A secluded village on a secluded Greek island. One of the reasons that this place still keeps most of its traditions. That, and the richness of these traditions. A matriarchal community where the firstborn girl will be the sole heir to the family fortune. Olympians are descendants of the Byzantine Empire, where Byzantine traditions still survive in their most vivid form.
The Byzantine Easter
As a photographer interested in the Greek culture and traditions, I had a strong interest to photograph Easter in Olympos. This is a rather secluded place on Karpathos island where traditions are fading at a very small pace. Located 40km away from Pigadia, the capital of the island, you can reach Olympos by a tricky road that was only laid with asphalt in the 2010s. They consider themselves descendants of the Byzantine empire and are one of the few places in the world where a visitor can experience real Byzantine traditions, if not the only one. Actually, their way of celebration has been registered with UNESCO's archive of the world's intangible cultural heritage.
I wanted to experience in-depth the customs of Olympos and get to know the people living there. That was the reason I traveled to the island early when the village was still empty. I had found a place to stay in Diafani village. This is a nearby village that serves as a port. In the old days, people from Olympos who had affairs with the sea would stay in this place and after some time, houses started to appear and a village was formed. Today, Diafani is the second port of the island.
Olympos is probably the most beautiful place on the island. A village of beautiful architecture, built on a hilltop, between two mountains. You can get lost around the narrow alleys and enjoy travel back in time.
The first few days of the Holy Week are devoted to preparations for Easter, which is mostly baking. Around Olympos village, many wood ovens are built by the community. These ovens can be used by anyone, as long as they use their own wood and keep the place clean and tidy. There are traditional recipes for the bread and cakes being cooked around these days.
Notable events regarding Easter start to occur on Wednesday, after Tuesday night's Hymn to Kassiani. On Wednesday, the priest will give a wish to each one visiting the church, so they are ready to receive the Holy Communion the day after. Still, this is not a busy day at the church and only a few people come for the wish since they can receive it on the next day, just before the Communion.
Spending time in the village was very nice and all the people I met were very hospitable. I learned a lot about the community by having small talk with most of the inhabitants and made nice friends.
The lady in the next picture is Kalliopi, who owns the local bakery and makes really nice traditional pies and bread in her wood oven. She offered coffee many times during the stay and I even had the chance to visit her place that keeps the traditional style of Olympos.
On Thursday, after the flock has received the Communion, the litany of the Christ on the cross takes place. The church starts to get busier and the next days until Easter Tuesday will be the busiest. Papa-Yannis is the local priest. A very kind man with a great posture and style. He is very funny, you can see him most of the afternoons sitting on a chair in the central square, talking with his fellow Olympians and even making shocking jokes! You just need to get to know him a little bit better before he gets loose!
He took the time to show me around the ancient main church of the village and explained the icons painted on the walls. During the Holy week, all the icons along the main iconostasis are covered with black embroidery, as a sign of mourning.
The next day is Good Friday and the day of the Epitaph. The Epitaph is a wooden tomb of Christ that is decorated with flowers by the village women in the morning. Most of them wear the traditional clothes of the place. The older women living in the village have no other clothes and refer to our clothing as "European".
A big difference about the Epitaph of Olympos, compared to the rest of Greece, is that pictures of the recently deceased are pasted on the Epitaph and their relatives mourn for them during the pilgrimage that takes place later, inside the church.
I had thought I would make images during the mourning inside the church, as it sounded really strong as an experience. However, the experience was so intense, that I never felt like picking up my camera, it felt disrespectful and in fact, I exited the church very soon because it was too much to take.
At night, the Litany of the Epitaph takes place around the streets of Olympos. This is a very interesting event as the streets are beautiful and you can see people holding candles and following the Epitaph, chanting the beautiful Hymns of Good Friday.
That was the first time I went around the village and I was really intrigued by its beautiful architecture and location.
Saturday is the day that everyone prepares the Easter goat. The goats are slain in the morning and prepared by the women of the village. They fill the goats with rice and seal them inside the wood ovens. There, the goat will stay and slow-cook overnight. They will take it out just before Sunday's lunch. During the night, everyone will go to the church for the Resurrection Mass. At midnight, papa-Yannis will announce the Resurrection. This part is also different than in other places because the announcement is made at the women's place inside the church, as opposed to the church's yard. That is to make the analogy of Mary Magdalene who was the first to see Jesus resurrected.
Women stand in a different part of the temple than men. They also have a different side entrance.
On Sunday, it is Easter. A second Resurrection takes place at noon, which is also something different than other places. For the people of Olympos, this second Mass is the most important. The girls of the village wear their traditional dresses and stand in formation outside the church. Necklaces full of golden coins (Kolaina) hang from their necks. After the Mass finishes, everyone takes place in the queue, to have some of the blessed bread and Greek doughnuts (Loukoumades) with honey and cinnamon. There is also some Ouzo (Greek alcoholic drink with anise flavor, similar to Italian Sambuca). More firecrackers go off!
