Marching bands, vivid street celebrations, flower-filled mountain strolls and church services of both solemn contemplation and eternal optimism. And all with the promise of delicious food and springtime joy.
From Corfu and Paxi, down to Lefkada, Ithaca and Kefalonia, and of course Zakynthos to the south, Greece’s Ionian Islands come into their own each Easter, when the country’s most important celebration unfolds with colour and individuality.
Orthodox Easter falls with spring in full swing. What better a setting, therefore, to experience the sounds and sights of no fewer than 27 marching bands that parade each year across almost all the islands of the Ionian Sea?
Experience the unique Corfu Easter
Without a doubt, pride of place is reserved for Corfu, whose 19 bands give the island a unique musical identity.
The procession of the epitaph, a signature event of Good Friday to commemorate the Passion of Christ throughout Greece, is made all the more memorable by three Corfiot philharmonic bands accompanying parades.
Corfu’s oldest and most renowned band performs Albinoni’s Adagio, while the Blue Band supplies Verdi’s Marcia Funebre and the Orange Band Mariani’s Suentura. Mournful, yes, but also furnished with blessings of springtime, with seasonal flowers gathered to adorn the epitaph.
Saturday dawns with the promise of full Easter celebrations just a day away. Or sooner if you’re on Corfu. At 11am, the island’s main square and surrounding streets are the place to be as painted pots – some filled with water for extra acoustics – are thrown with aplomb from balconies.
The botides of Corfu, as the pots are known, possibly date to the Venetians who once ruled the island and ritually threw out old belongings to usher in the new year with optimism.
One way or another, don’t forget to take away a piece of crockery for your own piece of good luck.
Ionian islands' spring landscapes
Easter in the Ionian Islands represents the irreversible turning of the year towards summer, filling you with optimism when you need it most. Added to that, April and May are the perfect months to enjoy the outdoors in Greece.
Across Ithaca, Zakynthos and Kefalonia, island strolls come into their own in the unfolding spring landscapes. In fact, on Lefkada alone there are no fewer than 24 marked footpaths that traverse the island’s rich flora.
Too many to choose between, perhaps, so suggestions are the path through the verdant Dimosari Gorge, which ends at an impressive waterfall, and Melissa Gorge, dotted with wooden bridges and traditional watermills – the remnants of 64 such mills that once existed in the early 19th century.
Onwards on our springtime jaunt sees us climb to the mountainous landscape of Kefalonia, where Mt Ainos is preserved as a National Park and offers numerous walks, including that which crosses a forest of fir trees to reach the island’s highest peak, Mega Soro.
Continuing towards the Zoodochou Pigis Monastery, you’ll reach the feeding ground of the wild horses of Mt Ainos, the legacy of the herds once bred by the islanders and, since the Second World War, left to breed in the wild.
Enjoy the first swim of the summer
By now you will be well and truly ravished. Spending Easter in the Ionian Islands promises to satisfy your every culinary desire, from the Lenten fare of the Holy Week right up to the feast of Easter Sunday.
But there’s still time for one last ritual to complete the experience. Every Ionian Island offers its secluded nooks and crannies, perfect for that divine moment you take your first swim of the year. Perhaps nowhere would be more iconic than Zakynthos’s Shipwreck beach (Navagio).
But we’ll leave the final choice to you. The Ionian Islands are filled with magical swimming spots.
FAQs about Easter in the Ionian islands
The Ionian Islands are a collection of islands off the west coast of mainland Greece, in the Ionian Sea. They are known as the Heptanisa (Seven islands) in Greek, although there are more than seven if you include the smaller ones. The best-known Ionian Islands are Corfu, Zakynthos, Kefalonia and Lefkada, and they include Ithaca, Paxos and Antipaxos.
Both the Orthodox and Catholic Church celebrate the Resurrection of Christ according to a similar formula but Easter Sunday for Orthodox Christians always falls at least one week later. The date in both cases is determined by the spring equinox (the first day of spring, when the Sun crosses the equator) but the Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the Julian Calendar while all other branches of Christianity use the Gregorian Calendar, introduced in the 16th century and currently accounting for a 13-day difference. Added to this, Orthodox Easter must take place after the Jewish festival of Passover (as Jesus celebrated Passover before his death), which means the two Easters can be up to four weeks apart.
Easter is the biggest celebration of the year for Greeks, with families often returning to their home village or town. Preparations begin with Clean Monday (a public holiday), 48 days before Easter Sunday and officially marking the start of Lent when you eat Lagana (a sesame seed-encrusted flatbread) and shellfish. The week before Easter (Holy Week) includes a series of church services, including the procession of Christ’s funeral bier on Good Friday and a midnight service on Saturday where people light lambades (candles) with the Holy Flame, representing Christ’s resurrection. They then break their fast with magiritsa (offal soup) before the big celebration of Easter Sunday, including tsoureki (a sweat, braided bread) for breakfast, cracking dyed eggs (traditionally red, representing the blood of Christ) and eating lamb roasted on a spit.
With spring firmly in the air and the festive mood, Easter is a magical time of year all over Greece, whether you are in a mountain village or on an island. With cooler temperatures, it is the perfect time for outdoor activities but you can also enjoy a first dip in the sea. The festivities are impressive wherever you are but some islands – such as Corfu, Syros and Patmos – have a unique way of celebrating Easter worth seeking out.
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