A secluded place on a secluded Greek island. One of the reasons that this place still keeps most of its traditions alive. 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 Greek culture and traditions, I very much wanted to capture Easter in Olympos. Olympos is a somewhat secluded place, located on the island of Karpathos, where traditions are still strong. Situated 40 km from Pigadia, the capital of the island, Olympos is reached by a tricky road that was asphalted only as late as the 2010s. The people of Olympos regard themselves as descendants of the Byzantine empire and are one of the few places in the world where a visitor can experience authentic Byzantine tradition, although other traditions are involved, too. This method of celebration has been registered in the UNESCO archive of worldwide intangible cultural heritage.
I wanted to experience the customs of Olympos in depth and get to know the people living there. And so I travelled to the island early in the season, when the village was still empty. I had found a place to stay in the village of Diafani, a nearby coastal settlement that serves as a port. In the past, people from Olympos involved in maritime matters would stay in this spot, so that houses eventually appeared and a village grew up. Today, Diafani is the second harbour of the island.
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Olympos is probably the most interesting spot on the island. It possesses beautiful architecture and stands on a hilltop set between two mountains. One can easily lose oneself in the narrow alleys and travel back in time.
The first few days of Holy Week are devoted to preparations for Easter, which consist mostly of baking. Around the village of Olympos the community has built many wood-burning ovens. These can be used by anyone, as long as they use their own wood and keep the ovens clean and tidy. During these days of Holy Week, traditional recipes are used for baking bread and cakes.
Notable religious rituals regarding Easter commence on the Wednesday of Holy Week, after Tuesday night’s Hymn to Kassiani. On Wednesday, the priest blesses those visiting the church, so they are ready to receive Holy Communion on Thursday. This is, however, not a busy day at the church and only a few people come for the blessing, since the priest also bestows it on Thursday, too, just before Communion.
I enjoyed my time in the village. Everybody I met was most hospitable. I learned a lot about the community simply through conversation with most of the inhabitants and through striking up friendships.
Kalliopi owns the local bakery and makes excellent traditional pies and bread in her wood-burning oven. She frequently gave me coffee during my stay and I even had the chance to visit her house, built in the traditional style of Olympos.
On Thursday, after churchgoers have received Communion, the Litany of Christ on the Cross is performed. The church becomes busier and the following days until Tuesday after Easter will be the busiest. Papa Yannis is the local priest. He is a very kind man with great pose and style. He is very funny and one can spot him most afternoons sitting on a chair in the central square, talking with his fellow Olympians and even cracking risqué jokes. One simply needs to get to know him somewhat before he loosens up.
He took the time to show me around the ancient main church of the village and explained the icons painted on the walls. During Holy Week, all the icons along the main iconostasis, where the icons are mounted in the church are covered with black embroidery as a sign of mourning.
Good Friday, the day of the Epitaphios, follows. The Epitaphios itself is a wooden representation of the bier of Christ, which the women of Karpathos decorate with flowers on the morning of Good Friday. Most of the women wear traditional local clothing. In fact, the older women of Olympos have no other type of clothes and call our clothing ‘European’.
An important difference between the Epitaphios of Olympos compared to the ceremony as it is held in the rest of Greece lies in the fact that pictures of the recently deceased are pasted to the bier and their relatives mourn for them during the service that takes place later, inside the church.
I considered the possibility of taking photos during the process of mourning in the church, as it seemed to me likely to be a powerful moment. In fact, it was so powerful, that it would clearly have been disrespectful to take pictures during the proceedings. Indeed, so overwhelming were the emotions generated, that I soon left the church.
On Friday night, the Litany of the Epitaphios takes place in the streets of Olympos. During this fascinating ceremony, the streets are radiant with beauty. Those following the procession hold candles and chant the lovely Good Friday hymns. I had not been round the village previously and was intrigued by its architecture and location.
On Easter Saturday, all the village inhabitants prepare for the Easter cooking. The goats are slain in the morning and prepared by the village women. They stuff them with rice and seal them inside wood-burning ovens. There the goat will stay and be slowly cooked overnight. The women will lift it out of the oven just before Sunday luncheon. During the night, everyone attends church for the Liturgy of the Resurrection and at midnight, Papa Yannis will proclaim the Resurrection. This part of the service also differs from the service held elsewhere, since in Olympos the announcement is made in the women’s part of the church (the gynaikonitis in Greek) inside the church, rather than being made in the church courtyard, as is the habit elsewhere. In traditional Orthodox religious life, men and women occupy separate parts of the church and may even have separate entrances. The custom in Olympos, however, is a conscious reference to Mary Magdalene who was the first to see Jesus after His Resurrection.
