Agios Vlasios

Or: A place where the spirit of Greece still lives

From the book "Mitt Hellas" (My Greece) by Ivar Papadopoulos Samuelsen.
Translated from norwegian into english by Kiriaki Papadopoulou Samuelsen.


”Irvar, Irvar! Kalos orìsate!

It’s the old village priest, Papa Yorgis, who is calling out for me the moment I arrive in the square, the village’s meeting place and heart. He has some difficulties to pronounce Ivar correctly, but he smiles and holds out his arms. He wishes me and the rest of the family welcome. To that I respond as expected, that it is pleasant to find him by good health. He asks me to sit down at the small table at the outdoor café where he sits along with some of the village’s older men. Here they sit and consider life and exchange the latest news. He wonders what I’m going to drink, would I have raki, beer, lemonade or tea? He orders and asks how life is in Norway and about how cold it is there now.

The inhabitants are familiar with us after many years of visits. I, my Greek wife Kiriaki and our two boys, Nikolai and Andreas, have gradually become a part of the regular summer fixture in the village. Some money that my deceased father-in-law gave us some years back was the capital we needed to realize the dream of our own house in Greece. The first question that arose was where in the country, we should establish ourselves. We did not want to live in any big city. The other criteria we set were that it should not be a tourist place, and preferably it should be in a village where people lived their own quiet life. The place had to be equipped with the the bare essentials of shops, a minimum of a bakery and a grocery shop. We should have a view to the sea, and the ability to reach the village by car from Norway. And last but not least, the house had to suit our wallet. This and more we found in Agios Vlasios. We found a three-story house that needed total refurbishing, a four-minute walk from the village square. On the small plot in front of the house, there were various fruit trees: orange, lemon, fig and walnut, not forgetting the vine which, with its foliage forms a shadowy roof over the little terrace where we often sit and enjoy the view over the Aegean Sea below.

All stop and wish us welcome and every time we respond, as the ritual implies, kalos sas vrikame, it’s nice to see you in good health.
We have not been in the house long before Evridiki, our nearest neighbour, comes with eggs, fruit, oil and tomatoes, so we have something to begin with. We know by experience that there is more to come.
Evridiki and her husband, Angelos do not have much money, but like most fruit growers here, they are self-sufficient. They produce their own olive oil; in addition, they have poultry and a few goats that provide milk and cheese and an occasional meat meal. Like most others they, too, make their own wine and liquor. There is currently no prohibition on such activities in Greece.

Agios Vlasios, which is the village’s name, means Holy Vlasios. The name is derived from the village’s church which is devoted to Vlasios - a saint who lived in the 4th century. Vlasios was bishop of Sevasti (formerly Armenia, now part of Turkey), in which he lived in a cave. He was, among other things known to be able to tame wild animals.
Every Orthodox church is devoted to one of the countless saints that exist and in this way the tradition continues from antiquity when each temple was dedicated to its particular chosen god.

The saint of each church is celebrated with a village festival on the saint’s name day. The Holy Vlasios has his name day on the 11th of February, and the village should, therefore, hold the feast then. But in February, it is cold and it’s often rainy, and if one is extremely unlucky, it may even snow. As a result, the village holds its feast in the summer. There is a small chapel about one kilometer north of Agios Vlasios, at the village’s cemetery, that justifies the wrong time of the village festival. The chapel is devoted to the holy Paraskevi, which has her name day on the 26th of July. Paraskevi was born in Rome around the year 140 of Greek parents. 30 years later she died as a martyr after having preached the Christian faith.
In addition to this chapel, there is also another chapel, half a kilometer below the village. This is devoted to the holy Marina who has her name day about a week earlier, on the 17th of July. Of course, one must also celebrate this day, too.

The celebration of holy Marina starts with everyone in the village, with their best cloths on, setting out on a pilgrimage to the small chapel. In addition to the village’s own priest, two more priests have been called in from the neighbouring villages, as is appropriate when one celebrates one of the village’s saints.
The small chapel does not have any room for more people than the priests. Most of the village’s inhabitants have, therefore, gathered on the grass outside together with those from the neighbouring villages who want to participate in the celebration. The gathering of more than 300 people makes it almost impossible to move across the little place where big broadleaved trees merge their branches to create a protective, cooling roof. On the fringes, there is a small place where they sell toys to the children. Here you can buy everything from innocent games and colourful balls to flutes and noisy plastic weapons.

