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Monastery of Agios Gerasimos

The monastery of Agios Gerasimos patron saint of Kefalonia

Kefalonia is a large and mountainous island with most of the beach resorts spread thinly along its south coast from the popular beach resort of Lassi in the west to the huge sands of Skala in the east.

Those summer visitors that venture inland will find rolling woodland hills rising to high mountain passes threaded with narrow, winding roads offering some of the best scenic views to be found anywhere in the Greek islands.

And tucked away in wooded valleys or perched on high rocky bluffs are beautiful historic monasteries and pretty churches, many of which are open to visitors.

Religion still plays an important part in Greek life and culture, a fact quickly inferred from the scores of churches, monasteries and other religious buildings found on Kefalonia.

Many of the churches date back to 17th and 18th centuries are composed of a single nave, an imposing facade, a bell tower and ceilings and walls decorated with fresco paintings. The interiors vary from simple whitewashed rooms to lavishly decorated spaces full of wood carvings and ancient icons.

Found on the plateau of Omalon, east of Argostoli near the villages of Valsamata and Fragata, the Monastery of Agios Gerasimos is perhaps the most important religious place on Kefalonia, where the bones of the island's paton saint are kept in a silver casket.

Originally from Corinth, Gerassimos was famed for his powers of healing, especially the mentally ill and the saint is celebrated each year on feast days in August and October with singing, dancing and a procession of the saint's sarcophagus through the monastery gardens.

It is said the saint came to Kefalonia in 1560 from Zante and lived in a cave south of Argostoli then at Omalon before founding the monastery where he lived and died in 1579. He was canonized in 1622.

A beautiful little church was built over his grave which was one of the few to survive the 1953 earthquake and his remains are kept in an ornate silver casket that may be opened to allow Orthodox Christians to kiss the saint's feet.

At the back of the church is a trap door that leads down a narrow passage to two small caves where Gerasimos is said to have lived before the monastery was built.

Visitors can climb down a step ladder to see the caves but local legend has it that only the pure in spirit will leave the cave without any dirt on their clothing.

Although the small church survived the earthquake, much around it was demolished and most of the monastery buildings seen today are modern structures built in the Byzantine style.

Next to the small church is a much larger modern church, richly decorated with some very fine frescoes and ancient icons. Ceiling murals depict scenes from the Old Testament, the birth and baptism of Christ and the Annunciation, the Last Supper, the crucifixion and the miracle of Pentecost.

One of the most interesting is a fresco of the death of Gerasimos depicted with Christ near his deathbed holding his hand over the saint's soul depicted as a child in swaddling clothes.

In the main monastery courtyard is a big plane tree and a well. The tree said to have been planted and the well dug with the saint's own hands. The area is much noted for it's wells and visitors to the monastery may pass through a garden containing 40 of them.

This is a place of pilgrimage for many Greeks, not just for the inhabitants of Kefalonia especially during festival celebrations when it can attract hundreds, even thousands, of pilgrims.

Two festivals are celebrated in the monastery. One on August 16th commemorates the death of Gerasimos and an October 20 festival celebrates the date of transfer of his remains to the church.

On both occasions, there is a procession that carries the relics of the saint under the plane tree said to have been planted by Gerasimos himself. Priests are surrounded by hundreds of pilgrims and tourists as the procession ends with big street parties with music, dancing, food and wine.