Irish Times review

From the Irish Times –  7th November 2009

Instead of being out to make a fast tourist buck, the people CATHERINE MACK met on a family holiday on the Greek island were keen to show their hospitality and share their culture

CRETANS CONSIDER themselves to be one big family. Just as we can’t confuse the origins of anyone whose surname begins with O’, they can spot a fellow islander anywhere, as most Cretan family names end in ‘akis’. Locals say this dates from the 250-year Turkish rule of Crete, which finished in 1898; the occupiers forced islanders to add the insulting ‘akis’, or ‘little’, to their names. Cretans now consider the suffix a badge of honour.

This is one of the gems I picked up at just about the most wonderful dinner party I have ever been to. It was hosted by Demitris and Katarina Vamvounakis in the Cretan mountain village of Malaxa, where they recently returned after working abroad for years. Instead of opening a beach cafe or hotel like so many people out to make a fast tourist buck on Crete, they revived their rural community of a few hundred people by creating a farming co-operative to produce organic food, and started cultural evenings for visitors.

These are not horrors of tourist evenings, with breaking plates, ouzo and dancers in bad national costume. These are the real thing. Fourteen of us drank fine local organic wine and ate plate after plate of superb organic traditional food, prepared by Katarina, as we talked about all aspects of Cretan culture.

Malaxa was one of several outings suggested by our tour operator, Pure Crete, a company that understands that being green on holiday is not all about carbon. It’s also about supporting the local economy, sustaining local culture and, in short, making sure our hosts do not feel invaded every year. All of Pure Crete’s accommodation is in villages or small towns and owned by local people. It offers walking holidays with botanical experts, lists local festivals on its website and has an autumn environmental week when you get to see olive presses in action and grapes being gathered for local wine.

We got to sample plenty of previous grape harvests back in Malaxa, the wine helping the conversation to flow: the topics soon moved beyond the flora and fauna to arranged marriages, dowries and gun culture. My sons, who are six and nine, were open-mouthed hearing about the custom of men firing endless rounds of ammunition into the air at their daughters’ weddings as a sign of prosperity and pride.

Don’t get me wrong: this was not a culture-vulture holiday. It was a family break with a villa, pool, endless beaches within easy reach, turquoise water, tavernas and copious ice cream.

Our villa was in the middle of the hamlet of Megala Chorafia, about 20 minutes’ drive from the city of Chania, on the northwest coast. Our host, Stelios Botonakis, showed us around the traditional white stone house that he had built himself, beside his own family home, just on the other side of the tiny square.

Overlooking the snow-capped White Mountains and endless olive groves, it was minimally furnished except for elegant simple beds, chairs and tables, all of which looked as if they were precious heirlooms. Dark wooden shutters, beams and floorboards contrasted perfectly with the whitewashed walls, and hand-woven rugs and cushions threw dashes of warm reds and orange around the rooms.

The real glow in the house kicked in later that night, when Botonakis arrived with a bottle of his home-made wine as a welcome gift. We insisted he bring his family over to drink it with us, then quickly threw together a few supermarket snacks. There was no need, however: one by one, members of the Botonakis family arrived with gifts of cake, wine and the local delicacy of kalitsounia, or cheese pastries.

Luckily, the one Greek word we had learned off by heart before we arrived was efharisto, or thank you. Our boys were passed from lap to lap, sung to, danced with and generally doted over, providing a bridge of contact that meant language was no longer a barrier. They still treasure the notebooks in which the Botonakis teenagers drew them pictures, wrote Greek translations of their names and sketched maps of beaches to visit.

Over the next few days we explored many of these beaches, including Kalathas, where we swam to a small flower-covered island, just metres from the shore, that became rock-climbing heaven for the boys.

When we swam back to the beach the place was buzzing with middle-aged American men who were sipping beers and playing catch with a baseball mitt. They turned out to be aircraft engineers from the island’s US military base, a few kilometres from the beach.

The most family-friendly beach we went to was in the resort of Almirida. Locals smiled at the ‘crazy Irish’ who dared to put their feet in the water out of season. Our sons challenged Botonakis’s brother Pandelis to come swimming with us. ‘What do you think I am, crazy?’ he said with a laugh.

Every beach in Crete has a taverna, which are a major part of the island’s culture. They are everywhere else, too: our village had three, all excellent. On a group trip into the mountains we met the owner of Taverna Lemonia, in Xilioumoudou, a smiling elderly farmer named Leonidas Rethemiotakis with an infectious love of traditional Crete.

