The old woman groaned, head in her wrinkled hands, a gold chain and cross dangling through them. “Please, please, please,” she whispered tears streaming down her face. Her forlorn shape was kneeling on the dusty road. We had already passed her once in the morning on our way up to the Church of Our Lady, an imposing white marble structure surrounded by ancillary buildings. Now on our way down she was still making her way up the steep hill, hoping for a miracle.
We had chartered a boat from Syros for an island hopping sailing holiday and had hopped off at Tinos to see the holy Cyclades island. Approaching the red-brown islands in the early morning light, we saw the majestic Church of our Lady resplendent above the harbour. We were curious to see what this miraculous place was all about. The frantic month of pilgrimage, was still a month away and so were the crowds but the old lady was not the only person we saw making their slow and difficult way towards the church.
Where the faithful flock
The island of Tinos in the Cyclades island complex is one of the top Greek Orthodox pilgrimage destinations. Thousands of believers complete an uncomfortable journey, often crawling on their hands and knees, for 800 or so meters on the worn red-carpeted path from the harbor to the church. Passing through the gabled Italianate entrance, the comfortless path continues up grand marble steps to the church itself. Completed in 1830 to commemorate the finding of the miraculous icon that draws the pilgrims, it is built, like so many holy places in Greece, on the site of an early Byzantine church dedicated to St John which, itself, was built on an ancient site of a temple dedicated to the god Dionysus. Inside, lies the famous bejeweled icon of the Virgin Mary - a source, some say, of miracles!
The ornate interior sparkles with hanging sculptures made of precious metals attesting to the miracles. These are called tamata which translates to votives, small dedications in fulfillment of a vow. Pilgrims who had had their prayers answered or had traveled to have their prayers answered bring them as gifts to the church. Each piece tells the story of why they came. Stories abound of illnesses cured, pregnancies confirmed, shipwrecked survivors saved by whales, blind men granted sight and a host of other wonders rendered by the intervention of the Virgin Mary herself.
Tinos is not only miracles, though. Its natural beauty, typical of the Cyclades, its shadows and light, the simplicity of life in the enduring villages, its artistic wealth of painters, sculptors and their works, and the architecture of its famous dovecotes are all worth stopping for. Tinos is an island for those who appreciate the old ways and lifestyle of the islanders, and the delights of Greek cuisine. On Tinos, it's back to basics and a welcome haven from the party islands close by.
As we weighed anchor and set sail from the harbour, onwards to Mykonos and more frivolous pastimes, we looked back at well-worn road to the place of miracles and saw the old lady still hobbling up the path in search of hers…
By Merryn Wainwright