A Very Orthodox Easter: Lobbing Dynamite on the Sleepy Island of Kalymnos

Someone usually gets a limb blown off

Sudden, loud noises have always set me on edge. Fireworks night, for example, can be a struggle. I’m more a fan of the slow, seductive firework: softly hissing, maybe a crackle or two, a nice streamer of light — bangers aren’t really my style.

The new Greek friend who has lent me a lighter on the boat leans across to me: “Easter on Kalymnos is special!” he says. “They throw dynamite at each other here, across the mountains on the island. Very fun! Someone usually gets a limb blown off every year or so. Boom!” His hands splay widely to indicate the intensity of the volume we are likely to be expecting, or perhaps in solidarity with the unfortunate victims of the Kalymnian Easter festivities. I return the lighter with a meek grimace.

As my friends and I watch the sun roll its way towards the horizon on our tiny ferry across the Aegean, it’s difficult to imagine that this placid, sleepy island will be rocked by hundreds of kilos of TNT in the next few days.

No one is in a hurry here…

I watch as we pull into the beautiful harbour of Pothia, dotted with small fishing boats gently bobbing in the clear blue water. Colonial Venetian buildings line the seafront, which crowded with Kalymnians enjoying an evening ouzo. I feel like joining them, but as Nephele’s Dad is waiting at the harbour, we press through the port towards the interior of the island and our farmhouse.

Kalymnos, the third biggest island in the Dodecanese, is the ‘sponge island’. Gruesome and fascinating relics of its sponge diving past dot the island, from life size, ancient iron diving suits plus helmets, to the ubiquitous sponge souvenir shops.

Greeting us as we enter the small port of Pothia that morning is Poseidon, his iron trident pointing towards the small Greek Orthodox church in the city square, which was paid for by the sponge trade. Nephele tells me that the last dive of the day was always donated to the community, the tradition also helping to pave the main square with pebbles from a local beach.

We take a small walk along the extended harbour front which curls past fishing boats, small cafes painted in blue and white, locals playing tavli (backgammon) and smoking and drinking coffee. Dice rattle across wooden boards as neighbours chew the fat and put the world to rights sipping a thickly brewed soup of coffee grinds; fisherman sit on the harbour wall chatting and untangling their bright yellow nets.

No one is in a hurry here; time passes languidly and easily as the island waits for the first round of Easter explosions in the evening.

I fell asleep during pudding

We choose a small taverna for our first Kalymnian lunch. It should be noted here that eating in Greece is a very serious business, with meals usually taking hours.

On my first visit to Greece many years ago as a naive young English girl, Nephele’s parents once took me out at 11pm for a whopper of a meal, which lasted until about two in the morning.

When they had called out to me in my tent to ‘get ready’ at 10.30, I had (naturally!) assumed that they meant ‘for bed’, and had appeared in my pyjamas. I fell asleep during pudding.

This meal proved to be no exception to the rule, and we slowly and happily made our way through all kinds of local seafood and specialities: urchin’s eggs (tastier than they sound), fresh squid, whitebait, clams and garlic cod.

Nephele looks at her watch — it’s time to get moving; there’s serious stuff to do… Cooking. A lot of cooking. Lunch over, and now to prepare for what she promises will be the most intense and serious eating experience of my life — Big Sunday.

I duck and whimper as a massive explosion (Nephele insists it was “a tiddler”) vibrates the air around the harbour. The windows wobble ominously and my ouzo glass jumps on the table. It’s so loud I can actually feel it in my feet. Surely they won’t be starting until this evening? The Greeks around me cackle at my cowardice.

I haven’t held back on the feta

Easter properly begins on Kalymnos on ‘Big Friday’ — the Friday before Easter Sunday. TNT is thrown with obvious relish and zeal across the island into the mountains and provides an exciting backdrop for the festivities surrounding the most momentous event in the Orthodox calendar.

Everything kicks off with the procession of bling religious floats through the streets and past the harbour of Pothia. Each parish on the island (there are a lot of churches — religion and the sea are the main preoccupations of the islanders) tries to outdo the others with the glitz and shine of their procession — think Christ surrounded by flashing lights, flowers and lots of gold. Members of the congregation follow, singing dirges and looking penitent and pained. I find out later this is probably because they are all starving – many Orthodox followers fast during lent, with Easter Week seeing the an extra increase in dietary restrictions.

The party continues into ‘Big Saturday’ and we are taken to a relative’s house in the evening to break our fast (a notional concept for me as I haven’t held back on the feta since arriving). Mayiritsa is served — offal soup — and we play with red-dyed eggs, a sort of Greek Easter version of conkers.

I emerge as runner up – my bottom was smashed but my top remains intact; egg champion of the evening is Nephele’s Dad Iannis, who later shows me a fail-safe strategy for literally smashing your opponents. I am duly impressed and make jokes about his “eggscellent” sportsmanship.

After a three-hour meal (which begins at 1.20am) we finally make our way home, looking forward to the pinnacle of the Kalymnian Orthodox Easter – lamb and dynamite.

Dynamite throwing started after World War Two

The lamb eyes me as it makes its first revolution on the spit. Later we will have every single bit of it that’s left for lunch (having eaten the inside bits last night in the soup); with the face still attached it’s difficult not to attribute the lamb with a personality every time it revolves around to look at us.

Personality or no; it tastes delicious, smothered and brushed with fresh oregano, rosemary and olive oil. The meal starts at 12ish, and will last until all 14 relatives have left at about 6pm. In the meantime, neighbours and friends drop in to play red eggs and tavli, or share a glass of retsina or ouzo.DSC_0261

As the last cousin leaves, I know it’s time to face my fears and go down to the port and watch the explosions. I catch my reflection in the car mirror as we move towards the port: it bears a scary degree of similarity to the lamb I have just eaten.

Dynamite throwing started on Kalymnos after World War Two, as a way of getting rid of leftover German ammunition.

The feeling of being in a small walled square while loud crackers and bigger high-explosives are going off is, I’d imagine, a little like being in a war zone, and for fans of loud noises there’s nothing more bracing.

It quite literally feels like being pulsed with sound — I could feel the air around me moving, and my face vibrating (strange but true). The crowds around me were obviously earsplitt-ophiles, and joyously lit bangers and small explosions themselves which they threw into the streets. Not as scary as I had anticipated, the general cacophony spoke louder to me than their physical volume: a loud and full celebration of life and sound; a very Greek way to sing about the eventual arrival of summer and the death of winter. I couldn’t have wished for a better introduction, aural and otherwise, to Easter in Greece.