A thousand years ago, a group of devout Christians from the Greek island of Samos built a church and small monastery in an impossibly remote location, high above the small settlement of Kambos, on Mt. Kerkis. The nuns who lived in what evolved into a convent moved away in 2007 due to the impossibility of living in such a remote locale in failing health, and today the site, which sits near the end of a glorious hike on an idyllic island, is closed to the public.
The fear of outsiders with bad intentions that motivated locals to build a place of worship in such a hidden spot still exists today. But could one relentless American hiker convince a stubborn headmaster who holds the key to the church to open it up to the world?
Few Americans venture to Samos, a verdant, mountainous island whose name is derived from an ancient Ionian word that means “height,” but for those in search of an affordable holiday destination with stunning beaches, great food and wine, and rewarding hikes to medieval churches and monasteries, look no further.
A quick look at a map of Samos reveals a lot about the history of the island and the devotion of its early inhabitants. There are dozens of little black dots with crosses, signifying the presence of a church or monastery, all over the map, but mostly in the mountainous interior. Here and indeed all over the Balkans, Christians built churches in remote locations because they feared pirates, Turks, and other invaders.
These places of worship can be difficult to find, but many in Samos and across what was once ancient Macedonia, are adorned with stunning frescoes and make for remarkably good hikes. My first hiking target on the island of Samos was a 13th-century church called Panagia Makrini that’s located in a cave, high above the town of Kalithea, a tiny little village on Samos’ wild, beautiful, and undeveloped west coast.
I lived in Macedonia for two years a decade ago, and spent countless weekends searching for medieval churches, often knocking on random doors in villages to find the person who held the keys. These sites are almost always difficult to find, so I was relieved to see a sign pointing up a rocky track toward Makrini.
But the sign didn’t indicate how far away the church was, so I thought I should drive up at least part of the track, since I was with my wife and two small children and we planned to take turns making the hike up to the cave church. After about 20 minutes on the road, I couldn’t stand to drive any more—we had a little Hyundai rental car but needed something with four-wheel drive.
I parked the car and walked up the rocky track, enjoying the piney aroma of the trees and the view of the cobalt blue Aegean below as I looped up the road. Eventually I discovered the steep rocky path, but soon found myself lost on the side of the mountain. By the time I found the trail again, I was soaked in sweat and starting to worry that my wife and children would be irate by the time I made it back down. Backtracking, I caught site of crosses painted on big boulders. There it was: a tidy little white church hidden in a cave way up in the middle of nowhere.
I was in a bit of a rush, so I just took a quick look inside the church and, assuming that it was just a plain interior, beat a hasty retreat back down to the Hyundai. My wife then took her turn and was glowing after the hike.
“Those icons behind the altar were amazing,” she gushed. “Icons,” I said. “What icons?”
I hadn’t thought to pull back the curtain behind the altar and had missed some faded, but still remarkable medieval frescoes. I told my wife I was going back up to see them but she was having none of it. Still, I couldn’t bear the thought of what I had missed, so I went back two days later and enjoyed the hike and church infinitely more than on my first go-around, when I was lost and clueless.
After the Markini hike, I was hungry for more and set out early one hot morning for the 10th-century Evangelistria Monastery, which I was told was a half-hour drive up a rocky track and then another steep climb up Mt. Kerkis. Rather than blow out the tires on my sad little rental, I decided to hike almost all the way up from the nearby town of Kambos.
The path takes you past a few homes and then splits, with Evangelistria to the left and a cave that supposedly was the ancient refuge of Pythagoras, who was born in Samos, on the right. (The cave is also a nice hike, but the site is marred by a souvenir stand and tacky snack bar, making the place feel a bit like a tourist trap.) The higher you get, the better the views of Samos and the surrounding islands become.
After an hour or so, my shirt was soaked through and I couldn’t help but wonder how much further ahead the church was. The point of building a church in a hidden locale, though, isn’t to put it in a spot where you can see it on your way up a mountain, so I didn’t catch sight of the place until I stumbled right onto it, after about 90 minutes on the trail.
