An Accidental, Awesome Discovery of Agios Mamas In Naxos, Greece
One of the great joys of travel is the epic accidental discovery. Serendipity striking completely off-itinerary, often due to getting lost or getting a sweet tip from a local. My discovery of Agios Mamas definitely falls into the former category. I mean, I guess I wasn’t *technically* lost, but I definitely didn’t know where I was, or if I would eventually end up where I wanted to be.
Agios Mamas is a beautifully-preserved Byzantine church that’s over 1,000 years old. What’s crazy is that nothing about it—not even a whiff—showed up in my super detailed pre-trip research.
And just like when I found a secret Scottish castle ruin on a cliff, or got lost and stumbled upon the best rooftop bar in Lisbon), happening upon it was one of the coolest memories from my Greece trip!
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I’d been staying in Naxos Town (Chora), but left it behind and headed inland to explore the mountain villages. I started my day with a lovely brief stop at tiny Saint Anna Winery, where the winemaker’s mom helped me taste a handful of wines and their mead as well, to select what I wanted to take home. I got to briefly meet the winemaker, Emmanuel, before hitting the road.
And that’s where things went off the rails a bit (more on that at the end)—but first, I found a true hidden gem!
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One of the things that was somewhat disconcerting as I roadtripped through Naxos was that Google Maps was frequently taking me on tiny dirt and rock tracks, along with the main paved roads. I kept thinking I was on the wrong road and wondering if I’d actually end up somewhere, but 9 times out of 10 it worked out well.
So with that in mind, as I turned out of the winery and started driving, just a minute later Google Maps took me down another terrible dirt road that first plunged steeply down, then wound and climbed back up into the hills. I was nervous about whether this was a legit road or one that was faking me out, especially as I went further on…and even further on.
Parts of the road weren’t too bad (your garden variety gravel road), but parts were more rutted out, rocky, or steep and harder to get traction. I was in a tiny car, so was worried about popping a tire or centering the car on a rock. (Note, I grew up on dirt roads, so am comfortable handling cars on them.)
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In hindsight, I realize there were a couple signs pointing me to the church, but I was so focused on driving safely that I didn’t pay much attention. And let’s face it, there are signs to various historical sights EVERYWHERE in Naxos.
So after about 20 minutes of driving on this road, I turned a corner and saw the most amazing Byzantine church pop out of nowhere. Behold, Agios Mamas!!
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Agios Mamas sits in a lush green valley in the region of Kato Potamia in Naxos. It dates from the mid-9th century, and is considered the oldest church on the island.
It served as the Orthodox Cathedral of Naxos in medieval times, until the Venetians occupied the island in 1207, and it was turned into a Catholic chapel.
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The church has a very interesting architectural style, with a cross-shaped roof. It is named for Agios (Sacred/Saint) Mamas, the protector of shepherds…a very important saint to the locals since agriculture and cattle-breeding were the main income sources for Naxos.
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The inside of Agios Mamas is not open to the public, as it’s currently undergoing restoration. But supposedly there are interesting sculptures and frescoes.
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So that was a somewhat magical discovery, and I’m so happy this stupid road took me here! But we’re not done yet…
I got back in the car and Google Maps urged me on, and it looked like I was so close to the main road, which was paved! I continued on the tiny narrow dirt path, continuing to climb (and being very careful not to pop a tire). I could see this tiny church-like structure in the distance, on the side of the hill.
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Then the dirt path leveled off a bit, and I started snaking around the hill. It was honestly kind of terrifying, because the road was so narrow and then it was just a drop-off. I carefully navigated around the bend, right underneath the church. Easy does it.
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And once I got past the church, I was supposed to take a left onto the main road. EXCEPT IT WAS BLOCKED! There was a locked gate keeping me from doing what I needed to. I’d gone 30+ minutes along this path, and now had to go all the way back.
So I very carefully turned around without falling off the cliff (thankfully there was a little bump-out I could back into) and made my way back around the church, and down the hill, past Agios Mamas, and another 20 minutes to the previous main road (near Saint Anna Winery).
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Google Maps wouldn’t give me any other routes that didn’t involve this road, so I eventually gave up and headed toward the complete opposite end of the island, to visit Apollonas instead. It was quite an adventure!
But despite the stress of the narrow road and wasted time, I am really happy that I discovered Agios Mamas—a true hidden gem in Naxos!!
Other magical accidental discoveries you’ll love:
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