Crete is …..
…. one of the many places in Europe where East meets West
Whether you happen to be wandering around one of the many tiny, functional Orthodox churches or somewhat passively listening to a local lute-player over dinner, the signs are there. Signs of an easily recognizable Western culture spiced with a vague dissonance of the unknown, an oriental touch that creeps under your skin and leaves you tingling with anticipation.
Cretan music is charcterised by two instruments in particular that are as beautiful to look at as they are to listen to. They are the lyre, which provides the melody, and the lute, which often accompanies it. Both instruments are closely linked to others found in Eastern Europe, but also in Turkey, Arabia and also Rajasthan. These are played to rhythms unfamiliar to those of us brought up on Mozart and Elizabethan ballads and their soulful voices very suited to the slightly melancholic character of Cretan music. But it is the apparent dissonace that takes getting used to, in the same way that Indian or Arabic tunes grate on the nerves slightly until the Western ear gets accustomed to it.
Equally mysterious for the Western observer is the Eastern Orthodox relationship between the population and their icons. The Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, recognizes over a hundred saints, apparently. Most Cretan Orthodox churches have their walls plastered with wonderful icons, formulaic paintings of the Panagia, Mother of God, Christ and various saints, often illuminated by candles or oil lamps. Some believe that the style of these icons has been borrowed from the paganism of the Greek culture, but they are equally reminiscent of the Byzantine paintings and frescoes to be found in west European churches from the early Middle Ages.
What is different is the way these icons are venerated by Orthodox worshippers. While catholics usually reduce their respect for the cross to a quick crossing of the chest or a rapid genuflection, the Orthodox touch their icons or even kiss them and a strong ritual evidently has its place here. This ritual reminds me very much of the ceremony that takes place in, for example, the Hindu religion. In both religions it is not unusual for the worshippers to prostrate, before the icons in the orthodox church and the statues in the Hindu temple.
In religious ceremonies throughout the world, incense is a familiar feature. It serves not only to enhance spirituality, but is also an offering. Buddhists, Taoists and Hindus as well as Catholics, Jews and the Orthodox sacrifice incense; Muslims use it to remind the believers of the rewards of righteous believers in Paradise. Both the Orthodox and Hindus also use other perfumes, for example rosewater, in their ceremonies. And while Hindus offer fruit and flowers in their pujas, in the Greek Orthodox church, altar bread is baked by members of the congregation and offered on the altar.
…. nature pure
On our round trip through this magnificent island, we were amazed by the variety of landscapes we drove through.
The mountains deserve a special mention (see below). But mountains constitute only one of the natural facettes of the island. 1020 kilometres of coastline cannot be ignored. Much of the coastline, particularly in the North, is now developed and firmly in the hands of international tourism. Certain seaside towns have unfortunately been compared with disreputable resorts on Mallorca, others are frequently visited by cruise ship tourists. But the geographical attributes of many coastal towns make them difficult to get to, often only by boat in fact. These delightful towns have thus remained small and secluded, for the most part natural and with a charm of their own.
Crete boasts fine white sand and coarse black sand and pebbly beaches as well as rocky ones with coves. Since the flower power era, a number of nudist beaches have appeared around Matala, where the man-made sandstone caves were once inhabited, and appear to be tolerated by the otherwise conservative Cretans.
Between the beaches, a dozen major gorges and many more smaller ones carve their way through the mountains, usually from north to south and ending in the Libyan Sea. Each gorge has its own character, its own endemic flora. While the most well-known of these, the Samaria Gorge, attracts thousands of hiking fans every year, the most curious one is probably the Valley of the Dead on the east coast, where the Minoans buried their dead in natural caves along the walls of the gorge.
Owing to seismic activity and the natural geological composition of Crete, as many as 3,500 caves are estimated to exist on the island. Many of these have archeological and religious significance and have been used as places of refuge or worship or as dwelling places over the centuries. But if it’s lush green vegetation that the tourist is seeking, then the plateaus are likely to be more pleasing.
Crete’s largest and most well-known plateau is the Lassithi Plateau, once studded by windmills that have, alas, long since disappeared. Many of Crete’s highlands are covered by dense forest. Others are rocky outcrops where sheep and goats graze peacefully. On the plains, gnarled olive trees appear wherever there is space for them. Cretan olive oil is reputed to be among the best sorts available and since the Cretan olive tree yields more than its European neighbours, with an average of three litres per year, it is no wonder that the yearly pro capita consumption is estimated at 30 kilograms.
