Monday, December 17, 2007

Dreaming Of Crete (1 from 2)

Regarding the "Escape from America" article about affordable vacation places, I was happy to see that Crete is considered one of them! The family of my mother stems from Crete and my grandma and aunts and cousins still live there, so I think I can tell you more about this beautiful island. First of all it is a very big place combining both steep mountain sides and a huge coast line from north to south. It is divided into four counties, which have four major cities as capitals, each one with a character of its own. The biggest city on the north is Heraclion (named after the famous Greek mythology hero Hercules) with all the pros and cons of a modern city, but do include in your itinerary visits to the other three major cities which are Chania, Rethymnon and Agios Nicolaos (St. Nicolas) all located on the north coast of the Aegean Sea. In the south the enviroment is more tropical, since the Libyan Sea is much hotter than the other waters that surround the island. The area is less populated but there are some interesting villages and towns you can go to such as Sitia, Ierapetra and Sfakia Coast.

Crete has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The visitor can discover primitive remains along with the very impressive up-to-date Minoan civilization (do you remember the mythical Minotaur that was said to live in the palace of King Minoas in Knossos?) which was affected by the eruption of the volcano in the Aegean Sea that is said to have destroyed Atlantis. Then it was colonized by mainland Greeks and was a significant trading post from mainland Greece to Eygpt. Apostle Paul visited the island during the early Christian era and then in the 1200's it was conquered by both Venetians (from Venice) and Catholic knights (Franks as we call them). Then, around 1600 Ottomans (Turks) came along and stayed until the late 1800's when Crete finally became a Greek province once again.

You can see influences of each era all around the island both in the architecture and in the names of places. You will be impressed by the numerous small churches that have been built across the island in the name sake of several saints Cretans are very religious people, the majority of them Orthodox Christians. Some mosques left from the Ottoman era can also be found in Heraclion, Rethymnon and the city of Chania and are now part of the cultural heritage of Crete.

The people are very hospitable, righteous, loud and have developed a strong sense of pride. Older people in the villages wear a characteristic uniform consisting of a black shirt and trousers, white boots and a scarf to cover their heads. They often grow mustaches as a sign of manhood and are competent in improvising verses when they want to dedicate a song to those around them (which is called mandinada in Greek and can only be heard in the villages of Crete).

They used to carry guns as a self protective means, but now this habit is much restricted to marriages or up in the mountains for the shepperds. The Cretans have developed over the centuries a characteristic pronunciation of the Greek language in which some consonants are more stressed than usual.

The local cuisine is based on olive oil and it includes special dried breads made of seeds like oats or barley. The cretan cheeses and wines are also very distinct and tasteful. There's is a famous bi-product of wine (not vinegar) which is called Raki in Crete. Have a sip during the mid-day siesta with olive oil, graviera cheese, cucumbers, octapus and anything else that might be handy at the time! You can find everything in Crete regarding Meditteranean food since these goods are in abundance on Crete.