When the service has come to an end and the priests have blessed everyone with holy water, the procession sets out slowly again upwards on the old paved path that meanders between scrub, olive groves and fruit trees.


The village cafés -there are five of them- put out everything they have of chairs and tables. Four of the cafés surround the main square; the last one is found at a little smaller square a few metres below. Each café has its regular clientele, while the priest moves around. He can be encountered at all the cafés, thus showing that he belongs to them all. Both squares are like the majority of Greek village squares blessed with a large plane tree, which allows the guests of the café to sit in the shade.

So here people gather, congratulate each other on the day and order what each café may have to offer in terms of food, usually chicken or some other meat dishes that are made in large quantities especially for the day. For beverages, one can pretty much choose between retsina, beer, or raki. If you want to have a non-alcoholic drink, the choice is between Coca Cola and a greek fruit drink.
There will be a show of circle dances. Wearing their beautiful folk costumes the oldest school children show what they can do. In recent evenings, we have seen them practicing outside the youth club. This show rounds off the festival of the holy Marina, a celebration that must almost be seen as a warming up to the party that will take place nine days later, the official village festival. Then we celebrate holy Paraskevi, in other words, the one which replaces the festival for Vlasios, the saint who has his name day at a less propitious time.

Once again the inhabitants proceed to a small chapel. This time, three priests take part in the service, and again there is blessing with holy water and sale of toys to the children. When, everybody is back, the village takes a break before the feast starts for good.
This time, everything happens at the lowest square, which is decorated with greek flags for the occasion. Chairs and tables surround the edges of the festival square, and the stressed café owner does everything he can to satisfy everyone.
The mayor comes, leans on the microphone and says a few words about the Official day. Later, he takes his place amongst the local folk musicians who play traditional music. The main instrument is the guitar, but the company is composed of klarino, a folk music variant of clarinet, and pipiza, a big wooden flute.
In Greece, dance is part of the living culture and here in Agios Vlasios people rarely dance to any other form of music. Both children and older people throw themselves into the dance. There are both circle dances and zeibékiko, where the men impress with their solo performance. Gradually, more women also leap up to perform this dance.
In contrast to the light norwegian summer nights the night here is totally dark, only illuminated by the lights and the smiling faces. Even in the middle of the night, it is so warm that we feel most comfortable in a T-shirt. Another difference is that the children, both large and small, are together with the adults all the time, including the dance. Some will run around a long way from parents, but nobody worries. Here everybody is part of a big family, and if they need some help, they’ll get it. The feast is for everybody and there is no reason to give up before you’ve had enough, and nobody does. It is early in the morning before the cicadas take over from the musicians, and we set off for our home to sleep, tired and well-satisfied.

Where is this small, friendly, somewhat anonymous village, Agios Vlasios?
It is located on the Pilion peninsula, bounded by the Aegean Sea, between Athens and Thessaloniki, about 17 km from the city of Volos.
The peninsula was named after the small mountain range Pilion, in which the highest top extends up to 1610 meters. There is even a ski centre here.
According to legend from ancient times man believed that the centaurs (half man and half horse) lived in this region.

The mountain contains lime and is porous, absorbing the rain and the melt water emerging again further down, clear as crystal and cold. It trickles and flows in life-giving streams and spurts from water posts and sources. Here the mountainsides are green and lush all year long. A great place to grow fruit and vegetables. People come from far away to get water from water posts in the villages of the area.

Agios Vlasios is located in this fertile landscape, at just over 300 meters above the sea level. One roadway turns up from the coast road on the west side of the peninsula. The location provides an excellent view of the landscape and the Aegean Sea below.

