By Nick Stamatakis
Our readers have seen ample evidence of my love for Crete, the place of origins of the paternal side of our family. The rest of the family originates from islands very close to Crete, islands whose DNA, history, and culture is intrinsically tied to Crete’s for thousands of years… I was not born there but in the summer of 1984, at the young age of 23, I had the chance to live in Crete for 3 continuous months and traveled the island in ways that very few people have. For example, I had the opportunity to visit the excavation of the Cave where Zeus was believed to have been born (“Idaion Andron”) at the top of 10,000 ft tall Psiloritis mountain; Prof. Yiannis Sakelarakis, the founder of the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion (among the top five archaeological museums on the planet!!) was in charge of the excavation and I still remember the oily soil that at the time covered much of the cave, oily from hundreds of years of animal sacrifices!… And yes, I asked him whether the archaeological team has found any human bones in the oily soil but his answer was negative at the time and I verified it three years ago during my last visit: there were no human sacrifices in the Zeus Cave – but elsewhere in Crete, the story changes… Yes, it seems that there were human sacrifices in ancient Crete – as the myth of the Minotaur hints… I also had the chance, totally by coincidence, to visit the compound of the mafia-like Mitsotakis family in Akrotiri, a family still today ruling Greece (and hopefully to be thrown out of power soon…)
In other words, writing about Crete is for me very much personal, much more than writing about a travel experience. Some of you who think of vacations as relaxation time at a hotel near a beautiful beach, do not need to read this: Just browse google or any other search engine, and pick a hotel that you can afford – you will have a wonderful time…
But if you are trying to uncover the culture, the history, and the people behind any visit to a new place, you will probably find it useful and entertaining, and very enticing… I have enriched this with my last trip experience about three years ago… September and October are the best months to visit: the crowds have left, and the fertile land of Crete has produced the most tasteful fruits and vegetables you can imagine…
If your visit is limited to a few days these are ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE ITEMS:
- In HERAKLION the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis and the Knossos archaeological site. Also the Archaeological Museum of Herakleion is among the top 5 in the world!!!
- In Agios Nikolaos you stroll through the beautiful town and you head south to Ierapetra. You have at some point to go up to the mountain Ψηλορειτης – (about 10,000 feet tall!!) and reach the cave where Zeus was born!!
- In Chania, the old town and the port… East towards Maleme (location of the Battle of Crete) and you have to wind towards the south at Sfakia (where my grandfather was born). It is considered to be the most wild and rebellious part of Crete.
- In Rethimnon you check out the town and the local castle then you go to the famous monastery of Arkadi.
If you have at least 12-14 days please read below.
MY BASIC IDEA IS TO GO FROM NORTH (CHANIA) TO SOUTH (SFAKIA) THEN EAST AGIA GALINI THEN NORTH (ANOGIA) THEN RETHIMNON (QUICKLY) THEN HERACLION – KNOSSOS THEN UP TO MOUNT IDA (PSILORITIS) THEN EAST TO AG.NIKOLAOS- SITIA THEN (IF YOU HAVE TIME) SOUTH AGAIN TO IERAPETRA)….
MY FACTS ON CRETE – NOT EASILY GOOGLED!!!
The most interesting facts have to do with Geography- look at the map:
1) Sitting between Europe, Asia and Africa Crete’s history has been largely determined by its Geography. One fact stands out: internal reviews of the U.S. Armed Forces put the American military base at Souda Bay (near Chania – Χανιά) as the #1 most valuable worldwide!! The agreement for its lease was renewed during Tsipras’s meeting with Trump and was turned into a 5-yr MDCA right before Mitsotaki’s recent visit to DC (many terms are undisclosed and include much more than money one can suspect).
2) The internal geography of the island is unique. Crete, Cyprus, Sicily, Lebanon are the few places in the Mediterranean where you can go swimming at sea and skiing up in the mountains in the span of the same day at most months of the year!! Since ancient times the Cretans used snow to cool wine in double-wall ceramic pots as you will see at the museum in Heraclion and elsewhere. As you descend to the southern coast of Crete you will feel the hot breath of Africa even in January.
The history of Crete reflects its unique geopolitical position. Modern DNA studies have verified what we all believed through archaeology: Crete has been inhabited by an indigenous to Greece population. The early Minoan civilization (starting 2600 BC) is directly related to the early Greek civilization of the islands north of Crete, the Cyclades. These islands and Crete are intertwined throughout history – as history shows… This theme will come back again and again throughout your visit… For example, the eruption of the Santorini volcano destroyed Knossos, the Minoan capital around 1500BC… Also Kazantzakis’s family – like my grandfather – was forced to leave Crete after the last of (at least 5) the rebellions of the Cretans against the Turks in the 1800s and moved to the Cyclades, the islands to the north.
