According to legend, Crete was where Zeus, ruler of the Gods, was hidden as an infant to prevent his father from eating him. It is also the place where King Minos built his famous palace. Although the legacy of its distant past is a powerful drawing card, the real magic of Crete is in its vibrant culture – as is evidenced by a visit to a cherry harvest celebration held in the northwestern region of the island.
The ancient Minoan site of Knossos is duly inspiring, but after a day of communing with stonework and archaeological relics, we’re ready for a taste of contemporary Greek culture. Photographer Phil Metzidakis and I steer our rented car into the mountains of western Crete, heading for the village of Karánou (also spelled Karános). Phil’s grandparents were born in Crete, not far from our destination, so the journey is something of a homecoming for him, and landmarks often have a personal significance.
The breathtaking Samaria Gorge, for example, is where Phil’s aunt used to smuggle food to the Resistance fighters during the World War II occupation of Crete by Germany. This is my first trip to the island, and I’m stopping the car every 20 minutes or so to record the sounds of goats or sheep being herded next to – or across – the highway. Many of the animals have a bell around their neck, making a flock on the move a cacophony of sonorous dings and dongs.
Entering the tiny hamlet of Karánou, we stop and ask the first man we see where we might find our local contact, a Mr. Mavridakis. The fellow looks at us and deadpans, “Everyone in the village is named Mavridakis.” A slight exaggeration, it turns out.
Undaunted, we park in the center of town – right between the church, the taverna, and a monument entwined with ivy and flowers. It will be here, we’re told, that the cherry festival would officially begin. Soon enough, our Mavridakis has found and shepherded us to the taverna for a toast of raki, the locally brewed firewater, available straight up or cherry-flavored. Although this region produces a variety of cherries, we would be tasting only two kinds at the festival. Tonight, Mavridakis says, in celebration of the local cherry harvest, the population of Karánou would swell from a few hundred to well over a thousand.
While townsfolk and visitors wait in the center of town for the opening ceremonies to begin, Phil and I wander into a town hall building that houses fading black-and-white photographs of Karánousians of bygone days, priests, and patriots. Outside, as the sunset begins to glow orange, a priest recites a blessing and sings a few hymns, accompanied by some of the village’s elder men.
The mayor and other officials make a few speeches in front of a plaque honoring Karánou’s women. Its inscription, loosely translated, read: “Country woman, you protect the house with an open heart. You are the daughter of the heavy work in the village, but you have never been honored. You have never enjoyed justice for your work.” As if to right this transgression, more than a dozen bouquets of flowers are carefully laid in front of the monument.
At the start of the festival, a priest sings a few hymns, accompanied by several of the village elders.
Then the entire assembly walks to the outskirts of town where a stage has been erected. The backdrop behind the proscenium depicts the hand of God delivering a few cherries into the waiting hand of Adam. In front of the stage there are at least a hundred tables set with bowls of cherries.
We’re first served kserotigana, a sweet made from deep-fried unleavened dough shaped like a flower and coated with honey and sesame seeds. Then comes lemon lamb stew, rice pilaf, souvlaki (skewered meat), salads, and a seemingly endless supply of raki.
Onstage, there are musicians playing a bouzouki (a long-necked lute), an oud (another kind of lute), and a lyra, which is bowed like a violin and held vertically, resting on the performer’s knee. After the music starts up, I notice that Phil, who would normally be leaping onstage to shoot a few close-ups of the musicians, is sitting quietly at a table – and he’s crying.
Phil tells me his grandfather was a lyra player and was often called upon to play at weddings and baptisms. During one such event, a vendetta boiled over. Shots were fired, and Phil’s grandfather was caught in the cross fire. According to family legend, he cried out,”Dance, dance!” and played until he dropped dead from a gunshot wound. Had it not been for this twist of fate, Phil’s grandmother would probably not have emigrated to America, and he would most likely not be here at all.
Then, as if to pull us back to the present moment, people begin to come up to the stage to dance – different line dances, with the same basic form, arms on each other’s shoulders. The line, which could be a dozen or more people, snakes around the stage. Sometimes it’s a mix of men and women; sometimes just women or just men. Their upper bodies are erect; the movement of their feet is repetitive but often quite complex. The leader may add improvisatory steps and then go to the end of the line, giving everyone a turn to lead.
Many of the Cretan men wear black shirts and high black boots. Their bearing is relaxed, supple, and strong. Occasionally they’ll leap into the air and slap their heels. There’s something about seeing a relatively ordinary looking guy who might be in his 50s – even carrying a bit of paunch – come up on the dance floor and become transformed.
Several times during the course of the evening, someone in the crowd will reach into a coat pocket, pull out a semiautomatic pistol, and fire off a few rounds. Nobody blinks. Just before the outbreak of World War II, with too many men being killed in vendettas, Cretan civilians had their guns taken away. Despite their lack of weaponry, the fierce local resistance to the German occupation is legendary. At the festival, several men assure me the people of Crete will never give up their guns again.
As the festival winds down, it feels like I’m at the wedding of a distant relative whom I’ve rarely seen but still have a connection to. Phil and I are treated like old friends, and at one point, we’re invited to join in a line dance. The only catch is, we have to dance while holding up a 20-pound (9-kilogram) bunch of cherries as the music accelerates.
The dancing is over around 2 a.m., and Phil and I are asked if we would like to join the older men of the village as they head over to one of Karánou’s four tavernas to sing, drink, and wait for the sun to come up. Now how can you refuse an offer like that?
At the taverna, a dozen men are sitting around a table at an outdoor patio. They come from all levels of society. Some are farmers, some are physicians. One man is a poet. They’ve known each other all their lives and they are as equals. It is a night of nonstop eating, drinking, good-natured carrying on, and singing. These guys know how to have a good time. The food is fabulous – cheeses, fresh bread, honey, soup, and a mystery meat that turns out to be goat testicle. It’s delicious, by the way, and there’s no time to be squeamish when someone’s handing you a forkful of food and joining in the chorus of a song. The lyrics are partly fixed, partly improvised. Here’s a sample:
When tears flow
they fall onto my chest
to discover what is in my heart
and if it is telling the truth.
One man begins a stanza of a song, and the rest of the company is obliged to repeat it. I’m told there are hundreds of songs and that some of them go back to the 18th century, if not before. They are called rizitika, which are “songs from the foot of the mountain.” Karánou and a few other villages are in the foothills of the White Mountains. The songs and the men who sing them are considered by many villagers to be an integral part of their heritage.
Being part of this celebration, Phil says he’s reconnected with his own roots. For me it’s like we’ve been morphed into Zorba the Greek. Echoes of movie dialogue replay in my head – “Am I not a man? And is not a man stupid? I have a wife, children; the full catastrophe!”
We drink and sing through the night until the sun comes up, and then, incongruously, at dawn’s first light everyone ends up sitting around a table with an ice cream pop in his hand. It is as though we have been initiated into a brotherhood. Phil and I stagger to our hotel rooms like we just stumbled out of a dream, a reminder from our ancestors on how to live. It’s our birthright.
One in a series of archival articles originally produced in 2001.
Text, video, and sounds: Jim Metzner.
Photographs (except where otherwise indicated): Phil Metzidakis.
My sincere thanks and some tall glasses of cherry-flavored raki to friend/translator/photographer Phil Metzidakis, to Eva Maravelaki of the Cretan Tourism Company, and to Eftychios Mavridakis and all the people of Karánou – especially those who sing until dawn.
Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation.
This feature originally appeared on NationalGeographic.com and appears here with their kind permission.
© 2001-2008 Jim Metzner Productions. All rights reserved.