More than three quarters of the Greek population list their religion as Orthodox, so if you find yourself there during one of their religious celebration, it is an almost certainty that you will find yourself involved in the pageantry of the occasion in some way, shape or form. I spent this year’s Easter holidays in the Northern Greek city of Thessaloniki with a little time in the coastal village of Hanioti and offer here some notes and impressions of the experience should you choose to make a similar journey at a similar time of year in future.
The Greek Orthodox Easter period – referred to locally as Pascha – is celebrated one to five weeks after the Western period that falls around the time of the March equinox. The reason for such a disparity arises from two factors; firstly, the Orthodox Church bases its Easter date on the Julian calendar, which often differs from the Gregorian calendar that is used by many western countries. Secondly, the Orthodox Church holds to the belief that Pascha must take place after Jewish Passover so as to adhere to the Biblical sequence of Christ’s Passion. Therefore, this year, for example, while the Western Church celebrated Easter Sunday on 27th March, for the Eastern Church, it occurred on May 1st. While such a matter is largely trivial to the average traveler, it may be worth checking your dates of travel to ensure you don’t miss the party (ut ita dicam).
Wednesday – I got off the plane at Thessaloniki (SKG) airport just before midnight on the Wednesday of Holy Week. The air was heavy and hot and since I had nothing in my stomach since breakfast, I was hungry for supper and in need of a cold drink. After a short drive into town, we found an anonymous but fashionable looking canteen with clean table clothes and outside seating and a menu listing items like “Maria’s Tits,” “Arabian Pie” and “The Royal Tidbit.” With no interest in going further than the title of such dishes, we ordered a couple plates of souvlaki and a few beers and I was soon enough ready for bed. Air travel always wipes me out, regardless of the distance, and until I can get at least a couple of hours shut eye to help me acclimatize to new surroundings, I’m generally a nuisance to be around. Sometimes a shower will do the same job, but since we were staying with my partner’s family and not in a hotel, I was in no mood to be clattering around someone else’s apartment in the middle of the night. Not that they would have shown any signs of upset if I were to have done so, being as they are that rare species of not only the perfect guests but even better hosts. Nonetheless, sometimes it is best just to shut your mouth and go to sleep and that’s all I was in any mood or condition to do.
Thursday – Next morning, I was woken by what sounded like the early stages of a revolution occurring on the street outside the apartment. There are many varied and interesting idiosyncrasies peculiar to Greek culture and my groggy self was now being pulled out of bed by one of them. You see, it is customary and entirely normal for Greek fruit and vegetable vendors to drive through residential areas first thing in the morning and to communicate to the entire neighborhood, via megaphone, the contents of their stalls and what will be on offer that day. Some quarters of the sales industry would praise the direct and grassroots marketing approach of such a brave b2c strategy. Others, however, would ( possibly rightly) view such a practice to be a stupid and highly invasive intrusion on an otherwise serene April morning. I will reserve judgment and say only that it is a fitting reflection of and testament to the ingenuity and no-nonsense thinking that the Greeks are so well known for. The reason that Greek salesmen drive around the city streets at dawn, screaming about the price of tomatoes over loudspeaker, of course, is because nobody else would ever think of doing that. To understand such a way of thinking is almost to comprehend the contribution to Western Philosophical thought made by the Greeks. That having been said, my thinking does tend to be rather fuzzy before breakfast.
After that much needed shower, and while drinking my coffee on the apartment balcony, I noticed a few of the neighborhood households had red towels and banners hanging from their clothing-lines and windows. I’m told that this is supposed to commemorate the sufferings and blood shed by Jesus. With their flair for the dramatic and a love for all things symbolic, red features heavily in Greece’s Easter celebrations, and while the hanging of red towels is not to everyone’s taste, one thing everybody – regardless of age – gets involved with is the painting of boiled eggs. It’s one of those strange things that to an outsider seems quite absurd, but Greeks go crazy for painted boiled-eggs; the more the better. I watched Herself and her mother paint at least ten dozen of the things and to my mind, there is something incredibly stirring about watching a family of grown adults gathered at a kitchen counter, painting boiled eggs without even a trace of schmaltz or self-conscious irony. There’s a part of me that gets squeamish and uncomfortable around displays of this kind. My own family isn’t particularly sentimental, so when I see people enjoying the simplicity of such a completely innocent practice, my brain is totally lacking in the technical architecture to properly process such a sight. It’s like I’m constantly trying to find the angle, to dissect the moment unnecessarily. If anything, however, such occurrences serve only as a reminder that 9/10 of the time, I am the one with the problem.
