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Cretan music and dance


By: Hellenic Folklore Centre
Vassilis Economou,
Mirella Konstantelou
Special Contributor: Ioannis G. Panayiotakis

From the most distant to modern times, the Cretans associate every moment of their social life with music and dance. At the harvest, when relaxing, at religious ceremonies and feasts, at weddings, births and deaths and in lamentations - at every opportunity, the Cretans sing and dance their joys, sorrows, bad luck, love, bravery, etc...

Cretan musical instrument

Cretan musical instrument

The songs and dances of Crete are many and differ from province to province, from area to area and even between villages. The same thing happens with the musical instruments which prevail in each area, depending on the historical and social conditions.

Musical instruments are used according to the occasion. At big celebrations, festivals and weddings, the lyre or the violin is played and is accompanied by the lute or the guitar. In East Crete, the daoulaki (small drum) and the yerakokoudouna (small bells fixed onto the bow of the lyre) are used as accompanying instruments.

The main musical instrument in Crete is the lyre, which made its first appearance in Crete during the 17th Century or the beginning of the 18th Century, and which has three shapes: the pear-shaped lyraki (small lyre) with a small shallow body and a sharp note; the also pear-shaped vrontolyra with a big, deep body and a loud deep note; and the viololyra , which is seldom played today.

The lyre that has predominated and is played today in Crete, was designed and first manufactured around 1940 by Manoli Stagaki in his instrument workshop which still exists today in Rethymnon.
Lyres are made of black mulberry, walnut or maple wood. The bow is made of loquat wood and hairs from a horse’s tail. Once upon a time, lyre players made their own lyres. Today there are professional lyre manufacturers who sell them not only in Crete and the rest of Greece but also abroad. Antonis Stephanakis, in Zaro, Iraklio, is one of the best-known lyre manufacturers today.

Cretan mucisians

Cretan mucisians

For smaller groups of friends or for private family parties, apart from the lyre, the violin, the lute or the daoulaki, the mandolin or the mandola may be played. With these instruments, people sing the famous mantinades, improvised couplets which are mainly erotic, satirical, teasing, etc. The lyre-players are the best lyric-writers, but all Cretans are distinguished for the ease with which they compose mantinades at the drop of a hat.
The most common musical instrument in Crete from the time of Erotokritos to this day - with certain variations - must be the lute. Erotokritos himself:

“took his lute and walked quietly
and played it sweetly outside the palace
his hand was sugar and he had a voice like a nightingale
every heart that heard him cried and wept.”

A very ancient pastoral instrument which, despite its long historical development in Cretan musical life is today tending to disappear, is the askomantoura (the ancient bag pipe). The same thing is happening to the thambolia or sphyrochambiola (pastoral flutes). The pilgrim to the monastery of St. Phanourios at Valsamonero, Iraklio, can see St. Phanourios playing the askomantoura on an icon of the 15th Century A.D.

It is very easy to organise a party in Crete. Good mezedes (bits and pieces to eat), plenty of wine and tsikoudia (a strong spirit), eager instrumentalist, the mandinada players with their improvised lyrics and the party has gelled. Until morning they exchange mandinades which touch on thousands of original topics. Most of them are about love, both requited and unrequited, and about the progress of the guests at work, at the hunt, with guns, etc.

Cretan dancers

Cretan dancers

In Crete we can distinguish two kinds of music. There is the dance music which we meet throughout the island, and the rizitika songs which are something like the slow kleftiko songs of the tavlas of mainland Greece. They are called rizitika because they sprang from, developed and are sung in the villages which are situated on the riza, i.e. on the slopes of the White Mountains in Chania prefecture.

Rizitika are divided into songs of the tavla and of the strata. There are more tavla songs. According to their verses they can be divided into akritika (featuring mainly Digenis Akritas), into songs about love, marriage, joy, into historical songs, into heroic and allegorical songs. The strata songs are mainly wedding songs, which they sing when they take the bridegroom or the bride to the church, or christening songs and others.

