Dance!

Cretan Dance

Cretan Folk Dance

Do not be surprised if, whilst musicians are playing the lyra and laóuto in the taverna where you are eating, someone just jumps up and performs a dance on their own, completely oblivious of everything else. Call it ‘making a spontaneous statement to the world’! It happened once when I was having dinner, and I was told that, for Cretans, dance is an expression of their mood, a way to express delight, but also to work off anger or to express sadness, and so it’s perfectly normal to stand up in the middle of dinner and just dance.

Equally, someone may pull a few friends to their feet, possibly not without a fair bit of good-natured jostling and coercion. In a moment, an unspoken message passes between dancers and musicians, a line forms, and everyone begins to move in time to the rhythm. This dance is called Sirtós, and there are a few variations all over Greece and Crete. For example, there is a variety known as Haniotikós, named after the city of Hania. Cretan dances tend to be predominantly the domain of men, but both men and women take part in the Sirtós, all joined hand in hand and taking their cue from a leader. The steps are small, the movements delicate, and the line moves slowly in an open circle. If this happens in the middle of dinner and you’re tempted, you are welcome to join in! (If the mental image reminds you of a certain movie, it may be because this dance inspired the composer Mikis Theodorakis to devise a Syrtáki especially for Anthony Quinn, in the film ‘Zorba the Greek’.)

A dance which inevitably requires men and women is the Soústa, which takes its name from the noise made by the dancer’s feet rubbing together. This is a dance that represents a promise of love, and so it’s often performed at weddings. I thought this was rather sweet!

There’s also the Pentozális (quite famous in Crete), which is an all-male dance, and rather impressive. The men link up in a line, clasping shoulders or hands: at first, their upper bodies remain rigid and only their feet move. Then, the first dancer in the row will suddenly slap his heels, break away from the line, and begin to leap high into the air; the next in line will follow, and so on. It’s said that this vigorous dance originated during the Minoan period, and indeed it may have been a kind of war-dance. Legend says it was performed by the Couretes, guardians of the baby Zeus in the cave on Mount Ida! The acrobatics in it are said to graphically picture the fierce, extrovert and untamed spirit of the Cretan mountains.

If you would like to see a performance of traditional Cretan dances, or would like to be informed of festivals where you can appreciate traditional dances, contact Karma Travel!

Extraordinary Food

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Expect beautiful, healthy food made from fresh ingredients and prepared rather simply. Cretan food is amazing, and truly, it is all about the fresh fish, straight out of the sea, the just-picked plump and crisp vegetables, fresh and fragrant wild herbs sourced from the hills, and the golden olive oil used to prepare it. Uncomplicated and delicious!

I learnt that the average consumption of olive oil in Crete is 25 litres per person per year. It may sound like a lot, but it’s just so good that it’s easy to understand once you tried it. It is also used in many things, from salads to desserts like crispy and sweet baklava.

Be sure to try the traditional Cretan Rusks, traditional bread which is dried and baked several times until it is crispy and gold, and is served topped with grated tomato, olive oil, a bit of Feta cheese and oregano. It’s the perfect starter!

There was a night when I was not particularly hungry and thought a salad and a plate of ‘mixed mezedes’ should do. Well, the portions were so generous that three people could have happily shared! The meze selection was amazing, too. I had courgette flowers filled with soft cheese, dolmades, red peppers stuffed with rice and minced meat, croquettes, breaded sheep’s milk cheese sticks, calamari, gorgeous olives and artichokes.

Oh, the life!

If you want advise on Cretan cookery lessons, places to eat, or special places where you can go in Crete to savour local specialities, consult with Karma Travel!

