The northward branch of the road at Kondos/Aghios Nektarios leads after 1km to the site of *Palaiochora, the Byzantine capital of the island for nearly 1,000 years between the 9th and 19th centuries. Now deserted, all that is left is its multitude of churches scattered over the barren hillside, robbed of the dense urban context that once en folded them on all sides. Comparable with Palaiochora on Kythera, and Kastro on Skiathos, many of these and other similar Byzantine sites were first chosen and inhabited in the 9th century when Saracen Arab raids forced the in habitants of the settlements of Antiquity to abandon and seek new and fortifiable refuges inland which would be inaccessible to raiders. This did not, however, protect the site here from the destructive attentions of Khaireddin Barbarossa in 1537 and of further pillaging when the city was re-taken by the Venetians under Morosini in 1654. Palaiochora itself was only abandoned after the safety of coastal habitation had become vouchsafed once again in the last two centuries. Although habitation dwindled during the Turkish occupation of the 18th century, in the 1820s there were still a good 400 habitations on this site: the speed with which they have all disappeared is remark able. (A visit to the site involves a pleasant ramble around the hill. In theory, most of the churches are open all the time, and the guardian at the Episkopi church will open any that happen to be closed on request: but there are no hard-and fast rules or times for his presence. Patience may be required by the dedicated Byzantinist who wishes to see everything inside and out. The following itinerary covers the site in roughly clockwise fashion, climbing to the left after entering.)
The Churches of Palaiochora
Below the road to the left as you arrive is the 16th century church of Aghios Charalambos, with a double nave—a common plan for several churches on this site. The path into the main part of the site begins beside the 15th century church of the Aghios Stavros Timios (‘The Holy Venerable Cross’) beside the road. The church is still in current use for liturgies, and has wall-paintings along its the north wall, which have been retouched, probably in the 19th century. The small scene of the bound and entombed Christ in the north niche of the prothesis, behind the templon screen, has an unexpected pathos: it is probably contemporary with the building of the church. The path to the left, passing the ruined church of the ‘Panaghia tou Gianouli’ (with carved Byzantine eagle on one of the supporting pillars) leads up to the important church of Aghios Giorgios Katholikos, which stood on the only square in the settlement, the so-called ‘foro’ (market place). The church contains a dramatic and beautiful, early 15th century painting in the apse of the Virgin and Child, both with extended arms and hands in blessing. An inscription over the door bears the date of a Venetian restoration of the church in 1533. The design of the interior is odd, and it represents a plan peculiar to this settlement—in which the long axis of the church is oriented transversely, and the sanctuary, with iconostasis and apse, is located (in this case) in the far northeastern corner, while the entrance to the church is in the southwestern corner. Although a little disorienting, this may simply be due to a need to have the space for a larger congregation in a church where the steep slope of the site did not permit any further extension along the normal longitudinal axis. There were once relics of St George in this church, but they were sold by the inhabitants to the Venetians in the 16th century and are now kept in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.
A small white marble fragment is immured in the exterior wall of Aghios Giorgios Katholikos; in fact, there are marble columns, lintels and capitals scattered all around the area—some Byzantine, some ancient, indicating that the site may well also have seen an earlier, ancient presence. The 15th century church of Aghios Dionysios, called the ‘Episkopi’ church, a little higher up, is the principal church of the settlement. There are fine Byzantine Imperial eagles and a cross above the door, the whole of which was once brightly coloured. To its right, as you enter, are two carved stone steps leading to a stone seat or platform: this is an interesting detail, possibly the base of a marble canopy for the display of icons on feast days, or else a throne used on particular occasions by the bishop in the period when the area in front of the church was a completely covered portico. The domed interior has an aisle to the left which was added nearly 200 years later during the renovations of 1610 which are referred to in a painted inscription. The church can be seen in model-form, held by SS. Peter and Paul, in the paintings on the south wall—an unusual state of affairs, since such models are usually held by the saint to whom the church is dedicated, in this case St Dionysios. These paints are the work of one Demetrios of Athens, according to the inscription. The small church of Aghios Nikolaos, with carved lintel, is just above and to the east.
Continuing from the church of the Episkopi, you pass the tiny hermitage of St Dionysios of Zakynthos to the right, with the church of St Anne below, and further along the ridge, the church of the Aghii Theodori: this has a number of wall-paintings, the best preserved being the Crucifixion scene on the west wall and the saints over the door arch. The path turns east and, climbing past a cluster of three churches, Aghii Makrina, Minas and Eleftherios, reaches the remains of the citadel on the summit, built in 1462 by the Venetians during their first occupation of the site. It is interesting how hidden the whole site is from the sea, and yet what excel lent views it commands of every approach from this vantage point. The walls are best preserved in the northeast sector. On the summit, however, only the remains of two cisterns and the foundations of magazines are visible, apart from the twin churches of Aghios Giorgios and Aghios Demetrios—the two soldier saints whom one might have expected to find honoured in the keep of a castle. The parallel and inter-communicating design of the two churches, which were built in the late 17th century, may have facilitated the celebration of both the Greek and Latin rite at the time of the Venetian occupation.
