Zorba’s Crete: To Experience Awe Every Day

Discovering ‘Filoxenia,’ an Island’s Love Affair With its Tourists
April 29, 2014 Updated: May 2, 2014

“Why Crete, why three weeks?” asked my friend whom I invited to join a group headed to the island for a working vacation. The answer is best left to Crete’s greatest literary wisdom, that of Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek: 

“This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them, and yet to love them. To have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right and to realize all of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.” 

For those who saw the film adaptation of the novel starring Anthony Quinn, who could ever forget the scene “teach me to dance?” As for my reason for visiting the land of the Minoans, I ultimately discovered, was to learn again to dance in nature and among friendly neighbors. 

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands. Once the home of Europe’s earliest civilization, the Minoans of the Bronze Age, Crete is also the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and remains a key component of Greece’s culture, history, and economy. 

The island is as beautiful and diverse a landscape as you can imagine. Snow capped mountains meet crystal, aquamarine seas. To the east, the windmills of the Lasithi Plateau sit in sharp contrast to places like Chania’s Venetian Harbor. The awe-inspiring grandeur imagined at the Palace at Knossos is ethereally tested against the simple smiles of the villagers. But every journey must begin and end at a place. Our visit began in Heraklion, the capital. 

Perfect Crete—Apologetically

When was the last time a taxi driver apologized to you for his city’s bad weather? My wife, son, and I arrived via Aegean Air flight with a fierce tailwind buffeting our plane. Stepping from the aircraft, the familiar smell of salt air was rewarding. However, we seemed to have brought a bit of chilly wind from Germany with us. As we discovered later on, it’s typical of cab drivers, desk clerks, hotel owners, and restaurateurs to apologize when Crete’s climate is not ideal. 

Heraklion, despite still more apologies from locals over the dirty sections, is a maze of Cretan life in action. Here, quaint shops dot a pedestrian landscape, while stylish hotels jut up overlooking the Venetian Fortress conveying the modernity of the city. The narrow streets will remind Europeans of the days of carriages. The restaurants and museums cohabiting space brings to mind the term “melting pot.”

We found the ancient world literally integrating with the new—Hugo Boss boutiques sit right next to cafes where the cliché sidewalk demeanor rules. The Church of Ayios Titos, named for the patron saint of the island, is right around the corner from Starbucks. Interestingly, a dinner party with friends at Brillant Restaurant inside our hotel saw our five-year-old Paul Jules attending a service at the church. As our friends related it, “He seemed spellbound and reverent at the ceremony.” Indeed. Heraklion does evoke a sort of reverence—religious and otherwise. 

Leaving Heraklion and journeying to our villa outside Chania, we were joined by my best friend from high school who landed on day two. Anticipating the drive up the coast, our foursome was in no way disappointed by Crete’s seascapes and grandiose mountains. If describing Heraklion proved difficult for this writer, cataloging great Zorba’s “stars above, land to the left, and sea to the right” is best seen in person than imagined. The White Mountains and endless olive groves to the left are unbelievably framed by the ribbon of highway ahead, and by the azure of the Cretan Sea on the right. 

We toured past the picturesque coastal city of Rethymno, then up and down on the endlessly picturesque highway. A snapshot of our little collective would no doubt reveal mouths agape in awe. Few roads lead past such surprising geography speckled with civilization. Fifty spectacular seascape vistas later, we arrived at the real Crete. As abruptly as I made that transition, the small hamlet of Metohi welcomed us home. 

A Village Home On Crete

I’d contacted villa owners Dionysis and Georgia Karalaki some weeks before about their stone villas outside Platanias. Let me say here, no picture postcard could have prepared us for Cretan village life, for the utter simplicity and peace of this place. Our hosts greeted us with genuine smiles and the traditional Raki (a strong, clear liquor made from grapes). Later we would find out, there’s a bottle of this tasty stuff behind every counter on the island, and along with it, a smile for every visitor. 

The four-hundred-year-old villa was perfect in charm and locale for our 11-person group. As for hospitality, everyone from our group found new friends with the villagers and the Karalaki family. For example, the patriarch of the hamlet has owned this land for four centuries, brought us fresh eggs and oranges on many a morning. Of him, I’ll say that he has the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen. 

The strip of highway that runs through the Northern part of Crete is a coast road that will put the Florida, U.S. native in mind of Highway 17 south. We traveled from Chania westward, through Port Platanias and to Kissamos. We passed many seaside restaurants, shops, hotels, and villas.

Somewhere along the way, we found a sort of “village way” of doing things prevalent. From Heraklion, with 300,000 inhabitants, to the tiny speck of a village of Gulediana in the mountains south of Rethymno, the people shine as the real gems of Crete. We discovered something known as “Filoxenia,” or literally, the love of strangers. 

Filoxenia is the reason we were invited to lunch or dinner 20 times and never were allowed to pay. It’s the reason a busy tavern owner showed our Paul Jules how to play pool. The love of strangers is the reason Crete held no disappointment for anyone in our group. It’s the reason my wife and I will get remarried in a small church in Gulediana this fall. But that’s another story about new friends found. It’s enough for you to know all Cretans are this way.