A Taste of Traditional Life in Crete

Writer, translator and Slow Cyclist guide Joshua Barley is drawn to the traditional life of Crete. Here, he relives some of his favourite memories from recent journeys across the island.

One aspect of Crete that has always impressed me is its independence and self-reliance. While the island is a part of Greece, it has the feeling of its own country. Unlike other Greeks, most Cretans do not have the same anxiety about leaving their homeland to find work elsewhere. Its villages aren’t emptying in the same way that they are on the mainland. What keeps people together is a strong sense of identity and a shared culture.

Take the music, for example. Cretan music is unlike any other kind of Greek music, with its own specific instruments and styles of music that combine Italian, Middle Eastern and North African influences. There has recently been a resurgence in traditional music, and young people up and down the island are clamouring to learn traditional instruments. One of my favourite episodes of the last Slow Cyclist journey to Crete was when our musician friend Adonis (yes, Adonis) was demonstrating the Cretan lyra – a stringed, violin-like instrument played on the knee –  to our guests in a café, whereupon the café owner, who was also a priest (and an avowed communist) came out, handed out raki to everyone and started dancing and singing. 

Food and drink, naturally, are also crucial in bringing people together. Cretan restaurants are immensely popular throughout the whole of Greece. On our trip we enjoy some of the best home-made fare I have ever eaten: our hosts in the family-run Aravanes guesthouse make a traditional lamb dish called tsigariasto, with the meat so soft it is practically Turkish (I mean Greek) delight. In the very south of the island, in the enchanting Asterousia mountains, our godlike host Markos makes a fire and barbeques pieces of lamb affixed to a wire cage around it, in the traditional Cretan method called antikrysto.

We encounter the most uniquely authentic experience of all, however, at our accommodation in the village of Zaros. Here, our host Michalis has taken his old family farm and turned it into a sustainable, eco-touristic paradise. The house we stay in, built with his own hands, is stuffed full of old family heirlooms, including even his grandmother’s wedding dress. Moreover, it is entirely off-grid (with solar power providing electricity only for essential purposes). His idea, he tells me, was to recreate a house as it would have been a hundred years ago. He even uses the same style of huge clay olive jar that was used in Minoan times, 5000 years ago. One of the most special moments of the trip is when, having feasted around Michalis’ table, we return to our house for the night, full of wine and good cheer, surrounded by thousands of carob and olive trees, with no light visible but the stars above. There is something deeply restful about a house with no electric light, lit only by oil lamps. When we leave Zaros I always feel a pang of wistfulness, as if we are leaving behind a different era.

If you’d like to explore traditional life in Crete, cycling and walking across the island with The Slow Cyclist, find out more about our Cretan Heartlands journey or enquire now

A traditional village in Crete against a backdrop of mountains, visited on a Slow Cyclist journey

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