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TAXI SERVICE, for all your holiday needs while you are travelling in Hania. If you're coming to Hania and you need a taxi, maybe we can help you out. For quotes and prompt service, drop me a line at: mverivaki hotmail com

Monday, 29 June 2009

Kebabs (Κεμπάμπ)

When my family visited London a few years ago, after touring the Greenwich area on a freezing cold Sunday in March, before heading back to the train station, we decided to stop somewhere to have a bite to eat, in the hope that we would feel warmer. I've never appreciated a hot meal as much as during that first trip to my favorite holiday destination in the world; it rained very little during our ten-day stay, but the temperatures were lower than 5 degrees Celsius most of the time. We found a diner on the main high street in the area with the word 'kebab' written on the sign. Finally, I thought, I'm getting a chance to eat at a Turkish restaurant. We all ordered kebabs, and came out of the restaurant at the end of the meal wondering if there was any essential difference between 'kebab' and 'souvlaki'.


the real greek
Our first trip to London, March 2006 - temperatures ranged between 0 and 10.

Both 'souvlaki' and 'kebab' have the same modern Greek meaning: 'skewered meat'. The original meaning of the word 'kebab' is 'fried meat'; this meaning is retained in stew-like meals such as 'bowl kebab', but not in the Greek sense. The word 'souvlaki' means 'little souvla'; the big souvla is where Greek-style lamb is cooked at Easter, over a hot fire on a spit. Kebab is most likely Arabic in origin, and is used in the Turkish language for the same kind of food that we call souvlaki in Greece. Both words are used in Greece, but each one denotes something different. So it's really important to know what to ask for when ordering at a taverna, as Matt Barrett points out; his Tale of 2 Souvlakia makes an interesting point about using the right phraseology so that you can take back happy food memories from a Greek holiday.

pita yiro souvlaki
When ordering souvlaki pita/yiro, you can ask to omit one of the garnishes, eg onions. When I make souvlaki at home using leftover BBQ meat, my kids prefer them without tomatoes and onions. Shame really, but hopefully, they'll learn to eat them as they were meant to be eaten once they get older.


When Greeks ask for a 'souvlaki' from a takeaway bar, they usually mean pita bread wrapped round slivers of roast pork meat (you can also ask for chicken instead) that have been sliced off an upright rotating grill, topped with slices of onions and tomatoes and some yoghurt, and sprinkled with red pepper (paprika), and maybe a few fried potatoes added to it as well. But the same word can also mean cubed pork meat on skewers, cooked BBQ style, which is often served on a plate, although it can also be served wrapped round pita bread (skewer removed) with all the regular toppings. When buying freshly prepared skewered meat from a butcher, Greeks will ask for souvlaki; it's highly unlikely that they were expecting a cooked meal from a place like this!

This is really confusing for some people who expect to be served the sandwich style souvlaki at a taverna, but get the skewered souvlaki on a plate. Because of that politically correct tendency that English language speakers and Northern Europeans carry with them when they travel, to accept what they are given without question, most tourists simply thank the waiter and try to hide their dismayed looks, but inevitably, they go away thinking that Greece isn't all it's cracked up to be.

souvlaki lotofagi
Souvlaki served to children at a day camp site; freshly prepared souvlaki is available from any Greek butcher's shop on a daily basis.
CIMG7859

If you want a souvlaki wrapped in pita bread with greaseproof paper, you should ask for a 'pita yiro'; yiro' means 'round', so the souvlaki will be wrapped in pita bread and held with the hands. These are to the Greeks what the hamburger is to the American, or fish and chips to the British. Many takeaway places also serve them on a plate at the table, not just as take-out meals. If you really do want the skewered meat, then say 'xilaki' or 'kalamaki', which both mean 'little stick', meaning that the souvlakia will be cubed meat (still on the skewers), served on a plate; the normal serving size is two 'xilakia/kalamakia' per person. If the taverna is more up-market, a metal skewer is used instead, and you'll probably get one large souvlaki.

Souvlakia in Greece are hardly ever referred to as kebabs. The Greek 'kebab' (a word adopted into the Greek culture from the time of the occupation of the Ottomans) has come to denote compacted minced meat with herbs and spices added, wrapped round a skewer and cooked over an open fire, just like the souvlakia on sticks. So if you ask for a 'kebab', don't be surprised if the meat on the skewer looks like one long sausage without its casing; that's what you asked for. If you ask for a 'pita kebab', then that sausage will come inside some pita bread (minus the skewer) with all the trimmings, just like the 'yiro' described above.

*** *** ***

For a truly Athenian food experience, you mustn't miss out on al fresco dining, under one of the most famous monuments in the world, at one of the kebab houses located in Monastiraki, in the centre of Athens. If you've been through Athens without doing this, then you've probably missed out on the greatest traditional culinary experience that this city has to offer.

