It was pitch dark even with the candles that burned on the right, close to the entrance. The three of us deliberated whether to venture further into an unknown without any torch or light, worried how long the dark would last for and what was at the end of the dark. Suddenly we saw a spider creature walking towards us. The creature was huge and it was talking but not in a language we could understand. We decided to exit and find some comfort in the strong sunlight.
We were in Greece, on our annual holiday exploring Kasandra, the first peninsula of Halkidiki. It was the end of September and the mornings were overcast which gave us an excellent excuse to explore various villages. We went in search of the famous Byzantium Castle in Nea Fokea only to end up finding another church by mistake, when taking a wrong turn and seeing the entrance door with a cross on top. It looked like a church to us until we entered.
The small porch was covered in icons, with a place to light candles and a money box secured with a strong padlock, and was big enough for one person to stand up in. In the middle of the porch there were steep stone steps going down into the dark, the unknown.
After hearing the noise from the darkness and deciding to go outside, we sat under a fig tree discussing if we should go and find what was at the end of the black tunnel when the huge creature in the shape of a German appeared in front of us.
“Is the tunnel long?” – was our first question.
“No – but it’s dark. And you have to go on your knees at the end.”
“What’s at the end?”
“A prayer room.”
I was quick to dismiss the adventure as I consider myself mildly claustrophobic – I hate the noise of a plane door being shot or taking a lift to the 53rd floor (as in China). Crouching in the dark cave to see a prayer room wasn’t appealing to me…but then who knew when I might be going back to Greece and to this place?
You start walking through a narrow tunnel by standing, then crouching and gradually you end up on your knees. All the time you can touch the walls of the cave as it’s not wide. It’s not pleasant either as it’s pitch dark, and if there was rain you’d get covered in murky water. After 33 steps (my 33 steps) you end up at the spring or well, or holy water according to locals, I am not sure and on the right of it there is a prayer room where you can stand up as in a “normal” church. It’s quiet, solemn and I am sure there was some natural light as you could recognise some of the saints on the icons, but where the light was coming from, I am not sure.
I didn’t stay long as the fear of being underground was taking over me and I ran, if you can call it running, at a crawl and a crouch, just like the giant spider that had turned out to be the alarming German. The photos I tried to take came out black and you’d need a strong flash to take a good quality photo.
I know Greece is known for the Holy Mountain Mt Athos and the monasteries spread around it. I have heard about cave churches where monks spends their time in prayers, undisturbed by the outside world. While in Greece I wanted to go to Mt Athos but as a female I am not allowed. The only possibility is to see the monasteries from a distance, from a boat as women cannot set foot on the peninsula.
The best way to see a real prayer cave is to visit St Paul’s Church in Nea Fokea. According to locals, the Apostle Peter hid in the cave from his persecutors and the cave has more than the one tunnel and one room that I saw, but these are closed as tourists get lost in them.
The cave church of St Paul’s is not easily located on maps or Google but you can easily find it when you’re there– it’s opposite the car park of the small port near the Byzantine castle on the main road.
Every year 29 – 30th June, the villagers of Nea Fokea celebrate St Paul and the procession starts from the cave church.