The people of crete

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Sitia

Best vacations are made by the good company of friends, and not by the luxuries afforded by a place. Good friends, and the Cretan landscape is a combination guaranteed to create eternal memories. Any discussion of Crete, without mentioning its people would be incomplete, and while I cannot speak of the people as a whole, I can relay our experience which can serve as a point of reference for more generalized conclusions regarding hospitality of the inhabitants of Crete.

We traveled to Crete following Manolis, who had just built a beautiful house right outside Sitia, in Kato Episkopi.. He lives and works in Athens and every August he travels with his family to his home land to spend some time with his elderly parents and his brother Giannis who owns a house adjacent to Manolis' and works as a Policeman in Palekastro. We had booked an apartment nearby for two weeks, and the two brothers went out of their way to make certain that we experience how special a place is the island of Crete.

We followed Manolis and Anita who led our caravan from the port of Heraklion all the way to Sitia, where we arrived there about 8:30 AM. Our first stop was at his elderly parent's modest home in Piskokefalo and we all gathered in the tiny courtyard and I knew this was going to be a special vacation the moment Manolis said "let's have some raki to regain our strength". True, we were a bit dazed from the overnight trip on the ferry and from the almost three hour drive from Heraklion, but raki at 8:30? Within a few minutes Mrs. Paragios rested a small tray on our table with a half liter bottle of raki, enough shot glasses for everyone, and a plate full of succulent cucumber slices she just harvested from her garden.

Manolis was right. The raki worked miracles and within minutes we were as exuberant as ever and ready to conquer the whole island. It helped that in the next hour we consumed another liter of raki when we arrived at Giannis' home. Raki is a clear alcoholic drink that I think contains more alcohol than drink - or something like that - and it is made by just about everyone on the island. In fact, much of August in Crete is dedicated to harvesting the grapes and processing them to make enough white wine and raki to supply the family and friends for the whole year.

In the next couple of weeks we had a chance to have raki before lunch to "enhance our appetite", after lunch to "aid the digestion", in the afternoon to "fight the August heat", and of course at night when we sat around the table to socialize. In fact, it became a kind of a joke looking for off-the-wall reasons to have raki. The kind of raki Manolis and Giannis distill has a smooth taste, cool texture, and is light on the head. It is a tribute to its lightness that not once did we get drunk during our visit. While raki was always served when we visited friends, it was always a background issue. Cretans, like most Greeks love to get together to strengthen family bonds, to make new friends, to discuss soccer and politics, and for the children to immerse in play with their extended family.

The people of Crete spend every afternoon in the company of friends, and during our entire visit we spent our evenings in the Paragios yard. It seemed like every day there was a gathering of one sort or another. Very often, other relatives stopped by as a matter of habit to share a few words over some Greek coffee and a few cigarettes. Distant cousins from the village, relatives visiting from Athens, or friends from the town, all stopped by casually to say "yassou" and to spend a few hours together.

The legend of the Cretan hospitality was well justified in our eyes as we watched Giannis and Manolis, and their wives Despo and Anita -- who did most of the work cooking and cleaning afterwards -- making sure that everyone who set foot in their house was treated like royalty. During one afternoon when I was explaining to Giannis that this web site might be read by people who want to visit Sitia, his eyes lit-up and he exclaimed: "tell them all to stop by our house"! Giannis Paragios is a man who loves his land, and takes immense pleasure from other people's discovery of this wonderful place, so if you run into him roaming around Palekastro in his police cruiser, mention this web site to him, and who knows, it might even help if he were about to give you a traffic ticket.

Everyone we met in our nightly get-togethers exhibited the firm belief that their land was the best possible one, with its fertile soil and sea providing enough for everyone so they did not have to rely on volatile industries like tourism. In fact, during out conversations many seemed weary that their place might be overrun by tourists like so many other towns of Crete, and for this reason, while they love visitors, they all seem aware of the effects it can have on the physical and cultural landscape. I must admit it is not without a certain dose of guilt that I write about Eastern Crete. It would be a shame to spoil such a tranquil place where everyone takes pride in their history, culture, and natural beauty.

Family ties are very important in this part of the world, and the people we met in Crete cherished the opportunity to share a plate of food and a glass of raki either in formal or informal settings. One of our last days on the island we were invited to a family get-together and we followed a long motorcade through a maze of ascending dirt roads easily traversed only by 4x4 trucks. Our little Skoda managed to reach the top of the hill just as the sun was dipping into the horizon beyond Sitia below our feet. The view was just incredible with the colorful sky above and the dwindling lights of the town at the edge of the silver surface of the sea.

The informal get-together turned out to be a gathering of more than thirty friends and relatives along with their kids which soon escalated into full blown dance party with music blaring out of a boom box on the wall, people dancing, children playing, raki flowing, and an incredible array of dishes prepared by everyone in attendance. There were so many loud conversations around the table that we carried from one to the next without much effort, and within an hour theree was nothing but joy in the air of this shed next to the tiny exoklesi of Panagia Trapezounta where the famous author of "Erotokritos" Vitsenzos Kornaros was born.

As the wine and raki flowed we realized what the secret of life is. The people of Crete know it, and were all eager to share it with us. Life is best lived among others. Under the night sky, the sweet music notes and the laughter weaved a mantle of delight which permiated everyone's being.

To all our friends from Crete who opened their hearts and homes to us, we extend our heart felt gratitude. The people of Crete are the main reason that Crete will live in our memories for ever.

Pictures from Crete

The home of Giannis and Manolis at dawn. The wood avon in the yard was a busy place every night. Every afternoon was ripe for a family gathering at the Paragios home.
The elderly Paragios couple enjoying a glass of raki in the company of their extended family and friends. One night we were invited to join a family get-together at the exoklisi of Panagia trapezounta. The atmosphere was filled with joy and the view of Sitia was unbelievable. The view of Sitia from the little church of Panagia Trapezounta. Great place to experience a romantic sunset.
Despo and Anita conversing at the table. Anita Maro and Jenny
The three cousins, Giannis, Kostis, a Kostas. Sisi dancing. Cretan children are exposed to their cultural heritage at an early age, and participate at every family gathering. My sister Vivi and my wife Maria. Vivi sporting an exclusive Greeklandscapes t-shirt
During this visit to Erimoupoli our cooler was packed with sandwiches and juices for the kids, and with raki and "xylaguro" (cucumber) for the adults. We enjoyed our afternoon snack and thought we were so cool to remember to bring raki, until a group of younger people set camp near us and to our amazement they produced an nargile (or hookah) and began smoking on the beach! Crete is just so full of surprises like that. George and Giannis in the middle of a backgammon session. The constant taunting by the victor were only interrupted by short conversations about politics and soccer. Kostis and Giorgos conversing at the table.

Epilogue: After seeing these pictures my sister emailed me and pointed out that all the laughter and happiness we experienced during out nightly events do not show in the pictures. I am a little guilty of living the moment and not being very vigilant about shooting pictures while having fun. In fact, most images were taken in the beginning of our gatherings and as the night progressed, I put aside my camera and immersed myself into the moment without thinking about preserving it much further. In any event, they do look like a lot of fun with a little raki.
Athens map. Satellite picture
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