When you travel in the Cretan countryside you must have your eyes wide open and diligent curiosity for exploration. Even the smallest handmade sign you encounter in the smallest provincial road might lead to a great treasure.
When you approach Kitharida, for example, a small picturesque village before Krousonas, you will see a small wooden pointing to the temple of Agios Georgios (Άγιο Γεώργιος). Follow it, but instead of going to Agios Georgios visit the neighboring church of Agios Fanourios.
But first things first…before you turn to the sign, make a stop at the village, talk to the locals and ask them who has the key of the church. We were lucky as we immediately found Mr. Stavros, one of the key-keepers of this Byzantine church, who also gave us instructions how to reach Agios Fanourios. And as one of the oldest residents of the village – and former deacon of the temple- he also told us a few things about Agios Fanourios’ history.
"Here was the Monastery of Panagia Eleousa. Until the year 1100 it was a convent, initially for women but later for men as well. About 70 monks lived in the monastery that had vineyards, a mill, olive press and even a school. The school of Agios Fanourios was one of the oldest schools of Crete and pupils came from all around the island to learn how to read and write. At the same time when in Krousonas people didn’t know how to write their signature, in Kitharida there was a proper school! The monks once treated a Turkish officer who had fallen off his horse and he signed the permission to open a school as a gesture of gratitude. And it was all well until the 1866 revolution when the Turks slaughtered all the monks".
After this short lesson of local history, we took the dirt road that leads to the temple, which is basically the only building left from the Monastery. Set in a landscape that resembles Tuscany, between olive trees, vineyards and cypresses, the Byzantine temple of Agios Fanourios is different from most temples of the same period. It is definitely one of the most original -from an architectural perspective- temples on the island. The three aisles, each with a dome on top of it, make a beautiful geometric shape that harmoniously ‘ties’ with the landscape. The unique ornaments, such as ceramic plates built into the walls with drawings of strange colorful birds, make this temple even more special.
Since you have the keys you can explore the interior. The wooded iconostasis is disassembled, but you can still spot the little sculpted angels in different parts, while the old faded frescoes reinforce the mystical charm of the temple. Do not let the plastic chairs and some tools left behind from a recent renovation catch your eye for too long and move again to the exterior and the lovely Tuscanian (or actually, quite Cretan) landscape.
Enjoy the color games of the sun on the red pomegranates that grow in the courtyard and walk a bit more to explore the ruins of the old monastery before you hit the road again and head to the village of Krousonas and the plateau of Livadi, covered with apple and pear trees and the shades of spring…
(ehm, and don’t forget to return the keys!)