Greek or Cretan?

Is someone from Crete a Greek or a Cretan? They are both, of course, but most will tell you that they are Cretan first and Greek second.

Greek man on beach with phoneGreek or Cretan?

First a Cretan, then a Greek. This proud statement of ‘who I am’ is shared by Cretans across several generations, from humble villagers to the renowned writer Nikos Kazantzakis. To understand the Cretan character you must look to the bedrocks of island life – the family and the land.

Although Cretans spent decades striving for enosis, or union, with Greece, which was finally achieved in 1913, it was motivated by practical concerns for security rather than a sense of ‘roots’.

Physically separated from the rest of the country by the Sea of Crete, Greece’s largest island has its own unique history. There is often distrust of the government in Athens, and resentment of imposed rules.

Centuries of resistance to foreign occupation and the long struggle for freedom have left a deep imprint on the Cretan soul. Cretans are survivors, and value independence and self-reliance with a fierce pride, particularly in rural areas. The national costume worn by men at parades and festivals, with a dagger or firearm tucked into a waist sash, symbolises the importance of freedom and philotimo (honour) in Cretan tradition.

Eleftherios Venizelos

Streets and squares throughout the island bear the name of Crete’s great statesman, Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936). Born in the village of Mournies near Chania, he fought against Turkish rule and in 1897 led a protest that saw the first raising of the Greek flag on Crete. He became prime minister of Greece in 1910 and under his rule Crete’s union with Greece was achieved.

All in the Family

When a taxi driver takes you to his cousin’s shop or his brother’s hotel, it’s not just nepotism at work, it’s the Cretan way of life. Family means extended family – it’s common for three generations to live together under one roof, and close family members help each other in time of need.

Socially, the generations mix happily in Crete. You’ll often see hip youth in trendy clothes sitting side by side at the local bar with grandfathers in baggy breeches and high boots. Though many young people are leaving rural villages for softer jobs in tourism and the cities, most return for local festivals or to help with the olive harvest. And few would miss the grand celebrations of a family wedding or christening.

Wearing Black

Why do older women in the villages so often dress in black? Traditionally, Cretans wore black for three years out of respect for a dead relative. Foreign oppression brought such a cycle of loss and mourning that it gradually became the national colour.

Are All Cretans Liars?

The philosopher Epimenides, a Cretan himself, said so 2,000 years ago. St Paul quoted him and the claim stuck. Most likely it stems from an ancient Cretan belief in a fertility god who died and was reborn annually. The Cretans claimed their ‘Zeus’ was buried beneath Mount Giouchtas near Knossos, but the northern Greeks, for whom Zeus was immortal, were outraged by this heresy and branded them liars.

In general, Cretans are an honest lot – at least with strangers. What is true, however, is that they enjoy a good story. They love to talk, and often exaggerate or make promises that are forgotten the next day. It’s all part of their mercurial nature – alternately warm and indifferent, relaxed, passionate and glum, sometimes unreliable but always genuine in the moment.

Our Pick of the Crete Guides

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The First Europeans?

According to Greek mythology, the god Zeus was besotted with a Phoenician princess. One day, while she was gathering flowers near the shore, he disguised himself as a pure-white bull to trick her. Playfully he let her ride on his back, then suddenly jumped into the sea and swam off with her to Crete.

There he ravished her under a plane tree at Gortina, and they were later married in the Diktean Cave. King Minos of Knossos and his brothers were their offspring. The princess’s name? Europa.

A Stranger and a Guest

The Greek word xenoi has a dual meaning. : ‘stranger’ and ‘guest’. It is the custom that a stranger is automatically a guest in one’s country and in one’s home. Although the sheer number of visitors to Crete today threatens this tradition, you will often be surprised by sudden gestures of hospitality – fresh figs from someone’s tree, a complimentary glass of raki, an invitation to share a meal.

Such generosity can’t be repaid, for Cretans take pleasure in the giving. Show your appreciation with a smile, or a simple word of thanks, in Greek if you can manage it: efharisto, also pronounced efkharisto, meaning ‘thank you’.

Cretan (and Greek) Institutions

The kafenion (café) is part coffee-house and part bar, and is to Crete what the pub is to Britain. There’s at least one in every town or village, and you’ll recognise it by the men sitting outside drinking strong Greek coffee or brandy, playing cards or backgammon, twirling their worry-beads, exchanging news, or talking politics.

The kafenion is a male domain, as much an unofficial men’s club as a public café, and although few Cretan women would buck tradition by coming here, exceptions are made for visitors.

The volta, or evening stroll, introduced by the Venetians, is the time for socialising in mixed company. Whether it be around the village square or along a seafront promenade, families and couples stroll arm in arm, stopping to chat with friends, and groups of young men and women gossip and flirt. It’s a chance to dress in one’s best, to see and be seen.


Other Crete pages

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    Shopping Tips for Crete

    These shopping tips for Crete include advice on buying souvenirs like ceramics, icons, jewellery, leather, weavings, wood carvings, and food and drink.

  • The Byzantine Church of Panagía Kerá near Kritsa and not far from Ayios Nikolaos is one of the most famous in Crete, and close by is the site of Ancient Lato.

    Kritsá, Lato, and Panagía Kerá

    The Byzantine Church of Panagía Kerá near Kritsa and not far from Ayios Nikolaos is one of the most famous in Crete, and close by is the site of Ancient Lato.