The Easter table is prepared and the goat gets out of the oven!
The Litany on Easter Tuesday
The traditional Easter in Olympos comes to its peak on Easter Tuesday, that is the Tuesday after Easter. This is the day where the main Icons of the central church are taken down and carried around the village in order to visit every church and perform memorials.
The icons are dressed up in local scarves to show their celebration for the resurrection of Christ. The black embroidery has been removed from the main iconostasis, since the annunciation. It's now time for celebration.
These are four Icons painted on wood and probably weigh around twenty Kgs each. The route is approximately eight to nine kilometers, with most of it being uphill, downhill, and off-road.
Papa Yannis is leading the litany, the priest of the village, who is over eighty years old. He really makes it look too easy. I have asked him to stop at a point that he wasn't feeling too well, but he never did and kept on walking.
The first big stop is at the cemetery of the village, where we stop for a couple of hours. Papa Yannis will perform a separate memorial for each grave.
The relatives of the deceased have treats with them to offer to anyone attending. Chocolate, candy, or even locally cooked delicacies. Make sure you don't say "Thank you" when you take something. Instead, you should say "Theos s'horeston" (may God forgive him).
A memorial is also held a the cemetery's ossuary. Each resident that has relatives in the ossuary will have a list of their names that they will pass to papa-Yannis for the memorial.
The litany continues and the second stop is at a spring where people can have some water. Papa Yannis will also take some water with his bouquet of basil and spray at people as a blessing. He will also wet a corner of the Virgin Mary icon so that She gets cooler from all the tiring litany.
The road continues and if someone carrying an Icon gets tired, someone else will take his place. There are even a few tourists who come almost every year to see this custom. Some are so experienced that even show the way if someone forgets.
Young ladies wear their traditional dresses (sakofoustano) which are colorful and have necklaces made of golden coins hanging from their necks. These dresses are only worn by younger ladies who have not yet been married. These are made by the girl's family and are rather expensive to make. More than three generations may have worked on each one of them, as each generation has the obligation to maintain or make the costume better to pass on to the next generation. These costumes, along with the jewelry that goes with them signify the financial status of the family. I have been told by one girl that she owns 37 of these dresses.
After they get married, they will wear the other costume with black as the main color, called "Kavae" (comes from "Kavathe", but 'th' in a word is not pronounced in the local dialect). This costume slowly changes to less and less decorated as the woman gets older. Women over a certain age wear a Kavae that looks almost completely black.
The litany reaches back to the village with a very steep uphill. The view is really nice since you can enjoy the view of the sea from afar.
The Icons return to the main square where a special place is set to host them for the next step.
All the unmarried girls stand in their traditional dresses in front of the steps of the church and an auction takes place. Families are bidding for each icon, so that they are able to pick it up themselves and take it back inside the church. The winning family will carry their Icon inside and mount it back to its place on the iconostasis.
Finally, the winning families will have dinner, offered by the church community inside the women's place of the church. This is also a tradition that I have never met in any other place around Greece. In fact, I have never seen anyone eating on a table inside a church for any reason.
AUGUST \ The month with most events
Christ's church celebration
This is a small celebration in a small church in Olympos. The church has a terrific view of the village and many of the women come to the celebration dressed in their traditional costumes. It takes place on the day of Christ, on August 6.
This church is really beautiful. Hanging on a cliff on one side of the village, overlooking the whole west side of it. The west side of Olympos is the most beautiful one, where you can see most of the old mills of the village. During sunset of course the view is even more beautiful as you can see the sun diving inside the horizon and the warm light saturating the colors of the houses.
To find the church you have to walk along the west road of the village. Near the end of the road, there is a steep road to your right that leads to this secluded small church. Olympos is famous for its churches since almost every family owns a private one. This one is no exception as it is owned by a local family. It is said that there are over 300 churches in Olympos.
The Morning Mass starts at 8 o'clock in the morning and ends at about ten to eleven. During the Mass, papa-Yannis, the priest of the village will bless the bread made by local women. This is made by sourdough with spices such as cumin, anise, mastic, sesame, and cloves.
When the Mass and the blessing are finished, everyone gathers around to praise the Icon of the church, wish to papa-Yannis, get his blessing and take their treats. They consist of the Christ bread, Greek Loukoumades (doughnuts) with honey and walnuts as well as watermelon and Ouzo (alcoholic sweetened drink with anise flavor, similar to Italian Sambuca, but less sweet)
Everyone has the time for some small talk as most of the Olympian visitors have started to arrive. They visit during August every year and since this celebration is held in early August, most of them have been around for only a few days so they want to catch up with old friends and relatives.
Assumption of Mary Festival
This is a very important day for Olympos, as is for all over Greece. August 15 is the day that the Assumption of Mary is celebrated everywhere with festivals. The weather is beautiful and all Greeks have taken their annual leave and fled the city of Athens.
