Visiting these 4 tavernas-cafeneios eastward of Heraklion is like being transported back in time or visiting an open-air museum, except that those are not museums but real and functioning tavernas and cafeneios. Run by energetic elderly Cretans who has lots of stories to tell about 'earlier days' these places have also lot of accessories, decorations and folk art elements hanged on the walls - shepherd's sticks/canes (called 'glitza' in Greek), old passed photos, wall rugs either owned, inherited or collected from the nearby village. While looking at the interior of the place one can get a feeling the time here has stopped decades ago, the cooking pots in the kitchen are juggled with swift and dexterity of modern times and ingredients used in cooking have been picked in the garden.
Cafeneio-tavern of Ethia village
To reach this far-away corner of Crete will require you some driving patience. Seated in the main (and truth to be told the only) square of Ethia village, this place seems like an epitome of authentic taverna - old and authentic in every sense. The elderly Cretan lady running the place seemed to be having a nap in one of the chairs in front of the tavern while her husband had retired himself to one of the chambers of the house to enjoy the afternoon siesta undisturbed. We got a cup of a well-brewed Greek coffee with the spoon sweets and learned that full meals are cooked mostly on weekends or holidays when the chances of visitors are higher. Indeed, during two hours we spent in the village (drinking coffee and walking around), we did not see any other villager (probably because of the siesta peak-hour), not to mention any visitor.
Taverna of Thripti village
This is the only taverna of mountainous Thripti village. Likewise the whole village it closes down during winter time because of too much snow. It opens again in summer season with plenty of visitors during weekends and on special holidays. Indeed, the difference is dramatic - on 1st of May (which is a special holiday) it was swarming with people having come from Heraklion and even as fas as Athens but wen visiting it again on a regular working day of another week we found the place quiet and empty. It has lots of interesting wall decors and evan a small collection of empty bottles local wine.
In Kato Karusanous, a village nestled in the rolling, olive tree-dotted hills of Crete, right there in one of the two narrow village pathways you will find a taverna called 'Lagadia'. It has a terrace that provides a beautiful view over the green lush hills. The taverna is run by hospitable and kind lady - the manager of the place and chef in one person. Food has to be preordered as the taverna is off-the-beaten path and not frequented by occasional visitors.
Seated in the corner building of the main mini-square of Krassi village, it is place you'd always get the unmistaken quality and fair price - your share of raki accompanied with some koukia (broad beens), few slices of cucumber and rusk would cost eur 1. For the sake of convenience and simplicity most of the drinks cost the same - eur 1.
The main church is dedicated to Virgin Mary and according to the inscription it seems to go back to 1864. The Monastery is much older, dating back to the 16th or 17th century; it was active up to 1900. Today the Monastery is in ruins. It has been attached to the Monastery of Aghia Irini, since 1990.
The historic monastery of Halepa is probably one of the most beautifully located monasteries in Crete - seated on the slopes of Psiloritis mountain and amongst vineyards in offers a scenic view. Except - that is is not really functioning as a monastery anymore. The main entrance to the monastery leads to the central yard. On the lintel of the entrance one can read the name of the founder Jeremias Souros and the date 1673.
The monastery has been abandoned for long time but it has revived in past years - the active construction works are ongoing and folks are flocking to enjoy the beautiful view and hospitable atmosphere of the monastery. The church built on the Eastern side of the monastery, has just recently been finished. It was under construction since 1912. At that time it had been decided to knock the old church down and build another one - larger. Yet the misfortunes of the country including Balkan wards, World War I and WW II didn't allow the normal carrying out and the completion of work. Now the unfinished grandeur of the external part of the church hides the humbleness of the old church that finally has been renovated.
The Monastery of Panaghia Halevi is situated on the way to the village Chromonastiri, some 12 kilometers far from Rethymnon at the South. More information in the book "Byzantine Churches and Monasteries of Crete" by NIkos Psilakis.
