Kythira, it was my friend Fivos who helped me discover it. As well as Kiria Eleni Harou, who recounted its many stories. Some of them were well known, others were buried deep in the collective memory of the island, but the most enchanting were the histories of Hora, the capital of the island, where she had been a schoolteacher. This woman, rather small but with an imposing personality, erudite, humane, and charming, could narrate without equal. While visiting Hora, she brought us to the seigneurial house of Kaloutsis. This ancient aristocratic family of Venetian origin stood atop of the social ladder in Hora. The dowager Mrs. Kaloutsis, in her eighties, received us, straight as an arrow and admirably mannered.
During our conversation, I lamented not visiting the small monastery in the area of Kakia Petra, “the Dreadful Rock,” which I had noticed while we were making our way to the capital. It had attracted me despite knowing nothing about it, not even its owners, thus rendering inaccessible, or so I thought. As chance would have it, it belonged to Mrs. Kaloutsis, who graciously brought us there.
– – – –
We reached the white and yellow walled monastery of Mrs. Kaloutsis, which was guarded by three large Cyprus trees. The church had been kept to perfection, possessing a charm with its rich icons, torchères, and bronze chandeliers. Freshly cut flowers were placed with care in front of the iconostases.
Mrs. Kaloutsis had turned the adjoining monastery into a residence. It was icy cold in the small salon. The little candies were delectable. No longer drinking alcohol, I escaped the temptation of the delicious liquor that was handed to me thanks to Fivos, who had quickly emptied my glass. Eleni Harou, with her wonderful voice, began to sing the Psalm of Holy Friday, making sure to point out the Venetian influence in the Byzantine music. She chose the piece where Jesus laments having been abandoned. Mrs. Kaloutsis, Fivos, and I, sitting upon a 19th century sofa, listened as we were transported far away from our small salon.
When she stopped, I asked her who had constructed the monastery. “Listen to the poem that the late husband of Mrs. Kaloutsis composed about his ancestor Maria Venieri,” she said. Then, in her beautiful voice, warm and grave, she began to recite the verses.
The Venieri are one of the oldest and most illustrious families in Venice. A member of this dynasty had participated in the conquest of Kythira and, ever since, their descendants had held the highest posts of the Venetian occupation. A young Venieri had fallen in love with a handsome soldier, who in turn reciprocated these same sentiments. The couple soon exchanged their promises of love. The love-stricken soldier shortly left for war, vowing to marry Maria Venieri upon his return. Only he never returned; years past without any news or signs of life. The beautiful Venieri, grief-stricken, believing that he had been killed in the war, became of nun. Hardly had she professed her vows when the young soldier reappeared. His first thought was of Maria Venieri.
“I have returned to marry you,” he declared, ignoring her status as a nun.
“It’s too late,” she replied, “I’m already married to God.”
“So what can I do for you?” asked the young man.
“Provide me with enough money, so that I may build a monastery where I can remain forever.” With that, the solider handed over all the booty he had accumulated during his campaigns and left Kythira, never to return.
Maria Venieri used the money to build the monastery in which we now found ourselves. She retired there in solitude, died there, and was even buried there. The husband of Mrs. Kaloutsis, descended from the Venieris, had inherited it.
Excerpt from my book devoted to Kythira, Cythère: Les chemins de l’amour et de l’éternité.