Bairaktaris, Thanasis and Savvas all serve really good juicy kebabs that very few cooks can imitate in their own homes. The secret is in the large quantities they make and their own special blends of herbs and spices that they have developed over the decades. Some kebab shops serve mainly (or only) kebabs, so that their product is always fresh, given the large turnover of the same product. I've been to all three of the kebab restaurants mentioned above, and I found the food served at all of them equally good. Savvas seemed to have the most friendly staff and there was no hawking for customers (at least on the day I was there).

shish kebab athens bairaktaris kebab house athens
These kebab houses on Monastiraki Square are located in the same area and have a very respectable reputation; they are always crowded with diners eating delicious succulent kebabs served on pita bread with onions and tomato. Salad, fried potatoes and tzatziki are always served on the side ,and some of these places serve little else.
thanasis kebab house athens savvas kebab house athens.

To make kebabs of the highest order, you need a good recipe, the right cooking facilities and possibly some good cooking skills learnt from experience. Making kebabs is a little like making biftekia; you can use a basic meatball recipe, but the kebab mixture must be super smooth and sticky, so that it will stay put when you stick a skewer into its centre. Make sure all the ingredients are so finely cut or ground that when they are rolled into a ball, they will look like one big reddish brown mass.

kebab kebab
I'm still perfecting my kebab recipe in terms of spice combinations. A perfect kebab needs to be smoother in appearance than mine, it should be cooked over an open fire, and it should retain its juices.
kebab

Lamb mince is unusual to work with in Greece, since not many butchers will mince lamb for you (and this is the preferred meat, along with beef, that is used in Turkish kebabs, due to religious practices). I found some lamb mince recently at AB Vasilopoulos, although it was imported from France and mixed together with beef mince. I added some onion, garlic, herbs and spices, shaped them into rissoles, skewered them and grilled them in a hot oven, turning on all sides to get them as browned as possible. We had them with a fantastic tzatziki and a Greek salad; it made an excellent meal during a heatwave in early June this year, with Joy and Bryan for company, who accepted my blog intro's invitation: "If you're ever in Hania, come and join us for lunch...".

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Salt (Αλάτσι)

Once upon a time, there was a king who had four daughters. When his wife died, he wanted to make one of his daughters queen. Being a bit of a foodie, he asked them to go and search for an interesting edible item and bring it to him as a present. He would choose the most interesting food item, and bestow on the bearer of the gift the treasured title of queen.

His eldest daughter travelled to the northernmost parts of the country (it was a good chance to see her boyfriend who was stationed in the army at Kozani) and brought her father colourful crocus bulbs from which the most expensive spice in the world, saffron, was collected. Her father was delighted that his eldest daughter could combine food with luxury (he had no idea about the boyfriend); but saffran was an unusual spice, and the cook often forgot to add it to the foods he cooked for the royal family, simply because the local cuisine did not demand it. It had its own special range of herbs and spices in its repertoire.

koutroulis omalos saffron
Saffran is a specialty of Kozani, Northern Greece, although crocus flowers also grow in other parts of Greece (these were sighted at Omalos). The spice is sold in supermarkets - a little box like costs about 5 euro.

His second daughter travelled beyond the borders of the country (the jet-set had all booked holidays in Thailand that year) to an exotic land that produced equally exotic looking juicy fruits called pitahayia, very refreshing if you were stuck on a desert island. The king was delighted that his middle daughter could combine thirst with an aesthetically pleasing appearance in her food (he didn't know that she had picked up these fruits at Bangkok airport, as she remembered her father's request at the eleventh hour); despite the fruit's inherently unique appearance, he found the fruits quite tasteless.

pitahaya pitahaya
Pitahayia, imported from Vietnam, and sold in Hania supermarkets.

His third daughter considered herself as having very refined tastes. She wanted to buy something organic, green, ecologically sound, locally grown, and above all sustainable, so she set off to an high class supermarket to see what she could find. In the herb section, she came across something she had never heard of before, 'antrakla'. She liked the look of this healthy looking plant, and the sound of its name; it sounded so mannish. She brought it home to her father, who accepted with a smile. He knew his third daughter was a tad pretentious, and that she wasn't very clever; the purslane weed she had bought him was known in his kingdom as 'glistrida' and it was growing all over the garden in the summertime.

purslane glistrida watercress antrakla purslane glistrida
Purslane in my garden; purslane selling for more than 1 euro a bunch.

