Searching for the Soul of Crete: into the Villages

By Chris Deliso for Travel Intelligence (2004)

It was simple, Maria the village schoolteacher explained: people from the east of Crete are soft, overeducated idlers, according to the people from the west of Crete, who themselves are regarded by the former as violent goat-thieves, and a bit touched in the head. Not hard to understand, then, how Greece’s biggest island has a rich history of vendetta justice.

Yet all Cretans, no matter from where they may hail, regard their home as not just an island but as a country of its own. And they will be glad to tell you so themselves. The Cretans are a proud, independence-loving people, confident in the self-sufficiency bountiful nature has bestowed on them. And though their island is now a placid, tourist-friendly place, Cretans remain (even compared to the average Greek) insular and unpredictable, their muscular logic revealed in both their driving and their celebratory gunfire. A certain prideful spite can be detected, even in the details; the heavy black clothes worn by mustachioed Cretan village men during the most relentless heat of summer seem to be a way of telling the sun itself who’s boss.

Indeed, Crete’s peculiarities, its vast territory and history alike make it one of the most fascinating parts of Greece, a stronghold of singularities less affected by the incursions of package tourism than is the case with other, smaller islands. However, because most foreign visitors limit themselves to indulging in the revelry of the northern coastal resorts, the many charms of rural Crete are often missed. Yet it’s still possible, with just a bit of searching, to find tranquil, unspoiled villages in Crete’s mountainous interior, and especially in its southwestern strongholds. Spending a little time to get to know the place is well worth it, as every Cretan village has a unique flavor, a deep history, a singular identity and a rhythm and soul all its own.

The Cretans’ vigorous spirit is not only a product of the past, but of environment too. Outside of the big towns and tourist resorts, a measured stillness pervades. The Cretan mountain air is heavy with the smell of oregano, wildflowers and wild teas: in fact, one can even smell the heat itself. It is a pulsating, wilting heat, bringing with it both clarity and delirium, making the harsh scrub edges of the gorges seem to float on the horizon and amplifying the crickets in their persistent volleys from the outspreading fields. There is something about the Cretan countryside that’s more wild, more bombastic than anywhere in Greece; the island’s nature has always been reflected in its people, in larger-than-life characters such as the famous Nikos Kazantzakis.

The greatest work of nature in the Cretan countryside, many visitors agree, is the Samaria Gorge (at 16 kilometers the longest in Europe) located in the west of the island, south of Chania. It takes about 6 hours to hike the canyon, which has been carved out of steep defiles and an ancient river bed over the millennia. Samaria is usually closed to hikers from November 1- May 1; the danger of flash floods (a few unfortunate hikers have been carried out to sea in the past) persists on this well-worn watercourse.

If one is driving from Chania to the mouth of the gorge at Omalos, a nice stop along the way is the village of Lakki, with its magnificent views of sunstruck chasms and far-off church domes, and an outdoor cafe draped with dazzling bougainvillea. The village is a great place for a preparatory coffee before tackling the treacherous road south.

Some of the most remote villages in Crete lie beyond Omalos, off of the road leading to the southern coastal towns of Sougia and Palaeochora. Perhaps the most audacious in all of Crete, this winding route leaps and plummets, twists and turns, sometimes is paved and sometimes gravel. Here one notices a gradual change in the landscape, too: much less a barren and rocky moonscape, the island west of the gorges transforms itself into lush forests of eucalyptus and cedar, fiery wildflowers half-hidden in black volcanic rock, and, as everywhere, the endless groves of olive trees. The west of Crete is arguably the most spectacular part of the island, and certainly the most uninhabited. Tiny white-plastered villages dot the interior and many are almost completely deserted.

