An Unexpected Festival in a Mountain Village

Kastelli, Crete

Jan 7, 2023

I had been wandering in Iraklion in my usual aimless fashion, taking photos of the central area and the harbor when I came across a group of older men sitting on a bench. It was picture-postcard perfect and I asked if I could take a photo. They acquiesced and thus began a conversation with one of them. Manos insisted on getting a couple of cups of coffee and sitting on a bench to chat. A young woman sitting there was roped into the conversation, and happily acted translator as we chatted awhile. Manos was going to his village in the mountains the next day and invited us along. Denise declined but I leaped at the chance. And so it was that I was going to see Kastelli, never having planned to.

I hopped into Manos’ car and off we went. I wasn’t sure Manos was up to driving but he assured me that he does this at least every month if not oftener. We left the highway along the coast and headed south. It is beautiful country, the rounded hill slopes dotted with olive groves. Here and there were men and women working on harvesting olives. I would have stopped to investigate but it wasn’t my call. Manos had said that before going to the village we would stop at the church. Fine by me, I thought.

As we neared the tiny little church of Kallegris Monastery, I saw the large number of cars in the parking lot and sounds of voices and laughter. Clearly something was happening. It was only later that I learned that this was the festival of St. John, celebrated every year on Jan 7th. I had not known and Manos said he lacked the vocabulary to explain. What a delight!

Picnic tables were laid out, groaning under the weight of food. A couple of grills made of metal drums were going full force, and all sorts of drinks including raki, ouzo and wine flowed. Introduced to a couple of the people, I had no trouble introducing myself to the others. Smiles greeted me and led to conversations. Plied with a heaped plate I could not possibly finish, I had glasses of raki pressed on me. And they don’t take no for an answer. “This”, I was told is “Greek hospitality, especially Kastelli”. There was music playing on someone’s phone via a portable speaker and some of the women were dancing. I needed no asking and was taught to dance.

There is yet another tradition here. All those who had had too much to drink would have to walk on a pole across a pool. And sure enough, there was a throng gathered by the pool and someone gingerly trying to walk across, arms outstretched to keep her balance. She didn’t make it. Nor did the one after her. Nor the one after that. If anyone were to come close, someone would take hold of the pole and shake it. Not that it stopped anyone. Some of the children wanted to try and there was no stopping them. Not the dunking, nor the brisk breeze, nor the shivers. They lined up for more. Sopping wet from a dunking they were soon stripped down to their underwear as the game continued.

What an utter delight this was! Totally unexpected, I now have a whole slew of people in Kastelli whom to visit should I be in these parts again. I met the priest of this church and he pressed a bottle of wine into my hands as I left. “To enjoy and remember us by” he said.

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