Easter is undoubtedly one of the most important celebrations for almost every Greek. It is no surprise in a country where around 95 % of people avow to Greek Orthodoxy. But Easter is not just major Christian holiday for the locals. It’s a welcome opportunity to return to the hometown for a couple of days to reconnect with family and friends. It is a chance to enjoy the local customs specific for each region and to feast on traditional dishes prepared over many days by the tireless Greek mothers and grandmothers. Last but not least, Easter Sunday is the time to dust off the barbecue to participate in a grilling frenzy following the forty days of suffering on seafood and another delicatessen of the Lent.
Except for the mandatory Christian elements of the celebrations every region has its own Easter traditions and customs. The tradition of Leonidio is especially spectacular. On Saturday night after the service of the resurrection, the locals release hundreds of colorful aerostata towards the midnight sky. These paper balloons are powered by hot air produced by a burning piece of cloth, dipped in oil and skillfully lit. They come in many shapes and sizes, most of them as tall as a grown man. The true origin of this quaint custom is unknown. However, it’s said to be brought by the seafarers at least a century ago all the way from Asia. It attracts visitors from all over the country turning Leonidio into a bustling town for a couple of days.
However, Leonidio is worth the visit any other time of the year, too. This picturesque town squeezed between Mt.Parnona and the Argolic Gulf is a paradise for every nature and outdoors lover. The reddish cliffs enclosing the town are an up and coming rock climbing hotspot popular among both Greeks and foreign climbers. There are plenty of hiking trails to choose from, too. Some of them connect the villages with monasteries and tiny churches hidden in the hills. Others pass through gorges and along rivers and streams. Some are marked and some are covered by the Anavasi map of Mt.Parnona but others are quite difficult to locate. In general, they all involve a lot of research, asking for directions and searching or hiring a local guide.
But it’s not just the cliffs and mountains that bring visitors to Leonidio. There is a long sand and pebble beach about 3km away from the town. It’s perfect for swimming and all sorts of water sports like kayak or kitesurfing. Scuba diving or snorkeling in the clear waters of the Argolic Gulf is another option both for first-timers and experienced divers.
Leonidio itself is a charming town. We’ve passed from here a couple of years ago on our road trip around the Peloponnese and loved the scenery. However, we’ve seen very little of the town itself and what we saw wasn’t especially exciting. Therefore, our expectations for the town itself were pretty low. The more we were surprised when we first walked through its picturesque streets the evening we arrived. As an old merchant town, it’s full of large neo-classical mansions and stone tower houses. Most of them are well preserved and maintained with few picturesque decaying exceptions. The town spreads on the banks of Dafnon river, dried out most of the year, with three bridges crossing the river bed. The pretty architecture of the town is crowned by the imposing cliffs peeking above the roofs and around every corner.
There are all sorts of establishments offering food and coffee in Leonidio. From traditional kafenios where women are still a rare sight to modern cafes and outdoor taverns with delicious local cuisine the choices are endless. But I cannot say we tried many of them once we discover the cafe bar/restaurant called Panjika. This laid back, climbers oriented shop become our shelter for the rest of our stay.
Leonidio lies about 300 km away from Athens on the eastern coast of Peloponnese in a region called South Kinouria. The drive via Nemea and Argos took us around three and half hours. However, almost half of the time was taken by the last section of the route full of turns and stunning sea vistas. Leonidio is accessible by the KTEL buses, too. But for further explorations of the area, a car is a far better option. Accommodation is plentiful in Leonidio with the exception of the Easter weekend. I’ve never seen a whole region being booked up till the last bed before! According to the locals, it’s a good idea to make a reservation a whole year in advance to ensure a room.
For us, the trip to Leonidio was literally a last minute decision. Hence the only available accommodation left for us was the Semeli Camping. In the end, this wasn’t a bad solution at all. The smallish campsite was nice and clean, with all the necessary utilities and helpful staff. The camping lies right at the beach and in a walking distance from a graphic port called Plaka. There are a couple of minimarkets, a cafe and several fish taverns in Plaka covering the basic shopping needs. It’s not all that close from Leonidio though. For those coming by bus, this would mean a lot of walking or hitchhiking to get to the town.
We come to Leonidio on the Easter Friday evening right before the Epitafio mass and procession. Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia religion was definitely not a part of my upbringing. There is no place for faith and spirituality in the life of a good communist! And even after the change of regime, the Church didn’t gain much importance in my life. I consider myself an atheist and the Church something slightly exotic with an urgent need of reforms and modernization.
However, the Epitaphio in Leonidio managed to rise awe and reverence even in me. It was both spooky and amazing to watch the Epitaphio covered in flowers being carried through the dark and quiet streets. The band playing gloomy music, the severe priests leading the procession and the silent candle-bearing devotees following the Epitaphio all added to the mysterious atmosphere. Each church of Leonidio sends its own Epitaphio and they all meet in the center of the town for a prayer. When they finally set off for the return journey to their parishes it’s time for a late dinner in one of the cozy taverns lining the streets.
But the main attraction of the Easter celebrations of Leonidio was still waiting to come. On Saturday night everyone gathers at one of the five churches of Leonidio for the Service of Resurrection. Only a few lucky ones actually fit inside the church, the majority just waits outside on the square all dressed up, chatting happily and greeting the passersby. The kids clutch their lambadas (long candles) gifted to them by their godfathers or godmothers as the tradition dictates. And everybody gets more and more excited as the midnight draws closer. At the end of the mass, the bells start ringing and the Holy Light travels from candle to candle to be carried to every household. And finally, the balloons are lit and sent to the stars accompanied by thousands of fireworks and firecrackers.