More than 500 people live in the village, which can offer a total of three grocery shops, of which the largest has a reasonable range. There is also a bakery and a butcher which is open every Friday and Saturday. Mostly, it is the butcher’s own sheep and goats that are sold over the counter. If you meet him on one of the cafés, he will be happy to accept orders for the next opening day. He makes amazing spicy sausages, and you can pick and choose which cuts you would like to be ground to minced meat. He does it while you wait.
As previously mentioned, there are five cafés here. There is also a taverna, but it is open only in the summer, and then only on weekends. It is kept alive by Greek tourists who spend their vacation on the beach below the village. Many also come from Volos. They escape from the heat in town, for a few hours, to experience the fresh air, and the view that Agios Vlasios can offer.
No one knows for sure how old the village is, they only know that it’s old. At a couple of villages, a little further north, remains of settlements have been found that are at least 8000 years old.
Homer mentions that the peninsula’s inhabitants took part in the war of Troy, just over a thousand years before the Christian era. Later, at regular intervals it was invaded and ruled by different population groups, among others, by Slavs and Franks. From 1423 to 1881 the Turks ruled, and then the third rebellion against them finally succeeded.
The oldest buildings are located in the mountains at a safe distance from the pirates that ravaged the coast over the centuries. The settlements on the coast below are not older than about 300 years.
In the landscape around the Agios Vlasios, as in many other places in Pilion, there are old, built up terraces to indicate that man has long cultivated the earth here. The olive has, throughout the centuries, to the present day, perhaps, been the most important. Before the Second World War the ports in Pilion were significant for the shipment of the valuable and golden olive oil. Now, the growing of fruit has taken over more and more. Mainly, they cultivate apricots, peaches and nectarines, but you can also find plums, apples, pears, citrus fruits and lots of other things on the slopes here. In addition, wild fig trees and walnut trees are growing here.

You’re constantly reminded that Agios Vlasios was created long before cars. Drivable areas are in short supply. Overall, the houses are bound together by paved paths that suit humans and mules excellently, but not today’s means of transportation. We do not miss them.

One thing, however, there is a lot of, are small canals. An ingenious network brings water from the mountain above to the fields and the cultivated areas on the lower side of the village. Canals fork, and the water ripples along the footpaths, flows over the yards, between the houses and pours out through the holes in the stone fences. A man goes around and closes some canals at the same time that he opens some others. It is his job. Through a large part of the day, he goes around in the village and makes sure that all areas receive their measured-out part of the life-giving water.

There is going to be a wedding in the village. Aspasia, daughter of Toula and Apostolis, will marry Yorgos. The entire village is going to participate. We have been invited to the house of the bride’s mother two days before the wedding. Here we are with the family and friends to see the dowry, which consists of things the bride brings with her into the marriage. Often, these are things that have been made and collected over many years. Along with the gifts this will be  the foundation the bridal couple needs to set up a family and settle down.
According to tradition the dowry is to be transported around the village so that everybody can have a look at it. For this, one has a need for carriers, many carriers. This is one of the reasons we are here. So, after having had a close look admired the items, it is intended that we will take part in the procession.
Before we depart we will be served meze, greek small dishes, and rakí out on the terrace, while the local folk musicians play dance music. There are few that allow such a chance to pass. Soon chains of dancers wave around on the terrace. The atmosphere is electric. Later, the same folk musicians provide music during the procession.
One by one, we go into the house where we are given something to carry. Even Nikolai, our son, who at the time was not more than six years old, was entrusted with a carpet. Like us, he sees it as an honour. We grab hold of towels, pillows, sheets, blankets, tablecloths and other items, put them up on our shoulders and set out to join the long parade that has already started snaking through the village. First, in the procession a cock is being carried decorated with a red ribbon (a fertility symbol), then comes a plate of baklava, a cake full of nuts and honey. It is used in most major feasts. After some zigzag walking, we end up in the house where the prospective bride groom and his family are waiting.
Once more, we are served meze and raki. The feast continues.