He gave us a tour of the olive-oil factory in his garden, one of the few remaining small farms still to use a donkey to turn the huge stone wheels that crush the fruit. We learned about harvesting and saw how the traditional machinery – all of which Rethemiotakis had constructed himself – worked. This was cold-pressed oil, now a rarity in Crete, as heating olives allows for faster pressing – but, as our purchase was to prove, a less intense flavour.

Our tour didn’t finish there, as Rethemiotakis also showed us his workshop full of traditional stringed instruments, which he makes for local musicians. He invited us into the family house for coffee and cakes, then, as we tucked in, picked up one of his lyres and played with a pride and dignity that brought tears to many of our eyes.

These are cultural experiences that you might fall upon on holiday if you are lucky, or if you work hard to seek them out. But for 20 years Pure Crete has been leading people towards the side of the island that we wanted to see and, most importantly, the bits that Cretans are keen to share and sustain.

On our final night we invited Pandelis Botonakis and his wife, Liza, to join us for our farewell dinner, in Almirida. We were spending the day in the resort, topping up our tans before heading home, and were pleasantly surprised to see our new friends arrive earlier than planned. ‘Now it is my turn to be crazy,’ Botonakis shouted as he stripped down to swimming shorts, grabbed the boys’ hands and went running, all of them screaming, into the waves. It all happened too fast to photograph, but these memories, like so many of this wonderful family holiday, don’t need to be snapped. They will stay in the heart forever.

** Catherine Mack was a guest of Pure Crete (www.purecrete.com); a week at Anna Malai villa, in Megala Chorafia, costs from £1,059, excluding flights. Other locally owned apartments and villas cost from £540 a week, with discounts for children. Pure Crete also offers activity holidays, encompassing walking, history and conservation. For details of prices, including flights from Belfast, e-mail info@ purecrete.com or call 00-44- 845-0701571

Where to eat and where to go

Where to eat

Megala Chorafia, where we stayed, has three tavernas, all of them lovely. Taverna Aptera and Strata Taverna are open day and night. The Cretan Corner is open all day and night in July and August, but only at weekends out of season.

Fish Tavern Apostolis. Akti Enoseos 10, Chania, 00-30-28210-43470, fishtavernapostolis.com. If you are shopping at Chania market, stroll along the waterfront towards the lighthouse and try some Cretan fish at this well-known restaurant in a wonderful seafront location.

Taverna Psaros in Almirida is where we celebrated our final night in Crete. This traditional shoreline taverna has outdoor seating from where you can watch the sun set over the bay.

Taverna Lemonia. Xilioumoudou, 00-30-28250-41459. Leonidas Rethemiotakis uses only fresh, local produce, including organic meat, cheeses, olive oil and wine. Stunning views.

Where to go

Pure Crete suggests many green excursions, such as the visit to Taverna Lemonia and the dinner party in Malaxa. Other trips include hiking and a boat to Balos Lagoon.

Visit Chania’s indoor market. Stall after stall, every day except Sunday, of olives, fish, spices, fruits, cheese and more. This market – which is open from 8am to 1.30pm, as well as on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings – is a cultural highlight of any visit to Crete. Nearby Skridlof Street, aka Leather Street, is great for bags, belts, shoes and sandals. My son’s leather cowboy hat is the best sunhat ever. Look out for traditional hand-carved catapults, too.

Walk in Samaria National Park. In the White Mountains of western Crete, Samaria Gorge starts at Omalos, about 1,200m above sea level. The gorge ends about 15km – between five and seven hours’ walk – later, on the sandy shores of Crete’s southern coast. There is an abundance of waterfalls and natural springs to cool you down on the way. The walk ends with time for a swim, then a fantastic boat trip back to the other side of the island.

Milia is one of the most exquisitely crafted ecoretreats I have ever seen. Above Topolia Gorge, in the foothills of the White Mountains, this derelict farming village was restored as a truly green getaway, with tiny stone houses, solar electricity, stream water, on-site organic farm and shop. It is worth the hike up the mountain for lunch, or go for breakfast and take a 45-minute drive to Elafonisi beach afterwards for a day on the whitest sands on the island. (Avoid the beach in peak season, as coaches pour in down the winding roads.)

The folklore museum in Gavalohori  a village that is a hub of Cretan tradition – occupies a small Venetian house full of pottery, coins, lace and traditional costumes. There is also a women’s agritourism co-operative in the village, which sustains traditional crafts such as silk lace making, glasswork and ceramics. If you have a sweet tooth, check out the village’s fantastic sweet shop and cafe, the aroma of which I will never forget.