As I ambled around the church, I felt that giddy sense of accomplishment that comes at the end of a long hike when you reach your goal and can’t wait to see what’s there. No one was around, so I tolled the bells just for the hell of it. But my hope that the church would be open was quickly dashed as I tried all three doors with no luck.
After all the effort, I felt like I deserved to see the church, and I half considered trying to break into the place. I looked around for an open window or vulnerable entry point but found none. After savoring the view for a few more minutes, I hiked another 15 minutes up above the church to get a panorama of the place before beating my retreat down the mountain, as the morning sun began to make me feel like a pancake burning on a griddle.
Near the beginning of the trail, I asked a man who was sitting in his backyard who held the key to the monastery.
“You have to talk to Mr. Nanos,” he said. “He lives over in Marathkampos.”
Marathkampos was about a half-hour away and the man had no idea how to contact Nanos. Usually the people who keep the keys to old churches actually live near them and are easier to find. I had a feeling that searching for Nanos would be a goose chase, but I wanted to know why it was necessary to lock such a remote church that was such an important part of the island’s history.
The owner of my hotel found a phone number for Nanos but wasn’t optimistic that I’d be able to get any satisfaction from him. Sure enough, I dialed the number numerous times over the next few days with no luck. On my penultimate day in Samos, the owner told me that Nanos was the headmaster of a high school in Marathkampos, so I resolved to Pearl Harbor him, in WWF parlance.
On the way up to the town, we passed a group of teenage girls who were chatting on the side of the road. I stopped to get directions to the school and then asked them if they knew Mr. Nanos.
“Oh yes,” one said with a wry smile in English. “We know Mr. Nanos all right.”
They all started laughing and a few rolled their eyes. It was clear that they weren’t fond of him. I walked into the sweltering school right around lunchtime and found an adult male with a sad little ponytail sitting in a large office who wore a T-shirt that read “Save Water—Drink Beer” and featured an image of an inebriated duck.
“Are you Mr. Nanos,” I asked, assuming he wasn’t on the logic that guys who wear novelty T-shirts and sport ponytails probably wouldn’t be entrusted with the keys to an important church in Greece.
The pony-tailed man pointed me toward another building and there I found Nanos, sitting in a large office with an ancient photocopy machine and stacks of papers. He had gray hair, a very neatly trimmed goatee, and was wearing a full cast on his right arm. I took him to be in his early- to mid-sixties.
I introduced myself and he measured me, warily offering me a seat before picking up the telephone to call someone. I told him I wanted to talk about the church and I was afraid he was about to call security on me, but he explained that he didn’t speak English and had summoned the school’s English teacher, Katerina.
Katerina, a slender, pretty woman with black hair in her late twenties arrived to interpret for us, but before I could ask any questions, Nanos wanted to know who I was, how I found him, and what I wanted. When it was finally my turn to speak, I started out by asking about the nuns who lived in Evanelistria.
“By 2007, there were only a few left,” he said, through Katerina’s interpretation. “They were all old and in poor health and it was getting hard to bring medicine and food up to them.”
Nanos said that he was asked to become the caretaker of the monastery after the nuns left, because he had gone to school with the Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem, which has jurisdiction over the site.
“When is the church open?” I asked, finally getting around to the real reason for my visit to his sweaty office. He explained that the church and monastery were open only twice per year, on March 25 and August 15, for religious festivals. Pilgrims hike up to the church the night before, sleep at the monastery and then celebrate the following day.
“And aside from those days, how can the public visit the church?” I asked. He looked deeply uncomfortable and I knew we were reaching the start of a big impasse. “I go up there sometimes, and when I’m there, people can see it,” he said.
