Story and photography by Manos Angelakis
Heraklion Harbor photo courtesy of the Greek National Tourism Organization
Crete is the second largest island in the Eastern Mediterranean, a backbone of rugged high mountains laying west to east between the Greek mainland and North Africa. Dating to the Aceramic Neolithic times, i.e. prior to approximately 6000 BCE, the Cretans have lived on the northern seaboard where fertile valleys and plateaus provide arable and tillable land and safe harbors provide protection from the often tempestuous Cretan Sea. The southern seaboard is mostly craggy mountainsides falling straight into the Libyan Sea, and has been even to the present time mostly uninhabited, assailed by the “meltemi” a hot, dry, African desert wind.
Crete is an ancient land, the island where the first sophisticated European (Minoan) civilization developed. The height of the Minoan civilization was circa 2600–1400 BCE, when the eruption of Santorini caused the destruction of most Minoan cities and harbors.
During the Byzantine period, Crete was originally part of the Byzantine Empire, but was then captured by Iberian Arabs led by Abo Hafs Omer Al-Baloty, who established a pirate emirate on the island. In 960 CE, the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus Phocas reconquered the island, which remained under Byzantine control until 1204 CE, when it fell into the hands of the Venetians. During the Venetian rule, which lasted more than four centuries, a cultural renaissance swept through the island as is evident from the plethora of artistic works dating from that period. The most notable representatives of this Cretan renaissance were the well-known Cretan painter Dominikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) who dominated art in the Spanish Court, and the lesser-known poet Vitsentzos Kornaros, a member of an important Venetian-Cretan family born and raised in the town of Sitia, at the eastern end of the island. Vitsentzos Kornaros wrote the tragic romance poem “Erotokritos” (1540 verses) circa 1585-1590CE. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare, whose play “Romeo and Juliet” written between 1591 and 1595 CE, bears a striking similarity to the Erotokritos plot; both were probably influenced by an Italian tale translated into verse.
Ottoman Turks conquered Crete in 1669, after a 21-year siege of the capital, Candia (Heraklion), and Crete remained part of the Ottoman Empire until united with Greece in 1913.
Modern Cretan luminaries include Eleftherios Venizelos, a politician and Prime Minister of Greece; Nikos Kazantzakis, arguably the most important and most translated Greek writer and philosopher of the 20th century; Odysseas Elytis, a Nobel laureate regarded as a major European exponent of romantic modernism; Nana Mouskouri, an award winning international superstar, and many others.
For centuries, Crete was known by its Venetian name Candia, from the medieval name of Heraklion, Chandax (Greek Χάνδακας, "moat"). Today, both Chania, the largest western city, and Heraklion, Crete’s capital located roughly at the center of the island, have monumental Venetian fortifications surrounding their ports. Crete has held intact its own distinctive rich and proud culture. Cretan Greek has been maintained as the spoken dialect, and Cretan Raki (Tsikoudia) is the traditional drink. The island is known for its spontaneous musical poetry (Mandinades). Expert musicians play a musical instrument “Lira”, a small stringed instrument like a small mandolin played with a bow. Crete has many indigenous dances, the most noted of which is probably the Pentozalis, supposedly the dance that the Kouretes (local soldiers) performed to hide Zeus’ cries from his father Cronus, while his mother kept him hidden in a cave on Mount Ida.
Modern Crete’s major industry is undoubtedly tourism. Yes, there are small factories near or in the major cities. There are also wineries, cheesemakers, olive and olive oil farms, and other agricultural product producers, but the majority of the high income producing businesses are tourism-related.
During the last few years, upscale tourism has expanded with many 5* hotels and resorts on the island. During my recent visit, I found a number of 5* properties in the Elounda area, on the Mirabello bay. Located between the cities of Heraklion and Agios Nikolaos, it is a resort spot with numerous luxurious properties mostly built over the past 15 years. We stayed at the Blue Palace, a Luxury Collection Resort and Spa, a member of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. My “Bungalow 312” was a lovely large room with a private infinity pool that started right at my terrace and extended for at least 50 feet. The view of the sun rising over Spinalonga Island across the bay was extraordinary. The property has 250 rooms and suites. Included is a number of 2 and 3 bedroom suites, with a large living room, kitchen, 2 baths, and large private pool. The property closes for the winter, but operates from end of April to end of October.
In Heraklion we stayed at the Galaxy Hotel; a centrally located 5* hotel property on the road leading to Minoan Knossos. It is open year-round. The owner/general manager Yannis Economou, was present from very early in the morning to late at night, personally supervising the entire operation from the reception, to housekeeping, to the kitchen. The chef goes to the green market, every morning at 4:00 am, to select the best produce from small producers that offer high quality, then to the cheese market for hand-crafted, flavorful cheese...
I should mention our Cretan tourism guide, Marinela Mamalaki-Stavrakaki (email@example.com). She is a very knowledgeable guide, who appreciates the past as well as the present of the island. She took us to some interesting traditional restaurants, a sign that she knows and understands good food.
The food in Crete is superior. From the seaside and harbor side tavernas to the hotel restaurants, the food varies from local delicacies to international dishes, all made with absolutely fresh, organic where possible, local ingredients. There are numerous agrotourism possibilities, where guests can, if they wish, participate in such activities as cheese making for example, or the grape harvest. The families of the owners of a number of the top properties own olive groves and vineyards as well, and the extra virgin olive oil used in the kitchens of their hotels come from their own groves and the wines from their own vineyards. Fresh fish is sold by weight in the tavernas, where many of the owners will, a night or two before the weekend, go out on a boat and catch what will be served the next day. Fruit orchards dot the island and vegetable patches can be found behind every house in the villages and many of the homes in the towns. Herbs and aromatics grow wild on the mountainsides, as well as in herb gardens behind homes and restaurants. For the gourmet, it is a chance to taste high quality fresh food, mostly organically grown, properly cooked, according to age-old recipes.
