3 Cretan Carnivals… and how to enjoy them like a local

February 06, 2018
Stefanos Papaioannou

The island of Crete may be best known for its summer sunshine and lively beaches, but there’s one very good reason to come in the off-season: the festival of Apokries, or Greek Carnival.

Dionysus was the ancient god of wine, fun and fertility, and Dionysian festivals took place at the end of winter, to celebrate rebirth. It was a symbolic way to welcome spring, bringing new life in nature. But over the centuries, traditions and celebrations across the island have been shaped into different forms with different meanings.

Today, Apokries is connected to the Orthodox Christian religion. The word ‘apokries’ literally means ‘without meat’ and marks the period when the faithful give up meat and prepare for their 40-day Lent.

Celebrations run for three weeks, during which locals of all ages disguise themselves for masquerades and celebrate with parties and dancing. Carnival celebrations reach their peak on the last weekend of the three, right before ‘Kathara Deftera’ (Clean Monday), or the first day of Lent.

On Crete, many towns and villages hold Carnival festivals, but we’ve narrowed down our top three, where you can combine Carnival traditions and fun with the beauty of historic towns, ancient monuments and unspoiled nature.

The last weekend of Apokries 2018 is Friday, February 16 to Sunday, February 18. Clean Monday falls on Monday, February 19, 2018.

Rethymnon Carnival

clown surrounded by balloons

For the ultimate Cretan Carnival, head to the biggest one, in Rethymnon | Photo by Crete Urban Adventures

Rethymnon city holds the biggest Carnival festival on Crete, and one of the most famous in Greece. Thousands of people, dressed in fancy costumes, celebrate along the cobbled streets and squares of the medieval city, transforming it into a non-stop party. Numerous events take place for children and adults such as street parades, parties with traditional or modern music, and interactive games. Among them, the more famous are the treasure hunt, the dances performed by different Carnival groups, the unique Grand Parade, and the burning of the Carnival King at the closing ceremony. (Don’t worry; no actual kings are burned — it’s the first float of the parade that is lit on fire.)

During your stay in Rethymnon, be sure to explore the Venetian Old Town, which is one of the best-preserved cities in Greece. Easily done on foot, you can stroll narrow streets and see relics from the Venetian and Ottoman periods.

READ MORE: Why you should visit Rethymnon

Sites worth seeing include the charming old Venetian harbour with its colourful pastel buildings and picturesque lighthouse, the photogenic fortress of Fortezza, the magnificent Venetian Rimondi Fountain, and the Mosque of Gazi Hussein Pasha.

If you want to experience the city like a local and feel its easy-going lifestyle, visit a kafenion, a traditional Greek coffee shop, or go for delicious traditional food in one of the local tavernas.

Kalyves Carnival

Carnival goers in costumes

Photo by Kalyviano Karnavali, used with permission

If you want to escape the massive crowds of Rethymnon Carnival, then head to the Carnival in Kalyves, a fishing village 19 kilometres away from Chania, the second largest city on Crete (and 42 kilometres from Rethymnon). On the last Sunday of Carnival, this little village turns into a Carnival hotspot, with a few thousand people celebrating. Teams of locals design themed floats and costumes, and during the Carnival parade, you’ll find many handmade floats towed by trucks. Along the main street, vendors sell a variety of food to keep you fuelled for the festivities. The next day, during the ‘Clean Monday’ celebrations, families go off to the countryside or to Kalyves beach, where they fly kites and eat Lenten food.

A short distance from Kalyves is the beautiful Apokoronas region, a fertile and lush land that extends from the foothills of the White Mountains to the coast. Definitely make a stop in the nearby village of Armeni, for a coffee under the shade of high plane trees and next to a stream.

You can also visit some of the most picturesque traditional villages of Crete, such as Vamos, Gavalochori, Vafes and Fres, or relax next to Lake Kournas, the only natural lake on Crete. Experience real Cretan food in the local tavernas, admire the archaeological site of Aptera (an important settlement of the Early Minoan period with the magnificent view to Souda Bay), or explore the White Mountains’ hiking trails. With unspoiled landscapes, imposing mountains and stunning views, you will fall in love with Apokoronas at first sight.

Gergeri Carnival

Musicians celebrating at Carnival

Photo by Stefanos Papaioannou

Gergeri is a scenic village at the southern foothills of Psiloritis Mountain, where, every year on Clean Monday, the Carnival feast of Apokrigiomata takes place. On this day, local musicians who are masters of the Cretan lyra and lagouto instruments gather in the village to play traditional music. Locals from Gergeri and other nearby villages participate in the parade wearing traditional handmade Carnival costumes made from raw goat leather. Greek Carnival customs such as the groom and the bride, the smudging with coal, the bear dance and the funeral are revived. After the parade, people dance in the main square, and local raki, wine and Lenten food are all offered for free.

If you visit Gegeri for Carnival, we suggest you also explore the nearby Palace of Phaistos, an important archaeological site and the second largest palace of Minoan Crete, after Knossos. Alternately, you could chill out at Votomos Lake in the village of Zaros, and try local fresh trout in one of the tavernas around the lake.