Saturday, May 19, 2007

Samaria Gorge

The Samariá Gorge is a national park in the island of Crete, one of the major tourist attractions of the island.

The gorge is in the prefecture of Chania in the South West of Crete. It was created by a small river running between the White Mountains (Lefká Óri) and Mount Volakias. There are a number of other gorges in the White Mountains. The gorge is 18 km long and is the second longest in Europe. The most famous part of the gorge is the section known as the 'Iron Gates', where the sides of the gorge close to about 4 meters in and reach up to 500 meters high. The northern entrance to the gorge is 1,250 m above sea level. It descends practically to sea level, opening out a couple of kilometres above the village of Agia Roumeli.

The gorge became a national park in 1962, particularly as a refuge for the rare Kri-kri (Cretan goat), which is largely restricted to the park and a small island just off the shore of Agia Marina. There are several other endemic species in the gorge and surrounding area, as well as many other species of flower, bird, etc.

The village of Samariá lies just inside the gorge. It was finally abandoned by the last remaining inhabitants in 1962 to make way for the park. The village and the gorge take their name from the village's ancient church Óssia María (St Mary).

One of the "musts" for a tourist to the island is to complete the walk down the gorge from the Omalos plateau to Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea, at which point tourists sail to the nearby village of Hora Sfakion and catch a coach back to Chania. The walk takes between four and seven hours and can be strenuous, especially in high summer.

Loutro a place to see and live

Loutro is a seaside resort on the south coast of Chania Prefecture (south-western Crete). It is only a few kilometres from Chora Sfakion, lying in the embrace of a cliff which towers 600 metres above the village. Loutro is a unique spot in Crete for many reasons:

  • its white buildings with blue windows are reminiscent of the Cyclades and are unique in Crete.
  • there is no road to Loutro. You can only go there by scheduled boat service (20 minutes from Sfakia) or on foot.
  • there is no road in Loutro itself, no cars and no motorbikes. Actually, there is one car, which is used to transfer supplies from the boat to a hotel.
  • all the houses are just a few metres from the water’s edge.
  • the sea is always calm and meltemia (northeasterlies) are unknow
Loutro, history
Loutro has its own history stretching back thousands of years. It was originally a harbour of Anopolis high above Loutro. The town established on the site of modern-day Loutro was known as Phoenix, a place-name preserved in the neighbouring village of Phoenix. Phoenix flourished during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, while it later became a lair of Saracen corsairs and slavers. This situation changed when the Venetians arrived in Crete. They drove out the pirates and fortified Loutro with a small fortress whose ruins are still visible today.

After the Venetians came the Turks, whose presence here, as well as the importance of the natural harbour of Loutro, is demonstrated by the Turkish fort above the village. The Turks built it after the 1866 uprising in an attempt to control the area and the harbour of Loutro which the Cretans were using as a base in their frequent revolts. Loutro harbour was used during the Dasakaloyannis rebellion of 1770 and the 1821 uprising was declared in Crete at Loutro.

Loutro, today
Today Loutro is full of rooms and apartments for rent, all with a view of the calm bay with its islet and the lighthouse at its entrance. Dozens of boats and speedboats visit the harbour each day, the only means of communication with the surrounding areas.

All the houses in Loutro are built around the small beach and the jetty where the boat from Sfakia and Agia Roumeli moors. You rarely need to walk more than a few yards from your hotel to the taverna or the beach. You will gradually feel the peace and lazy atmosphere of the place affecting you, making you wonder how you could possibly have lived so long in the busy, stressful city. Expensive clothes, cars and other consumer goods lose their meaning here, since all you need is a pair of flip-flops for the beach, shorts and a T-shirt, your bathers and suncream. Anything else seems completely unnecessary in Loutro.
Loutro, beaches, sightseeing and activities

You can spend the day on Loutro beach swimming in the cool waters of the bay, drinking coffee and beer, canoeing or walking as far as the Venetian and Turkish fortresses.

If you feel in need of something more adventurous, take a 30-minute walk to neighbouring Phoenix for a coffee and a dip on its tiny beach. If you continue, after Phoenix you’ll come to Marmara beach and the exit of Aradena Gorge. At Marmara there is a small taverna and the omnipresent beach umbrellas.

You can also visit Marmara beach (to the west) and the beach of Glyka Nera to the east, on the boat that leaves Loutro at 11 every morning and returns in the afternoon. You can walk to Glyka Nera in an hour and a bit, along the narrow footpath that starts just behind the Kri-Kri taverna in Loutro and joins the road to Sfakia and Anopolis. If you suffer from fear of heights and vertigo, though, it is best avoided.

