Step back in time onto the shores of a Greek island whose isolation has helped it preserve the traditions of long ago.
The F/B Nearchos steams silently across the moonlit Aegean. Destination: Ã“lymbos, an enclave of Greeks stranded by geographic and mental isolation in the 1st, 9th or 19th century, depending on your point of view.
The ferry from Rhodes gently nudges the pier at Diafani, a small, windswept port on the northeast coast of Karpathos. As the sun edges into view, we disembark and watch the tangerine and turquoise caiques being loaded with fishing nets.
Built in the 9th century by islanders fleeing a pirate invasion, Ã“lymbos’ whitewashed homes crown the island’s highest mountain, leading archaeologists to speculate it was named after Mt. Olympos, home of the gods (on Greece’s mainland). Still deliberately isolated, Olympians speak a unique dialect of Greek mixed with words from the Doric spoken three millennia ago, though everyone understands the nightly news broadcast from Athens.
We sit with Philippos Philippides, born in the Kafeneion Kriti more than a half century ago, who insists, “Only little things have changed here.” To the deaf old men nursing kafe and playing tavoli, the postman honks out his arrival with a traditional Greek horn. He delivers air mail envelopes full of dollars and gossip from the US, where most men earn their fortune. The 600 residents who remain year-round, 65% of them women, ensure it stays on Karpathos.
In Ã“lymbos’ unusual matrilineal society, a woman’s land and wealth are passed down, along with her family name, to the eldest daughter. This may explain why Olymbian women have succeeded in perpetuating the extraordinary ancestral ritual we’ve come to see.
A Tradition of Festivals
The weeks of Greek Easter (usually in April), the Festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (August 15th), and the Festival of St. John (August 27-29th) are prime time for watching Ã“lymbos rewind the clock. Wildly-colorful fabrics are stitched into blouses, full skirts and aprons. Floral print scarves trimmed with coins and jewelry are lovingly draped around every unwed girl. Candles are lit, music begins and the accumulated gold glitters frantically in the evening breeze.
The brisk Olymbian beat leaves Zorbas used to bouzouki in the dust. At dawn, villagers and tourists, equally spent and invigorated, march from the ancient grotto sanctuary to Avlona, where feasting, dance and music will begin again at dusk.
Today, proud mammas record the religious procession with Handycams while their men carry on, improvising epic poems and playing classic acoustic instruments. It is exhausting and fascinating.
We ask a bystander if everyone participates in the tradition.
He confides, “Villagers who want to lead a contemporary life, leave. Those who want to maintain close contact with the village but can’t afford to, go to Rhodes. And all who are within traveling distance come back for this day.”
Olymbos, Greece Travel Essentials
Getting there is easiest from KÃ¡rpathos, in Greece’s Dodecanese island group. This large and popular island can be reached by Olympic Airways (800/223-1226) from Athens, Rhodes, KÃ¡ssos or Crete.
Car ferries from “nearby” Rhodes go to the port of DiafÃ¡ni (closest to Ã“lymbos). Call the Piraeus Port Authority (+30 210 455 02 29) or the Rhodes Port Authority (+30 224 102 220) for current schedules.
The informative website for the community is www.olymbos.org and their office, along with the sites for Greece.com or Greek National Tourism Organization will help you to find affordable hotels and more details.
In terms of touring the island, you can join a bus tour or hire a taxi from any tourist area to Ã“lymbos, or make the long, hot hike uphill from DiafÃ¡ni.
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