Tradition and Culture on the Greek Islands

Original open uri20160815 3469 v6gsav?1471304493?ixlib=rails 0.3
Tradition and Culture on the Greek Islands
Traditions run deep on the Greek islands. From church festivals to kafenio culture, handcrafted ceramics to shepherds' trails, locals have repeated the same rituals for centuries. Follow in their footsteps for an authentic travel experience.
By Rachel Howard, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by age fotostock
  • 1 / 6
    Original open uri20160815 3469 v6gsav?1471304493?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Churches and Monasteries
    The Orthodox church is at the heart of Greek culture. Blue-domed, whitewashed chapels are iconic symbols of the Greek islands. They were often built along the coast, so people could pray for relatives out at sea. One of the most famous—featured in the movie Mamma Mia!—is Agios Ioannis on Skopelos, high on a rocky outcrop lashed by the waves. Magnificent monasteries such as St. John the Theologian on Patmos attract thousands of pilgrims, but retain their mystical allure. It's a stiff hike to the cliffside monastery of Hozoviotissa on Amorgos, dangling almost 1,000 feet above the bluest sea—but the view alone is a spiritual experience. Try to time your visit for the morning or evening liturgy, and remember to wear modest clothing.
    Photo by age fotostock
  • 2 / 6
    Original open uri20160815 3469 1bhxvfd?1471304497?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Kafenio Culture
    Cafeterias, bars, and upmarket restaurants have cropped up on the busiest islands, but the heart of local life is still the traditional kafenio. On far-flung islands such as Amorgos and Folegandros, every village has at least one kafenio, where old men nurse a Greek coffee for hours, bicker over card games, or yell at the TV while watching soccer games. Many kafenia double as grocery shops and tavernas: At Eirini's in Ano Meria, in the outback of Folegandros, you can tuck into meatballs and matsata (rooster with homemade noodles) surrounded by shelves of washing powder and canned tomatoes. At Prekas, on the port of Katapola, you can buy ferry tickets and feast on some of the finest seafood on Amorgos.
    Photo by Angelo Cavalli/age fotostock
  • 3 / 6
    Original open uri20160815 3469 1b3o65i?1471304502?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Easter Traditions
    The Greek Orthodox religion considers Easter to be the most important holiday, and on Corfu it is celebrated more vigorously than elsewhere on the islands. Palm Sunday starts with a procession through the streets, and celebrations continue all week. On the Saturday before Easter, locals throw giant vases out of their windows and onto the streets—to clean out the old year and to make noise to welcome spring (and, according to legend, to attract suitors for their daughters). At midnight, locals gather at churches, the lights go out, and candlelight spreads among the crowd as everybody lights each other’s candles. The original flame for this ceremony is flown in from Jerusalem and spreads across Greece.
    Photo by age fotostock
  • 4 / 6
    Original open uri20160815 3469 1lywgb1?1471304515?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Head Inland
    There's more to the Greek islands than beaches. Head inland and you'll find chapels hidden among olive groves, goats jangling through sage-scented valleys, and drowsy villages where time has stood still. On Andros, the mountainous interior ripples with rushing streams, springs, and waterfalls—now easily accessible thanks to Andros Routes, a grassroots initiative to waymark 186 miles of footpaths. On Naxos, you'll stumble upon medieval watchtowers, Byzantine churches, and even giant ancient statues on the mountain trails.
    Photo by Angelo Cavalli/age fotostock
  • 5 / 6
    Original open uri20160815 3469 149r7oo?1471304525?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Traditional Crafts
    Traditional crafts and folk artists abound on the Greek islands. On Skyros, you'll see old ladies on stoops bent over embroidery and wood-carvers chipping away at miniature chairs in their workshops. The Faltaits Historical and Folklore Museum has a wonderful collection of crafts in a traditional Skyrian house. The island of Sifnos has produced fire-resistant clay since antiquity; there are still dozens of potteries, such as Lembesis and Atsonios, selling terra-cotta casseroles and pretty painted bowls. Tinos is an island of basket weavers and marble sculptors; in Pyrgos, every door and window frame is decorated with carved stone birds and flowers, and there's an excellent Museum of Marble Crafts.  

    Photo by age fotostock
  • 6 / 6
    Original general placeholder image.png?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Take Things Slow and Stay Up Late
    The Greek islands are about taking things slow. Everything happens late. Brunch isn't served before noon, and lunch tends to slip into sundowners at beach bars like Alemàgou and Hydronetta. The first screening at outdoor cinemas doesn't start before 9 p.m., with the late show at 11 p.m. Bars stay open until the last customer leaves—often as the sun rises. (Castro Bar on Astypalea is the best place to stay up until the sun floats out of the sea.) The only bar that closes early (which in Greece means 2 a.m.) is Astivi 1673, on Patmos, because that's when the monks from the monastery nearby wake up for morning prayers.