Conversations at Monasteries

Herodes Atticus had a villa near Astros, on the Arcadian beach. It lies in ruin, only having been excavated in the last century. As history should have it, it was first rediscovered by a Turk. It is fenced off and only accessible by appointment with the provincial archaeological authority. Having dealt with authorities in Greece, I am sure it would not be easy to get access. Still, the Athenian philanthropist who was a Roman senator did well to choose such a beautiful setting for his holiday villa.

The bay of Astros is nearby; a spring of clear water clears the sea blue and reduces the salinity for bathing. The climate encourages citrus, and slightly up the hill, olives and grapes.

Just a few hundred metres away there still stands an Orthodox Monastery, Tous Loukous. It dates back to the 5th century, and its name may be derived from the wolves (lykoi) that used to roam the area, or in honour of the ancient cult of Hera, Juno Lucina. I suppose it is easier to say it is named in honour of St. Luke.

The monastery lies along a breathtaking Arcadian coastal road that leads to Leonidio, in the province of Sparta. There are tall Arcadian mountains behind the walls of the monastery, and it is a short walk from the car park to wait under the thick shade of the chestnut trees at the main entrance. It is a peaceful place, with the church in the courtyard.

I remember one of my earlier visits with my father. The church had survived an attack by the Ottomans and although they had burnt it down, the main icon had survived. It was slowly restored, but that visit in the early nineties, along with free funding from the European Community, saw local and other European art students restoring the frescoes in the church. The Monastery is home to a cloister of nuns, and the students were all young woman. They were tanned golden brown; they wore shorts and T-shirts to manage the summer heat. I am sure their day started with a swim in the sea nearby.

My mother got to know one of the nuns very well, along with my father. This wise woman was in charge of the store they had under the eaves of the building on the edge of the courtyard. The nuns also sold painted icons. My mother’s name is Olga, and after a few visits the nun presented her with an icon of St Olga.

My last visit there was with Ines. The nun received us and treated us to Greek coffee and loukomia. She asked about us, and when it transpired that Ines was a surgeon, she was visibly moved. She blessed Ines’ hands, and tried to get around the origins of her name. We decided that it came from Agnes, and the closet Greek name would be Fotini.

The next year my father collected an Icon of Agia Fotini for Ines from the Monastery at Loukous.