The experiences of blissful moments I call 'zen' - it is a special, utterly enjoyable, fleeting but beautiful moment that provides an inspiration and revelation. Pefki - a village in South-East Crete turned out to be a 'zen' place inspiring with its stunning view, amalgam of colours, marvellous nature and delicious food.
1 Moment: Zen of the View
Choosing Pefki as a destination for a day trip will give you plenty of opportunities for adventure and nature exploration. History records that Pefki acquired electricity only in 70. That should be quite telling to understand how the pulse of the village beats. The impressive rock called Stavromenos with tiny chapel seated on it and perching high above Pefki village offers this panoramic view over the village, South-East coast of Crete and Libyan sea.
2 Moment: Zen of Colours
The stroll through the alleys and pathways of Pefki village is like exploring an open-air museum - a mix of traditional building styles with the colours, schemes and design elements created by villagers.
3 Moment: Zen of Nature
If you are wondering were to find a lush, green hideaway and natural underground water swimming pool for a meditative solitude and contemplation in Crete than here it is - in Pefki gorge, South Crete. Fresh water spring and pool amidst all the summer heat. A magic place. Having walked quite few gorges in Crete I would compare Pefki gorge with a nature park - it is an easy, utterly enjoyable and beautiful walking path. The walk down the gorge is along a pretty and picturesque route through the pine wood. You will also see plane trees and other common Cretan vegetation, such as thyme and sage bushes. On the south side of the gorge is a spring of fresh drinking water, so it’s a good idea to fill a bottle with cold mountain water to take with you. It takes about 3.5 hours to walk the gorge that is clearly signposted.
4 Moment: Zen of Food
Fresh, home-made, delicious food in not an exception but rather a rule in Crete. Still the element of surprise is always there when finding beautiful, hospitable place with delicious local food just by sheer chance. There seem to be several eateries in Pefki but "Piperia" (that means 'under the pepper tree') is the most beautifully located in the middle of the upper village - traditional tables under the light green dense pepper tree with a scenic view. It is emblemic of the traditional tavern in a best and most friendliest sense - cute, cozy and tasty.
Pefki village in South-East Crete is about 5 km away from nearby Makrigialos or half an hour drive from Ierapetra.
How to make day walking tour around Pefki?
'Erotokritos' by Ross Daly
'Carey' by Joni Mitchell
'Music for Last Temptation of Jesus Christ' by Peter Gabriel
If in other parts of the world the snails enjoy extended life span, secluded and quiet existence than on Crete they are very much in the spotlight, enyoing the centre attention and a prominent place in the Cretan diet. If in other parts of the world the people think of them as disgusting garden pests, here they are seen as a centre piece of the islands menue - delicious, nurturing and very much appreciated on this island which is probably why you will rarely see them in the garden.
I also have difficulty classifying these tardy, little, slow beings and placing them properly in my food chain. Well, clearly it is not a meat, at least by Cretan standards; surely they are not veggies either. I'd like to regard them as sort of 'earth food', just like mussels are considered to be a 'seafood'.
Cretan earth food
The fame has its price to pay - most of Cretan snails end up all butter-soacked, rosemary-seasoned, wine-drunk. Despite the tradition of snail eating on Crete, I can't help feeling a bit like a cannibal and somewhat supreme every time when devouring snails.
If you don't feel like having a snail-collecting experience during the morning moisty hours, fortunately here on Crete you can get the them also at laiki (the street market), coming right from the snail farm - neatly packed in a bag (so you don't have to pick them live and kill actually). Thats, if you opt for home-cooking or - nicely served on the dish in a tavern.
Well, either way the Cretan snails is a must food experience on Crete that you don't want to miss.
What do you need? 'Simplicity is the root of all genius'! The same applies for cooking the snails. What you need is literary few basic ingredients but most importantly - the snails. The list ingredients is following:
How to do it? The more the merrier, so invite friends over for a snail feast. You have to start with removing the membrane covering the opening of the shell and wash the snails properly. Than drown them in bowl filled with water and leave them there until their heads come out (30 to 45 minutes). Throw away all the snails whose heads have not come out. Put the snails in a pot of olive oil - well heated and boil for 10 - 15 minutes. Add the rosemary, salt and pepper, stir them for another 3 minutes later add the sip of vinegar and some wine. Let them come to the boil and they are ready to serve.