Apart from from the olive plantations, there are orange groves and vines flourish in neat rows, close to the ground if the grapes are destined for wine and almost as high as my shoulders if raisins or the delicious local sultanas are to be produced from rosaki grapes. Under white plastic sheeting, tomatoes and cucumbers and other vegetables provide all that is necessary for the Cretan cuisine. A large number of man-made lakes throughout the island make all this possible. One large natural lake in the village of Kournas in the Chania area has also developed as a tourist attraction .
Crete is a veritable kaleidoscope of landscapes all on one island
…. characterised by its mountains
Wherever you happen to be in Crete, the mountains are not far away. Rugged mountains, peaks enschrouded in mist, mountains tops sprinkled with snow in winter, a home to the golden eagle – a mountain is never just a mountain.
There are three mountain ranges in Crete. Most of these are covered in fragrant wild herbs: sage, chamomile, thyme, rosemary, orgenao and the special Cretan variety of dittany, diktamos. There is nothing sweeter than the scent of these herbs basking in the Cretan sun during a walk in the mountains and it is no wonder that the Cretans themselves often breakfast on deliciously strong, aromatic mountain tea. With their healing properties, Cretan herbs are used not only in the local cuisine and for medical infusions, but are currently being marketed in the local cosmetic industry.
Sheep and goats, the latter bearing tiny bells that tinkle ubiquitously, are also partial to these herbs. Statistics claim that there are around 100,000 goats on the island and three million sheep, compared to a human population of only 650,000. Wild goats and birds of prey, including the beautiful Cretan golden eagle, also inhabit the mountains. A startling number of marten carcasses at the roadside suggest that their population might be in danger of depleting. Bees are kept all over the island, providing good honey, including the Cretan specialityof thyme honey. Human life continues to unravel in the mountains at a typically slow pace, with many tiny villages void of activity. Old men still spend hours seated outside the local cafés, heads resting on folded hands that clasp a walking stick or noisily slapping dominos onto the table between them. The elderly women, still uniformly dressed in black, shuffle past in worn-out shoes. There is no evidence to suggest that younger people inhabit the mountain villages.
Even the monasteries, and there are hundreds of them still isolated in the Cretan mountains, seem to belong to another age.
…. a culinary treat
The Cretans are reputed to boast an exceedingly healthy diet and the highest life expectancy in Europe. We were keen to learn their secret.
In the two weeks we spent on the island, we never once experienced a culinary disappointment. If you ignore the red wine, that is, which just is simply not to our taste. Their white wine, though, is very palatable and you soon learn to appreciate the local raki, distilled pomace. Sometimes this, however, is flavoured with honey or herbs and rather sweet. The excellence of diktamos tea, which is particularly effective in the case of a stomach upset, or mountain tea cannot be overstated. Greek coffee is always served as an alternative to the usual hotel breakfast coffee and our breakfast was mostly enriched with freshly squeezed, very sweet local orange juice. A healthy start to the day, then?
A typically local Cretan breakfast is less varied and generally smaller than the food offered at most breakfast buffets these days. The Greeks opt for white bread cut in sizeable chunks and pastries, filled with spinach and cheese and the fresh cheese of Sfakia. Fruit and tomatoes with cucumber and olives are popular, the latter often served with feta or rather bland white cheese with quince jelly. Halva was sometimes offered and there was always deliciously thick yoghurt with honey.
We tried to avoid lunch calories but there were times when this bordered on castigation. In the mountain village of Argiroupolis, for example. The reason you go there is to visit the springs. This area abounds in sheep that spend all day feasting on the above mentioned herbs and the local restaurants cook this lamb antikristo, very slowly indeed, basted naturally in its own fat, aound the edge of a circular grill with a fire in the middle. The only other ingredient used is a little salt. What could be more natural than that?
