Patmos is an island of Greece found in the Aegean Sea and belonging to the Dodecanese group, off the coast of Anatolia in Turkey. Patmos holds special meaning for Christians from Greece and beyond. In 95 AD, Roman emperor, Domitian, exiled St. John to the prison island of Patmos for preaching Christianity in Ephesus, Turkey. Once on Patmos, St. John envisioned the apocalypse. His cave and the monastery that bear his name are pilgrimage sites for Christians.
Patmos feels much like the rest of Greece while being less touristy than better-known islands, making it worth a visit whether you have an interest in religious history or not. It’s less crowded, too, apart from Holy Week and Easter when it bursts at the seams.
UNESCO designated Patmos’ capital, Chora (or Hora – meaning “town” in Greek), the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, and the Grotto of the Apocalypse as World Cultural Sites in 1999. The island’s architecture, windmills, and sweeping views of villages and the sea are a feast for the eyes. The Monastery of St. John the Theologian and Cave of the Apocalypse are a feast for the soul. And pouggia, one of the tastiest treats in Greece and a pastry unique to Patmos, is a feast in the truest sense of the word.
A WALK THROUGH CHORA
You can opt for a bus, taxi, or walk the Path of Culture from the port city of Skala to the hillside town of Chora. As you meander through Chora’s narrow cobblestone streets, you’ll walk the same paths as villagers have since the 12th century AD. Chora is a World Heritage Site because of its unique architecture and its preservation of ancient Orthodox rituals surrounding Holy Week.
Chora’s white-washed houses look like sugar cubes tumbling downhill from the monastery’s fortress. These sturdy stone houses provided an extra layer of defense against pirate and Ottoman invaders. They were deliberately built to have the same exteriors, whether they were built for a wealthy merchant or someone less well-off. With every house looking the same, pirates were unsure which houses held riches. And since Chora’s houses were built on a slope, balconies often touched flat rooftops of the houses below. Passageways between houses were tucked beneath balconies and not as apparent to invaders – yet another line of defense. Today, houses, souvenir shops, and restaurants with fresh seafood line the maze of streets.
THE MONASTERY OF ST. JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN
Built in Byzantine style in 1088, the monastery honors St. John whose revelations are contained in the last book of the Christian bible. The imposing fortress walls offered a refuge for villagers during invasions. Monastery bells signaled an attack, while the fortress was outfitted with spouts to pour hot oil or lead on invaders that breached the walls.
Inside the fortress you’ll find the main church, or katholikon, plus seven smaller chapels. Religious frescoes from the 17th and 19th centuries, depicting St. John’s miracles, surround the main church’s entrance.
Gold-accented iconography and a carved wooden iconostasis, or altar screen, remind visitors the purpose of the monastery was not only protecting villagers but ensuring Christianity continued in a hostile environment.
In addition to the church, monastery tours include visiting the monks’ dining room and the Treasury — a museum filled with manuscripts, vestments, a mosaic of St. Nicholas, and icons.
THE CAVE OF THE APOCALYPSE
Once you’ve toured Chora and the monastery, you’ll be able to follow the Path of Culture downhill to the Grotto of the Apocalypse. This is where St. John lived and reportedly received revelations from God. John’s assistant, Prochoros, recorded the visions as John described them. St. John’s nightmarish visions of seven-headed dragons and the end of time became the Book of Revelations.
As you tour the cave, you’ll see where St. John rested, where Prochoros wrote, and where God spoke through a three-pronged fissure in the grotto’s ceiling.
A SNACK IN SKALA
If you have time, continue to Skala via the cobblestone Path of Culture. Enjoy the olive tree groves, the fresh scent of eucalyptus and pine, the peacefulness, and the panoramic views of Skala, nearby islands, and the Aegean Sea.
Skala has plenty of shops, outdoor restaurants, and bakeries. Try a traditional cheese pie, called patmiotiki, made with mizithra cheese and a hint of cinnamon in a fluffy crust. At Koumanis Bakery, try pouggia, an almond and walnut pastry topped with sugar and syrup. It’s a traditional, delicious, worth-the-sticky-fingers treat.
Buses travel between Skala’s port and Chora about every two hours. The fare is 1.5 euros. You can catch a taxi by the port in Skala and the bus terminal in Chora.
The cobblestone Path of Culture between Skala and Chora is 1.7 km and takes 40 minutes uphill and 30 minutes going down. The trail is well-marked.
The monastery is open every day from 8 am to 1 pm plus 4 pm to 6 pm Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday during the summer. Entrance fees are six euros.
The cave is open every day from 8:30 am to 1:30 pm plus 4 pm to 7 pm on Tuesdays. Admission costs several euros.
Both places have a dress code — knees and shoulders must be covered.
Photography isn’t allowed inside the church or cave.
What’s your favorite island in Greece off the tourist trail? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!