Cartwheels on Crete

I shouldn’t be writing this. I shouldn’t be thinking about the billion blues that make up the water along the Cretian shoreline or the jagged landscape glowing, piercing through a hot pink sunset. I shouldn’t be day dreaming about the mountains and the valleys, seemingly undisturbed by human hands. I should be working on a paper about the terroir of Prosciutto di Parma, but–I’m not. Crete’s blues and hot pinks, greens and grays are enough to make a girl’s head spin. Instead of writing about prosciutto, I choose to daydream about the colors I encountered this past week, a rainbow of a week  spent on Crete.

Can you see the sheep off in the distance?

Crete isn’t just a pretty face though, quickly confirmed on our first outing when we met an over the top charming 70ish bed and breakfast owner we’ll call Nikos. Nikos owns an equally charming bed and breakfast nestled in the countryside. After playing the lira for us and teaching us to make traditional bread, Nikos treated us to a nature walk that on the scale of “one to best nature walk ever,” was off the charts. Walking through Crete is like walking through a jungle salad. We saw walnut trees, wild asparagus, artichoke bushes, mint, sage oregano, date trees. The variety and availability of such incredible plants made me think about 1) how little I know about what I eat and how it grows and 2) how important it is to know more about what I eat and how it grows. It was one of those moments where you think, “Wow, nature is really awesome.”

That feeling of awe was only reinforced the day we visited a sheep herder. He’s a one-man sheep herder show, who also lives in the countryside, but about at the top of a mountain about 1500 meters above sea level. As the proud owner of 250 sheep, he milks each one twice a day, every day. This man didn’t speak one word of English, but his messages to us were read loud and clear: don’t mess with nature and she won’t mess with you. We gathered in a 200-year-old stone hut, made of only stone. No mortar, no mud, no industrial strength stone glue, it stands on ingenuity alone. Inside, our shepherd guide explained how he heats sheep milk to 48 degrees Celsius for hard cheese and 92 degrees Celsius for the soft cheese he makes daily. To discern the exact temperature of the curds and whey he dips his hand into the curds, knowing just by touch when the cheese is up to temp. The simplicity of his method was jarring. As a recovering iPhone, user/abuser, the lack of reliance on anything with a battery felt so primal, but also so right.

The wooden tool is made from a young olive branch that they twist into a wisk-like ball at the bottom while the wood is still malleable.

After our cheese tutorial we dined on a “traditional Cretian shepherd’s lunch”…and we started with pasta. Spaghetti to be specific, and what a stir this pasta caused! The dish was simple—extremely soft spaghetti noodles (some might say overcooked) boiled in broth and topped with hard feta-like grated cheese. While I for one have a special place in my heart reserved for overdone pasta, many in my group (namely Italians) were outraged: “This is what we eat in the hospital!” They felt the noodles were not only overcooked, but they should NEVER be cooked in broth (only small cut noodles are cooked in broth) and where was the sauce? An outrage.

No al dente pasta here.

We discussed/talked loudly and passionately about how the shepherd’s preparation wasn’t wrong because even though he was using an Italian product, he’d transformed it into a dish all his own. Calling the noodles overcooked is an insertion of our outside values and tastes. We have to assume that they were cooked just the way our shepherd friend prefers them, maybe as a counterbalance to the harder and saltier cheese. Either way, it felt pretty cool chowing on a traditional Italian product, transformed into a staple of the traditional Mediterranean diet, as an American, on Crete. While fervent debate ensued throughout our time with the shepherd, know we’re all still friends, overcooked pasta or not.

On the subject of friends, I have some pretty cool ones over here. And while I knew they were cool before, a magical day spent in Plakias with a bunch of them only made me more positive. After the nature walk, cheese making and a bunch of other field trips we had a free day to plan our own adventures on Saturday. One of my coolest friends is a one Lindsay Anderson who suggested we visit a small village called Plakias as she had spent a few days there with her brother five years prior. Plakias is directly south of Rethymnon, our home base for the week.  Only 45 minutes takes you from one side of Crete to the other, and oh man, would you believe me if I said the grass (or in this case the water) is greener/bluer on the other side? The Southern coast felt like a long forgotten private paradise.

We packed a smorgasbord picnic and set out on a hike, wearing nothing but bathing suits, yoga pants, water shoes, and backpacks. I also carried a watermelon in a grocery bag up the Cretian mountainside, just for good measure. Along the way we found a small white washed church carved into the mountainside that literally took my breath away. Also breath-taking were our outfits.

Practicing our Japanese photo poses, as one does outside an ancient church nestled into the Cretian mountainside.

The second half of the hike we climbed through a river until we hit a natural pool where we settled in for a quick picnic lunch. We chomped down on whole cucumber, fruit, dried figs and dried rusks, and it really was a “best I ever” moment. The cucumber was the crispiest I’ve ever had, the figs the sweetest, the fruit the freshest. It could have been the aerobic activity, the invigorating water or my foodie friends relishing all the tastes as much as I was.

To sum, I offer you this picture, which I think might describe best how I feel about Crete. I’m the one in front with the awkwardly contorted body stance and complete lack of grace. Don’t I look at peace with nature? It must have been the beauty of the sunset again distracting me from the task at hand.

Lindsay and I expressing ourselves via cartwheels.


1 Comment

Filed under Stage Travel

One response to “Cartwheels on Crete

  1. “Jungle Salad” – LOVE IT!!!

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