Townsville Xstrata Greek Fest: a smashing good time

Homegrown Hellenic hospitality draws record crowds

There’s nothing like a seemingly endless supply of world-class cuisine, beautiful Greek music and extraordinary hospitality – all in one place. Greece might be a world away but on a weekend where the Mediterranean met the tropics in two days of non-stop entertainment, Grecian delights were discovered by around 35,000 people at the Xstrata Greek Festival in Townsville.

Adding a splash of the Mediterranean to local life, the Xstrata Greek Fest, an event showcasing Greek culture to the wider community of North Queensland provides a unique opportunity for locals and visitors to embrace both Greek and Australian cultures through the performing arts and flavoursome cuisine. The event held on 13 and 14 October and now in its thirteenth year, has evolved into the ultimate smorgasbord of entertainment, so much so that in 2011 it received a North Queensland Tourism Award.

Visitors have long been attracted to Riverway’s rare beauty and relaxed atmosphere making it the ideal venue for festivities. Greek Fest co-ordinator Bill Malandris said record crowds were attending the event since moving to its new home at Riverway in 2006. “The free event captured everyone’s imagination,” he said. Greeks don’t need much of an excuse when it comes to a celebration and every imaginable type of activity featured in this year’s festival. With something for everyone, the myriad of visitor experiences even included a wedding on centre stage. Local residents Daniel Cheetham and Tahnee Urquhart tied the knot after winning a competition to be the lucky couple to be married in true Greek style at the festival on Sunday.

Brother and sister celebrity chefs Helen Demetriou and Steve Georgiou from the 2012 series My Kitchen Rules showcased their cooking talents, as did the Sydney based All Stars band and the dancers of the Greek Community of NSW under the instruction of Paroula Thurban. In the top job for 13 years, Mr Malandris is originally from Brisbane. He married a local girl Margaret in 1974 and they made Townsville their home. According to Mr Malandris, he looked around all those years ago and noticed the lack of a Greek festival. “There were Italian, German and all kinds of multicultural events, but nothing uniquely Greek.” Believing that great cultural experiences are the measure of a great time for many people, Mr Malandris is a man of vision and passion. Deeply committed to multiculturalism, he was determined to create something Greek and is proud the festival has reached its milestone thirteenth year. “Well we’ve got a history going back 2000 years and yet we had no person or platform from which to share it.”

So he sat down with the committee and worked out a formula. “We need a panigiri. Dancing and food, the whole lot, and take it outside on to the streets for all. We advertised it as the biggest street party in Townsville, open air like in the patrida.” The wedding, the brainchild of the organising committee, was perhaps the biggest draw card. “Originally we wanted a Greek wedding and later on decided to throw it open to everybody. They filled out the application form and we had about 110 entries. In the local florist shop we put a bridal dress in the window and the entry forms were pinned on the dress. Then they were put in a barrel.” The prize valued at $12,000 included the ceremony and serviced reception, catering for 60 guests, wedding rings and cake, flowers for the bride and bridal table, wedding dress, music, table decorations and overnight accommodation in an executive suite at Jupiters Hotel and Casino.

In the food hall and Greek agora visitors found a tempting array of delicious cuisine, from a simple snack to Greece’s amazing traditional meals, coffee and cakes served by hospitable volunteers. The Hellenic Dancers from the Townsville Senior and Junior groups entertained crowds with traditional and modern dance routines from the mainland and islands as did the Greek Community dancers from Sydney. The children’s component this year was the popular Alvin and the Chipmunks who performed four stage shows over the weekend attracting large numbers of children and their families. Panayioti Gianoulis, a teacher and performer with the senior Hellenic dancers, is also a member of the festival’s organising committee responsible for programming, marketing and event planning. According to Mr Gianoulis, audience participation is a highlight of the festival events and is encouraged in various ways.

“99 per cent of the audience is non-Greek. We have to be able to communicate our culture with Australians and other cultures and have them participate with us and enjoy what we enjoy as Greek people,” he says.

The Greek community dancers from Sydney conducted Greek dancing lessons with visitors. Participation also included competitions in grape stomping, plate smashing, olive spitting, cooking demonstrations and more. There was an activities marquee for the children, a traditional Greek agora or marketplace selling traditional Greek food such as olives, cheese and sweets and firework displays on both Saturday and Sunday evenings. In true Greek style the volunteers of The Greek Community of Townsville provided a wide selection of food to satisfy everyone’s taste buds including souvlakia, octopus, calamari, yiros, fish, spanakopites and tiropites to name a few while a licensed bar provided Greek beer and wines.

Volunteer Anna Hatzithomas, 23, performed in the Townsville Senior dance group and helped out in the food tent. She says this year’s festival surpassed those before it. “The audience isn’t all Greeks and that’s probably the best part – sharing culture. The agora, the kids’ tents, the rides, the entertainment, the My Kitchen Rules chefs, the grape stomping and plate smashing, everything was cool.” A celebration of Greece and Australia, the diversity of culture and the generosity and spirit of Greek people and the locals, the Greek Fest as Malandris explains proudly, has become an icon of Townsville. “The first thing they all talk about is the honey puffs (loukoumades), the non-Greeks call them ‘the round balls’ “, he says laughing.

“They love them and with all the dancing and activities, the festival has a wonderful reputation. “All in all we are happy we are a small community. I am a passionate about it and love it. Somewhere along the line someone will have to step up and take over but I’m glad to have had 13 years of setting the platforms and the standard so far with a great team.”