Travels in Greece

Skyros Sporades | Greece

Skyros When one thinks about carnivals places like Rio and New Orleans immediately spring to mind. Places like Greece don’t. But here is a pretty well kept secret: not only does Greece have a carnival season, in a few towns and islands modern carnival festivities have been melded with local or ancient traditions to produce an unforgettable experience for those lucky and determined enough to be present. The island of Skyros in the Sporades is one such place.

Carnival in Greece

Carnival season in Greece (Apokries) takes place in the weeks preceding the 40 day fast leading up to Easter. What this means in practice is usually the last two weeks of February but some years might include the first week of March (see below for Carnival dates for 2009-2010). Like most festivities the carnival season in Greece involves a lot of eating, drinking, dancing and generally making merry.

The second Thursday before the beginning of Lent is called Tsikno Pempti (Smoke Thursday), a day when every taverna in the entire country is packed to the roof. For the purists Smoke Thursday is the last day of eating meat until the end of Lent, for the rest of us it is a great excuse to stuff ourselves full of lamb chops and drink to excess. Whichever side you fall on, a good time is had by all.

The celebrations come to a head in the last week (and particularly the last weekend) before the beginning of Lent with Kathari Deutera (Clean or Ash Monday) marking the beginning of the eastern Orthodox period of Lent. Ash Monday is a public holiday in Greece and is marked by meat free feasts and the widespread flying of kites throughout the country.

The two week carnival period is a great time to be in Greece, and particularly in Athens where the downtown area is alive with costumed revelers and part goers until late every night. If you are looking for something completely different however, book yourself a trip out to the island of Skyros for the last weekend of the carnival and get ready for some real fun!

Getting to Skyros

Getting to Skyros is half the fun since the only way to get there at this time of the year is via the port of Kimi (about two and a half hours by car/bus from Athens on the western coast of Evia). The drive is pleasant enough; be sure to leave yourself a bit of extra time to enjoy it if going by car since you need to pass through some windy mountain roads in the middle of the journey. Buses to Kimi leave regularly from the main KTEL bus station in central Athens. Once in Kimi you are only a 2 hour ferry trip from Skyros and will soon be enjoying eating, drinking and dancing with the rest of the party goers… often the party will have already started on the ferry!

Carnival in Skyros

In all honesty I had no idea what to expect arriving in Skyros. I knew nothing about the specifics of carnival time in Skyros and would have remained unaware if not for a friend who had arranged for her child’s baptism to be held there and to invite a good sized group of friends to attend and, of course, to stay for the rest of the weekend to enjoy the party!
As the ferry pulled into the port I soon realised that something different was in the cards since our first sight was a group of strangely dressed figures kitted out with belts made from large bells dancing around and making an almighty racket in the light of sputtering red flares. Hmm, interesting! By the time we had disembarked the shadowy figures had disappeared and we set off on the short trip up from the port to the main town (hora) where the bulk of the festivities take place.

The Skyros festival is hardly a secret to the Athenians, meaning that the island is packed with them for this particular weekend. Usually a Greek island packed with Athenians means a less than fulfilling break, the festival in Skyros was a happy exception however with the throngs of party goers all celebrating in perfect harmony with their environment and each other! Foreign tourists were very rare on the ground and those there were quickly incorporated by groups of revelers curious to learn where they were from and how they managed to find out about the festivities on Skyros.

Skyros Carnival Traditions

During the beginning of the carnival period and on every weekend leading up to Clean Monday the streets of Skyros are alive with the sounds of clanging goat bells, worn around the waists of the island men who take part. They play the role of the ‘geros’ or old man a figure dressed in a hooded black cape, and white woven trousers. The geros carries a traditional walking stick in addition to the bells around his waist and his face is covered by a hanging goat skin. These men run through the streets of the town pausing occasionally to dance in place and generally make as much noise as possible.

The geroi usually travel individually or in small groups of two or three and are accompanied by an island girl, the ‘korela’. The korela’s face is also covered by a cloth, but she is dressed in white in contrast to the black clad geros. Her job is to clear the way for the geros to pass more easily through the tight reveler packed streets and to sing to him when he tires and rests.

The sight and sound of the geros and the korela moving through the streets of Skyros is great fun. The men (and even young boys) haul their belts, which may weigh up to 50 kilograms, around the hilly streets of the town until well into the night. When you see a few of them resting themselves in some hidden corner of a side street you really feel for them, such hard work while the rest of us are busy drinking and laughing!

Come 1am all but the most dedicated of the geroi have stopped for the night, but the party continues with every bar and café in the town packed to overflowing with the majority of the people taking their drinks out into the streets. As the night winds on those that are interested may find traditional Skyrian music at some establishments and if you are lucky an impromptu performance of the local dancing will take place. I am told that Skyrian dance steps are some of the most complex in Greece. Suffice to say that as soon as a group of Skyrian girls started dancing at the place we were at, all the Athenians sat down!

Ash Monday on Skyros

Ash Monday sees another Skyros carnival tradition take place once the clanging bell from the last geros has silenced. The ‘trata’ sees the island’s fisherman gather in the main square to tell tales in a lovely rhyming fashion. The tales often centre around contemporary Greek life and politics and can be quite bold and bring big laughs from the crowds gathered around to listen.

The day also includes a parade for the costumed children which involves a large amount of squealing and giggling kids along with a donkey or two and continues with a more official presentation of the island’s traditional dances in the main square.

Skyros in February, why not!

The Greek islands in February might sound a bit of an odd choice, and maybe it is! But if you are around at that time and want to see a bit of ‘real’ Greece, head out to Skyros for the Carnival and enjoy. For carnival dates for 2010 and beyond check here, and for more general information on Skyros have a look at Greek Island Postcards.