Every day in Greece I learn something new. While visiting Milos, a local asked my next destination after the island. My answer, “back to Athens,” was met with an amused look and pointing out how “Athens turns into a ghost town” in August. This is because traditionally, Athenians take their summer holidays then, “fleeing the city” during one of its hottest months.
Of course, this was a surprise. I usually travel off season, but wondered if it was possible for Athens to shut down during peak mid-summer travel. It’s true – since returning, I’ve noticed less-crowded streets and Metro trains, with a fourth the number of people present in July.
As in other parts of the world, this year Greece is experiencing an “historic heatwave” with temperatures soaring to 47°C (117°F)”. Multiple wildfires that began in early August continue to rage throughout the country. They’ve killed two, burned homes, and traumatized the Greek population.
“Greek authorities are struggling with over 154 fires across the country. The biggest fronts still burning are north of Athens on Evia Island, and in the Peloponnese, including Messinia, Mani, and famous Olympia, site of the first Olympic Games.”
We’ve had a few apocalyptic-like days in Athens with red suns and dingy, smoke-filled skies. My location near Acropolis Hill remains relatively unscathed. I’ll be in Athens until August 30th, and like everyone, hope the fires are brought under control soon.
Smaller Crowds, Closed Businesses
Exploring favorite parts of Athens with smaller crowds is a joy. For me, the biggest drawback to the August exodus is that some businesses and most performing arts venues are closed until September. Many restaurants, galleries, and museums remain open, and shoppers are delighting in mega retail sales.
One disappointment is that my favorite neighborhood pastry shop – Takis Bakery – is closed until August 23. Their sweet and savory creations are unparalleled. I’m awaiting their reopening.
Major Greek National Holiday August 15
One of my most favorite things about traveling is visiting foreign countries during cultural and religious celebrations, especially when they’re new to me. Dekapentavgoustos 15 August – the day of the Dormition of Virgin Mary – is one such observance. On the Greek Orthodox calendar, August 15 is known as “Little Easter” and “Summer Easter”. It “marks Mary’s ascension into Heaven”. It’s not a day of mourning, rather a joyous celebration.
Compared to other European countries, religion is important in Greece, and it’s tied to “every aspect of Greek culture”. A high percentage of self-identified religious people live in Greece, and the official religion is Eastern or Greek Orthodoxy.
Traditional customs are practiced in the celebration of Panagia. Greeks prepare by fasting from 1 to 14 August and returning to their home villages or islands to attend church celebrations. Many of the most popular celebrations occur in monasteries throughout the Greek Islands. The Greek Orthodox Church’s holiest cathedral, Panaghia Evangelistria, is on Tinos Island. The church is patron saint of Tinos and saint protector of all Greece.
Tinos is “home to a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary, that was discovered underground in 1823”. Celebrations held on other Greek Islands include “Paros (Panagia Ekatontapiliani), Imathia (Panagia Soumela), Lesvos (Panagia Agiasotissa), Nisyros (Panagia Spiliani), Kefalonia (Panagia Fidousa), and Patmos (Epitaph Mary)”.
Legend of Virgin Mary’s Snakes
During celebrations in Markopoulou village on Kefalonia Island, a miracle is said to occur. According to legend, when the island was attacked by the ruthless pirate Barbarossa in 1705, nuns in the convent prayed to Mary for help, and they were turned into snakes to facilitate their escape.
“At the peak of their August summer vacation period, Greeks celebrate the Virgin Mary, and their country is transformed into one big church festival.” Greece Is
Since 1705, “Virgin Mary’s snakes enter the Dormition of Virgin Mary Church and head for the bishop’s throne and the icon of the virgin”. The snakes are said to be harmless and, “according to villagers, bring good luck to the island. If they fail to appear, it’s a bad omen. Decades ago, when the snakes were nowhere to be seen, major earthquakes occurred in Kefalonia”.
“Born out of their deep love for the Virgin Mary, Greeks have evolved some 500 words, or theotokonymia, to designate the mother of Jesus. Some are taken from hymns, and others derived from the location of a particular Panagia.” Abaton Island Crete
August 15th celebrations become “one big church festival”, with tourists joining in the festivities. Worship of the Virgin Mary dates to the third century. She’s referred to in Greece as Panagia, and “considered to be the mother to all men and a symbol of comfort and protection”. The Virgin Mary is also known as “the Merciful, the Guide, the Healer, the Consoler, and the Revelator,” just to name a few of her many titles”.
Full Moon Festival August 22
Other cultural activities pick up again later in the month, with the August Full Moon Festival. “The August full moon in Athens has no association with sleepwalkers or werewolves. It’s actually the best time to visit the European cultural capital”. On the night of the August full moon, many of the city’s historical landmarks, museums, and archaeological sites offer free admission, and “become venues for live performances”. The Acropolis is even more stunning in moonlight!
August highlights include musical performances at the Acropolis Museum, concerts in Elefsina, exhibitions in the Archaeological Museum of Athens, and entertainment on the open-air stage at Filopappou Hill. The Full Moon Festival is held annually in mid-August. It’s said that the best place to capture the full moon rising behind the Acropolis is from Pnyx Hill or Philopappos Hill. I’ll be there!
Thision Summer Cinema
Tonight, I plan to see Thision Summer Cinema’s new feature – Rams – starring Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, and Michael Caton. The movie is set in remote Western Australia. Thision is a beloved outdoor summer cinema in the shadow of the Acropolis. I enjoyed watching Casablanca there last month.