Agiofarago

Agiofarago

In search of tranquility, I went to Agiofarago. This is in the Heraklion prefecture (southern coast of Crete), between the Odigitria Monastery and Kaloi Limenes. It was described to me as ‘a perfect place to go seeking solitude’. This is a secluded beach with emerald waters; the shore is covered by small pebbles, and the sea is ideal for snorkelling, which I love. The pristine beach of Agiofarago remains so because there is truly nothing here. Unlike the other beaches I went to, here there were no taverna, parasols, or loungers. There’s nowhere to buy food or water, so you have to carry along all the things you consider necessary. Some people camp here, and it would indeed be the only way to spend the night here, as there are no hotels nearby.

Following a footpath for about 30 minutes, I crossed the gorge towards the beach overlooking the Libyan sea. Hiking along the silent trail took me to the church of Agios Antonios. Its sanctum is inside a cavern. The church was built in the 14th century A.D, and it has been restored three times, but the figures of saints depicted on frescoes on the walls are nonetheless quite faded, destroyed by humidity.

A story goes that Agiofarago was visited by Saint Paul, the Apostle, in 62 BC, when his boat capsized near Kali Limenes. It is said that St Paul spent some time as an anchoret inside the caves scattered within the gorge. Since then, this became a holy place where hermits came to live in the caves, and there are records of this practice from the 7th century A.D; the first known hermit was Agios Kosmas. Agiofarago was ideal for meditation. It’s not hard to picture why: you really seem to leave the whole world and its noise behind!

According to the story I was told, the hermits gathered once a year inside a cavern close to Agios Antonios called “goumenospilios”. They sat around a table, and noted who was absent. Any absentees were considered dead! An oath of silence was imposed on the members of this ascetic community which remained unbreakable. Therefore, they sought solitude even to avoid contact with each other. The austerity of these hermits was extreme. Their life was frugal; in the first place, food was scarce, and only a well outside Agios Antonios provided them with water, as no other springs are found along Agiofarago.

It is said that hermits were seen here until the end of the 19th century. Some claim that they have come across silent monks, and I heard stories that invisible monks appear only to those whose faith in God is strong. You can come and find out for yourself!

I have to say I did not encounter any invisible monks. Perhaps my faith was not strong enough to attract them… Anyhow, I crossed the gorge and reached the beach. Here are absolutely amazing high rocks, ideal to take a dive into the clear waters of the Libyan Sea.

The seclusion of this beach is due to locals’ and tourists’ preference for easily accessible beaches. Since Agiofarago is not one of them, it remains ‘untouched’. It’s also a great place for practicing rappel. I saw several people practicing this on the cliffs as I crossed the gorge. I was really sorry I did not come prepared to join in!

If you want to organise your travel to this remote beach, contact Karma Travel.

Glyka Nera, near Sfakia

Beach Glika Nera,near Sfakia

After following the E4 path from Loutro,  I ended up in Glyka Nera Beach (Sweet Water beach). The seascape in this secluded beach is absolutely gorgeous, but there is yet another remarkable detail about this beach, which is also the reason for its name:  there is a fresh water gurgling spring just by the sea!

This beach is not busy at all. I was coming from the beaches in Chora Sfakion and Loutro, which had a fair share of tourists. Having been in other places with massive beach resorts, I really feel I need to clarify that I was pleasantly surprised to discover that at the height of summer, Cretan beaches I visited were busy, but by no means teeming with people. This said, I was looking for solitude, which I was very pleased to find at the pebbly shore in Glyka Nera.

The beach was not deserted, though.  There were quite convenient parasols and loungers for rent, and a simple Taverna, where  you can buy a delicious Greek salad, sandwiches or snacks.

If you wanted to get to this beach without walking the E4 path along the cliff, I recommend contacting Karma Travel for advise. I am told that you can reach it by boat, too.

Heraklion

Heraklion

With much anticipation, I packed up and set off to Heraklion via London’s Gatwick Airport. You can get advice on convenient flight connections and fares from the experts at Karma Travel. Just drop them an email with your requirements!

As for me, even at the height of summer, I thought the airfares I got were not too expensive, so I was a happy bunny!

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