Thessaloniki is quite something at this time of year. It’s not too hot or humid so you can walk the city for the entire day without sweating like a creep or collapsing from sun stroke. The main commercial district is covered with greenery and peppered throughout with the most incredible Byzantine and Hellenic architecture. Not that ancient history is all the place has to offer. Modern Thessaloniki is a sophisticated and cosmopolitan city and if you’re one of those people so easily seduced by high fashion and trendy cafe culture then you will not be found wanting here. I, however, had come in search of the unknown and overlooked and that’s why I spent most of that Thursday afternoon talking about orange trees.
The variety of orange growing around central Thessaloniki is not fit for human consumption but that is beside the point. Just the fact of being in a climate in which seeing this kind of thing is no big deal is quite remarkable to me. Oranges are the kinds of things that you only see in boxes or netted bags at the supermarket, they couldn’t possibly just grow on trees. I remember when I was at school in my very rural Irish home village, a teacher told us about a class of city kids who had taken a trip to the countryside to see the workings of a cattle farm and how some of the kids simply could not believe that the milk they drank every day came from the cows that they were now seeing. At the time, I laughed at the ignorance of these city types, at how divorced from reality they seemed. Only now do I understand what they must have been thinking. I’ve seen and eaten thousands of oranges, but until this point, I had never seen one as nature intended, in situ. The oranges growing in central Thessaloniki may not be edible, but they do brighten up the place and – at least as a far as this article is concerned – provide the fount for one moderately interesting anecdote.
A fact known little to outsiders: the Thessaloniki city council pays to have these trees picked because the locals had the habit of collecting the oranges in order to hurl them at any politician who might be visiting their borough. I can’t be sure if this is story is entirely true, but from what I know about politics in Greece, I would be inclined to believe it.
One piece of indispensable advice: You will most certainly be looking to make your way around the city on foot, anything but drive. The Greeks drive like maniacs and they don’t have time to explain why that is the case to foreigners. These are just the way things have to be. As a result, Greece has one of the highest road accident rates in Europe. I was once told that if you’re going to drive in Greece, bear in mind that you might be the only person on the road who actually took and passed a driving test. More often than not, the done thing over here is to bribe the official administering the test. A synechdocic illustration of Greece’s suspicious relationship with road safety: It is possible to purchase seat belt buckle clips from most Greek stores. The idea is that the clip clicks into the buckle fitting in the car and stops the automobile’s built-in seat belt alarm from distracting you on your drive. In effect, you are driving with the buckle but no belt (the thing that actually stops you from flying through the windscreen should you have an accident). The reason that Greeks act in this way, I believe, is because they just really don’t enjoy being told what to do. In many ways this is an admirable quality for consideration but is actually infuriating practice. It’s like the entire country runs counter to the old piece of old high school wisdom that if they put as much effort into following the rules as they do into avoiding them that they would ultimately be the happier for it. But they don’t want to and certainly don’t appreciate being lectured to on the matter by outsiders.
Good Friday – It rained all morning on Good Friday, but that didn’t matter much to the faithful who swarmed into the city centre’s churches in commemoration of the crucifixion and the opportunity to be seen in their best get-up. For whatever reason, most of the inhabitants of central Thessaloniki look like they are always ready to take part in a catwalk show that isn’t happening. We visited five different churches and they were all packed out with lines hundreds -maybe even thousands – of persons long, waiting to kiss the appropriate icons and perform the correct hand gestures. Candles are lit and prayers whispered, and while I don’t generally go in for that kind of stuff, there is something quite fascinating about watching so many people participates in liturgical activities of this sort en-masse. There’s no awkwardness or commotion, everybody knows the drill and the whole things plays out with a measured and seamless ease that, had it been, say, a sporting event, would have quickly dissolved into utter chaos. Nonetheless, the most pious time of year this may have been, I was still warned to make sure that I was carrying my wallet in a safe place.
