From Chora to Pyrgos

Three-and-a-half kilometres west of Chora, a right branch leads up to the monastery of the Ti­mios Stavros, a late 16th-century foundation, rebuilt on a much larger scale in 1838, when its arcaded outbuildings were added. Yet more impressive for its imposing size is the monastery of the Megali Panaghia, 2km south along the road to Myli from Koumaradei (9km from Chora). Once again the catholicon is 16th century, while the ornate iconostasis, and the beautifully carved wooden doors from the narthex into the catholicon, date from the second half of the 18th century. The fortified block of monks’ cells (recently restored), with its curious arcades of slightly point ed arches, is also of the same period. Inside the catholicon, the surfaces are covered with darkened 16th century paintings. In the centre of the floor a marble relief with Adam and Eve plays on the symbolism of the Panaghia (‘the Virgin’) as the ‘New Eve’. Less than a kilometre further downhill, the solitary church of the Taxiarches comes into view in the valley below. This is a 14th-centu ry church of compact form, with plain interior: the three conches of it square sanctuary, supporting an octagonal drum, constitute a pleasing complex of volumes and pro portions, when seen against the bare slopes of the hillside.

   The villages of Mavratzei and Koumaradei lie at the heart of an area, once renowned for its honey production, which was left desolate by the forest fires of 2000, and has only recently begun to recover a new growth of maquis. Because of their proximity to clay deposits, both villages are famous for the production of a local style of pottery. The centre for this diaspora of communities is Pyrgos (a further 3.5km west), which sits in the well-watered saddle between Mounts Ambelos (north) and Bournias (south). The main road through the village is crossed by a raised, arcaded aqueduct, constructed in the 18th century during the ‘tourkokratia’, to bring irrigation water from springs to the north, across the centre of the village, into the fields south and east of the town. The village is a network of narrow streets, with many traditional stone houses, loosely grouped around a square dominated by the uncompleted shell of the church of Aghios Giorgios of 1904: this curious state of affairs may be related to the fact that the village of Mavratzei, also has a church dedicated to the same saint and constructed in the same year. A temporary chapel, raised within the open central space of the arcaded shell in Pyrgos, has now become a permanent church.

   The slopes of Mount Ambelos to the north are terraced with fruit trees, olives and vines, and have been settled predominantly by Albanians in the two villages of Mesogeio and Pandrosos. These are tranquil and unaffected villages with many traditional stone-built, balconied houses—some now in ruinous condition. At the western end of the village is the spring and communal wash-house. Beyond Pyrgos to the west, as the views be gin to open out over the sea, are the springs at Koutsi (to south side of the road after 3km) which have given rise to a stand of huge plane trees—survivors of the fires of 2000. There is a pleasant taverna in their shade.

   The road due south from Pyrgos, winds through groves of olive and walnut to Spatherei (5km), which extends along a ridge of Mt. Bournias at 600m above sea level, with expansive views towards Fourni and Ikari­a, and a delightful shaded plateia at its heart. The road continues round the mountain, now with views south to the off shore islet of Samiopoula. The island can be reached by boat either from Pythagoreio or from Marathokambos during the summer months, when it is a popular destination for its clear waters and white-sand beach of Psalida; for the remainder of the year the islet is the domain of mountain goats and migrating birds. The upper slopes of this southern face of the island have suffered more, ex tensive forest-fires; the large convent of the Evangelistria (5km south from both Spatherei and Pagondas), caught in the middle of this, is now in the process of rebuilding.

   As the road descends towards Pagondas from the south, 500m before the village and after a sharp bend, is the church of Aghios Pantelei­mon, set amongst trees in a deep cut in the hillside. This is the site of the ancient quarry which provided stone for the buildings of the Heraion, which lies 7km east of here at the coast: the church marks just the beginning of an area of quarrying which has radically altered the shape of the north side of the hill opposite. The stone varies from a solid grey limestone, to a grey and white veined marble. St. Panteleimon was the patron saint of labourers engaged in hard or dangerous work, and churches dedicated to him can often be found near to marble quarries; although the church is modern, his presence here is evidence that the quarry was used well into Christian times. The village of Pagondas below, now lives off the cultivation of olives, and there are a number of functioning mills on its perimeter. The large paved and shaded plateia is surrounded by cafes that have changed remarkably little in recent times. Many of the prosperous stone-built and balconied houses in the area just off the square are abandoned; one—a former school building— is being restored to house a future Folklore Museum.

   Visible below, 5km to the east is the village of Myli (‘mills’), set in well-watered citrus groves on the west-ern side of the Kambos plain: as its name implies, it used water from the Imbrasos torrent to power its mills. The chance finding of a Mycenaean rock-cut tomb below the church of Aghios Charalambos (see below, p. 54) in the middle of the village indicates that this fertile and protected area has been inhabited since the Bronze Age: the Heraion, where a further Early Bronze Age settlement has been found, is only 2km from here.

   Equidistant between Myli and the pleasant, modern coastal resort of Irai­o, is a group of buildings to the east of the road, comprising a fortified mediaeval tower and two churches. The tower is known generally as the ‘Pyrgos Sarakinis’: ‘Sarakinos’ means ‘Saracen’, but this classically occidental stone tower, with crenellations, a deep machicolation above the entrance, and rigorously square windows, is unlikely to have been built by any Saracen. This is a style of building that can be found in the Cyclades—on Naxos and Andros for example. Even though the structure itself may have been built a century earlier, the tower is probably named after and was used by Nikolaos Sarakinis, the Patmian sea-captain who, together with the Ottoman admiral KΔ±lΔ±ç Ali Pasha, was instrumental in the repopulating of Samos in the late 16th century. The large entrance door which is set here at ground level is unusual for a building of primarily defensive purpose. Beside the tower is the heavily buttressed, double church of Aghios Giorgios (north) and Aghios Ioannis Theologos (south). The upper area of the west front of each church is perforated by a large circular window—an uncommon feature for 16th century church design. The interiors are simple and plain, but the altar of Aghios Ioannis Theologos is a superb, inscribed column fragment, surmounted by a capital, taken from the area of the Heraion less than a kilometre from here.

Samos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.

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