On Easter Sunday, a second Resurrection liturgy takes place at noon, which is also something unique to Olympos. For the people of Olympos, this second liturgy is the most important. The girls of the village wear their traditional dresses and necklaces of gold coins (kolaina), as they stand in lines outside the church. After the liturgy, everyone takes their place in a queue to receive some of the Communion bread and loukoumades, a doughnut-like confection containing honey and cinnamon. Yet more firecrackers are let off. Ouzo, an alcoholic Greek drink flavoured with aniseed and similar to Italian sambuca, is distributed. The table is prepared for the Easter meal and the goat is taken out of the oven.
Easter Tuesday Litany
The traditional Easter in Olympos culminates on the Tuesday after Easter. The most important icons of the central church are removed and taken in procession round the village to visit every other church, where services are performed. To celebrate the Resurrection, the icons are adorned with scarves of a local pattern. The iconostasis, where the icons stand in church, lost its black embroidery on the day of the Resurrection and it is now time to celebrate.
In Olympos, these are four icons painted on wood, each of which weighs around twenty kilograms. The route is approximately eight to nine kilometres, most of it being uphill, downhill and off-road. Papa Yannis, who is now over eighty years old, leads the procession. He makes it look very easy. I asked him to stop at one point when he did not appear to be very well, but he continued on. The first major stop, lasting a couple of hours, occurs at the village cemetery, where Papa Yiannis performs an individual memorial service at each grave.
The relatives of the deceased have pieces of confectionary, such as chocolate, candy or local delicacies, that they offer to anyone attending. The correct response on being offered this is not ‘Thank you’, but ‘Theos s’horeston’ (‘May God forgive him’). A memorial service is also held at the ossuary in the cemetery. Anybody with relatives whose bones lie in the ossuary gives their names to Papa Yiannis beforehand.
The litany continues and the second stop is at a spring where the participants can obtain water. Papa Yiannis also dips a bunch of basil in the water and sprinkles it in blessing over those present. He also wets a corner of the icon of the Virgin Mary, to refresh her during the tiring litany. The procession continues. Anybody bearing one of the icons who is fatigued is relieved by somebody else. The procession even attracts tourists, who regularly attend the ceremony and are so familiar with the route that they point it out to anybody who forgets.
Young ladies wear their colourful traditional costume (sakofoustano), which is set off by a necklace of golden coins. Such dress is only worn by younger, unmarried women. It is made by the girl’s family and is not cheap. More than three generations may have worked on each dress, as each generation must maintain or, preferably, improve the costume, before passing it on to the next generation. These dresses, along with the jewellery that goes with them, indicate the financial status of the family. I was told by one girl that she owns 37 such dresses.
After marriage, the women will wear their other costume, whose chief colour is black. This is the kava’e (which comes from the word kavathe, although the ‘th’ is silent in the local dialect). As the woman ages, the costume becomes gradually less ornate. The kava’e of women over a certain age is almost completely black in colour.
The litany procession returns to the village via a very steep slope, from which there is a beautiful view far out to sea. The procession returns to the central square, where the icons are placed in a particular spot, in readiness for the next step of the ceremony.
All unmarried girls stand clothed in traditional dress in front of the steps of the church, while an auction takes place, as families make bids for the privilege of carrying an icon back into the church, where it is put back in its place in the iconostasis. Finally, the families who have made the highest bid and won the auction will be entertained to dinner, which will be offered by the church and served in the women’s section (gynaikonitis) of the church. This, too, is a tradition that I have never met in any other place in Greece. Never have I ever seen anyone eating at a table inside a church for any reason whatsoever.
The Transfiguration of the Saviour
This Transfiguration of the Saviour, a feast smaller in scale than others, takes place on 6 August in a beautiful, but diminutive church in Olympos that hangs on a cliff to the west of the village and has a stunning view, particularly at sunset, over the village to the sea beyond. Most of the village windmills stand in the western part of Olympos and can be seen from the church. As for the church itself, it is privately owned and one of the reputedly 300 churches of Olympos. This large number is accounted for by the fact that most families own a private church and Olympos is justly famous for its churches.
To reach the church, one takes the road out of the village towards the west, before turning to the right up a steep road that leads to the church. The feast is attended by village women dressed in traditional costume. The morning liturgy starts at 8 a.m. and ends between 10 and 11. During the liturgy, Papa Yannis blesses bread made by local women, who use sourdough and add spices, such as cumin, anise, mastic, sesame or cloves.