Descending once again by the same path, past Aghia Makrina, will bring you to a corner of the site which gives some sense of the intimate and pleasingly irregular spaces of a Byzantine town: this is the monastery of Aghia Kyriaki, with the ruined remains of its monastic buildings around it. In effect, it is a double church, because it has a parallel nave to the north of comparable size dedicated to the Zoodochos Pigi (the Virgin as the ‘Fount of Life’): this has interesting wall-paintings from the 17th century, amongst which is a fine Second Coming of Christ. The last church, beyond the monastery at the end of the path, is the church of the Archangel Michael: on the exterior, around the arch above the door in its south wall, are some beautiful decorative de tails—a couple of them seem almost Celtic in inspiration.
Taking the lower path back westwards towards the en trance, you pass a number of churches with decorative inter est. Aghios Ioannis Theologos, with 14th century paintings (in poor condition) in the apse, cupola and walls of the nave; perhaps best preserved is the St George on the south wall by the door. Outside the door is part of a finely carved early Byzantine column with palm motif.
Aghios Nikolaos, a little further to the west, confronts the visitor on entering the church with the large depiction of Four Saints in ivory-coloured tunics (15th century), painted almost in monochrome. The church has the lateral-axis de sign observed already in Aghios Giorgios Katholikos, which makes the confrontation with the four martyrs even more dramatic. The other wall paintings have been re-touched in the course of the 19th century.
Further west again lies the church of the Aghii Anargyri, with (largely fragmentary) paintings of considerable inter est. Around the west door is a fine Christ in Majesty, and on the south wall (by the west door) an uncommon depiction of Abraham in Paradise. The greatest delight lies in a tiny fragment above, which shows a ship at sea beside a mountainous island: the boat is sustained by ‘Saintly Piety’, while capricious winds blow through their trumpets to either side and the ocean pullulates with octopi, sea-serpents, crabs, and many-headed monsters, below the terrified mariners. Note also the Antique column fragment with small Ionic capital embedded in the south wall.
After the churches of Aghios Dimitrios, and of the Koimisis tis Theotokou (Dormition of the Virgin), whose paintings have unfortunately suffered whitewashing and over-painting in the 20th century, the path, turning north again, comes to the early 14th century church of the Metamorphosis, or Transfiguration, which has paintings—perhaps con temporary with the building—in the sanctuary and apse. Above the Virgin and Child in the apse, there is a scene of the Old Testament Trinity of angels seated at the table of Sarah and Abraham: this sets a theme for many of the other New Testament ‘table’ scenes nearby—most notably, and best preserved of all, the Last Supper on the right side. Almost directly up the steep slope from the Metamorphosis is the domed church of the Taxiarchis (currently closed for restoration): this has 14th century wall-paintings inside and an antique column incorporated into the templon.
The other churches on this slope have paintings that are less well-preserved. Those in Aghios Ioannis Prodromos (below the path) are possibly of the early 13th century, but have been partially repainted in recent times. The church of Aghios Euthymios (further below) has later murals of the 16th century, showing SS. Constantine and Helen with the True Cross. Many of the churches on this slope have widely varying orientations, ranging from northeast (Aghios Euthymios) to almost due south (the Koimisis tis Theotokou and the Metamorphosis): this is often dictated by the lie of the land and the space available. The two remaining church es are no exception to this: just above the path, the church of Aghios Giorgios is oriented to the south: on its nave wall (here on the west side) is an interesting representation of the Prophet Elijah, with the raven and its gift of bread. Across the path and below is another lateral-axis church, Aghios Stephanos, with a boxed apse in the northeast corner.
The road beyond Palaiochora to the north winds rapidly down to the sea offering wide views across the water to Athens and the Attic peninsula. It joins the coast near to the attractive harbour of Souvala (which has summer connections with Piraeus). In the bay, 1km east of the village, there are radioactive springs (the Thermal Station on the shore is currently closed). From here it is a pleas ant drive eastwards along the coast to the small port of Vaghia, where the road turns inland and rejoins the central route of the island just before it climbs the pine-clad hill up to Aphaia.
Aegina Island is part of the Argosaronic Island group
Aegina – Palaiochora