Two days are gone. Once more, we’re invited back to the bride’s house and again we are gathered on the terrace where we are served raki and different dishes. We see nothing of the bride. She is still indoors, where the female members of the family are helping her with the final touch. So finally, in all her white angelic gloss, she reveals herself to us. Together with her father and a folk musician she will lead the procession to the church.
Here the bride groom is waiting along with his company. Having greeted each other the bridal couple enters the church together. The rest of us follow. Inside, the church is illuminated and decorated with flowers. The air is full of incense. Icons are being kissed and candles lit and placed on the candelabra. The priest is standing smiling by the altar waiting. The ceremony can begin. First, one goes through an engagement ritual where the priest repeats three times: "God’s servant Yorgos is engaged to God’s servant Aspasia." So he turns on the order and repeats three times: "God’s servant Aspasia is engaged with God’s servant Yorgos." The priest then puts the rings on their fingers and leads her hand into his.
First now we can begin the ceremony. The priest reads from the gospel, and afterwards the bridal couple kisses the New Testament. The best man stands ready behind the bridal couple with two crowns which are bound together. The same ritual that took place at the engagement moment is repeated now, only the text is changed to: "God’s servant Yorgos is crowned with God’s servant Aspasia," and vice versa. Each time the text is uttered, the crowns are exchanged over the heads of the bridal couple. It is important that the two crowns remain bound to each other and show no sign of separation. If that happens, this indicates that the marriage is going to end badly. Then the couple drinks holy communion wine before the priest brings the ceremony to an end leading the bridal couple and the best man three times around the altar.
Once we are out of the church, music is being played for people to dance in the square. The whole village is participating, including the priest. He turns around and shows that he is in no way a novice in the game.

People in Agios Vlasios know how to take advantage of the chances they get to celebrate together. The opportunities come up constantly. There is no more than two weeks before we are again participating in a wedding.
Since everyone knows each other in the village even funerals are a public affair. In addition to the burial, which must occur within a day after death, a lot of services are held in memory of the deceased. The first should already take place  after three days, followed by one after nine days, the next will be after 40 days, there’s a new memorial service after six months, then after one year, and one after three years. After the three years’ marking the frequency of memorial services varies from family to family. Some continue to have memorial services every three years, others merely each tenth year. Under these memorial services all the participants get some koliva, a sweet that is boiled together with whole white grains, sugar and cinnamon. Nikolai, our oldest son, loves it. So every time the church bells ring except the ones that call people for the morning and evening prayer, he runs up to the church. The frequent church-goer is eventually getting to be a good friend of the priest. When the priest asks him what he’s going to be when he grows up, he responds a pilot, and adds for the sake of appearances, or priest. It is the priest who finds the ideal solution when he suggests that he should first educate himself to be a pilot, for then it would be easy for him to go to Greece and become a priest.

Vasilis Chatzopoulos is the holder of the largest grocery shop, which in many ways serves as the village’s nerve centre. All mail to the village is delivered here, and all the way until the end of the 90s, people with no home phone came here to call. Now a public telephone is placed on the square, just outside the shop, but people still call Vasilis if they want to convey a message to someone in the village. The children outside the shop act as a messenger. Like the other stores his shop is located strategically at the square. Next to the shop one can find the most visited café, which is run by his brother, Nikos. Only a door that is for the most part open, separates the two establishments. Earlier it was the father, who ran these places. Now, he sits invariably on a chair outside and looks at his sons’ work.
Vasilis does not only sell food, he can supply almost everything. If you need stocks to support the vines, cement, bricks or perhaps sand, just ask. He explains where to find things, whether they can be at his private home or in the warehouse. He often lends the keys and a wheelbarrow if you need it. The payment will be taken care of later. When we buy mineral water or beer he never demands a deposit; he takes it for granted that we will return the bottles when they are empty.

Time down here goes by far too soon. When we have to return home after four weeks, Vasilis comes with a bottle of homemade raki, somebody else comes with a bottle of wine or ouzo, and Evridiki comes with two buckets full of fruit to take with us on the road.
Everybody wants us to have a good trip and wishes us welcome again next year.