After the liturgy and the blessing, are finished, the congregation gathers around to praise the icon of the church, to give Papa Yannis their good wishes, to obtain his blessing and to receive their sweetmeats. These consist of communion bread and loukoumades. They also include watermelon and ouzo.
It is now the time to catch up on news and gossip, as by now most visitors to Olympos have arrived. These come during August and, since the Feast of the Transfiguration is held in early August, most visitors have been around for only a few days and naturally want to catch up with old friends and relatives.
The Dormition of the Virgin
The Dormition of the Virgin is celebrated on 15 August throughout Greece. The weather is always beautiful and it is the favourite time for Greeks to take their annual holidays. It is therefore naturally a very important date for Olympos, particularly since the main church of the village is dedicated to the Virgin.
The girls of Olympos prepare themselves for the big day. Their sisters and mothers dress them in their colourful traditional dress and place necklaces of gold around their necks. The village, especially the main square where the church is located, is packed with tourists. As soon as the morning liturgy ends, the girls, now dressed in their traditional costume, go through the narrow village streets to the church to pay their respects to the Virgin, to convey their good wishes to their relatives and friends and, of course, to show off their finery.
The older women enjoy some local gossip. In contrast to the situation in the winter months, Olympos now seethes with life during August. Natives of Olympos or those of who claim descent from the village and now live on Rhodes or in the Piraeus in Athens or further afield, in the USA or Australia, gather on the island at this time. There are tourists, too, who watch the proceedings and want to blend in and so buy accessories or items of local clothing to wear. Everything looks striking, new and fresh.
After the liturgy is over, people move towards the spot where the table is set to feed anyone who cares to sit down. Tourists are usually too shy to do this, so most of the people at the table are locals. Sometimes, if the weather allows, the table is set up outside, on the main square. Usually, however, the table stands in the megaron (church hall).
A second festival, the night after…
On 15 August, the day of the Dormition, Olympos is extremely full. In the evening, a dance is held, which is very crowded, too. And so the locals hold a more private celebration the day after. If you want to attend this, it helps to have been to Olympos several times already, so that the locals know you and understand why you are here.
The inhabitants of Olympos are certainly hospitable and certainly do not mind outsiders watching them dance, although they would prefer to dance with each other only. This initially seemed odd to me, but I came to see that, in contrast to celebrations in other areas, the festivities of the people of Olympos are mingled with melancholy and sadness. Sometimes one spots somebody in tears, because something has been sung about the good old days or about some relative, now deceased. Besides this, friends or members of a family do not get many opportunities to see each other, since many live so far away and the presence of a stranger who does not belong might spoil the atmosphere.
Lastly, at such gatherings, the people of Olympos maintain their old traditions, which means that men may dance with their sisters, other female relatives, their fiancés or wives, which means that they normally cannot dance with their girlfriends. Here the line of dancers consists of groups of female relatives led by a male relative. At the end of each round, the last group in the line moves to the front and the dance begins again, once more led by a man. This is confusing even for Greeks, who are familiar with folk dances, let alone for a tourist.
The celebration takes place in the central square (the selai), if the weather allows. The event is usually hosted by the Parthenon Café, which supplies the food and drink, including much whisky, which is omnipresent at all festivals at Olympos. Village women offer sweetmeats consisting of monkey nuts and sweets among other items, which they hold in large baskets. Women and girls in traditional dress and conspicuous in their gold necklaces appear.
As is the case with all feasts and festivals at Olympos, the dancing continues until morning the next day. The pace is slow, however. The feast starts with table songs (tis tavlas), before moving onto mantinades (improvised songs). During the mantinades, the dancing begins, albeit at a slow tempo, before building up to an accelerating rhythm that continues till the dawn, culminating in the energetic dance known as the pano horos.
A traditional engagement
If you happen to be in Olympos during August, you might be lucky enough to see a traditional engagement take place. Engagements, weddings, and christenings take place after the Dormition of the Virgin, because, as in the rest of Greece, the period before 15 August is a time of fasting during which such events may not take place.
Traditional Engagements are not frequent. They require much preparation, which starts at least a fortnight before the event itself. The family involved offers sweetmeats to the rest of the village. Most of those who happen to be in the village are invited to the engagement and, since engagements usually occur in the latter part of August, the village is fairly full.
The bride-to-be prepares herself at home, a process that takes several hours, as she has to don the traditional sakofoustano, which consists of three layers of clothing, many accessories, a scarf and much jewellery. In this she is helped by her relatives. The girls who are involved in the procedure seem particularly picky about getting the scarf right and tie and retie it many times, although I did not see any difference between one effort and another.
