I'm on the train from Athens to Serres. It departed at midnight and I arrived at Thessaloniki at 6 in the morning. The city is surrounded with fog. The train will stop here for 1 hour and I decided to walk around the station but it's extremely cold so I revert to the comfort of my seat.
The route from Thessaloniki to Serres passes through fields and forests and combined with the fog the landscape feels like a scene from a movie from director Aggelopoulos. To this day I still wonder how come I didn't take any photos.
The village of my destination is another 12km from Serres and I know from the last time I was here that there is a local bus that passes every now and then and connects the town with the small villages. But during the winter time, I am not entirely sure if this is the case.
I decided to walk for about 1km until I arrived at a gas station where I decided to grab a coffee and something to eat. I asked girls that were working there if the bus was still working. They didn't know but they were kind enough to make some phone calls to help. The couldn't find any information. Luckily for me, a driver that stopped to get some gas heard our conversation and offered me a ride with him since he was going to a village nearby.
Arriving at the village everything is snowed in. At the gas station, I find some locals and I walk to them to say "hi". Immediately they understand that I have come for "Anastenaria" custom (firewalking). They offer me tsipouro and tease me about my decision to come to this place in the middle of the winter.
The custom begins at night. People start walking from the custom's shed, in line, everybody holds candles and walk through the village. Musicians with lyre and percussion instruments follow they play during the whole route. We pass from specific houses to get the icons. Those icons are kept in the houses of specific people and are taken outside of the house only twice a year, in May and February when the "Anastenaria" custom takes place.
Back to the shed. The fireplace is lit and the charcoals are almost ready, they have been laid in front of the fireplace, in an opening of the floor. From a distance, it looks like a rug.
Musicians start playing. Firewalkers start dancing for long until they feel ready to walk on the charcoals. One passes after the other, walking on the charcoals. They do that until the last charcoal stops burning. This takes a lot of hours. Some firewalkers hold icons in their hands, other hold flags and precious heirlooms.
You can see the pain in some firewalkers' face, some others show no expression or emotion. This year, there is one girl that will participate in this custom for the first time. After two hurtful tries, she stops, but not because she was hurting as she said but because she felt sad since Saint Konstantin and Saint Helena did not help her, did not blessed her by making her capable of walking on fire.
Apart from the music playing, no other sound is heard. There is so much energy around, at some stage I catch myself wanting to dance.
After some hours, the custom ends and I feel like I have experienced something very powerful, even if I have seen it again the previous May.
Time has passed, it is dark, cold and of course I have missed the last bus connecting Agia Eleni with Serres. I am in the middle of the road thinking what I can do. Unexpectedly one of the guys that I had met in the gas station passes by and tells me "are you mad? you want to have you sleeping bag out in the snow and sleep outside? come, I will host you!" At that moment I felt like the God of Photography has helped me once more. I will have one bed for tonight and possibly some warm food. We sat together to eat drunk wine and listened to the music out of an old radio. At some point, being so tired from the whole journey and the photographs I headed towards my bed. I turned out the lights and in the dark I see Mr. Kostas coming in the room to check If I felt warm enough. After an hour or so, I hear voices in my sleep. I woke up and realise that Mr. Kostas has continued drinking, has the radio in its maximum volume and shouts at me inviting me to get up and dance with him because he needed company. At that point, I thought that maybe it would be better If I had found a way to go to Serres that night since I had so much need of rest. I got up, Mr. Kostas poured wine in my glass. I kept drinking and clapping hands to his dancing, at 4 am.
Next morning there is a litany in the village. Firewalkers holding icons, pass from all villages houses, with musicians following the litany. People from houses, happy that got the blessings, make gifts to the firewalkers and offer them nuts and sweets.
Firewalking custom ("Anastenaria") take place twice a year. Summer custom takes place on 21st May, on the day celebrating Saint Konstantin and Saint Helena and people from all over the world come to see it. I saw tourist buses carrying Chinese, French, Romanian, Russians tourists etc. Winter custom takes place in February, there are no tourists at all and of course the whole atmosphere is quite different with the weather adding to the atmosphere of the custom. I would propose that one should attend both, the summer and the winter "edition". I prefer the winter one.
A visitor should think which one he/she would like to attend as the photos that will be taken will be totally different.