If you really want to get to know Crete – its people, traditions, food, legendary lifestyle – head to its villages
COVER STORY

A guide to the traditions and way of life in Crete

Sponsored by Region of Crete
If you really want to get to know Crete – its people, traditions, food, legendary lifestyle – head to its villages
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Sponsored by Region of Crete

Brave in war and inventive in peace, Cretans are storytellers, artists and artisans who have shaped their land and culture around their unique character and have a fascinating history to show for it.

Grand-scale archaeological monuments, rich traditions, and an insatiable appetite for food and fun are all part of the way of life in Crete. So join us we explore what makes Greece’s largest island what it is.

 

Loving life with every bite

You know you’ve sat at a Cretan table just from the bounty in front of you. Fruit and vegetables radiating colour and flavour, the most golden extra-virgin olive oil, delicate little cheese pies, cured meat and aromatic herbs that have literally captured the Mediterranean sunshine are spread before you. But above all, the ingredients that make you know you’re in Crete are the laughter and generosity of the people around you.

With every glass of raki you share (locally known as tsikoudia), you’ll become better versed in a unique language punctuated by the delicious mouthfuls of Cretan food. To eat and drink with locals is to uncover the soul of Crete. If you experience the rakokazona – traditional raki-brewing in a Cretan village, typically in November – you will discover the meaning of banter. But at the very least, book a cookery lesson or a visit to a farm to experience first-hand local cheese-making and bread-baking techniques. Your appetite for life will never be the same.

A culinary tour of Chania

Locating the pulse of Crete

If food fills the soul, music comes from the heart in Crete. You hear it in the three-stringed Cretan lyra that sets the mood of dances in the island’s many feasts and festivals and in the heart-rending sonnets known as mantinades, conveying messages of love and sorrow, that resonate in mountain villages.

Since ancient times, music has been a way of life in Crete, passing from generation to generation, but always with spontaneity and improvisation. So make sure to visit the workshop of an instrument-maker – not just the lyra but violins, lutes and rarer instruments known as bulgari, askomandoura or the thiamboli are made and repaired here.

Cretan shepherd holding a katsouna - the Cretan shepherd's crook Cretan shepherd holding a katsouna - the Cretan shepherd's crook

5,000 years (and counting) of myths and history

Every civilisation has left its legacy in the history of Crete, with Minoan palaces, Classical temples and Venetian fortresses. This, after all, is the island that gave birth to Europe’s first written languages (the Minoans’ Linear A and B). And as for the myths… you’ve have heard of Theseus and the Minotaur (you can learn more at Knossos Palace) and it’s said Zeus was born in a cave in Crete. So it won’t surprise you that the king of the gods was also patron of hospitality – for that is perhaps Zeus’ greatest legacy on the way of life in Crete.

A tour of Knossos Palace in Crete

The original holistic wellness retreat

It’s simply not possible to visit Crete without being inspired by its special aura. Not only the Zen of the countryside and the mystical energy of the sea, but the locals’ philosophy of life. The diet (naturally rich in nutrients and antioxidants), the exuberant festivals, the lung-filling fresh air and mountain herbs… Crete is the original holistic wellness retreat. Of course, you could take it a step further by adding yoga, a spa, thalassotherapy, Reiki (or whatever your wellness preference) to your holiday. One way or another, you’ll return home understanding the meaning of the slow life.

An island of craftspeople

Skilled craftsmanship can be seen in so many of Crete’s traditions. Basket-making and fabric weaving are time-honoured skills that have lost none of their intricacy and attention to detail. So too pottery, with vases that resemble those that once decorated Minoan palaces.

So don’t forget to take a piece of Crete home with you. Perhaps a pair of stivania (the knee-high riding boots slapped by men during Cretan dances), a white sariki headscarf (worn by women as a sign of joy during weddings, feasts, births and christenings) or a beautifully engraved piece of local woodwork.

The traditions and way of life in Crete

Crete is an island of enduring customs and traditions. Right the way through the year and on every corner of the island, you’ll find locals displaying a commitment to not just living life to the full but living it their way.

FAQs about Cretan culture

  • Why is Cretan food famous?

Food is a way of life in Crete, notable for its simplicity and subtle use of spices, often limited to salt and pepper and yet tasting delicious. The No.1 ingredient is imagination. For instance, Cretans may eat greens every day but they still make them taste different every time through simple yet inspired combinations. With such a wonderful climate, Crete is also famous for its delicious local ingredients and produce such as wine and extra-virgin olive oil. Goat is often cooked at celebrations like Christmas, Easter, weddings and festivals and cheeses can be eaten at any time of day, for breakfast, an appetiser, with a main meal or as a dessert, drizzled with thyme honey.

  • What are the most famous dishes in Crete?

Perhaps the most popular Cretan dish is the Dakos salad, with rusk bread topped with tomatoes, creamy myzithra cheese, herbs, spices and plenty of olive oil. But there are many other famous dishes, such as lamb fricassee (try it cooked with askolymbros, a fleshy and tasty root growing near the sea) and antikristo – lamb cooked opposite, never over the fire – a style of cooking that goes back to Minoan times. Other highlights include kolokythanthi (stuffed zucchini flowers), chochlii bουmbouristi (fried snails with sea salt and rosemary) and skioufichta (a traditional, distinctively shaped handmade pasta) with plenty grated kefalotiri or anthorito cheese. A final treat is kalitsounia (small, sweet pies stuffed with whey cheese, honey and cinnamon), traditionally eaten at Easter after the fasting period.

  • What are the traditional clothes of Crete?

You’ll still find men and women wearing traditional Cretan clothing, especially in villages. Many aspects of the costume are symbolic, such as the knitted sarikia worn on their head by men, with little hanging knots representing the ‘tears of Crete’. Traditional outfits for men include a black shirt and a sleeveless waistcoat, a red silk sash called zounari, wrapped around the waist and holding a silver knife (basalis), and black or white stivania boots. There are various versions of traditional Cretan women’s dress, including the Sfakiani and Anoghiani (referring to regions in Crete). The red kerchief covering women’s heads is called a skoufoma and if you see a woman with a knife tucked into a red sash wrapped around her waist, it means she’s engaged to be married. Finally, there’s the walking stick (Katsouna), traditionally used by shepherds climbing mountain paths and village elders. They’d double as weapons in times of conflict, which is why they also symbolise Cretan pride.

  • What are the traditional songs of Crete?

The most commonly heard folk songs in Cretan villages are called Mantinades, a 15-syllable rhyming couplet (similar to a limerick) in a Cretan dialect. They are often performed with an accompanying lyra or laouta (a traditional stringed instrument) and tiskoudia (Cretan tsipouro or raki) and have lyrics that speak of every emotion and value (love, birth, death, friendship etc). What makes them even more special is that the performer often improvises mid-song. Another type of Cretan music is the Rizitika songs (the oldest type of music in Crete), which are similar to epic poems.

  • What is the traditional Cretan dagger?

Daggers are prized possessions of Cretans, symbolising everything they value most: honour, gallantry, loyalty and an undying desire to protect their homeland. They are beautifully crafted and ornately decorated, making treasured souvenirs.

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