BELOW IS A MEDIEVAL MAP OF CRETE…
Romans, Arabs, Venetians, Turks, all occupied Crete by force throughout history… ENJOY WALKING IN THE VENETIAN OLD TOWNS OF THE NORTH COAST: CHANIA – RETHIMNON – HERAKLION…
In May 1941, Hitler used the first in history parashooter force in order to conquer Crete. The Cretans, along with lightly armed British, Greek and New Zealanders, fought so bravely that the Germans had 6000 casualties out of a less than 30,000 invading force!!! Hitler wrongly decided to never use parashooters again and this stupid decision cost him gravely. Also he had to delay by at least 3 weeks the invasion of Russia and many believe that this delay cost him the great defeat that opened the way for allied victory in WWII. For the best documentary of this historical event please connect here to watch “the 11th Day” documentary by Christos Epperson…
THE VILLAGES OF CRETE – THE CULTURE OF CRETE.
YOU WILL SEE THE MAJOR TOWNS BUT…
You cannot say that you have tasted what Crete is about unless you visit the local villages. Michael Herzfeld, has written the best ethnography of Crete, “The Poetics of Manhood”. His emphasis was on the theatrics of masculinity in public and I can tell you that it can be dangerous… You do not approach sexually any woman in any Cretan village without risking personal injury… BE VERY CAREFUL…. The CRETANS CARRY AND USE GUNS AND KNIVES PUBLICLY WITHOUT HESITATION. No Greek state authority and no police force were ever able to limit their use of guns. They just do not follow any state authority when it comes to guns and knives… Yes, this was more true in traditional culture and has dissipated to a degree after many decades of tourism – but it is still there and it is true today. Just watch videos of PM Mitsotakis at any wedding or baptism where celebrations are not felt unless guns are shot right nest to the prime minister!!
Link below to read about some facts and FAQs
Also this about Cretan vendettas.
DRIVING IS DANGEROUS AS CRETANS DO NOT FOLLOW RULES AND IN MANY WAYS THEY ARE ACTING AS IF THEY ARE RIDING MULES OR HORSES…
READ THIS BEFORE DRIVING IN CRETE… VERY FUNNY BUT TRUE
In the villages, you can expect to find excellent LOCAL FOOD. The famous greek salad “ntakos” (containing bread in the form of toast – paximadi)… Any meat is good but local lamb is excellent – ESPECIALLY IF IT IS STOLEN the locals say… Yes, stealing is considered both a rite of passage for the young men and also a form of showing manliness… Not sure how much of this survived modernity… I know it survived in dating and marriage as young men “steal” (abduct) their brides – a very ancient custom… The locals use the expression «κλεφτήκανε» («they stole each other»…)
TRY THE LOCAL SNAILS – escargot – ANYWHERE YOU FIND THEM…(Σαλιγκαρια).
Traditionally, in any village, you can expect to find a DANCE EVENT on any given Sunday….(χοροστάσι)… Not so much in the midst of the tourist season, but after the end of August you have a better chance – at the minimum, you can have the experience in local “panegyria”, especially in the celebration of the patron saint in towns and villages…
Pentozalis is one of the most ancient dances in the world…. See in the video how the men are dressed – headscarf, black shirt, khakis, boots. This is typical… The other form of traditional dress is the Cretan “vraka” as you see in the second video…
See also ανωγειανός πηδηχτός
Also, they might wear a knife tucked in their belt… Carrying a knife is typical even today… In souvenir shops, they sell knives with famous inscriptions – “mantinades” (15-syllable poems as old as Homer)…
“Αν αγαπήσεις άλλονε και φύγεις μ’άλλο ταίρι
θα σου τον κόψω το λαιμό με τούτο το μαχαίρι”…
“If you fall in love with someone else and go away with another partner
I will cut your throat with this knife…”
LOCAL INSTRUMENTS – the “lyre”, more ancient than Homer probably and the guitar like “lagouto” a middle eastern instrument used by Arabs Persians, Greeks, Kurds, Turks etc……Also the “bagpipe” or in Greek “tsambouna”… This instrument likely originated in Egypt and Ancient Minoans who were advanced sailors are the most likely to have distributed this instrument to the “Celtic” cultures…
LOCAL POETRY – THE WORLD-FAMOUS MANTINADES – IS AS ANCIENT A POETRY FORM AS HOMER… Take a taste here https://www.mantinades.gr/… Many in my family still today use mantinades as a regular form of expression…
LOCAL SONGS – HERE IS A TASTE
The famous “Rizitika” (Ριζίτικα) – are mostly traditional and rebel songs.
