Maria Vamboukaki’s small souvenir shop, the “Cretan Fodele House,” is right at the entrance in the village, somewhere on the right. It sells some of the usual knickknacks tourists like to buy as mementos of Crete, but when you step inside, things change. Occupying a modest part of a wall, a few icons of Greek Orthodox saints line up in
It’s no accident to find an artist passionate about religious art here. Fodele is the birthplace of Doménikos Theotokópoulos – El Greco. I am not sure who is more important for the Cretans. El Greco, whose icons convert atheists, or Nikos Kazantzakis epitaph reads “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” (Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα. Δε φοβούμαι τίποτα. Είμαι λέφτερος.) Either way, Greece’s most famous creators have Cretan roots – and that counts for something.
Maria is a joyful spirit with a contagious laughter and friendly demeanor. She has raisins or grapes on a platter in front of the entrance to her boutique and homemade raki to treat her guests – whether they buy or not, passersby can have a taste.
She’s doesn’t speak English, but she’s a joy to talk to. Somehow, the language barrier doesn’t matter around her. With my poor knowledge of about 20-30 words in Greek and her basic “hello” and “goodbye” in English, we click. We are friends in an instant and we plan to go for a drink when she’s done working. It’s five in the afternoon now and we plan to have dinner at Taverna Giasemi anyway. It’s a few steps away from her store, in the heart of the village, by the river.
I am looking forward to dining at Giasemi: it’s the tavern that made me fall in love with Fodele. It is the most scenic in the center of the village, with ample room to sit outside and bucolic views of the Pantomantris River.
Giasemi is purely traditional. They serve all the usual Cretan menu culprits: fava, dolmades, Greek salad, and all kinds of meats. But their lamb chops are legendary – the best in this part of Crete by all means.
It’s a family-owned business. Eleni has been working here with her mom and dad for over 27 years, sometimes juggling two jobs and commute to Heraklion and back.
She is energetic and fun, a pleasure to be around – like all good people who put passion into what they do should be. I loved sitting with her and learning about the orange festival they have every year in March in Fodele. It’s a young tradition – it celebrated its 6th edition this year – but the locals already love it. Besides, they have been growing sunshine here for hundreds of years.
The place where I was born is surrounded by orange trees, springs of drinking water and a Byzantine church. ~ El Greco
Eleni makes jewelry – like necklaces and earrings – for the festival.
“This year I made 350 pieces,” she tells me. “Maria wore the earrings, and one of the local newspapers captured a picture of her. She looked so pretty!”
She means Maria Vamboukaki, the charming Greek artist who knows how to smile. I’m happy they know each other. I am all for meeting Maria later for after-hours drinks and she plans to take me to a new tavern with amazing sea views.
“You should come next year,” Eleni continues with a sweet sparkle of excitement in her eyes. “I will make my orange cake, my mom will make orange sweets, and everybody will participate. We have music and dance until late!”
I promise her I will and order a Fodele salad just to have something light before I binge on the lamb chops her father is already cooking on the wood-fired grill.
After the dark sets in Fodele, it is hard to do visual justice to a dish like the Fodele salad on Giasemi’s menu when you don’t have photography skills. But the gargantuan portion pictured here near a serving of
But don’t worry if you cannot eat it all up: you can ask for a doggie bag and it’s no big deal. Most locals do it anyway. Wasting food as tasty as this is a sin.
Dinner usually ends with fresh fruit and raki, plus Eleni’s amazing orange pie. It’s always gone in seconds: I never have time to take a picture. It’s a wasted Instagram moment, all right, but there’s always next time.
Maria arrives just in time to lead us to the “Οπου βασταξει” owned by Stella and her husband, Dimitris. I met Stella in Maria’s shop this Monday evening and she impressed me from the first hello. She’s in her 30s and she already has four children. She speaks English and she tells me that her husband does a big lamb roast on Sunday when the taverna is full. I promise her to be there at the end of the week. It’s too dark for pictures, but the view is sublime, just what she promised.
The lights of Fodele flicker in the distance and the sea plays a lullaby tune while I sip yet another artisan raki. Dimitris has a typical Cretan mustache and jovial demeanor as he speaks to my husband about local politics. I find myself contemplating new ties in Fodele: these are the kind of hard-working people you want to be around.
As I realize this, it hits me: most people I met in Fodele this Monday are just alike: kind, honest, open to strangers. They personify Philoxeníā, the legendary Cretan hospitality that is impossible to define unless you experience it. And the more I think about it, the more Eleni’s words resonate with me:
“Please learn Greek, Mig! I have so much to tell you!”
I will. For the Elenis, Marias, and Stellas, but most of all, for my soul. Crete is my home: now and forever.