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My Childhood Memories of Crete

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My Childhood Memories of Crete

Written by
Sarah O'Neill
November 2016

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As a young child, our author spent many happy family holidays on the Greek islands. Here she reminisces on a country, its people, and the impression that they made: a child’s eye view of Crete.

I first waded with my pink glitter jelly sandals along the sparkling Mediterranean coast of Crete at the tender age of 4. The Greek islands held a fascination for my parents, and they shared that fascination with us as primary school children summer after summer. They had spent a romantic holiday as a young couple on Corfu, and since then their love for Greek culture, and its love for the world, never let them go.

As my brother and I were growing up we visited Rhodes, Samos, Kos and twice, we were on Crete. Now, as an adult, I am amazed at what a lasting impression that country and its people left on me at such a tender age. Childhood memories of blissful summers spent on Crete.

Crete doesn’t cater to kids in the obvious ways. It’s not about having colouring sheets at the cafés, pram-friendly streets or safety barriers everywhere. As a child in Crete, what I experienced from the Greeks was genuine interest, friendship and warmth.

Holidays on Crete are “family” holidays because people truly treated you as a family. Family members of all ages, from the oldest to the youngest, are made to feel socially included and welcome here. Adults don’t talk over the top of children’s heads, they look you right in the eye and smile and say hello.

Reading an article recently in the House of Travel’s magazine ‘Inspire’, I came across this statement in a piece about Greece, “The inhabitants are gorgeous just because they smile.” When I think back on all my encounters with the Cretans that rings so true.

It was the nineties, when travel agents and package holidays amassed visitors in the mass tourist resorts between Heraklion and Malia. The benefits were a waterpark and plenty of amenities. The drawback of mass tourism is that often the tourists determine the culture, not the locals. My family rented a car and we found a quick escape to the quieter towns and villages, where Cretan culture prevailed. An extraordinarily friendly, open and family-orientated culture.

Greek living for me is multi-generational living at its best. The family, and in many situations, the extended family, still has a huge role to play here. The people in the rural communities on Crete have a deep respect for their elders, and a genuine, child-centred attitude towards family-life. They have managed to sustain a value system that has little to do with modern, competitive society. Ancient Greek even had a special word specifically for the kind of love and affection that we share as a family: ‘storge’. As children visiting the island, we felt cherished and valued in a way that struck us an unusual and endearing.

The waiters in the tavernas used to give us small gifts, like little plastic animals dangling off the rim of our drink glasses, or special parasols and decorations in our ice creams. They invited us to come up and join them as they danced madly in a circle smashing plates.

I remember a little old lady in a village up in the mountains walking along the side of the road with her donkey. She hailed us over to share her almonds with us, with a soft, crinkly smile. As a child I was fascinated to see such a traditional way of life, so vastly different from my own and untouched by the modern world.

The beauty of Crete is that it has managed to maintain its identity and old way of life in its small mountain villages, whilst still embracing visitors from all over the world. We always felt that people were delighted to meet us and spend time with us.

I remember one elderly gentleman in a taverna up in the mountains. His crumpled face had more lines than I could count, and his huge moustache spread from ear to ear when he smiled. His son would dip his bread in wine to soften it before he ate. He was the village elder, and a war hero, who had fought as a partisan against the occupying German forces during the Second World War. But this honoured veteran and Cretan hero let me, at four years old, sit up on his knee as he told us his stories, interpreted by his son.

The beauty of an island is that nothing is ever very far away, so as children, my brother and I were rarely bored travelling along the winding roads. It was exciting to drive up switchbacks, where every turn brought another spectacular view, and through villages with grandparents sitting outside, watching the world go by and waving to us as we passed. Moreover, every new site or activity wasn´t far from the last one, meaning we never had to drive far to the next stop.

You might expect little kids to be bored at the idea of visiting old stones and ancient archaeological sites, but Crete has the power to truly spark the imaginations of children and adults alike. My brother and I were genuinely enthralled at the incredible size of these ancient sites and the stories behind them. The locals were happy to give us space to run around, clamber and explore (warning parents: no safety ropes!).

Our wonderful guide at Knossos took interest in us as a whole family, encouraging questions from my brother and me, and tailoring his tour to make sure we were entertained. He joked with us about the toilet facilities in this ancient Minoan palace (amazingly, they flushed!) and regaled us with tales of ancient labyrinths with the Minotaur. I vividly remember the Queen’s chamber with her intricate dolphin mosaic. I decided it was the most beautiful bedroom I’d ever seen and was determined mine would be just like it. For me, the trip started a fascination with Greek myths, legends and ancient history, which my parents were more than happy to fuel.

We often have a tendency to overstimulate ourselves and our kids, but in Crete, their simple, unhurried approach to life feels healthier and more restful. Crete has a treasure-trove of unspoiled beaches were families can spend hours undisturbed. We were able to entertain ourselves all day long with little more than a bucket and spade at the beach, whilst mum and dad could lie back and enjoy a well-earned rest.

Has Crete changed over the years? Well, in some ways yes. In recent years, the city of Heraklion has revamped its museums to make them even more interactive and child-friendly. The Cretaquarium is a huge aquarium with multi-media features and a touch pool that is sure to delight children. The Natural History Museum in Heraklion also has a Discovery Centre full of interactive features. There are newly discovered archaeological sites to explore, and new reconstruction projects have been completed, such as a working model of an ancient Minoan ship.

Yet Crete itself remains fundamentally unchanged. Throughout its turbulent history of invasion by the Arabs, then the Turks, then the Germans, it’s always maintained, and reverted to, its strong sense of identity. Those core values, centred around family, faith and simplicity of life, have withstood the test of time.

We often think of holidays primarily as a chance for mum and dad to unwind, and the little darlings to burn off as much steam as possible. We rarely consider the lasting impressions that they can leave on young children. But Crete has the power – and the personality – to nestle itself in your heart, to leave impressions, images, and the memory of smiling, Cretan faces, even in the youngest of imaginations.

If you are a family seeking moments of inspiration, relaxation, and fascination with your children this summer, I encourage you to consider Crete as a wonderful family destination that will create the richest of memories – for both you and your kids.

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Written by Sarah O'Neill

A passionate traveller, linguist and writer, Sarah has visited over 20 countries around the globe. She loves immersing herself in new cultures, learning the language, and getting to know the local people.

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