Rick Steves' Travel Blog
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Just before midnight on Easter Saturday, Nafplio’s main square fills with people. The bishop gives a blessing and declares that Christ is risen. Then the candlelight (which came to Nafplio from Jerusalem via Athens, as it does each Easter) is brought out and sparks a sea of flickering flames, as it spreads from candle to candle. At midnight, huge firecrackers make the square feel like some Middle East disaster before fireworks light up the sky. (Church facades in villages all over Greece are literally pockmarked with these celebratory Easter explosions.) Finally, everyone shares the traditional Easter kiss of love before heading home for a huge after-midnight feast. For weeks after Easter, Greeks will still be greeting each other with “Christ is risen!” (Christos Anesti!).
Filming little kids can be a wonderful experience. But for our crew, it’s never been quite as delightful as last week, when we shot a sequence with little Evalina with her godparents. Even with a strange film crew in the living room, she was perfectly at ease. And when we needed to repeat a scene, she did it exactly the same way.
In this video clip, you’ll see our guide Patty keeping the yelping dog quiet outside, while beautiful Evalina receives (for the third time) her Easter gift of a big chocolate egg and a candle. With this candle, she’ll join in the ritual lighting of candles at midnight as Easter Sunday arrives. The candles have nice little gifts attached — in this case, earrings.
Leaving their house, our hosts bid us Kali Anastasi — “Have a good Resurrection!”
Last week, I enjoyed filming Easter traditions in Greece for an upcoming public television special. Here are some of the vivid images that we captured.
By the way, many Americans are not traveling in Greece these days because of this country’s economic woes. I find this totally illogical. I’ve been here for a week, and let me tell you: The traveler is barely aware of the economic crisis. Rather, the main impressions I’ll take away from this trip are about the importance of health, family, friends, and embracing life.
In Greece, Easter eggs are dyed deep red, symbolizing the blood of Christ shed at the Crucifixion. You can buy packets of blood-red dye at any store. On Easter Sunday at the big family feast, loved ones will crack their eggs together. The person whose egg doesn’t crack enjoys good luck in the following year.
It’s a custom for godparents to have a little quality time with their godchildren at Easter. Why not decorate eggs? We filmed a delightful moment as this godmother lovingly helped her sweet godchild in the kitchen.
Even more than Western Christian churches, Greek Orthodox churches are slathered in symbolism. In our little Nafplio church, ostrich eggs hung from the chandeliers. Of course, eggs are a part of any Easter celebration — secular or religious. Easter is celebrated this time of year because it has pagan, pre-Christian, “end of winter, start of spring” roots. This ostrich egg may be precious, but like any old egg, it symbolizes how, just as life comes from an egg, life also comes with the Resurrection of Christ.
In our script, we mention how Easter is likely designed to replace the pagan spring festival of the fertility goddess Eostra. And Eostra’s sidekick was a rabbit — a very fertile critter, and the reason why we still have the Easter Bunny today. Here in Greece, I didn’t see a bunny anywhere, until I spotted these two guys on our last day.
Celebrating Easter in Greece is an unforgettable experience. On Good Friday evening in Nafplio, it seems the entire town turns out for what is essentially a grand funeral procession. As pallbearers navigate the winding back lanes, flames flicker on faces, and grannies look down from balconies, you feel the centuries of tradition going strong. Candlelit choirs sing of how the Virgin Mary mourned (“Life is sweet, I’ve lost my son, my sorrow is too much to bear”).
Here are a few more photos from my recent TV shoot in Greece — one of several countries included in my upcoming Rick Steves’ European Easter public television special.
The Easter greeting here in Greece, “Kalo Pascha,” literally means “good passing” — a passing from sadness (the Crucifixion) to happiness (the Resurrection). I was told, “It mixes together, like births come with pain.”
Most of these photos were snapped in the middle of the night, as Good Friday was just starting. On Good Friday, the faithful fill the church as if attending a funeral. You’ll notice lots and lots of flowers. As flowers are an important part of any Greek burial (they’re tossed into the grave with the dirt), the priest scatters flowers upon the symbolic tomb of Christ. He then ritualistically showers the entire congregation with flowers. (Tracking the priest with our cameraman, I found myself in an April shower of petals, and folded my hands prayerfully. Later I saw that the more appropriate response was to just have fun and enjoy the moment.)
Be sure to click on each image below to learn more about Good Friday rituals in the Greek Orthodox faith.
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus and his apostles have their last peaceful moments together at the Last Supper. Many Greek Orthodox hardly sleep that night, as the crucifix is decorated with flowers.
On Good Friday morning, a service is held as the priest removes Christ from the cross. When it passes behind the iconostasis, the figure is replaced with a shroud bearing the image of Jesus. This is paraded through the church on its way to a symbolic burial. These boys with candles lead the way.
After the shroud is placed in the ceremonial tomb (or epitaph), people line up to kiss it.
With huge emotion and commotion, the epitaph is carried out of the church and into the city…and the Good Friday procession begins.
It seemed the entire city was out, young and old, walking with the epitaph. Choirs sang, and old-timers looked on from balconies — their candles lit in worshipful solidarity. It was a timeless experience.
Three churches all paraded their respective epitaphs through Nafplio. All of the processions met on the main square, where the bishop (who happened to have the longest, whitest beard of all) gave a blessing. People then dispersed to await the Resurrection.
In the Greek Orthodox tradition, the events of Good Friday begin late Thursday night, and proceed step by step with elaborate rituals and incense-filled services. This clip captures the intensity.
