The exotic splendor and charm of the old-world Venetian market of Chania
05.10.2013 - 05.10.2013
Every Saturday, something special comes to town.
A surprise awaits both locals and visitors who venture to the old town district of Chania that lies adjacent to the harbor. In the labyrinthine grid in front of the lighthouse are a series of streets, alleyways, and footpaths that house a farmer’s market, an old world style market, and an outdoor market district that give credence to the richness of culture and to the delectable flavors of a simpler life.
The flea market is a hodge-podge collection of various items for the home, such as clothing, kitchen linens, dishes and utensils, and even hardware items. Some jewelers have booths that show off their creativity with crafting unique jewelry pieces from local beads, glass, and gems of vibrant colors and hues. Across the street from the flea market, the Chania farmer’s market is teeming with local farmers that eagerly boast the fresh fruits and vegetables that overflow from the crates and tabletops. Rows of the tomatoes and cucumbers found in the traditional Greek salad sidle up next to the corn, cabbage, eggplant, zucchini, and greens that bespeak weeks of precious labor. Booth after booth of juicy morsels that beg me to pluck them from the table and into my mouth make me wonder why I still go to the grocery store. An elongated orange pumpkin-like fruit bears witness to just one of the many fruits still foreign to me, as are the fruits from the local cacti so common here. I eagerly purchase a parcel of figs that beckon me from the table lined with plums, dates, peaches, apples, pears, bananas, a variety of citrus fruits, and cherries. Red and green clusters of grapes are the most abundant here at the market, and the farmer who sells me his plums and nectarines generously adds a cluster of his own dark purple grapes as an added treat.
I recall the watermelon patch near our house as I espy the neatly stacked piles of watermelons at varied intervals along the street between booths and tables of the less cumbersome stock. Having tasted the rich sweetness of local Cretan melons, I am tempted to indulge but have no rolling shopping cart which with to carry the heavy burden. My loss!
Legumes abound in unprocessed goodness. The plentiful dried beans await in cellophane bags by the kilo, and I grab several bags before they are all consumed by the people in front of me who also value the low-cost, healthy, and versatile staple that can complement any table. Assortments of nuts rest humbly alongside their counterparts but present an inviting image, and thoughts of nut-filled salads, desserts, and snacks invade my mind.
At one table, a man sells at least fifteen different types of zesty Mediterranean olives offers to let me taste them to see which olive variety I like best. I think I shall like them all, and perhaps then some.
Several tables of fresh herbs and spices allure me with their intoxicating fragrances. The brilliant, deep greens of the oregano, basil, parsley, cilantro, rosemary, and dill are testament to their just-picked status. They seem to still glisten with dew as if embedded once again in the rich earth. No packet of powdered artificial meal flavorings fill any meals here.
Earth’s goodness is so alluring to those who can merely taste its summons.
At the end of the street, the assorted fish stare at me from their death bed on the fishermen’s tables, boasting even in death their freshness, so newly out of the sea that creeps into the harbor of the city with robust promises of marine life to fill one’s plate and satisfy one’s palate. They continue to watch me with fixed eyes as I pass, pausing briefly to glance at the fresh sea snails (a la escargot!) that try in vain to escape their bin as I make my way onward from the farmer’s market to the indoor market.
The indoor market seems to have a snippet of everything. Butchers and fishermen occupy one limb of the cross-shaped building, but the other wings are occupied with souvenir, clothing, leather, textile, and craft shops that rival the varied food shops and tavernas. The aromas from the baker’s many breads tempt me into trying the plethora of baked goods. The bread meat is a soft whole grain loaf, but the rusk is a sturdy substance meant to stay with a person. Sweetened honey and fruit pastries wait patiently next to the spinach pies and cheese tarts that seem to be the locals’ favorites. Next to and across from the baker’s shop, gouda and edam rival the Greek traditional Feta in the booths that offer fresh cheeses and Mediterranean olives.
Then I see what Greece is known best for: the purest virgin olive oil. No other olive oil worldwide can compare with the purest essence practically straight from the olive press and into the jar. Alongside nearly every display of olive oil is honey, small jars and large jars alike. Some is pure while other varieties have been blended with flowers and herbs, even chamomile and thyme. My mouth begins to salivate as I am offered a sample of a new peanut dipped in honey and covered in sesame seeds.
Dried herbs and spices line several shops that specialize in the natural seasonings that flavor local cuisine. Single packets are just as tempting as the variety packets that have the best of everything needed for the Greek kitchen. Herb and spice mixes are available for fish and poultry, gyros and souvlaki, mousaka and tzatziki. In some shops, great bundles of herbs have been gathered and dried and consume large bags with their bulk. Despite the massive quantities of local wines and spirits made from the local vineyard grapes, the aromatic herbs make a heady brew all their own.
Nearly every shop and taverna we visit has their own Raki distillery, and those home brewers hold out their hands, offering me samples of their finest wares. I will not repay hospitality with what would be considered a grave insult were I to refuse, nor will I miss the flavor of this culture so exotic to my senses; thus, I partake of the newly distilled Raki that stings all the way down despite the medicine-spoon sized sample. Alongside the potent brew, the kinder honey Raki is a sweetened fire that pales in comparison to its much stronger parent but offers a sugared warmth in bold confidence, hinting at the spiced nectar promises of the rare fruit Raki found only in the more hidden shops deeper into the discreet paths in the market.
The walk down the steps and into the outdoor market mystically transports me into a new time and place, alleyways lined with street shops and old Venetian houses with pale facades draped with window box flower gardens and crumbling walls that hint of simpler times. Stone mason walls ooze bougainvillea and the occasional morning glory vines that supplant color into the crumbling stucco and plaster walls of sugar-cubed ochre and variegated mauves.