When the bride is ready, she moves to the threshold of her house to await the groom, which today is an obvious moment for selfies. Music plays in the yard of the house and the sweetmeats on offer are delicious, particularly those made from sesame and honey. After a short period, the groom appears, accompanied by instrumentalists and a crowd of onlookers and well-wishers. He holds a bouquet for the bride.
The local priest conducts the ceremony in the house of the bride. The couple exchange rings and short speeches are made by all the more important guests and, like all such Olympiot customs, the event is charged with emotion.
The couple are accompanied by instrumentalists to the spot where the reception is to be held. The koumbaros (roughly equivalent to best man) or koumbara, if female, leads the engagement procession, holding an icon, as onlookers gather to watch. The reception may take place in the megaron of the church and involves much food, drink and dance. After a while, sometimes the bride-to-be changes into contemporary clothes, which are clearly more comfortable.
The celebration that I happened to see differed from others I have described here. Instead of following the usual order that informs other rituals held at Olympos, it involved more music, some of which was not even Karpathiot, and more dancing than other rituals. I was told that this was because the bride came from another village on Karpathos.
A traditional wedding
Two days or so before the wedding, the dowry is moved from the house of the groom to that of the bride, where the couple will live. In contrast to most of the rest of Greece, Olympos is a matriarchal community and tradition dictates that the couple resides in the house of the bride’s family.
Ownership is taken very seriously in Olympos, since, in addition to money, inheritance in the form of property is also involved. This can consist of real estate, in the form perhaps of the property built in the traditional architectural style of Olympos, of traditional clothing and of jewellery, all of which may be of significant monetary value. The dowry is, however, intended to be passed down through the generations.
This therefore means that great care is expended on how to distribute this fortune. Traditionally, all of the fortune is inherited by the firstborn female (the kanakarā), leaving other siblings nothing. Thus the inheritance is never divided and the female involved is tied to Karpathos, as she has to oversee and maintain her inheritance. Girls inherit, since men usually migrate from the island. Should the family have more than one girl, the younger female sibling either marries and leaves the island or remains unmarried and help their elder sisters. Things, however, are slowly changing. Some families prefer to distribute the family fortune equally among their children.
As with all other such events in Olympos, the event starts with traditional music, played on drum, lyra and bagpipes, at both the groom’s home and the bride’s, accompanied by mantinades in praise of both families. The guests arrive and are offered sweetmeats made by the family.
The guests admire the dowry and, when all have arrived, preparations are made to transport the dowry to the bride’s house. The women who will do this are dressed in traditional costume. Each chooses an object and carries it held above the head. They process through the village, so that all can admire the dowry as it is carried by. The procession stops briefly in the central square (the Selai) for some music and singing.
When I attended the ceremony, the dowry was to be transported to Diafani, one of the harbours of the island and the port of Olympos. In this case, the dowry was loaded onto trucks in the village parking lot and taken to Diafani. When the dowry reached Diafani, it was treated in the same way, being processed through the village to the place where the reception was to be held and then placed on display.
The wedding day
Because traditional weddings at Olympos require much preparation, they are rare and I was lucky to witness one. Indeed, I was told that there had not been any for some eight or nine years. As is the case with an engagement, the bride prepares herself at home, which takes several hours. Once more, the scarf is put on and taken off many times. The other members of the party wear the costume traditional for unmarried girls, the sakofoustano. They have so many sets of this costume, however, that they can wear a new one for every wedding.
The groom prepares himself at his home. Much drinking with friends and family is involved. In the houses of both bride and groom there is a lot of music, not all of it happy, and there are tears and powerful emotions, as with all rituals in Olympos. When the bride is ready, she goes to the room where the men are present. They sing mantinades in praise this time of members of the family, living and deceased. The musicians escort the groom to the church and then leave, to pick up the bride.
Since the wedding that I happened to witness involved a groom from Olympos and a bride from Diafani, two priests, one from each village, performed the ceremony. The couple then returned to the marital home, where they placed wreaths on the iconostasis of the house, before going to the reception, which they entered after all the guests had been seated.
A traditional baptism
A baptism in Olympos is just as large and complicated a task as betrothal or marriage and requires similar preparations. I happened to witness a baptism at the church of St. Minas, some 12 km distant from Olympos. The road to the church is not easy. About seven km away from the village, one takes a dirt road for another five or so, although the church is located in a spectacular spot, overlooking the idyllic beach of St. Minas. The church, however, has a megaron, specifically to host receptions.
