The Greeks have been partying since the dawn of Western civilisation. Take Epicurus – he dedicated his life to seeking out pleasure, creating a philosophy now known as Epicureanism. As you travel through Greece you’ll encounter religious celebrations – Greek Orthodox is the main player here – that span the nation, as well as smaller celebrations that are regional affairs or isolated to particular islands. Expect food, drink, dancing and music, and plenty of throwbacks to the ancient Greeks. The only Greek tragedy is that you can’t fit every festival in.
1. Orthodox Easter
Holy Week in Greece is the biggest spectacle of the year, with each day featuring different Orthodox traditions. Holy Thursday sees the traditional Easter bread, tosureki, being baked, usually with a red egg in the centre. Holy Friday is a day of mourning with church bells slowly ringing all day and just before midnight, as Holy Saturday begins, the churches are lit up with candlelight as people begin chanting ‘Christos Anesti’ – or ‘Christ rises’.
Each year in Athens, the ancient port of Piraeus sees this religious day celebrated in an extraordinary way. A local priest flings a crucifix into the sea and young men dive into the cold water to retrieve it. This ritual is echoed throughout Greece in small villages and on islands. This special ceremony is performed for locals, by locals, but tourists are welcome to watch and learn.
This festival offers the chance to experience the classics of Greek drama being performed in their original setting – an ancient theatre. With performances being held every Friday and Saturday night during the festival, there are plenty of opportunities to see Greek tragedies as originally intended.
4. Aegina Fistiki (Pistachio) Festival
In Aegina, pistachios are life. Pistachio fields cover the island and sale of these emerald nuts are vital for the local economy. So it makes sense that Aegina would hold a festival solely in their honour at the end of harvest in September. After you’ve had your fill of pistachio-flavoured dishes and desserts, there are plenty of market vendors to browse or performances to take in.
5. Ifestia Festival (Volcano Festival) Santorini
It’s not just romance that’s erupting in gorgeous Santorini. The annual Ifestia Festival, which is held every September, is dedicated to the volcano that shaped Santorini’s famous landscape after its eruption in 1646 BC. The explosion is estimated to have been 100 times more powerful than the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii. The Ifestia Festival features live music and a fantastic fireworks display coming out of the volcano, complete with sound and light effects to represent the lava flow and explosions.
6. The Carnival of Corfu
Corfu’s Carnival celebration resembles the famous Carnival of Venice and is thought to have come about when the Venetians conquered the island in the 13th century. The festival usually runs through February into March. Many colourful parades and feasts take place on the island, with locals dressing up in masks and traditional Venetian finery. At the end of the Great Parade a float dedicated to the King of Carnival, which is said to carry the locals’ sins, is burnt in a bonfire amid a giant street party.
7. The Athens Marathon
Held in November, the Athens Marathon is based on the Greek legend from which the marathon took its name. Legend has it that Pheidippides, a Greek soldiers and messenger, supposedly ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. It’s said that he ran the 40-odd kilometres without taking a break, eventually collapsing and dying once he had delivered his message to the Athenians.