Nikos Kazantzakis, a great man of Crete

Beginning with Zeus, the supreme deity of the Greek Pantheon, and continuing down to the present day, Crete has given birth to a long line of greats. Nikos Kazantzkis, creator of the legendary Zorba the Greek, is one of them.

A village in Crete
A village in Crete

Born in 1884 in Heraklion, Kazantzakis grew up in the years when Turkey held sway in Crete. It was a time marked by intense revolutionary fever against the Ottoman oppressor, as well as fierce pride in all things Cretan.

Kazanzakis left Heraklion to study in Athens and then in Paris. As a student he developed an interest in philosophy, classical literature, religion and politics.  Later, the works of  Nietsche and Bergson  would profoundly influence his writing.  Christ, Buddha, Ulysses and Lenin were also great sources of inspiration in his work.

When he  finished his studies Kazantzakis  travelled widely and began to write. He  was a prolific writer and his works included poetry, plays, travel impressions and translations of Goethe, Dante and Homer.  It was his novels, however, that were to bring him world fame.

The most celebrated of Kazantzakis’ novels is Zorba the Greek. Zorba depicts life in Crete as it was in the early 20th century and through its title character, it shows the indomitable spirit, passion for life and grass-roots wisdom of the Cretan people of that time. A 1960s film, starring Anthony Quin, brought Zorba to the world, along with beautiful Greek music and a sane, simple message for a world growing rapidly crazier and more complex

Other novels by Nikos Kazantzakis include; The Last Temptation of Christ, El Greco, Captain Michaelis and The Greek Passion

A taste of Cretan Raki

No traveller to Crete can claim to have fully experienced the country without sampling a convivial shot of the national drink, tsipouro or tsikoudia, otherwise known as raki. Dubbed Cretan fire-water because of its swift, sometimes even dramatic effects, this potent liquor is distilled from wine-must, or the dregs of grapes which remain after the wine is made.

A Rakizio, or, Raki still,  on a farm near Vouves in Crete
A Rakizio, or, Raki still, on a farm near Vouves in Crete

Greek raki originated in a monastery in Macedonia in the fourteenth century. Gradually, the secrets of production and the delightful effects of the drink spread throughout Greece and across the Aegean Sea into Crete.

Many small villages in Crete still have their Rakizio, or distilleries, and the process of producing raki remains pretty the same as it was when the Macedonian monks passed it on. First of all, after the  grapes are harvested and processed, the must is collected in large tank and left in the full sun for four weeks. At the end of the month it is brought in to the Rakizio to be distilled. Distillation takes about three hours and the end product is a strong-flavoured clear liquid with an alcohol content of 40% or more.

Back home on the farm, the vintage is celebrated with a family feast. Needless to say, a great deal of new raki goes down in the celebration.

The very best of Cretan raki comes out of the village distilleries and it is said that good pure raki is hangover-free. However, novice drinkers are warned to take it slowly as the risk of throwing up or falling down is high. Furthermore, as it is impolite to refuse the offer of a re-fill, it is wise not to empty your glass too often!