Hidden away among the olive plantations in western Crete is the little village of Vouves. There isn’t a great deal in Vouves, just a Kafenion, and a cluster of houses drawn in around a central square. In the middle of that square, however, is one of the world’s oldest olive trees.
Opinion varies on the actual age of the Vouves olive tree. Scientists from the University of Crete estimate that it is 4000 years old, while arborists, using ring bark analysis, put it at 2000.
Whatever its years, age has not wearied or diminished the Vouves olive. It stands firm, strong and proud at the heart of the village. Its gnarled trunk measures a massive 12.5 metres and its leaves are thick and lush. Most incredibly, though, it still produces olives.
From a rugged hillside in Western Crete, the Cave of St John the hermit looks out over endless olive plantations to the sea.
Even without its icons, its altar, its lingering perfume of incense and beeswax candles and the saintly presence of the old priest in his sandals and coarse brown robe, it has the unmistakable feel of a holy place. There’s something about it that compels the visitor to hush and be still. Even when the famous “Little fun Train” chugs in and unloads a rowdy troop of tourists, a sense of peace prevails.
The cave has always been a place of prayer and refuge, where the ancient gods were worshipped and where pilgrims were sheltered and restored.
After they were converted to Christianity, the faithful of the region gathered in the cave for mass. In the 16th century, a hermit named John and his followers, known as the 98 Fathers of Crete, moved into the cave. They built a church and a monastery which offered a place of prayer, refuge and healing. It was Saint John who uncovered the miraculous spring which trickles from a rock near the cave and which, over the centuries has effected countless cures.
Every year, holy water from the spring is distributed to thousands of Christians on the Festival of Saint John the Hermit in October and on Christmas Eve.
Daily masses are held in the small church of Saint Spyridon, in the north eastern corner of the cave. Special celebrations take place on the Feast of Saint Spyridon in July and at Christmas.
Today, at the Cave of Saint John the Hermit, a reconstructed monastery offers spiritual sanctuary to modern pilgrims, welcoming “free of charge any goodwilling man … who would want to pray, confess, meditate, rest and re-baptise to the teachings of Orthodox Christianity” (Brochure of the Holy Metropolis of Kisamou and Selimou)
There are daily masses in the small church of Saint Spyridon, in the north eastern corner of the cave. Special celebrations take place on the Feast of Saint Spyridon in July and at Christmas.