Place: Crete, Greece
Book: Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
Movie: Zorba the Greek with Alan Bates and Anthony Quinn(1964) and subsequent musical, Zorba
Several years ago, during our travels in Greece, Ken and I had a marvelous 10 days of driving back and forth across the mountains of Crete and exploring its rough-edged beauty. I was particularly happy to learn that we could stroll on the very beach that Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates danced across to the unforgettable (and in Greece, at least, inescapable) theme song of the move, Zorba The Greek.
The Greek director, Michael Cacoyannis, shot the film on Akrotiri peninsula of northern Crete in Chania . The famous Zorba dance took place on the beach of the small town of Stavros, and these many years later, the town’s tavernas still make a buck off of the honor.
Zorba continued to haunt our travels in Crete, not just because you cannot get through an evening without hearing the song and watching somebody try to do his best Zorba imitation on the dance floor. But also because his spirit so reflects Greece. And why not, Kazanzatkis, the creator of Zorba in the novel also namedZorba the Greek , himself born in Crete, still ranks as one of the most evocative writers about Greece, its religion and thought.
During our journey, we stopped at a small mountainside village hoping for a cup of tea, but the makeshift cafe on the front porch of an old couple had only cafes (The powdered Nescafe foisted off as coffee on Americans.) When she saw I was disappointed, the woman came out with a big bag of gray-ish dried weeds. By gestures, she told me that she had collected them herself in the mountains above her house, they grew only in Crete, and they cured many things, particularly women’s complaints and colds. (I am always amazed by the depth of conversations carried out with complete lack of the other person’s language.) I recognized it as a sage plant, perhaps a variety that grows only there. Someone told me it was probably dittany, but she used the leaves, not the blossoms, so I still think it was sage. Years later when I opened my paperback version of Zorba the Greek, I was amazed to see it opens with Zorba having a cup of sage tea.
When we sat on the old couples’ porch, we could see the characters in Kazantzakis’ novel and the movie passing by on the street, or peering suspiciously at us from the more populated cafe across the street. The exuberance and love of life of Zorba were all around us.
I remember many images from the movie, but the strongest, most disturbing scene convinced the young scholar (Alan Bates) to leave the hedonistic life of Zorba and return to his studies.The villagers gather at the home of a dying woman like so many vultures, and the moment she is pronounced dead they swoop in and strip her house. The scene disturbs and opens the traveler’s eyes to a darker side of the carefree-seeming image created by Zorba with his ready smile and willingness to ignore convention.
I truly believe that Zorba and his creator Kazantzakis provide the best guide to the Greek traveler. Despite all his novels about Greek Orthodox religion, Kazantzakis turned to Buddhism, and I have a t-shirt with a quote from him, in Greek: “I hope for nothing, I fear no one, I am free.” Perhaps that is the secret to the exuberant love of life experienced in Greece. If you hope for nothing, you are free of yearning.
The author also said: “Every perfect traveler always creates the country where he travels.” Let’s hear your reaction to Kazantzakis’ quotes. Please join the discussion.
For other posts about Greece and Crete, see the By Country page.
Note: I have included a link to Amazon where you can buy the paperback of Zorba the Greek. I am an Amazon Affiliate, so make a few cents when you purchase things through my links, but it costs you no more. Thanks for your support.