Crete – an island of endless surprises

Words and photography by Francesca Muir

Caiques on Lake Voulesmeni, Agios Nikolaos, eastern Crete

When you sail into Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, you can smell her sweet perfume miles out to sea. The heady scent of wild oregano, thyme, and sage, is warm and peppery and it becomes intoxicating as you eventually set foot on this ancient land. Thanks to the island’s highly fertile soil, these and some 500 other aromatic plants and herbs grow profusely along with some of Greece’s best organic fruit, vegetables, and olives.

I’m taking a small group on a two-week culinary journey across Crete, immersing ourselves in the local culture and people. We arrive by plane from Athens at Heraklion, the capital, and are met by our bus driver, Yiannis (John). It’s summer; the sun is high and hot, and the scent of oregano is particularly strong thanks to the wild landscape that surrounds the airport.
We journey east for about 40 minutes past hotels and whitewashed houses that butt up against azure seas and white beaches. One the other side of the road, tiny mountain villages with their signature churches, hide among olive groves.

The crystal clear waters of Mirabello Bay, eastern Crete

We pass through the Dikti Mountain range and arrive at Agios Nikolaos – once a sleepy fishing village until it was ‘discovered’ by BBC TV as the location for their popular series, The Lotus Eaters, in the early 1970s, and then, Who Pays the Ferryman? five years later. Today it’s a thriving coastal town surrounded by the waters of Mirabellou Bay. Here we stay for a week to relax, unwind, explore, and take in the local daily life. Our schedules are loose and fluid, and yet we do something different and unique every day.
There’s always time for an early morning swim or walk before a hearty Cretan breakfast, guaranteed to well and truly sustain us. Around midday, it’s time for a coffee and local spanakopita or thiropita (spinach or cheese pie).
For a Cretan, food is an important part of life. It’s an event and a way of socialising and main meals are generally eaten at lunchtime with family, friends, and even strangers. If lunch is the main meal of the day, it’s long and languid and usually around 2pm in the afternoon. A veritable feast of Cretan speciality dishes that seem to keep coming and coming and coming, including the taverna’s own local wine known as hima. Made without preservatives or additives, it’s very quaffable without any side effects. We always eat al fresco, sometimes under the shade of ancient plane trees, other times right at the water’s edge.

Fresh seafood is an integral part of the Cretan Diet

Dinners are late and if we’ve had a large lunch, consist of mezzes (a selection of small appetizers) at a small family-run eatery. If dinner is the main meal of the day, it’s a feast of local Cretan meat and fish dishes, traditionally cooked in a clay oven together with the most luscious salads, vegetable dishes, and always potatoes. Who knew the humble potato could taste so good? So much so, it becomes a staple at every meal – patates!
Crete is self-sufficient thanks to its extremely fertile plains, so everything is grown locally with love, and cooked with passion. We are struck by the generosity of the Cretan people, which is unlike anything we’ve encountered before. Meals end with complimentary local cakes or plates of fresh fruit and a carafe of raki or tsikoudia (aka firewater) – a strong spirit made from grape skins by the owner. It’s de rigueur at every table, no matter how humble and it’s rude not to participate in at least one
small glass. It’s not for everyone, however it does grow on you and seems to be the perfect end to an excellent meal.
This generosity of spirit and sense of community is inherent in all
Cretans (and Greeks the world over for that matter) and it even has a
Greek name – philoxenia – from the words philos, meaning friend and
xenos, meaning stranger or foreigner.

Local Cretan vinegar and olive oil – a staple with every meal

Our first highlight for the week is taking a caique – a traditional fishing boat – across to the island of Spinalonga; which once held the last leper colony in Europe. We go early to avoid the crowds and heat and end with a sumptuous seafood lunch back on the mainland at the tiny fishing village of Plaka.
Next, we spend a day wandering the narrow streets of one of the oldest villages on Crete; Kritsa, nestled on a rocky hillside. Despite the advent of tourism, life here continues as it has for centuries and it’s home to some of the island’s stunning traditional weavings, lacework, pottery, and leather products.
A visit to what appears to be an unassuming little building turns out to be a wonderful step back in time when we visit the Cretan Olive Farm. Small, compact, and sitting at the water’s edge, it includes a fascinating insight into the tradition and history of olive oil production, cheese making with a local shepherd and then a cooking lesson, where we learn to make local Cretan pasta. The piece de resistance is the tasting room where local produce can be savoured and purchased. Rakomelo – raki with local honey, is hugely popular.

Sunrise at the Old Port of Chania, western Crete

Other days are filled visiting the local farmers’ market; where gypsies also peddle their home wares and apparel, a Minoan feast slow cooked around an open hearth, and BioAroma; where natural cosmetics good enough to eat, are made using the island’s organic herbs, distilled onsite.
Then, it’s a bus trip west to Chania, travelling via Heraklion where we stop to visit the Minoan Palace of Knossos and the Knossos Museum. Our guide, George, is a source of inspiration with his knowledge and anecdotes about the Minoans and the history of the island.
Chania is another experience altogether. Based in the Old Port, we stay in a 14th century Venetian building with views of a Turkish mosque across the Venetian Harbour. An extraordinary meld of Venetian, Turkish, traditional and modern architecture punctuated by an Egyptian lighthouse at the entrance to the port. Chania, is a visual testament to the island’s checkered history of invaders.
We spend hours traversing the little alleyways and lanes; exploring museums, shops, churches, and the old market. We eat away from the waterfront, in little unassuming tavernas and eateries that produce the most sensational dishes, all specialities to the local area.
The highlight of this side of the island is a short journey into the mountains to participate in a Cretan cooking class, held in an old disused olive press. With minimal equipment, including two gas burners and an oven that looks more like a microwave, we prepare and cook eight local dishes and learn some of the many secrets of the Cretan Diet, that lies at the heart of the Mediterranean Diet.

Francesca Muir, tour concierge, travel writer and photographer

The produce is simple, fresh, local, and picked that morning. And as we sit down to enjoy the feast, some of our group declare they have learnt more in four hours, than they had in a lifetime of cooking at home.
Armed with local herbs and spices, a Cretan Diet cookbook, and a newfound love of simple, fresh recipes; Crete is declared a winning destination by all. Full of surprises and a place that you will forever find yourself wanting to return to.

A footnote from Francesca:
I still have three places available on my tour this year from 6-19 September 2019. I also have two Crete – An Aegean Odyssey tours planned for next year: 5-18 June 2020 and 4-17 September 2020.
If you have a group of 8 people who want to go to Crete at another time, please contact me to discuss further.
For further information and a brochure please go to my website:
www.francescamuir.com/tours/