Many crops of seasonal produce can be found on the island of Crete. When the heat of the summer month’s change to milder autumn days, olives, grapes and chestnuts are ready to be harvested. The olive oil and wine presses are kicked into action. Local olive grove owners take their harvests to distilleries to turn their labours into fine olive oil; and just as many locals are in full production, making their own local alcoholic spirit – Raki.
If you happen to be visiting Crete during late October or early November, be sure to attend the annual Chestnut Festival. Traditionally the festival is held in the village of Élos, GR – Έλος and has on occasion been held in the village of Prassé.
The drive from Chaniá, GR – Χανιά to Élos is around 60 kms and passes through various villages and the very scenic Gorge of Topolia, GR – Φαράγγι Τοπόλια. The narrow winding road hugs the side of the tall vertical rock walls of the gorge between the villages of Topolia, GR – Τοπόλια and Koutsomatados, GR – Κουτσοματαδος. This scenic stretch of road also passes through the ‘Tunnel by the Topolia Gorge’ and ‘MAD Tunnel’ before reaching the Cave of Agía Sofía, GR – Αγία Σοφία – Wisdom of God nestled high in the side of the gorge.
Be sure to stop and leave the car on the side of the road close to the Panorama café taverna and walk the 150 rock stairs to the cave and take in the expansiveness of the scenery around you, noting the winding road and the 300 meter drop below.
The name of the cave and small church of Agía Sofía, according to local legend, was given from an icon that was brought from a temple in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul); by local Cretan fighters who defended the city shores against attacks by Ottoman soldiers. It is said, that when Sultan Mehmed II announced a truce and allowed the Cretans to return home, that they couldn’t take any guns. Therefore, in exchange they were given permission to take something else. A Wisdom of God icon was taken and hidden in this cave where the church of Agía Sofía now stands, built into the side of the caves inner wall.
The cave has many stalagmites and stalactites, a small belfry and a metallic star that stands in the centre of a circular stone paved platform.
After spending time visiting the cave of Agía Sofía, we make our way to the village of Élos.
The annual Chestnut Festival is in full swing and the local tavernas are overflowing with people enjoying traditional homemade food whilst listening to the live local music.
The small village of Élos is surrounded by aged old chestnut and plane trees, together with olive groves providing picturesque scenery in every direction. The festival marks the coming of autumn and time for harvesting the chestnuts’. Along with the opportunity for the locals to come together and share their produce.
Sharing a meal with my Cretan friends is always a truly enjoyable experience. There’s lots of laughter, good humour, wine (krasí), GR – κρασί, and wonderful traditional local food.
Most importantly on this occasion – chestnuts.
Pastries made with chestnuts, savoury chestnut dishes, chestnut sweets and my favourite, freshly roasted chestnuts. Lunch is also accompanied by the local traditional Tsikoudia GR – τσικουδιά, a honey flavoured rakí, GR – ρακή.
As our lunch feast is finishing, a friend tells me that a group of 12 men in traditional clothing are on the stage singing. As I approach the makeshift stage I can hear their strong and clear voices as no music in playing in the background. I learn that this style of music is known as “rizitika” – rebel songs. A slow style of song with more of a narrative character, about marriage, death, historical events and heroic characters.
I also learn more about the clothing. The black headscarf (Sarikía, GR – Σαρικία) and the boots (Stivania, GR – στιβάνια) that are being warm by the men. The Sarikía with the tear drop like braid is worn by Cretan man symbolising the mourning of the many lives lost during the uprising against the Ottoman rulers. Each tear drop braid is said to represent the number of years that Crete was under Ottoman rule. The Stivania boots are individually handmade for each person by a master craftsmen bootmaker, GR – tsogári and like Sarikía are worn with pride by local Cretan men. Stop by the area known as stivanádika, GR – στιβανάδικα the ‘Stivania workshops’, just off Chalidon Street near the central market in Chania, Old Town to see the craftsmen at work.
From the centre of the village, I take a short walk to the church of Agios Nikolaos, GR – Άγιος Νικόλαος with its pretty clock tower.
Meanwhile, back in the square the sounds of the Cretan lyre, GR – λύρα, accompanied by the Cretan laouto GR – λαούτο and a modern base guitar, bring harmonious and poetic sounding music and rhythm. Along with a group of local dancers dressed in traditional folk costumes.
As the music continues, it’s therefore time for some of my friends to take to the open space makeshift dance floor and enjoy the celebrations.
The days celebrations continue, and it’s time for us to leave. If you feel like staying overnight to enjoy the two days of celebrations, check here for accommodation availability.
Before we leave, we line up to buy some more of those tasty and freshly roasted chestnuts for the drive home.
Driving back to Chania, we make a collective decision to stop at the local fishing village of Kolympári, GR – Κολυμπάρι. A pretty village nestled at the foot of the Rodopou peninsula for a late afternoon drink by the sea.
This blog is part of a series of posts sharing information on day trips, starting from Chania in Crete. You might also like to read about the ancient city site of eleutheras GR – ελευθέρας. I hope you enjoy reading and that I bring some inspiration (if needed) to visit this amazing and magical part of the world.
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