Celebrating in the Saronic Islands

Ever since I was a baby being carried around in my bassinet, I’ve been spending Easter at a tiny island located just an hour away from Piraeus port of Athens: Hydra. And every single time I go there, I still experience the same excitement: the minute I hear the ship’s honk while entering the harbour, I stick my face to the windows and gaze at the traditional, stone-built houses that decorate the pier. Then after the captain thanks us for choosing that ship I always find myself slightly annoyed when hearing him say that he hopes to welcome us back on board soon, for if I could, I would stay here for as long as possible.

When arriving at Hydra, I always feel I’ve travelled back in time, since it has a unique characteristic; in Hydra the only means of transport is, well…donkeys! Donkeys serve multiple purposes ranging from carrying around locals and tourists to delivering post and even transporting construction materials, furniture and electrical appliances to newly-built houses.

They can be found waiting in line on the main port, their reins and hair decorated with colourful beads, or trying to make their way through the winding narrow roads of the port. An old lady once explained to me why the roads are so narrow and why the houses are built so close to one another. ‘In the old days’ she said, ‘people were afraid of pirate raids and they built these narrow roads, so that only two to three pirates could pass at a time’. She also told me that the houses being so close to each other served as an escape network to the harbour.

Once in Hydra my first action always is to take off my watch and bury it deep into my back-pack along with any worries I may have. Here life flows at a different pace. On weekdays most small businesses will close at noon, so that the employer and the employees can go home and have lunch with their families followed by the absolutely essential Greek ‘mid-day nap’ before they re-open their stores in the afternoon. And on weekends all the cafeterias scattered along the pier will be full of people drinking their coffee in the morning sun, while playing backgammon or chatting with the local fishermen about the day’s catch. Strangers will greet each other as though they’ve always known each other and people will wave at the fisherman and wait to see them waving back.

The best time to visit the island is at Easter time, because Hydra has its age-old traditions and unique customs. On Good Friday, the saddest day for a Christian (Christ’s crucifixion), the island’s girls and women set about to collect the prettiest flowers from all around the island to decorate the wooden death-bed of Jesus. Later in the evening an enactment of Christ’s death takes place and all the faithful gather to the churches to worship his flower-decorated death-bed. In ‘Kaminia’, a small village just a short walk from the main port, the people light candles and follow the procession, led by boys carrying Christ’s death-bed on their shoulders, all around the village, and everyone is chanting magnificent anthems glorifying Christ. This candle-lit procession eventually arrives at the port in the heart of the village, where the boys, still bearing their load, enter the sea creating an unforgettable spectacle. By doing this it is believed that they bless the sea-waters so that the sailors and fishermen of the island can have safe journeys.

The next day is the happiest day for a Christian, celebrating Christ’s resurrection. When the church bells strike midnight, the island’s sky is lit with fireworks and people start heading home to take part in the egg-cracking tradition. In this each person chooses a red-dyed egg and hits another person’s egg in an attempt to crack it while keeping his own intact. This symbolises the renewal of life made possible by Christ’s resurrection. After that everyone enjoys a good dinner including the ‘magiritsa’ soup officially ending the 40-day lent.

Finally, on Easter Sunday everyone will take out their roasts and start roasting a lamb for lunch. Then usually music will be played and the meal will be followed by Greek dancing until late in the evening. Afterwards everyone will gather at the main port to see the fake body of Judas being set on fire followed by even more fireworks.

Something you must do when you visit Hydra is take a walk from the main port to ‘Vlychos’, a village located pretty much on the other end of the island. This is a fantastic walk along narrow roads on cliffs above the sea. At Easter time the cliffs will look like a mosaic of red poppies and yellow daises that will contrast wonderfully with the turquoise-blue background of the sea and the beautiful odour will accompany you while you’re walking completing a magical experience!

Upon your arrival at Vlychos, I suggest you rejuvenate yourself by swimming in the sea before you go to the small family-run restaurant to reward yourself with fresh fish and traditional home-made Greek dishes like ‘mousaka’, ‘stuffed tomatoes’ and kalamari. And instead of wine or beer, why not try the ‘ouzo’?

When Easter is finally over and you’re looking for an excuse to delay your return, why not stop for a couple of days in Aegina, another island located between Hydra and Piraeus. Aegina is famous for its pistacchios, its fresh fish and of course the ancient temple of Aphaia, which was built 2500 years ago. It is an idyllic place to visit, located in the middle of a forest in a very tranquil area. Walking within a very close proximity of the Temple and seeing the bright light reflect upon the ancient columns is a mesmerising experience. The temple forms one of the peaks of an imaginary triangle with the other two peaks being formed by the Acropolis in Athens and the Temple of Poseidon in Sounio. According to mythology, the temple was built for Britomartis, Zeus’ daughter, whose incredible beauty made the King of Crete, Minos, fall madly in love with her and left her no choice but to flee the island to escape him. The legend has it that she was caught in the nets of fishermen who were sailing towards Aegina and because they fell in love with her too, she immediately disappeared when they reached the island and was never found since. This explains the name of the temple (i.e. ‘Aphaia’), which in ancient Greek means ‘invisible’.

After leaving Aphaia and coming back to the main port I recommend you rent a bicycle and cycle to ‘Perdika’ along a beautiful coastal route. Perdika is a fishing vilage, where you will see fishermen repairing their nets, being surrounded by tens of seagulls that are performing impressive acrobatics in the hope that they will be rewarded with small fish from their nets. Talking to the fishermen is always interesting, since they have great stories to tell. Once a fisherman told me he caught a fish weighing 2 tonnes. ‘It destroyed all my nets and nearly toppled my boat over, but in the end I managed to catch it’, Mr. Andreas told me proudly.

On your way back to the main port, take a short break and sit on the swing bench located half way between Perdika and the main port to admire the sun that, like a skilful artist, dyes the sky in bright colours while setting in the sea. This view has been captured in many paintings and I’m sure it will be captured in your heart too!

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