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Anogia, Crete: It’s Clear Zeus was Here – Anogia, Crete, Greece

Anogia, Crete: It’s Clear Zeus was Here
Anogia, Crete, Greece

On the Mountain
On the Mountain
My first trip to Anogia was on a very hot August day. My partner, Panos, and I piled into the car with our friend, Nikos, and his family too early one Sunday morning for our long-anticipated visit to his home village. From the coastal city of Iraklio, we headed southwest toward the center of Crete and her highest mountain (Mt. Psiloritis at 2456 meters in the Idi range), where Anogia lies cradled in the foothills. The rural area above Iraklio was peaceful with gorgeous views of the sea. The road steadily climbs and curves through vineyards, olive groves and orchards with huge fig trees hovering over the path.

The landscape changed once we entered a deep, rocky gorge where only the goats can manage the terrain. The road was chiseled out midway through the range with scarcely enough space for two-way traffic — the sheer drop below was a good substitute for the coffee jolt I was craving. My friends who live here thought nothing of it, chattering away about rabbit hunting while I was holding my breath.

As we followed the sharp contours of the mountain, I wondered how on earth people could survive in such an isolated area, especially before automobiles and paved roadways. People have inhabited in this area for at least four thousand years, retreating further and further inland from the long list of invaders throughout history. Traveling on foot or donkey would have been a Herculean journey, and the thought of how the ancients constructed stone temples and cities on a sheer precipice was daunting. Not only was/is Crete a beautiful island and agricultural-trade center but it is also a strategic point between Europe, Africa and Asia. Hence, the desire to occupy the island was great.

There are several ancient sites in this area that have been discovered to date in Axos, Gonies, Idian Cave and Tylissos to name a few, and somehow you can feel it – passing the caves and crumbling rock structures, imagining what life was like with people tending to their farms, much as they do today. The sites and stories are infinite in this area and a visit to Knossos just scratches the surface. At the edge of the gorge, little pockets of civilization began to appear again with villages suspended on cliffs and crops descending the slopes. Climbing further above the clouds, we reached Anogia.

We arrived to the sound of the village priests, chanting from the church altar into a modern PA system, which echoed throughout the village. The main square was empty, except for a few shopkeepers, tourists and rebellious grandfathers sipping a little something to get them going. We took a stroll around the village, passing houses with beautiful aromas wafting through the kitchen windows; comforting scents of chicken broth, roast lamb, pork or fish. The humble abodes along the edge of the village have rooftops level with the road – tricky construction. Some rooftops are good for chickens to loiter on, others were resting areas for goats. I nearly tripped over a goat hoof in the road – you won’t see that kind of litter in Manhattan.

Anogia is not a small village with a current population of about 3,000, although it feels cozy tucked into the mountain’s arm with narrow, twisting streets which lessens the chance of unnerving motorbikes speeding past. It’s also a very stylish village with some swank restaurants and cafes, giving it a cosmopolitan feel on certain corners. You could easily lose track of time in one of the tavernas overlooking the tranquil valley and slopes. As this is a farming community, the food is fantastic. Everything you eat is raised and produced in the village and anyone who makes it has had generations of instruction. There’s no need to explain on taverna menus that your lamb or chicken is “free range” or that your salad is made with fresh-picked “field” greens. The olive oil, olives, vinegar, wine, cheeses and breads served are quite possibly produced by the taverna owners. This concept is a tad different from the term “house made” liberally used on big-city menus.

We stopped off for ice coffee at the home of one of the many great musicians from Anogia, Nikos Xylouris, who passed away 20 years ago. The first floor of his family’s tiny house is adorned with concert posters and memorabilia. Nikos’ brother, Andonis, is also a popular musician today and some say he’s the best lyre player in Crete. His sisters run the museum/café and they were a delight, reminiscing while playing a few requests of beautiful songs. We had conflicting surround-sound with the church chanting in the background.

Cretan music is distinctly different from the rest of Greece, the lyre being the prominent strings and foreign influences minimal, they say. A style called rizitika, is like interactive theater or poetry-music with a strong-voiced storyteller accompanied by a steady background rhythm and what seems to be casual comments thrown in by nearby villagers. The Blues existed long before American recording studios. The music topics range from the popular subject of love lost, found or hiding to celebrations, but the songs about life’s struggle, farming and fighting for freedom are very telling and an important part of the oral archives of the history of Crete.

We sat outside Xylouris’ house in the shade facing the square and watched the farmers deliver their produce to the shopkeepers in pickup trucks brimming with melons, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and onions. Heated discussions ensued over the quality and price of the day. Other shops had whimsical textiles hanging from their awnings; weaving is a noted trade here.

