The Observer review

The Observer  –  Sunday June 8th 2008

Head for the hills for a flavour of the real Crete


British holiday firm is helping to preserve the culture of the island’s mountain villages, from organic food to traditional music. Catherine Mack reports

‘The water isn’t salty, Mum,’ my five-year-old son shouts joyfully as we swim back to the deserted white soft sands of Kiani Akti. He is right: the water that flows into this section of Souda Bay, on the north-west corner of Crete, is from a mountain river that gushes past hillside olive and orange groves and culminates in a tumultuous surge at this tiny beach. The effect is not only the addition of yet one more shade to this already burgeoning palette of blues, but a rush of ice-cold mountain water into the temperate briny.

This mixture of currents, temperature and taste provides the perfect metaphor for our first trip toCrete, which I had always resisted for fears of the ravages of mass tourism. But then we found our little village in the mountains, Megala Chorafia, where traditional Cretan life fights successfully for a place among the rapids and dangerous undercurrents of concrete and plastic tourism found elsewhere on the island.

We are staying at a villa owned by a local, Stelios Botonakis. He rents it out through British firm Pure Crete, which as well as offering accommodation in locally owned Cretan villas, arranges a range of activities for guests which are designed to support the traditional lifestyles of the island’s mountain villagers. Stelios, whose smile is as big as his generous spirit, built this house himself. Beautifully crafted in white stone, it overlooks the snow-capped White Mountains and endless olive groves, and is elegantly and simply furnished. Dark wooden shutters, beams and floorboards contrast perfectly with the white-washed walls, and Cretan hand-woven rugs and cushions throw dashes of red and orange around the rooms.

The Botonakis family lives next door and quickly makes us feel at home, while giving us plenty of holiday ‘space’. We aren’t really ‘space’ people, however, and when Stelios arrives with a gift of his home-made wine, we invite the family in that night to help us drink it. It is May Day, so the whole family is around to take us up on our invitation, each arriving with a gift: wine, cake, cheese or a traditional May Day flower garland. That morning we had seen families gathering wild flowers to make into garlands to hang on doors or cars.

We light a fire in the vast stone fireplace and swap life stories, our new friends putting us to shame with their good English. Our children are in their element as they are passed from lap to lap. The evening reaches a touching finale when Stelios gives a rendition of a traditional Cretan song, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. Our children want to sing too, this time with a somewhat less traditional Irish rugby anthem, proudly displaying their Celtic roots. This evening will be our lasting memory of this holiday. We will never forget the beautiful beaches, ancient monuments, sunshine, tavernas and mountain gorges. But evenings like this are not in the guidebooks.

We pass another memorable night at Malaxa, a mountain village where Demitris Vamvounakis has revived his local community by creating a cooperative to produce organic food. Demitris has rebuilt one of the village’s stone houses and into this beautifully crafted contemporary home he has incorporated two adjoining reception rooms in which he holds evenings of Cretan culture. About 14 of us drink fine local wine, and eat superb organic traditional food, prepared by Demitris’s wife, Katerina.

The evening starts gently with our knowledgeable, charming and amusing hosts talking about food, language, flora and fauna, and festivals. But as the raki kicks in, we all gain the confidence to broach heavier issues such as arranged marriages (still prevalent), dowries, macho gun culture and politics. The kids listen open-mouthed to tales of men firing endless rounds of ammunition into the air at daughters’ weddings as a sign of prosperity and pride.

Our other top trip is to Taverna Lemonia, a 20-minute drive along twisting roads into the White Mountains. This taverna has not only stunning views, but is also home to Leonidas, one of a handful of olive farmers still using traditional olive presses. We take a tour of the small mill where he uses a donkey to turn the massive stone wheels that crush the olives. This is cold-pressed olive oil, now a rarity in Crete, as heating olives allows for faster pressing, but as our bottle proved, a less intense flavour. Leonidas is also a master craftsman, and shows us his workshop, full of traditional stringed instruments which he makes, bespoke, for local musicians. We are invited into the family house for coffee and cheese pies, made from their own mizithra (a soft goat’s cheese) and horta (wild greens). As we tuck in, Leonidas picks up a lyre and plays for us.


There should be more companies like this, which aim to not only support the local economy but also to preserve Cretan culture. Not in a way that enshrines it, but by simply keeping it alive, contemporising it. I hope the Greek government learns from other countries’ mistakes, and puts some urgent restrictions on building. Posters advertising houses for sale are all in English. One entices us to ‘build your new life’ but, personally, we are happy to support the lives of those who live here all year round.