On Good Friday morning, a service is held during which the priest removes Christ from the cross. Christ is covered in a shroud and carried through the congregation. Disappearing behind the iconostasis, the body re-emerges as an image on a shroud. The priest carries the shroud to be placed in a flower-bedecked tomb. As flowers are a big part of any Greek burial, the priest strews flowers upon Christ, and then showers petals on all gathered. In this clip, notice the empty cross and the flower-covered tomb awaiting the arrival of Jesus’ shroud.
Our Easter special for public television is in the can. We finished shooting on Eastern Orthodox Easter — which was this past Sunday — in Nafplio, Greece.
For our filming, we were blessed to find the friendliest Greek Orthodox priest, Father Dionysis, running the town’s amazing little Church of Panagia (Mary Above All Saints). Our first day was spent scouting, making connections, and getting the religious rituals sorted out.
A fun part of my work is to give another culture meaning so it becomes less foreign to an American visitor. Without a little context, Greek Orthodox ritual, music, and worship can look like ZZ Top at a séance. But, as with most things, once you understand it, you can see the beauty in it.
I like to ask Orthodox priests why they wear long beards. Father Dionysis said, “Orthodox priests wear long beards as a sign of wisdom, experience, and respect.” (In Bosnia’s Republika Srpska a few years ago, when I asked a long-bearded priest, he joked, “It’s to frighten Americans.”)
I think Eastern Orthodox Christianity seems foreign to many Western sensibilities because we in the West strive to be more cerebral. In the East, people allow the brain to take a back seat to the soul, heart, and emotions. Father Dionysis explained that Orthodoxy is not an ideology, but a feeling. He told me, “You look at the sky with eyes of the earth. An Orthodox Christian looks at the earth with eyes of the sky.”
As we left, he bid us goodbye saying (in his tiny English), “Forever happy.”
Some Orthodox Christians refer to non-Orthodox as “those who have yet to enjoy the incense.” Father Dionysis explained that every aroma comes with its own philosophy. Sorting through his various incense powders, he explained that during the service on Holy Saturday (after the Crucifixion but before the Resurrection), a change in the aroma would usher in the transition from Crucifixion sorrow to Resurrection joy. After all, worship is for all the senses. The entire body participates.
Trying to illustrate how each aroma elicits a distinct emotional impact, Father Dionysis asked us to inhale one that was “the Passion and the Resurrection.” In this shot, our local guide, Patty, gets a whiff of something smoky — “of fire, symbolizing the heart in flames so the prayer has a special warmth.”
We’re in Greece, where we just wrapped up filming our Easter special for public television. And, while Easter may seem like old news to you, it was just yesterday here in Greece. Because Eastern Orthodox Christians use a different calendar than western Christians, Orthodox Easter was a week later this year…making it possible for our crew to be in two places — Italy and Greece — on the “same day.”
I’ll be reporting on Greek Easter for the next few days. While some countries do Christmas with more gusto, it’s clear Greece (along with Spain) pulls out all the stops for Easter. We decided to focus on the action in my favorite small Greek town, Nafplio.
My longtime favorite hotel in Nafplio is Pension Marianna, run by Petros Zotos and his brothers. Here’s a zippy review of their amazing breakfast (fresh from the Zotos family farm, and very organic), followed by a peek at the view from their rooftop breakfast terrace.
At the end, you’ll notice me stumbling over the words for “good day” (kalimera) and “squid” (kalamari). As a clueless tourist, I often get my day off to an embarrassing start by greeting people with a cheery, “Squid!”
My son Andy has a favorite student-friendly restaurant in Rome (Miscellanea), where he takes his travelers for a good, affordable meal. With a wine-lubricated gang of seventy 18- to 20-year-old students, Andy needs to stand on a chair to make announcements. Here he explains how to get a good seat at the Easter morning Mass and be properly positioned to see the Popemobile. I thoroughly enjoyed my evening with these fun-loving students so eager to experience Easter Mass with Papa Francesco.
My son, Andy, runs a successful tour company that offers American students doing a semester abroad educational, economical, and efficient three-day tours for around €200. Andy and his guides lead his “Weekend Student Adventures” in cities all over Europe. While working in Rome this Easter, I got to join his group for an evening.
Here I am with one of Andy’s typical tour groups: lots of energy…and lots of girls!
Andy’s Easter tour is his biggest of the year: Three groups (two different weeklong tours, plus a three-day weekend tour) overlap so that everyone can be in Rome for the excitement of Easter.
Andy has a favorite student-friendly restaurant in Rome (Miscellanea, just behind the Pantheon) where his tour members can enjoy an affordable yet quality Italian meal. With a happy gang this size, Andy needs to stand on a chair to make announcements.
We took our kids to Europe every year for about 20 years. I didn’t realize Andy was paying much attention. And now, as a 28-year-old entrepreneur, Andy is employing guides all over Europe, developing an amazing website (WSAEurope.com), and giving literally thousands of American students great travel experiences. I am very proud of my son. And when I happen to cross paths with him in Europe and see the hard work and passion he puts into his Weekend Student Adventures, that pride swells.
Andy’s students (which, on this “Easter in Rome” tour, are mostly from Catholic universities) got up at 6:00 a.m. to line up for the best seats at St. Peter’s Square and see Papa Francesco. This photo was from Palm Sunday (shot from our press vantage point atop the colonnade). Sadly, Easter Sunday in Rome was a morning of pouring rain. And, while our TV crew was completely rained out, being there was a lifelong memory for Andy’s tour members.