They still sing rizitika in Anopoli, as they do throughout Sfakia. The most important local narrative song, however, which has an epic character and great historical value is the song of Daskaloyiannis, the hero of Anopolis who was the leader of the first rebellion of the Sfakians against the Turks in 1770. The song, which has 1034 verses, was composed and dictated to someone who could write by the shepherd Uncle Pantzelio of Anopoli, seventeen years after the events it describes, namely in 1787.
In East Crete, the position of the tavla songs is taken by the kondylies, a series of repeated revised motifs on top of which they sing mandinades.
After a certain point, song cannot express the spiritual intensity of a festivity and here the code changes. Dance takes over. The most skillful join in a circle in various ways and create tsambakia, depending on the dance and the mood. They dance the Kondylies in a slow dance and then request ortses, the fast pentozali. They calm down with the wonderful syrto and finish up in a burst with the Kastrino, Sitiano or Roumathiano pidichto or with the Anogean ortses. If there are women in the group, they dance the soustes in pairs, where unconfessed desires erupt.

From the time of the Cretan rebellions and the repeated visits of allied fleets to Crete, a new dance appeared, the polka, which is still danced today.
Anogia is a big town in Mylopotamos county of Rethimnon prefecture. Weddings in Anogia still take place today with all the forms of the old customs. The women busy themselves with weaving.

Cretan dancers

Cretan dancers

The Anogean woolen woven materials, with their wonderful folk motifs and their variety of colours and patterns, are very well known. Today, Anogia has acquired a great reputation for its good musicians and its excellent dancers. The Anogean pidichto is danced only here in Anogia, and there are only a few who still dance it.

The inhabitants of the village Armeni, in Sitia county of Lasithi prefecture, are well known for their festivities and they organise dances at every opportunity.

Kria Vrisi is a village in Aghios Vassilios county on the south-east side of Rethimno prefecture. The inhabitants are olive producers and stock-breeders As it is a mountain village, it has only a few orchards and vineyards. So to protect them in the springtime from hedgehogs and badgers that come out at night and destroy them by disturbing the freshly-turned soil, they invented the moungrinara. This is an instrument that sends off the pests with its loud note.
If you are genuinely interested in getting to know the wealth and depth of the Cretan soul, you must come to Crete during the off-peak periods and stay for some weeks in a non-tourist place. Only with the devotion of a pilgrim and the passion of a collector of treasures will you be able to discover the unknown life and the centuries-old traditions of the villages of Crete.

