Words by Francesca Muir
Photos by Dimitris Gerebakanis
THE SECRET TO CRETE’S BEGUILING SOUL
“The mystery of Crete runs deep. Whoever sets foot on this island senses a mysterious force coursing warmly and beneficently through their veins, sensing their soul beginning to grow.”
(Report to Greco) Nikos Kazantzakis
A journey to Crete is a journey of a lifetime. Bring little other than time! So, what is it that makes this island so tantalising…so intoxicating…so beguiling? The largest of the Greek islands at 8,336 square kilometres, Crete has a mammoth history having been inhabited for some 130,000 years – since the Palaeolithic Age. The highly sophisticated and advanced Minoans lived there from around 2700 to 1420 BC, contributing more to the western world than any other culture. After the Minoans, Crete was host to various rulers including the Mycenaean civilization, the Roman rule, the Byzantine Empire, the Andalusian Arabs, the Venetian Republic, and the Ottoman Empire.
After centuries of invaders, the island achieved independence from the Ottomans to formally became the Cretan State in 1891. It only became part of Greece in 1913 – which is perhaps why the locals identify themselves as Cretan first, and Greek second. More recently the island’s German and ‘tourist’ occupations have also undoubtedly contributed to Crete’s unique heritage and culture. Despite years of oppression, the Cretan peoples’ rebellious spirit shines through loud and proud through their distinctive folklore, music, poetry, dance, and traditional dress.
Their culture remains steadfast and, in some areas, they retain strong regional identities, speaking local dialects and having their own variations on Cretan delicacies. Their arts and crafts – specifically weaving, lacemaking, pottery and leather goods, and the Cretan knife or dagger – a symbol of gallantry, honour and resistance against invasion – are highly revered.
In many ways, Crete is a country in its own right. Unlike many other islands, it is self-sufficient thanks to a diverse mix of landscapes. The island’s fertile plains and plateaus are abundant with crops, while the White Mountains (which soar to 2,000 metres) are covered in snow in winter. The coastline is a dazzling mix of pristine, azure waters on the north side to the wild, rugged and impossibly untameable terrain butting up against the Libyan Sea to the south.
The island’s wild natural beauty and extraordinary hidden gems include Elafonisi, Balos and Aspri Limni beaches, and spectacular gorges; including the Samaria Gorge, which is the longest trekking gorge in Europe. Add to this the island’s plethora of Byzantine and Venetian castles and monasteries, and some of Greece’s most significant archaeological sites such as the Minoan palaces of Knossos, Phaistos and Malia – and you have a paradise with something for everyone.
The island’s vast mountain areas and coastline are both dotted with tiny villages seemingly untouched, where locals carry on their daily life as they have for centuries. Here men congregate at the local kafenio (café) to drink coffee or play tavli (backgammon), while women typically run small shops selling local produce and crafts such as handwoven rugs, napery, lace, and pottery.
Cretan hospitality is second to none. Strangers are welcomed with open arms and a small shot glass of raki – a traditional local home brew that some call ‘firewater’. It’s strong, and it’s rude to refuse but will always be accompanied by a plate of fresh fruit or other local delicacies. It’s definitely not for everyone – but it should at least be tried once as it does grow on you!
Crete is famous for its exquisite cuisine which is unique to the island. Food is a way of life here and meals are an event to be shared and savoured, usually lasting for hours. The world-renown Cretan Diet is seasonal, simple, and always fresh from the garden. The 1.5 million olive trees found on Crete produce over 30% of Greece’s EVOO (extra virgin olive oil). Food is cooked with lashings of the rich green oil (known as ‘liquid gold’), and local herbs such as oregano, thyme and sage that grow wild on the mountainsides.
Cretans consume around 30kg of olive oil each per year and eat the largest quantity of fruit and vegetables in the Western World. Their diet includes over 500 different wild greens and herbs, which are eaten raw or cooked with olive oil. Despite all this, undoubtedly the greatest attraction to the island is its people. Proud and patriotic, Cretans are hugely generous, welcoming, and hospitable. Once befriended, you are friends for life.
Once again Kazantzakis sums it up perfectly: “I knew that no matter what door you knock on in a Cretan village, it will be opened for you. A meal will be served in your honour, and you will sleep between the best sheets in the house. In Crete, the stranger is still the unknown god. Before him, all doors and all hearts are opened.”
Visiting Crete is always a visceral experience, for there is something about the air, the water and the land that heightens the senses as it captivates and creates a life-long love affair. It’s a mystical island where the ancient custom of filoxenia (a love of strangers) melds seamlessly with the Cretan people’s inherent way of carrying out everything they do with meraki – love and passion.
“There is a kind of flame in Crete – let us call it “soul” – something more powerful than either life or death. There is pride, obstinacy, valour, and together with these something else inexpressible and imponderable, something which makes you rejoice that you are a human being, and at the same time tremble.”
(Report to Greco) Nikos Kazantzakis