The girls in Olympos are getting ready for the big day. They will wear their colorful traditional dresses with the aid of their sisters or mothers and hang on their necks the golden necklaces, a sign of the family's wealth.
The village, especially the main square where the church is located, is packed with tourists. Olympos is the most famous village on the island and this day is very special. After all, the main church in Olympos is devoted to Virgin Mary, so it is celebrating today.
As soon as the morning Mass comes to its end, the dressed-up girls take the narrow alleys towards the church in order to pay respect to the church, wish to the relatives and friends, and of course show off their dresses and golden jewelry.
The older ladies find the opportunity to gossip about all local stories. They have a lot of news to share, because, unlike the winter, Olympos is full of life during August and many Olympians have gathered from places like Piraeus, Rhodes, or even the US and Australia.
Tourists look and wander around. Everything looks peculiar and new. They want to blend in and not feel too distant, so that is a good excuse to buy some local clothing and accessories to put on.
After the Mass is finished, Olympians start to move towards the place where the table is set to feed anyone sitting. Tourists are usually too shy to attend, so most of the people at the table are locals. Sometimes, if the weather allows it, the table can be set outside on the main square. Most of the time, however, the table is set at Megaron, the reception hall of the church.
A second feast for the Assumption of Mary, the night after
On August 15, which is the official celebration of the Assumption of Mary, the village is far too crowded with too many tourists arriving to see all the girls in their traditional costumes. There is a dance at night, but this is also far too crowded.
Therefore, the locals want to have a more private celebration, which they do the day after. Make sure that if you want to see that, you try to be a little bit discreet, whatever that means. I think the best way is to have been there a few times before, so people have got to know you and your presence around makes sense.
Olympians might be very hospitable and friendly, but during their celebrations, they are not so happy to have other people dancing with them. They are free to watch of course. At first, this didn't make much sense to me either, but after some time I spent with them, I got to kind of feel the reasoning behind that.
You see the thing is that their celebrations are somewhat different from other places and have to do both with melancholy and sadness as well as happiness. There are times during their feast that you may see people crying or mourning because someone sang something about good old times or about a passed away relative.
In addition to the above, friends and family don't get many chances to see one another, because many of those people may live in the US, Piraeus or Rhodes. So they want to enjoy their time together. Having some outsider dancing with them in the wrong rhythm may just spoil the fun of it.
Finally, people there keep up to old traditions. Men can dance next to their sisters, other female relatives, and their fiancés or wives. If they have a girlfriend, they are not allowed to be dancing next to her. Each one takes turns and moves to the front of the dance with his female co-dancers. So you understand, anyone who is an outsider would really look odd to this whole thing.
Don't get me wrong in that. By outsiders, I don't mean people coming from overseas. I am equally an outsider with any tourist there.
The party takes place in the central square (Selai) if the weather allows it. The host is usually the Parthenon cafe, which is responsible to get food and beverages, and apart from everything else, a lot of whisky is available, as in all Olympian feasts. You will also see women offering treats out of big baskets that have monkey nuts, caramels, and more.
You will see many women in their traditional costumes as well as girls in traditional dresses, with many gold coins hanging from their necks.
The dancing keeps up until the morning, which is common to all Olympian feasts. The progression of it is really slow. The feast begins with table songs, then moves to Mantinades (on-the-spot improvised songs). In the mid-way of Mantinades, the dance begins at a really slow pace and builds up to a frenzy dance that goes up till the morning, Pano Choros (Up Dance).
A traditional engagement
If you happen to be in Olympos village of Karpathos island during August, you might be lucky enough to see a traditional engagement taking place. Engagements, weddings, and christenings take place after the Assumption of Mary, as in the rest of Greece. These events do not take place during fasting, which is the period before August 15.
This is a custom that is not taking place too often, however. It takes a lot of preparation so it is not easy to perform. The family starts preparing a couple of weeks before, making many treats to offer to the whole village. Most of the people in the village are invited, and since it is August, the village is quite full.
The bride-to-be is getting ready inside her home which takes a few hours because she has to put on her traditional costume, Sakofoustano. This consists of three layers of clothing and many accessories, being the scarf and a lot of jewelry. She gets help from her relatives. The girls are really peculiar about wearing the scarf properly. They will make the one helping them untie and tie again many times. I honestly couldn't see any difference in each version.
As soon as the bride-to-be gets ready, she moves to the doorstep to wait for the groom to arrive. There is also time for some selfies! There is music playing in the yard all this time. The sweet treats are fantastic. I particularly enjoyed one that is made of sesame and honey.
A bit later the groom will arrive accompanied by musical instrument players and a crowd behind him. He will of course be holding a flower bouquet in his hands, to offer to the bride.
The ceremony takes place inside the house with the local priest. Every significant member will make a small speech and there will be a lot of emotion as with all Olympian customs. The couple will change the rings.
The couple will be taken with instruments and music to the place where the reception will take place. The best man/woman will lead the parade, holding an Icon. People are gathering around to see them.
