Festivals & Wildfires in Zakynthos

Zakynthos Fire

Holidaying in Zakynthos this month? Be sure to take a copy of Sunflower Books’ complete guide to the island. It’s got all the information you could need, plus a fine selection of walks and car tours. But be aware. August is the holiday season for Greeks, which means that most of the 10 million population of Athens disperses to the sea (islands) and mountains. This number is added to by Italian tourists hopping across the Mediterranean, particularly to the island of Zakynthos, which is still perceived as Italian (following the Venetian occupation, around the 15th century), and from which the name Zante derives. In Greece, August is the time for celebrations, feast days, name days and festivals, more than any other time of year. To Greeks, the “name day” is equally important, if not more so, to a birthday, and it is the saint day on which a person’s name falls (For a list of all name days see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_days_in_Greece). In Greece, everyone’s name is celebrated at some point of the year. The name day of “Maria” falls on the 15th August and, as many Greeks are called Maria (because a child is named after their grandparents, so names repeat through generations), it is a major celebration day throughout Greece, in addition to being a public holiday.

The Greek island of Zakynthos is no exception to this tradition, with many churches being named after the Virgin Mary (also Panagia). A unique place to visit on this special day is Mount Skopos in Vassilikos, which is one of the walks (Walk 5) described in the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos. An old byzantine church (reconstructed in the 1970s) surrounded by the ruins of a monastery sits at the top of this 500 metre mountain, which has views in every compass direction across the island. The church is called Panagia Skopiotissa (after the Virgin Mary), and this is the only day of the entire year that the church is opened. It is worth visiting just for this, if nothing else. The celebration starts early in the morning (around 0700/0800), with barbecues and food being shared by everyone (no charge), and lasts until the last person leaves. If you do not make it to Mount Skopos, you might find yourself on Marathonisi islet, where the local priest visits the sea turtle nesting beach on the north of the islet in the mid afternoon (around 1500 to 1800, variable), to give a blessing. The church is now placed on private land; however, in the past, the islet held a major monastery, and is considered sacred by the Greek Orthodox Church. This is also an event worth witnessing.  However, you will also find that many churches around the island and Zakynthos town are named after the Virgin Mary, so you are likely to stumble on a celebration somewhere, especially if you are following one of the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos car tours.

Another major event on Zakynthos island in August is the Patron Saint celebrations. The name day of the Patron Saint, Agios (Saint) Dionysios (Dennis) falls in December; however, the August event celebrates the transfer of his remains from the remote Strophades islands (2 islands about 30 miles south of Zakynthos with a single monastery and lighthouse, and one inhabitant, a priest). These celebrations are massive and span several days, culminating on the 24th August, when the patron saint is paraded about town in the late afternoon, followed by an amazing firework display. The town is decorated in flags, and the port is filled with market stalls selling all sorts of paraphernalia for the entire week from about the 17th August onwards.

On a more serious note, August is also a time that you should take especial care when exploring the island. An unfortunate fact, is that vegetation on all of the walks described in the Sunflower Complete Guide for Zakynthos have burnt to some degree over the last 15 years. Vast tracts of land are burnt each year on Zakynthos, and across the Mediterranean, of which less than 5% is due to natural causes. These fires are set to degrade land set aside for nature protection, to claim land for the planting of crops (usually olives or vines) or building, by hunters to clear land for the (illegal) bird hunting season (starting in September), among several other reasons. The risk of fire is particularly high in August, as, we have not had rain since March (this year), therefore, the land is extremely dry and susceptible. The photograph above shows the fire ravaged landscape that is left after a wildfire has broken out. Whatever the reason, it is extremely important that wherever you are on the island, you remain alert. This is important whether you are braving the summer heat to follow one of the 22 Sunflower walks for Zakynthos in any part of the island (even around Laganas Bay at Vassilikos or Marathia), but particularly along the west and north coast, or exploring the walks and secluded swim spots as extras on the Sunflower car tours in a four-wheel vehicle. Be alert for the smell of smoke, greyish looking clouds rising from the ground in the distance, the sound of crackling, and the droning sound of planes (yellow fireplanes) and helicopters flying overhead. Please do not drive towards what looks like a fire (or be deceived by the presence of olive trees as a safe haven – they are grown in nutrient rich gullies, surrounded by maquis, particularly on the west coast) even if it appears small, as these fires can suddenly spread very quickly, drive back to the nearest village and alert the locals, who will call the authorities.

Finally, make sure you have plenty of water with you, whether you are walking or driving, as the summer heat leads to dehydration very quickly, especially with temperatures currently reaching 40 degrees in the middle of the day. And be sure to have a copy of the Zakynthos Complete Guide from Sunflower Books with you!