Destroy the church - with fireworks!

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Darkness hadn't even fallen as I approached the battle zone, relieving me of any cover I would have otherwise enjoyed. Throughout the day, sporadic explosions sounding like small arms fire had wracked the town and surrounding valleys, putting me decidedly on edge; but as night began to descend its frequency and intensity rose to new heights. Wisely, both animals and humans were scarce. Debris of conflict littered the streets and windows of houses were boarded up in a fruitless attempt to repulse the devastation. Smoke hung in ominous, breezeless air, tingling the taste-buds with the acrid tang of saltpetre.

I had to traverse behind one of the primary targets to achieve my vantage point on the hillside, which meant a hunched and scuttling run for a hundred metres while lowing pink flares drifted in the twilight and waves of missiles peppered the path. They weren't accurate but they were numerous, so it was dumb luck that guided me safely through a particularly heavy barrage of afterburning rockets reverberating above and the gyrations of those fallen around me, screaming like wild banshees and spitting molten embers in their wake.

Singed but not injured, I took up position and counted my lucky stars...

You may be wondering if I uploaded my Gallipoli notes to the wrong entry? No. These scenes are from the otherwise peaceful Greek island of Chios, awkwardly located in the eastern Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey. Each year, on Orthodox Easter Saturday, they hold the 'Battle of the Churches' in the small village of Vrondatos, 5km north of the capital Chios Town.

Lord only knows how the event originated more than 300 years ago, nor how the resurrection of Christ and gunpowder became so inextricably linked, but in the past competing teams vied to hit the bell of the opposing church first. Now it's more a competition of how many rockets a team can produce and fire at once. Half the island seems focused on this so all year hundreds of thousands of these rockets will be hand-made in anticipation of the fiery and frenetic event.

As you can see it's downright dangerous because most of the population turns drunken pyromaniac! High calibre fireworks line stalls in towns that families accumulate with vigour and incinerate with glee over the Easter weekend. Reckless youth ride motorbikes at high speed holding flaming roman candles aloft and trailing destruction behind. Children torment all and sundry with red finger-sized bungers labelled 'Zeus', their sharp but pointless detonations are heard from the crack of dawn. Grandparents with toothy grins cackle and seem to egg everyone on. Only the pets make themselves scarce in times like these.

By 9.30pm I was a little bored so headed down the hill, eager to come under fire and experience the action at close range. It didn't take long to get to the white-domed church where I found spent rockets made of finely rolled phone book paper and their dowel tails strewn across the ground like giant toothpicks. Some had impaled themselves on aircon units and chicken wire screens, protruding from them like arrows.

It took even less to taste the heat of battle, a shower of missiles seeing me right in the thick of it as some of the attached videos show. So this is what a war correspondent must feel like huh? Except a real fire fight would be slightly more dangerous... Still, a very interesting experience.

From there I went to one of the rocket propelling camps to watch the blast off. Dozens of beer swilling blokes hauled out armfuls of rockets, set them on dedicated launch pads (the 'Panoply' name plate is a nice touch) and let them loose to jubilant cheers of the drunken crowd. These launch pads sit to the sides of the churches but the missiles are not particularly accurate and could end up anywhere within a 30 degree arch of their intended trajectory, which means you better take cover if the opposition is letting rip...

So it's actually rare that the two sides have a 'fire fight', but when they do it is a sight to behold even if it is difficult to catch on camera.

Check out the videos here:

- twilight barrage (8MB)
- incoming barrage (5.7MB)
- rockets overhead (6.8MB)
- coming straight for me! (2.3MB)

These are the churches to look out for if you come to see the spectacle, separated by a couple of hundred metres across a wooded valley. If you come after dark follow the noise of sirens or the light of houses aflame. And thanks to Matthew and family for inviting me onto their balcony for the conclusion of the festivities. It was nice to actually meet some locals in Greece, especially as they were drunk as skunks, mad as hatters and having a ball!

Chios Town itself is a pleasant little place, famous for being the supposed birthplace of poet Homer and producing many modern day shipping magnates. Due to the island's location it doesn't get a great deal of international tourism, but it has all the services and amenities you need long its pleasant waterfront and prices are more reasonable than elsewhere I went around Greece. It was glad to rest up here for two or three days as the next week or so is going to be busy.

Sight-wise there are a few options, but as it is not high season here yet public transport is seriously lacking and it is difficult even getting to Vrondatos, 5km away, for its biggest event of the year. There are some funky traditional windmills on the waterfront a kilometre or two north of Chios Town and it has an 'old quarter' called the Kastro which I didn't bother going to, it looked pretty decrepit. There is also a World Heritage-listed monastery called Nea Moni 14km west of town in the hills, which apparently contains some fantastic mosaics and Byzantine art

However the main attractions are in the south of the island, namely the 'mastic' village of Pyrgi and the medieval town of Mesta. Mastic is a gum that's harvested from the weeping sap of a particular tree and which has been used since Hippocrates and his mates deemed it to be of medicinal use in Hellenic times. The Turks liked it so much they spared the villages from the general massacre which swept across the island in 1822.

It obviously has some strange and psychedelic properties as the structures in these towns are decorated in a bizarre and geometrically obsessed manner - walls, undersides of balconies - the lot. I'm not really sure how the effects are produced but I think it may be by white-washing over a darker background and then scraping the white coat off to make the patterns. However its done, it's ornate and no doubt very time consuming.

Packs of children were roaming the laneways with Zeus bungers and a squad of rowdy soldiers were tormenting the locals in the main 'square', so I retreated back to the capital on the return bus. I didn't make it to Mesta as it was another 10km further and I would have had no way of getting back, but locals say it is better than Pyrgi with highly unusual block buildings in a beautiful port setting. If you make it to Chios in summer you should go there and send me some pics.

I must admit though I enjoyed my Easter stop in Chios - pyromaniacal locals and limited mobility not withstanding. And as this could be my last entry from Greece (I might head through Bulgaria to Croatia instead), all I can say is that Greese is a strange and diverse part of the world that has to be seen to be believed!

Next entry -> Dawn service at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli

Old Rossian Proverb

He who plays with fire will eventually burn his wick.
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