Exploring Crete provided multiple adventures — both on hiking trails and during visits to the small set of breweries that operate there. Crete is the largest Greek island with the most residents of any of them. It’s a little bigger than the U.S. state of Delaware and its 650 miles of coastline is about the same as the length of Highway 1 on the California coast. The waters to the north are called the Aegean Sea and to the south is the Mediterranean.
Crete has been inhabited since the Paleolithic age more than 130,000 years ago and was the center of Europe’s first advanced civilization, the Minoans, from 2700 to 1420 BC. The half-man, half-bull Minotaur is a mythical creature associated with that culture that is one of the iconic images seen throughout travels in Crete. A whole bunch of different cultures followed the Minoans including the ancient Greek, Romans, Byzantines, Andalusian Arabs, Venetians, and the Ottomans. Crete achieved independence from the Ottomans in the late 1800’s and has been a part of Greece since 1913. It is very much a Greek place while at the same time it has its own unique local culture formed from all these different influences.
The Cretan landscape is varied — I envisioned finding deep blue seas along coastal beaches and craggy, rocky mountains inland and I wasn’t disappointed. I was surprised by the scale of the mountains though and that they combined verdant forests with dry, rocky lands. The high mountain range crossing from west to east is the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) they climb more than 8000 feet (2450 m) from the sea and become snow-capped in winter. The climate near the sea is Mediterranean in character and can get pretty hot in the summers.
Crete has a rich mythology mostly connected with the ancient Greek Gods but also connected with the Minoan civilization. Zeus figures prominently as the papa of King Minos. Icarus, Daedalus, the Minotaur, Theseus, and Ariadne are other legendary figures connected to the Cretan story.
Cretans are also known for family and clan vendettas which persist on the island to date. We heard a number of hair-raising stories but were never quite sure whether our legs were being pulled.
Nonetheless, we found the people we interacted with to be universally friendly and welcoming. While you can’t rely on finding an English speaker everywhere in Crete, many people do speak English and other languages in addition to Greek. Getting around Crete (between towns and cities) by public bus is reasonably easy with a bit of planning. Bus routes and timetables can be found on the KTEL website. We hired a car and driver for rural excursions to breweries and to a wine tasting room. We found Crete to be a calm and casual place where life seemed to proceed at a very comfortable pace.
Cretan Food & Drink
The big three culinary adventures on Crete are said to be olive oil, cheese, and wine. Given my nature, I added beer into the mix although that is definitely an outlier in terms of conventional wisdom. I’ll write about my visits to Cretan breweries in a separate article in this series, but there is a lot to say about other food and drink on the island.
Crete has about 60 olive trees per inhabitant and I was told that a family of four will easily use a liter a day if not more. For comparison, the average olive oil consumption by a German or an American is about a half liter per person annually. In Crete, it’s 25 liters per person, per year. The extensive sheep and goat herds on the island are the source for excellent cheeses. I particularly liked Graviera, a hard cheese from goat or sheep milk that could be flavored in a variety of ways and Mizithra, a fresh cheese made of ewe’s milk.
Most Cretan wine is homemade and rarely bottled, and every restaurant we visited had a house wine served in a small pitcher for an incredibly inexpensive price. This kind of wine is drawn from barrels and never sees a bottle. Cheap wine in Crete doesn’t mean “bad”! However, many fine wines are also produced and bottled in Crete and viniculture is an interesting exploration — more on that in a minute.
Other food and drink notes: Another frequently encountered food is Paximadi (also called rusk), a hard dry bread (it is baked, cut in slices and baked again) used like crackers in a variety of dishes and in snacks. Herbs play a big role in Cretan cuisine – especially thyme, sage, oregano, and marjoram. Roast meats, often lamb, pork, or goat and fish prepared in a variety of ways provide the protein. A Cretan Salad is a treat and we have taken to making our own variation of this dish since our return home. I read somewhere that Cretans eat the largest quantities of fruit and vegetables in the Western world. And don’t forget the Raki! (more on that in a minute)
Gyros was our standby street food when we were looking for a quick, can’t miss meal. Gyros consists of small pieces of meat (pork, lamb or chicken), stacked tightly and roasted on a vertical rotisserie. As street food, it is served wrapped in pita bread and is topped with Tzatziki, a sauce made from strained yogurt mixed with cucumbers, garlic, salt, herbs, and (surprise surprise) olive oil.
