The romantic notion of Greek villages consisting of little whitewashed cottages with blue shutters is (sadly perhaps), inaccurate to say the least. While such idyllic villages do exist on some Greek islands, many visitors to Crete are initially disappointed to find they are rarely seen on Crete, Greece, but that is not to say that Cretan villages do not have a charm all of their own.
One such village is Ano Hersonissos, located about 25km to the east of Herkaklion and the main airport, Nikos Kazantzakis, on Crete, Greece. Just to the north on the coast is its big brother, Port Hersonissos, which is well known as a busy, cosmopolitan holiday resort attracting thousands of visitors each year. For many their arrival in Port Hersonissos can be something of a disappointment as the resort is noisy, brash, and heavily commercialised consisting of conglomerate of concrete hotel and apartment blocks with the inevitable tourist shops selling imitation designer goods, gold and silver jewellery of varying quality, beef burgers, and other foods not of Greek origin!
Never fear, relief is on hand for the weary visitor, and here we take a closer look at Ano Hersonissos (or Old Hersonissos as some call it, although it is newer that the Port of the same name!). But before we do that, let’s just clear up the matter of pronunciation of Hersonissos. Many maps, including Google, still show the name as Chersonissos, which is fine as long as you remember that the ‘Ch’ should be pronounced like the ‘Ch’ in Bach, not like the ‘Ch’ in cherry! These days it is usually spelt with an H, which is sounded at the ‘Bach’ of the throat!
Ano Hersonissos is a good example of a living, working, Cretan village although to the casual observer (i.e. the summer visitor from northern Europe), it seems as though not much is going on, which perhaps explains why some people think that nobody works in Greece and that everyone retires at fifty!
The nuclei of the village are the village square (which is actually nearly square unlike a lot of Cretan villages!), and the two churches, the larger being St Dimitrios, the smaller being Panayia (which explains the importance of the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15th!). There is also a village school which although it takes children from other villages is also an important part of village life.
In the square are the inevitable kiosk, selling cigarettes, drinks, newspapers (foreign and Greek), and other odds and ends, two ‘kafenios’, a bar, and a selection of restaurants of varying sizes. There are also two bakeries, one of which bakes on the premises, (visitors departing late from the square are treated to the smell of freshly baked bread), two greengrocers, a butcher, two shop selling textiles (Greek made household textiles are still a popular purchase and they last for years!), and a shop selling olive oil products such as soap, and herbal teas. Just outside the square are a couple more restaurants, more kafenios, and the essential ‘souvlaki’ shop which sells the indigenous fast food, gyros, (the thing that looks like a kebab but is made of real slabs of marinated pork meat and costs €2.80), and souvlakia. The souvlaki shop will also fix you a Greek salad so you can eat well but cheaply off a formica table if you wish!
On the fringes of the village, and often not noticed by summer visitors there are actually some discreetly placed apartment blocks and visitors who are staying in these places get to see a little more of village life.
On Monday nights the local businesses get together (sometimes), to provide Greek music and Greek dancing exhibitions in the square, most of these places will expect you sit and eat but some such ‘Oasis’ next to the kiosk, and Georgios Place at the other end of the square are happy for you to sit and just take a drink. Of course regular visitors will know all about this and how lively the square can be even on an ordinary night but many still wonder why it is so quiet during the day.
Agriculture is probably the best answer. Ano Hersonissos sits in the middle of one of the agricultural areas on Crete, (and for many it is more important than tourism). Much of the fruit and vegetables that appear in the local shops (and supermarkets) is locally grown, and a walk through some of the byways around the village reveals not just edible produce but also acres of carnations grown for their flower heads which are now thrown at concerts, weddings, and other functions since plates became expensive and not a little dangerous!