His youngest daughter didn't really care for holidays to exotic places and was quite content to stay put, taking walks by the sea in her shorts and T-shirt, talking to the locals who didn't realise who she was, and picking up bits and pieces of nature along the way. She wasn't interested in the crown either, but knew she had to play along to keep her dad happy and smiling now that mum was gone. On her walks, she liked to collect things she found in nature, but made sure she only gathered sustainable resources, to ensure that something could be left for the next wanderer to enjoy. She wasn't worried about the next generation, as in her opinion, they should learn to fend for themselves.

When she arrived home, without changing into clean clothes, she dragged in the big plastic bag she was carrying and announced to her father that she had finally found a interesting food item that she wanted to present to him. The king was very excited to hear as this, as he knew that of all his daughters, the youngest one was the most sensible one. He looked into the bag and found...

rock salt
Can you imagine being given five kilos of rock salt? This will last me until November, when I start salting black olives for preservation. It was given to us a gift by a family friend, who collected it from the beaches on the Akrotiri peninsula in northeast Hania.

... the clearest rock salt crystals he had ever seen. He didn't look down on his daughter because she had brought him something so common and coarse; he wasn't angry, and he did not banish her from the kingdom. The king was a wise man, and he knew that saffron and pitahayia, for all their unusual and interesting features, could not replace salt under any circumstances, and neither could you imagine a world where there is no salt for your meat, broth and bread, because salt is necessary for life. So of course he made her queen, and just as well, because her sisters ended up leaving home for other shores, as the grass always looks greener on the other side. The young queen married the gardener and they lived happily ever after.

And if this story reminds you of a fairy tale you've heard before, here's the original version.

"Αλάτσι" (alatsi) is the Cretan word for salt, which is "αλάτι" (alati) in Greek.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Lemons (Λεμόνια)

Lemon in Greek cooking is commonly taken for granted that it is amazing to think it only existed in Europe since Ancient Rome. Lemon is the main dressing ingredient in Greek cuisine. How we managed to survive without lemons in the past is a mystery, because Greeks use a lot of lemon juice in their food. Boiled vegetables and greens are always dressed with lemon juice, along with olive oil and salt; lemon juice is absolutely essential on horta, fish and BBQ meat, while most Greek soups and white sauces are lemon-based. In Crete, green olives are preserved in lemon juice and salt.

In countries where lemons are in short supply, sour-tasting sumac is used as a substitute. A Middle-Eastern student of mine tells me that the common weed clover is also used for the same purpose, cut finely like a herb, to release its acidic flavour. Although lemons are grown all over Greece, the winter period poses a problem in finding locally grown lemons, even in Crete.

lemon tree
It's always a sad time in our house when we realise we've run out of lemons.
lemons lemons

In the village, we have a lemon tree that is laden with fruit every year. In theory, we can have all the lemons we want, but the problem is that they aren't in season all year round. Fresh lemon juice can be frozen in ice cube trays and used in winter greens. One ice-cube placed over one serving of steaming hot horta is enough to get that tangy flavour always present in Greek-style boiled greens. This is an excellent way to preserve lemon juice, and it doesn't take up a lot of space in the freezer, especially for use in the winter when access to fresh lemons is limited. Lemons are often imported in Hania at this time, mainly from South America. They taste less tangy than locally grown ones.

CIMG7835

In the summer, I love home-made lemonade. It is so refreshing and so simple to make. Elise gives a very simple recipe, which you can make up freshly each time you want to make lemonade. Her lemon syrup recipe keeps for a couple of weeks in the fridge, if you prefer to make it in bulk; just don't mix it with extra water until you're ready to serve it.

And when you're squeezing so many lemons, you'll notice your hands looking clean and shiny - lemon juice is a great cleansing agent.

lemonade

Another way to use up excess lemons Greek-style is to turn them into spoon sweets preserved in syrup or add them to orange marmalade. Many cultures around the world also have their own unique lemon recipes: lemon meringue pie, lemon curd, lemon herb butter and lemon granita ice-cream have become universal favorites. But my absolute favourite internationally inspired use for lemon would have to be that delicious refreshing Italian limoncello, enjoyed outdoors on a warm summer’s evening.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Food for thought (Με το νου μας στο φαγητό)

The global trend towards a westernised lifestyle has spoilt us all for choice when it comes to buying and storing the ingredients we use to prepare our meals with. Despite the widespread availability of easy food choices, that still doesn't solve the question of what you're going to do with the food you buy once it comes into the house. The second millenium has spoilt everyone for choice. In my own home, the question of what to cook and how to cook it consumes our time and mind to a great extent. And it's not only our household that suffers from this fate: ask any home cooks in Hania, in Crete, in Greece and probably most places in the world how they choose what to cook on a daily basis to nourish and sustain their family, and I'm sure they'll tell you how difficult it is to please everyone with one meal. How, then, does the main cook decide on what to buy from the food stores she visits (it's usually the woman who does this in most families) and what to prepare for the main meal on a daily basis?

