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Life lessons from a sacred Cretan tradition

“Your beautiful breakfast”, she says as she places the colourful masterpiece that is my fruit granola yogurt in front of me. Each strawberry, kiwi, melon, banana is perfectly sliced on a bed of thick Greek yogurt, but it’s the waitress’s theatrical performance that steals the show. As if in a musical, elegant but quirky, her movements complement her generous manner in such an exaggerated way that we question what we’ve done to deserve such devotion to our service.

Philoxenia, or love towards strangers, is the Greek word and the sacred relation between host and guest that guides us from our breakfast in the crowded city of Chania, across the island, and into the heart of Crete.

Crete is synonymous with tourism. Millions visit the island every year. It is home to thousands of all-inclusive resorts, while the historic sites and the streets of Chania, Rethymno and Heraklion are swarming with tourists fresh off their low-cost flights from mainland Europe. But the masses have done nothing to dampen the character, warmth and generosity of the islanders.

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Gerakari in the Amari valley, with Mt Psiloritis in the distance

We venture out of the city, towards the mountain ranges, and into hiking heaven. The hot, hustling, hordes of Chania are soon silenced by the peacefulness of the Amari Valley; the blissful paradise lying in the shadow of Mt Psiloritis, the birthplace of Zeus.

Our hotel is a grand mountain resort in the village of Gerakari, the perfect refuge after a long day’s hike. But the hotel is eerily quiet — there are only four other guests staying the night. We make conversation with a friendly couple at a nearby table. It seems the Greek generosity is contagious, and we leave breakfast armed with hiking and restaurant recommendations.

After a day’s trek to the top of a mountain, rewarding us with fantastic views over sea, sky and peaks, we set out in search of a particular restaurant. The winds change without warning, and it begins to rain.

On a winding road through the Amari valley, there’s a sense of the ghosts of the area’s past. War memorials mark the bends, one dedicated to each village that was burned by the Germans in WW2 in retaliation for the kidnapping of a German general. During the occupation of Crete, British soldiers would seek refuge in mountain caves, and local villagers risked their lives offering them food, drink and shelter.

We reach the little village of Meronas and approach one of only two restaurants. It’s blanketed in flowers. Apart from a few women smoking outside, the restaurant looks empty. We are shown in by one of the women and are almost blown away by the reception. A band plays traditional Cretan music, the tables are adjoined and jump from the hammering of fists to the beat of the music, and about twenty villagers are singing with conviction.

“We celebrate our name day”, one of the women, who turns out to be the owner, reveals. We respond with a stream of “So sorry”, “Didn’t mean to intrude”, and “We can sit outside”.

“Nonsense. Join us!”

We sit at a table in the corner trying not to draw attention to ourselves despite clearly being the odd ones out. The shelves above us are stacked with herbs, dried fruit, compotes and jams, all for sale. The entire restaurant is decorated in dried fruit, which hangs from the ceiling, walls, and shelves.

In the festivities, we try to work out who belongs to which family, but it’s just too difficult to judge without any grasp of the language. Their body language doesn’t reveal much either. They all seem like one and the same family, so at home and comfortable with each other as they sing, dance and drink shots of raki — the strong Cretan alcohol, a staple of Cretan social interactions, an indicator of friendship and, as it seems, the liquid representation of philoxenia.

The owner waits on our table and brings us a bottle of raki to see us through the meal. Cretan salad, olives, bread, zucchini balls, horta (wild mixed Cretan mountain herbs), rice, lump (unidentifiable meat), arrive one after the other. There is definitely no shortage of food.

After several courses of delicious, traditional Cretan cuisine, we make as if to pay the bill and leave. The guitarist stops playing and turns to us.

“You’re leaving already?! No, stay!”

We are pulled onto the dance floor, and holding hands with our neighbours, we form the Sirtaki circle and try to keep up with the professionals.

Several bottles of raki later, our feet still pulsating from dancing, we do eventually leave. But we leave with a sense of belonging.

In a world rife with tightened frontiers, refugees fleeing and being turned away at borders, and countries opting out of international cooperation, it’s reassuring to find a culture driven by a desire to make outsiders feel welcome. Philoxenia has firmly stood its ground as the Cretan way of life, especially in times of hardship, and we leave the island with new ties and a full stomach.

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