The day of the Chios fireworks battle was one of torrential rain. It was April, it was Easter Sunday, and it seemed as if the old Greek gods were resentful of all the attention being paid to the 2,000 year old upstart and had decided to spoil the party.
The fireworks ‘war’ between the two parish churches of Vrontados, St Mark’s and Erythianis the Virgin, is said to have started in the 19th Century, with children firing stones at each other from slingshots. Now the battle is fought with thousands of home made rockets. The target on St Mark’s, separated from the other church by a deep ravine, is the cupola, while Erythianis’ is the clock tower. Despite bans during the Nazi occupation of Greece, and then again when the Colonels were in power in the 1970s, the rocket war has flourished and is now a major spectacle, and we had come to the island especially to see it.
Forty days without rain and now this, said the boss of the car rental business as we returned our Hyundai after a rainsoaked drive round Chios' medieval villages. He shrugged his shoulders when we asked about the fireworks. If the rockets are damp they will not light. Then he gave a sudden beaming smile: But tomorrow’s going to be fine! As we caught a cab back to our hotel the sky lightened, the rain slackened and then stopped, and tremulous sunshine began to break through. The storm had passed over the island, the ancient gods fell back into their uneasy sleep, and pickup trucks full of homemade fireworks began to roar up the steep slope past our hotel, flanked by young men in combat trousers and bandannas, riding scooters.
Shortly after dark the bells of Erythianis began to peal shrilly, and a barrage of fiery rockets began hissing at each church from the invisible firing points below. The two floodlit towers were now bathed in a lurid orange light as showers of sparks burst on them from direct hits by rocket after rocket. The houses before and beyond the churches, suitably protected by shutters and mesh, also took a lot of hits, and I remembered the anger felt by a minority of Vrontadians who tried each year to get the event banned. But the crowds were caught up in the sheer spectacle of the exchange : the roaring river of fire never seemed to dry up, and nor did the hoarse shouting of the spectators.
An almost blind walk down some slippery steep steps took us to the boardwalk where the red-bandanna’d Erythianian rocketeers were firing. Through the nets that protected them you could see their target, the brightly lit tower of St Mark’s, a hundred yards away across the gorge. Rockets lit up the sky like tracers as Erythianis, behind us, was fired on. Shouts went up and down the boardwalk as the dark-haired youths waited to touch off the bank of fireworks aimed across the valley, crouched in the sulphurous smoke like Nelson’s gunners on HMS Victory. A lad appeared, running as if in slow motion with a burning brand, and set off a great bank of missiles. In a scene as if from Dante’s Inferno, the rocket firers became silhouttes against the orange glare, and spectators and gunners alike were enveloped in a billowing cloud of gunpowder smoke.
We were joined by some young Greek men, their miniskirted girlfriends in heels capturing the battle on their smartphones in the intervals of screaming and beating at the stray sparks that sometimes lodged in their hair. Stefanos, from Athens, asked us if it was true that we had come all the way from England to see this spectacle. I think they will ban it soon, he told us. His friend Georges, born on the island, interrupted : No, they will never ban it! The two of them started a friendly Greek shouting match as the rockets burst against the 19th Century church wall.
The rocket battle went on for about five hours, until the tens of thousands of fireworks had all been shot. The detail we had heard but not really believed before setting out for Greece turned out to be true : the congregation really does go to Mass while the battle is going on. Little old ladies in black crowded into the churches during the ceasefires, shutting the heavy doors against the rockets. But despite the ferocity of the battle, no one was keeping score, everyone went home happy, and even the traumatised dogs of Vrontados, who barked hysterically through the bombardment, would no doubt recover in time for next year.