The cooks had arrived early in the morning, as had several other guests, to help with the preparations. The church is in the parish Papa Yiannis, who therefore had charge of the baptism. After the christening, the reception was held, with plenty of food and wine, before the celebration began, in the fashion typical of the Olympiots.
The feast of Saint John at the site of the ancient city of Brykous
This interesting custom takes place on August 28 and 29 at the site the ancient Karpathiot city of Brykous, which site belongs to the dimotiki enotita (an administrative term meaning ‘municipal community’) of Olympos. Reaching Brykous involves getting to the village of Avlona and taking a difficult and mountainous road from there for about ninety minutes to reach Brykous. The second half of the walk is particularly tough, since it consists of a steep downward slope. Alternatively, there is the easier option of taking a boat from Diafani.
I went with Papa Yannis, as this would mean that I would miss nothing. Unrecognizable in his daily clothes, which he had donned to deal with the walk, he would put on his vestments later, which indeed he did, when we arrived at the camp set up for the festival. The ancient site of Brykous, with its ruins and tombs, has a surreal look.
Everyone attending the festival found a spot to lay out their sleeping bag to spend the night. Since the area available was so small, it turned out to be a good idea to have made arrangements beforehand. Eventually Papa Yiannis rang the bell of the church to signal the beginning of the evening liturgy and went down the stairs to the church to conduct the liturgy. When this was over, those present secured their portion of communion bread and then loukoumades and ouzo and moved to the tables for dinner and dancing.
After the dinner, the singing starts. As with all customs of Olympos, the singing starts with religious chanting, moving on to songs sung at table, which are not intended to be danced to. It then moves on to mantinades, whose emotional and nostalgic content and performance again often provokes tears. When, sometime later, the dancing begins, it starts with slow-paced pieces, which may last for some hours, before the frenetic pano choros starts, which continues until dawn. The rules as to who is to dance with whom are the same here as they are at other festivals, with men dancing with their female relatives, wives or fiancées. After each turn, the group at the end of the line moves to the front.
Although local residents told me that in the past nobody left in the morning, these days at sunrise boats from Diafani appear and many revellers return in this fashion. Others return on foot, departing at dawn to avoid the heat of the day, and loading their donkeys, if they happen to have one, with their items. Heralded by the striking of the bell, Papa Yiannis duly performed the morning liturgy at 8.00. Since some had already departed, it was a less crowded event than the previous service.
After the service, most packed their belongings for the return home. Some stayed for lunch and to enjoy some further singing and perhaps dancing. Roast goat was served with rice or makarounes (local hand-made pasta). I myself decided to return in the early afternoon, perhaps not a wise decision in view of the burning heat, although I soaked and wrapped a white jumper that I had around my head against the sun.
After the two-day festival held at Brykous, Avlona becomes the focus of activity. As the local inhabitants say, this is the time of the ‘Avlona Days’. Anybody who possesses a house in Avlona returns there for two or three days and opens their house. The atmosphere is extremely lively and, although I had visited Avlona many times in the past, this visit was the best. The lights of all the houses of the village remain lit during the day and the inhabitants invite passers-by for a drink and a snack. After nightfall, all move to the square and dine. The music starts and the festival begins, characterized by the same rules of custom and ritual.
The festival of St. Zacharias at Argos on the island of Saria
The islet of Saria, lying immediately to the north of Karpathos, belongs to the dimotiki enotita of Olympos and is the site of the ancient settlement of Argos. Furthermore, the islet hosts the small-scale, but still enchanting festival of St. Zacharias.
This takes place at a small, family-owned chapel dedicated to St. Zacharias, on the 5 September, the day of the saint, although the celebrations start on the preceding day. The family that owns the chapel hires a boat to take people from Diafani to Saria. The year I decided to go, there was not enough room on the boat, but fortunately an additional craft was hired.
The bay where we arrived on Saria is idyllic, a perfect place for a swim. In fact, it had already attracted tourists, to enjoy the beach. By contrast, I had to walk about half an hour to reach the ancient settlement of Argos. The road, which passes through a gorge, is not too difficult, although the second half involves an uphill climb. All go on foot to the church, although donkeys are used for carrying any items or goods. I walked with Father Minas, the priest of Diafani, who was to conduct the liturgy during the festival.
After we had reached the ancient settlement of Argos, set on top of the main hill of the island, Father Minas set off for the church, some 15 – 20 minutes away, where he was to perform the evening liturgy. The road is easier here and the church clings to the edge of a cliff, overlooking the beach where we had landed. People started to gather. The communion bread was brought, so that it could receive a blessing from the priest and then be distributed to the congregation. The liturgy finished at sunset and all made their way back to Argos, to prepare for dinner and music.
