The Magic of Crete

A majority of our time in Crete was documented in little blurbs on my Instagram – @chelsapphire, but as I keep thinking back to the trip and remembering bits and pieces – I want to fully divulge all the details here.

Taking the ferry from Mykonos to Crete – we [my mom/photographer] did not anticipate how large the island of Crete actually was… Especially in comparison to the other Greek islands – the entirety of Santorini, for instance, could be traversed in about 2 hours via a quad. Our giant ferry docked at the port of Crete, and to our surprise – it was going to take about an hour and a half to reach the small town of Zaros, located smack dab in the middle of the island. So we hopped in a taxi and headed through the lush mountains and into the great ravines of the valley.

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Instagram Blurb: We arrived in Crete this evening, to a quaint farming village in the middle of the island. Upon arrival, we met an old Greek gentleman that motioned for us to wait, a toothy grin appearing from under his mustache. Minutes later, a robust older woman, with peppery colored hair pinned up in a braided bun appeared and began to babble in Greek. I stood there, dumbfounded, trying to make any sense of what she was saying. In a game of charades and mixing in the few French words she knew, I learned that: their English speaker would be in the next morning, the family restaurant was down the road and their award-winning breakfast would be served after 10am.

Following her like ducklings, she took us down the street to the restaurant. The chalkboard outside had several English words sprawled across, reading “other foods but best = daily plate. Don’t fight it.” So we didn’t.
We sat and dined, watching the men seated outside the cafe across the street. This traditional custom became apparent on our drive into town; sitting out front of the corner shops on every street was a whole crowd of men — jovially engaging in conversation. Some just sat there, looking ever so pensive, while others blew out clouds of smoke and took swigs of raki.

We then learned that Vergera (the name of the restaurant) quite accurately described this evening pass-time. In the ‘old days’, when there was no television or internet, people sought company among others and socialized more. Family and friends gathered each night at a different house, and spent the evening sipping on wine and raki while the children ran around. This act of simply hanging out, soaking up the joys of community and delighting in each other’s company is called ‘vergera’. After our vergera, we headed back to our room, opening up the wooden shutters to a balcony that revealed the most marvelous view: the midnight sky, dotted with thousands of twinkling lights. Watching the celestial sphere in a state of infinite wonder and awe, my eyes caught glimpse of just one of the many glorious miracles in this world — a collection of stars zipped across the sky.
My eyes welled with tears as I looked up. This life is just so beautiful.

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The next morning, around 7 a.m. – delicious smells start wafting up from the kitchen to our rustic room located on the second storey. Saccharine sweet scents of breads cooking filled the air and I immediately sat up in bed. “What. Is. That?” I questioned aloud, my mouth already watering. Awhile later, we tip-toed down the stairs to see a whole breakfast display set out on the table – over 15 different baked goods: soft pretzels, croissant like pastries filled with cheese, some with Nutella or raspberry jam. There was a large pitcher of hot tea – a mixture of sage and herbs picked from the mountain that one mixes with honey. I tasted each and every pastry, letting my tastebuds dance in delight as I unbuttoned my jeans (okay, I was wearing a dress… but you get the picture). My mom and I looked at each other in complete and utter disbelief and also satisfaction. Our bellies were full and we were ready to tackle the day.

We learned that the woman from the night before – Katarina, was the chef that created all these delicious treats. She (who had been awake when we arrived the night before, around 10pm) awoke every morning at 3am to begin the process of making all the goods. Every morning was different and she prepared what was in the mood to make… but it was always over 15+ items. Katarina has won the award for “Best Breakfast in Crete” multiple times and I quickly discovered why.

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Shortly thereafter, we met Velina – Katarina’s daughter-in-law and their resident English speaker. Velina grew up in Athens, moving to Crete when she met her husband and now has a family of her own there. Velina grinned and asked if we were ready for an adventure as we all hopped into the truck. She took us around to the local monastery, which dates back centuries and then to a local mill. We stopped along the way to enjoy a coffee overlooking a lake.