Snails go beautifully with the Cretan wine variety and some Cretan jazz! :) Enjoy!
Did I mention there is the whole festival devoted to snails on Crete? Read about the Cretan snail feast here!
Domlades are parcels made from vine leaves stuffed with rice, fresh herbs and seasonings. Depending on the season, you can also get dolmades that are stuffed in zucchini blossoms - in a tender, beautiful flower. The size of dolmade is just right, perfectly proportioned for the human mouth - one juicy bite. Surely, Crete has the best dolmades in Mediterranean.
Dakos to 'die for'
We love dakos! It is the most traditional Cretan starter. Likewise Greek salad in Greece, dakos on this island is an unmistakable indicator of the quality of the meal (to come) as well as the quality meter of the tavern. The more you eat, the more of the expert you become at distinguishing 'dakos to die for' from poor and quickly fixed ones. Dakos is about generous balance and bountiful mix of fresh, good quality ingredients. How crisp yet firm is barley rusk - the basis of the dakos? How ripe and juicy is tomato spread? How flavorful is the feta cheese topping? How generous and fresh is the olive oil seasoning? Dakos can tell you a lot about the overall attitude, hospitality and cooking habits of the tavern.
Crete is the right place to convert yourself from simple foodie to artichokes' gourmand. The variety of artichoke dishes is truly unique here. What can be better than softly cooked, literary melting artichokes with cold beer on a hot spring day, you might conclude (pic on the left). Only to realise that fresh, salt water-sprinkled artichokes with cold aperitivo - raki shot is probably one of the most interesting dinner starters you've ever tasted (pic on the right). The list goes on. Artichokes, however are seasonal and the peak time for the 'Artichoke Crete' is April and early May.
Greens for the heart
Green color is know to be the color of the heart and Cretans are known as heartfelt and amazingly hospitable people. Who knows maybe it all comes from eating plenty of greens? Indeed hearty wild greens picked fresh from the mountain is not only enormously healthy but also tasty. Cook slow, season with raw Cretan sea salt and lemon.
Get high with tirokafteri
Tirokafteri is a cheese spread that include feta cheese, hot pepper, olive oil, lemon and garlic. That might sound as a very simple dish yet again - it has to be done properly. And when we say 'properly', we mean - with mastery and plenty of love. To our taste - the spicier the tirokafteri, the better. With the very spicy ones you really can get 'high'.
What is your favourite Cretan dish?
If you are going to Crete for the first time, the chances are high you will find yourself in Herssonisos that is the 'mecca' of mass tourism in Crete. During the high season the eateries are literary mushrooming in and around Hersonissos so there are plenty of places to choose from but if you are looking for something more authentic and quality, look out for any of these three (see below) that are popular not only among visitors but locals, all year round. Having been around Hersonissos for quite a while, we have explored many taverns and have came up with our favourite trio. It would be fair to say that after some time we stopped the search for 'the best' and settled with visiting these three on a regular basis. Vegera, Akrogiali and Athivoli guarantee the belly happiness and does not 'wear out' the wallet.
The best ambience: Vegera
Having so many taverns per sqm as in Crete, you'd never see people queuing to get a seat. Well, here you go! Officially called 'Vegera' but more often called after its owner 'David', this place is never breaking the tradition of serving simple yet delicious meze dishes and, what is nonetheless important, for amazingly competitive prices. 'Vigour' run by David is a pure example of a lasting tradition of family business. You will see the owner himself taking care of this busy yet cosy place every evening and night (except Sundays). It is a right place for ordering chochlius - Cretan snails. All the meat dishes are equally delicious. Small quantities of dishes and great price allows you to order a lot and to try many different kind of dishes. This tavern is a true gem of Ano Hersonissos and we indeed resist visiting it every single evening.