One of the very traditional specialties in Heraklion that I particularly love is “bougatsa”. Many patisseries and restaurants make it; it is an oblong phylo dough enclosed pie, with a filling of either a thick custard or “sour mizithra”, a soft cheese made from a mixture of sheep and goat’s milk. Before it is served, it is liberally sprinkled with sugar and powdered cinnamon. The best is still made, for at least the last 50 years, at Kirkor, a small shop with a few outdoor tables at Platia Venizelou (Venizelou Square) popularly known as the Lions Square or Fountain Square; the business and mercantile center of Heraklion.
At Chania, we had lunch at a “tavern-restaurant-coffee shop” as they describe themselves, at the old harbor. It is called “Karnayio” i.e. shipyard, and its address is 8 Katehaki Sq., Old Port Chania. It is slightly off the beaten path, but in my humble opinion, it has the best traditional Cretan food of all the restaurants and tavernas that we visited in that town. Even though a menu is offered, dispense with it and instead go to the kitchen and ask to see “what’s the best for today”. The cook or the waiter will uncover pots and trays with what has been cooked, and will open ice-filled drawers to show you the day’s catch. Check out the fish displayed; if the eyes are clear and bright and the gills red or very slightly brown, it means that the catch was swimming in the sea the day before, and that’s what you want to have. A specialty of the house is Sfakiani Pita, thin-crusted bread, almost like a pizza, stuffed with cheese, or ground meat and vegetables. Very similar, though crisper, to filled Indian tandoori naan. Everything... deep-fried calamari rings, charcoal grilled cuttlefish, deep-fried small red mullets, chochli, pickled octopus, village salad, lemon potatoes... all were excellent.
I would be amiss if I did not talk about the Cretan wines. Crete has a wine making tradition going back to the Minoan times. Over 90% of the wine produced is consumed locally. But, during the last few years, vineyard owners and wine makers have started to concentrate on creating outstanding wines for both local consumption and export. The ones I consider the best are blends of an autochthonous red grape “Kotsifali” with international grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. Kotsifali is the underdog of Greek red varietals. Outside of Crete, it doesn't seem to garner much respect. Yet, most of the better red wines we had with our meals were 55% Kotsifali, 45% Syrah, or 40% Kotsifali, 40% Mandilari – another Cretan cultivar, and 20% Syrah, and were all outstanding. There are also international grapes that flourish in the island’s vineyards. Knowledgeable winemakers take these grapes and vinify them into exceptional wines. Particularly good was the 2007 Nostos Alexandra’s, from the Manousakis winery; a blend of 40% Syrah, 40% Mourvèdre, and 20% Grenache, vinified separately, then blended and aged in French oak barriques. It is imported in the US; if you can find it, grab it. It is well worth cellaring it for a couple years, for a delicious, very smooth, rather smoky result.
As a final note, I should also mention the Cretan Tsikoudia, or as it is most popularly known, Raki. It is Crete’s answer to the Italian grappa or the French eau-de-vie. Between 80 and 100 proof, depending on the producer, it is made by distilling either the fermented pomace left after the grape juice has been extracted for wine making, or, more recently, from fermented full grape clusters. This is firewater at its best. It is crystal-clear, and is used with meze for an afternoon repast, or as an appetizer or a digestif. It is now available in many tavernas on the Greek mainland as well. My paternal grandfather, who lived to be 103-years old and was from Crete, had a shot of it after meals, declaring it a “plynodondion” i.e. a tooth cleanser. Since he had many of his own teeth, even at his advanced age, I guess it worked.
I had not been to Crete for at least 25 years. The last time I was there, it was a typical island, starting to cater to international tourism. Most of the visitors would go there for just one or two days to visit the Minoan ruins, stay another two to go swimming, then would return to the mainland. What I now found was a sophisticated tourism destination, catering to all visitors, from backpackers to luxury seeking sybarites. But, all that tourism does not seem to have affected the Cretans. They are still friendly, urbane, and amply extend their hospitality even to persons they have just met.
Places to visit, in or near Heraklion.
Knossos Palace. 5 km South of Heraklion. Sir Arthur Evans began his excavation of Knossos in 1900 and, though he was not the first to excavate the site, it was Evans who uncovered the Knossos Palace and brought to light a new civilization - the oldest in Europe. The basic excavation took four years and for the rest of his life Evans continued working on the site, reconstructing and building, to preserve the remains. Evans designated the building at Knossos a palace, and named the civilization that had built it “Minoan”, after King Minos of Greek mythology. Knossos is named in ancient Greek sources, as the palace of the mighty king Minos.
The Archaeological Museum. The largest collection of Minoan artifacts. Open Tues. to Sun. 9am to 3pm.
The Municipal Gallery and Basilica of St. Marc. Located in Platia Venizelou, also known as Lions Square or Fountain Square. It offers an ever changing variety of exhibitions, from early photographs of Crete to works of art by major Cretan artists. Also used for official municipal functions.
The Koules. The harbor’s Venetian Fortress built in the early 1500s. An impressive fortification, that offers views of the city and harbor from its turret and roof. Open from 9am to 3pm, in the summer open from 8am to 7:30pm.
The Kazantzakis Museum. In the town of Myrtia. Dedicated to the 20th century’s most important Greek intellectual and philosopher.
Visit in Chania: The old harbor. The sidewalks are lined with tavernas that offer the bounty of the sea and are some of the initial formal sources of recipes for the Mediterranean diet, though that diet has been for eons the basic Cretan way of eating.
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