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raki and xorta in crete

boarding a plane in israel
an hour and a half later landing in heraklion
the largest city in the greek island crete
half of the people on the island reside in this city
the entire crete population is a little more than half a million

the international heraklion airport sits on the beach
small and old airport
using stairs to get off the plane
then bus driving us into the terminal

outside the terminal getting into a car
heading west towards souda bay
in what suppose to be
a two and a half hours drive

my two travel companions
are on a discovery mission
an exploration of food and drinks

they both don’t know how to drive
i forgot how to drink
unspoken agreement appoints me
as the designated driver

fifteen minutes into the drive
i’m being asked to pull over at a grocery store
my friends get themselves a cold beer for the road
ten minutes later after beer is finished
being asked to stop at another store for refill
my friend walking out the car into the store
signaling to us to come out
the store happens to be a taverna
on top of a cliff overlooking the sea
wood chairs and tables are arranged outdoor
underneath a giant mulberry tree
perfect spot for taking our first rest
the rocky mountains roll into the blue sea
my friends finding the place worthy enough
for staying for two beers

the owner of the taverna coming out
with binoculars
observing the beach below the cliff
a lot to see he reports with a smile
adding that the name of the town below is bali
my friends getting excited
they heard that in bali there is a taverna
known for its yemistes – stuffed vegetables

the friend sitting next to me in the car
has been nominated as the official dj for our journey
he brought with him ten cds inside their plastic cases
placed them on the floor under his feet
sometimes he’s stepping on them
crashing sounds
he’s responding by saying that both the cds
and the cases are nothing but plastic
now he’s placing into the car’s cd player
the hebrew version for the greek song
“your brown eyes”
we are happily singing along
as we’re entering the streets of bali

first stop in bali is the beach
beautiful bay surrounded by tall mountains
decorated with spots of yellow flowers
that from the beach look like flames
settling on the sand
my two friends don’t know how to swim
they take a quick dip in the shallow water
and head to the nearest beach taverna
it’s time to upgrade themselves from beers
to campari mixed with fresh squeezed
local crete orange juice
i go for a swim

driving from the beach towards the bali port
narrow road through the town
up and down the mountain
arriving at the tiny port
few boats plus small clean beach

the stuffed vegetables taverna is in the port
ordering carafe of local wine and several dishes
including delicious stuffed zucchini flowers
which grow in the taverna’s garden

the owner of the taverna
sitting at a table with his wife and kids
in front of him giant bowl full with
lightly steamed green leaves
that i’ve never seen before
he’s cutting thin slices of garlic into the bowl
squeezing in lemon juice
adding olive oil
then beginning to feast on the greens

i’m ordering these greens
only to be told that it’s not on the menu
and anyway they don’t have any more
the greens are called xorta
these are herbs that grow wild in the mountains
especially during the winter time
many crete people grow them in their gardens
my top crete mission has become clear
i won’t rest until i find and get to taste xorta

with the bill the waiter brings complimentary raki
the traditional cretan alcoholic drink
distilled from what is left over from treading the grapes
marc, must, and grape skins
the very strong alcohol volume of 40%
gives it the name “fire water”
raki is claimed to be a medicine for many ordinary diseases
like a cold, headache, or diarrhea

getting back to the car
most of the driving still ahead of us
still stopping every half an hour
for my friends to get more beer

the road curves along the coast
sometimes at sea level
other times up on the mountains
miles of nerium plants along the road
loaded with blossoming white, yellow,
red, and pink flowers

sun is setting
after dark turning from the main road
into tiny steep road climbing up
to the small village where we’re going
to stay the night
our apartment has windows and balcony
overlooking the souda bay of the aegean sea
which is an arm of the mediterranean sea
located between the greek peninsula and anatolia, turkey

leisurely we’ve extended the two and a half hours
of driving into more than eight hours
crashing on the beds
i’m from driving
they’re from drinking

six in the morning
sun has risen above the bay
waking up from the sounds of the bells
that are tied around the necks of the herds
of sheep and goats that pass underneath
our balcony

to my amusement
my friends wake up easily with no hangover
they reveal the secret
drinking lots of water throughout the drinking process