The reception took place in the Megaron, the reception hall of the church with a lot of food, drinking, and dancing. After some time, the bride to be changed her dress to a modern one so that she was more comfortable.
The interesting part was that this celebration was not the same as all the rest described here. There was not the ritualistic order of things as with the traditional Olympian celebrations, but it was rather a celebration with more music, even not from Karpathos and more dancing. I learned that this was the case because the bride was not Olympian, but rather from another place in Karpathos.
A traditional wedding
This takes place a couple of days before marriage and has to do with the transportation of the groom's dowry to the bride's place, where they are going to live for their new life as a couple.
Since Olympos is a matriarchal community, the tradition dictates that the groom will move to the bride's house after the wedding. This is traditionally different from most places in Greece, especially the mainland.
Ownership is taken very seriously in Olympos since apart from the money, there is a material fortune to be distributed to descendants. There are the houses of Olympos which are of traditional architecture, the costumes, and the jewelry of the costumes. This fortune may be of significant value but actually is not meant to be sold, but rather pass on to the next generation. So in order to achieve that, they are very careful on how to distribute this fortune. Tradition dictates that ALL of the fortune of the family will be transferred to the firstborn girl of the family. All other siblings will inherit nothing. In that way, the fortune is never split, and also the lucky girl is also in a way bound to the island, in order to take care of her inheritance.
Girls are selected because men usually migrate away from the island. If the family has more than one girl, the younger ones are either married and go away from the island, or, since Olympians are not usually married to non-Olympians, they stay unmarried on the island to help their older sister in her work. This tradition is slowly changing nowadays and some families I know of, prefer to equally distribute the family fortune to their children.
Like everything in Olympos, the event starts with music in both places. Traditional music and on-the-spot made lyrics, known as 'Mantinades' praise both the families. The instruments are the lyre, drum, and bagpipe.
Guests arrive and enjoy several treats by the family, usually sweet ones, and take a look at the dowry.
When everything is ready and everyone has arrived, they prepare to start moving the dowry. The women that are about to help carry the dowry are dressed up in their traditional dresses. Each woman picks up a part of the dowry and carries it on her head. They start the way across the village, so everyone can check out the dowry passing through.
They make a quick stop at the central square of Olympos (Selai) for some music and singing.
On this specific occasion, the dowry has to be transported to another village, Diafani, which is the port of Olympos. The dowry is taken to the parking lot of the village to be put on trucks and make its way to Diafani.
The same takes place at Diafani, at the bride's home. The dowry is taken through Diafani village as well, before going to the place that the wedding reception is to take place.
There, more women take out all the dowry and decorate with it all the room of the reception, so that the guests are able to see the dowry during the reception.
The wedding day
Traditional weddings are also not common in Olympos, due to the difficulty in their preparation. I was told that there hasn't been another wedding for 8-9 years! So I was kind of lucky to be there.
The bride-to-be is getting ready inside her home which takes a few hours similar to the engagement. The scarf goes off and on many times. She is getting help from her party and they too, are getting ready. They also wear the unmarried traditional costume, Sakofoustano, but since everyone has so many of those, it's a new one every time.
The groom is getting dressed up in his place and gets a lot to drink from his friends and family. In both houses, there is a lot of music and singing, which is not always happy. There will be a lot of emotion and tears as with all Olympian customs.
When the bride has got ready, she will go to the room where all the men are, singing "Mantinades", songs with on-the-spot made lyrics praising members of the family and remembering passed away relatives. The musicians will escort the groom to the church and then leave to go and pick up the bride.
This wedding was performed by two priests, as the groom came from Olympos and the bride from Diafani village.
After the wedding, the couple was taken back to the home to leave the wreaths and then go to the reception.
Christenings in Olympos is no lesser of a task, as very similar preparations need to be done, compared to an engagement or a wedding. This Christening I experienced, took place in a church called St. Minas, which stands inside the community of Olympos, but is located around 12km away from the village.
The road to the church is rather tricky as you have to travel about 7km away from the village and then take an Indiana Jones-style of dirt road for another 5km. However, the church is located at an incredible spot, overseeing the tropical beach of St. Minas.
Not only the Christening ceremony but also the reception will take place in the same spot as the church, as there is a reception hall built next to this church, a Megaron as it is called, especially for such a purpose.
The cooks are there since the morning and several other guests will arrive early afternoon in order to give a hand with preparations.
Our familiar Papa-Yannis is assigned to this church as well, so he will be performing the christening ceremony. After the end of the christening, everyone will enter the reception hall to dine with plenty of food and wine, and then the celebration will begin in the traditional Olympian manner, similar to the other events.
Celebration of Saint John in the ancient City of Vrykous
This is a really interesting custom that takes place in the ancient city of Vrykous on August 28 and 29. This city belongs to the Olympos community. In order to reach the place, you have to go to the nearest village of Avlona and walk for one and a half hours to the city of Vrykous. The road is not easy and will take you through a mountain. The second half is the most difficult as there is a very steep downhill. There is always the option of taking the boat from Diafani port. But you will miss all the fun.