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Wines, Vines, Olives, and Cheese
As in many regions of Greece, vineyards and olive groves cover many hillsides. We were fortunate to visit the Mesarmi tasting room in the village of Houdetsi for an orientation to Cretan wine, olive, and cheese culture. Our host and teacher was the owner of Mesarmi, Stella Vassilaki. Stella is an oenologist and winemaker who studied and worked in Greece, France, Scotland, Germany, and Oregon before returning to her home village and family vineyards. She created Mesarmi as a place dedicated to the tasting of the 3 main agricultural products of Crete, wine, olive oil & cheese.
We tasted five wines accompanied by cheeses, bread, and olive oil before driving to a vineyard to check out the vines, The wines covered a range from white to red and dryer to sweet and I found them all to be quite enjoyable.
Evidence of viticulture on the island reaches back to the Minoan civilization circa 5000 BC – ancient wine presses have been found in sites across Crete, and paintings in Minoan palaces denote grape-growing and winemaking. Crete’s most important wine period was arguably during the Middle Ages, when, under Venetian rule, Malvasia sweet wines were produced and shipped all over Europe. This trade died out under Ottoman rule beginning in the 15th Century and wine-growing was largely forgotten for several centuries.
Modern winemaking here dates to the 1970’s and there are now several appellations unique to Crete. Cretan white wines are made from Vilana and Athiri grapes while red wines are made from Liatiko grapes, sometimes blended with Mandilaria. While most Cretan wine is made from native grape varieties there is plenty of innovation taking place with grapes from other places and blending to create unique styles of Cretan wines. Stella is one of the innovators and is a passionate evangelist for the Cretan wine tradition.
Raki is a traditional Cretan fruit brandy typically distilled from the skins and seeds and stems and whatever else is left over after pressing grapes for wine. You can consider it Cretan moonshine I guess. It is a clear, clean tasting (usually) spirit drunk from shot glasses, with nothing added. There is typically no herbs or anything else added so it is different from other Greek liqueurs like ouzo.
Raki is usually home produced or produced by a limited number of licensees in a community and is distributed in bulk. I was told that when you see formally bottled raki that it “isn’t the good stuff” but I never needed to find out. I usually wouldn’t partake in this kind of drink, but it came for free at the end of every meal I ate whether I asked for it or not, so …. For the same reason, I have little idea of what it costs other than seeing tanks of it in shops that you could fill plastic water bottles from — you wouldn’t want to get it confused with your water though.
After every meal, you are typically offered a decanter with several shots of raki along with fruit and/or a small dessert on the house. No need to order more dessert although I admit to visiting more than a few enticing gelato stalls later in the evenings.
Heraklion is the largest city on the island with a population of about 175,000. It is built around an old Venetian harbor with a fortress and there is a pleasant walk out onto the breakwater. For history buffs, there is a plethora of sites and attractions. There is also a pleasant pedestrian zone in the old town area.
Chania is the second city of Crete with just over 100,000 residents. We flew in and out of Chania although many people choose the airport at Heraklion. Like Heraklion, there is an old town area on the old Venetian harbor as well as a surrounding modern city. which is the larger one. For whatever reason, I found Chania to be the more attractive and accessible of the urban areas we visited on Crete.
Rethymno is a smaller city on the coast between Heraklion and Chania that also features an old town center situated around its Venetian-era harbor. It is very reminiscent of the other two cities but on a smaller scale.
I want to thank Chryssa Mavrokosta, a partner in Petassos, a local sustainable tourism agency for her excellent help with working with me on an itinerary and lining up services from the agency’s partners across the island. Our hiking itinerary was a modified version of a self-guided hiking itinerary offered by Petassos and Chryssa took on establishing contacts with local breweries and lining up her brother Yiannis to drive us for excursions to the breweries and into the countryside. I highly recommend the services of this agency to any visitor to Crete.