It’s (not) Easter!

Thanks to Eleftheria for this photo of Lisa trying to pull me into the sea at Ayios Antonis!
While many places celebrate Easter this weekend, Greek Orthodox Easter falls late this year, as April turns to May, so in Tilos we’re just quietly enjoying the sunshine, walking in a landscape green from winter rains, and swimming in a still-bracing sea… 

This might be my favourite time of year; I can sit here with the sun warming my arm and the occasional bee buzzing through the open window, while in the evenings, even though there’s no real need for heating, it’s sometimes cool enough to light a fire in the hearth. Even though I wouldn't call myself a flower fanatic, it's impossible not to be wowed by the fields bursting with colour, and the tiny orchids. And I’m seeing hoopoes! Hoopoes seem shy and I’ve never been able to get a photo, but they have ginger mohicans and black-and-white striped tails. 

If you want to experience a different kind of Easter, you still have time to book a flight to Greece for the ‘Big Week’. You won’t find much in the way of chocolate eggs but it’s very beautiful and brings the community together, from its mournful processions with a flower-covered bier to the firecracker-popping end with lamb or kid roasted on the spit and the burning of Judas. Easter Sunday will coincide this year with Protomayia, the First of May, a national holiday when everyone gathers flowers and hangs wreaths on their front doors, marking the start of summer.

There are plenty of reasons to be thinking of Greece in the coming month leading up to Greek Easter – here are a few….

-         * My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 – the movie is launched this week (!)
-         * The Durrells, a six-part series based on Gerald Durrell’s books about his childhood on the Greek island of Corfu, is starting on 3 April (
-         * Five chefs from Athens are taking over The Real Greek in London’s Bankside on 19 April, hosted by Tonia Buxton, presenter of My Greek Kitchen.
-         * Athens has been voted #2 Best European Destination for 2016
-        * My Map of You by Isabelle Broom, set on the island of Zakynthos, is out on 21 April
-       *   An Octopus in my Ouzo, by… oh yes, by me… is out 14 April!!!!!

To rest up a little before the big launch, ahem, I’m looking forward to few little holidays. What? Yes, I know I live on a Greek island. In fact, this is what I just saw when I took the dog for a mid-morning stroll around the village….

But sometimes it’s fun to see other Greek islands too, especially ones not very far away. First up, Y and I are off to Rhodes this time next week, for errands (because it’s our nearest ‘city’) and then for pleasure. We’ll be staying for a couple of nights at the lovely NikosTakis Hotel – described in my new book – in the heart of the Old Town near the Palace of the Grand Masters; then assuming Y’s car passes its MOT we’ll be doing a fast tour of the island… And the following weekend I’ll be with my mum in Lindos, staying at this traditional Captain’s House run by Exclusively Lindos, which promises to be a treat.

If you haven’t seen the Alpha TV show 60 Lepta Ellada when they came to Tilos in February, you can now see it online here (Lisa and I get our three minutes of fame around minute 16, though several people brought me down to earth by saying that Lisa was the real star). I had some lovely messages from viewers in other parts of Greece and made some new friends. ‘You have touched the meaning of life!’ wrote Yiannis. Stavros wrote to say he’d been to Tilos 20 years ago and the show brought back wonderful memories. Tassos said he was jealous of my life, and thanked me for helping people to learn about his country. Costas wants to learn the key for escaping from a life dominated only by work. And Ilias said he liked to see people enjoying nature and doing what they want in life, not what others want. I now want to watch all the episodes about other parts of Greece, though it will make me want to travel more….

In the meantime, it’s Lent here, so it’s almost obligatory to eat halva, the delicious sweet. Last week, to get into the spirit of things, I cooked fasolada, a thick soup of white beans with carrots, celery, tomatoes and olive oil. Yesterday, around this hour, I heard the shout of ‘Psaria!’, or ‘fish’, and walked down to the road to buy fresh gopes from Nikos’ truck. We grilled them last night and I picked a lemon off my tree to squeeze over. I boiled local potatoes and we sprinkled them with salt and oregano and drizzled them in local olive oil. With a mound of salad and a glass of ouzo... It’s not bad, life on a Greek island. 

With apologies to those of you who might already have seen some of these photos on my Facebook page, I'll leave you with some snaps from my walk up to the old Italian Observatory last week. Enjoy yourselves, wherever you are and whatever you're doing... X


The year I lived in Athens after I finished university, I had my first glimpse of the Greek version of carnival or Apokries in the Plaka district; I remember Athenians in bright costumes, happily spraying one another with streamers. Then, with a few days off from teaching, I took buses north to Kalambaka to see the Meteora, those strange stubby rocks that rise so sheer from the flat plains that monks of old saw fit to build monasteries on top. On Kathari Deftera, Clean Monday, people picnicked outdoors although the snow was only just melting, and there was a whiff of ouzo on sunny café terraces, while at night the town smelled of woodsmoke from the roaring fires that made bars cosy and warm.

I’ve written before here about the Apokries, the three weeks (or Triodion) before Lent. This year it began on 21 February, and lasts until Sunday 13 March. Traditionally it’s a time for revelry and celebration; this weekend there will be parties where people wear funny or spooky fancy dress.

