Exploring Crete is our first scheduled tour in 2017. To capture the experience, we are writing a diary picking one image each day, accompanied by some thoughts.
On all our tours and cruises, Day 1 is the day of arrival, when our guests meet our guides, everyone gets acquainted and we, the guides, give our guests a first introduction to the upcoming itinerary. That’s what happened in Iraklio (Heraklion), Crete, today. We enjoyed a superb initial dinner with a lovely group of people from the UK, the US, Australia, Canada and Spain. A beginning.
The image shows the array of Greek and Cretan Easter treats I found in my hotel room, in a very fine city hotel just outside the centre of Iraklio. Today is Easter Monday and Easter is the most important religious festival in Greece – it is impossible to ignore. The platter includes the traditional (in all of Greece) red-coloured egg (all manner of symbolism attach to it), the buttery loaf known as tsoureki (also common in all of Greece), some Cretan sweet cheese pies and, to suit international tastes, a few chocolate eggs.
It’s a simple offering, but it embodies Cretan hospitality, a huge theme. That theme is exemplified by an experience I had about twenty years ago, in late summer.
I (accompanied by a colleague) was searching for the small entrance to an archaeologically significant cave in a remote upland valley in the West of the island, following vague instructions from an article published in the late 1960s. Having criss-crossed difficult terrain of rock, terrace and slope for hours, we were about to give up, when an elderly (well over 80) shepherd appeared and asked our business. He did so in a virtually Homeric way: “what are your names?” – “where are you from?” – “what is your family situation?” – “what are you looking for?”. After we explained, he led us to the cave – we had passed within a few dozen metres of it several times – on a 30-minute walk during which he gave us a summary of the area’s ancient history, its agricultural practices, its place-names, and a lot more. As I thanked him, he told us we would have to stop by his little house for a coffee before leaving. And so we did, hours later.
When we turned up at the hovel he and his ailing wife inhabited, optimistically expecting a grainy but potent Greek coffee, he showed us Cretan hospitality. Home-made bread and olives from his trees were the start, followed by home-made sheeps’ milk cheese, small dice of boiled lamb, some fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, and – most astonishing in the mountainous inland region, a plate of fried fish (that someone must have brought them from the far-away coast). As we were trying to stem the tide of offerings, he produced a bowl of walnuts from the previous autumn, a platter of wild pears, some oranges and a peach, followed by the tiny cups of coffee we had expected in the first place.
As we told him we could never return his gracious hospitality he said he knew that. In his words, he was old enough to know he might never meet us again and thus he needed to share the bounty of his little corner of the world with us there and then, to let us partake in the joy it had given him for a lifetime.
I did manage to see him once more a year or two later (and bring him some fish), but he has long since passed away. His sense of sharing whatever you have has not: it runs strong in this island and it makes it a pleasure to explore and to share with our guests…
If this looks tempting, you might consider joining us in Crete next year!