An award-winning travel story by Mihaela lica Butler, in which “the writer builds a strong, instinctive bond with a stranger – a fruit seller – and shows us a first-hand instance of ‘filoxenia’, the inexplicable Cretan ‘love for strangers’ which is touchingly contagious. “
They say the first Cretans were born from the tears of infant Zeus, the king of the gods of Olympus, son of Titans Cronus and Rhea, born on Crete. These first Cretans were five brothers, and, according to our guide Giannis, they came to life right here, in this valley that stretches as far as you can see from Thronos.
A sense of the sacred enveloped me in the silence of the morning watching the undulating landscape of the valley. There’s something inexplicable about the place, a sort of energy hard to put in words. Giannis’s words about the first Cretans still resonate in my mind as I think how much greener the heart of the island looks compared to the naked burnt sienna rocks close to the shore. It’s because it’s holy ground, I reason, thinking how blessed the people living here may feel. Because, sure, they know the legends.
“Zeus, the mightiest of the Greek gods, was born here,” I tell my little boy, who is excited about playing with a little goat tied to a cherry tree in the yard of the Aravanes Taverna. And it’s relevant, because Zeus was nursed by a goat named Amalthea, but the child doesn’t care for legends now. He is happy simply being close to nature and the innocent creatures that provide for us.
He is also excited about what our guides have planned for us for the day, but for now, we just walk around the yard admiring the bounty of the valley: branches loaded with pomegranates, golden quinces, pears and apples, and vines heavy with grapes above our heads.
“The farm is self-sufficient,” Giannis explains. “They produce almost everything they consume on these lands. Here, have a grape, and tell me, have you ever tasted anything sweeter?”
I cannot remember a sweeter grape, that’s for sure. Although I lived for more than fifteen years on the Mosel Valley in Germany, a paradise of Riesling grapes, but the weather there is not always kind for the grapes to ripen enough to taste like honeycombs. But Giannis didn’t offer us Riesling grapes, and, uninspired, I didn’t ask what they were. There was not enough time, you see because as we tasted grapes, Dimitra called us to teach us how to prepare Cretan bread the traditional way.
While the bread is baking in a traditional wood-fired oven, the air fills up with a mouth-watering aroma. But there’s no time to wait around: the day is young and we still have grape-harvesting planned. We drive up on a dirt road till we reach the Papoutsaki family vineyard. The road is narrow and cumbersome, and as we follow our guides, clouds of fine dust puff up in the air perturbing our view. It’s fun, but it’s uphill, and we don’t have an all-terrain car. Somehow, our Ford Ka makes it to the destination: the drive was not that long, after all.
The Sun is now high in the skies, shining in splendor as if Apollo himself looks back at us blessing the harvest with heavenly light. The heat doesn’t stop the “working bees.” Children and adults take to the rows of vines picking up the dark grapes.
“All of the dark ones, even if they look dry,” Lambros Papoutsaki tells us. “The riper they are, the better the wine.”
“And don’t forget to leave a little something for the birds too. Nature is for all,” our guide Rebecca adds and her words echo in my mind with a memory of childhood when my Grandmother said something similar.
We harvest the grapes in plastic crates and we’ll be done soon. This patch of the vineyard is not that big, and we are about twelve people, adults and children, working together as one.
After the harvest follows the treading of the grapes. Barefoot, the children get in a white cement tank and begin stomping the small blue berries which splash purple juice all over their smooth skins. The giggle and laugh, letting out interjections impossible to spell. It’s an odd, new experience, and although Rebecca calls it a “foot spa,” my little boy doesn’t agree. “It’s gross,” he says, laughing louder than ever.
The work is rewarded with a plentiful meal: the bread we baked accompanying refreshing traditional tzatziki, bite-size dolmades, fried eggplant and zucchini slices, goat milk feta cheese, white and red cabbage coleslaw, and a delicious roast of goat served with fried potatoes.
Grape harvest and the bread making experience count among our first memories to cherish on Crete. Somehow, a guided adventure tour like this makes more sense than laying under an umbrella by the beach with the masses of tourists who come here to swim and sunbathe. Cretans are welcoming people, with traditions rooted in legends, as you can see, and they are happy to share their rich heritage with visitors too. As easy as they love to share their raki.