Gavalochori Then and Now

Gavalochori Then and Now
Traditional House, Gavalochori. "Gavalochori - Its Identity," Emmanuel Vorinakis

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Gavalochori is a village that is part of the municipality of Apokoronas and is in the prefecture or district of Chania. It is located in a valley three kilometers (1.8 miles) inland from the coastal village of Almyrida and the mouth of Souda Bay. One theory about why the village grew up where it did is that the valley hides the village so that pirates raiding the coastline could not see it.

Gavalochori: A Tour on Foot
Historic Corner, Gavalochori. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori

History of Gavalochori

Historically, Gavalochori goes back a long way, evidenced by the numerous archaeological finds in the area. Double-bladed axes, vessels, lamps, utensils, and roof tiles have been found from the Minoan age (3000–1450 BC), and coins, house foundations, tiles, and water cisterns remain from the Mycenaean or Dorian era (1450–1100 BC). In addition, coins, vessels, foundations, and tombs are still in evidence from the Roman (67–395 AD) period. Many buildings in the village derive from Byzantine (961–1204 AD), Venetian (1210–1669 AD), and Turkish times (1669–1898 AD). 

The origin story that is often told about Gavalochori is that the village was established when the Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos in Constantinople sent 12 lords or nobles to Crete at the turn of the 12th century. They were accompanied by settlers and soldiers, and the purpose was to prevent or suppress a suspected revolution by native Cretans against the emperor. According to the story, the lords divided Crete into 12 areas, with each of them ruling one area and often naming it after himself. One of these nobles was Filippos Gavalas, so the name Gavalochori means “village of Gavalas.”

This story about the origins of Gavalochori can be traced to a document in which Alexios Komnenos states that he is sending a force of 100 ships against the Cretans, threatening them with destruction unless they submit to the authority of his son Isaakios and the 12 nobles who are heading the force. Of the 12 families named in the document, 7 of them are mentioned as being landowners of Western Crete and Chania, including Filippos Gavalas. The document ends with the date 1182, the signatures of Alexios and Isaakios, and a list of the names of the 12 nobles.

The document is often referenced as having a second date—1092—but the document itself does not contain this date. E. Garland, the French scholar who first published the document in the early 20th century, changed the date from 1182 to 1092 to make it fit the reign of Alexios I, whom he believed was likely to have been the one who issued it. Later, other scholars concluded that 1182 was probably the correct date for the document.

Gavalochori Then and Now
Sestertius with bust of Nero with countermark "X" for Legio X Gemina, Roman Coins. Numisantica, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, Wikimedia Commons
Gavalochori Then and Now
Chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III. Wikimedia Commons.

But there have been many questions raised regarding this document besides the confusion over the date. A number of elements in the document do not fit with the dates of either the reins of Alexios I or Alexios II or align with events in their personal lives. In addition, although the document was probably written in the 12th century, the manuscripts that exist of the document are from the 16th century, and some versions are in Greek and others are in Italian. Copying, translation, and re-copying of the original undoubtedly transformed it into a form quite different from the original.

What most scholars believe now is that the document was forged, and it was probably not issued by any emperor. So what would have been the purpose for creating the false document? This was the time when the Venetians were beginning their efforts to conquer Crete, and the Gavalas family on Crete, like the other prominent Greek land owners, had to respond to the new political situation caused by the arrival of the Venetians. Although these families were among the leaders and participants of the various Cretan revolts in the 13th century, they also wanted to be sure they retained their land and their privileges. The document, then, was probably constructed to provide the powerful Cretan landowners with a legal basis for the maintenance of their properties after the Venetian takeover. It also served to keep alive in the collective memory of the Cretans their direct link with the Byzantine empire. As a result of forged documents like this one, the position of the Gavalas and other prominent families remained relatively undisturbed by the chaotic conditions of the time.

What is known for certain is that the prominent and well-known Gavalas family in the Byzantine empire was part of the landed aristocracy on Crete in the 12th century. Filippos Gavalas was mentioned in the document of 1182, and a document of 1192 references his son Ioannis and his brothers Ioannis, Georgios, Sifis, Antonios, and Marinos. Three branches of the Gavalas family emerged from these and possibly other Gavalas ancestors. One was the branch of Emmanuel Gavalas, who owned land in and resided in Candia (what is now Heraklion). The second branch included four brothers, Ioannis senior, Ioannis junior, Georgios, and Nikiforos, who are connected with the Psychro area in the eastern part of Crete. A third branch can be traced back to Kostas Gavalas, whose family owned land in the area of Kissamos, west of Chania, as well as in what is now the village of Armenoi, which is close to Gavalochori. 

