Vibrant Culture: Getting to know the Cretans

They say the fastest way to learn Spanish is to drive down to Mexico. They tell you that you never really know a person until you live with them. And they claim that you’ll learn so much more about yourself after you purchase your first plane ticket to a foreign country.

I think I’ve conquered all three (referring to Greece, of course).

Just the thought of learning another language is mind-boggling. And knowing you’re going to have to live with and adapt to another culture can be a hurdle. But once you buy that plane ticket to a world unknown, your journey will become your greatest, most prized adventure.

Sure, it’s not easy – especially when you don’t speak the native tongue. But I will say one thing: If you ever get the opportunity to immerse yourself into another culture, DO IT! Don’t hesitate and hold back because you’ll miss your family, friends and french fries. Don’t get me wrong, moving away is tough and, depending on the circumstances, can be very hard – emotionally.

But know that there are way better french fries on the other side of the world, and – bottom line – it could potentially be the greatest thing you will ever do for yourself.

So, let’s get to know the Cretans together, since I already used up that plane ticket and did the hard work for ya.

fishing man in chania
Cretan man fishing in Chania

When you arrive in Crete, the islanders are pretty clear about one thing:

Crete is a world apart from the rest of Greece and the Greek Islands.

And I’m not referring to actual distance. Yes, the Cretans are Greek. However, the islanders strictly refer to themselves as Cretans. All in all, there is something about the Cretans that set them apart from the rest of Greece, and you notice it in their food, culture, traditions and lifestyle.

Cretan man with freddo and counting beads
Cretan man drinking a freddo and counting traditional beads

The Cretans are (obviously) islanders. They live by the world-famous “Mediterranean Diet”, drink raki (more-so than the stereotypical Ouzo) and they have history dating back beyond the Minoans.

It is believed that Crete is the birthplace of Zeus, as well as the stunning island where Cleopatra vacationed.

Crete has a very detailed and extensive history of many different civilizations: (in order) the Mycenaeans (c. 3000 B.C.E.) the Minoans, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Venetians, then the Ottoman Empire and finally the union with Greece in 1989 A.D.

However, before Crete could recover, the Germans invaded for 4 years during WWII. During this time, two very famous battles: the Battle of Crete and Oxi Day occurred. Oxi Day (aka “no” and pronounced “Ohi”) arose when Greece said Oxi to Italy, declining Italian forces to occupy the island during WWII; thus, resulting a battle between Crete and Italy. Oxi Day is now famously celebrated in Greece on October 28th.

After WWII, Crete stayed united with Greece and was free once again. The island is in pretty much the same shape today as it was long ago: ancient ruins are littered all over the island and WWII ruins are still standing.

WWII ruins in Elafonissi, Greece
WWII ruins in Elafonissi  – Click to view more breathtaking photos of Elafonissi!

With Crete inhabiting Europe’s very first advanced civilization (Minoan civilization, c. 2700-1420 B.C.), it’s obvious that this Greek Island breathes a very rich and vibrant history.

Dan and I met Christos, a native-born Cretan.

Christos was the supervisor of the moving company that unpacked all of our belongings into our new home. He is also the owner of a Greek coffee shop that’s only 15 minutes away from our house… and if you don’t already know: I drink copious amounts of coffee, including having a very special relationship with the Cafe Latte. So I of course wanted to try out his coffee shop.

About a week after the last box was unpacked, Dan and I finally had time for ourselves to hit up Christos’ coffee shop. Once we seated ourselves, he immediately recognized us, sat down at our table and signaled the barista.

jacobs coffee

“Tha ithela ena cafe latte, parakalo.”

(I would like one cafe latte, please), I asked.

Christos' coffee shop

We ate, talked and drank delicious coffee. Well, Dan had a beer… and of course Christos brought out raki.

jacobs coffee and raki with Christos
Jacobs coffee and homemade organic raki with Christos

Christos was telling us about how he was born and raised on Crete, about their way of life here, the detailed history of the island dating back to the Minoans and about his organic farm.