driving to the samaria gorge
passing through the small mountain village malaxa
grape vines are used on rooftops and gardens
for creating chill out shaded areas
huge variety of plants and flowers everywhere
everything is clean outside and inside
including toilets
this is true all over crete
crete is also known for having the lowest crime rate in europe
thefts are committed by tourists and not by the locals
and acts of violence are more likely the result
of tourists drinking alcohol not according
to the drinking guidelines set up by my friends –
always make sure to drink plenty of water

unlike new york and israel
the cretans aren’t cell phone addicts
thought there is reception throughout most of the island
haven’t seen a single cretan using cell phone
maybe they do it only in hiding
beside being very clean they are also very soft spoken
making crete feel like an upgraded clean and gentle version of
the arab and israeli middle east

stopping at tiny taverna in malaxa
the owner is an old woman who is also the cook
and the waitress
my friends ordering greek coffee
once they’ve finished drinking
even though it’s only 7 in the morning
the owner brings us raki on the house

arriving at the samaria gorge
it is one of the longest gorges in europe
ten miles long in the white mountains of west crete
starting at an altitude of more than four thousand feet
going all the way down to the shores of the libyan sea
during the winter high water and rock falls
make the gorge dangerous and impassable
the path winding down very steeply for the first few miles

wide variety of birds inhabit the gorge
partridges near the springs
owls, hawks, and ravens in the cliffs
griffon and bearded vultures
bonelli and golden eagles
large populations of migratory birds
including turtledoves, quails, woodcock, hoopoes,
thrushes, and swallows
small mammals including badgers, polecats, and many hares
the best known animal connected with the gorge
is the cretan wild goat, also called kri-kri
leaping huge distances across gullies and ravines
with their long horns

driving back from the gorge
mountains and mountains full with olive trees
the olives were already harvested
leftover sundried olives are on the trees
deliciously ready to eat
mulberry trees everywhere
with fruits varying in size, texture, color, and taste
stopping next to giant tree
eating straight from the tree for more than half an hour
meanwhile my friends drinking beer inside the car

it’s evening time
stopping at the local taverna in our village
the beautiful teenager daughter is greeting us
her eyes expressing curiosity in who we are
the father signaling to the brother
to go and serve us instead of his sister
who is then seen driving home on her scooter
this scene has repeated itself in all of our visits

the father and brother are very friendly
telling us about their taverna
they grow their own olives, grapes, and sheep
everything organic with no pesticides

we are invited to a traditional cretan wedding
in the village
the dj is playing cretan music
tables loaded with food in quantities
that all the guests could never finish
even if the wedding would last for a week

my two friends situating themselves near the bar
traveling from campari to wine and back to campari
the bride coming to the bar asking to open
several whiskey bottles and pour for everyone

the father of the bride and the father of the groom
hugging each other and begin singing
they sing a line
and everyone repeats after them
then each one of them performing a solo dance
big circle forms around the dancing father
three waiters show up with a box
full with nine champagne bottles
they open all nine bottles
corks flying above the dancing father
then all nine bottles are thrown away

the second father is now dancing
same scene repeating itself
with the three waiters and the champagne bottles
which again get thrown away without anyone drinking
from them

the music changes into rembetiko
the greek form of urban blues performed in low class joints
where the social misfits of the twenties gathered
it originated in the hashish dens of pireaus and thessaloniki
and was outlawed for many years

with the first rembetiko sounds
the groom smashing his wine glass on the floor
and begins dancing the traditional way
touching the heel of his shoe with his hand
everyone gathering around him
smashing their glasses on the floor next to the dancing groom

the three waiters show up again with the champagne box
this keeps repeating itself for hours
each time someone dances solo
someone rushes to the bar and pays for a box of champagne
this is to show respect to the person
and to symbolize affluence

gradually into the night guests are leaving
at six in the morning the hard core group
of family and friends remain singing and drinking
around a table

from the wedding my friends and i
heading back to the airport
their drinking adventure is over

as for my xorta mission
i ordered it in each taverna that had it
whether it was or wasn’t part of the menu
each taverna with its own preparation style
more lemon, less lemon
more garlic, no garlic
different flavors of olive oil
boiled, steamed, more raw
sweeter, bitter

operation xorta successfully accomplished

© 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Zemach Zohar Wilson, Crete, June 2006