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April 2, 2010

Easter on the Greek Island of Paros

Easter in Greece

Nobody does Easter better than the Greek island of Paros, where visitors are treated like family. Author Carol Mason finds herself hypnotized.

The Globe
April 1, 2010

You can believe, or not believe. But you can't fail to be immersed in the spirit of Easter in Greece.

It's the most important holiday in the Greek Orthodox calendar: a bigger to-do than Christmas. The Greeks, as we know, invented theatre – and Easter is a giant, living, breathing, immortal piece of it. From Athens, the spectacle spans to the tiniest of the 160 permanently inhabited islands, and everyone is into it. So don't go looking for a party-mate at 11 p.m. on Easter Saturday. Virtually the entire country will be in church.

The island of Paros does Easter better than anywhere else. It's the third largest in the Cyclades group, where you'll also find Mykonos and Santorini. Picture whitewashed churches with blue domes, orange blossom and bougainvillea tumbling down nearly every wall, mysteriously interlocking streets with no names that are no wider than the expanse of your outstretched arms, sugar-cube houses piled up on hillsides, or dotted sparsely on the windswept edge of a cliff. Paros's charm feels effortless.

Ordinarily, it has a population of 17,000, but this doubles around Holy Week. Tourists, most of them Greek, arrive for the festivities – especially for the re-enactment of the Passion of Christ. On Good Friday, the hillside village of Marpissa puts on a series of tableaux performed by locals, dramatizing the last days of Christ's life. Acting? Or have we biblically time-travelled? You could almost be fooled into thinking it.

There's a huge build-up to Easter, but it really gets going with the decoration of eggs on Holy Thursday. Families dye the kokkina avga the traditional red (to signify Christ's blood, with the egg representing new life) by boiling the skins of yellow onions in water and vinegar.

Locals say there are 200 or so churches on the island – many are the size of your master bedroom – and congregants keep an all-night vigil around the epitaphios, the bier that bears a replica of Christ's body. Women adorn it with fresh flowers; great pride is taken.

On Good Friday, a solemnity falls on usually convivial Greeks. Funeral bells ring out all over the island, this mourning melody carries across the swell of the blue Aegean, where brightly painted fishing boats bob alongside the real working boats that feed the island and send the fresh daily catch to the businesses in Athens. Flags fly at half-mast. Even the horn of the Blue Star ferry wails in respectful lament.

From midday on, each church has its bier lying in state. A steady stream of people comes to pay their respects. Many don't stay for the full service, yet in Paroikia, the island's capital, the Church of Our Lady of a Hundred Gates is almost impossible to leave. The strange humming of voices is hypnotic. I watch the course of impenetrable rituals from the open doors, then I sit outside on the step, eyes closed to the sunshine beating on my face, lulled by the sombre rhythm of a language and devotion that I don't understand. I may be the only person not dressed in black.

At nightfall, everyone heads to Marpissa. From afar, this amphitheatre of a white village is a-twinkle with hundreds of candles carried by the crowd that follows the epitaphios through the main streets. The pitch of their grief can't fail to move you. A choir sings; women sprinkle flowers and oregano, and burn incense. Others lean off balconies. The procession stops along the way, and at each pause, men, women and children dressed in costume perform various chapters of the Easter story in an orb of light: Christ's entry into Jerusalem, the repentance of Mary Magdalene, the Last Supper, Jesus praying on Mount Olive, the hanging of Judas and the Crucifixion. The whole thing is eerily realistic.

On Easter Saturday night, the church congregation sits in darkness holding long, unlit candles. When the clock strikes midnight, the priest lights the holy flame to symbolize the resurrection. The light from one candle is passed on until every candle is lit, then firecrackers burst into the sky. Christos Anesti. Christ is Risen! they shout. Alithos anesti. Truly, he is risen!

And from there on, it's a party. People mill about, carrying their glowing candles, winding the labyrinth streets to their homes, where the candles will be placed above the front door to burn in the shape of a cross. After the egg-cracking – a metaphor for Christ freeing himself from his tomb – everyone tucks into supper. It's traditional to start with mageiritsa, soup made with lamb organs, but it gets better after that: hiroméri, smoked salted pork; touloumisio, local cheese aged in goat skin; tsoureki, the sweet, braided, egg-washed bread; grilled vegetable dips to make you crave your five servings a day, and plenty of wine, ouzo and souma (a particularly head-blowing brew of pure alcohol made from distilled grape skins). The feast goes on all night.

Sunday brings more eating: The Marpissa football grounds is home to a Festival of Love, all laid on courtesy of the municipality. It's a merry occasion, with traditional music and dancing while a whole lamb revolves over a charcoal fire. Relish this with salads, seafood specialties, wine, ouzo and more ouzo. Everyone is invited. If you're on Paros at Easter, someone somewhere is going to make you forget that you are a tourist.

Then, on Monday, everything returns to normal. You're done with Easter, and eating, but you may never be done with Paros.

The gleam of morning sunshine is almost painful on the eyes, and seems to endlessly reflect off the white houses and mellow sea. And while, in April, the sea might not be at its warmest, if you stroke through the ribbons of sapphire and emerald, you’ll experience that ebullient illusion of being the only person swimming in the Aegean. As the Greek composer Giannis Markopoulos said, “In the Cyclades you are never a stranger. Immediately the earth, human, sea, its sky and houses make a dialogue with you.”

And this is true. From the minute the tiny Olympic Airways flight circled the island to land, Paros spoke to me, and kept on saying all the right things. On my first venture into town, an elderly man gave me a rose. Someone else tried to offload a kitten (cats run amok on Paros because the Greeks don’t spay and neuter; some people own about 20). The clothing boutique owner couldn’t bear to see me in flip-flops – 26 C being winter for a Greek – so she gave me a free pair of brand-new imported Italian shoes. When I protested that I couldn’t possibly accept her offer, she charged me a token two euros. Then, ironically, I did catch a cold, and the local café owner fed me a bottomless cup of hot souma with honey, and someone else bought me socks. As a tourist, I was hardly a rarity. But Parians take an interest in you. Of the Northern Europeans I met in the month I was there, it was easy to see why they had been coming back for 20-plus years.

Thankfully absent are the rows of accommodations that pockmark the shoreline of so many of the bigger islands popular with budget-conscious travellers. On Paros, you don’t feel like you’ve been segregated to your designated zone by locals who don’t want to see you in your drunken glory or your Union Jack shorts. There is a sense of the undiscovered here, especially in low season. You can spend days exploring diminutive churches, rarely seeing anyone who isn’t Greek. Or hike the Byzantine Way down to the sea from Lefkes, the island’s highest village with one of the most breath-catching 360-degree views I’ve seen in all of Europe. Or check out the sound of silence in the Marathi marble quarries – the stuff used by ancient sculptors to make, among other things, the Venus de Milo. Then there is always the neighbouring island of Antiparos, which I had almost circumnavigated before I spotted a single other car on the road.

I’d like to own a house here. Or come back every year, for Easter, or for any other excuse. To sit one more time in the fishing village of Naoussa, in an open-air taverna at the water’s edge, and eat sun-dried mackerel, charred on the grill, while half a dozen kittens chase after the front-runner who has the whole sardine in its mouth. To dip coarse-textured golden bread into yellow fava beans that glisten in the sun with pools of green olive oil. To sip a glass of insanely affordable Moraitis reserve red from the local vineyard.

Happy Easter? How can it not be?

Bestselling writer Carol Mason is the author of The Love Market.