I decided to go along with papa Yannis, who is the one to arrange the schedule. Since I followed him, I knew that I wouldn't miss anything. Papa Yannis came along wearing normal clothes so it would be easier for him to walk. He would put on his vestments when he would arrive. I didn't recognize him at first!
Indeed as we arrived, just before the camp, papa Yannis stopped to put on his vestments. The place has many ancient house ruins but also ancient tombs. It is a complete city and the whole place looks very surreal. We then moved towards the camp set for the celebration. This is a fixed installation set especially for this reason.
After some time he will strike the bell, to signal the Evening Mass. He will go down the stairs to the cave church to carry on with the Mass. The church is really beautiful and very very old. Inside, there is a pond, and water drips from the cave's ceiling keeping it always filled with water.
Everyone had found the place to spend the night and set up their sleeping bag. The place is quite crowded and it will only fit so many people, so it is a good idea to pre-arrange your space. After the church is done, everyone passes along to get some of the blessed bread and Greek doughnuts (Loukoumades) with Ouzo (traditional alcoholic drink with anise seed). They will proceed to the tables set in order to have dinner and listen to music and dance.
After everyone is finished with dinner the singing starts. As with all Olympian customs, the singing starts with religious chanting, table songs that are very slow and you are not meant to dance, and then they move to Mantinades. These are songs with on-the-spot made lyrics that speak about each others' families, praising the members or may speak about deceased relatives or even express nostalgia about past times. People get very emotional during the Mantinades, with many of them even crying.
After a few hours, a very slow-paced dance begins so that people get in the mood for dancing. This dance may keep on for another few hours. Then the fast dance (Pano Choros) will start and keep on until the morning. This is a very energetic dance that is danced in a circle. Men are allowed to dance next to their women relatives or to wives/ fiancees. The one dancing at the end of the line will be the next to get in front of the line.
When the sun rises, there are boats coming to pick people up to take them to Diafani port, so many of them decide to go back. The locals told me that in the older times, no one would leave in the morning. Some go back on foot and carry goods with their donkeys if they have one. It is a much better idea to start your way back early in the morning because it is much cooler.
At eight o'clock in the morning, the Morning Mass takes place. Not everyone has stayed for that so it is less crowded. Papa Yannis once more will strike the bell and proceed to the Morning Mass.
After the Mass, most of the people pack their stuff to go back home. Some stay to have lunch and yet some more singing and maybe dancing. The food served is a roasted goat with rice or Makarounes (local traditional hand-made pasta). I decided to go back early in the afternoon which was very difficult because the temperature was very high. Fortunately, I had a white jumper with me, which I put under a tap and soaked with water. I then tied it up on my head to make it easier to go back.
The next days in Avlona
After the two-day festival in the ancient city of Vrykous, the party moves to Avlona. These are the days of Avlona as the locals call it. Everyone who owns a house in Avlona moves there for 2-3 days and opens the house. It is such a nice time and the place really livens up. I had visited Avlona many times before, but this one was by far the best.
All houses have their lights on during the night and they invite you for a drink or a small bite. Later at night everyone visits the main square and has dinner. The music starts and the Olympian festival begins. As in all the celebrations, singing starts with religious chanting, then moves on with slow songs for the table and then they start 'Mantinades'. When they had enough of Mantinades, the rhythm builds up to end in a frenzy dance (Pano Choros).
The Saint Zacharias celebration in the ancient city of Argos, Saria island
This is a small but beautiful festival on the small island of Saria, next to Karpathos. The island belongs to the Olympos community. The festival is a celebration of the small, family-owned church of Saint Zacharias, on his name day, September 5. The celebration starts as usual on Saint Zacharias Eve, September 4.
The family who owns the church charters a boat to carry the people who will visit the festival from the port of Diafani to the island of Saria. This time, one boat was not enough to carry everyone. I nearly had to stay ashore, but they finally decided to charter a second boat as well. That is how we started our trip to the island.
We arrived at a beautiful bay of Saria island with turquoise waters and caves all around. A perfect beach to have a swim. Several groups of tourists are being dropped off here to enjoy the beach. We, on the other hand, had to walk for around half an hour to reach the ancient city of Argos. The road takes us through a gorge. It is not too difficult of a route but with some uphill during the second half. I was walking along with father Minas, the priest of Diafani who is responsible to carry the Mass for the festival. Everyone goes on foot, but goods are carried on donkeys.
After reaching the ancient city of Argos, at the top of the hill, father Minas started his way to the church which is another 15-20 minutes walk. This road is much easier to walk. He had to carry the evening Mass. The church hangs on a cliff, overlooking the beach we got ashore. The view is magnificent.
People start to gather around and the Christ bread is being brought so they can get the father's blessing after the Mass and be shared with everyone to have a bite as a communion.
