Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Greek Easter

Forty-five years ago this month I visited Greece for the first time.  That’s a nano-second in archaeological time.  We were a group of conscientious students (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron), there to learn about the urban planning of the ancient Greeks.   
Our party went to the island of Rhodes and a variety of classical sites, almost mythical in their legend.  These included Delphi, Epidaurus, Olympia and the Parthenon on the mainland Peloponnese.

This month, my wife and I together with our daughter, her husband and son went on a two-week holiday to Crete, less academic in intent, but nonetheless keen to include some exploration of the island’s archaeological and religious culture.  This activity would act as an occasional diversion from swimming, sun-bathing and fine dining.

One thing we missed in 1972 was the Greek Easter, which had been much vaunted by our lecturers.  It may have been Easter at home, but that was one of those years when the Julian calendar did not coincide with the Gregorian equivalent that rules in western countries.  
With the two Easters falling on the same day in 2017, this visit included the climax of the Christian calendar, celebrated as such with pomp and ceremony in both Christian traditions.


My personal priority on this tour - after family activity in two beach resorts - was to see the island’s cradling of civilisation that existed more than 4000 years ago. 

From around 2000 BC, the Minoans developed Europe’s first real civilisation right here in Crete.  With unexpected hyperbole the Rough Guide proclaims that “their artworks are unsurpassed anywhere in the ancient world.  For 500 years, Crete was home to a civilisation well ahead of its time.”  It would be discourteous not to see them.  The greatest of the Minoan palaces is at Knossos and it lies just outside the island’s capital Heraklion.

The official site brochure acknowledges the role of an English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans both in the excavation and reconstruction of the palace.  His sculptural image is the first object to greet visitors inside the entrance.  

The palace covered 20,000 square metres set around a large central court.  

I’m going to have to return because we didn’t have time to visit Heraklion Archaeological Museum which houses the site’s beautiful artworks, pottery, vessels, figurines and the original wall paintings.

Venetian occupation

Crete’s history is one of occupation on a regular basis.  Apart from the Minoans (said to have come from Anatolia), the island has been subject to Rome, Byzantium, Venice and the Turkish Ottoman Empire.  
As if this litany wasn’t long enough, it was invaded by the Germans during World War 2.  

Of these occupiers, the most noticeable influence for us as holidaymakers was the Venetian settlement.
Two fortresses stand out as examples of the endeavours of development by the Venetians on the island’s north coast.  
Rethymno’s Venetian fortress, or Fortezza, sits on a hill at the eastern side of the city on the seafront.  According to the Rough Guide, it is said to be the largest Venetian Castle ever built and is indeed of vast scale.   

It was built as a response to pirate raids that devastated the town in the late 1500’s.  Its failure to protect Rethymno from a Turkish invasion fifty years later, however, says something about the Venetians’ defensive effectiveness.   
As a place for a leisurely visit or a concert and somewhere to enjoy spectacular views, it is an inexpensive must.

Restoration of Heraklion’s Venetian Fortress has been completed within the last year or so in most impressive style.  A visit creates a more accurate impression of what a functioning Fortezza would have looked like.  The restored building is replete with stories set out on panels describing the history and of the lengthy process of restoration.  

One unexpected bonus is the collection of artefacts found submerged in the sea and donated to the city by the French explorer Jacques Cousteau. This is another inexpensive must-see project.

The Greek Easter Ceremonial

An unexpected highlight of our holiday was to witness the Greek Easter midnight mass, marking the end of Lenten fasting.   
When we checked into our hotel on Good Friday afternoon, it was gratifyingly apparent that we were not going to be surrounded exclusively by foreign visitors like ourselves.  A large influx of Greek people were also arriving specifically to celebrate Easter.

Despite the crowds in the lobby, we were welcomed warmly by a senior member of staff.  She advised us that we could attend the religious ceremony on Saturday night in the Orthodox Church that lies within the hotel’s grounds.   
She explained that in the early hours of Easter Sunday morning after the midnight mass, Cretans dine on lamb and other meats, with bouzouki music an important part of the celebrations.

Shortly before 11 o’clock, we made our way in the dark to the hotel’s very own Church and joined the substantial congregation most of whom were standing in the outside space around the front of the building.
Before the prayers began, there was a regular stream of family groups making their way inside to light their long thin candles and place them upright on the special table.  The small number of foreign tourists present had also been presented with candles.  Nice to be made to feel welcome.

Eventually, two priests began a series of arcane chants lasting over half an hour, culminating in prayers involving responses from the congregation, the only one of which I recognised was the Kyrie Eleison.  
As the chanting drew to a conclusion, some Cretans emerged from the Church bearing the paschal candle-light.  Gradually it was shared from candle to candle and quickly spread in a most convivial way to the hundreds of people gathered. 

Then to my huge surprise and accompanied by the frantic ringing of the Church’s small bell, an impressive display of fireworks changed the atmosphere from solemn to something more like a huge release of adrenalin.

I don’t know if it was by accident or design, but both the bell-ringing and fireworks ended exactly together in perfect synchronicity.  
As soon as the firework display ended and I checked my mobile phone for the time. It showed 00:00.  It seemed almost miraculous that that it was exactly midnight. 
Easter Sunday had arrived with a huge bang.

Fireworks displays, I learned later, are a normal part of the Greek Easter ritual[i].  The thought occurred that this might be something for the western Christian Churches to think about replicating.

Family holiday

We arrived on 5 April at the very start of the Cretan holiday season, instanced by the fact that many restaurants and hotels had not yet opened.   
We spent our first night in a good hotel[ii] in Chania Town (about 10 miles from the airport).  We then stayed for just over a week in a family-oriented “beach resort” hotel[iii] next to Kaylves town with our daughter, son-in-law and grandson; and an extra few days further east in a beach resort hotel in Rethymno[iv].

Before and after the hectic activity of the Greek Easter weekend, the resort hotels were otherwise very under-crowded on the first and final days of our visit.  This meant more time and space for enjoying the simple pleasures of a beach holiday.

Dining tips

The best Greek restaurant (outside of the resort hotels) was not the high-end Avli set in a converted Venetian palace but the more modest Bakalogatos in the busy heart of Rethymno’s old town.  After eating a substantial two-course starter and main course late lunch, on asking for our bill we were served with a large plateful of Greek donuts covered in chocolate and a free shot of raki.

The best coffee shop was the modern Grampous[v] which bakes its own bread, cakes, bread sticks - all following Granny’s handed-down recipes.  It also makes its own ice cream. On our final day en route to the airport, the owners’ daughters gave us complimentary home-made biscuits and bread-sticks for our journey home.  
From there we travelled by taxi to Rethmyno bus station and took the bus on the scenic hour-long coastal journey back to Chania airport.

©Michael McSorley 2017

[ii] Kriti Hotel, Chania
[iii] Kiani Beach resort, Kalyves
[iv] Aquila Rithymna Beach
[v] 350 metres from Aquila Beach hotel towards Rethymna centre