These days, my cookbooks usually sit unused on the bookshelf; I now keep them mainly for sentimental reasons (except for the orange one). The 'TSELEMENTES' cookbook was sent to my mother by her mother, a few years after she got married, but she never used it; the recipes had few associations with the food my mother wanted to cook for her family.

WEEKLY FOOD PLAN: I've always followed some kind of weekly schedule to plan ahead our daily meals; this helps me to be prepared and also to provide enough variety throughout the week. I also use this plan to make sure I don't cook too much fried food or meat. Without a plan, I'd be heating up frozen meals from the supermarket. The next day's meal often has to be cooked the night before due to work commitments, since there are some days when there literally isn't enough time to cook a quick or decent healthy meal. If there is no main meal for lunch due to other commitments, then we prepare a simple dakos and a salad, with a boiled egg or potato which don't take long to cook.

We try our hardest to convince the children that they have to eat like this, but they still need some persuasion; this poster has been stuck on the radiator for a few years now.

But that doesn't mean food thoughts are over for the day, once we've settled lunch. There's the planning for the next day. As soon as we've had our main meal (in Hania, the norm is to eat the main meal any time, according to the work commitments of the family members, after 1pm and before 5pm), I always announce or ask for suggestions about the next day's main meal. It seems that a lot of our waking hours are consumed with thoughts concerning food, preparing it and eating. In order for a family to eat healthy food, this has to be the case, because there are so many considerations to take into account.

Out of curiosity, I decided to keep a record of all the main meals I cooked or ate with my family starting from the beginning of the year (until pneumonia got the better of me). January is a good food month in winter, as there are holiday periods (like Christmas, which is a good time to go out for a meal), and the family spends more time together, so it's easier to plan meals. Lunch (the main meal) and the evening meal (always smaller and less formal than lunch) are separated by a colon. Leftovers are what remained from a previous meal up to three-four days.

  1. New Year's lunch: pork and celery, pork steaks, cabbage salad, pizza, kalitsounia, Vasilopita
  2. Lentils; leftover pork turned into souvlaki
  3. Cauliflower and xinohondro; corn fritters and toasted sandwiches
  4. Botanical Park Restaurant
  5. Fasolada; dinner at a friend's place
  6. Lunch at a friend's place
  7. Broccoli pasta bake
  8. Fasolada; kalitsounia
  9. French fries; bread and oil for supper
  10. Biftekia and potatoes in oven with maroule; lihnarakia
  11. Pork and celery
  12. Lentils; kalitsounia
  13. Leftovers; dakos
  14. Calamari and wild greens with rice
  15. Oven-baked pasta with ratatouille sauce
  16. French fries and leftovers
  17. Makaronada, leek potage; marathopites; dinner at a friend's place
  18. Pad Thai singlina; Sfakianes pites
  19. Lentils; leftovers
  20. Leftovers
  21. Moussaka; kalitsounia
  22. Yemista
  23. Leftovers
  24. French fries, Pad Thai singlina; The Botanical Park Restaurant
  25. Leftovers; oven-baked pasta with ratatouille sauce; biscotti
  26. Fava, biftekia and sausages
  27. Green beans in red sauce
  28. Leftovers; Chinese noodles
  29. Pilafi; corn fritters; maroule
  30. Chicken livers with okra and ravioli pesto; spanakopita and banana cake
  31. Fried eggs and maroule; leftovers
How much meat, fried food, beans and greens did we eat in a month?
  • 14/31 - vegetables and greens (including horta)
  • 13/31 (days) - meat (including mince); it must be remembered that this month was a busy one socially with parties, meals out and festivals that usually involve cooking meat (otherwise, the total number would have been 10/31)
  • 9/31 - beans and legumes (the total would have been higher if the month wasn't festive)
  • 9/31 - fried food
How good to know we didn't stray too far off our target! Coincidentally, rice, pasta and bread, in combination with cheese products, featured almost daily.

TIME LIMITATIONS: Time constraints add a heavy burden to the schedule of even he best cooks. Let's take an example of a simple salad. Have you ever considered how long it takes to wash leafy greens, and let them dry enough so that the salad doesn't taste too gritty or too watery, especially when using your own salad greens from the garden? They are often covered in dust (or muddy) soil. Then there's the chopping and tearing, adding the necessary bits and pieces and the dressing, before that salad gets to the table. If you haven't prepared your greens from the day before, then forget it - you won't be having salad after work, in between picking up kids from school, setting the table to have the meal you prepared (apart from the salad), and knowing that you have to be out the door a certain time for afternoon activities.

garden lettuce garden lettuce
I haven't got the patience to face this when I come home from work in the afternoon.
If I haven't prepared a salad from the evening before, we don't get to eat one...

cleaned garden lettuce

Having a garden is all very well, but you have to devote a lot of time to it, as Rachel Laudan points out. Nothing grows on its own (it may sprout without any help annually, but it still needs your TLC.