“So unless you happen to be there, there’s no way for anyone else to see the church?” I asked. Katerina looked uncomfortable and didn’t want to interpret the question. This was, after all, her boss. “I don’t think it’s possible for people to visit the church,” she said, clearly hoping that I’d retreat from my line of questioning. With a bid of prodding, she interpreted my question and Nanos vacillated before concluding that perhaps he could leave his mobile phone number on the church for people who wanted to get in to see it.
“But it’s a long drive from here to Kambos and then a long hike up to the church,” I said to Katerina. “He’s not going to hike up there every time someone calls him, is he?” After thinking about it for a moment, Nanos conceded that he wasn’t about to trek out to the church upon demand.
“So should I write in my story that the church is closed?” I asked. At this, Nanos became angry and snapped, “It’s a holy place; it’s not a youth hostel!” I clarified that I wasn’t talking about accessing the residential part of the monastery, just the church itself, but Nanos only grew more flustered with me.
I asked if it wasn’t possible for him to make a copy of the key and leave it with one of the hotel owners in Kambos, closer to the site. “Do you give people the key to your house?” he asked. “No, but my house isn’t a 1,000-year-old place of worship,” I said, but I wasn’t sure if Katerina, who was growing increasingly horrified at being in the middle of our spat, interpreted my retort.
After Nanos ruled out the possibility of giving anyone else a copy of the key, I asked why it needed to be kept locked, given how remote it was. “Anything could happen,” he said. “It could be vandalized, set on fire, totally destroyed perhaps.”
“Have any other churches been vandalized on Samos?” I asked. He pondered this but eventually admitted that he couldn’t recall hearing about such an incident. “But anything could happen,” he repeated. “Anything.”
“But Panagias Makrini is left open, with no lock at all,” I said. “Yes, but that is a church, not a monastery,” he replied.
We were going in circles, and I could see that we were getting nowhere. He then went on to change tack, claiming that he’d like to keep the church open or possibly let someone else have a copy of the key, but he wasn’t allowed to. How anyone in Jerusalem would know what he was doing with the church was beyond me, but I didn’t press him further on the matter.
I asked him if I could borrow the key to the church so that I could take some photos of the interior to accompany my story, but he refused. I offered to leave my passport, but he insisted that he wasn’t authorized to let anyone else touch the keys.
After determining that I was leaving Samos the following night, he said that if I were staying for another week he could take me up to the church himself. I half considered calling his bluff and saying I’d stay another week, just to see if he’d really take me but thought better of it.
At a complete dead end, I decided to ask him about how the crisis in Greece had affected the school, but Katerina was so eager to respond, she didn’t relay the question. “Our salaries have been greatly reduced,” she said. “And I don’t even know if I’ll have my job for the next school year. But worst of all, we have no supplies, no textbooks for the students, and no money to make the photocopies for their workbooks. There’s no money for anything.”
I considered the situation and felt bad about hassling them about the church. Nanos had been tasked with protecting the place and didn’t have time to deal with it. It was a shame, but it was small potatoes compared to all the pain and suffering the Greeks were enduring at the moment.
As we wrapped up our conversation some time later, I asked Nanos to confirm what I should write about the church and he had a change of heart. “The church will be open,” he said. “I’m going to retire this summer and, starting in July, I will hike up the church every Sunday, and keep it open from 10 until 4 p.m. You can put that in your article.”
IF YOU GO: There are direct flights to Samos on Aegean Air, Olympic Air, and a variety of other European discount airlines. I stayed at the Sirena in Kambos and highly recommend it as a great base for exploring Samos’ beautiful west coast. The nearby Psili Ammos beach is idyllic. National offered the lowest rates on the island for an automatic transmission car, at 25 euros. Other than the hikes to Makrini and Evangelistria, another great hike is from Kokkari up to the monastery Panaghia Vrontiani. The monastery Megalis Panaghia is also worth a visit.
If you want a livelier base than sleepy Kambos, consider Pythagoria in the east. Be sure to check out all the honey stands on the dizzying, but gorgeous road west of Pythagoria near Pirgos, and definitely buy some homemade sweet Samos wine from roadside stalls.