Image from www.neakriti.gr
Crete is a magical tapestry of splendid scenery, ancient treasures, wonderful cuisine and enduring culture – and that’s a reason in itself to visit. Spirited, passionate and proud, the locals have always championed their unique customs, and their time-honoured traditions remain a dynamic part of the island’s soul. Cretan feasts & festivals (panigiria) are at the epicentre of these ancient folkways – and probably the best way to experience fun, the true Cretan way.
Cretan Feasts & Festivals: Then & Now
Traditionally connected to a religious celebration, panigiria in Crete have a centuries-old history. Yet spiritual element aside, they also served an important social purpose. Cretan feasts & festivals offered a prime chance for people to meet and socialize, for young women and men to flirt (and perhaps even find their future spouse), to honour tradition and, that’s not to mention, take a break from everyday troubles and chores, have fun and let it all go.
The word panigiri derives from panigiras – a local who has the honour of keeping the icon of the Saint in his home for a year and who brings it back on the day of the Saint’s celebration to be blessed during the liturgy. But it is not all chanting and praying. A successful panigiri must also have good music, tasty food and plenty of local wine and raki – and it is always the result of a collective effort, with every villager contributing their bit to the shared table.
Today, panigiria are not quite the same as in the old times. Many are not even related to a religious cause, and instead celebrate a type of food or drink, such as honey, olive oil, graviera cheese or wine. The honoured ingredient is of course offered in abundance in this case, and it’s a great chance to sample the Cretan land’s blessed produce.
Still, panigiria in Crete, remain joyful affairs involving copious amounts of food and drink, traditional live music and ecstatic dancing until the early hours of the morning.
Most are organized by cultural associations in a central public space, such as the village square, around a temple, in a schoolyard, or even in an archaeological space. Service is undertaken by volunteers who do their best to showcase the fabled Cretan hospitality, and tables and chairs – set around the main stage where musicians will perform – are free (make sure to arrive no later than 8:30-9:00 pm, to secure a spot!). There is often a symbolic entrance fee (10-15 €), which includes a complimentary full course meal (usually meat, potatoes or gamopilafo), but many panigiria are open with street vendors offering traditional dishes or souvlaki, if you get hungry (which you will!). The star of the evening is invariably the Lyra player, with fans even travelling from afar to attend a specific feast, where their favourite musician will perform.
Bridging the old and the new, Cretan feasts & festivals are all about rapture, ecstasy and pure, unadulterated fun. Though they take place throughout the year, in the summer they are literally countless. With balmy starry nights and a laid-back holiday mood adding up to the feeling, panigiria in Crete are your best bet for an off-the-beaten-path outing with all the trappings of a legend. If you find yourselves in Chania this summer, make sure to attend one! Here are our handpicked suggestions for the most interesting summer panigiria in Chania.
5+2 must-visit August panigiria in Chania
25 July – 12 August – Giortes Rokkas
Bringing together society and culture, this multiday, multi-phased event takes place every year in the villages of Rokka and Kera in Kissamos, since the summer of 2013. Organized by the locals, this is a celebration of the arts and sciences that attracts thousands of visitors from all around the world, thereby shaping the cultural identity of the area. It is also showcasing its raw beauty, as it is being held in the archaeological area of Rokka and in the villages’ homes and squares.
August 5 and 6 – Feast in Xirosterni, Apokoronas
Held in honour of the Lord’s Transfiguration on August 6, this two-day festival is one of the most well-known and popular in Apokoronas. There is live music and the village women prepare traditional dishes. It usually takes place in the primary school’s yard.
August 15 — The Dormition of the Virgin Mary
The Dormition of the Virgin Mary on August 15th is the biggest national holiday in the Greek Orthodox calendar after Easter. And it is celebrated with fervour with numerous feasts all over Greece. Of course, Chania is singing and dancing too, on this day and on the days that precede and follow the 15th!
August 14 – Kreatotourta Celebration in Meskla, Kissamos
Kreatotourta is a traditional Chaniot pie made with meat (usually lamb or pork), Mizithra, a soft local cheese, and plenty of fresh mint. It’s absolutely mouthwatering and you’ll get to savour it in spades, along with other delicious, homemade traits at this famous feast at the village of Meskla. There is also live music and dancing to traditional Cretan tunes.
August 14 – Celebrations in Loutraki, Platanias
Live Cretan music, lots of dancing and a traditional full menu is offered at this annual celebration in the village of Loutraki that’s a 15-minute drive from Platanias.
August 15 – Celebrations in Fre, Apokoronas
At the tiny picturesque village of Fre, the local women’s association hosts a Cretan night with homecooked food and live Cretan music and dancing.
August 15 – Graviera feast in Anopoli, Sfakia
In this heroic village that’s tucked away in the rugged mountains of Sfakia, locals host their annual graviera festival, every year on August 15th, with a view of showcasing their delicious cheeses and products to the world. Of course, there’s live Cretan music and dancing, as you’d expect. It’s some 2:30 hours drive away from the town of Chania though, so it might be a good idea to plan a multi-day trip to the south coast in light of the occasion.
August 29 – Celebrations in Vafes and Douliana, Apokoronas
In tribute to Saint John who was beheaded on the 28th of August, traditional Cretan feasts with lots of great food, drink, and live music are being held in Vafes and Douliana – two of the most picturesque villages in Apokoronas.