From street-wide Easter celebrations and tributes to the Gods to parties praising the humble pistachio, it’s always party season in Greece. Here’s the pick of the festivals to go nuts for on your visit…
Greece is many things to travellers. It’s the cradle of Western civilisation, a sun-drenched escape full of hiking-route-laced islands, and it’s home to a Mediterranean diet fit for the Gods.
But any Greek will tell visitors that their festivals are the key to understanding life here. Ever since antiquity, when locals first dined and danced in honour of mythical deities and cheered on its Olympians, the Greeks have loved to put on a show. Festivals and events fill streets all year long, so take note: your diary is about to get very full...
Naoussa Festival (Municipality of Naoussa)
Greece’s year of festivals begins with one of its biggest. Apokreas (carnival season) affords locals and visitors the chance to enjoy a feast of dance, wine and meat for the three weeks in February/early March before the fasting of Lent and the run-up to Orthodox Easter.
It’s a festival that’s been celebrated since antiquity, originating as a dedication to Dionysus. Villages will hum to the sizzle of barbecues and the tavernas (restaurants) are stuffed with locals, first gorging on meat (week one) and then dairy (week two).
Apokreas culminates in a series of carnivals on its final weekend, where locals don ornate masks and take to the streets in vivid costumes, hoisting up the effigy of a giant ‘carnival king’ in one mass kaleidoscopic celebration. Patras in the Peloponnese region lays claim to the biggest example, with scores of brightly clad dancers and floats parading the cobbled lanes.
There are plenty of others, though: Rethymno on Crete prides itself on the huge treasure hunt that takes place through its narrow streets; in the town of Naoussa, hidden in the foothills of the Vermio Mountains in Central Macedonia, Carnival means performers re-enacting its traditions in masks, costumes and flower garlands.
Corfu Easter (Region of Ionian Islands)
The Apokreas celebrations feed into Easter. Kitchens fill with the smell of tsoureki bread (similar to brioche) and families may welcome you in to share their home-cooked food, including maghiritsa (tripe soup or fricassee, depending where you’re staying), served after midnight on Easter Saturday, while spit-roasted lamb will be on the menu for Easter Sunday.
But many towns and villages have some unique celebrations, with elaborate processions, brass bands and decorations. Corfu boasts one of the most vibrant, with hymn performances and orchestral music filling the streets by day, while religious processions can weave the island during the evening.
Spring sees living history come to Rhodes in May, where chainmail-clad knights fill the island’s cobbled squares at the Medieval Rose Festival. The carnival draws on the legacy of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, a religious order once charged with the defence of the Holy Land, with exhibitions, workshops and re-enactments filling the sites that the knights once defended.
Elsewhere, Scotland descends on the tiny but cosmopolitan island of Spetses in May, when well-dressed cyclists pedal its streets in the Tweed Run, while cars tear along the rocky mountain passes circling Athens in the Acropolis Rally.
Aegean Regatta (P Dimitrakopoulos)
Summer is when Greek festivities come alive, and travellers should head for the capital and ancient Epidaurus on the Peloponnese, about 140km south of Athens.
From June to August, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival soundtracks balmy summer days with a mix of opera, classical music and open-air plays, performed in locations such as the well-preserved fourth century BC theatre of Epidaurus. Ancient Greek tragedies play to crowds in the second-century amphitheatre on Acropolis Hill and the Greek National Opera performs in front of the Parthenon.
There’s contemporary theatre, too, with many of Greece’s upcoming playwrights, actors and dance companies often added to the bill. Movie buffs can equally enjoy the city’s historic sites, with the Athens Open Air Film Festival (Jun-Sep) held in Athens’ many open air screens, while ruins, art galleries and suburban parks are being transformed into cinemas showing blockbusters as well as small indie projects, some with live music.
July’s Kalamata Dance Festival champions both new Greek dance talent and global stars. For the best of the rest, the Molyvos International Music Festival, held on the island of Lesvos, brings together the best young classical musicians (August), and for a burst of adrenalin, the Aegean Regatta, a major yacht racing event, and Chios Half-Marathon both feature in August.
The year may be drawing to a close but party season in Greece is in full flow, and wanderers can enjoy an eclectic mix of events celebrating the arts, mythology and nuts. September and October sees the Dimitria Festival take over Thessaloniki with its spread of exhibitions, film screenings and gastronomy events.
Stick around in the city in November and you’ll also be treated to Greece’s biggest silver screen event, its International Film Festival.
For an alternative (and exhausting) tour of the capital and its eastern suburbs, join the Athens Authentic Marathon (November), which honours the ancient tale of a messenger running from the Battle of Marathon to Athens in order to spread word of victory over the Persians.
Away from the mainland, sleepy Aegina comes alive in September and goes nuts - literally. Look out for its four-day festival, which celebrates one of the island’s most sought-after (and tastiest) products: the pistachio.
Live music and theatre events mark the nut harvest, while local chefs whip up savoury and sweet recipes for you to try.
Greece’s festivals offer a glimpse into the country’s beating heart and soul. You can be sure that whenever you visit Greece there is a party going on somewhere - and you’re all invited.
This article was supported by the Greek tourist board. Visit www.wanderlust.co.uk/undiscovered-greece for more of Greece’s top travel secrets and ideas.
Main image: Athens and Epidaurus Festival, Herod Atticus Theatre (Region of Attica)