The best food: Akrogiali
Even thought the tavern's official name is 'Akrogiali', it is called 'at Manolis', yet again for the simple reason that the owner of the tavern is a man, called Manolis. Here too the locals receive the menu list and a pen to mark your choice for meze - just check what you like (the English speakers get a traditional menu, though). This is the right place to go for a fish and seafood - kalamari are delicious; so are mussels, octopus and the catch of the day. The food is really great. Prices are indicated and reasonable - it is easy, transparent and fun ordering procedure. This is another example of a family business where you see the whole extended family engaged during the high season - summer. Located right on the shore in Hersonissos, Akrogiali is simple and lovely place for the traditional meze and a light sea breeze in a warm Mediterranean night. This is the place for best dakos in probably the whole Crete - small, juicy, rich - they literary melt in the mouth. Also, try their excellent bottled wine 'Stamni'! It is one of my favourites - a mix of 4 varieties: sauvignon blanc, assyrtiko, moschato and malagousia with an aftertaste of seriousness, trust, freshness and energy! Produced in limited quantities and available in only here.
The nicest garden: Athivoli
This rather recent discovery, called 'Athivoli' is something of an authentic gem - a place for a quiet evening at the entrance of olive garden while enjoying home-cooked delicious meze dishes prepared by elderly lady - the mother of the family. The family that runs the place asserts that only mother makes the best dolmades and best keftedakia (meet balls). The place is so small and non-commercial in every sense, it feels just like at home. Especially in hot summer eves when you feel you've landed in backside garden of your Mediterranean country lodge - cicadas singing, olives ripening, you sipping the wine ... There is no standard menu available but you can have a choice of day's cooking. 'Athivoli' has a great variety of red house wine. Highly recommended!
Which is your favourite tavern?
Visiting Houdetsi festival is experiencing the Cretan culture, people and food in almost distilled, condensed and pure way and as authentic and genuine as it can get. Here are 3 main reasons why to combine your visit to Crete with the time of Houdetsi village Festival.
Hospitality and Smiles of People
Crete is know for its hospitable and wonderful people but this festival is truly an amazing opportunity to experience the hospitality in a multiplied way. The Cretan people are honoured you have visited their village (and island) and are genuinely interested in your likes. It is a celebration where you as a guest are warmly welcomed by hosts - Cretan people. So, do not miss the opportunity to chat up with people and exchange smiles. Don't get discouraged by your scarce Greek vocabulary, Cretan people like the rest of the Greeks usually are happy to practice their English and to make you feel at home.
Variety and Abundance of Local Food
This is probably one of the best ways to learn about key ingredients of the Cretan cuisine - variety of cheeses, spices, honey, herbs and of course, Cretan spirit - raki as well as wine from local varieties. All of that goes for sale as well as for tasting and sampling in generous portions. Options are abundant including souvlaki, hortopitakias (pastry with greens and herbs), tiropitas (pastry with cheese), loukomades (fried-dough pastry soaked in honey and cinnamon and sprinkled with sesame), halva and so on. Every second seller offers generous shots of raki to train your taste buds and to seal the newly made friendship (having said that you would never see any drunk person there).
World Music Paradise in Crete
This festival is about celebration of Cretan and world music in the first place and therefore a unique opportunity to listen and dance to the sounds and tunes of lyra, laouto, percussions and other instuments. The jam sessions take place spontaneously in the narrow pathways of the village as visitors pull out their own instruments to share their music experience.
Houdetsi Music Festival this year takes place from 4 to 7 of August. Here you can find more information.
Press here for more snapshots from the Houdetsi Festival 2013
The website of the festival: http://www.houdetsifestival.com
'Islands around the island?', you might wonder. Yes, indeed there are more than 70 uninhabited islands and islets around Crete and these are top three visited!
Having traveled for over 30 years, since 6 years now, I have found the whole world in one of the most fascinating and unique places on earth – Crete. It is a diverse, rich and inspiring island which even after so many years does not stop surprising me - its rich history and unique traditions, its people, the delicacies of Cretan cuisine, its landspace and its stunning nature. Here I reveal some of its secrets.
I see Crete through turquoise - pink glasses.