31 Aug 2004

My first trip to Anogia was on a very hot August day. 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 2,456m 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. Crete not only was/is a beautiful island and agricultural-trade center, but 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.

With a current population of about 3,000Anogia is not a small village, although it feels cozy tucked into the mountain’s arm with narrow, twisting streets which lessen 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’s 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’s house in the shade facing the square and watched the farmers deliver their produce to the shopkeepers from 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. More recently, the entire village was destroyed by the Germans in 1944 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’s 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.

Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.

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