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.