STORAGE SPACES: It's all very well to have a food plan, but you also need the appropriate storage spaces if you want to have good healthy food always on hand. For example, if you intend to grow your own vegetables, there won't be much point in growing large quantities unless you are intent on storing them for later use (by freezing or canning). Have you ever considered what your most indispensable ingredients are? What do you always keep well-stocked? How much storage space do you devote to food, whether in the fridge or the pantry? What fresh herbs can you not do without? Do you ever count the cost of carbon footprints when storing food? How far are you prepared to go to reduce them for the sake of storing food items for your convenience?


If I lived in an apartment
, I wouldn't have a garden, my balcony would be used for storing a small supply of onions and potatoes, and I wouldn't be able to store more than a crate of oranges from our fields. The kitchen would be too small to handle the preparation required to preserve food, and fitting the deep freeze into the house might be a frightening experience.

food storage food storage
My mise-en-place, storage areas, pantry and fridge; the basement also contains a deep freeze for seasonal produce, some crates of citrus and our olive oil supplies for the year.
food storage food storage food storage

Just think back to the times when people had limited space in their house and no refrigeration, and compare that to the 'easy food' that we now have available to us. That's more than enough to make you realise how easy it is to eat all the rubbish you want as fast as it takes to say 'I'm hungry'. If you think you don't have enough cupboards in your kitchen to store things the way you want, take a look through these photos, and see what kind of food people around the world need to keep their families going for a week. And don't forget that all storage spaces need spring cleaning, which is why I wish Paula were around to help me sort out mine.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Knossos (Κνωσσός)

Every year my children's primary school organises a school trip for the whole school. It's usually based on entertainment value (eg a trip to Paleohora for the sun, sea and sand, with a taverna and cafe thrown in), but this year, thanks largely to a new headmaster, the outing took on a more educational approach. We visited Knossos, a small village located 1 kilometre away from the hospital where my daughter spent the first four weeks of her life as a premature baby, just out of Iraklio (two hours away from Hania), the largest town in Crete, or should I say, the fifth largest town in the whole of Greece.

CIMG7556 school assembly before the trip to knossos
The ominous black clouds above the school building and the few drops of rain that fell on our heads did not deter us in our excitement over the annual school trip. Greek schoolchildren lining up for assembly before boarding the buses; this village school has a small roll.

Kindergarten and 1st graders had to be accompanied by a parent or guardian, but this isn't the reason I went along on the trip. There would have to be a very good reason for me to turn down a visit to the first civilisation known to man in the whole of Europe. Knossos, headed by King Minos, existed 12 centuries before the Acropolis; the legacy left behind by Pericles does not toll as loudly as that of King Minos.

rethimno geropotamos wetland
The scenery on the road from Hania to Knossos is breathtaking, to say the least. The road is coastal; above you see a wetland where the river Geropotamos in Rethimno forms a deep lake
on the road to iraklio on the road to iraklio

The word 'Knossos' brings to mind not a modern Cretan village, but the remains of an organised ancient city centred around a palace state, which was flourishing 4000 years ago, with colourful frescoes on the walls, columns made from cypress trees, storage cellars for oil and wine, and even flushing toilets for the royalty. The palatial site at Knossos was rebuilt many times over the centuries after being destroyed by fire and earthquakes, and continued to be used for more than 500 years (1900-1350 BC), an awesome fact if compared with the modern trend to knock down buildings that seem useless to us, another example of our throwaway culture.

*** *** ***

Because the actual journey was a long one, we had our first pit-stop (supposedly a 10-minute toilet stop) at a coach station. This gave me just enough time to witness the horrors of the junk food culture that has overtaken the land that gave us the Mediterranean diet. Of course, you can't expect anything other than junk food and exorbitant prices in such an outlet. Most of the older children were unaccompanied and hence were given an allowance to cover such expenses, just like my children will be given some time in the future, and they will probably make junky choices like the ones the other kids made. There is little likelihood that my 'organically cooked' children will make sound food choices when they are given the opportunity to make up their own mind about what to buy from such refreshment kiosks.

pit stop at rethimno coach station how to ensure that your whole family will suffer from obesity
The coach station was a good opportunity to watch how some parents try to kill their children. The (obese) mother in the right is helping her (fat) child to have just enough fizzy drink to make him feel queasy when he gets back on the bus (and vomit along the windy road to Iraklio, I suppose), while his (fat) brother ponders over how he will manage to eat his way through a whole chocolate bar, a large ham and cheese sandwich and a fizzy drink before he gets back on the bus; the driver specifically stated: "No eating or drinking except water."