After a walk through the abandoned markets in the old part of town, we picked up a few rounds of a Thessaloniki street food specialty, coulouri. This crunchy and sesame seed encrusted bread is sold by people that the locals call coulourtzides. It’s a great walking food and you can pick up a few rolls for a couple euros. Coupled with a cup of super-strong Greek coffee – there are thousands of cafes in central and they are always full – we headed to check out the parade put on each year by the military and police services. I filmed the parade and here it is:
Before long, we were on the way to the coastal village of Hanioti to continue the Easter celebrations. Hanioti is the kind of place that you see on the front cover of travel brochures, but never believe could possibly exist in the real world. The small village is mostly frequented by Serbian tourists during the warmer months on account of the friendly relations enjoyed by the two nations. Both countries share a Byzantine heritage and are largely Eastern Orthodox Christian in denomination. They have endured the same invasions, famines, wars and pestilences and, as is often the case, that seems to have nurtured the flames of comradery between them. When I asked if there was more that the locals could tell me about these Slavic visitors, I was told simply that they don’t tend to cause too much trouble. In this day and age, this is just about the most ringing endorsement that anybody could give a people.
“If we’re going to get that lamb on that spit, we’re going to have to break its neck and you can slip the head under the body while it cooks.” – The local butcher
“That shouldn’t be a problem.” – Herself’s Dad.
The midnight church service (known as the Paschal Vigil) on Saturday night celebrates the resurrection and looked something like a pagan cocktail party. Everybody knows everybody and mental notes are taken as to who has shown, who is missing, how close they are standing to the service, and what they’re wearing. The church is packed-out, but the mass is being played through loudspeaker, so we find a spot on the grounds and ready our Paschal candles to be lit when the priest says so. Interesting factoid –while a married man can be ordained in the Greek Orthodox priesthood, it is not permitted for a priest to marry. There must be at least two thousand people here and when the priest finally gives the signal, the flame of the Holy Light is passed through the crowd form candle-to-candle. I’m told that this light is flown from Jerusalem to Athens each year on private jet and from there it is then distributed to each diocese around the country. Although I don’t believe one second of this, it does appear to be the truth. A bonfire is lit and all of a sudden everybody is kissing and giving the Paschal greeting “Christós anésti ek nekrón” (which translates to “Christ has risen from the dead”) as the church bells ring and fireworks explode above.
Back at the house, Herself’s mother serves bowls of Magiritsa, a soup made from the offal of that lamb that we will be spit roasting for lunch tomorrow. The soup, a combination of stock made from the head and neck of the lamb mixed with chunks of intestine, kidney, heart and liver, herbs and rice to thicken is eaten to break the fast of the Orthodox lent. It is perhaps worthy of note that the soup has a faint tang of urine about it – this is not necessarily such a bad thing. Magiritsa is traditionally served with tzigerosarmades which are baked intestinal parcels made from entrails and rice.This meal, of course, is just a light precursor for tomorrow’s lunch which I’m assured is going to be a meal of epic proportions.
Easter Sunday and beyond – If you do choose to fly to Greece during their Easter celebrations, there are a number of dietary considerations of which you would benefit from preemptively discovering so as to spare any potential difficulty or embarrassment. For one thing, prepare yourself to eat a whole lot of food. By which I mean you will not just enjoy a significant volume of food, but also the most terrifying variety of meats, fish, breads and cheeses you have ever fastened your eyes upon. This is no joke, I gained over a stone in weight in less than 2 weeks during my time in Greece, for which I was both horrified but also oddly impressed by my endurance – if it wasn’t for the genuine concern that I was going to tear the lining of my stomach, I would have gladly eaten even more.
