There’s a sound that reverberates through Skyros town during the ‘Apokries’ Carnival season that you will never forget. It clangs and rumbles and bounces by, hiding in the side streets before emerging again, louder, as if its force has doubled. It’s an echoing chime that makes you either stop in your tracks or inquisitively follow…
In the weeks leading up to the 40-day fasting period before the Greek Orthodox Easter, parts of the country come alive with grand celebrations. I never thought of Greece as being associated with carnivals – perhaps because of the many years spent on islands where the atmosphere was serene and mass gatherings more intimate – yet there is great significance in them.
While Athens is awash with street parties and late-night reveling, some of the mainland towns put on quite a show, including the ‘Flour War’ in Galaxidi and the grand parade in the port city of Patras. The Sporades island of Skyros is no exception to the rule of continuing age-old tradition during this time. In fact, it has one of the most unique.
Here, masquerade and merriment stem from the folklore of the ‘geros’ and ‘korela’. Men play the role of the ‘geros’ and wear a furry black cape, white trousers, waist belt of goat bells (weighing in at around 50 kilos) and a hanging goatskin to cover their faces. Jumping around and waving their wooden sticks, they are accompanied by the veiled ‘korela’ – the island girls or Skyrian brides – dressed in white and yellow waving a scarf to lead the way (some men dress this part too).
This spectacle is unlike any carnival I’ve ever witnessed. It captures your attention by startling you with its cacophony, and by the awe as you question the meaning. This celebration is not only about the coming of Lent but about the end of winter and the start of spring, as well as the mythological tales of a young Achilles who used Skyros as his hiding place to avoid being dragged into the Trojan war, where he was disguised as a girl. Skyros, it seems, has a long history of clever disguise.
For weeks, these figures can be seen strolling the streets and piercing the still air with the clatter as soon as evening sets in. But on the last weekend before what is known as ‘Clean Monday’ (‘Ash Monday’ or the first day of Lent), the Carnival becomes a true spectacle.
Starting from the castle at the very top of the hill in the early evening on the Saturday, dozens of these traditional figures paraded down through the main street that winds through the quiet neighbourhoods of Skyros town. The town was heaving with people awaiting the final performance, filling bars and restaurants, pavements and balconies. Rather than wait at the bottom, I decided to join the mix of quirky, masked characters and become a part of the convoy, whose aim was to make as much noise as possible as it entered the last stretch of town, to gather in the open square to dance.
The side streets form the backstage of the Carnival, where veils of costumed locals briefly come off as they take a rest from the hard work of the performance. The majority of these guys continue until the early hours of the morning, so the switch of commotion to calm is necessary, and builds excitement in the crowd awaiting their reappearance.
And while the goat men are laid to rest for another year, the playfulness continues until the final day when satirical performances known as the ‘Trata’ take place. These comical performances poke fun at topical issues, society, the island’s Mayor and innocent bystanders. Even if you don’t understand, it’s fun to join the energetic crowds, sip alcohol from the cups hanging around their necks and rejoice with them in what is undoubtedly one of the happiest times of the year.
Skyros Island Exploration – Living History
Aside from the mesmerising Carnival chaos, Skyros is a calming island of juxtaposed arid and forested landscapes and rich history. People often used the word ‘freedom’ to relate to the island’s own microcosm of Greek culture, as well as the indulgence of finding a part of the island to stand within, with no one else around you.
You’ll see many pictures of the ancient Skryos town perched up high, first built behind the mountain from the view of invading pirates, and it’s this image of a hillside layered with white buildings and chunky cobbled stones that remains (although now more inhabited). Within it lies a plethora of 13th century Venetian and 16th century Ottoman architecture from the days of rule. Streets of varying hues of Greek white against the crisp blue sky are interspersed with ancient houses, stone archways and some of the most exquisite chapels, of which there are nearly 200 altogether on the island.
In Skyros you can walk through history – there are two museums showcasing centuries of culture, tradition and architecture. The Faltaits Museum in particular is like entering into a tardis containing items of Skyrian heritage. Housed in the residence of the “Faldai” family, maze-like floors of documents and images, crafts and ancient materials from the post-Byzantine period to the present day make up the collection, as well as family heirlooms. To sustain a unique culture into the modern day is to remember its past.
Within the shop-lined streets pay close attention to the local craft shops. Many still bear the traditional woodcarving interiors that epitomize Skyrian design – delicate designs that fill a space consisting of three rooms, the largest being the social space with low furniture. One of the best preserved is in Ioanna’s Pottery shop in the centre of town.
Where to Stay and Getting Around
Hire a car and seek out the knowledge of locals. I stayed in the Hotel Nefeli in Skyros town – one of the only establishments open all-year-round, with close connections to the right people who can show you the best of the island. My guide quickly fell into the role of being my firm but loving Greek Mother, so my tour of the island became more than just a quick flash of natural hotspots and cultural gems.
Greek Mother was a bold character and knew everyone. First, we jumped into the car of two Greek women on their way to one of the ancient monasteries (of which Greek Mother would offer her knowledge in exchange). Next, we were the passengers of a British woman (who we met at the monastery) and planning a road trip for the rest of the day (Greek Mother would again offer her knowledge as currency). This is small-town Greece – hospitality comes naturally.
Skyros was once split into two parts by a huge river and the contrasts of the island in such a short space are fascinating. We drove through the forested green north, dotted with bays and beaches and natural springs, stopped at the port for a coffee and gossip (Greek Mother knows everyone, remember?) and through the arid rocky south, largely used as a base for the army and air force and mostly inhabited the famous small-bodied Skyrian ponies. It reminded me of some Middle Eastern desert lands and the interesting split made you feel as if you had visited two islands.
Each day, from morning until evening, I would indulge in some of the finest Greek food I’ve ever tasted back at the hotel. I’ve never been much of a foodie until I came to Greece, but now I’m excited when it comes to lunch and dinner. This is an island known for its meat and cheese in particular, and with fresh produce selected from the hotel’s family-run farm on the island, I indulged in crisp and tasty Greek salads and prime meats, including goat, which is tender and has a distinct gamey taste. Despite it being my first time trying it, I soon began to like it.
For many years I spent time visiting the more established and well known of the Greek islands, knowing little about what was so close to Athens – Skyros is only a 20-minute flight from the capital. While traditional Greek events and customs such the ‘Apokries’ Carnival are the perfect excuse to visit, it’s wise to remember that in a country marked by ancient civilisation and age-old heritage, even the smaller and lesser-known lands are filled with so much of it too.
Things to Know
- The Carnival season in Greece occurs before the start of Lent, and typically takes place in February
- Flights to Skyros from Athens are approximately €30 each way with Aegean Airlines
- Greek Mother is a local volunteer guide called Maria who lives on the island and regularly leads group trips. The Hotel Nefeli can help put you in touch should you be planning to tour the island in a short time
- For further information on travel throughout Greece, visit the portal DiscoverGreece.com, who hosted me during my time in Skyros. A comprehensive resource, you can use its iGreece facility to plan your travels in and around the country