Tinos was a beautiful experience in 2007, and it has grown to be one of my favorite islands of Greece. It was the first time in recent years I traveled without the family in order to join the Dellatollas Marble studio for a couple of weeks to indulge in the traditional technique of marble carving.
Tinos is known among Greeks mainly for the “Panagia” church that houses an icon of the Virgin Mary, which is widely believed to be the most able to perform miracles among several others around Greece.
As such, the island flourishes under the constant influx of the faithful who make the pilgrimage to the island either to ask Madona for a miracle, or as the recipients of a miracle that have a “tama” to fulfill. Tama is a promise for an offering in exchange for divine intervention. Usually Greeks will ask in their prayers for a miracle (most often a cure for an ailment) and in exchange they offer to make the pilgrimage to the “Panagia of Tinos” to light a candle “as tall as my stature”.
Throughout Greece stories of actual miracles attributed to Panagia of Tinos circulate abundantly. Many of the stories involve public spectacles of disabled persons walking, mute children talking, and similar miracles occurring as the result of being in the vicinity of the miraculous Panagia picture that is taken out in a procession over the kneeling faithful on August 15 every year.
Consequently, August 15 is one date when the island is in danger of sinking under the weight of the pilgrims who flock to the church by the thousands. If you are interested in just visiting the island for its natural beauty, or to relax, August 15 is definitely the time to avoid. On the other hand if you want to experience the gritty quality of folklore events, then by all means try to squeeze among the faithful during the Panagia festival.
I visited the island in mid-September when the weather is still agreeable and the crowds have departed, leaving the island in peace and quiet, and the prices a bit lower.
At first glance, and after approaching Tinos by ferry, the town looks as if it lacks all the charm and luster that make the islands of the Cyclades such magnets for photographers and tourists from around the world. The first impression of the island is formed from a few medium size unremarkable hotel buildings that flank a non-descript promenade, packed with cheap food and café shops. As such, Tinos town almost feels disappointing at first.
But first looks can be deceiving, and in Tinos’ case, they are.
The crowds on Tinos streets are not made of the usual slick or joyful European tourists. There are plenty of them of course, but most of the visitors you see in the streets of Tinos Chora are the spirited faithful, many of whom have made the pilgrimage as a matter of duty to their faith. Many land on the island carrying the heavy burden of some personal tragedy, or in search of a miracle. A good portion have saved money for months to make the trip, and many have left their small towns elsewhere in Greece to spend a night sleeping on the porch of the Panagia church.
With cold eyes, it is just another kind of tourist industry; an ancient one that caters to those who have a sense of religious duty, and those who try to find hope for their ailments in the divine powers of Panagia after everything else has failed. But there is a quiet beauty in that the island has not felt the need to accommodate the insatiable appetite of leisure or thrill seekers. Tinos has been content to cater to the faithful, the poor, and those in need, offering an unimaginable experience to those who glide through the kitsch, the glitter, and the artifice in order to fulfill their inner duty. Along with them, an increasing population of Europeans has discovered its charm, and have inundated the landscape with imitation “traditional” Cycladic vacation dwellings.
The reputation of the island as the home of Panagia of Tinos icon and church is so strong that it’s hard to imagine that it has anything else to offer; but it does. Once you move away from the tasteless artifice of the town’s front, Tinos unveils itself in glorious beauty. Countless little villages tacked neatly among the thick flora of ravines sprinkle a landscape filled with harsh rocky hills from end to end. The blue waters of the Aegean embrace the island gently here, and with forceful waves there, sculpt the coast into a carved relief sculpture as pretty as the famous Tinian fegites of the local marble artisans.
While Tinos can’t rival its close neighbor, Mykonos, in beautiful beaches, it has it share of sandy swim spots as accommodating as you will find in any other island of Greece. Where Tinos is different than most Greek islands is in the beautiful interior villages, its unique history and its artistic tradition.
The island of Tinos has enriched the history of Greece with stories of folklore, dramatic historical events, and artistic wealth. Adding to the modern mythology of religious miracles, the Italian submarine Delfino torpedoed the light cruiser “ELLI” as it was moored in the island’s harbor during the height of the Panagia festival on August 15, 1940, at 8:25 am. The attack came with no warning during a time of peace. From the shore thousands of the faithful watched the spectacular explosions and mourned as nine sailors met their watery death on a day that pushed Greece closer to conflict with Italy and the eventual joining of WWII on the side of the allies. A monument to the horrific fate of the cruiser and its crew is prominently displayed on the harbor of Tinos town today.
The island of Tinos has also been a source of several varieties of excellent marble, and its landscape is scarred to this day from countless quarries that produced fine marble, mostly used in architecture and sculpture. The charming town of Pyrgos in the north is still a hub of artistic activity, housing the newly built Museum of Traditional Marble Technology, a respectful sculpture academy, and the Halepas Museum that houses artwork of Greece’s celebrated sculptor. All around the island abandoned quarries and eroded stone-retained terraces remain as a silent witness to a prosperous past, with abundant vegetation and vigorous marble extraction.
Most of the marble went to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the Athenians, and Europeans who used the bluish, gray, or green stone to adorn their residences and public buildings. The marble artisans of Tinos were famous for their skill since ancient times, and it’s a tradition that is very much alive to our days. The exceptional craftsmanship of the local artists is evident everywhere, and especially in the cemeteries, and the omnipresent Tinos “fegites”, the semi-circular relief marble sculptures that provide openings above countless doors and windows around the island. Most reconstruction projects of Archaeological monuments around Greece, including the Parthenon, employ artisans from Tinos.
As mentioned above, working with marble is what attracted me to the island in the first place and I would be remiss if I did not mention the wonderful experience I had working on a large scale marble sculpture at the Dellatolas Marble Sculpture studio, in the fringes of Tinos town. Although I am not a novice sculptor or carver (I teach sculpture in the US), the considerable experience and knowledge of Petros Dellatolas allowed me to expand my own horizon regarding local stone and marble carving technique.
The studio provided all the amenities for someone who wants to work with marble, and the help of Petros was invaluable, but arguably a most enjoyable aspect was the mid-morning coffee I shared with Petros and Annette, the owners of the studio. It was then that I had the opportunity to learn about the island, its life, and its art. At the end of my stay, I left the island with a marble sculpture of my own, and rich experiences that have already planted the yearning to return.
Other highlights of my trip, besides working long hours at the studio, were several long drives around the island to photograph the landscape, and a couple of trips to nearby Mykonos (only twenty minutes by catamaran) to see the island and to visit Delos archaeological site and museum.
Overall, even though most foreign travelers prefer more glamorous destinations in the Cyclades, Tinos is a hidden gem for those who yearn for something different, something relaxing, and something more authentic. If you visit, don’t stay in town too long; do visit the interior, and please do stop by to say “hello” to Petros and Annette at the Dellatolas studio.
Also see: Tinos Photos