A family name sometimes became the name of a region or a village, and this was undoubtedly what happened with the village of Gavalochori. The presence of the members of the various branches of the family, especially the branch that lived in the area that became Gavalochori, probably prompted the naming of the village, although the specific date when the village was given the name is not known. The name might even have been given initially to an area without inhabitants, where a village was gradually created. 

Despite its noble beginnings, Gavalochori has not had an easy history. The village was hit with devastating plagues in 1770 (when half of the villagers died), 1797, and 1810. In 1860, an illness struck the animals of Gavalochori, destroying many of them. A destructive rain fell on Gavalochori in 1862, and torrents of water rushed through the village, destroying houses and other property and drowning a number of residents. The water also loosened a huge boulder and rolled it about 2 kilometers (1 mile) along a small riverbed before depositing it at the entrance to Gavalochori on the road to Almyrida. 

The early 20th century was a particularly difficult time for Gavalochori and other villages on Crete. Unemployment led many men in the village to migrate to America during this period, traveling by ship to the east coast of the United States and then by train to states such as Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico to work in the coal mines. In 1906 alone, 200 men from Gavalochori left, hoping they would return financially set, depriving Gavalochori of its largest workforce (the village at the time had a population of 1200–1500). Some of the men were killed in the coal mines, but some succeeded and continued to live in America, returning occasionally to visit Gavalochori. Still others worked for a time in America, saved some money, and then returned to live in the village. They were known in the village as the Americans, and although they worked as farmers like the rest of the villagers, on holidays, they wore thick gold rings and fancy suits with gold watches tucked into their vest pockets. 

Gavalochori Then and Now
Young Men Who Immigrated from Gavalochori to America, 1912. "Gavalochori - Its Identity," Emmanuel Vorinakis
Gavalochori Then and Now
Young Men Who Immigrated from Gavalochori to America, 1912. "Gavalochori - Its Identity," Emmanuel Vorinakis

Crete has long had to deal with invaders—Dorians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, and Turks. Gavalochori residents faced a particularly difficult period of unwanted invasion when Germans occupied the village between 1941 and 1945 during World War II. The first Germans came into the village by foot from Vamos immediately after the occupation began, and within a few days, an entire military company entered the village, largely on motorcycles with side cars. The German soldiers ordered the teacher to empty the school so that they could live there, so the desks, bookcases, and teaching materials were taken to the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, where school was held during the occupation. A home in the main square was turned into the headquarters for the Germans, and the Nazi flag with the swastika hung from the balcony. Germans also identified rooms in houses that they liked and made the villagers vacate them so they could live in them, with Germans and villagers living side by side. They took food from the villagers for the army and didn’t allow them to work in their fields, so the villagers suffered from hunger as well as diseases such as tuberculosis. Because many residents of Gavalochori resisted the Germans, they were often excessively cruel to the villagers—they executed one man in the main square, for example, who had hidden a British soldier in his house.

Gavalochori Then and Now
German Paratroopers Landing on Crete, May, 1941. Wiki-Ed, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Because the Germans were trying to fortify the entrance to the port of Souda with large cannons and other fortifications, they needed hundreds of people to dig into the mountains to create ammunition depots, gun emplacements for artillery batteries, and bunkers. They asked the presidents of the nearby villages to make lists of the names of all the adult men in their communities, and those lists were used to call up men to work at Kokkino Chorio, which overlooks Souda Bay. Rotating every 10 or 15 days, they worked breaking stones, carrying them in wheelbarrows, or carrying them by hand to the workers who were using them to build. Sometimes, the Germans couldn’t find enough workers, so they entered a village at night and took anyone they found in the cafes, on the streets, or in their houses. Because of this practice, many villagers took blankets and slept outside of the village at night. The population of adult men had already decreased because many of the men in the village went to Albania prior to the occupation, and their wives dressed in black and wore black scarves on their heads to appear as if they were widows in mourning. 

World War II marked a turning point for Gavalochori. Many of the industries that kept the village commercially alive ended, and the village became largely an agricultural village, where farmers produce olive oil and tend sheep and goats. Many residents of Gavalochori are working to ensure that knowledge of and artifacts from the economic activities that sustained the village in the past are preserved for future generations.

Gavalochori Then and Now
German World War II Bunker, Kokkino Chorio. Neri Oxman, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
Gavalochori Then and Now
German World War II Tunnel Complex, Kokkino Chorio. Benoît Prieur, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

Traditional Economic Activities

Gavalochori is and was, in its past, an agricultural village. Although tourism provides some economic support for villagers now, many people in the village still engage in the age-old agricultural practices of raising grapes, olives, and animals. In the past, the making of silk and the growing of wheat, cotton, sesame, carobs, and figs were major economic drivers of the village, but they are no longer commercial activities in Gavalochori.


