Easter Week In Santorini

It was a good idea that my wife made our hotel and ferry reservations for Santorini a few months prior. On its own, Santorini is a popular destination but add the Greek Orthodox Church's most popular holiday of Easter, the synchronous celebration this year with Roman Catholic Easter and toss in Spring Break for good measure and you have a crowded island -- a crowded island that used to be much bigger. (Santorini is an island community that sits perched on the rim of a blown-out and submerged volcanic caldera. The white towns with their connecting sugar-cube houses sit on the steep edge of the crater and look down at the azure blue Mediterranean Sea. Geologists estimate the eruption around 1630 BC and describe it as one of the largest earthquakes ever, similar in scale and magnitude to the 1883 Krakatau volcanic eruption.)

Pyrgos on Good Friday
The Holy week festivities started on Holy Thursday when the tsoureki bread is baked and the hard-boiled Easter eggs are dyed red – symbolic of the blood of Christ. We spend the day touring two beaches: a red-rock beach sprinkled with white pumice stones and a pebbly black beach. When we got back to our hotel, the wife of the proprietor knocked on our door with some red-dyed eggs and some sweets. We learned later that the Greeks have a tradition that is similar to the American tradition of the Thanksgiving turkey wishbone; they knock the red eggs against each other and the one holding the un-cracked egg is supposed to have good luck.

Holy Friday is the day that the church's priest takes down the Christ icon from the cross and wraps it in linen, reenacting ancient burial rituals. The icon is then placed in a casket surrounded by white lilies, and paraded through the town as worshipers lament the death of Christ. While many people refrain from meat on this day, we could not resist the pork and chicken gyros at the local take out restaurant on the main square in Fira. After eating, we went to Pyrgos, a pretty hill town about a 10 minute drive from Fira. We climbed up through the maze-like town to reach the church on top of the hill and gathered with a few hundred Santorians dressed in their somber Sunday best. After the mass, the action began. Scores of teenage boys with blow torches started lighting the candles that sat on every wall and rooftop of the village. The candles were coffee cans with filled with citronella wax and wood shavings and the boys did their work quickly. Within a half hour, the entire village was adorned with thousands of these lit candles, an incredible sight that we’d not seen anywhere else in the world. After spending some time milling about the town and admiring the view, we climbed down and got some hot tea to warm up. Afterwards we walked back to our car and turned around to see the entire town glimmering in the distance, as if on fire. The town was even visible from our hotel in Fira.

Greek Easter eggs
The next morning, Holy Saturday, my wife was reading a description of that night’s festivities. She described the late night mass and the special mayiritsa soup, a “traditional soup composed of…” and her voice trailed off after that. The kids were distracted but I knew that meant there was something in the soup that might make someone think twice about trying it. I decided to wait until after I tasted it to ask about the ingredients. Late that night we milled about in front of the church during the mass. At midnight, the priest called out Christos Anesti! (“Christ has risen”) and others responded Alithos Anesti (“Surely he has risen”). At this point, everyone lit their candles, supposedly from the same eternal flame that is brought to Greece each year from Jesus’ nativity cave in Jerusalem. With Easter officially arrived at midnight, everyone went for a meal and the mayiritsa soup. The soup was not very good; it was a whipped, green vegetable soup with some unknown pieces of meat in it. After getting down about half the bowl, my wife told me the meat was sheep intestine.

The next day we woke late and headed out at noon looking for our Easter lamb dinner. We had made reservations in one restaurant in Pyrgos because we were told that they would have traditional dancing in the square below it. When we got there, the restaurant was empty and there was no dancing. We decide to continue on to the south side of the island. We saw many lambs rotating on spits but many were in somebody’s front yard intended for a private family party. We headed for a beach restaurant we’d seen the day before with about 10 lambs on spits, figuring that they were set up for the public. While going there we passed a restaurant on a cliff overlooking the water and the owner gave us a friendly wave as we went by. We arrived at the beach restaurant and were told “Sorry.” At this point all of us were hungry and we’d stopped by a handful of restaurants that were closed to the public; it was time to go back to man with the friendly wave. The restaurant was great and it had only a few local families in it; no spring breakers or tourists from huge boxy tourist buses. We had roast lamb and vegetables washed down with some dry Santorini wine overlooking the Aegean Sea. Our dinner was the perfect ending to a great Easter week at Santorini.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff about the volcano eruption. Looking at the shape of the island map of Santorini is persuasive about what is said to have happened.

    Are you familiar with the word 'tripe' as in the intestines of an animal served as a dish? I have never tried it but tripe and onions is traditional dish here in the north of England.