Almost a year later we are back in Agios Vlasios. It is April and the fruit trees are in full bloom. The peach trees colour the slopes pink. Elsewhere, the landscape is lit up in variations of white. The succulent green ground is mottled with the colours of countless field flowers. The sky is blue and the Aegean Sea below is shining in dull azure.
We have come back to participate in the Easter celebration, the most important religious feast in Greece.
It’s Lent. The Holy Week has just begun. It is not allowed to eat either meat or fish; on the other hand, it is accepted to eat other marine animals as mussels and octopus. But most people merely eat vegetables and bread. Traditionally one should fast for 40 days, but currently few people fast for more than the last week before Easter.

On Great Wednesday there is an evening service with the anointing of the congregation. On Great Thursday Christ, in form of a wooden figure, is being hung on a cross inside the church. During the Great Friday services the priest takes Him down from the cross, wraps Him in a shroud and places Him in the sanctuary.
Earlier that day, people brought flowers to the church to decorate a table that represents the Tomb of Christ. It is located in the middle of the nave, and after several hours of work it finally appears as a bright artwork. Lyrics that are performed during the services are subdued and sad. The atmosphere is charged with grief. After the body of Christ is removed from the cross, an epitaphios (a cloth embroidered with the image of Christ prepared for burial) is carried in procession to the Tomb of Christ. Then the table with the epitaphios is carried, in slow procession, through the village. Back, at the church, the table is lifted up so that all may pass under it to come back into the church where the three-hour service ends.

Great Saturday, or more accurately Easter night, is the pinnacle and the most important part of the celebration. The believers, those who do not quite know what to believe and those who absolutely do not believe, everyone will have their time. With their finest clothes on and with their candles in hand they arrive at the church. The ones that arrive early manage to enter the church, the rest gather in the square outside. Both children and adults are in a festive mood. All are familiar with the rituals and they know what is to take place. When the lights inside the church go out they know that the ceremony is approaching its climax. Just before midnight the priest lights the candles from the oil lamp on the altar, the only flame that still burns. So he chants to the church. "Come and get light". The ones that stand closest get their candles lit by the priest’s light. These then pass the flame on to others and soon the entire church and the square outside are illuminated by the candle flame.
I know what is going to take place because for a number of years I have celebrated greek Easter in the greek orthodox church in Oslo, but I suspect nothing about the gesture, the priest is about to show to me. I am standing quite far back in the church, but I am clearly visible because of my height. When the priest approaches with the light, people are fighting in order to be the first one to get the light. The priest raises his arm so that no one can reach the flame. Slowly, he moves through the church until he’s like in front of me. He smiles while he is lighting my candle. I barely have the time to digest the incident before the church is illuminated by the candle flame and people flow out. Precisely at midnight the priest shouts out to the assembly: "Christos anesti," “Christ is risen” and the response is: “Alithos anesti”, “Truly He is risen!” Fireworks crackle in the night while everybody greets each other with “Christ is risen”, to which the response is: “Truly He is risen”, accompanied by the kiss of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Many head for home now to eat mayiritsa, a soup that is made of the bowels of the lamb to be eaten the following day. The Lent is over.
The more devoted believers will stay in the church for one more hour of service before they too go home to eat soup. They take the candles that they have lit in the church with them. Using the soot of the burning light they draw a cross on the frame above the entrance door. This will bless and protect the family from all evil in the coming year. At home they light up the oil lamp in front of the house icons with the same light.

The next day it smells of grilled lamb all over the village. In almost every garden or courtyard there are people cranking on a grill spit. As a rule, they gather together with others. They only need to be replaced from time to time because of the cranking, but they also need company, because grilling a lamb is a slow process that takes many hours.
I doubt if there is anyone in Agios Vlasios, not to say Greece, who does not eat lamb on Easter Sunday. Anything else is unheard of. Another thing that’s on the menu is boiled eggs. The last few days have, among other things, been used to colour them. Red is the correct colour, even if other colours are also used. Inside each home there are baskets full of them. Originally eggs were an old fertility symbol, now they are a symbol of Christ’s blood. If you go on a visit these days you are guaranteed to be served eggs and a bit of tsoureki, the traditional Easter cake. People knock their eggs together and the person with the last egg to break wins.

After the traditional Easter meal there is of course a party. The music sounds through the village until late at night, and the sounds are still in our heads when we a couple of days later are travelling back home to a different reality and a dawning spring in Norway.


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