Where there are springs there inevitably trout, which was the case at Zoras, the source of a Cretan mineral water, where a trout farm exists. However, Crete is not necessarily the place to feast on fish, the Agean Sea being poor in fish supplies. Fish tends to be expensive and is often deep frozen, as the menu will tell you by marking dishes containing frozen fish and shell fish with an asterisk. The giant prawns and the sardines we tried were fresh. Meat is also relatively expensive but lamb is always available. We tried it not only antikristo, but also as kleftiko, which is traditionally cooked in mud ovens. Modern restaurants bake the meat slowly with a few vegetables in hermetically sealed pots. I also tried tsigariasto, a knuckle of spring lamb which was served with a fantastic aubergine puree.
Chicken and pork were also always available, but whereas chickens strut all round the Cretan landscape, we never saw a single pig and do not know where gyros and co. really come from. Goats are everywhere, including the menu, in juicy stifado for example. Among the vegetarian dishes we tried were aubergines imam style, baked slowly in olive oil and sprinkled with feta, and papoutsakia, which was more or less a variation of the same theme. We tried chorta, wild mountain greens whose taste is reminiscent of kale cabbage, cooked, dressed, and served en salade. Mushrooms, courgettes and peppers were served as starters. The salads themselves were Greek style. A Cretan variation includes dakos, which is a dark rusk smothered in chopped tomatoes and topped with chopped feta. Delicious!
After dinner, we were usually too full to order a desert, but the Cretan hospitality often foresees a sweet on the house – a simple dish of fruit cuts, a dish of yoghurt with honey and two spoons or a small slice of sweet cake. Sometimes served with a raki or a tiny glass of sweet desert wine.
…. a pot-pourri of history and culture
There cannot be many places on Earth that have been invaded and inhabited by as many different peoples as Crete. The cultural influences range from one of the first major civilisations on Earth, the Minoans, to the Greeks, the Turks, the Venetians and much later the British as well as the Germans.
What have these civilisations left behind? Among the most interesting finds are the numerous ruins of ancient palaces, evidence that even 27,000 years BC, the ruling class were capable of having immense palaces built, with evidence of a complex social structure, the appreciation of art and a sense of religion. The burial chambers at Armeni, a huge number of them recently freed from layers of building material and vegetation, once contained elaborate coffins with jewelry and other artifacts. Wherever we found Minoan remains, we were overcome by an intense feeling of tranquility, of spirituality almost.
The same feeling of well-being emanates from the small Byzantine churches you come across. Some of these are really ancient, like the Panagia Kera near Agios Nikolaos, whose walls are covered in dark frescoes and which is no longer a place of worship. Others, belonging to small communities and boasting no particular works of art, are familiar places that are often difficult to find beneath flowering trees and abandoned water cans or brooms or other implements. And then there are the the monasteries, many of which are run only as tourist attractions by a handful of monks. Deserted monasteries, whose only purpose would appear to protect the vestiges of former glory and cherished relics preserved within their walls. Here, visitors are made welcome to come and admire and observe the rituals and listen to the litanies.
At a nunnery that we visited not far from Neapolis, we were welcomed by a darkly robed lady who offered us homemade biscuits on a tiny plate. The nuns here have a thriving business in the production of herbal teas and cosmetics, as well as the creation of icons. At Moni Agio Georgiou Selinari, too, where two elderly monks sat observing the tourists, there was a huge outlet for icons.
The Venetians had a very different legacy. Their business was sea-faring and in their determination to defend the island from other sea-farers, they built solid harbours with powerful walls and imposing fortresses, that still remain impressive.In the towns along the north coast, the occasional tall, Renaissance dwelling and the arched paved streets as well as ornate fountians with spewing gargoyles are typical of the Venetian era. Later, the Ottomans arrived, leaving behind mosques and baths and public buildings.
And still, the Cretes can maintain that despite these influences, or perhaps because of them, they now have a culture of their own, particularly as far as cuisine and music are concerned. Typically Cretan for me are the large numbers of beautiful, “polite” stray cats that come begging in every restuarant, the bow-legged elderly ladies in the villages dressed in black, with black head-scarves held in place by hairpins, the tiny, withered vegetables on sale in the markets, the bins next to the toilets for the collection of toilet paper (which should not be flushed down the pan!), an abandoned tavli board, a handful of aromatic sultanas bought at the roadside, the scent of oregano and other mountain herbs and the open friendliness of a tolerant people.