With Easter approaching this Spring, I am reminded of a charmed night I spent in May in Athens in 1983. It was the Holy week of the Greek Orthodox Easter. I’d just arrived in Athens to draw pottery at the Ancient Athenian Agora and was staying at my professor’s apartment until she arrived later in the month.
It was my first time to be in Greece during Pascha (Πάσχα – pronounced páskʰa).
All that week the bakery windows in the city were full of an assortment of delicious Easter cookies (koulourakia) and treats, including the glossy braided breads with red dyed eggs baked into them called tsoureki. I bought myself an enormous bag of koulourakia that lasted weeks.
On Good Friday – the most important day of the Greek Orthodox religious calendar, I remember standing on the roof of the building where the apartment was located, and looking down to see a somber parade of people including clergy, carrying crosses and a holy bier with the Epitaphios, and a beautiful statue of the Virgin down the street to the sound of church bells ringing.
Someone I worked with at the Agora had told me that there would be fireworks on Easter Saturday (The Anastasis – The Resurrection) and suggested that I should go up to Mount Lycabettus to see them at midnight.
I loved going up to the top of Lycabettus – there was a funicular that ran up the hill side in the neighborhood of Kolonaki, and I had gone up several times before. Kolonaki was (and I’m sure still is) a very elegant, well to-do neighborhood in Athens and it was where the American School of Classical Studies, The Canadian Mediterranean Institute and the British School at Athens were based (as well as other archaeological institutes) and a number of embassies and several of the apartments that I stayed in over the years.
In Kolonaki it was very likely that you’d see Greek celebrities having coffee and shopping at couture boutiques (I used to longingly walk by Valentino to see what was new in the window). So it was a very pretty place with lots of trees and elegant neoclassical architecture everywhere.
At the top of Lycabettus there is a beautiful little chapel to St George in which candles were always aflame. As I remember it, only a very small whitewashed room of the chapel was open to the public on a regular basis; maybe two people could stand inside it at once. I remember that it contained a golden icon and a lot of candles. The candles made the small interior of the chapel glow.
Outside the chapel there was a flat paved area crowded with tourists.
From the top of Lycabettus you can see all the way to Piraeus and beyond, and especially see the Acropolis lit up with its sound and light show. There were several large open air cafes up there at the time.
I decided that I’d take a seat at one of the cafes and relax in the clear, warm night and watch the city erupt in fireworks.
In the past I’d enjoyed having a treat of ice cream there, sitting in the sun with the breeze blowing through my hair (one of the first words I learned to say in Greece was παγωτό – ice cream). When you ordered ice cream at a Greek cafe it usually came with more than one flavor (like vanilla and pistachio) and was served in a little stemmed tin bowl on a little saucer with a little spoon and maybe a thin wafer.
I was sitting there with my ice cream when a man came over and asked to sit with me. He was very neat and attractive and very polite, and somehow I knew instantly that he wasn’t pushing himself on me or trying to harass me, so I invited him to join me.
He ordered drinks for us and we talked.
He was a Syrian sea captain who had arrived in Piraeus that day and had been told that it was Greek Orthodox Saturday – and like me, someone had suggested he come to Lycabettus to see the city in its festivities. He showed me his official papers just to prove himself.
He spoke of how long he had to study and how much he had to learn to be the captain of his ship, and he told me about how he had sailed all over the world. He asked me about my studies and why I was in Athens.
The city was like a jewel at night with bright lights glimmering everywhere and happy boisterous shouts erupting whenever fireworks went off at random in the streets. After a while we decided to walk down to the Metropolitan Cathedral in the Plaka – a place I walked by almost every day on my way to work at the Agora.
So we took the funicular down the hill to Kolonaki and then he followed along with me; along my familiar route to the city center. There we found the Metropolitan Cathedral brightly lit with hundreds of candles and shining with all the beautiful gold inside.
The clergy were in full form wearing elaborately embroidered robes, and the incense was literally flying through the air. There was a huge crowd inside and outside on the wide steps and in the square in front of the Cathedral; everyone seemed radiant.
At midnight a huge display of fireworks went off and the sky was filled with color and explosions, and little firecrackers were being thrown all over the streets at our feet.
When the main fireworks were over the sea captain walked me to Syntagma Square and we said good night and good bye, and I took a taxi back to the apartment.
He had been a complete gentleman (he never touched me or said anything inappropriate) – we just enjoyed each other’s company in a city of strangers. I never knew his name and I never saw him again.
It was a memorable, and magical night.