Quite frankly, I’ve never seen anything like this before and there are no words to describe the spectacular show. I believe everyone has to experience himself the feeling of excitement coming to the town and seeing the first test balloons ascending one by one towards the dark sky. You have to feel the anticipation of the last few minutes before the beginning of the show. The amazement when it all begins. The confusion of trying to light your own balloon for the first time. The sense of achievement when, after few failed attempts, it finally rises above the ground. The terror of realizing that you stand exactly underneath the phone wires and the balloon is hopelessly stuck under them. The fear that you may become the first tourist in the century-long history of this beautiful tradition who managed to burn down the whole village. And at last the relief when it slips among the wires and joins the rest of the balloons on their magnificent ascent to the sky.
After about half an hour the balloons are gone and the show is over. This is the time for magiritsa, a soup made of the offals of a lamb. Fortunately, I was saved from eating this terribly looking meal by the good people of Panjika serving a vegan mushroom-based version of the traditional meal.
Easter Sunday is a day of fun. It’s time to cook a lamb in all possible ways, including grilling the whole thing, the ribs or preparing my personal worst – the Kotosouvli. In this dish, the lamb intestines are wrapped around a mix of lamb offal (think kidney, liver, hearts and more) and grilled as a long sausage lookalike. All this is followed by traditional dances and music in the center of the town.
With the Easter celebration over and a couple of days left, we finally got the chance to explore some of the beautiful surroundings of Leonidio. We managed to fit two short but splendid hikes into the first day. First, we drove towards the Elonis Monastery about 15 km away from the center of Leonidio. This 17th-century monastery carved into a rocky crag is surely worth the visit. But for our hike turn towards the villages of Paleochori and Ag.Vasileios about one kilometer before reaching the monastery.
After about 3 – 4 km pay attention to the right side of the road. You will see a set of pools down in the valley in the otherwise dry river bed. There are two small parking spots near the beginning of the path but no sign indicating the nearby wonderland. The trail leading to the valley is marked by red spots but the starting point is not very clear. However, once the trail reaches a small bridge on the bottom of the gorge it turns into a wide and comfortable path.
We didn’t follow the path, though, but instead climbed down to the riverbed and continued upstream jumping from one boulder to another. The stream, powered in the spring by the melting snow of Mt.Parnonas, managed to eat its way through the rocky bottom of the gorge creating pools and waterfalls full of crystal clear emerald water. Walking along the stream was a pure pleasure until reaching the second bridge.
After that, the canyon narrows and more and more scrambling is necessary to make your way through. We don’t really have any canyoning aspirations but it was fun trying to find our way across the stream or along the rocks. However, when we got caught in a heavy rain in an especially narrow and impassable spot we decided to quickly abort our adventure. We climbed up to the path and run back to the dry safety of our car.
After getting soaking wet at the stream we headed to the Paleochori 4km away for hot mountain tea. Paleochori is a small but pretty mountain village settled at the altitude of 850 meters. It’s full of narrow alleys and traditional stone houses and offers beautiful panoramic views of the peaks and valleys of the Parnonas massive.
Since our arrival to Leonidio, I wanted to take a picture of the town with its characteristic red cliffs in the background lit by the beautiful afternoon light. The tiny church of Profitis Ilias sitting on a hill on the opposite side of the valley seemed like the perfect spot. So, after returning from Paleochori we decided to climb up there to have a look. There is a path leading to the church from Leonidio, market randomly by red spots. For some reason, it wasn’t included in our map and the starting point was a bit tricky to find. Therefore, the easiest way to find it is to ask one of the helpful locals for directions.
Otherwise, from the main bridge of Leonidio drive in the direction of Ag.Nikolaos Sintzas Monastery looking for a wooden hiking sign pointing to the left to Moula and Merohoro. At the sign, turn left and drive uphill to the last house. In the last turn, there is a dirt road continuing up and to the left. We left our car here and followed the dirt road on foot. It passes through olive orchards first until it merges into the fir forest covering the whole mountain.
Walking up watch out for a path branching off to the left marked by a red color. Again, it’s not all that easy to find and if it wasn’t for an ingenuous old shepherd lady with her granddaughter and a flock of sheep we would probably miss it. Once on the path, it was an easy 15 – 20 minutes climb to the church of Profitis Ilias.
The views from this tiny church were all that I expected and much more. To the right, the agricultural plains of Leonidio spread towards the beach and across the strait, you can see as far as Spetses Island. To the left, the road towards Kosmas following the Dafnon river disappears behind the forest-clad mountains. And finally, exactly opposite, there is the town settled in front of the grandiose red cliffs.
The last day, before heading back to Athens, we made one last detour to the Ag.Nikolaos Sintzas Monastery. The monastery lies 5 km away from Leonidio in a beautiful location on top of a rocky gorge. The way to the monastery is part of the adventure, too. After leaving the town we first passed through orchards and fields full of grazing goats and sheep. The jingle of their bells followed us almost all the way up to the monastery as a compensation for the lack of radio stations in the area. Don’t be discouraged by the iron gates closing the road at two places. They are supposed to keep away the animals not the visitors and can be easily opened for passage.
After the Ag. Georgios church the terrain becomes steeper and steeper and the narrow road scarier and scarier. Drawing closer to the monastery the cliffs grow higher and the turns sharper causing the faint-hearted (me) pray for their safety. However, the road is frequented mostly be the pious or the climbers so it really is not such a big issue. There is a small carpark just below the monastery. From here a cobbled path leads to its gates and to a climbing park higher in the rocks.
The gates to the monastery were shut when we arrived and it looked deserted. Therefore, we considered it closed to the visitors and settled for taking photos and enjoying the views outside. But just as we were ready to leave a charming elderly nun’s head popped out from behind the door inviting us in. She treated us to a piece of cake and few gossips from the monastic life making the visit to the monastery the perfect end to even better holidays.