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Instagram Blurb: Passing a white-washed cemetery, flowers abundantly strewn over the fence, Velina said that there was a death of an old man in the village yesterday. My expression shifted as I offered up my condolences, and she reassured, “It’s part of life– death is, just as much as life is. It goes.” I listened to her wise words as we drove through the lush mountainside. “His wife yesterday at the funeral, she is 85, she began with poetry.
It is unique to Cretan life, this poetry.” She explained that these prose come on the spot, when emotions are pouring out like libations and cannot be contained anymore. “The poems gave me like bumps, chills” she said as she motioned to her arm. “Goosebumps,” I mouthed and she said, “Ah yes, goosebumps.” Later on when we were overlooking the lake, I asked Velina again about these Cretan poems, intrigued by the little I had heard on the drive. She looked out over the water, “It’s a very beautiful thing and though I didn’t know this man well, I became overwhelmed by the poems, feeling the love this woman had for her husband. Like that of a twenty year old, even though 65 years have passed.” She explained that Cretans share these poems in times of mourning, celebration, elated happiness, sorrow. Whenever the feelings are bubbling inside, the rhyming prose follows and one shares it with the community. The poems are not captured, recorded or written – but just for the ears of those around; sharing the moment, the feeling, together.

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Following this, we headed to their family farm… where their stud pig “flirted” with me and we got to sheer the sheep, freeing them of their warm winter coats. I learned how to milk them, too – and soon we had a giant barrel full of warm milk. The barrel of milk in tow, we headed to the nearby creamery, weighing the milk and leaving it with them – but not before we tried their freshly made cheese.

Velina then said, “So my husband’s cousin lives up in the mountain. Tonight we will go see him, I think. But he does not have a phone, so hopefully we can find him!” She giggled, her laughter and smile contagious. Unsure of what was in store, we grabbed our jackets and began to trek up the mountain, winding up the dirt roads in the car – it bumping over rocks and gravel. About an hour later, we reached the peak of the mountain and sure enough – the cousin was there! He and his flock of 900 sheep…

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Instagram Blurb: I feel as though I’ve lived 6 months in one night. The evening full with exuberant laughter and utter jubilance — all within the confines of an old sheep farm. High up on a mountain, with the Milky Way weaving through the sky and thousands of glittering stars scattered about, we met traditional Cretan farmers that hand-make their cheese, daily. Welcoming us into their home, we immediately became part of their family, which means being inundated with food, wine and raki.

Inside the rustic stone dwelling, the sunlight dimming outside, one of the brothers set fire to the gas lamp. The one gas lamp that lit the entire room. Spirits rising, we toasted to the night, to life, to family and friends. The toasts continued on through the evening as the raki freely poured, and we celebrated life. Because what better reason is there to celebrate than living?

Pouring fresh milk from the brothers’ flock of 900 sheep, we watched in amazement as curdles of milk began to congeal and rise to the surface of the large metal pot. Both brothers, worn by the sun, had leathery faces and eyes that twinkled in the light. For them, this was their good and honest work — making cheese, taking care of the animals and living simply off the land, just as their fathers had.

Earlier that afternoon, we hung around the family farm where I learned to milk goats and taste the sweetness of the vegetables straight from the ground. I sheered a sheep, with mile long scissors, trimming away her warm coat; she relaxed on the ground, thankful to be shedding the layers of winter and feeling renewed. We talked about living simply and of the earth.

My heart began to jump for joy as I felt my soul becoming one with the earth. Velina reminded me that “we come from nature and we are of nature, so when we are not in it — we are lost.” Hours later, we were sitting high up in the mountain, tasting the products of this labor of love — warm, fresh cheese, unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. Those Cretan poems began to flow from the mouths of our company, and I joyously listened, not understanding a word, but understanding the meaning: the communal feeling in the candlelight.

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Our dear friend Velina with one of her cousin’s daughters

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The night concluded with us gazing up at more stars than I have ever seen. We descended down the mountain, our bellies and hearts warm.

I still think about those days we spent on Crete — how connected we were with the people, the nature, with the community. Out of all the places we visited while we were in Greece (Athens, Mykonos, Santorini and Crete), our stay at the bed & breakfast – Studio Keramos was by far my favorite.

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Studio Keramos Website

Thank you for having us, Studio Keramos!

*Images from both my Instagram + Gayle Dawn Photography

Athens

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