There are several bronze statues of war heroes and memorials in Anogia, reminders of the many battles fought for freedom at various periods in time. In fact, throughout history, the people of this village have fought off unwelcome visitors with great courage and ingenuity. In 1944, the entire village was destroyed by the Germans due to the dauntless resistance tactics of the villagers yet there were few casualties. Villagers found refuge in the caves of their great mountain, and managed to survive off the land. Many Cretans were killed during the occupation but some heroes survive to this day. You can see a special glint of strength and pride in the bright eyes of the older villagers.

Once the church services concluded, people filed out onto the square to take their usual seats at the kafenia for the traditional Sunday visit while others disappeared through one of the pathways – we went to the taverna up the hill to join Nikos’ his family. There were plenty of refreshing cold vegetable plates lining our buffet-table, plus a little grilled lamb and pork, potatoes, cheeses and bread. Our feast lasted many hours and we had a wonderful time chatting about family, food, farming and music — all the things that are important in life.

Few of the younger generation are interested in farming, and their parents are proud that they were able to send them to university to study computer science and other modern-world trades. However, people are concerned for the future of their communities, as well as the quality of life and the food their children will be eating in the big cities. The concept of chemicals in foods, hormones and tainted animal feed is illogical and frightening to these traditional farmers. They wonder how people can be so complacent � I could offer no explanation. Unfortunately, we had to drive home that evening but promised to return for a long visit – which we did on New Year’s Eve.

The winter season in Crete this past year was uncommonly rainy, windy and cold with plenty of snowfall in the mountains. On the trip up the mountain road the landscape had changed to lush green and threatening deep purple storm clouds engulfed the peaks. From this altitude you can see the storm system moving through the area, sparing one village then bombarding another with hail and giant bolts of lightening. Luckily, we missed the action.

Once we reached Anogia and the home of our friends, all was warm and festive. Nikos’ parents are sweet people and big jokesters. The children have inherited their sense of humor and the house was filled with joy and laughter. I took a little stroll with the children down their narrow street overlooking the valley and stopped to watch a baby black goat jumping around its’ mother in an adorable high jack-knife leap. The children looked at me with cocked heads, “What do you find so interesting about that goat? Haven’t you ever seen one before?”

When we got back to the house, they had transformed the small sitting room into a taverna. A round table appeared in the center of the room packed with plates of food – olives, fresh-picked wild greens, mizithra cheese (my absolute favorite, how’d they guess?) which is a delicious soft, mild fresh sheep’s milk cheese that can be eaten straight with a sprinkling of salt as was here, or used interchangeably in savory or sweet pies (a little like ricotta, but better). Center-stage was the loukanika (cured sausage), which is produced all over Greece, but the recipe and curing method varies depending on the region and climate. Cretan loukanika has a strong bite of vinegar (no need for mustard with this sausage) and the spiced pork stuffing is cubed, rather than ground, great in small doses.

We each went through at least half a loaf of beautiful sesame-crusted stone-oven baked bread and washed it all down with many toasts of rich homemade rosé wine. This was just a welcome snack, we were due back before midnight for the real millennium feast.

On our food break (or break from food) we went to the main strip for a coffee at Andonis kafeneo, which was an interesting mixture of traditional (habits) and modern decor for the younger crowd. I noticed that a lot of men from Anogia are much taller and burlier than the average Greek. It could be all that wholesome food and hard work, as this is primarily shepherd’s country. All of the 20-something men were clad in black jeans and shirts, smoking Marlboros, drinking Greek coffee and fiddling with their worry beads. They were staring at a big-screen TV, the controls manned by the owner’s son. Flashes of soccer games, millennium celebrations around the world and traffic news raced across the flat box, causing not a single reaction or skip in the worry bead rotation.

There were few women in sight – either Anogia is still a very traditional village in that it’s unacceptable for women to socialize in bars, or they were home for this occasion to help with the cooking, or they couldn’t be bothered with this sort of scene. I bid #3. I was one of few women there, struggling to stay awake. If it weren’t for the iridescent mountain spring water served alongside my strong frappe, I may have lost interest in the soccer conversation altogether. Iced coffee has been served during the summer months for as long as anyone can remember; as hot as it gets in Crete, drinking cold coffee makes sense and few people around here have ever heard of Starbucks.

