it would make sense to visit there first.
The Cave of the Apocalypse
Much-visited by the Christian faithful as a pilgrimage site of exceptional importance, the atmospheric Cave of the Apocalypse with its enormous historical and cultural significance can also be admired and appreciated by those with no religious beliefs whatsoever.
This is where St. John (Agios Ionis in Greek) lived as a hermit after being exiled by the Romans around 95 AD and where, after hearing the voice of God, he wrote what was to become the final book of the bible –Revelation –and his own gospel. Of such enormous global importance is this ancient site, it shares a joint UNESCO World Heritage listing with the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, which crowns the same hill on which the cave is located.
When this site served as St. John’s dwelling place it would have opened out to the elements. Today it is a relatively compact enclosed complex which evolved over time as the monks who carried out various ceremonies and rituals here erected several add-ons such as chapels and sleeping quarters. The exterior presents itself as a small white-washed building but once you descend the steps from here however the interior is still very obviously a cave. The first section is a chapel, decked out with a beautiful painted wooden iconostasis, several icons and tall ceremonial candlesticks while a large and ornate chandelier hangs from above.
The actual grotto of St. John, to the right of here, is only a small section where in one corner, surrounded by brass rails, can be seen the indentation in the rock said to be have been where the saint rested his head to sleep, today marked out with a ring of silver. A beautiful silver lantern hangs above this spot, flanked by six smaller lanterns, while another indentation just to the right is supposedly a mark from St.John’s hand, also surrounded in silver. Other features of note here are a stone slab and a set of three fissures said respectively to be the saint’s writing ledge and to represent the Holy Trinity.
The Monastery of St. John the Theologian
Of all the island’s sights and historical relics, this almost 1,000 year old monastery is the jewel in its crown and an essential visit during any time on Patmos. Impossible to miss from its hilltop perch above the gleaming whites of Chora, the imposing fortified Monastery of St. John when viewed from a distance, has more the appearance of a brooding dark-stone medieval military structure than that of a religious building.
The fortress-like appearance of this monastery is no affected architectural design feature either but instead an essential component during the age when the monastery was built. Ironically some of the earliest threats were from the Crusaders, themselves Christian but with a reputation for seizing all which they came across and which led to Patmos asking for protection from the pope and Rome. Following this, attacks came from Turks and Arabs among others with the added dangers of the regular raids by pirates that prowled these coasts. Once the town of Chora began to grow up outside the walls bells would be sounded during times of threat which alerted the citizens to seek refuge inside the monastery.
The exceptionally thick crenelation-topped walls and their towers are almost 50ft high and have been significantly altered, added to and repaired over the centuries. The majority date from the 15th and 17th century but it is also believed some parts are actually the original walls, constructed at the very beginning.
While the exterior of this UNESCO World Heritage Site presents an austere façade the interior is something totally different and what visitors come to see -a beautiful collection of chapels, stone arches, galleries, linked courtyards and ancient stairways worn smooth by the footsteps of monks going about their devotion-filled days for centuries.
On entering you arrive at a breathtakingly lovely pebble-paved courtyard, surrounded by white-washed walls and arches and open to the blue sky. Leading off from here is the magnificent main chapel, one of several which lie within the monastery’s walls, believed to date from a period immediately following the construction of the monastery in 1088. This chapel is dominated by an astonishingly detailed carved iconostasis from 1820 while many of the magnificent frescoes here are from the later medieval period. All of the chapels are worth a visit, most of them filled with dazzling altar screens, sumptuous jewel-rich adornments and profusions of priceless icons dating from the 12thcentury. Several also house holy relics such as the skull of St. Thomas.
As a still very active monastery not all of the complex is open to visitors such as the monks’ cells, the magnificent library and flour mill although besides the chapel you can still explore such features as the former refectory and the bakery where the old stone oven can still be seen.
Located next to the bakery can be found the monastery’s museum, also known as the Treasury and which has a separate entrance fee. So priceless and ancient is much of this treasure trove that individual items which would normally constitute the absolute highlight of a collection anywhere else –an original El Greco painting from the 1500s for example -barely get a look in when set beside such other jewels as found here. These include the original 11thcentury parchment signed by Byzantine Emperor Alexis Komnenos granting the monastery’s founder – Christodoulos–official ownership of the island, a 6thcentury parchment copy of the Gospel of St, Mark illuminated in gold and silver text and a mosaic icon of St. Nicholas more than 1,000 years old.
Other exhibits within this sublime collection are jeweled chalices, original old manuscripts, silver and gold thread embroidered vestments, precious paintings and an array of silver and gold ceremonial items.
While both the Cave of the Apocalypse and the incredible monastery which sit above it can be reached by taxi or bus, for those with a bit of energy the loveliest way to arrive at the monastery is on foot. A small stone and cobble pathway connects the two and if you decide to walk it you will be treading in the very footsteps of the pilgrims of long ago.
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