Needless to say, I bought along some home-made cake and two bottles of water. We sat communally with other parents and children, watching them all devouring crap. My daughter threw a tantrum. "Cake, cake, always cake, can't we just buy something?" She began to cry in that way that children do, when they think there is some hope that their parents will become embarrassed and then succumb to their whims and fancies.

home made cake and a bottle of water
Life sucks when your mother's in charge.

We had all had a decent breakfast before leaving the house. The bus was air-conditioned, and we were seated for over two hours. How much energy does one expend under such conditions? And where the hell is the Mediterranean diet anyway, and the traditional Greek mother who'd spent the previous night cooking up a whole picnic to feed an army?

*** *** ***

The last stretch to Iraklio (Knossos lies 3 kilometres out of the centre of the town) is on a curvy hilly road. It isn't the most scenic route, but you get an idea of how different Iraklio is to Hania, and how unlike an island Crete actually is. Iraklio is overpopulated for the surface area it covers. It is bordered by the sea in the north, while high mountains border the prerimeter of the city to the south. Apartment blocks have even been built in the midst of mountain forests (possibly not legally); Iraklio lacks residential space. Despite its random building projects which give it a haphazard Athenian neighbourhood look with tall aesthetically-lacking apartment blocks, Iraklio is an important centre in Crete and has a lot of clout politically and economically.

iraklio iraklio
As you enter or drive through Iraklio, you can't help wondering if you've lost your way and gone to Athens instead; it lacks any of the charms associated with a Greek island.

Hania may be a more beautiful part of the island, but Iraklio is more organised, more judicious and more hard-working than the other prefectures of Crete (personal experience). There is a certain amount of friendly rivlary felt between the Haniotes and the Irakliotes, and not without reason (Hania lost its capital city status to Iraklio in 1971), but Iraklio is still the city and prefecture that attracts people from all over the country, being located right in the middle of the northern coastline of the island. It's been the largest urban centre in Crete since Minoan times.

mount junchtas where zeus lies sleeping
If you know what there is to see, you will look out for Mount Youktas, where the leader of the Greek gods is buried (you can see his face in the outline of the moutain). Zeus was a Cretan, born either in the Ideon Andron Cave at Psiloritis mountain or in Dikteon Andron in the Lassithi plateau, who ruled in Mount Olympus, and died in Crete, despite being immortal.

After a 2 1/2 hour bus trip, we found ourselves outside Knossos at the commercial part of the site, where the cafes and souvenir shops are located.
Parents were given a choice of accompanying their children for half the price of the full 6-euro ticket (children on school trips enter for free with their teachers), or wait outside the entrance to the site until the children finished the (guided!) tour. It is embarrassing to confess that most of them preferred to remain as educated as they were before they left their homes that day ("I came here on a school trip when I was a kid, I've already seen this before!").

souvenir shops knossos tour guide at knossos
Some parents headed off to the nearest cafe; I picked up the official guidebook from the site (6 euro, available in many foreign languages). The souvenirs are good value if you are into ornamental reproductions. Our mellifluous guide carried a blue umbrella high above her head as we walked with her; our school was not the only visiting Knossos on that day!

They decided not to enter the site (which would have cost them only 3 euro); they probably amused themselves instead by hanging out at the cafe bars that were dotted around the area, drinking frappe coffee, eating more junk food, and buying some more sugary drinks for their kids just before they began their tour (the teachers kept reminding them that they were on a no-food-allowed site).

With our water, hats, sunscreen and sunglasses (Knossos is very exposed to the burning sun), we entered the ruins of the palace of Knossos, which itself is surrounded by the remains of the houses of Minos’ subjects, who lived outside and around the palace grounds, which is why taking just one little step in the area means that you are walking on some more of the hidden ancient antiquities that the world is simply waiting to be brought to light...

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The earliest evidence of human activity in Crete comes from 6100 BC, in what is known as the Pre-Pottery period. No findings from the Paleolithic age (paleo - old; lithic - stone; the Old Stone Age) have been determined yet in Crete (although they exist in other parts of Greece), but this could happen in the future; the Paleolithic Y-haplogroup heritage predominates in the gene pool, as found in a Cretan highland plateau. Remains of wheat, barley and lentils, as well as the bones of domesticated animals (goats, sheep and pigs) indicate that this group of people were not nomadic. Between 5700-2800 BC during the Neolithic Age (neo - new; lithic - stone), people were living both in both caves and houses constructed of rough clay bricks, stone and wood . The population of Crete at this time was composed of different nationalities, most likely from the west rather than the east Mediterranean.

