Saints’ days and celebrations abound in Greece, but none are more important on Zakynthos than those to honour the island’s patron saint, Dionysios. If you’re visiting during one of the two main festivals in Dionysios’s name, in August and December, you can’t help but get swept up in everything . There are parades, markets and other festivities that mark the occasion in Zakynthos Town. At other times of year you can still follow in the footsteps of the pilgrims and visit the sites on the island associated with him. These are the Church of Aghios Dionysios in Zakynthos Town and the monastery at Anafonitria.
Who was Saint Dionysios?
Dionysios was born into a wealthy family on Zakynthos in 1546. As a young man, he turned his back on the riches and prestige of his noble birth and became a monk at the monastery of Strofades, a small, rocky island off the south-east coast of Zakynthos. After being ordained a priest in 1570, Dionysios set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land but during a stop in Athens, he was persuaded to become Archbishop of Aegina. Some years later Dionysius returned to Zakynthos, where he lived out his life in monastic peace and prayer, first as abbot at Strofades and later at Anafonitria.
Dionysios died on 17 December 1622 and was buried at Strofades. Many miracles began to be attributed to him, and when his casket was opened a few years later his body was found to be perfectly preserved – the greatest miracle of them all. This secured his sainthood in 1703, after which his remains were moved to Zakynthos Town.
Church of Aghios Dionysios, Zakynthos Town
The impressive church of Aghios Dionysios, lying at the southern end of the waterfront, was built in 1708 to house the relics of the patron saint and it has been a focal point for pilgrims from far and wide for 300 years. After being severely damaged by earthquakes over the years, the church was rebuilt and reinforced between 1925 and 1948. This saved it from destruction when the devastating quake of 1953 hit – one of the few buildings on the island to survive with only minimal damage.
Inside, the church is as lavish as you would expect from the last resting place of a Greek Orthodox saint. Red velvet upholstered chairs are ranged beneath imposing chandeliers amid ornate gold scrollwork and carvings. The walls and pillars are lined with gilded icons. Saint Dionysios’s remains lie in a beautiful sculpted silver casket, or ‘larnaca’, in a special room at the back of the church.
The Church of Aghios Dionysios is open every day 7 a.m.–1 p.m. and 5–10 p.m. and it is well worth making your own pilgrimage here on your Zante Holidays
Zante Holidays: The monastery at Anafonitria
Anafonitria is a village in the north-west of the island. In the summer months, the main street is a hive of tourist activity, with stalls selling olive oil, honey and local handicrafts. It’s a picturesque stopping point if you’re exploring this part of the island during your holiday in Zakynthos. The small monastery tucked away at the end of the village and is the main attraction here.
The monastery was built in the mid-15th century, during the period of Venetian rule on Zakynthos. The monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It houses a miraculous icon of the Virgin brought here from Constantinople by the invading Turks. Saint Dionysius spent his final years as abbot at Anafonitria. The most famous story about the saint’s life is set here too.
Then legend tells how a man came to Saint Dionysios’s cell in the monastery at Anafonitria. He had committed a murder and asked the monk to hide him from his pursuers. It transpired that the man had killed Dionysios’s own brother, Constantine. Despite his great grief, Dionysios forgave the man, hid him and in addition later helped him escape. The murderer became a monk at the monastery himself according to some stories.
There are no monks at Anafonitria any more, but the church here still serves Mass to local parishioners. Many visitors on their Zante holidays enjoy visiting this beautiful site. The tower that marks the entrance alsoonce served to defend the monks but has since been turned into a bell tower. Inside, the vine-covered buildings and adjacent cemetery provide an attractive, peaceful site for the contemplative visitor.
Zakynthians honour their patron saint on two days in the year . The two days are the day of his death (17 December) and the day monks moved his relics from Strofades to Zakynthos Town (24 August). Both these occasions are public holidays. They are marked with celebrations that last three days. The church displays the saint and priests and lay worshippers alike come to pray. Thousands of pilgrims attend the church on these days, and also take part in various religious ceremonies to venerate Saint Dionysios. Additionally there are parades through the town. Locals sell food and wine. and then the days finish firework displays. If you’re on holidays in Zante during one of these celebrations, there’s no better way to see the island. Watch it come to life and to immerse yourself in its traditions.
For stunning accommodation in Zakynthos visit The Asteri Collection
Author: Sonya Newland (writer, walker and general lover of Zakynthos)
In an area of outstanding natural beauty on the unspoilt corner of North East Zakynthos you will discover an idyllic spot to spend your Zakynthos experience. Hugged by hills covered in Cypress and Olive trees with views overlooking the sparkling Ionian ocean this is the home of The Asteri Collection.
These three beautifully designed villas have been inspired by the traditional Greek ‘sugar cube’ houses and are a study in bohemian luxury. Here you will find stunning views, luxurious interiors and elegant landscaping.
Private and secluded yet within walking distance of the famous Peligoni Club and the local beach and restaurants of Agios Nikolias these villas cater for all ages and welcome families. Here you can experience laid-back luxury at its best.