Mayday in Greece
The first of May is known as Protomagiá (Πρωτομαγιά) in Greece. People get the day off work, kids get the day off school, and everyone heads out into the countryside to pick flowers. Knowing far better than to ask Alexander and Eoin if they wanted to go for a walk after breakfast, we simply told them to brush their teeth, put on their outside gear, and see us downstairs in five minutes. In the meantime Tina and I had drawn up a plan to drive up to Vrachíonas, the highest mountain here in Zakynthos, and walk to the top. Twenty minutes later, we were ready to go..
It was a sign of how little people think to explore the mountains of the island, which is much more famous for its beaches, that this would be the first time any of us had bothered to go there, the highest point on Zante, at 756m. But then, none of us had been here for Protomagiá before.
With a backpack filled with water, homemade koulourákia biscuits, and our trusty guidebook, we meandered, slowly gaining height, through 15th century villages like Kilioménos, whose beautiful, ornate bell towers even I could appreciate, and Ágios Léon, until after about forty minutes we reached a town called Mariés. Think of more than one Mary, and you understand its name; Mary Magdalene and Mary Klopa are supposed to have proselytised here on the way to Rome.
Roads get a little rough around the edges up in these parts, so it was a bit tricky finding the turn off for the limestone quarry that we needed to start our walk from, but we found it. And then we were out of the car, and onto the mountain.
Occurring some time around the midpoint between the Vernal equinox and the Summer Solstice, the roots of Protomagiá lie in pre-Christian pagan celebrations, and this celebration of nature is one of the few Greek customs that is not religious in nature. People then and now just feel like it’s the first day where spring actually feels like spring. Flowers are in bloom, and people get out and collect them to make wreaths.
Walking up the steep road beside the quarry, on our way up to the top I spotted some rock roses, which we’d seen on our walk around Kalamáki a week before. I was delighted to recognise some flowers from the guidebook and pointed them out, to general indifference. Wait till they see the orchids, I thought: according to the guidebook, we should be able to spot some at some stage. But at this stage, my attention wasn’t so much on the flora at my feet, but on the spectacle of Mt. Aínos over on Kefaloniá, which dominated proceedings as far as composing a photograph was concerned.
On top of Mount Vrachionas
It was only a short walk to the summit. Atop Vrachíonas lay a plateau of flowers, with orchids lighting up some of the drabber patches and tufts of grasses. We could only make out two species: Giant Orchids, and Italian Man Orchids. The Giants aren’t so big that they dwarf everything around them – far from it – but then again, the Italian Man individuals didn’t all resemble Roberto Baggio in the slightest, so I guessed that their names were a bit arbitrary, at least as far as their appearance went. I lingered on the top, reminiscing about the time eight years ago we took the ferry to Kefaloniá and drove over the shoulder of the mountain in front of me now to get to the town of Sámi, facing the famous island of Ithaca, home of Odysseus. Alexander had been on that trip too; Eoin hadn’t (unless the fact that he was in Tina’s tummy counts).
Once we came back down off the spur we´d taken to get to the top we resumed the orbit around the summit that the walk roughly described. We were now facing Zakynthos town and Mt. Skopós about 10kms to the southeast. When we reckoned we must be at opposition to our car, in relation to the summit of the mountain, we gave the boys a break for kouloúri (the homemade Greek biscuits they love) and water. They would wax and wane in their enthusiasm during the walk, but generally they were good company. It’s funny how much they dread these walks and kick up a stink before coming out, but if you put a kid on a mountain with a decent path, good views, plenty of sticks and stones, and – most of all – kouloúri, they’ll be ok.
Some well cultivated vineyards spread out before us just off the path, and a couple of deserted ruins. The textures and colours of the wall of one of them struck me as being so quintessentially Mediterranean that I’m considering using the photograph I took of it as the cover of our book on Zakynthos. It’s funny how all the vistas we’d seen today are more or less bypassed in the marketing of Zakynthos, which tends to favour endless pictures of beaches, Navagio (Shipwreck Beach) in particular.
Back at Mariés we drank frappés at a taverna that had just opened for the season, judging by the fact that both the bouzoúki and kithára on the bar counter were covered in dust and way out of tune. A little later than the flowers on the slopes of Vrachíonas they may have been, but they’ll soon be blossoming too.