The Mass is finished at the time the sun sets and everyone takes the way back to Argos to prepare for dinner and music.
This time the generator was not functioning, so we had to use an oil lamp instead. I actually enjoyed this fact much better, since it was more romantic and felt like we were living in a different era. The cooks had a more difficult time since they had to be using flashlights to see. Cooking was done in a nearby house. The tables were set in a small alley with cloth screens set around it to keep away the wind.
The food was served, goat casserole, and soon after the singing started. As with all Olympian celebrations, they went in a similar manner. This time, there was much more nostalgia and tears, as this was a more cozy environment with fewer people. There was also a lot of whisky pouring in our glasses and Mantinades would mainly talk about the older times of this custom, when the mountains were filled with people, but now they are empty.
After some time, I went to sleep. I had my sleeping bag set in a nearby alley. I laid down and I could hear the music from a distance. The sky was so dark and the moon still young, which made it too difficult to close your eyes because of the night sky's beauty.
I opened my eyes again in the early morning. Father Minas was sleeping nearby on a short rooftop. The music was still on and some people were dancing. I went and sat nearby the music players. Just in time for coffee. I had my coffee and enjoyed the music and the dancing. I also had some warm goat soup for breakfast.
Most of the people were still asleep in different places around. That was until the sun rose. Beautiful warm colors filled the hill and soon it was too difficult for anyone to sleep because of the bright light.
Everyone was up washing and having their coffee. Probably around 7:30 to 8 in the morning, everyone started their way to the church and the morning Mass. After the Mass, apart from the usual Greek doughnuts (Loukoumades) with honey and Ouzo (alcoholic drink with anise flavor) are served. It was now time for lunch. Some more goat casserole. The music started for a second time and now the temperature was too high. Half of the crowd took the way back to the beach to enjoy a nice swim before the boat would come to get us back to Diafani.
A fishing experience
During August, I managed to get on a fishing boat and see how local fishermen catch fish. I met Pavlos, a fisherman and tavern owner in Diafani, the port of Olympos and he agreed to take me on his boat and go fishing together so that I could make some images.
Pavlos owns a small fishing boat that he had made recently and we agreed to meet in front of it at the Diafani port around sunset. The plan was to go to the right fishing spot and lay the net for the night. We would pick it back up in the morning.
It was nightfall when we arrived at the right spot and Pavlos started to lay down the net through the blackness. Everything was totally dark apart from our small boat lamp and some dimmed lights that we could still see from Diafani port. We talked about life, our families, our work, and all those things that two strangers would talk about when they first meet. When Pavlos finished laying the net, we returned straight back to the port. We would be meeting again on the next day at six in the morning.
The next morning, the time came to pick the net back up. Pavlos' father came along with us, Yorgos, to help out with the net. Yorgos was an elderly man very thin and with plenty of wrinkles in his face, carved by the sea all these years. He also had a mustache and was wearing a bright orange silicon uniform, in order to keep his clothes dry. He looked exactly like the cliché image you might have of a fisherman.
Both the men worked in cooperation, Pavlos driving the boat along the path of the net and Yorgos pulling the net back on the boat. Every now and then I could see a fish here and there, tangled on the net. These were untangled after the net was all in the boat, during our return to the port.
As soon as we arrived there were a couple of people already waiting to buy some fish for their home. The catch was not too great to my eyes, I think it was around ten to fifteen kgs total. Indeed the two men had confirmed my thoughts. This is due to the large fishing boats that diminish the population of the sea, so it is now more difficult for small fishermen to catch plenty of fish. As with most traditional activities throughout, the yield, being the fish, in this case, is getting smaller and smaller by the year.
The men took the rest of the fish back to their tavern, to cook for their guests. They invited me over to have lunch at the tavern and I gladly obliged.
November in Olympos
The third trip I made to Olympos, was during the month of November, and that was not by chance. Usually, the islands in Greece are rather empty during the winter months as you would expect. In fact, I was told about Olympos, that around Christmas, if you were to cross the village completely naked, no one would notice.
November is different however for Olympos. Especially the first fortnight. There are two important celebrations taking place during this period, one is the celebration of the Archangel Michael in the ancient city of Tristomo and the other is the celebration of Saint Minas. Since November is also the month that people would pick their olives, these celebrations also work as a context to that. Thus, the diaspora of Karpathos who own olive trees on the island and want to pick them up will visit the island during this period.
So Olympos gets populated this period and life comes back to the local streets, cafes, and taverns.
Everyday life in Avlona
Avlona is a kind of surreal rural village, a short distance from Olympos in Karpathos island. In this village, Olympians grow vegetables and some do grapes. In the old times, people would grow their products just about anywhere. Today only a few still carry on this tradition.
I visited Avlona because this place also revives during November. There are some olive trees around, as well as other agricultural errands that need taking care of. The permanent residents are three. Michalis, Anna, and Irene. Michalis and Anna are husband and wife and own the only cafe and tavern around. Irene is their nearby neighbor.
