Plan Your Port: Greece’s Pátmos

Never heard of Greece’s island of Pátmos? You’re not alone. This island is considered, relatively speaking, rather challenging to get to. There’s no direct ferry from Piraeus and big cruise ships don’t dock here. If flying, you head to Kos or Samos, and then take a ferry to Pátmos. Being rather complicated to reach preserves the charm of this island, which revolves around its main town of Skala, where your tender will dock, and, up on the mountain, the historic village of Chora.

Having visited well-known Greek islands like Corfu, Mykonos and Santorini many times, my first visit to Pátmos surprised me. I was initially struck by a sense of peace on this 13-square-mile isle, not just in its countryside but also in its main towns.

Like many of the islands in Greece’s Dodecanese, a group of 12 islands, Pátmos’ appeal lies in its whitewashed villages infused with lush, ancient olive groves roamed by goats, picturesque tavernas and a series of beautiful sun-drenched beaches. What’s different? This hideaway for famous celebrities and royalty is an intimate place, uncrowded and not yet discovered by larger cruise vessels.

From a historic perspective, Pátmos claims one of the Greek Isles’ most powerful histories and is a destination for pilgrims from around the world. This is where St. John received his visions from God while exiled in a cave. These, once written down, became Revelation, the last book of the Bible, and it is for this reason Pátmos is often dubbed the Jerusalem of the Aegean. 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 (learn more about Pátmos’ history here).

Perched high on a hill, the almost 1,000-year-old Monastery of St. John is immediately visible when approaching Pátmos 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 grand villas built by the island’s 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 Pátmos is also an island for nature lovers. Surrounded by the vibrant marine blues of the Aegean, behind the port of Skala you’ll find dramatic cliffs, tiny coves and swaths of unspoiled countryside crossed by walking trails. Here, you will feel so many miles away from anywhere — although in reality, nowhere on Pátmos is very far from anywhere else.

We want to help you plan (and love) your day on Pátmos. Here are our suggestions:

Discover its biblical history 

The Cave on the Apocalypse on the Greek island of Patmos.

The Cave of the Apocalypse, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has enormous historical and cultural significance and can be admired and appreciated by those with varying religious beliefs. Along with the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian (also known as Saint John the Divine), these are among Christianity’s most sacred sites.

This is where St. John, the Apostle (Agios Ionis in Greek) lived as a hermit after being exiled by the Romans around 95 A.D. and where, after hearing the voice of God, he wrote what was to become Revelation, the Bible’s final book.

When this site served as St. John’s dwelling place, it would have been open to the elements. Today it is a relatively compact and enclosed complex that has 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 whitewashed building, but once you descend the steps from here, the interior becomes very cave-like. 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 the chapel, is only a small section, but there in one corner, surrounded by brass rails, you can see the indentation in the rock where the saint is said to have rested his head to sleep. A 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.

Of all the island’s sights and historical relics, the nearly 1,000-year-old Monastery of Saint John the Theologian is an essential visit during any time on Pátmos. Impossible to miss from its hilltop perch above Chora, the imposing fortified Monastery of St. John, when viewed from a distance, has more the appearance of a dark, brooding stone medieval military structure than that of a religious building.

Its fortress-like appearance was essential when the monastery was built in order to ward off attacks. Ironically some of the earliest threats were from the Crusaders, themselves Christian but with a reputation for seizing all they came across, which led Pátmos to ask for protection from the pope and Rome. Following this, attacks came from Turks and Arabs among others with the added dangers of 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, alerting the citizens to seek refuge inside the monastery.

A breathtakingly lovely pebble-paved courtyard, surrounded by whitewashed walls and arches and open to the blue sky, greets you upon entering. Leading off from here is the magnificent main chapel, one of several 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 12th century. Several also house holy relics such as the skull of St. Thomas.

As a working monastery, not all of the complex is open to visitors, such as the monks’ cells, the magnificent library and flour mill, although in addition to the chapel, you can still explore such features as the former refectory and the bakery with its old stone oven.

Located next to the bakery is the monastery’s museum, also known as the Treasury, 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 the other jewels found here. These include the original 11th century parchment signed by Byzantine Emperor Alexis Komnenos granting the monastery’s founder official ownership of the island, a sixth century parchment copy of the Gospel of St. Mark illuminated in gold and silver text, and a mosaic icon of St. Nicholas that’s more than 1,000 years old.

Beyond historic sites, Chora, its village, offers treasures

Simantiri House
Simantiri House, one of the oldest buildings on the Greek island of Patmos, is both a museum and private home/Simantiri House

Simantiri House is both a private residence and 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 opened, 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 a crib from 1913 and a dental wheel worked by foot pedal.

The house has been in the same family for eight generations and Morfousa Simantiri, its current owner, offers tours, enriching your visit with firsthand accounts and interesting facts regarding how some of the objects came into the family’s possession.

Chora itself is 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 whitewashed dwellings dating back to the 1500s and charming churches that make walking the town’s cobblestones feel like stepping through a portal into the past.

The windmills of Pátmos

Just east of Chora and close to the Monastery of St. John is a collection of three historic windmills. From their 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 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  to help create 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 and pumping water. Besides the windmills themselves, the hill location offers some glorious views of the surrounding sea and island.

Editor’s Note: Windstar visits the island of Patmos on its Treasures of the Greek Isles itineraries.

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