For many years, the palace at Knossos remained under the ground, most likely due to a volcanic eruption in Santorini, which created such a large tsunami that it covered the coastal areas of Crete. But stories of its legendary status and the ruling King Minos remained; even in those dark days, villagers who dug up their land for a range of purposes found various bits and pieces of items dating back to the days of antiquity. In 1878, a young Iraklioti (ie he came from the city of Iraklio), appropriately named Minos (even the name of the king lived on!) unearthed a part of the storage areas of the palace...

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Sir Arthur Evans unearthed most of the treasures in Knossos, but it was actually a Cretan (Minos Kalokairinos) who first dug up a part of the palace.


... but the Ottoman (Turkish) rulers of Crete of the time didn't let him to do any further work in the area. Heinrich Schliemann (who had already helped unearth the treasures of Troy and Mycenae) heard about Minos' lucky finds, but wasn't able to raise the funds needed to buy the site from the Turkish landowners, leaving the site exposed to Elginism, which thankfully did not happen.

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In 1878, Minos Kalokairinos discovered part of this storage area for the pithoi (urns) which held olive oil and wine. Unfortunately, due to the flammability of the oil, this is where a fire broke out and destroyed the palace in the 14th century BC.

In 1900, mainly due to luck, just a few years after the Ottomans were ousted from their official ruling role in Crete, the site of Knossos fell in the hands of the kindly Englishman Arthur Evans, who the town of Iraklio now thanks for helping unearth the treasures of Knossos with a well-deserved statue of Sir Arthur at the entrance of the ancient site. He excavated most of what we see nowadays of Knossos (and controversially rebuilt some parts of the destroyed palace) and gave the name 'Minoan' to this time period, which lasted over 1500 years (2600-1000 BC).

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It is difficult not to feel a sense of awe when you find yourself in the heart of the Mediterranean under its clear blue sunny sky at one of the most ancient sites of Europe, in the company of a beautiful guide who began relating stories to us about King Minos and his palace in a sing-song fairy-tale fashion.

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The Minoans were surrounded by beautiful scenery - low undulating hills, the bright green foliage of the trees and the clear blue sky.

This tour was intended for the lower primary school grades, which made those stories sound even more thrilling; the adults simply have to read between the lines as they hear about the antics of the Greek gods to turn this amazing story into one of sexual fantasy and intrigue:

"One day, Zeus spotted Europe as she was playing in the fields, and he thought she was the most beautiful girl among all her frolicking friends. So he transformed himself into a gentle bull and lured her away from her native land, taking her to the shores of Crete, Zeus' birthplace (and where Zeus is believed to have been laid to rest) where he finally revealed himself.

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The Greek 2-euro coin depicts Europa riding on a bull (Zeus), making her way to Crete.

She had three children with him, one of which was Minos, who became a King and married Pasiphae; the
palace of Knossos was built for his family and servants by a clever man called Daidalus.

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The reconstructed frescoes give us an idea of what the Minoans looked like 3000 years ago: they were short (in our terms), with a tanned skin, dark eyes and dark hair. Males (always depicted in red) and females (always painted white) had similar hairstyles and clothing. The symbol of the bull features throughout their culture: the birth of King Minos, the Minotaur, and the Bull Games (Ταυροκαθάψια - tavrokathapsia).
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Minos was such a powerful king that when Aegeus, king of Athens, killed Minos' son Androgeus, Minos had the Athenians send him the 7 most handsome boys and the 7 most beautiful girls from the mainland, whom he threw into the darkness of his labyrinthian palace which had many rooms and was difficult to get out of once you got in. These young people got lost in the maze, where they were eventually eaten up by the hungry Minotaur, a half-bull half-human creature (the creation of Minos' wife Pasiphae, after she had an affair with - you guessed it - a bull) who lived in the centre of the labyrinth.

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The myriads of rooms found side-by-side, one on top of another, remind you of a labyrinth.

The Minotaur was eventually killed off by one of those young people, Theseus, who was also able to find his way out of the palace with the help of Minos' daughter Ariadne, who gave him a ball of string which he tied to the entrance of the labyrinth that showed him the way out as he twined it back into a ball.