Glyka Nera beach (Sweet Water) is one of the loveliest beaches in Crete, with no umbrellas or other facilities but with clear blue-green waters in which to cool off after the hot sun. The sea here is quite cold, due to the icy mountain water that rises in the sea and the sand. This water is clean and perfectly drinkable. On the beach you’ll find a small canteen serving refreshments and fast food. Unfortunately there is no shade anywhere on the beach, but you can rent an umbrella from the canteen. Avoid sitting too close to the cliff because of the risk of rockfalls. Finally, be aware that the beach is popular with nudists, so if you object to the practice you had better avoid the spot.

Another itinerary for determined hikers is the path that ascends from Loutro to Anopoli. You climb up to about 700 metres above sea level, with the stunning view unfolding before you all the way. At the end of the path is the church of Agia Ekaterini (St Catherine) and a small Venetian fort. Enjoy the panoramic view with the Sea of Libya spread at your feet. In the distance you can make out the islands of Gavdos and Gavdopoula, the southernmost border of Europe. If you go on past the church you come to the village of Anopoli, birthplace of the hero Daskaloyiannis who led a major rebellion against the Turks in 1770. The rebellion failed and Daskaloyiannis was forced to surrender to the Turks, who made an example of him by flaying him alive in Heraklion.

From Anopoli you can either turn back or continue to Aradaina and the gorge of the same name. If you cross the Aradaina gorge you will wind up on Marmara beach, returning either along the coastal path or by boat. This route is quite long and tiring, and recommended only for those who are used to mountain treks.

The Aradaina gorge is also an excellent spot for lovers of extreme sports. If you like bungee jumping, then every Saturday and Sunday in the summer months, you have the chance to enjoy a jump from the Aradaina bridge, a metal bridge built 138 metres over the bottom of the gorge. It is the highest bridge for bungy jumping in Greece and the second highest in Europe.
Loutro, dining and entertainment
Start with a delicious meal at one of the many tavernas available in Loutro. There are tavernas serving cooked dishes, at least two grills with tasty local meat on the coals, and you may even get fresh fish if you’re lucky.
Whatever you choose, don’t forget to try traditional Greek specialities and especially Chania dishes, such as boureki and Sfakianes pites (sweet cheese pies).
After supper there are two café-bars, but don’t expect the place to be swinging nightclub-style. Loutro is a quiet place and we hope it will remain so for many years to come. What could be more pleasant than sitting right next to the sea, enjoying your drink with good music in the background and letting your gaze lose itself in the moonlit reflections on the mirror-like sea?

Practical information on Loutro
1. The only facilities available in Loutro are a few minimarkets. There is no chemist’s, no rural doctor’s surgery and no cash machine. Be prepared and bring the basics.
2. Camping and topless bathing are not allowed at Loutro. If you want to get more of your clothes off, go to Glyka Nera beach. Spear fishing isn’t allowed either.
3. The boat from Sfakia continues to Agia Roumeli, where you can visit the exit of the Samaria Gorge, along the so-called “lazy way”. In fact you will be walking along the flat part of the gorge from the exit to its narrowest point, the famous Sideroportes (Iron Gates). The round trip takes about 2-3 hours.
4. Loutro is usually crowded in August, so it’ll be more enjoyable if you pick a different month.
5. A different entertainment option is a boat trip to admire the sunset over the sea, and maybe even see dolphins if you’re lucky.

Cretans speak in Mantinades

“A Cretan does not say in plain words what he feels,
With mantinades he weeps or with laughter he peals!”