Here on Tilos, it began with the Gaitanaki, a dance around a pole with intertwined ribbons like a maypole. The event – which has only been brought back into practice in recent years – was scheduled to happen on the Sunday but delayed, perhaps because the strong winds made it impossible; it happened instead in a rather impromptu way a few days later, when the crew from Alpha TV were here getting documentary footage for their 60 Lepta Ellada programme (perhaps to be aired later this month). So the performances by the Tilos dance troupe and the schoolchildren were filmed by the drone flying overhead. It was a small but happy crowd gathered in the square, drinking red wine from Petrino and eating pork souvlaki sticks from the barbecue. For me, having missed Greek dance classes for a while, the best part was joining in a few dances again. Though once the firecrackers started going off, Lisa was shaking with fear so we retreated to Megalo Horio...

In the middle of the Apokries period is Tsiknopemti, a Thursday named for the smell of smoke from the grill; friends gather to enjoy meat before they have to give it up. The following week they can still eat cheese but over the course of the three weeks, people gradually abstain from animal foods. On Clean Monday, anything with blood or dairy is forbidden, so people feast on seafood such as octopus and taramasalata, which go so well with ouzo (ah, Yiannis just offered to cook mussels for us!). And then, finally, people are ready for a more austere diet of beans and pulses during Lent. Of course, not everyone observes the religious customs but many do.

While the religious festivals and the big, contemporary carnival parades that take place in certain cities have an appeal of their own – and in ancient times the worshippers of Dionysus would apparently run around waving giant phalluses to encourage the earth to be reborn after the winter, which must have been quite funny - I am fascinated by the pagan roots of these springtime rites. It’s all to do with driving out the bad spirits to make way for the good. It’s also to ensure health and fertility and the fruitfulness of the land. 

A century or so ago, the masquerades were darker and more raw and mysterious, with animal masks and fur hoods. And even today in some parts of the north of Greece it's still the same, in Kavala and Drama, where the masquerades happen during the twelve days between Christmas Eve and Epiphany, just before the winter equinox when the days are shortest. I first learned about these traditions at the Museum of Greek Folk Art and you can see a couple of costumes on their website (, while I also found some wonderful photographs online by Georgios Tatakis:    

At Sohos, north of Thessaloniki, at Apokries people walk through the streets wearing long, twisted goat horns, bells and wigs, blowing horns. In Drama, they dress as ‘Arapides’ in fur and feathers, as I found in photos by Lefteris Zopidis:
The ‘Karnavali’ character dresses in goatskins, a tall hat covered in streamers and a mask with a horse-hair moustache. In the final week of Apokries people roam the streets offering ouzo, dancing and jangling bells. Making a noise is important – to frighten off bad spirits, it seems, and awaken the sleeping earth.

The closest thing to mummeries on the islands seems to be on Skyros, technically one of the Sporades but far from Skiathos and Skopelos, nearer to Evia. It draws huge crowds from Athens for the celebrations; locals dress as ‘Yeri’ or old men, their faces blackened or hidden with goatskin or cloth, fur costumes, belts hung with huge bells which clang as they troop around the streets. There’s drinking and traditional dancing, of course.

While researching all this online I learned of the festival of ‘Boules’ that takes place at Apokries in Naoussa, the well-known wine-producing region of Macedonia. Men dressing as women and women as men is a common element of the carnival, but it has a special twist here during the masked dance of the ‘Yanitzari’ or Janissary and the ‘Boules’, the Bride. Masks are made of cloth and beeswax with a horsehair moustache, and covered with a trailing turban; costumes are covered in jangling coins.

The Janissaries were soldiers of the Ottoman sultans. Greek boys were taken by force from their families when young and brought up as Muslims. Although the village of Naoussa was for a long while exempt from sending its sons to be Janissaries, in 1705 the Ottomans came to recruit from there too. The locals rebelled and killed those who had come to take away their children. It led to harsh and violent reprisals on the community by the Ottomans.

From then on, the masked dance had a special purpose among the people of Naoussa. It enabled them to hold secret meetings to plot their uprising against Turkish rule, since rebels could slip down from the mountains secretly in disguise. The event, dressed up as a wedding ritual, allowed people to slip money, food and messages to the rebels, and for others to join them. Naoussa rose up against the Turks in 1822 – and was totally destroyed in further reprisals. A sad tale, but one of courage too and the determination of the Greek people to seek their freedom.

Here on Tilos, it feels as though the dark days of winter are over – in fact, this year, we’ve barely had any. The sky and the sea are often blue - which is lovely, although locals have said if it doesn't rain more, animals might die, and we'll have a problem with our own water supply. The fields are full of flowers and awash with colours, red and purple, yellow and white; my favourites are the poppies that glow in the sunshine, and the white and pink spikes of cyclamen, though there are delightful splashes of mauve and pink everywhere you walk. 

Last week there was another celebration in the Dodecanese – the day of liberation when this group of islands finally shook off the days (the centuries!) of occupation and repression. After the Ottoman Turks, the Italians, and the Germans - then three years of transition under British rule after World War Two - the Dodecanese became united with Greece on 7 March 1948.    

I'd like to sign off here saying 'I'm off to put on my goat horns and bells, blacken my face and join the party!' But it's all quiet here on our little sokaki of Megalo Horio... 

Thanks to an article by Mela Kubara and to the ‘Dance Archive’ which I used as sources for some of this research, as well as the Museum of Greek Folk Art.