Panegyri in Gavalokhori – celebrating a Cretan Patronal Festival

Giorgis Manolioudis playing the laouto

“Do you think we came a bit too early?”

We look round the small open air restaurant at the expanse of empty tables. It’s now 10.00pm and we are sitting in a tiny square shaded by an an enormous plane tree in the village of Gavalakhori, near Chania. We have already eaten dinner as we arrived early at 9.00 to get a table and have also had a couple of drinks. On our way in the chef was tending his barbecue, a litre water bottle in hand full of what looked like watered down red wine. During the evening he has several re-fills from the kitchen. Thirsty work this barbecuing – especially in this heat. It’s still in the mid-twenties after the fierce heat of the Cretan day.

We are waiting for the celebration of the village panegyri to start. We first came to the village three days ago to look at the Venetians wells on its edge and then stopped to explore the village itself. It’s small and quiet, but it has some interesting old buildings, including the ruins of a Turkish apothecary and a very modern museum of country life . It was a lady in the women’s co-operative shop that told us about the panegyri. It was only later that we found out what this was: a celebration of the village patronal festival for the Panagia, the All Holy One (a Greek Orthodox title for the Virgin Mary).

The village is renowned for the quality of the lace that used to be made here, a tradition started over 100 years ago when local women were taught by a nun how to do it. Today most of the old lacemakers have passed away. One of the survivors is an old lady in her eighties who was recently put into the village home for the elderly. She hated it so much that she ran away and is now living rough behind the village church. Apparently when you call her on her mobile she answers with “Hello, it’s not me.”

At one end of the square is a small stage draped in black with big speakers on either side. Soon five musicians start tuning up, a guitarist, three players of the laouto (a cross between the lute and the mandolin) and a player of the distinctive Cretan lyra (a teardrop shaped three-stringed instrument played with a bow). One of the group’s laouto players, Giorgis Manolioudis, is also the vocalist. They obviously perform all over Crete as we see their posters everywhere. Here’s a sample of their music recorded on my son’s iPhone.

The restaurant owner has taken on additional staff for the evening and keeps a close eye on what’s happening, greeting people as they arrive and ensuring that the waiters are kept on their toes.

It’s not until gone 11.00 that people start to turn up and past 12.00 when the more well-healed locals arrive. Why do they eat so late? Do they have a snack to keep them going before they come out? There seems to be a complete cross-section of ages and social classes: Mr Bigs with their glamorous wives, family groups, friends and neighbours, tables of lads of army age. At a table to the left of the stage a man in combat trousers and black T-shirt sits alone, but judging from the way people greet him and keep sending drinks to his table, he’s obviously someone who inspires respect. Probably the local policeman we conclude.

A bald man in white shirt and dark trousers moves between the tables, flirting with the younger women and performing a party trick of downing a small tumbler of neat vodka off the back of his hand. I lose count after 6 and he shows no sign of having drunk so much.

Gradually the tempo and noise levels increase, as the playing and songs become more impassioned. Cretan folk music sounds Middle Eastern when you first hear it and is not immediately appealing. However, as we found, it grows on you especially in the atmosphere of the panegyri.

It’s past 1.00 before the dancing gets started. In a curled chain in front of the stage and segregated into men and women, the dancers start slowly and gracefully, moving to left then right with a small kick. The leader with his arm in the air, the tail of the chain with one hand behind he back. As the music progresses the movement becomes more energetic and wilder. As we leave at gone 2.00, it’s mainly the young people still on the floor.

The next day we pop back to buy some local honey – thyme at this season of the year – and stop for lunch in a small taverna on the main road. The panegyri taverna is closed up today and no one can tell us what time the panegyri finished. From the corner of my eye I notice the barbecue chef from last night sitting on his own smoking and nursing a Greek coffee. Yes, it was a very enjoyable evening.


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