The shops that line the streets give way vertically to two, three, and four-story houses that rise above them. Some shop owners live where they work; others see fit to rent out the living space above their shops. Either way, the European grandeur greets me and propels me further into the Venetian-style market district of Chania. I recall from one of my readings that the Ottomans destroyed much of the architecture during their occupation, but this area has survived to whisper the secrets of the past despite its bustling streets packed with the daily throng of tourists.
The alleyway shops are filled with the trappings and trades of Cretan life. One street seems to be dedicated almost exclusively to leather goods in any variety a person might wish for. Homemade leather and woolen booties and slippers offer comfort and warmth for people of all ages, but shoes, purses, wallets, and belts are also ever available here. Textile shops offer with pride the many cloth goods woven with locally produced sheep’s wool and quality cotton. Tablecloths bearing embroidery of olives and the classic Greek key pattern – the national symbol of life – are on display next to blankets spun of bright, vibrant hues crafted on the wooden looms of local weavers. Full of a myriad of natural olive oil based cosmetics and health and beauty products, cosmetics shops tempt the more organic visitors who are more in tune with nature. Some shops even sell handcrafted wood made of the olive trees when they are pruned each year or when they no longer produce fruit. Clothing shops dot the Venetian alleyways and offer everything from the gentleman’s linen shirt to pashmina scarves, maxi dresses to beach wear, embroidered blouses to modern Greek dresses that resemble ancient designs. Other crafters ply their trade in shops that sell everything from jewelry to pottery to ceramics, offering visitors a broad scope of products that range from the standard and typical to the uniquely Greek and Cretan products.
Souvenir and the ever-present tourist shops are around every corner, but the true delights are the shops belonging to local artisans who display their acrylics, tempera, watercolor, charcoal, and oil on canvas, pictures brought to life by the talent of the artisans who wake up every morning to the loveliness of the Cretan countryside and go to bed every night with the colors of the sunset dancing on the surface of the Mediterranean Sea, artisans who capture and recreate this beauty for others. These are some of my most-cherished souvenirs, the scenes that bring to life once again the images in my mind’s eye, the memories I wish to take back home with me when this year is over.
Closer to the harbor, tavernas line the shoreline and flaunt their cuisine, eagerly seeking out hungry travelers to coax into their dining establishment. Fishing poles line the stone wall that angles down into the harbor, evidence of the freshness of the fish in the tavernas and farmer’s market. Pigeons adorn the edges of the water and waddle over into the areas around the tavernas, happy to clean up the crumbs from the complementary breads served at every taverna. Small children extend hands or cups in plea for euro while others proceed around the market district with harmonicas, drums, accordions, and other musical instruments that make a more subtle request. On one side of the harbor, a Turkish mosque stands as a memory to the Ottoman occupation. Next to the mosque, horse-drawn carriages gather to transport tourists who prefer a touch of the romantic with the picturesque as they tour the city. Nearby, in the center of the harbor area, glass-bottom boats offer tourists a chance to see local marine life close up and even go snorkeling during parts of their boating tours. Additional shops line the remainder of the harbor before the walk gives way to the old Byzantine wall and bastion that hovers in front of the Venetian lighthouse that is the icon of the Chania harbor.
Off the harbor, side streets lead off between the shops and tavernas. We decide to take one of these side streets and find an alleyway that winds off behind buildings hidden into the Kastelli hillside and deeper into the less well known areas of the market. The path narrows into cobbled steps that mimic those in the famous footpaths of Oia and Fira on the Greek isle of Santorini. I am sufficiently tempted to explore further. Shops line every wall of the footpath while side paths lead to nook shops carved out of the side of the hill. One shop features original carvings and sculptures from well-known Greek artists, another displays the finest in ceramics and pottery and blown glass, and still another simply offers an eclectic collection of books and reading miscellany. In one shop we see an old-world style weaving loom with threads and fibers on the woodwork piece. Handmade cloths and textiles hang from ceiling and wall mounts to portray the fine craftsmanship with which each piece is made.
Farther up off to the side of the footpath, I espy a honeycomb which I find upon closer inspection bears a sign reading “Bee’s Workshop: Honey, Pollen, Beeswax.” That alone is enough to send me over the edge into the bliss natural goodness, and I inch into the shop. Handmade goods made from olive wood line the shelves on one wall, while the rest of the shop is filled with olive oil, honey, Raki, and dried herbs in tiny pouches. My nose is enticed by something sweet yet mysterious and lifts into the air slightly to take more of the fragrance in. I instinctively look upward to find suspended from the ceiling bundles of dried chamomile, lavender, thyme, oregano, and cinnamon that form an invigorating herbal potion all their own. Surely no chemical-laden parfume could come close to the perfume that is innate to the earth. The kindly shop owner notes my interest in the herbs and breaks off a sprig of lavender, crushes it into my curiously outstretched palm. The aroma bursts from the crushed flowers, wafts upward, and reaches my nose with renewed richness. My eyes open widely as I almost squeal like a child. After we make a small purchase and leave, I keep my fist balled tightly as though I could carry this precious gift forever. I feel like I am holding a secret in my pocket, some special delight unknown to any other in a place and world all my own.
The market area also houses several cathedrals, minarets, museums, Byzantine ruins, Venetian buildings and shipyards, Jewish synagogue, and the Minoan Kydonia excavation site from the Bronze Age, but, alas, I shall have to save those for another day!
Many shops now closing with the day over and locals enjoying afternoon siesta, we slowly make our way out of the market past visitors who are finishing a day of shopping or sitting down to enjoy coffee or late luncheons. As we make our way out of the final streets of the market past a music store, the lively chords of traditional Greek folk music follow us as if to extend the invitation to come again to the market someday soon.
Ah, the exotic splendor and charm of the old-world Chania Venetian market!