Sharing a traditional Orthodox Greek Easter week

Marion Ainge celebrates the Greek Orthodox Easter on the island of Crete where guests at The Mistral Solos’ Hotel in Maleme, Western Crete learn about the customs and culture of this special celebration

Epitaphios
Epitaphios

Centuries-old rituals, candle-lit customs, festivals, fireworks, feasting and spit-roasted lamb are part of a Traditional Orthodox Greek Easter. And during this time, there isn’t an Easter chick, bunny or chocolate egg in sight!

At The Mistral Solos’ Hotel, Maleme, Western Crete, their carefully devised itinerary ensures guests feel welcome and included in the week’s themed experience of the biggest holy celebration of the year. The hotel’s three minibuses are ours for the duration!

The Greek Orthodox Easter follows the old Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar in the UK. The feast day is the highlight, but we’re here to make the journey, following deep-rooted steps in the days preceding Easter Sunday.

The weather is warm and sunny, and spring flowers are bursting into bloom. On Easter Wednesday, in region’s capital Chania, along the colour-splashed waterside of the Venetian harbour, children and black-clad yia yias (grandmothers) fashion flower wreaths in preparation for the celebrations. In the narrow, cobbled back streets, shops and cafes acknowledge the cultural significance of Pascha with displays of candles.

Marion and Mama Katerina with eggs
Marion and Mama Katerina with eggs

On Holy Thursday, in commemoration of the Last Supper, preparations for Jesus Christ’s resurrection are underway in Greek homes. At the Mistral, we have fun with Mama Katerina (owner Adonis’ mother, now in her 80s), in the kitchen to bake special Easter biscuits (Koulouakia).

We help to dye eggs (and our hands!) red, representing the blood of Christ. On Easter feast day, the eggs will be cracked with friends as is the custom.

Gonia Monastery
Gonia Monastery

We make an evening pilgrimage to the 16th century Gonia Monastery, Kolymbari, for the reading of the 12 apostles. A long grey-bearded, black-clothed priest walks up the aisle and disappears behind a curtain. The words are read, chanted or sung while the congregation stays silent. A young mother hushes the small child on her knee. It’s humbling to see many of the faithful standing and focused on their devotional spirit. We leave quietly after the first reading which takes 45 minutes. The rest may well continue until around midnight.

Voukolies market
Voukolies market

It’s Good Friday and we gather with hundreds from all over Crete at the annual Voukolies street market. Unique to Crete, this bazaar began at the time of Turkish occupation, going back 160 years, and takes place only on Good Friday. Families, friends, neighbours and visitors swarm into the tiny village to buy anything and everything including Lenten specialities such as home-made cakes and bread. In the livestock section, sheep aren’t celebrating as many households will be spit roasting a whole one for the Easter Sunday party!

But it’s still Good Friday and early evening we join dignitaries, priests and the people of Chania to witness the procession of the Easter Epitaphios. The epitaph is an embroidered cloth which depicts the body of Christ. It is placed on a bier above which a high wooden frame covered with spring flowers and carried on the shoulders of priests and followed by believers holding lighted candles. A slow-marching band playing solemn music, around the village. This procession enters the church and represents the funeral of Christ.

Easter Saturday we decorate white candles with ribbons, and flowers from the hotel garden. The candles will be lit by the ‘holy flame’. In the evening, at the hotel, guests pass sharing plates of delicious, home-cooked Greek and Mediterranean dishes around the long table. The healthy Cretan diet comprises organic vegetables, mainly from the hotel garden, locally farmed meat and fish and lots of home-produced olive oil. Carafes of red and white wine keep coming. It’s so easy for single travellers to make friends at this warm, family hotel.

Each of the spacious double bedrooms has a balcony or terrace. There’s a pool and Jacuzzi at the back, another pool at the front and circular bar on the patio where guests meet and chat over a drink before dinner. Guests feel welcome and special as soon as they arrive. Some have been coming for more than 30 years.

The Mistral is situated on a through road in the small resort of Maleme, but the relatively underdeveloped area is not overrun with tourists. There’s a pleasant, sea-front walk, lined with a few bars and hotels. Buses take passengers to nearby Platanias, with lots of shops and a sandy beach, Kolymbari, with its pretty harbour, just a ten-minute ride away and Chania.

After dinner, we’re at the church of Agios Antonios with crowds of locals for the service of resurrection. A bonfire in the grounds symbolises the death of Judas and firecrackers and fireworks signify that Christos Anesti – Christ is Risen. Candles are lit from one person to another. We carry ours back to The Mistral to bring luck for the coming year.

Spit-roasting lamb
Spit-roasting lamb

The Easter Sunday celebrations begin! Family and friends arrive at this joyous time and everyone is happy and smiling. When the spit-roasted sheep is ready and prepared, it’s brought to the table on huge platters. This, accompanied by fresh Greek salads, stuffed tomatoes and peppers, tzatziki, potatoes, boureki and more, is a feast indeed and the wine keeps flowing. A bouzouki/vocal duo entertain and Mistral team member Agis performs the traditional rembetika. We all join him for the Zorba dance.

On Easter Monday we visit the charming Argyroupoli village, built on the ruins of the ancient city of Lapa, one of the most important Roman sites in western Crete. Here, springs are formed by the White Mountains with water running through aqueducts, flowing down walls and seeping from stones. We stop on the way back to take a photo of Crete’s only natural lake, Lake Kournas.

Wonderful memories of this Traditional Orthodox Greek Easter Week will come home with us.

Next steps

To plan and book your holiday to Greece, staying at The Mistral Solos’ Hotel, Maleme, Crete, call Silver Travel Advisor on 0800 412 5678.

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Marion Ainge

Freelance travel writer & member of the International Travel Writers’ Alliance

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