This reality makes for a refreshing change from the northern tourism centers, with their 24-hour service, English breakfasts and easy accessibility. In the forgotten enclaves of Crete, one takes one’s chances. Showing up in the middle of the night in one Chania-area village and expecting to find a meal in its only lit building, I instead found I had trespassed on a vital game of backgammon between two surly old men in stained wife-beater t-shirts, sitting out in front of the place with their raki. Accosted by requests for dishes that he just didn’t have, the bemused owner scratched his head and finally remembered having shot a rabbit earlier in the day. “Aha!” he beamed, and went off to skin it. And so it was – rabbit stew, with hunks of tomato and rough village bread. Simple fare, yet as it turned out, quite delicious. As I ate, the stillness of the sleeping street was broken, from time to time, by the strains of a bouzouki wafting from somewhere up the way, being played by a lone insomniac on his doorstep.

Of course, Cretan offerings can be quite lavish, too. Pungent stifado – octopus, lamb, or even rabbit or goat simmered in a red wine, tomato and olive oil sauce spiced with cloves and cinnamon ? is a favorite in places like Myrthios village’s Plateia, a little taverna set on a high hill overlooking the Lybian Sea. On the other side of the island, near the picturesque port of Agios Nikolaos, the little village of Exo Lakonia (also known as Panagia) boasts a remarkable no-name taverna decorated inconspicuously with multi-colored plastic chairs set out front. This is not a place where you ask to see the menu; the waiter just rattles off a list of what they have. Here it’s well worth it to follow the time-honored Greek practice of ordering mezedes (different plates of mixed appetizers); they range from well known treats like dolmades (stuffed wrapped vine leaves), keftedes (Cretan meatballs), and the beloved tyropites (golden fried cheese pies), to other local specialties native to eastern Crete.

From Exo Lakonia, it’s possible (with some determined driving on backcountry roads, over mountains 1,665 meters high) to reach the Lassithi Plateau – yet another unique area of Crete. Lassithi enjoys an almost Continental climate, with balmy weather, broad-leafed deciduous trees, almonds and orchards of pear and apple. In autumn, Lassithi’s forests blaze red, purple and gold, while rows of red peppers hang to dry over the doors of white-plastered houses in place like Tzermiado and Marmaketo.

The top draw in Lassithi is Dikteon Cave in the village of Psychro, where the infant Zeus was hidden by his mother Rhea. Once a site of Olympian cult worship, Dikteon boasts stalactites and stalagmites and is well worth a visit, and accessible by road (though the hour-and-a-half hike from Tzermiado is terrific). Lassithi is also famous for its old cloth-sail windmills – some 7,000 of them – which twirl in the cool mountain air against a backdrop of orchards and forests. On the northern descent from Tzermiado, one is treated to excellent views of the Sea of Crete far off on the horizon, as well as the humble Byzantine monastery of Panagia Kera.

Cretans, especially those from the villages, have their own peculiar dialects, with hundreds of words developed indigenously over centuries of isolation and foreign rule. Words from Turkish, Italian, Byzantine and ancient Greek are common, as are simple tonal and accent differences. In 1999, a 73 year-old Cretan ethnographer, the resolute Kanaki Geronimaki, published an illustrated tome of idiosyncrasies in language. Collected from the southwestern Sfakia area alone, it amounted to 130 full pages.

This linguistic independence is also attested by a singular nomenclature in the names of Cretan villages. While most places have meaningful names, Crete is full of hamlets whose names seem to mean nothing. Or else, perhaps, their meanings have been erased by the centuries. These names are inevitably odd to the Greek tongue, and so become even more endearing: Fres and Tsiskiana, Mixorouma, Siva, Plemeniana and Chamezi, to cite just a few.

Of course, there are many other “logical” names that speak of things like Armenians, fountain taps, blackbirds, arches, heads of nuts, daughters of slaves and saints like Barbara and Theodore (respectively, Armeni, Vrises, Askordalos, Tholos, Amigdalokefali, Sklavopoula, Agia Varvara and Agii Theodori).

This can be entertaining in some cases, as with the southwestern village of Ano Rodakino. But you probably won’t want to laugh at the locals in Upper Peach (literally, the name of the town); like most similar villages, you?re likely to be met by a well-built teenager ambling along, shotgun slung dependably over his shoulder, an old man flipping his worry beads on the hill above, or a suspicious widow brandishing a switch and driving along a flock of sheep. All, needless to say, are dressed head to toe in black.