Tag Archives: Crete

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!

The Vouves Olive Tree

Hidden away among the olive plantations in western Crete is the little village of Vouves. There isn’t  a great deal in Vouves, just a Kafenion, and a cluster of houses drawn in around a central square.  In the middle of that square, however, is one of the world’s oldest olive trees.

The Vouves Olive Tree
The Vouves Olive Tree

Opinion varies on the actual age of the Vouves olive tree. Scientists from the University of Crete estimate that it is 4000 years old, while arborists, using ring bark analysis, put it at 2000.

Whatever its years, age has not wearied or diminished the Vouves olive. It stands firm, strong and proud at the heart of the village. Its gnarled trunk measures a massive 12.5 metres and its leaves are thick and lush.  Most incredibly, though, it still produces olives.

The Cave of St John, the Hermit

From a rugged hillside in Western Crete, the Cave of St John the hermit looks out over endless olive plantations to the sea.

Even without its icons, its altar, its lingering perfume of incense and beeswax candles and the saintly presence of the old priest in his sandals and coarse brown robe, it has the unmistakable feel of a holy place. There’s something about it that compels the visitor to hush and be still.  Even when the famous “Little fun Train” chugs in and unloads a rowdy troop of tourists, a sense of peace prevails.

The Cave of St John the hermit
The Cave of St John the hermit


The cave has always been a place of prayer and refuge, where the ancient gods were worshipped and where pilgrims were sheltered and restored.

After they were converted to Christianity, the faithful of the region gathered in the cave for mass. In the 16th century, a hermit named John  and his followers, known as the 98 Fathers of Crete, moved into the cave. They built a church and a monastery which offered a place of prayer, refuge and healing. It was Saint John who uncovered the miraculous spring which trickles from a rock near the cave and which, over the centuries has effected countless cures.

Every year, holy water from the spring is distributed to thousands of Christians on the Festival of Saint John the Hermit in October and on Christmas Eve.

Daily masses are held in the small church of Saint Spyridon, in the north eastern corner of the cave. Special celebrations take place on  the Feast of Saint Spyridon in July  and at Christmas.

Today, at the Cave of Saint John the Hermit, a reconstructed monastery offers spiritual sanctuary to modern pilgrims, welcoming “free of charge any goodwilling man … who would want to pray, confess, meditate, rest and re-baptise to the teachings of Orthodox Christianity” (Brochure of the Holy Metropolis of Kisamou and Selimou)

There are daily masses in the small church of Saint Spyridon, in the north eastern corner of the cave. Special celebrations take place on  the Feast of Saint Spyridon in July  and at Christmas.



In the hills of Crete

If grand hotels, restaurants, bars, discos, souvenir shops, traffic and sunseekers have colonised the coastline of Crete from Chania to lands end, in the hills, the villages remain untouched by any of the trappings of modern tourism and life is simple and peaceful.

Selling Olive Oil from the back of a truck in Crete
Selling Olive Oil from the back of a truck in Crete

The perfect way to explore the Cretan hinterland is on the little train. It chugs and grinds slowly but steadily up the steep, winding, narrow and dusty roads through the olive groves, past humble stone farm houses, beehives, tiny family churches and graveyards.

The little train seems ungoverned by any timetable, or by any schedule of stops. It pulls up at house by the roadside and a small boy brings quartered oranges for the passengers to try. It pulls in again at a track where a farmer sells olive oil from a truck. It stops at a village high in the hills and we buy fresh orange juice at the Kafeneon. On a back wall hangs a photo of a soldier. One the many young men, the sons, the brothers, husbands and fathers who went away to fight on the mainland leaving old men, women and children to defend Crete against the German invasion in 1941. Every house on the island has a photo like this and a story to go with it.

We wind back down another hillside on another road fringed by olives and oranges. It was down these roads that villagers, old men, women and even children marched, armed with ancient weapons, sticks, bats and even kitchen knives to defend their homeland. It was up these roads, a few short weeks later, that the Allied forces fled in retreat. It was up these roads that the Nazis raced in pursuit.

There is no trace now of the ravages and the debris that disfigured this landscape in the aftermath of the World War II. Orange groves and olives roll down the valleys and wrap around the villages. The countryside is beautiful, harmonious, perfect. But still, the Battle of Crete and remains clear in the collective memory of this country. It will never be forgotten.

Next post; The War Graves of Crete

The Galini Seaview Hotel, Aghia Marina, Crete

The Galini Sea View is one of a number of large, modern hotels which have invaded the landscape around Aghia Marina.

The Galini Seaview Hotel
The Galini Seaview Hotel

In manner vaguely reminiscent of Club Med, it offers every possible enticement to enjoy Crete from within its pale yellow stone walls.

There’s no need to leave the Galini for anything really.