Villagers in Gavalochori have been growing grapes since the medieval era, evidenced by old containers and glasses from that period that have been found scattered in the fields. Grapes were seen back then as one of three agricultural products needed to survive for an entire year—grapes, bread, and oil. One mantinada (μαντινάδα) or Cretan poem from the period makes this point: “All food is the weft of the stomach and bread is the warp, But that incredible wine is the one that holds everything together.” 

The vineyards were used to produce not only wine but the grapes that served as a major summer food. During the morning hours, women and children could be seen bringing home from the vineyards baskets full of ripened grapes covered with vine leaves. People quenched their thirst with grapes on hot summer days. 

Grapes were harvested in September, and during the grape-harvesting season, the whole village was in motion. The process involved several steps. First, the barrels for fermenting wine had to be prepared by washing them. People could be seen rolling their barrels along the streets filled with water boiled with fennel in order to clean them and give them a nice aroma. If villagers suspected that the wine from the previous year had gone sour, they burned sulfur inside the barrels. After the barrels were cleaned, neighbors, relatives, and friends all helped a vineyard owner pick the grapes into crates and baskets, which were then loaded onto animals and carried home. A vat either inside the house or outside in the courtyard was filled with the ripe fruit, and then the people stomped the grapes, trampling them to break their skins and to release their juices and start the process of fermentation. (You can see one of these vats in the Folklore Museum in Gavalochori.) After the pressing of the grapes, the mixture was placed in the barrels and was left to ferment for about a month. When the harvest of a vineyard was finished, the vineyard owner thanked each harvester with a basket of grapes. 

At one time, there were hundreds of vineyards in the Gavalochori area, but today, many of those vineyards have been converted to olive groves because olives are more profitable than making wines from grapes. But some villagers still grow grapes and make wine, although it is no longer the grand community activity it once was.

Mega Place Cinema
Grapes, Crete. Luka Tica. Foundation for Gavalochori
Gavalochori Then and Now
Grapes, Gavalochori. Sonja Foss, Foundation for Gavalochori

Another product made from the grapes was raki (ρακή), which is something that continues to be made on Crete today—there are usually a couple of residents of every village who still make it. Raki is a clear alcoholic beverage that has 30–40% alcohol content that you undoubtedly have been served at the end of a meal in a taverna in Gavalochori. It is made after the grape harvest, in late October or November, using the press residue or the grape marc—skin and seeds left over from pressing the grapes into wine. You might hear raki called tsikoudia (tσικουδιά) because that is the word for the grape marc from which raki is made. After the grapes are pressed, the marc is stored in barrels for about 40 days, during which fermentation takes place. 

When the 40 days are up, the marc and water are put into a raki kettle or boiler, and the kettle is heated so that the marc begins to simmer. When the heated mixture reaches the boiling point, the final distillation process begins. The steam produced by the boiling is liquified through a pipe that comes out of the top of the kettle.  Outside of the pipe is cold water, so the steam condenses into a jar drop by drop. After about an hour at the end of the vaporizer, the first drops appear, which are almost pure alcohol. The final amount of distilled liquid contains the least amount of alcohol, while the actual raki is made in the middle of the process and takes about three hours. During this time, the kettle owners must taste the alcohol content, turn the heat up or down, and stop the distillation when the raki has achieved the desired taste. In Crete, the alcohol content of raki is determined with a Cartier Alcoholmeter, a calibrated glass tube that floats in the liquid. Raki is good at 17 degrees (40% alcohol) or 18 degrees (43% alcohol). Raki is a protected product under the European Union, which only considers it original if it was made on Crete. 

In addition to wine and raki, grapes were used in earlier centuries for making not only wine and raki but raisins, desserts, and medicines. Women picked out the clusters that had the largest grapes and laid them out in the sun until they become raisins, washing them with lye to preserve them and fennel seeds to make them shiny and to give them a pleasant smell. Then they were placed on a clean pillow and kept during the winter in a place that was dry and clean. The women also used the grape syrup to make a cake, a dessert made by mixing the juice with flour. After the cake was dried, the women cut it into small pieces and sprinkled the pieces with sesame, storing the pieces with the raisins. Raisins and must pies were typically offered together as a treat during the winter months. Women also made moustalevria (μουσταλευριά), a traditional must pudding, by adding walnuts, almonds, sesame, and cinnamon to the juice. Condensed must was also used as a medicine to soften coughs and help heal sore throats.  

Gavalochori Then and Now
Raki Distillery. Nikoskpa, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
Gavalochori Then and Now
Donkey with Grapes, Greece. Pierre Machard, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons


The growing of olives remains the largest agricultural economic activity on Crete, and it has a very long history. As early as the Minoan period (3000–1450 BC), olives were processed and olive oil was produced on Crete. Many of the old houses today in Gavalochori used to be olive mills, evidenced by the large troughs made of chiseled stone used for storing olives and oil that were found in or near these houses. Today, there are still millions of olive trees on the island, and thousands of families base their economic life on olives.

