For the Greek Orthodox Church, Easter (Pascha; 28 April 2019) is the biggest religious festival of the year, celebrated with utter reverence and almost total participation. The Holy Week is the climax of Lent, a period of devoutness and church-attending even by people who aren’t deeply religious. For many, the Resurrection has seasonal symbolism, as nature comes back to life after the winter – indeed, the spring is in its full blossoming glory and the flowery scents in the warm air produce an alluring background for the spirituality of the event.
Feel the mood in Athens
All Athenian churches hold evening services during the Holy Week and some are truly worth visiting, if only for the pleasure of listening to some of the most beautiful and uplifting Orthodox hymns.
Agios Georgios Church on central Karitsi Square and Agia Irini Church on Aiolou Street have choirs and fill up with worshippers every night of the week. Hundreds of churchgoers congregate outside the tiny Byzantine Church of Kapnikarea on commercial Ermou Street, while the picturesque old Agios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris in the woods of Filopappou Hill offers great views of the Acropolis.
The best place to attend the midnight service (the celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection) is the little Chapel of Agios Georgios on top of Lykavittos Hill, where you’ll be rewarded with a 360-degree view of the city and the spectacle of fireworks over Athenian parishes. If you’re not up for a climb, the Church of Agioi Anargyroi in the foothills of the Acropolis is the first church where the Holy Fire – the flame from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to emanate from Christ’s tomb – arrives by chartered flight from Jerusalem, attracting large crowds.
Fasting and feasting
Good Friday is a day of universal sanctity, and even shops remain closed until the afternoon. It’s supposed to be the high point of Lent, but a modern (and not very religious) interpretation results in hordes of Athenians packing every fish restaurant and ouzerie in town to consume copious amounts of ‘fast-friendly’ seafood – recommended options include Varoulko in Piraeus and Zisis Fish in Monastiraki.
At midnight on Saturday, immediately after the Resurrection Mass, tradition requires that a warm magiritsa (lamb tripe-and-offal soup) is consumed. Many restaurants, especially in the city centre and in most big hotels, stay open with special menus for the returning churchgoers.
On Easter Sunday, lamb is served everywhere, either roasted whole on a spit or chopped and grilled in the oven. A great place to try it is Steki tou Ilia restaurant in Thisio. Wine, beer and ouzo flow freely and countless red eggs are cracked against each other all day long (in Orthodox Christian tradition, the red dye represents the blood of Christ, while the cracking of eggs symbolizes his resurrection from the dead).
Easter celebrations outside Athens
While Athens is a great place to visit during Easter, many Greeks like to celebrate the festivities away from the big cities, preferably in small towns and villages where the atmosphere is even more devout and intimate. For those in search of a more authentic experience, a number of destinations can be easily reached on a day trip from Athens. Just make sure you book well in advance, as for Athenians this is traditionally the biggest exodus of the year after the summer peak season in August. As an important place of Christian pilgrimage, the Monastery of St John the Theologian on Patmos island has one of the largest Easter celebrations in all of Greece.