Mantinades (plural of mantinada) are the most common form of folk song and are widespread across Crete. The Cretan mantinada is a 15-syllable rhyming couplet in Cretan dialect. Each mantinada is complete in itself in spite of its short length, like a limerick. There are however some mantinades used to answer others, in which case their meaning is complementary.
The mantinada is the unique way in which young and old in Crete can express their many and varied emotions: sorrow, joy, hope, desire, love, anger, revenge, nostalgia. Thousands of mantinades have been composed and are still being improvised on every facet of human life. Most are to do with love and romance, but there are also satiric, didactic, teasing couplets or verses on exile, engagement, marriage, everyday life and of course death and losing loved ones.
Mantinades are told at festivals accompanied by the lyre, or on their own in company, at the cafe, in everyday conversation. Most are not written down even in a notebook, and even fewer are published. Many are told and forgotten, but the best are learnt off by heart and passed on by word of mouth.
The origin of mantinades
According to historians, mantinades first appeared in Crete in the 15th century, during the period of Venetian rule. Cretans were influenced by Venetian poets and European poetry and started using rhyme for the first time. The famous poem “Erotokritos” seems to have played a decisive part in the invention and development of the mantinada. How could it not? Vicenzos Kornaros’10,000-verse romance has been read aloud and extracts sung by Cretans from the time it was written in 1590.
As for poetry in general, there is evidence that it has been known and loved in Crete since antiquity. The Cretan oracle and prophet Epimenides (6th century BC), for example, wrote his prophecies in verse. There was also Iophon of Knossos, who gave prophecies in verse at the oracle of Amphiaraos on Oropos.
Mantinades in Crete and Greece
It is not generally known that mantinades are not exclusive to Crete. The folk couplets of Kasos and Karpathos, islands to the east of Crete, are also called mantinades. Similar rhyming couplets are found on other Aegean and Ionian islands, and even in Cyprus, where they are known as “tsatista”.
The difference in Crete is that the production of mantinades continues at the same pace, especially in the villages, while in the rest of Greece very few new ones are made up. Crete manages to combine tradition with modern technological developments, often with a great deal of humour, as you can see from the following mantinada:

“In the sheepcote I set up a modem to use,
For to sell on the Net the milk from my ewes.”

Mantinada competitions
Mantinada competitions have become popular in Crete in recent years, encouraged by the “Michalis Kafkalas” Cretan Rhymers’ Association. The club was founded by doctor Michalis Kafkalas, himself a student and improviser of mantinades. Mantinada competitions are organized by the Municipalities of Agios Nikolaos and Ierapetra, the Philologists’ Association of Chania Prefecture and the Cretan Students’ Union of Athens, while the 7th Pancretan Mantinada Competition is currently being held, organized by the Korfes Cultural Association.
The House of the Mantinada
The House of the Mantinada is to be housed in a restored building in the village of Korfes. It will be a Folk Museum, with important exhibits on traditional Cretan farming life. Thousands of mantinades by Cretan versifiers of repute and younger mantinada rhymers will be collected here, forming a vital source on the mantinada, an integral element of Cretan tradition.
The Museum is a two-storey stone building dating from 1925 in the village square which has been bought by the Korfes Cultural Association. “On the ground floor there will be an exhibition of farming tools, furniture, clothing, implements and any other items of everyday use, which visitors can enjoy along with a glass of Cretan raki”, explains Mr Kostas Farazakis, Chairman of the Korfes Cultural Association. He adds that, “the upper floor of the Museum will house all the mantinades we have at our disposal. Of course, anyone who wants to bring us his own creation to add to the collection is welcome.” Now that the Museum building has been acquired it’s just a question of finding funding for its restoration, which should be completed next spring.
Mantinades samples
Mantinades About Crete
I’m glad to be Cretan, my word I do keep.
With mantinades I sing, with mantinades I weep.

In Crete all men are brave without fears
And mantinades express both laughter and tears.

I hold the earth and scatter it from Psiloritis’ seat
And cast it wide so all the world may become like Crete!

Oh God, please change the heavens, I humbly do entreat
And place the stars all in a row to make the shape of Crete.

Mantinades About Love
A yearning in my breast has bloomed, an ever-roaring fire,
And every beating of my heart increases my desire.

I count the stars in the sky but I’m missing one
Because I forgot to count you, my sun!

If I were a snowflake, my life would be bliss
I’d lie on your lips and melt in your kiss!

As long as the world lasts, love will live long
It’s a gift from God and nature’s song!

If only your heartbeat and breath I could be,
So your very existence depended on me.

Stand facing the sun, my light, so your beauty it may see,
Then fall from sheer jealousy and burn out in the sea!

Your eyes are the sea, your face is the sun
One smile of yours and Spring will come!

Our paths are now sundered but they’ll never be gone
As long as I live, the memories live on.

Death and separation: they’re only a word apart
For both provoke the same pain in a grieving heart.