(Names of village/s are followed by the corresponding prefecture in brackets)
11/1 St. Antonios : Kasteli Pediados (Iraklio)
18/1 St. Kyrillos : Kalogeri (Rethimnon)
2/2 Candlemas Day : Skouvroula (Iraklio)
10/2 St. Charalambos : Xida (Iraklio)
11/2 St. Vlasis : Machairi (Hania)
25/3 The Annunciation : Paleochora (Hania),
Tzermiado (Lasithi), Prasas (Iraklio)
23/4 St. Georgios : Selinari Mirambellou (Lasithi), Asi Gonia (Hania)
8/5 St. Ioannis Theologos (John the Baptist) : Stilos (Hania), Marmaketo (Lasithi)
12/5 St. Photeini : Avdou (Iraklio)
21/5 St. Constantine & St. Helen : Arkadi Monastery, Arkalochori (Iraklio)
30/5 St. Meletios : Chora Sphakion (Hania)
Holy Sririt : Moroni Kenourgio, Kalo Chorio (Iraklio)
24/6 St. John : Rethimno
30/6 Holy Apostles : Apostoli (Rethimno)
15/7 St. Kyrikos : Lambiotes (Rethimno)
17/7 St. Marina : Kato Chorio (Lasithi), Aghia Marina (Hania),
Aghia Marina , Voni, Tsalikaki (Iraklio)
20/7 Prophet Elias : Kato Chorio (Lasithi), Gergeri (Iraklio),
Kasteli Kissamou (Hania)
15/7 St. Anna : Kato Chorio (Lasithi), Geraki, Kato Asites (Iraklio)
26/7 St, Paraskevi : Kalives (Hania), Melambes, Sisarha (Rethimno),
Skotino Pediados (Iraklio)
27/7 St. Panteleimon : Omalos (Hania), Kounavi, Harakas (Iraklio)
30/7 St. Syllas : Kalo Chorio Mirabello (Lasithi)
6/8 Transfiguration of Christ : Voukolies (Hania), Males Ierapetra, Voulismeni Mirabello, Zakros Sitia (Lasithi), Arkalochori (Iraklio), Ano Meros Imario
8/8 St. Myron : Aghios Mironas (Iraklio)
12/8 St. Mathew : Agh. Fotis, Kasteli (Hania)
15/8 Assumption of Virgin Mary : Neapoli, Piskokefalo,
Orino (Lasithi), Agh. Vasilios, Archanes,
Aitania, Metaxochori, Mohos, Choudetsi (Iraklio),
Anogia, Axos, Eleftherna, Thronos, Kolivos,
Sisarcha (Rethimno), Kolimbari, Kalives (Hania)
24/8 St. Kosmas Aetolos : Kritsa Mirabello (Lasithi)
24/8 St. Eftychios : Kambanos (Hania)
25/8 St. Titos : Timbaki (Iraklio)
27/8 St. Phanourios : Vorizia (Iraklio), Agh. Pandes (Hania)
29/8 Decapitation of St. John : Tzermiado, Ziros, Agh. Georgios (Lasithi),
31/8 Holy Girdle : Psichro (Lasithi), Asfendou (Hania)
2/9 St. Mamas : Kiriakoselia (Hania)
14/9 Holy Cross : Tzermiado, Kalamafka, Savros (Lasithi)
15/9 St. Nikitas : Frangokastelo (Hania)
24/9 Birthday of Virgin Mary : Praesos Sitia (Lasithi)
8/10 St. Pelaghia : Aghia Pelaghia, Aghia Varvara, Vori (Iraklio)
26/10 St. Dimitrios : Ramni (Hania) Diavaide (Iraklio)
8/11 Archangels Michael & Gabriel : Potamies (Iraklio)
11/11 St. Minas : Iraklio, Archanes, Episkopi (Iraklio)
13/11 St. John Chrysostom : Stalida (Iraklio)
25/11 St. Catherine : Kalives (Hania)
5/12 St. Savvas : Kentri Sitia (Lasithi)
6/12 St. Nikolaos : Armeni (Hania)

Source of the information on this page : “Unexplored Crete”, Road Editions. For more guidebooks and maps of Greece, click here.


Tip of the day

Transport in Athens. Information on the public transportation in Athens. The transport system in Athens has been modernised the last  years. New roads, bridges, a brand new rail network and new modern means of transport like the Athens Metro, the suburban railway and the Athens tram have reduced a lot the transportation problems of Athens, as well as they have played a main role to the reduce of the atmosphere pollution of the Attica basin. 
The means of transport in Athens are divided in 4 categories.
The urban buses that are under the authority of the OASA (organisation of urban transport of Athens) that connecting all Municipalities of Athens and Piraeus.
The suburban buses that connecting Athens with suburban areas and with the rest of the mainland of Greece under the authority of KTEL. The main terminal stations of Ktel are located in 2 major areas, the first is at Kifisou 101 for western Greece and Peloponnesus and the other is at Liossion street 260 for northern Greece. For East Attica suburbs and coastal resorts like Rafina the terminals are in  Pedion Areos next to the junction with Alexandra's avenue. OASA has create an innovation with the  bus line 400 that takes you to the most interesting sites of Athens the ticket costs 5 euro and it makes a sightseeing tour of Athens.The bus 400 goes from the Archaeological museum to Omonoia, Psyrri, Kerameikos,Thiseion, Monatiraki, athens Market, Klafthmonos Square, Syntagma Square, Benaki museum, National Gallery, Ampelokipoi, Stadium, Plaka,Acropolis, Olympian Zeus temple, Greek Parliament, University and Omonoia. Frequency every 30 minutes.


Tel/fax: +33 (0)4 93 37 81 63 --- Mobile: +33 (0)6 08 37 02 49
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Address in Greece: Astrikas - Chania - Crete, 73006 Greece