Unfortunately, the generator was out of action and so we had instead to use an oil lamp. This, however, made things more romantic and made it seem as we had been transported to the past, although things became more difficult for the cooks, as they had to use torches to see what they were doing. The cooking was done in a nearby house and the tables set out in a small street, protected against the wind by small cloth screens. A casserole of goat meat was served and the singing started soon afterwards. Proceedings followed the usual course of celebrations on Olympos, albeit this time with more nostalgia and tears, as this time the environment was more intimate and there were fewer people. Much whisky was consumed and the mantinades this time spoke of the past of the festival of St Zacharias, when the mountains, now deserted, still thronged with people. I finally withdrew to my sleeping bag, in a nearby alley. As I lay there, I could still hear the music. The sky was dark and the moon still waxing. All was so beautiful, that sleep was difficult.
When, in the early morning, I awoke, I saw Father Minas still asleep on a low rooftop. The music still played and there were a few dancers left. I sat near the musicians, just in time for coffee, which I drank as I listened to the music and watched the dancing. Breakfast was warm goat soup. Most people were still asleep and lay dotted around. The sun rose, warm colours filled the hill and the light woke the sleepers.
Soon everyone was awake and up, washing and having their coffee. At sometime between 7. 30 and 8. 00, people began to move towards the church for the morning liturgy. After the liturgy, the usual loukoumades with honey and ouzo were served. It was soon time for lunch, which consisted of more goat casserole. The music started once more, although it was now extremely hot. Half the visitors went down to the beach, to enjoy a swim before the boat came to take us back to Diafani.
Sometime during August, I managed to work my way onto a fishing boat, to observe local fishermen at work. I became friends with Pavlos, a fisherman and taverna-owner in Diafani, who agreed to take me on his boat, so that I could take some photographs. We agreed to meet around sunset in the port of Diafani by the small fishing boat that Pavlos had recently built himself. We were to go out and lay the nets for the night and then return in the morning for our catch.
It was nightfall when we arrived at the spot where Pavlos was to lay his nets, which he started to do in the blackness. All was dark, apart from the small lamp of the boat and the dim lights of Diafani. We talked of life, family, work and anything else that strangers tend to talk about. When Pavlos finished laying the net, we went straight back to port. We were to meet at 6.00 next morning.
The next morning we were accompanied by Yiorgos, Pavlos’ father, who came to help us with the net. Yiorgos was wrinkled, elderly and thin. He had a moustache and wore a bright orange silicon overall, to keep his clothes dry. He was the very picture of an Aegean fisherman.
Each co-operated smoothly with the other. Pavlos steered the boat along the course of the net, while Yiorgos pulled it out of the sea and back onto the boat. Now and then I caught a glimpse of a fish in the net. The fish were extracted while we sailed back to Diafani after the net had been hauled aboard completely.
When we arrived, we found a couple of people waiting to buy fish for home. The catch did not seem to me to be very large, ten to fifteen kgs. at most, and this was also the impression of Pavlos and Yiorgos. In their view, this comparatively small haul was due to over-fishing by larger boats, which have made it so difficult for smaller fishermen to secure an adequate catch. The amount of fish caught diminishes yearly.
The men took the rest of the fish back to their taverna, to cook for their clients. They invited me over to have lunch at the tavern and I gladly obliged.
I made a conscious choice to make my third trip to Olympos in November. The Greek islands are fairly empty during the winter months, as one might expect. Indeed, I was told that, were one to walk through Olympos stark naked around Christmas time, nobody would notice.
November, however, is different, particularly during the first fortnight of the month. Two important festivals occur during this period, the feast of the Archangel Michael, which takes place at the ancient site at Tristomo, and the feast of St. Minas. Since olives are harvested in November, these two festivals frame this activity, in that Karpathians resident outside Karpathos who own olive trees on the island naturally visit during the period of the harvest. Thus the streets, cafes and tavernas of Karpathos come to life again for this brief period.
Everyday life in Avlona
The village of Avlona, not far from Olympos, has an odd, almost eery atmosphere. Here inhabitants of Olympos grow vegetables and cultivate grapes. In the past, it was the habit to cultivate produce almost anywhere in the area of the enotita of Olympos. Today only a few continue this tradition.
