Win­ter in Crete

An­gela Ep­stein avoids the crowds to dis­cover his­tory and tra­di­tion on this fas­ci­nat­ing Greek is­land

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - EDITED BY CATHY WIN­STON cwin­

The olive trees were mag­nif­i­cent, their pointed oval leaves turn­ing soft shades of sil­ver as we wan­dered through the fields on a sunny Greek af­ter­noon.

With­out the flag-crack­ing heat of the sum­mer sun, we were mak­ing the most of the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore this most southerly of Greek is­lands. And since com­mer­cial tour op­er­a­tors pull out for the sea­son, while beach-lov­ing Brits seek­ing short­haul win­ter sun tend to flock to the Ca­naries, it’s pos­si­ble to get a feel for the real Crete at this time of year.

Trav­el­ling with my hus­band, Martin and our two el­dest sons, Sam and Max — im­pe­cu­nious stu­dents who sniffed the scent of a free hol­i­day cour­tesy of the bank of mum and dad — we soon dis­cov­ered the is­land in win­ter of­fers some­thing for ev­ery­one.

With its abun­dant olive oil crop, it couldn’t have been a more ap­pro­pri- ate des­ti­na­tion for a post-Chanukah get­away ei­ther, es­pe­cially since it’s also been said the Mac­cabean rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies came to Crete af­ter flee­ing their op­pres­sors in the Holy Land.

Leav­ing the Bib­li­cal as­so­ci­a­tions aside, we opted for a dif­fer­ent taste of tra­di­tion at The Olive Farm. Home to small be­spoke hol­i­day com­pany Hand Picked Greece, the aim is for tourists to em­brace real lo­cal cul­ture through tra­di­tional cook­ery cour­ses (rang­ing from one to four days), cheese-mak­ing, har­vest­ing olives for oil, grapes for wine or hik­ing the trails which sur­round the lo­cal vil­lages and farm land.

As our sons learned how to make cheese, Valia Av­gous­tidi, one of the com­pany’s founders, deftly pro­duced a soothing skin balm out of lo­cal honey. Mean­while as we warmed our­selves around the wood­stove, the chef in­vited us to make some tra­di­tional dishes.

The com­pany caters for all di­etary needs — and since I had ex­plained to Valia about our kosher re­quire­ments,

we took ad­van­tage of a Greek cook­ery les­son to pro­duce de­li­cious dishes such as fruity ch­est­nut and onion stew, along with creamy tzatziki, both recipes which have been passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion.

Just walk­ing around the Olive Farm, where plump hens run amok and trees hang heavy with carobs, av­o­ca­dos and or­anges, it felt as if we were tread­ing the path of the an­cients.

With no di­rect flights to the is­land dur­ing the win­ter, we had trav­elled to Crete via Athens, spend­ing Shab­bat in the city’s mag­nif­i­cent Grand Bre­tagne Ho­tel on Syn­tagma Square be­fore our 45-minute early morn­ing flight to Crete.

There we based our­selves in the old town of Cha­nia, whose har­bour was built by the Vene­tians in the 14th cen­tury and which is still crowned by a beau­ti­fully pre­served light­house. Our own bou­tique ho­tel, the stun­ning Casa Delfino is housed in a 17th cen­tury Vene­tian man­sion it­self, nestling among the rab­bit warren of wind­ing cob­bled streets that fan out from the sea front.

Open year round, the ho­tel pro­vided the per­fect base from which to ex­plore the is­land.

One day we took a car through the Therisso Gorge, nav­i­gat­ing our way be­tween pre­cip­i­tous cliffs sprigged with ch­est­nut and oak where packs of goats with lit­tle road sense proved to be a far greater haz­ard than any wind­ing moun­tain road.

Stop­ping in the vil­lage of Mournies, birth­place of politi­cian and states­man Eleft­he­rios Venize­los, to mar­vel at the scenery and en­joy a wel­come espresso, we rev­elled in the fact we didn’t hear a word of English spo­ken any­where.

An­other day we hired bikes to ride the sea-front roads past those many hol­i­day re­sorts which were closed for the win­ter. There’s a cer­tain joy in know­ing you don’t have to fight the crowds of hol­i­day­mak­ers for space at the restaurants by trav­el­ling a lit­tle out of sea­son.

Per­haps one of the most poignant mo­ments of the trip was dis­cov­er­ing the small, sea-front me­mo­rial to the Jews of Crete.

There had been Jewish life on the is­land since the 4th cen­tury BCE. How­ever in May 1944, the Ger­mans rounded up around 300 Jews, im­pris­on­ing them first just out­side Cha­nia be­fore dis­patch­ing 263 of them, along with Greek and Ital­ian prison­ers of war, on a tanker to the main­land in tran­sit to a con­cen­tra­tion camp in Poland, likely Auschwitz.

The freighter, how­ever, was tor­pe­doed by the Bri­tish who were bom­bard­ing all en­emy ships emerg­ing from Crete’s har­bours. None of the Jewish pas­sen­gers sur­vived.

Far more up­lift­ing was a trip to the is­land’s only re­main­ing syn­a­gogue, Etz Hayyim, a unique lit­tle Ro­man­iote shul in the old town’s for­mer Jewish quar­ter. Af­ter be­ing vandalised by the Nazis it was left in a state of dis­re­pair un­til the mid 1990s, when Dr Nikos Stavroulakis, a Jewish art his­to­rian, mu­seum de­signer and cu­ra­tor, per- suaded the World Mon­u­ments Fund and wealthy donors to back a plan to re­build.

Etz Hayyim was reded­i­cated in 1999 and now holds weekly Fri­day night ser­vices. The shul has also played host to bar mitz­vahs and wed­dings.

If sun­bathing on the beaches was not an op­tion, win­ter of­fers a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore this fas­ci­nat­ing is­land.

On glo­ri­ously sunny days, we even had views to the snow-capped moun­tains which run down the spine of the is­land. And even dur­ing the over­cast spells and one day of tor­ren­tial rain, how­ever chilly it might have felt out­side, the warm wel­come of the Cre­tan peo­ple was al­ways enough to dis­tract from the weather.


Dis­cov­er­ing the fruits of the olive trees at The Olive Farm (left) and Crete’s wild un­spoiled coast­line (above)


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