Zakynthos, Greece: The nowhere island in Greece that's all the lovelier for it

If you want a ripping yarn, keep an eye out for saints in Greece. Early orthodox saints busied themselves defying Romans, founding monasteries and resisting curious temptations. They usually ended up beheaded. Now they're depicted, sad-eyed and bushy-bearded, on the icons that hang in every Greek church, sucking in their cheeks as if they've swallowed a sour olive.

Icons are often as magical as the saints they depict. I'm on an Azamara country-intensive cruise around the Greek islands, and it seems every island we anchor off has an icon that appeared from the sea or was unearthed by a shepherd. Now I'm in Zakynthos off the Peloponnese, where long ago an icon of St Mavra appeared in a tree.

Every night, the farmer who found it, took the icon into the safety of his village, and every morning it reappeared in the tree. A church was built to celebrate the miracle. I'm at the Church of St Mavra now, on a shore excursion with local Azamara guide Rita, a walking encyclopaedia of sainthood. She knows many a tale, improbable as a daytime soapie plot, that she recounts with relish as we wend across a rugged landscape of pine forest, plunging cliffs and peacock-blue bays.

In 1864, she tells us, King George I of Greece and his wife Olga were coming to visit Zakynthos when a storm threatened to wreck their ship. (Rita doesn't tailor her fabulous yarns to the sensitivity of cruise passengers.) St Mavra appeared from the waves and the sea was calmed.

The queen left behind her necklace and a braid of her hair in the Church of St Mavra, in thanks for her deliverance. You can see them in a box by the altar, among the few things that survived a 2005 fire that destroyed most of the church and its votive offerings.

Photos show the church after the fire, a lumpen assembly of charred remains and skeletal roof beams. Most of the structure has been rebuilt, though the once-frescoed ceiling is still makeshift plywood. Icons and ornaments are slowly being replaced in colourful patches.

A new iconostasis – the screen of paintings that separates nave from altar – has been installed. It's the work of Nikos Karamalikis, a woodworker who has laboured for over a decade on its spectacular wooden saints, curlicues and twisted pillars tangled in carved grape vines. Later I find Karamalikis in his shop across the street, two-dozen chisels laid out in front of him on a bench adrift in wood shavings. When he isn't working for the glory of St Mavra he's carving frogs and photo frames to sell to tourists.

St Mavra's icon survived the fire. Another miracle. It sits on a table surrounded by offerings from the devout. Her robes are beaten silver, her halo gold. Her shoulders are draped in necklaces. She looks puffy-eyed and glum, as if she's just clambered out of bed and noticed it's raining.

Rita's ebullience falters as she hovers near St Mavra. She touches her fingers to her lips and then presses them against the icon. "Everything I've asked, but one thing, St Mavra has given me," she confides softly. I wonder what the one thing is, too polite to ask.

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My fellow travellers have scattered but I stay on in this church, which smells of wood and wax and whose reconstruction seems a quixotic but admirable endeavour. On this Azamara cruise, I'll see Greek ruins and crusader castles, chic party islands and history-worn trading islands. Zakynthos is a nowhere place and this church inconsequential, but the lovelier for it. I'm curiously touched by this visit, and my pleasant guide's unthreatening faith.

TRIP NOTES

CRUISE

Azamara offers three "Greece Intensive Voyage" itineraries in 2020 which sail between Athens and Venice (or the reverse) and visit Zakynthos. As an example, the nine-night "Greece Intensive Voyage" departs on April 23, 2020 and also visits Mykonos, Patmos, Santorini, Chania, Corfu and Kotor in Montenegro. Prices from $US2667 ($A3880) per person, twin share. The Zakynthos shore excursion costs $US99. Phone 1800 754 500; see azamara.com

MORE

Traveller.com.au/cruises

Traveller.com.au/greece

visitgreece.gr

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Azamara.

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