He excused himself from the table and immediately came back with a clear plastic coke bottle in his hand, full of clear liquid, and a huge smile. He said that he makes his own organic raki from the leftover grapes after making his own organic wine… and that we could have a bottle on the house.

organic raki in coke bottle

Legit? Yup! Greek moonshine couldn’t have tasted any better!

An hour had passed and we were about to leave when Christos invited us to join him, his family and friends to visit Tavernas around the island on any Sunday we wanted, since they go every week after church. I’ve been told it’s very rare to get invited out, especially on a Sunday (since Sunday is their worship day). So we of course accepted his offer!

The following Sunday, I called Christos up and asked if we could join whatever they were doing that day. He was happy we took up his offer and asked us to meet him in a wild park next to a lake… somewhere inland of the island.

You think it’s hard getting directions by a man over the phone? Well try getting directions by a man over the phone, in Greeklish (Greek mixed with English) and with sub par phone service!

This is what it sounded like:

“Go to the national road past Souda. Near my coffee shop. Make right. Go past a hospital – you will see it on your left. In about ten minutes you take the first exit. Make right, then left. Go towards village of Agia in about 1500 meters. You will see a church and then drive down that road. Then once you see a round [something? Had no idea what he said there due to his accent and the crappy phone service] with water coming out of it, stop and call me.”

In Agia, Crete

Thank goodness for my amazing navigational skills: we only had one detour, two flip-a-B’s and made it in one piece! Once we arrived in Agia, Christos introduced us to his two children, wife and their friends. It was so gorgeous and peaceful at the park.

In Agia, Crete

agia lake
Agia Lake

We took a walk around the park to the Lake and then we were fed delicious homemade Greek food. Dan and I sat listening to Greek vs. English conversations, but we didn’t feel like outsiders.

homemade dakos
Homemade Dakos and Moussaka
cretan man in park
Cretan man counting traditional beads in Agia

His wife (I can’t for the life of me remember how to pronounce her name, let alone try to spell it!) walked me through the fields to pick wild Fennel, Chamomile and two kinds of Lavender – while their kids played ‘football’ (i.e. Soccer). It was a beautiful moment I will never forget.

girls picking wild Cretan herbs
Picking wild organic Cretan herbs

She showed me the difference between at least 20 different wild organic herbs and what the Cretans use them for. Most looked like basic weeds to the untrained eye; however, they’re definitely not weeds and are widely used in Crete for cooking, drinking, medicinal, therapeutic and aromatic purposes.

picking wild herbs
Showing the difference between different wild organic herbs

It is known that the Cretans can identify over 2000 different types of indigenous wild organic herbs that grow all over Crete. The woman (usually) go into the mountains and grab bunches of herbs, bring them home, and then sort them out on the table.

picking through wild herbs at the farmers market
Picking through wild organic herbs at the farmers market in Chania

She showed me the difference of two types of wild lavender and two types of wild white flowers, one being Chamomile! I was warned, though, to not go picking wild herbs alone – because there are some that are extremely poisonous and deadly.

wild lavendar
Wild Organic lavender
Wild Organic Chamomile
little girl and her chamomile
Little girl and her Chamomile
wild chamomile
Patches of wild organic chamomile
wild cretan herbs: Lavender and Fennel
Wild and Organic Cretan Herbs: two types of Lavender and Fennel

As the afternoon was settling around us, Christos asked us to visit their home one day to put Dan to work on his farm, while I cook dinner in the kitchen with his wife. He was telling us how they make their own organic raki, organic wine, and different types of organic cheese… they have their own livestock, too! I can’t wait for another outing with Christos and his family – and to learn more about their culture and traditions!

cretan wild park

Join me as I learn more about this vibrant culture!

Click on the pictures below to learn more about the Cretans, and let’s share these first-hand experiences together – one blog post at a time!

(this list will be updated often!)

First impressions of crete
First Impressions of Crete
Dormition Day
Dormition Day: Greek Holiday Edition 
how traditional greek raki is made
How traditional Greek Raki is made