By Alexia Amvrazi
It’s the crack of dawn and the orchestra is still playing with pep and verve. It’s that hour when daylight starts to unravel harsh truths about just how much wine and food has been consumed, by the thousands of people who stumbled away from trays-full of leftovers lining endless rows of benches. This Ikarian Panygiri, at Ai Iannis’ churchyard, is definitely not over. A circle of dancers is following orders from superstar violinist Nikos Fakaros, and whoever disobeys or gets it wrong gets whipped on the hind with a fat leather belt held by a laughing young man, who’s obviously happier being on the outside of this final dance, known as ‘Piperi’.
However, those contorting themselves with near-yogic effort while following orders like “keep moving in a circle while crouching and holding the hand of the person behind you by placing it under and through your legs” are not shameful drunks. They are the heroes of the night, those who saw it through to the end, honoring it fully. Survivors of the feast, who will next head for a final drink in Raches’ village square, abuzz with other former-revelers, before crashing into bed and waking up in the evening to recover with tripe soup.
Famed for its Blue Zones status since the ‘90s and formerly known as the Exile’s Island because of the Greek communists (many of them academics, artists and intellectuals) who were sent there by the state during WWII, Ikaria has by now become known worldwide. It is more recently known as the “island where people forget to die” for the extra-long lifespan of its residents, said to be owed to several factors including diet, outdoor labor and a tight community.
The Ikarian record for Panygiria festivals that run from May through October is the most impressive of Greece, and visitors flock there throughout the summer to partake in the feast. Panygiria are the ingenious and pragmatic invention of close-knit agricultural communities, who created a happy way to bring everyone from neighboring villages together. Since an era preceding asphalt roads and mobile transport, the annual party was cause to reunite, celebrate life, friendship, collaboration, exchange, the bounty of nature and a job well done.
Throughout the Greek islands, during mainly the summer months and most commonly in August, when on the 15th the Greek Orthodox celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Panygiria village squares and churchyards come to life in a singular way. Slow-stewed and/or barbequed meat, local wines, tomato salad, savory pies and fresh fries prepared by locals are usually on the menu, served either at a low cost to raise funds for community initiatives or free. On some islands, festivals are centered around local produce, like Tinos’ artichoke festival where local housewives serve trays-full of tiny dishes and finger foods starring the vegetable.
Some Panygiria, like the one at Ai Iannis in Ikaria, are more vivacious and include surprising and symbolic rituals like a row of small fires made with remnants of the old harvest that visitors leap over one by one; or a magical moment at midnight when all the lights go out, the music stops and as soon as the huge crowd starts to quiet down it all suddenly starts up again, with circles within circles of dancers moving to the four-step Ikariotiko dance.
Other Panygiria are less eventful, end earlier and don’t involve being whipped, with almost no tourists filming everything their smartphones, but nevertheless hold a deep symbolism, connecting people to each other and to their God, music, history, culture, future and food, while embraced by the landscapes where they spend their life.
Either way, whatever Greek island you sail to this summer it is well worth doing a search on their traditional festivals. You wouldn’t want to be quietly reading your book while in the next village the world is dancing and drinking under the stars. See our top suggestions below.
Unmissable Panygiria To Sail To:
On August 15th in Alonissos, the naturally lush island celebrates the ‘marriage’ of nature’s bounty to human emotion by starting with the reenactment of a wedding ceremony. Wearing traditional wedding costumes, the “bride” and “groom” go to the church and get the party started. After this everyone joins in with lots of dancing, drinking and sweets. In Skopelos go to Glossa for a panygiri with wonderful traditional dances and other acts performed by the island’s traditional associations.
The Cyclades Islands are where it’s at when it comes to summer feast days, and especially on August 15th. Almost all the villages in Naxos host all-night celebrations with traditional costumes, music and foods.
On the 17th there’s another major Panygiri at Filoti village. In Amorgos the traditional rakomelo (raki cooked with honey and spices) flows free and local dishes like patatato and live music. Amorgos also hosts a feast day on August 6th where dancers fill the main square of “Loza” and fried whitebait, cod and chilled wine are consumed. Folegandros’s Koimisios church yard hosts a quieter celebration on August 15th with a single long bench laid out with food and live music. In Paros, at the magnificent Ekatopiliani (‘100 Doors’) Monastery in the port town of Parikia, and throughout the whole island, panygiria get everyone together in celebratory fun while on August 23rd don’t miss the rum-fueled dance-til-daylight feast day especially themed around Pirates in Naoussa!
In Santorini visit the panygiri of the Myrtidiotissa Virgin in Kamari, the Platsani Virgin in Oia, the holy Cross in Berissa and the Prophet Ilias monasteries at various villages to enjoy dancing, food and drink with the locals. Head to Kato Koufonissia to dance and sample fried fish and to celebrate for three days running in Serifos. In Donousa locals celebrate a month later, on September 14th, in a panygiri that brings together people from all over Greece. In Syros go to Ermoupoli, it’s capital, for a celebration that honors the coexistence of Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christian traditions through numerous traditional and cultural events throughout July and August. In Mykonos head to Ano Meras square on August 15th and again on the 23rd for music played with traditional instruments and local foods and wines.
Known for its delicious sardines, Lesvos in the Northern Aegean celebrates the tiny fish with big flavur every August 5-6 at Skala Kallonis with a live orchestra, plenty of ouzo (another of the island’s famous products) and obviously, sardines aplenty. On August 15th head to Agiassos or Petra for the liveliest celebrations.
In Chios, on July 22nd is the celebration of Agia Markella, the protector of the island. Traditionally the festivities last 3 days. People walk from all over the island of Chios (more than 40km) towards the Monastery of Agia Markella, that is situated in the NorthWestern side of the island, 7 km from Volisos village.
In Crete the whole island, known for its passion for hospitality, comes alive with raki-saturated celebration, endless hours of dizzying dances and generous helpings of foods.
In Corfu go to Benitses, Magoulada and Peroulades for the best panygiria.