Avlona also attracted my interest and presence, because it, too, revives in November. There are olive trees here that need attention and there is other agricultural business to be taken care of. There are, however, only three individuals permanently resident in Avlona, Michaelis, Anna and Irini. Michaelis and Anna are a married couple and own the only café and taverna, while Irini lives nearby. Yet there are many houses in Avlona and many inhabitants of Olympos own property there. The climate of Avlona is drier than that of Olympos and there is room to grow produce. The various plots are delimited by stone walls, elaborately constructed by hand using a technique now included in the UNESCO archive of such folk practices.
The festival of Michael the Archangel at Tristomo
The festival of Michael the Archangel takes place at the site of the ancient settlement at Tristomo, located on the west coast of the Karparthos, some three or four kilometers north-east of Brykous. Tristomo can be reached either on foot or by sea, although, since the path is difficult, the sea is generally preferred. At Tristomo a few houses still stand, which probably once belonged to fishermen, since fishermen used the place as a refuge during storms and this may have led to the building of houses along the shore here.
I, too, took the boat, to be greeted as I approached by those who had already arrived. Those involved in preparations for the feast had, of course, come early in the morning. My boat arrived in time for the evening liturgy. The girls involved started changing into their traditional costume before the liturgy, which gave me the opportunity to photograph among the ruins of the settlement two sisters who had already prepared themselves in their traditional costume.
Everybody used the time before the liturgy to find a spot to spend the night. Some had brought tents and sleeping bags, while others, who possessed a house at Tristomo, opened them and prepared them for the night. I myself had left matters to chance, under the impression that, if one wants to sleep, one sleeps, although this idea seems less attractive, when the time actually comes to sleep.
The food was being cooked already. When the evening liturgy was over, it was served and the celebration began. The dinner tables were set at some distance from the church, as the courtyard in front of the church was reserved for dancing. The celebrations followed the usual Olympiot pattern, starting with religious chanting, followed by songs of a slow tempo. Mantinades then follow, here accompanied by the Karpathian lyra and laouto. Dancing then begins, slow-paced to begin with, before several hours later climaxing with the frenetic and ecstatic pano choros.
In the morning, I went to the churchyard, where I enjoyed my morning coffee. People were waiting for the morning liturgy, which signified the end of the celebration. The liturgy was conducted by Father Minas, as Tristomo lies in his parish, and after the liturgy communion bread was distributed, together with loukoumades, honey and ouzo. Those who had gathered now started making their way back by boat to Diafani, which ferried them back in shifts.
The olive harvest
I followed the activities of two families as they harvested their olives. One family had a farm near Olympos, where they also herd goats, while the farm of the other family was located near the beach of St. Minas. This latter area has many olive trees, as the lack of strong winds in the area favours their cultivation, although in general Karpathos is subject to high winds, as is obvious from the way most trees on the island incline in one direction only.
The harvesting is performed by hand, with the aid of small rake-like tools. A cloth is laid around the base of the tree, to catch the falling olives. Interestingly, older women taking part in the olive harvest still wear their traditional costume, despite the apparent cumbersomeness of this clothing for such a task. They fold the lower part of their costume in a particular fashion that allows them to move their legs while climbing, picking olives or pruning the tree.
The festival of St. Minas
The church of St. Minas has given its name to the beautiful beach, in my view one of the most lovely of the whole island, that the church overlooks. Having visited the area for a christening in August, I drove there for the festival, to enjoy the place again. Having been there before also meant that I was aware of the trickiness of the road. It is about 5km long, although the sign on the main road insists that it is only 2km, perhaps to avoid discouraging potential visitors.
The feast of St. Minas takes place on 11 November. This means that the celebration of the festival starts during the evening liturgy the day before, although luckily, I had arrived in the morning and so had the chance to visit the olive groves behind the beach, where I came upon and photographed the couple from St. Minas harvesting their olives. Since the feast takes place in November, the celebrations take place in the church hall, although because there are so many diners, there is not enough space within and some sit outside. I was invited to sit inside, although I offered my seat to one of the local inhabitants.
After the liturgy and the dinner, the celebration followed its usual course. The reasons for the architecture of the dance became apparent to me as I watched. Individuals dance fast and indeed ecstatically, although they do not move from the spot they occupy, in contrast to traditional dances in other parts of Greece. The explanation for this static position of dancers would seem to be that Olympos once had a much larger population and so many more dancers at celebrations. To accommodate this potential pressure on space, the habit of dancing on the spot allowed as many as possible to enjoy the Dionysiac ecstasy of the dance.