"Minos was a bit more than a tad angry when he realised what had happened, especially since Ariadne took off with Theseus to
Athens. Theseus was having such a good time celebrating his many successes in Crete that he forgot to change the sails on his boat, so that when his father sighted his son's ship bearing black instead of white sails, he thought that Theseus was dead, so he threw himself into the sea and drowned (which is how the Aegean Sea got its name).

famous dolphins fresco
Undoubtedly, these images are the most famous from Knossos, known all over the world: top - the Queen's room; left - a reconstruction of part of the palace; right - the throne room; bottom - close up of the reconstruction.
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Minos knew that Ariadne must have got help from someone cleverer than herself, so as to be able to help Theseus; he laid the blame on the designer of the palace, Daidalus, who realised that if he wanted to escape the palace and Minos' scrutiny, he would have to find a route other than by land or sea, as Minos controlled these two pathways. He chose to fly out with his son, Icarus, with the help of a set of wings he made for each of them using bird feathers that fell in the palace grounds and beeswax.

ancient amphitheatre at knossos - spectators stood, not sat 4000 year old plumbing
The Minoan civilisation is the first known literate civilisation in Europe. The Minoans were very advanced for their times: they had invented intricate sewerage systems that even included flushing toilets. This amphitheatre pre-dates Hellenistic ones: they were square and people always stood up. Maybe the local council convened here and discussed things like smelly sewerage... Interestingly, no weapons have been found at the site, which leads one to believe that the Minoans were a peaceful race, but this also left them vulnerable to attacks.

He warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, because the wax would melt and the feathers would come loose, and he'd lose his wings and fall to his death. But Icarus did what all children even in modern times do - he disobeyed his father, flew too close to the sun, and eventually lost his wings. The sea where he fell was named after him (Ikarios), from which the name of the nearby island is also derived (
Ikaria).

"His father survived and ended up in Sicily, where Minos decided to hunt him down. As he sat at the Sicilian King Kokalus' palace, Minos asked him to solve a riddle for him. King Kokalus searched out Daidalus to tell him the answer (there's always a clever person behind a successful one) to the riddle, which gave away the whereabouts of Daidalus. Minos then demanded that Kokalus release Daidalus to him. Kokalus agreed, but while Minos was having a bath just before leaving Sicily with Daidalus, he was killed by one of Kokalus' daughters."

And that was the end of King Minos, but not his splendid palace and the civilisation that he created. The Minoan civilization became vulnerable to attacks by mainland Greeks after 1450 BC, which was approximately the time of a volcanic eruption in Santorini that created a tidal wave that reached Crete and possibl covered Knossos with ash. The Minoans were conquered by the Mycenaeans who gave Crete the many Peloponesian-sounding placenames that are still in use today, but after the fall of Troy, the Mycenaeans were also conquered in Crete by the powerful and destructive Hellenistic Dorians.

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Crete's two main export products: tourism and agricultural products, mainly olive oil, usually found side-by-side all over the island.

That's when Crete started to take on a Greek look; the Eteocretans (the real Cretans, as Homer called the original Cretans before the invasion of conquerors) eventually turned into Greeks, so that, by the ninth century BC, Crete had become totally Greek.

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After the guided tour which lasted 1 1/2 hours, we left the palace grounds, and entered the fast modern world that we had left behind just before we started our journey. We were all a little thirsty, so I looked round the commercial part of the Knossos site to buy some cold juices. There was a very upmarket looking café located across from the entrance to the site, with mounds of oranges lining its boundary walls.

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I ordered two cups of freshly squeezed orange juice, and nearly fainted when I heard the price: 4 euro a cup. I felt relieved that we haven’t been selling our orange crops for the last two years (due to the low prices offered to producers of agricultural products and the difficulty of finding a wholesaler willing to organize the labour), because Iraklio imports from our region – it is not an orange-producing area; Iraklio is known for its olive oil and grape wine. At least I wasn’t paying to drink my own product (although it was absolutely delicious and perfectly refreshing).

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My kids ate all the chips but left the souvlaki; I couldn't blame them. I succumbed to letting them have one ice-cream for the day.
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We were then taken to our lunch spot, a children’s campsite called The Land of the Lotus Eaters. The meals provided to the children were an absolute abomination – two dry souvlakia (kebabs on sticks) with a blob of yogurt, and a double serving of McDonalds-style pre-cut pre-fried French fries.

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At least they were kept active before and after the meal. Hersonissos is in the distance, a few kilometres out of Iraklio city.
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None of the children chose the healthier option of youvetsi which was cooked to perfection and very tasty. Ice-creams and fizzy drinks were provided at a cost, and there’s no need to tell you that everyone (except us) was downing them by the dozen. What the Eteocretans or the Minoans would have thought of us if they were watching us at that moment remains a mystery. A year ago, I was bragging, boasting and pumping my head off that the Mediterranean diet is alive and well and living in my children's school; a year on, it seems that it's almost dead and buried, living only as a fading memory.

This post is dedicated to Laurene, who knows more than I do about Knossos.

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