Souvlaki, the best-known Greek food

The souvlaki is the best-known Greek food, a word that invokes Greece as much as the Acropolis, the Parthenon, retsina and ouzo. Anyone who’s visited Greece or who lives in a northern European or US city will have tasted the famous Greek souvlaki at least once. For those of you who haven’t been introduced to it yet, we’ll describe the souvlaki, present a few photos and give you an appetite for making your own at home.
What is souvlaki?
Souvlaki is a fast food served in “souvladzidika” (souvlaki shops), small eateries that also serve gyros and other grilled meat dishes. You can buy one to take away and eat on the street or sit in the shop and enjoy it at your leisure.
Souvlakia are small cubes of pork threaded on a small wooden skewer (the “souvla”), also known as a “kalamaki”. The word “kalamaki” applies equally to the souvlaki itself.
Ordering at the souvlaki shop

* If you ask for “ena kalamaki parakalo” (one kalamaki please), you’ll get a mouth-watering souvlaki and a slice of bread.
* If you ask for “ena kalamaki me patates”, your souvlaki will be accompanied by chips.
* If you ask for “ena souvlaki pita”, you’ll get souvlaki meat (without the wooden skewer, of course) in pita bread like gyros pita, with yoghourt, tomato, onion and chips. This only applies in Crete, as in Athens you don’t get the chips.
* Of course you can pick the ingredients of your pita souvlaki, leaving out the onion or yoghourt, using mustard or ketchup instead, or whatever.
* If you’re a vegetarian don’t worry, just ask for a “patatopita”, a pita without the meat but with the yoghourt, tomato, onion and chips.
The history of souvlaki
Although the origins of the gyros are lost in the mists of time, there is no doubt about the souvlaki. The souvlaki first appeared in ancient Greece, as proved by a recipe from that time. The dish was called “kandaulos” and combined grilled meat, pita, cheese and dill (Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, 12, 516d).
Many centuries later we find references to street vendors selling souvlakia with pita in Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium.
The first souvlaki shops in Greece appeared in Livadia in 1951, selling souvlakia on a stick and gyros.
Today souvlaki is available in souvlaki shops and restaurants in every Greek town and city. You can order it as a takeaway and of course you’ll always find it sold at canteens at street markets, on the beach or by the side of the road. At every festival there’s at least one vendor filling the air with the delicious smell of char-grilled souvlaki.

Souvlaki types
Apart from the classic pork souvlaki, you can also try chicken or any other meat. One shop in Athens even serves ostrich souvlaki. All these variations were invented to provide a different taste, and also contain far less fat and cholesterol than pork.
In restaurants (but not souvlaki shops) the souvlaki is larger and threaded on a metal skewer. You can also order swordfish, prawn or vegetable souvlaki.
The traditional kebab is also cooked on a spit but it’s not called a souvlaki. It’s made of lamb or pork mince with spices and looks like a big elongated meat patty.

Swordfish souvlaki
* Buy swordfish steaks. Fresh is best, but frozen will do if you can’t get it.
* Marinate the swordfish in a little oil, lemon and rosemary for one to two hours. Chop into small cubes when ready.
* Slice some tomatoes and thread both tomatoes and swordfish cubes on souvlaki skewers.
* Add salt and pepper to taste.
* Grill the souvlakia.
* You can add a side salad or boiled rice.

Pork souvlaki
* Buy pork steak and chop it into small cubes. Marinate in olive oil, oregano, thyme and a little vinegar for 8-10 hours.
* Add salt and pepper to taste when ready and thread the pieces on souvlaki skewers. Be careful not to grill on too high a heat as the meat will dry out.
* You can also grill pita bread and add some tomato, onion and the cooked souvlaki meat, served with yoghourt, mustard or ketchup.
* Add you favourite salad for a full, healthy and easy meal.

Article by Yannis Samatas - All Rights Reserved.

The caves of Matala in southern Crete

Matala is a small village with many tourist facilities about 70 km south of Heraklion. The Minoan Palace of Festos is 7 km east of Matala and the harbour of Festos used to be at the nearby Komos in the Minoan period.
There is a nice sandy beach in Matala and it attracts a lot of visitors in the summer months.
Matala has become famous for the artificial caves, carved into the rocks, north of the coast. These caves were first inhabited during the prehistoric period. Tombs found in the caves date from Greek, Roman and Early Christian times.
During the 70's the caves were hosting an international hippie community. That was a cultural shock for the local community, which had met no tourists before the hippies arrived.
The caves of MatalaGreat musicians like Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell have been here for some time composing beautiful songs about the beauty of the bay of Matala..
Today the entrance to the caves of Matala is free but overnight stay is not allowed. The terrain is rather rough, so avoid slippery shoes. Most of the caves are not deep, so a torchlight won't be necessary.

