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An exploration of the Cretan soul

by Silke Elzner

When I travel I do it with all my senses. It is not just the act of being in a foreign place. Rather, it is about embracing all the new impressions it is throwing at me. Happiness comes from exposing myself to these experiences, be it new food, unusual sights or foreign people. It comes in the form of smells and the temptation of new flavours.

One of the best places where you can really, and I mean really, experience a travel location is a local market. No other place is better positioned to introduce you to local food in its purest form. It is here that you will meet the real locals – the housewives and the old people, the small business owners and the producers.

Heading straight for the market in Chania

Local markets help understand a destination better

Markets showcase the very essence of a place. You will find here the things that people care most about, food that they love to share and eat in the safety and comfort of their homes. The mix of voices that speak a language that is foreign to my ears is like music. For me it’s like the soundtrack of what it means to be alive.

My parents passed on this love of markets to me when we traveled as a family. Over the years I have seen markets in all kinds of places – from Fiji to Indonesia to Spain. Markets are the first places I seek out to understand a destination and its people better.

So it is no surprise to me that the team at Urban Adventures Crete started their walking tour of Chania, Crete’s second largest city, with the Municipal Market right in the city centre.

Salted Anchovies

The Municipal Market in Chania

The Municipal Market is definitely not the oldest building in the city’s centre, roughly a hundred years old. But it’s a striking building and the beating heart of this ancient city. It is one of the least confusing market buildings I have ever seen. The two aisles meet in an orderly way in the centre to form a cross. They are wide and airy, with beautiful lamps hanging off the cathedral style ceiling. The fixed market stalls resemble shops rather than stalls.

But what they offer is truly Cretan – honest and traditional food that you won’t necessarily find anywhere else.

Greek olives

Staples of the Greek diet: Olives, Cheese and Herbs

Olives – a Greek staple that is particularly celebrated in Crete and in the area around Chania. 150 tons of edible fruit is produced each year. A figure that pales in comparison to the more than 15.000 tons of olives that are destined for the olive oil production.

As we learn thanks to our wonderful guide Yanis, Greece is the third biggest producer of olives and olive oil in the world. No wonder that we see them everywhere at Chania’s market. They come in different sizes and colours, raw and prepared for quick consumption. The perfect snack in a hot Greek night, shared with friends around a table under the brilliant night sky.

Then there are herbs of all shapes and sizes. Oregano of course, such a quintessential Greek herb. But Yanis soon diverts our attention elsewhere. Our guide points out a carefully handmade mix of herbs, already packaged into small bags. These herbs come together as a tea, a popular breakfast item in Crete. We can make out chamomile in the mix but there are many, more obscure varieties that are rare and hard to find in the local mountains. Locals would know where to look. They pass down the knowledge from generation to generation.

Graviera cheese, native to Crete

Cheeses over cheeses over cheeses. The shops present it in big wheels, the traditional variety of Crete called graviera. It seems graviera is everywhere around us at the market. A slightly sweet hard cheese made from sheep’s milk. A wonderful, full depth flavoured cheese that feels like burned caramel on your tongue and that is just wonderful to snack on. A versatile cheese which you can enjoy raw or grilled, together with pasta or in a baked dish.

Lastly, Yanis invites the group to an olive oil tasting session. Yes, that’s right. Not unlike wine you can carefully explore the distinct flavours of different olive oil varieties. The shopkeeper is handing out shot glasses with the oil.

We warm the samples in our hands, then take a nose full of the aroma in. Lastly, a sip to taste the oil on our tongues as we let the liquid glide around our mouths. It feels strange to take a sip of olive oil but as we try different oils one after each other we can make out the differences quite clearly. Bolder flavours to complement cold dishes and salads, softer notes for cooking and frying.

Herb tea mix of Creta

A great introduction into Cretan culture before heading into Chania’s old town

Our visit to the Municipal Markets in Chania is the perfect way to introduce us to the culture and ancient history of Crete.

Sufficiently prepared we follow our guide into the maze of the old town. More about our Chania walking tour here.

Thanks to Urban Adventures for their invitation to join the tour for free and for sharing these stories with us. We appreciate the wonderful hospitality on that day. If you are interested in exploring Chania this way yourself, check out their tour website which I can wholeheartedly recommend.

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Old lamp at the Municipal MarketHerbsFreshly cooked Greek foodPulpo, mussels, moussaka