A local family offered the dinner this time. However, if there is no family available to cover the costs, the church will finance the festival, since free food and drink for all is a fundamental of the festival. This is true of most such celebrations in Greece that have survived, rather than been revived. At celebrations that have been revived, it is usually expected that the participants will pay.
During the night, most of the participants returned to Olympos, since it is fairly close, although some decided to spend the night on the spot, some of whom had drunk a great deal. I, too, decided to stay, to observe the whole experience. In the church hall, two attics had been constructed, precisely to accommodate visitors to the festival. As one of these attics was almost full, I went to the other, only to find to my surprise that it was reserved for women, and so returned to the first attic, where I had to sleep in very cramped circumstances.
The next morning, since it was sunny, after the morning liturgy activities moved outside, to a spot in front of the church. Communion bread was distributed, as were loukoumades and ouzo, after which there was dancing. We returned to Olympos in the evening.
The Fourtina family, who provided the room where I stayed in Olympos during November, owned a goat farm near Olympos and I asked them to visit one day and observe how they fed the goats. They would also be harvesting their olives, so I thought it would be an interesting experience overall. They readily agreed and gave me a lift on their farm truck to the farm. Midway, Evgenia who was driving, started pressing the horn of the vehicle repeatedly. I was curious and at first thought she was doing it just for fun. However, she continued to sound the horn, so I had to ask. To my amazement, she said that she was signalling to her goats on the mountains around, so that they knew she was coming. Such was her way of herding goats. Indeed, when we reached the farm the goats were flocking in from all directions. They knew it was feeding time.
I followed Sofia, Evgenia’s mother, as she went out to feed the goats. At one point, she put on a veil, to protect herself from a species of fly that can cause eye infections. This scared me slightly, although I attempted not to show it. The evening was a wonderful experience. We had dinner of delicious local delicacies, such as sourdough bread, now well-known to me, infused with anise and cloves, among other items, and some delicious salad with exquisite tomatoes, cucumber, and cheese. At one point some Belgians appeared who knew the family from their hiking expeditions. It happened that the Belgian girl knew a French girl, whom I had met on one of my visits to Olympos, which allowed us all to bond over wine and the sounds of nature. At nightfall, we all jumped in the back of the truck, covered ourselves with a blanket and returned to Olympos.
Sensations and feelings from Olympos
Olympos now feels deeply familiar to me. Cars are not allowed in Olympos, since the roads are too small to accommodate them and you have to park your car outside the village and proceed on foot. So, when I visit again, I am sure that on my walk to the central square I will drop by on most of the shops to greet people. I will pass the Lendaki taverna, where Anna, or one of her daughters, will be preparing some delicacy at the window of the taverna. I will drop by on the Fourtinas taverna, which serves the best Greek coffee known to me, made by Evgenia. I will see Rigo, just before the square, who will be busy knitting her products and who will tell me the village gossip. Then I will end up in the café Parthenon in the square, where Nikos (also known as ‘Men’), or his sons, Philip and Michael, will prepare some excellent coffee.
I cannot wait to have lunch at the café Crete. They do not serve food there officially, although the adorable Archontoula and her husband, Philippos, will willingly share whatever they have prepared that day, if they can. They will also pour me a glass of marvellous Cretan wine, ‘the one you know I like, Archontoula’, as I always say, when I order it.
Before visiting Olympos the first time, I received many warnings from fellow photographers, who told me that the people of Olympos were extremely difficult and that they would never let me in their houses or allow me take their photos. Had I listened to these warnings, I would never have known the wonderful, hospitable people of Olympos. The warnings were not true, not at least in the sense that they were meant, and in fact I felt welcomed in Olympos.
Admittedly at Easter or during other important festivals, the place is packed with photographers, amateur or otherwise, who have all come to create picturesque photos. One can understand the objections by the people of Olympos to intrusive photographers attempting to shoot them in their own home. On the other hand, any visitor truly interested in the people and the culture of Olympos will always be welcome. During Easter, I was invited to Papa Yannis’ house to share the Easter meal with his family. I was hosted in the village for free on most occasions and absolutely everyone welcomed me into their home and let me take a photo of them.
I have learned a lot about Olympos and I have been truly fascinated in the process. There is much more to learn, however. I hope to visit the place many more times and discover many more aspects of this intriguing place that possesses such a disproportionately rich tradition. Yet I can see that, although still very strong, these traditions are slowly fading away, victims of the today’s work and the desire for convenience and I am anxious to absorb in all they have to offer.
The people, the food, the terrain, the beaches, the ancient cities and settlements, and the Dionysian and Byzantine traditions go to make up a diamond set on our planet.
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