Famous as the most hospitable of all Greeks, the Cretans take great pride in the quality of their friendships. Generosity and loyalty are the very roots of life on Crete. It is said that a Cretan will do anything for a friend, and a friendship made in Crete is a friendship for life.
Such an attitude guarantees a warm welcome. It is almost a matter of honour that a visitor should receive the best possible service – and honour is central to the Cretan identity.
The main towns along the north-western coast (Chania and Rethymnon) have established a way of life that caters for the tourists’ interests without damaging the island’s natural rhythms. Shops may stay open till 11.00 pm along the maze of picturesque lanes, restaurants around the harbours may be busy long into the night, but the sun still compels people to doze and dawdle in the heat of the afternoon, in the same way as the setting sun requires the locals to promenade (the “volta”) along the waterfront. Unchanging, too, is the enjoyment of your leisurely evening meal, as countless stars fill the night sky and the sea laps against the beach.
Travel further south, to Paleochora, and it feels as if you are entering a world that time itself has forgotten. Even Chania feels a million miles away. Here is a place to relax and forget, where roads come to an end and all that remains is the sea. Easy-going and convivial, the southern coast has a special appeal for the laid-back of all ages.
The coastal areas may have become familiar with tourists and have adapted to our presence, but once you have ventured into the foothills and mountains you very quickly encounter the traditional Cretan lifestyle. Sitting in a café in the village square – probably in the shadow of an ancient church – will be a group of older moustached men, wearing black fringed bandanas on their heads, light woven shirts, black boots tucked into wide breeches, and the “meidanogileko”, the classic Cretan waistcoat. The inevitable glasses of raki complete the picture.
The Crete lifestyle has evolved over centuries, dominated by the island’s natural resources and its climate. The combination of mountains, water and sunshine make for an extremely fertile environment, and Crete has the longest growing season in the whole of Greece. Consequently there is an abundance of highest quality local produce – apricots, strawberries, figs, lemons, grapes, pistachios, olives, peppers, tomatoes, aubergines and all manner of herbs and pulses.
Add to that list all the different fish to be found in the sea, and it is no surprise that Cretans enjoy an exceptionally healthy diet. Fresh fruit and vegetables, alternating fish and meat, with liberal use of olive oil gained fame as “the Cretan Diet”, as experts tried to account for the unusual longevity of the island’s inhabitants in the 1960s. A plate of “mezedes” will give you a chance to taste the various delights that are available locally.
Within the family of Greek islands Crete may be the largest, yet there is something that feels separate and distinct about it. It may be Greek, but it is Cretan, too, and Crete has a history all of its own.
The Minoans lived here, nearly 5,000 years ago – the very first civilization in Europe – and evidence of their advanced culture can still be seen at sites like Phaestos and Knossos in the east, and Gortis and Tripiti in the west. Minoan civilization was destroyed around 1450 BC, probably a victim of the cataclysmic eruption on Santorini which has led to the myth of Atlantis, the Lost Continent. Ever since, due to its position in the Mediterranean Sea, the island has felt the influence of shifting empires: Roman, Arab, Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish. Each has left its own mark to a greater or lesser degree, as can be seen in the different styles of architecture and the delicious mix of foods.
Above all, this history of struggle against invasion has been central to the development of the Cretan national character: courageous, independent and proud. Cretans are deeply conscious of their heritage and the part they have played in even recent history – such as the island’s ferocious resistance against German paratroopers in 1941.
There is so much more to life on Crete than sunshine and sea.