When it comes to seafood, I cannot recall ever eating better in my entire life; raw clams, grilled octopus, deep-fried sardines with courgette fritters; everything fresh and utterly delicious. Feta cheese and olives are an absolute must with any and all meals, this is non-negotiable. And there is something about sitting in a seafront restaurant in Hanioti on a warm April evening, eating freshly fried calamari with a bottle of ouzo while bouzouki music plays somewhere in the distance that simply cannot be conveyed in words. In that moment, the world is at peace, everything makes sense and there is no need to worry about anything.
For many Greeks, vegetarianism is seen less of a dietary choice than a psychological disorder – again, this is no joke. The Greeks are particularly fond of red meat and have no hang-ups about devouring the beast in its entirety. On a good day, that means you will most likely be presented with an assortment of cooked innards, boiled organs, fried brains, baked eyes, poached tongues and crisped face. To the more timid traveler this can seem quite an intimidating prospect, but I can assure you that though such accoutrements may sound a little off-putting, they are not only entirely edible but often utterly delicious.
Should you go to Greece over Easter – and to be on the safe side – I advise that you just eat whatever foodstuff is put in front of you without asking too many questions about what you’re looking at. Personally, I love all that sort of ordinarily disregarded stuff. So when I was served my Easter Sunday lamb lunch with a side helping of eye-ball and brain, I was more than happy to top up my glass of ouzo and persevere. I would certainly never refuse anything so graciously offered. This may have resulted in my venturing a little over the line in terms of what I would call my usual comfort zone –in hindsight, the sliced camel tongue was probably not a good idea – but I say embrace the madness. If these people are kind enough to entertain you then you should be gracious enough to eat what they have chosen to serve you. There is no taste that can’t be washed with a decent mouthful of neat liquor and besides, if you’ve ever eaten a hotdog, you’ve probably put much worse into your body.
We started Easter lunch with the red eggs and a game known as tsougrisma, which is kind of like the Greek version of the Christmas Cracker game. The object is that two players hold an egg and each takes it in turns to tap one end of their egg onto the others until one of the eggs cracks. When player-one taps their egg, it is customary to say, “Chistos Anesti” (“Christ has risen”), with player-two then replying, “Alithos Anesti” (“Indeed He has risen”).When one egg is cracked, the winner uses the same end of her/his egg to try to crack the other end of the opponent’s egg. Whoever’s egg is in the best shape at the end of all the smashing is declared winner and will have good luck during the year.
Then, of course, things get serious as the lamb is pulled off the spit and prepared for serving along with side dishes that include roast potatoes (cooked with herbs, garlic and lemon juice), charred aubergine salad, pulsed garlic, stewed lima beans, dolmas, stuffed tomatoes, pasta, and an uncountable assortment of condiments, sauces and garnishes. For the time I spent in Greece for the holidays, I cannot think of a lunch that lasted for less than three hours and didn’t end with everybody eventually leaving the table only to sleep off the obscene amount of food and drink that had just been consumed.
Just as the Scottish have their whisky and the Russians have their vodka, the Greeks have their ouzo. This aperitif is usually served at meals with just a few ice cubes to dilate the drink’s powerful aniseed flavour. I know I must have already drank enough ouzo to last any sensible person two lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop any time soon. At Easter lunch, I polished-off almost ¾ of a bottle of the stuff on my own. Some quarte say that ouzo does not cause a hangover, this is categorically untrue. In any other circumstance, knocking back glass after glass of hard booze in the early afternoon would be as good an indication as any that you might approaching a self-destructive episode, but in Greece, at Easter, it’s just lunch.
My memories of Greece are intimately connected with food and drink. To remember a place or time is to recall a taste and a texture. It is hypnotizing and intoxicating, synesthetic and illusory. Back in London, as I treat myself to a shot of ouzo from one of the many duty-free bottles I brought home, I am back in Hanioti, with the faint smell of tobacco smoke in the air and music in the distance, and for just the most fleeting of moments there is no need to worry about anything.