The Grand Blue buffet restaurant offers cuisine from all over the world for breakfast, lunch and dinner and just in case you feel that since you’re in Crete you should really do as the Cretans do, there’s a dedicated, traditional local section

There are two bars, one in the lobby (ideal for quiet people watching) and a poolside establishment, with a laidback daytime atmosphere and lots of lively and involving evening activities, like quiz contests.

There is a shop, with great souvenirs and all necessities, a library with books in a variety of language and a business centre (in case you can’t let go of it al)l.

There is a gym, of course, and two pools – one indoor and one outdoor. The outdoor pool is surrounded bya  lawn covered in deckchairs which never seem to be vacant, at least not in daylight hours. A group of enthusiastic young animateurs from Eastern Europe rouse the occupants at regular intervals for aquatic activities but they never fully vacate. There’s always some mark of ownership left behind!

If you do feel like a dip in the sea, it’s a short stroll down the hill, across the road and down an alley past the Galini Beachside hotel. This Galini is an older, smaller, humbler Galini but it has a pool, a restaurant and a bar and moreover, it has a charm that its big sister up on the hill does not. Besides, it’s closer to the sea. Out in front on the sand, dozens of deck-chairs and sun umbrellas are lined up, but like those at the pool, these are fully occupied in daylight hours. Luckily, just nearby, an enterprising gentleman has his own deckchair domain, (albeit without umbrellas, but then who comes to Crete for the shade?) and for the cost of a couple of euros you can recline from sunrise to sunset and beyond.

Our seven days at the Galini were really most enjoyable. I took full advantage of the Cretan section of the buffet at the Grand Blue. I didn’t swim in the pool or darken the doors of the gym, but the hike down and up the hill the long swims in the Aegean were workout enough. I didn’t once stretch out on the Galini’s deckchairs, either pool or beach side, nor did I take shelter under its umbrellas, but I benefitted fully from the Cretan sun and added a few euros to local small business. We dipped into a quiz night (but were defeated by a family of Brits) and enjoyed a night of Cretan dancing with the animateurs. I loved our cool, airy comfortable room with its sumptuous bathroom and its balcony with a glimpse of the sea.

All in all the Galini was a good base from which to explore and discover Crete.


Crete, a bad beginning

Our Cretan holiday began with the classic traveller’s catastrophe – a missed flight. The 06.00 time printed so clearly on our tickets, meant six a.m. not six p.m. If it had meant 6.p.m., our tickets would have said 18.00. Of course, we knew that. We were shocked, surprised and embarrassed that we had made such stupid and basic mistake. After all we’d spent years now racing around the world with never a slip. We wasted several hours shaking our heads and blaming each other.  (YOU should have realised, YOU should have checked, WHO had the tickets? WHO could have asked for them? – If you’ve ever missed a plane for this reason, you probably know the lines)

In the hills of Crete
In the hills of Crete

The situation worsened when finally we rang the airline. There was no plane to Chania that day or the next – our week long Cretan escape was disappearing by the day. But wait, there was plane to Heraklion the next morning at 06.00. Never mind that Heraklion was several hundred miles from the resort at Agia Marina where our room with the balcony and the sea views awaited us, it was in Crete and tomorrow evening we could be there. We’d already won back a day. We were packed, ready and good to go. Things were looking up.

After misinterpreting our tickets and missing our flight to Chania the day before, we were leaving nothing to chance. Before the crack of dawn, we were at Gatwick airport waiting for next flight into Crete – destination, Heraklion.

Our fellow travellers were a team of lads heading off on a boys’ own drinking adventure and a team of lasses (distinguishable by lurid pink t-shirts emblazoned with ‘Nikis Hens night”), heading off on a girls’ own pre-wedding drinking adventure. Both parties were already armed with vessels of booze of various sorts and seemed to be having a jolly old time.

On the flight, the lasses grew louder and the lads grew quieter.  I wondered, not without a tinge of disquiet, if we were all headed for the same destination.

By the time the plane began to spiral down towards Heraklion, I was the only one awake and I contemplated its faded stones in luxurious silence.

There was no bus bound for Chania, at least not any time soon, and having already lost a day of our holiday we were reluctant to let go of another. We took a taxi.

Georgios, our driver seemed completely comfortable, if not downright pleased, with the prospect of the long trip to Chania and back. First we climbed, away from the coast, between steep rocky cliffs sparsely dotted with pines and shrubs and I thought of the World War II New Zealand soldiers, my father among them, on the run in this alien landscape. The road rose sharply and steadily to the summit and then sloped gently back down to the coast.

We passed slowly through straggling seaside settlements, remnants of villages with tiny churches and low stone cottages, punctuated all too often by looming modern resorts and hotels. On roadside signposts, I began to recognise names from old childhood stories – Galatos and Maleme.

“Agia Marina!” announced Georgios suddenly. So here we were, at last, a day late, but nonetheless about to begin our Cretan adventure.