Laiki, the street market in Greece

The “Laiki” (“popular market”) is a large Greek street market. When the traditional weekly village market came to town it became a street market. Today no village, town or city in Greece is without its street market, held at least once a week. In the larger towns the market is set up in a different neighbourhood every day, to cater to the inhabitants without them having to travel far.
Market traders include both middlemen who sell products bought from farmers, and the farmers themselves, who sell their goods direct to increase their profits.
Behind the pretty picture of rows of stalls with goods neatly set out lie many hours of effort, starting long before the first customers reach the market. Traders and farmers set out in the early hours of the morning in order to reach the market area before sunrise and find a good spot for their stalls. They also need time to set out their wares in an attractive way.
The municipal cleaners have the hard task of cleaning up after the last customers have left and the stalls have been removed.

Every street market in Greece is a feast for the senses:
1. Sight. Your gaze will wander from stall to stall, enjoying the rainbow of colours from fresh fruit and veg to multicoloured cloth and carpets.
2. Hearing. Deep, melodious voices with village or Gypsy accents, joking and teasing, are raised in a huge hubbub as traders cry their wares and proclaim their final offers.
3. Taste. You can try before you buy. The traders themselves encourage you to try their fruit, to prove it’s the best in the market.
4. Smell. The mouth-watering smell of souvlakia grilling in the catering vans mingles with the fake Yves Saint Laurent and Dolce & Gabanna perfumes.
5. Touch. Your hands will stroke soft textiles, embroidered tablecloths and runners of the kind you’ll see in every Greek house decorating the kitchen table, the television, the DVD and even the washing machine.

Street market quality
Food. Many Greeks prefer to buy their fruit and vegetables from the street market because there’s more choice than at a neighbourhood grocer’s or a supermarket, and the goods are usually fresher and cheaper. Of course there’s no actual rule; sometimes the opposite may be true. But there’s certainly greater variety and lots of people enjoy a bit of bargaining, as they feel they’ve gained a few euros from the weekly shop.
If you’re not sure of the flavour of the fruit you want to buy, ask the trader for a bit to try if he hasn’t already suggested it himself. He’ll gladly offer you a tangerine or a slice of melon or watermelon, in an attempt to prove his fruit is better than that of the stall next door, even if it’s run by his best friend or a relative. At that moment both are traders and the sale is all.
Herbs. In the street market you’ll find the famous Cretan dittany, chamomile, spearmint, sage, oregano and every other kind of herb packaged in clear plastic bags. Usually the sellers have gathered the herbs in the mountains and packaged them themselves. They can tell you how to use each one. Be aware, however, that some herbs such as dittany are cultivated, so what you’re getting isn’t the wild mountain type that’s very hard to gather.
Clothing. The street market is also full of clothes for sale. Theseare usually cheap and cheerful tracksuits, tops and pyjamas, and more rarely suits and better-quality dresses. They’re cheaper than in the shops shoes in laiki greek street marketbecause the traders don’t have high rents and staff costs to cover. So you can find great clothes in the market if you’re prepared to fight your way to the stalls and sort through the assortment on offer along with everyone else.
Remember that if you want to try something on, you can usually ask the trader to let you use the van parked behind the stall.
Shoes. You can also find shoes and slippers here, often identical to those sold in the shops. Look carefully and if you can’t find your size now, better luck next time.
Textiles and embroidery. If you find the perfect curtain material, be careful. In some cases unscrupulous traders have been known to use their own shorter wooden tape measures, stealing a few inches in order to pocket a few extra euros. The solution is simple: bring your own tape measure and insist on measuring the cloth yourself.
As for embroidered goods, today China makes whatever the market demands, so why not Greek-style traditional embroidered tablecloths? Of course one shouldn’t generalise, and I wouldn’t want to wrong any honest tradesmen who may truly have bought them from village gypsies selling carpets in laiki street market in greecewomen wanting to supplement their family income with their needlework. Just be wary about anything that looks like the bargain of the century.
Perfumes. Don’t get too excited at the Christian Dior, Armani or Dolce Vita labels. They’re just cheap fakes which you can buy as a present for your wonderful girlfriend, whom you missed so much on your dull and boring holiday in the sun.
Carpets. Many people are dubious about the quality of the carpets sold in the street market. It’s hard to be definite on the subject. The truth is that they generally look just like the ones in the shops, at a temptingly cheaper price which can be driven even lower by a bit of hard bargaining.
Pedlars. In a street market, outside a supermarket or even in the town centre, you may be approached by a street pedlar who sidles up to offer you watches, leather goods, video cameras or other expensive items at rock-bottom prices. It’s usually a real steal, so be very careful if you don’t want to regret it later.