Many of the local residents have their own fields and livestock including chickens, and all this must be attended to before the sun gets too hot, even one of the local priests has his own fields and can be seen dressed in ‘civvies’ on a tractor (a Lamborghini at that,) at many times of the year. In fact most essential work of the village takes place before midday when the summer visitors are just getting about after rising late, taking a dip, and thinking about lunch. And much other business takes place in the morning as government offices, banks, and post offices open at 7 or 7.30am. No wonder then that the village seems so quiet during the day when for many the working day starts at 5am in the summer months!
Indeed in August while the visitors are sweltering, the local farmers will be thinking about ploughing their fields ready for potatoes and other crops that can be planted in late August and September ready for harvesting in early spring, for we are fortunate that on Crete we get two growing seasons
Winter time is a different matter and everyone knows that Crete and Hersonissos is famed for its olive oil (there are several million olive trees on Crete and only about 600,000 people) and in late August those with olive trees begin to look anxiously at the weather forecasts and the skies hoping for a hint of rain to come, as plentiful rain is needed for the olives to ripen which they do from around November through until February.
With olives to harvest in between sometimes heavy showers, the pace becomes frantic at times, with early starts and finishes as the light fails. And with the inevitable rush to the olive presses many growers find themselves queuing all night waiting to get their olives pressed. At this time all you can hear around the village is the buzz of the olive pickers (rather like a rotating rake on a long pole driven either by petrol or electricity), and the shouts of those who pick the olives up from the nets below the trees, clean them of leaves and stems and bag them up in sacks.
Did we mention the grapes yet? Hersonissos is no longer the wine growing area that it was and no longer holds a raki licence, but nonetheless many still brew their own wine (in some of the restaurants in the square you will be treated to the owner’s homebrew), with varying degrees of success, and then after the wine has been made the raki follows! And this has to be seen to during autumn too.
One of the biggest joys of the winter is walking through Ano Hersonissos village square in the evening, with the smell of olive wood smoke in the air and the whole square turned into an impromptu car park as there are no longer any tables outside except for those places that stay open all winter.
But if this sounds like all work and no play then you get the wrong idea again. For time there is for weddings, baptisms, name days, and unfortunately funerals too. Anyone that has been to a Greek wedding or baptism can tell you more than we have time for here. Suffice it to say that when the Greeks relax and celebrate then they do it in style and the foreigners that live here, of which there are many, just have to follow suit!
So why do many miss out on seeing this living, working village? Well for a start the passing traveller cannot see it, and from the Port it is invisible (as are the villages of Koutouloufari and Piskopiano), and from the New Road it appears only as a collection of rooftops and the inevitable TV aerials, and sometimes the local ‘City Hall’ is a bit short with its publicity material. Nevertheless many visitors find their way to Ano Hersonissos and it is easy enough to do so. Take one of the roads that goes up the hill from Port Hersonissos, either by Xalkiadakis or opposite Cretan Medicare, and turn right when you get to the top, it’s a bit of a climb so you might like to take a taxi, or you can take the ‘Happy Train’ which stops regularly just outside the village for long enough for you to pick up a ‘gyros’! If you are passing by on the New National Road, take the first exit for Port Hersonissos as you come from Iraklio and turn right opposite the Ambulance Station, and then first left, which will bring down into the village by the ‘Big Church’. Easy isn’t it?
So why so little publicity about what is, after all, a real Cretan, Greek village?
Well of course you will find results come up if you search the internet, but many of the businesses are quite small and family run, and a full scale web site with all the costs associated with it are in most cases uneconomic. But what you will find is that some of the businesses such as Georgios Place have a ‘Page’ on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/GeorgiosPlace), and there is also a ‘Group’ for Ano Hersonissos itself (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=50346212662), and indeed the Villa Idillion (http://www.villaidillion.gr/), which has some village style apartments does have its own proper web site.
While many of the mass tourism areas are permanently scarred with unattractive concrete blocks there remains to be seen charming villages such as Ano Hersonissos, Crete, Greece, where you can relax away from the crowds and enjoy good food using local produce served by friendly staff, and at reasonable prices. And not far away are many of the Crete’s main archaeological sites and some beautiful scenery too.