If Santorini (to misappropriate Yeats) has the kind of beauty to “make a stranger’s eye distraught,” Naxos is like a lover whose beauty emerges in conversation, deeper and more enduring. Or perhaps I just find it hard to sleep on top of a volcano. Either way, Naxos was intoxicating. At the port we were met by Yiannis, proprietor of Studios _____, and driven to our room, a short stroll from Agios Georgios, the beach where we would pass the hours reading and sleeping in the days to come.
Upon arrival, Yiannis slugged us with the family wine, a kindness he would repeat with raffish enthusiasm, particularly on the night of Easter Sunday.
But first was Friday.
Rich in icons and gold, the packed cathedral, dipped in candlelight, hummed with the deep-throated singing of priests with Edward Lear beards. The locals came in thousands, stopping to press their lips to the faces of saints, and kneel before the crucified Christ, symbolized by an elaborate bier, fragrant with incense and flowers.
Candle in hand, I was swallowed by the crowd that pursued the cross through the winding white-washed streets of the old town. Those too old or weak to join the throng emerged from windows, throwing petals and perfumed water, orthodox ticker-tape on our solemn march. The parade finished at a waterfront chapel, which each person entered, passing beneath the bier, before the final prayers were uttered.
At night’s end, Christ was in his tomb, but (unlike His terrified disciples), the Naxians could sleep confident the ceremony would resume the following night for a Resurrection Mass.
Saturday night, and although the gathered congregation knows what’s about to happen, it almost feels as if it doesn’t. There is a sense of nervous anticipation as the priests pass beyond the veil that separates the crowd from the cathedral’s inner-sanctum. Young and old hustle towards the curtain, gripping unlit candles.
Suddenly, a priest appears, bearing a single flame that in moments has passed to every candle in the cathedral.
It’s seconds to midnight, and the crowd pushes outside now, the priest’s singing reaching fever pitch. And then it happens. A rockstar light fills the sky, firecrackers blazing as people cheer and cry, greeting each other and holding hands, joyfully exchanging the words “Christos anesti”, “Christ is risen.” And then the party really begins … and continues all the sleepless night, and all through Sunday, children terrorising each other (and tourists) with celebratory bungers under foot, as families gather for lamb and wine by the seaside. My ears ring for hours.
The ever convivial Yiannis had already presented us with an early Easter gift of sweet cakes and red-painted hardboiled eggs, which, in a perverse tradition, one is supposed to eat (with salt) in the same mouthful. When we arrived back at the studio on Sunday night, Yiannis was in action mode, stuffing three Danes, an American and a Canadian with eggs, cake, salt, nuts, ouzo and wine. Although horrified that I (a male) was cooking dinner for Jess (not a male) Yiannis demanded we join him, clearly interested to have finally learned Jess was, in fact, my cousin, and not my wife. Although what Yiannis thought we were doing in two separate beds I do not know. Yiannis was unstoppable (or was it me?), but the man did not stop refilling our glasses with the family poison, his attention meanwhile split between Jess, and the Dane drinking alongside me. Next thing I know, Yiannis and Jess are dancing madly around the room, a lit cigarette dangling (half-inserted) from the left ear of our host. His friends, all the while, playing gambling games on the PC in reception.
Somewhere, in between the ouzo, wine, kitron, and Princess Mary jokes, I hear Yiannis mention the words “strip” and “club” in the same sentence, and my spider-sense starts tingling. It was Easter for heaven’s sake! Old Yiannis was getting ideas into his head, so we made for our room, drunkenly confident he was more misguided sweetheart than pervert (at least until fifteen minutes later when he knocked on our door, ever the linguistically challenged schoolboy seducer). Instead of saying anything particular, he simply said his name, over and over again, drawing it out to a coquettish ‘Yianiiiiiiis’. Admiring his persistence, I vomited a little, and went to bed.
Both sacred and awfully profane, Easter in Naxos was one to remember. Which, in time, I did.