Winter in Crete
Angela Epstein avoids the crowds to discover history and tradition on this fascinating Greek island
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)