However, there are many more houses around, as most of the people from Olympos also own a house in Avlona. The climate there is much drier than that of Olympos and there is also some space to grow stuff.
The different plots are marked by stone fences, elaborately constructed by hand. In fact, the construction technique of those fences is included in the intangible heritage archive.
The Archangel celebration in the ancient City of Tristomo
This celebration takes place in an ancient city called Tristomo. This is located on the other side of the island from the city of Vrykous mentioned earlier. Similarly, you can reach Tristomo either on foot or by boat. But since the path is rather difficult, everyone prefers to go by boat. In Tristomo there are also a few houses here and there, probably owned by families who were fishermen. That is because the bay of Tristomo was at times used as a shelter for fishermen who would meet a storm. As the years passed by, some of them had built houses along the shore.
Like everyone, I also took the boat and greeted by people who were already there as I approached the bay. As you would expect, people who help with the celebration will be there since early in the morning. My boat arrived in the afternoon, just in time for the evening mass.
The girls who do not wear the traditional costume in their everyday life started changing before the Mass. I found this opportunity to make some images of two sisters who were prepared ahead of the other ones, around the local ruined buildings.
Everyone used this time to find a place to spend the night. Others used tents, sleeping bags, and some luckier ones were opening their houses and prepared them for the night. I was not prepared at all, like most of the time, and I just left it to chance. I always think that, if you really want to sleep, you just sleep. In the same way, I always think that was such a stupid idea when the time to implement actually comes.
The food is being cooked already and as soon as the Evening Mass comes to an end, it is served and the feast begins. The diner tables are placed at some distance from the church because the front yard of the church is kept for dancing.
As with all Olympian celebrations, the feast goes in the same ritualistic manner. It begins with religious chanting, then vocal slow songs, followed by Mantinades. Mantinades are accompanied by instruments (Karpathian Lyre and Lute) and a slow dance commences, only to climax after a few hours to the uptempo instrumental "Pano Choros" ecstatic dance.
I remember that night because I had a small adventure, the details of which are not important, but the part that stayed with me was that although I was lucky enough to sleep inside one of the houses, in the morning that I woke up sober, I realized I woke at a really, really wrong place.
I quickly made my way to the churchyard where I had my morning coffee and let the whole thing be forgotten. People were waiting for the Morning Mass which signifies the end of the celebration. Father Minas was performing the Mass, as Tristomo is under his jurisdiction. After the Mass ended, people had the usual communion, which is sourdough bread, greek doughnuts with honey and ouzo, and slowly started to make the way back to Diafani, by taking the boat in turns.
I followed two different families while picking their olives. One family was nearby Olympos at their farm where they herd goats as well and the other was at Saint Minas' beach. That beach is home to a large number of olive trees as the climate allows it.
In general, only a small number of trees grows on the island due to the strong winds. You can easily realize that since, most of the trees that survive outside those wind-free pockets of land, have a severe inclination towards one side.
The picking is done by hand, only using small hand rakes, to help. A special olive cloth is laid around the tree so that olives drop on it and they are easier to gather.
I found it very interesting that the older women who pick the olives still wear their traditional costumes. Although I knew that they do not use any other clothing, I was expecting to have some more casual robes or uniforms for that kind of chores.
They will actually fold the bottom part of the costume in a specific manner so that it is easier for them to move their legs if they are to climb on the tree, pick olives and also prune the branches.
Saint Minas celebration
Saint Minas church has given its name to the beautiful beach that overseas right below. This is a tropical beach with a smoothly curved, parabolic shore. The water ranges from deep blue to turquoise, to light green and, in my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful beaches on the island.
Saint Minas celebrates on November 11, so the celebration starts on the Evening Mass the day before. I already knew about the beautiful scenery, since I visited the place during the Christening in August, I decided to drive there in the morning, to enjoy a bit more of the place.
I was aware of the tricky route to reach the church from the main road, so it came as no surprise this time. There is a sign at the main road that reads: "Saint Minas - 2km". Well, that is not true, the actual distance is around 5km instead. I expect they put it there so that you are not discouraged from visiting.
I was actually lucky to be there since the morning because I had the chance to visit the beach and the fields of olive trees behind it. That is where I came upon the couple who was picking the olives and managed to make some images of them.
Since it is now November, the feast will take place inside the reception hall of the church. However, people will sit for dinner both inside and outside since there were too many visitors for all of them to fit inside the room. I was actually invited to sit inside but I passed, in order to offer my place to someone local.
After the Mass and the dinner, the celebration started in the known manner that is known by now. I could now understand the reason behind the dances' architecture. You can see people dancing so fast and ecstatic, but they seem to hardly move from their position, which is not consistent with other similar traditional dances of Greece. The reason is that Olympos used to have a large population and everyone would want to partake in the dancing. Space was limited, so they came up with this way of dancing so that they can live the Dionysian ecstasy of the dance but at the same time make the most out of the available space.
