Although we have spent Easter in Greece before, we know that the various regions and towns have their own traditions and their own programme of festivities. We know very little of what to expect in Monemvasia apart from the church service on Good Friday and the procession of the epitaphios – though the timings we are still uncertain about. We ask at the hotel reception in the morning what time the church service will take place and he doesn’t look certain. “Nine, maybe nine thirty?”
We decide to hedge our bets and eat early and get to the Elkomenos Christos church before nine pm. There are only a handful of taverna’s on Monemvasia rock and we expect them to be fully booked later on. Besides, from what we can see there are a number of coach parties on the island and it feels incredibly busy.
We decide to eat at To Kanoni in the main square with a roof terrace that overlooks Elkomenos Christos church. The name To Kanoni pays reference to the canon that sits in the square. We have Greek salad and Fava to start and lamb in oregano and lamb oven baked in wine for the next course. The customer service here is excellent and highly recommended and offers fabulous views over the square.
At around eight forty five we walk into the square which is beginning to fill with people. I manage to perch myself on the corner of the plinth of the canon. Close by are a group of American tourists who are throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the occasion with candle in hand and excited anticipation. I prefer to respectfully observe from the side-lines. As an atheist, I don’t feel comfortable engaging in the activity itself and even my husband as an orthodox Christian, prefers to watch from a distance rather than participate. This is a sombre occasion. Most people are dressed in traditional funerary colours.
From within the church we can hear women singing. A queue has formed and people go inside to get their candle. Not many people stay within the church, just the choir and those involved in leading the procession.
Nine o’clock goes. Nine thirty goes and at nine forty five people begin lighting their candles and even this feels a bit premature because it is ten o’clock before the epitaphios is carried from the church led by a crucifix bearer in front. The bells ring a mourning chime – an alternating dong and dang that leaves you in no doubt that people are here to mourn. Who’d have thought that bells could sound so sad. The chatter and laughter from the taverna and the children swinging from the pollarded trees seemed incongruous to the solemnity of the occasion.
From where we are we can just about see the top of the flower covered epitaphios. The faithful, the choir and the curious tourists file behind the priest and his clergy onto the narrow cobbled streets above the square. We have no idea what route the procession is going to take but having wandered the somewhat precarious streets during daylight we decide to stay in the square and see what unfolds.
A short while later we walk to the edge of the square that overlooks the bay and we can see several small boats with brightly coloured lights making their way slowly towards the castle gate. We then spot the entourage walking along the coastal path below, the choir still singing and the epitaphios still held high. A small crowd of people that had also remained in the square begin to file out towards the castle gate and we follow in hot (or luke warm) pursuit.
This was a good call because as we wait inside the castle gate, the procession walk past us and head out through the gate and down the causeway and over the bridge. We wait until the procession has passed us before following it down to the main town.
I don’t know why but I find the boat escort an emotional sight. There is something about the humble fishing boat taking on the role of escorting the epitaphios to it’s final destination. I can’t really describe it but seeing this during Easter in Tyros also struck me in the same way.
At the point where the causeway ends and the new town begins, the marching band take over from the choir who must have been singing for well over an hour by now. We are quite a way behind, still keeping a respectful distance but we can hear a band begin to play a sombre tune that wouldn’t be out of place at a New Orleans funeral. The funeral march is led by the orchestra conductor. The band in blue uniform leads the epitaphios around the main street of the town. The streets are temporarily closed off to traffic by the police. The procession then heads in the direction of the main church in the new town which is where we decide to call it a night and walk back up to the the rock. Not before a bit of late night dessert! And it looks like a local cat has the same idea! We have dessert at the famous patisserie Moreos Idista which makes reference to the sweets made from honey, filo, sesame, almonds and walnuts.
The following day we head to the main square where we make enquiries at the church about the order of festivities for the day. The lady we spoke to has been involved in the preparation for the services so we know that she speaks with authority. At 11.30 this evening is the resurrection service in church.
Today is very busy with day trippers as seen by the number of coaches parked up at the bottom of the causeway. The restaurants all seem very busy so we decide to eat our evening meal at one of the fish taverna’s we’d spotted down by Monemvasia Beach in the new town.
This was a good choice. Taverna Asterias sits right on the award winning Monemvasia Beach. At first we thought it was closed as there is nobody there but we are offered a table next to the sea with a great view of the rock.
Mike our waiter is more than excellent. When we enquire about the wine he brings us some to try before deciding. He invited Peter into the kitchen to choose his fish and he settles on a red snapper.
Mike asks us where we are heading to next and we tell him Kythira. He tells us that it is a beautiful island though there is only one taxi. Not only that but the taxi driver apparently spends most of his time off the island and nobody has his number!
We wrap up the meal with a couple of ouzo’s. This wasn’t really a good move. We catch the bus back to the rock and decide to have a little rest in the hotel until the church service begins – however, both of us know that we are too exhausted to go anywhere and we miss the service completely. Epic fail!
The following morning we ask about the next stage of the festivities which involved the burning of Judas. Again we ask the time at the hotel and are told 7.30 but we are not convinced that this is the gospel truth!
All of the restaurants are busy this lunch time. As we head out of the castle gate we can see trays of cooked lamb being delivered and handed to the porters to transport to the tavernas. Down in the new town, several tavernas are roasting their own lamb on spits over charcoal. Mike has told us that they would be roasting two lambs but this is nowhere enough for the demand and it would definitely be gone within an hour.
We decide to save ourselves and dine on the rock later.
Something told me that we needed to be in the square earlier than 7.30. At 6.30 we head down towards Panagia Chrysafitissa Church which sits in the other main square alongside the sea wall. Just as we leave the hotel we can see the head of Judas above the buildings below. Some luckily family are just offshore where they have prime position from a boat. When we reach the square five minutes later he has already been set alight – suspended from the gallows and now ablaze. Mobile phones are held high to catch the spectacle.
Minutes later there are loud explosions from the effigy which makes everyone jump. Others clap their hands over their ears – like that is going to make a difference! This happens several times over a couple of minutes to the great delight of the crowd.
Now being on a rock which towers above us and where I’ve seen boulders balanced rather precariously, I’m hoping that some kind of risk assessment has been completed! I don’t want to find myself under an avalanche of rocks!
All in all this has been a great Easter celebration – even though we hadn’t managed to catch all of it. It isn’t the spectacular affair that we’d witnessed in Tyros two years earlier with a magnificent fire work display and dancing in traditional costume but this is Monemvasia’s unique Easter festival and we are glad to have been able to have seen it.