The most famous rebellion song is “Ποτε θα κανει ξαστερια” – performed here by Nicos Xylouris
I raised my second-born son Nicholas using this song as a lullaby and he had learned it by heart since age 2… Thank God he did not understand the lyrics…
Πότε θα κάμει ξαστεριά,
πότε θα φλεβαρίσει,
να πάρω το ντουφέκι μου,
την έμορφη πατρόνα,
να κατεβώ στον Ομαλό,
στη στράτα του Μουσούρου,
να κάμω μάνες δίχως γιους,
γυναίκες δίχως άντρες,
να κάμω και μωρά παιδιά,
να κλαιν’ δίχως μανάδες,
να κλαιν’ τη νύχτα για νερό,
και την αυγή για γάλα,
και τ’ αποδιαφωτίσματα
τη δόλια τους τη μάνα…
And here is “Ερωτόκριτος και Αρετούσα” a Cretan Medieval love poem – my yiayiα used it as a lullaby for me… It belongs to a line of poems in medieval Europe that gave birth to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”…
ΑΝΟΤΗΕR MEDIEVAL GREAT OF CRETE IS THE FAMOUS PAINTER EL GRECO – Domenicos Theotocopoulos who was trained as a byzantine iconographer and left Crete to go to Italy and finally Spain where he became one of the greatest painters of Renaissance with direct influence ON PICASSO’S WORK… THERE IS A MUSEUM IN THE VILLAGE OF HIS BIRTH – FODELE – https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g9764793-d5533590-Reviews-Museum_of_El_Greco-Fodele_Crete.html
VILLAGES NEAR CHANIA
Start at the Old Town of Chania, the port surrounded by the Venetian Walls like Rhodes and many other port towns in Greece… The same you will find in Rethimnon and Heraklion.. Then go to Souda Bay and the village of Akrotiri… Then head to the South coast – Sfakia….
Three years ago we stopped at the village of KANDANOS on the way to the south coast from Chania – totally destroyed by the Germans.
ON THE WAY EAST FROM CHANIA YOU WILL SEE SPECTACULAR BEACHES AND ALSO THIS IS THE LOCATION OF THE BATTLE OF CRETE NEAR MALEME.
If you have time hit Kissamos and Therissos on the way South. NEAR THERISSOS YOU HAVE THE FAMOUS GORGE OF SAMARIA… If you like nature walks this is a place to walk through BUT IT WILL TAKE YOU THE MOST PART OF A DAY
1) South Coast of Chania – A MUST GO – the villages of Sfakia culturally represent the wild revolutionary Crete. ΧΩΡΑ ΣΦΑΚΙΩΝ – ΠΑΛΑΙΟΧΩΡΑ – ΦΡΑΓΚΟΚΑΣΤΕΛΟ ΚΑΝΔΑΝΟΣ (Candanos is one of the hundreds of villages in Greece – yes, hundreds – burnt to the ground by the Germans to take revenge for the fierce resistance of the Greeks.
2) ΚΙΣΣΑΜΟΣ 3) ΑΚΡΩΤΗΡΙ 4) ΚΟΛΥΜΠΑΡΙ…. Amazing, world-famous beaches and views…
5) THERISSOS – This is where Eleftherios Venizelos on of the greatest Cretans – in early 20th century declared the Union of Crete with Greece..
6) The famous “Samaria Gorge” for those of you young enough to walk for many hours from north to south of this amazing natural site…
VILLAGES NEAR RETHIMNON
1) ANOGIA – A MUST SEE – considered to be one of the most authentic Cretan villages
2) AGIA GALINI AT THE SOUTH COAST OF CRETE – ABSOLUTELY MARVELLOUS.
3) SPILI – UNBELIEVABLE LOCATION AND VIEWS
VILLAGES NEAR HERACLION
YOU STROLL AROUND TOWN AND HEAD TO THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM… AMONG THE TOP 10 IN THE WORLD… THEN TO KNOSSOS… THEN UP TO MOUNT IDA – PSILOTRITIS – THE BIRTHPLACE OF ZEUS…
Pass by Archanes on the way to the top of the mountain…
2) FODELE – the birthplace of El Greco
4) VIANOS (another holocaust by the Germans here…)
ON THE SOUTH COAST OF HERAKLION YOU CAN VISIT
– MATALA – a beach with caves made famous by the hippies in tHE 60s and 70s
– Tsoutsouros and Lentas – beautiful beaches and small villages
VILLAGES IN LASITHI (EAST PROVINCE OF CRETE)
– Capital AG.NIKOLAOS,
– Major port SITIA
1) KRITSA – VERY TRADITIONAL AND PICTURESQUE
2) Same for TZERMIADO
3) South coast – IERAPETRA…
4) The Palm Tree forest / Bay at Vai on the easternmost part of Crete.
Above all you should enjoy the famous Cretan hospitality and interact with the people… Three years ago I bought the best produce (especially tomatoes) and other products from little tables outside houses or near village squares… Let yourself enjoy Crete in all its mesmerizing originality…