The dinner was offered by a local family this time. However, if no family offers to sponsor the dinner of the festival, the church will provide the sponsorship. There is no way that the festival will not provide free food and drink to anyone who visits. This is an interesting characteristic, to most of the traditions in Greece that survive. Some traditions in Greece have survived, where others are revived. It is most often the case that in the ones that survive, the food and the drink are offered to the guests for free, whereas at the ones that are revived, you usually have to pay for your food and drink.
During the night, most of the people returned to the village since it is not that far away, but few of the guests that stayed longer or had too much to drink would spend the night at the place. I decided to stay as well, mostly in order to live the experience to its full extent.
I found out that inside the reception hall, they had built two attics on either side, especially for that reason. One of them was almost full already, so I thought I should go to the other one. I was the only one there who laid down. But then someone woke me up and told me that this was the women's side. Oops. I rose and went to the other side which was packed with men sleeping. I had to crawl over a few lads since you couldn't stand in the attic and find a spot for me. We had to sleep with our feet on the side of the other guy's head to fit in. That was an interesting experience.
The next morning, the sun came out, so after the Morning Mass, the feast was moved outside, in front of the church. We had our communion, of doughnuts, sourdough bread, and ouzo, after which a dance started. We returned to Olympos in the evening.
The Fourtina family that provided the room I stayed in Olympos during November, owned a goat farm near Olympos and I asked them to visit one day and experience the feeding. They would also be picking their olives, so I thought it would be a good experience overall.
They gladly obliged and I jumped on their farm truck to get there. Midway, Evgenia who was driving started honking. I was curious and at first, I thought it was just for fun. But then she kept on honking along the way so I had to ask. To my amazement, she said that she was honking her goats around the mountains so that they know she is coming. That was her way of herding.
Indeed, when we reached the farm the goats were flocking in from all directions. They knew it was feeding time.
Her mother, Sofia, went out to feed the goats and I followed along. At one point she wore a veil on her face that looked quite surreal. That was to protect herself from a special species of a fly that might cause infection to your eyes. I got a bit scared hearing that, but I tried to play cool.
The evening was really something. We had dinner of delicious local delicacies, such as the by now famous sourdough bread, infused with anise cloves and more and some really nice salad with heavenly tomatoes, cucumber, and cheese.
Some Belgians came at some point that knew the family from their hiking and actually the girl knew a French girl I met during another one of my visits in Olympos and we quickly all became friends. We had some nice wine and all we could hear were the sounds of nature.
At nightfall, we all jumped at the back of the truck, covered ourselves with a blanket, and went back to Olympos.
Feeling of Olympos
Olympos now feels like a familiar place to me. If I visit, I will probably be stopping at most of the shops to say hi, before reaching the main square. You see, cars are not allowed in Olympos, since there are no roads for cars to fit. You have to park your car at the entrance of the village and make your way on foot.
I will pass outside the Lendaki tavern where Anna or one of their daughters will be preparing some delicacies at the tavern's window. Then, the Fourtinas' tavern, with the best Greek coffee there is, made by Evgenia. I will be seeing Rigo, just before the main square, who will be knitting her products and will tell me all the gossips about the village and I will visit the cafe Parthenon in the main square where either Nikos (aka "Men") or one of his sons, Philip or Michael will be there to prepare some nice coffee.
I can never wait to have my lunch at Crete cafe, where, although it doesn't actually serve food, the adorable Archontoula, and her husband Philippos, will share whatever they have prepared on that day if they can spare it. They will also pour me a glass of Cretan wine that is absolutely marvelous which I will ask for as "you know the one I like Archontoula".
I had heard so many fellow photographers and other people warning me about the Olympians before getting there for the first time. I've been told that they are difficult people and they won't let me in their houses or let me take their picture.
If I were to listen to those warnings I would have never met those wonderful, hospitable people of Olympos. Not only I found the warnings not to be true, but I felt really welcomed in Olympos. I can understand maybe where the warnings were coming from.
During Easter or important celebrations, the place is packed with photographers, amateur or not, who flock to make nice photos. They will expect the inhabitants of Olympos to be their models and take the role of sitting ducks for them to take pictures. I mean, imagine someone getting inside your home and expect to make photographs of you and your family.
Instead, a visitor who is truly interested in the culture and the people of Olympos will always be welcomed. During Easter, I was invited to papa-Yannis house to share the Easter table with their family. I was hosted in the village for free on most occasions and everyone, absolutely everyone, welcomed me in their homes and let me make an image of them.
I have learned a lot about Olympos and I was truly fascinated. I do not think that is enough though. I am hoping of visiting the place more times and discover many more aspects of this intriguing spot, owner of such a disproportionate richness of tradition. I can see that although very strong, these traditions are slowly fading away, becoming victims of the modern era and human convenience and I am anxious to breathe in all they have to offer.
The people, the food, the terrain, the beaches, the ancient cities, the Dionysian and Byzantine traditions really forge an unspeakably dense diamond on our planet.