Go­ing around in cir­cles

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - One Perfect Day Travel - Ian Robert Smith

PER­I­CLES is ex­plain­ing the word pani­gyri . We are stand­ing in a black and white peb­bled court­yard be­neath a me­dieval tower, where a grey-bearded priest is dis­tribut­ing largesse in the form of well-chilled bot­tles of retsina.

‘‘ You see,’’ Per­i­cles says, ‘‘ pan means all and gyro is go around. It is very sim­ple; we all go around.’’

The ety­mol­ogy seems doubt­ful. Even the Ox­ford dic­tionary’s def­i­ni­tion is hazy, rang­ing from fes­ti­val to bean­feast to just plain noise.

Still, there is no deny­ing the at­trac­tion of th­ese Greek is­land gath­er­ings, cel­e­brat­ing a par­tic­u­lar saint, at which food and drink are plen­ti­ful, a lo­cal band plays cat­stran­gling mu­sic of the high­est cal­i­bre and peo­ple do go around and around for hours.

My girl­friend Jo and I are elated. We have come to Ti­los look­ing for quiet beaches, un­spoiled coun­try­side and tra­di­tional is­land life. One of the smaller Dode­canese is­lands, sand­wiched be­tween Rhodes and Kos, Ti­los’s at­trac­tions do not leap out at one but en­cour­age gen­tle prob­ing. For get­ting to know the lo­cals, the pani­gyri rep­re­sents a great leap for­ward.

We shift to a broad square flanked by crowded ta­bles and lit by stream­ers of lights slung from the boughs of cen­turiesold plane trees. To one side sits the band— vi­o­lin, drum, kithara — while in the square a ring of dancers re­volves, their arms linked and heads poised. The mu­sic is loud, yet fails to drown the whirring of crick­ets is­su­ing from the en­cir­cling dark­ness. The July night is sti­fling.

Per­i­cles is the son of our pen­sion owner. Skin­diver, weightlifter and bon vi­vant, he also has a way with words.

‘‘ I think we are in good con­di­tion now,’’ he yells, which ba­si­cally means we are pretty blitzed.

Per­i­cles also in­sists that we dance. Jo is keen, but I pre­fer to sit back and, over a glass of retsina, ob­serve pro­ceed­ings. The is­land’s lone taxidriver, a sea cap­tain’s black hat tilted back on his head, is lead­ing his fol­low­ers in con­vo­luted per­mu­ta­tions, leap­ing like a satyr.

Tonight’s fes­ti­val hon­ours Agios Pan­telei­mon, the is­land’s pa­tron saint. It is the largest event on Ti­los’s so­cial cal­en­dar, at­tract­ing old Til­iots from as far afield as New York and Syd­ney. With a pop­u­la­tion of just 400, more Til­iots live away from the is­land than on it, drawn by the de­sire for a fuller life.

Maria left for Aus­tralia in 1961. She has a grown-up fam­ily in Ade­laide and re­turns for vis­its ev­ery cou­ple of years. She tells me how, in the old days, when there was no road, they would walk to the monastery with their pos­ses­sions loaded on don­keys. ‘‘ Back then, the danc­ing lasted nine days.’’

Maria ex­plains the monastery’s foun­da­tion. How a 15th-cen­tury monk, Jonas, stum­bled on an icon of Pan­telei­mon, a young doc­tor-saint mar­tyred for his faith. Pan­telei­mon ap­peared to Jonas in a dream and told him to build a church, which he did, only in the wrong place, with pre­dictable re­sults: the icon kept mys­te­ri­ously re­lo­cat­ing. When Jonas com­plained about the lack of wa­ter at the saint’s pre­ferred site, he was told to look harder. The spring that he dis­cov­ered still gushes from the moun­tain­side.

At 3am the dancers are still re­volv­ing, their eyes glazed in trance-like bliss. The band, too, re­mains as­ton­ish­ingly un­bowed; it hasn’t stopped play­ing all night and it will con­tinue, I sus­pect, un­til peo­ple stop throw­ing euro notes into the box placed strate­gi­cally at the mu­si­cians’ feet.

Yet im­per­cep­ti­bly peo­ple drift away, many to makeshift beds on the monastery’s roof. The sky grows pale above the moun­tains. Bowls of tripe soup, an age-old restora­tive, are handed out. Then fi­nally, mys­te­ri­ously, I be­gin to re­volve. Per­i­cles’s eyes light up. ‘‘ Friend, you are go­ing around! Yes, I see it . . .’’

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