  • This olive grove walk from Limnes to Vrises on Crete also takes you through orchards and gives close-up views of some of the island’s windmills.

    Olive Grove Walk

    This olive grove walk from Limnes to Vrises on Crete also takes you through orchards and gives close-up views of some of the island’s windmills.

  • Greece Travel Secrets visits the Cretan Botano herbs and spices shop near Matala in southern Crete in search of the herb man of Kouses.

    The Herb Man of Kouses

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  • Cretan music is part of the island’s soul and visitors will hear live music wherever they go, with several distinctive Cretan musical instruments and songs.

    Cretan Music

    Cretan music is part of the island’s soul and visitors will hear live music wherever they go, with several distinctive Cretan musical instruments and songs.

  • Driving central Crete in three days gives you time to see the highlights including the Minoan palaces at Knossos and Phaistos, the beaches and the Diktean Cave.

    Central Crete in Three Days

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  • The travel tale Our Hire Car in Crete describes what it’s like when you go driving in Greece and get off the beaten track, resulting in kindnesses.

    Our Hire Car in Crete

    The travel tale Our Hire Car in Crete describes what it’s like when you go driving in Greece and get off the beaten track, resulting in kindnesses.

  • How to see eastern Crete in five days, with its beaches, Minoan palaces, timeless villages, unique churches and mountain and coastal scenery.

    Eastern Crete in Five Days

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  • Western Crete has some wonderful golden sand beaches as well as mountain villages, monasteries, caves, and archaeological sites to discover.

    Western Crete Beaches and Villages

    Western Crete has some wonderful golden sand beaches as well as mountain villages, monasteries, caves, and archaeological sites to discover.

  • Sir Arthur Evans is the archaeologist famous for the excavations he made at the royal palace of Knossos on Crete.

    Sir Arthur Evans, archaeologist at Knossos on Crete

    Sir Arthur Evans is the archaeologist famous for the excavations he made at the royal palace of Knossos on Crete.

  • Crete (Kriti) is the largest Greek island and its main attractions include the Minoan Palace of Knossos, the Samarian Gorge, Chania and Rethymnon.

    Crete

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  • Ancient Gortina is an archaeological site in southern Crete famous for the church of Ayios Titos and for the Law Code inscribed here, the first in Europe.

    Gortina ancient archaeological site in southern Crete

    Ancient Gortina is an archaeological site in southern Crete famous for the church of Ayios Titos and for the Law Code inscribed here, the first in Europe.

  • What was daily life as a Minoan like on Crete, living in palaces like the ones at Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Zakros, and what were their religious beliefs?

    Life as a Minoan

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    Stilianou Winery near Knossos

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    Zaros

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  • This Lasithi Plateau drive on Crete starts in Neapoli and ends in Malia, covering a distance of 80 km (50 miles) and taking two to three hours.

    Lasithi Plateau Drive

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  • Greece Travel Secrets discovers Sitia, the main town in eastern Crete, with its relaxing waterfront, inexpensive hotels, good food, and nearby ancient sites.

    Sitia

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  • The Goules Taverna in Goulediana, south of Rethymnon, has been called one of the best tavernas on Crete and Greece Travel Secrets recently visited them.

    Goules Taverna Crete

    The Goules Taverna in Goulediana, south of Rethymnon, has been called one of the best tavernas on Crete and Greece Travel Secrets recently visited them.

  • Ancient Gournia is a Minoan archaeological site between Agios Nikolaos and Sitia in Eastern Crete where the visitor can see evidence of a maze of back streets.

    Ancient Gournia Minoan Site in Eastern Crete

    Ancient Gournia is a Minoan archaeological site between Agios Nikolaos and Sitia in Eastern Crete where the visitor can see evidence of a maze of back streets.

  • Matala Beach on Crete is a guest blog for Greece Travel Secrets from the We Love Crete website, inviting you to Awaken Your Inner Hippy in Matala, Crete.

    Matala Beach

    Matala Beach on Crete is a guest blog for Greece Travel Secrets from the We Love Crete website, inviting you to Awaken Your Inner Hippy in Matala, Crete.

  • The Battle of Crete during World War 2 inspired several books and took place with an airborne invasion over Maleme on the north coast of the island.

    Battle of Crete

    The Battle of Crete during World War 2 inspired several books and took place with an airborne invasion over Maleme on the north coast of the island.

  • This tour around central Crete lists some of the area’s highlights such as the traditional village of Arolithos, Minoan remains at Tilisos, and Agioi Deka.

    Around Central Crete

    This tour around central Crete lists some of the area’s highlights such as the traditional village of Arolithos, Minoan remains at Tilisos, and Agioi Deka.

  • How to make Petimezi, the sweet Cretan syrup made from wine must, is explained to Greece Travel Secrets.

    How to Make Petimezi

    How to make Petimezi, the sweet Cretan syrup made from wine must, is explained to Greece Travel Secrets.

  • The Diktean or Diktaean Cave, also known as the Psychro Cave, near the village of Psychro in eastern Crete, is said to be the birthplace of Zeus.

    Diktean Cave, the Birthplace of Zeus near Psychro on Crete

    The Diktean or Diktaean Cave, also known as the Psychro Cave, near the village of Psychro in eastern Crete, is said to be the birthplace of Zeus.

  • Visiting the Arkadi Monastery near Rethymnon is one of the best things to do on Crete.

    Arkadi Monastery

    Visiting the Arkadi Monastery near Rethymnon is one of the best things to do on Crete.

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