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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    Maleme and the German War Cemetery on Crete

    Maleme near Chania is where the people who died during the battle of Crete are buried, in the German War Cemetery with the Commonwealth War Cemetery nearby.

  • 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's capital and largest city is Irakleio, also called Iraklion or Heraklion, a large and busy place with good restaurants, museums and historical buildings.

    Irakleio

    Crete's capital and largest city is Irakleio, also called Iraklion or Heraklion, a large and busy place with good restaurants, museums and historical buildings.

  • Greece Travel Secrets page on  Phaistos or Faistos, the site of one of the finest Minoan palaces on Crete and is where the mysterious Phaistos Disc was found.

    Phaistos Minoan Palace on Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets page on Phaistos or Faistos, the site of one of the finest Minoan palaces on Crete and is where the mysterious Phaistos Disc was found.

  • Malia on the north coast of Crete is renowned for its nightlife and beaches but also has the Minoan Palace of Malia, one of Crete's many archaeological sites.

    Malia and its Minoan Palace on Crete

    Malia on the north coast of Crete is renowned for its nightlife and beaches but also has the Minoan Palace of Malia, one of Crete's many archaeological sites.

  • The Greece Travel Secrets guide to Zaros in Central Crete, including what to do, where to stay, and where to eat.

    Zaros

    The Greece Travel Secrets guide to Zaros in Central Crete, including what to do, where to stay, and where to eat.

  • 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

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

  • Greece Travel Secrets eats at Vegera in Zaros and finds a cheap but wonderful feast of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes cooked daily with fresh local food.

    Dining at Vegera

    Greece Travel Secrets eats at Vegera in Zaros and finds a cheap but wonderful feast of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes cooked daily with fresh local food.

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    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.

  • The largest of the Greek islands, Crete has four ENUESCO sites, which are Sitia, Psiloritis, Asterousia, and the Gorge of Samaria.

    Crete's UNESCO Sites

    The largest of the Greek islands, Crete has four ENUESCO sites, which are Sitia, Psiloritis, Asterousia, and the Gorge of Samaria.

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

    Crete

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

  • The Stilianou Winery near Knossos on Crete uses only Cretan grape varieties, with every bottle numbered, and aims for quality rather than quantity.

    Stilianou Winery near Knossos

    The Stilianou Winery near Knossos on Crete uses only Cretan grape varieties, with every bottle numbered, and aims for quality rather than quantity.

  • The best Crete hotels include 5-star luxury hotels, historic and romantic Venetian palaces, and several hotels in Hania and Iraklion.

    Best Crete Hotels

    The best Crete hotels include 5-star luxury hotels, historic and romantic Venetian palaces, and several hotels in Hania and Iraklion.

  • For a Crete olive oil tour Greece Travel Secrets visits Biolea, one of the few olive oil factories on Crete that you can visit.

    Crete Olive Oil Tour

    For a Crete olive oil tour Greece Travel Secrets visits Biolea, one of the few olive oil factories on Crete that you can visit.

  • Crete’s wildlife and landscape are two of the island’s attractions, including gorges for hiking, rare raptors like the lammergeier, wildcats and ancient trees.

    Crete’s Wildlife and Landscape

    Crete’s wildlife and landscape are two of the island’s attractions, including gorges for hiking, rare raptors like the lammergeier, wildcats and ancient trees.

  • 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.

  • Hiking the Samaria Gorge on Crete, one of the best things to do on Crete, by Greece Travel Secrets.

    Hiking the Samaria Gorge

    Hiking the Samaria Gorge on Crete, one of the best things to do on Crete, by Greece Travel Secrets.

  • Visiting Knossos near Iraklion is one of the best things to do on Crete, and this page has a history of the site with visitor information.

    Knossos

    Visiting Knossos near Iraklion is one of the best things to do on Crete, and this page has a history of the site with visitor information.

  • Western Crete in five days allows time to visit Chania and Rethymnon, enjoy the beaches, hike the Samaria Gorge and see the monasteries at Arkadi and Preveli.

    Western Crete in Five Days

    Western Crete in five days allows time to visit Chania and Rethymnon, enjoy the beaches, hike the Samaria Gorge and see the monasteries at Arkadi and Preveli.

  • 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

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

  • Greece Travel Secrets’ potted guide to Eastern Crete and why you should consider it for a holiday, including seeing Agios Nikolaos, Sitia, Vai Beach and Zakros.

    Eastern Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets’ potted guide to Eastern Crete and why you should consider it for a holiday, including seeing Agios Nikolaos, Sitia, Vai Beach and Zakros.

  • 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.

  • The Snails House in Plouti near Phaistos in southern Crete serves the Cretan delicacy of snails, cooked in several different ways.

    The Snails House on Crete

    The Snails House in Plouti near Phaistos in southern Crete serves the Cretan delicacy of snails, cooked in several different ways.

  • The most famous Cretan writers and artists include the painter El Greco and the author of Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis.

    Cretan Writers and Artists

    The most famous Cretan writers and artists include the painter El Greco and the author of Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis.

  • Elounda on Crete's north coast is a popular holiday town with a pretty harbour, from where you can take day trips by boat to see the island of Spinalonga.

    Elounda and Spinalonga, setting for The Island by Victoria Hislop

    Elounda on Crete's north coast is a popular holiday town with a pretty harbour, from where you can take day trips by boat to see the island of Spinalonga.

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