Outside, people were hurrying home for the feast. Young women were carrying on with fun conversations while walking in small groups in the middle of the street, as if it was perfectly normal and safe. I discovered that this is the traditional way for single women to show off, as it were. They can’t go into the bars, but they’re allowed to walk in the middle of the road. If you’ve ever seen Greek traffic, this would not be advisable, but in this village, the tradition is upheld to some extent.

Later, I met some of these young women and discovered that most of them are university students in Athens or Thessaloniki and have no intention of moving back home to become a shepherd’s wife. Their parents are doing everything they can to help them to become independent career women. This is a rather new development as just a few decades ago, before Greece became a member of the European Union, these opportunities were rarely available to rural women. Now I understand why those handsome guys at Andonis café looked so worried with their worry beads. They’re carrying on the family tradition and the world around them is rapidly changing. Rural women are now allowed, if not encouraged by any family with the means, to make their own living and farming is not on the list of careers.

The only drawback to emancipation, development and ever-changing subsidies, yield restrictions and trade regulations is that farming communities have literally ceased to exist. Living conditions became increasingly difficult and women’s rights, including state benefits as working farmers, were rarely addressed. Evidently, only men seriously tended to the land and women were just picking cotton for fun before they had to go home and tend to their real chores.

From this outsider’s point of view, it seems a thankless job. Most women I know who are over 50-years-old have accepted their roles as farmers and homemakers and juggle a whole host of tasks that I could not fathom, with great pride and hopefully some appreciation. I remember the first time I came to Greece in 1972 as a child, my mother, a single parent with four children to support, was so upset to see Greek women toiling, she said, “They may live in this beautiful place but if we think we have a difficult life…we should count our blessings.”

Our millennium celebration lasted until dawn. The entire family showed up for this event – the parents, their seven grown children, their spouses and their children. Everyone was warm, sensitive and fun loving. Grandfather’s name is Leftaris and following tradition, each first-born grandson is also named Leftaris. With five men in the house spanning three generations, any mention of the name Leftaris caused pandemonium. There was much laughter, great jokes and stories told and too much food. The “dining table of many leaves” stretched the length of the living and dining rooms and everything in its path was moved aside.

A huge salad of wild greens, (“eat your medicine,” they joked), more mizithra, lamb fricassee, a roast lamb (no typo here, a whole lamb portioned off for the crowd and roasted till red-crisp), wild rabbit stew with caramelized onions (from the guy’s morning hunt), more loukanika and…I can’t remember the rest because an endless supply of rosé was flowing. For dessert, we all dove for the big platter of sweet clementina and sliced apples and slowly nibbled on the sweet mizithra pastries drizzled with local aromatic thyme-honey, one of the priceless, organic delicacies of Crete.

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We went back to our pension stuffed to the gills and slept till the sheep bells woke us up. The balcony off our comfortable rooms at “hotel” Mitato (which means shepherd’s shelter) overlooked the mountain range and miles of serenity. Sheep dotted the slopes in every direction.

Later, we were off on a road trip up the mountain. Every other visitor or local in Anogia had cabin fever as well – we found ourselves in the middle of a caravan headed toward the snow-capped peaks, snow being a novelty in Crete, except in these high-mountain villages. Everyone was in a festive mood, yelling Hronia Polla! (many happy returns, literally “many years”) and stopping for breaks or to pick wild greens.

Along the way, there were strange round stone buildings with stone roofs — the real mitatos. We followed the signs and rocky road to the ski resort, which is just an abandoned lodge built by German occupying forces at the base of a steep ski jump. Beyond the “resort” was an unusually lush-green plain of Nida. An oasis tourist pavilion overlooks the plain, which is where the road and caravan ended.

The resourceful Greeks in the group had picnics on the hoods of their cars or hiked up to the sacred Idian Cave, an Iron-Age sanctuary. According to myth, the infant Zeus was hidden here from his father, Kronos, who had planned to swallow him to protect his throne but was tricked by his wife, Europa, into swallowing a stone instead. Zeus safely escaped and was nursed on milk and honey by the goat-nymph Amaltheia. What a story. Many artifacts, on display at the Iraklio Museum, have been discovered here dating back to the 9th century BC. Votive offerings, cult objects and metal works depicting the story of Zeus bring to light some of the mysteries of the Minoan civilization and trade-exchange with faraway lands.

We followed the caravan back down the mountain and reluctantly prepared to leave – after our 3-hour farewell feast. We are expected back for visit in the spring, when the wild flowers dust the countryside. They say it’s a spectacular rainbow of colors and perfect weather for long hikes to the ancient sites. I love the seaside as much as anyone, but when I’m invited to a mountain village, I jump at the chance.

Check out the author’s website at www.cookingincrete.com

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