Most olive trees in Gavalochori are for olive-oil production. Olive oil is such an important crop for Cretans because it is multifunctional. You can eat it, cook with it, burn it and use it for light and heat, clean with it, preserve with it, and lubricate with it. It’s hard to think of a single product that is as useful. Olive oil is also advantageous because it has a very long shelf life. In the Greek heat, butter won’t last until sunset, but olive oil lasts unrefrigerated for about two years. 

The olive-harvesting season usually runs from mid-September through January. Until about 1960, olives were collected in the traditional way, with entire families and sometimes friends working to harvest the olives. Every morning, people were seen heading to their fields to collect their olives, carrying on their animals the sticks, tarps, and everything necessary for the day’s work. If they had small children, they would take them with them, and they could be seen sitting on the animals’ backs among the tarps and other tools. Small children at the olive fields were often put into cribs made by turning upside down the saddles used on the animals. 

Villagers used specially crafted sticks made of bay or laurel wood to beat and rake the tree to make the olives fall onto a small tarp about the size of a bedsheet. The olives were then gathered into bags. Next, the olives were winnowed and separated from the leaves. A woman held a basket of olives at shoulder height and from there poured the olives onto a tarp on the ground. If the wind was blowing, it would blow the leaves away. If there was no wind, the women laid tarps next to each other to form one long tarp and on that, they threw the olives and separated them from the leaves themselves. At the end of the day, the bags of clean olives were hoisted onto the donkeys and other animals and brought back to the village. 

Gavalochori Then and Now
Harvesting Olives, 1919, Preveli, Crete. Frederic Boissonnas, Wikimedia Commons

In earlier days, the olives that had fallen on the soil because they were damaged by the olive fruit fly, blown down by the wind, or landed outside of the tarp during the beating of the branches were not wasted. Poor women asked permission from the owners to collect them. The arrangement was one for every three, meaning that for every three baskets the women collected, the owner took two, and the women kept one. This cleared the soil completely of olives and ensured that all of the fruit was collected.

After the olives were gathered, they were brought to olive presses or mills. The factories began working at night so that they could process the olives from the day’s harvest. There was a large olive oil mill and many smaller olive mills in the village, and their ruins can still be found today in Gavalochori. You can see a restored pre-industrial olive press from the 17th century not far from the center of Gavalochori. In 1962, an olive press was built in Gavalochori as a collective, and the members of the collective held a share or percentage of the company according to the amount of their contribution. You can still see the building that housed this olive mill on your left as you walk the road between the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus  and the old school. But technology surpassed this mill, and newer olive mills in other villages had better machinery and newer facilities, so it was shut down. Today, no working olive mills exist in Gavalochori.

Today, the way olives are collected is easier and faster. Entire families still often work to harvest the olives, but sometimes, others are paid to help with the harvesting. The men usually beat the trees with rods about 2 or 3 meters (2 or 3 yards) long shaped like a “T” that rotate and vibrate and cause the olives to fall without damaging the tree. The tarps are now light plastic, and they are larger, so two or three of them cover the ground around an olive tree, ensuring that almost no olives fall on the soil. Women and children usually collect the olives from the tarps and place them in white sacks or plastic crates. The people collecting the fallen olives don’t need to clean leaves from the olives because the factory does that job for them, and the bags are collected in pick-up trucks to take to the factory instead of being loaded onto donkeys. Olive growers in Gavalochori now take their olives to an olive mill in Kalyves and other nearby villages to be processed. The mill typically keeps 12% of the olive oil processed from each farmer, and farmers also may choose to sell some of their olive oil to the mill. 

Four-Millstone Press, Pre-Industrial Olive Mill, Gavalochori. Terry Dorvinen, Foundation for Gavalochori
Interior, Olive Mill, Gavalochori. Terry Dorvinen, Foundation for Gavalochori


Until the end of the 19th century and even as late as 1950, Crete produced silk, and the dowries of the women of Gavalochori consisted of silks, linen, wool, and cotton fabrics made from local materials. The silk was produced at home by women and involved a collaboration between silkworms and mulberry trees. You can still see many of these mulberry trees today in and around Gavalochori. Their trunks are typically painted white, and their branches are shorn straight across at the top in the late winter or early spring because they make excellent feed for animals. 

The silk-making process began each summer with each silk maker in Gavalochori preparing a large, clean, and sunny house for silkworms. Onto a rack made for the process, the women placed straw mats in two, three, or four “stories” to make it easy for them to look after the silkworms. In the spring, special traders came to the village to sell silkworm eggs wrapped up in boxes of three different sizes. The women knew how many eggs to buy for the “houses” they had prepared and in proportion to the amount of mulberry leaves they had on their own trees and those they could get from their neighbors. 

Gavalochori Then and Now
Silk Worm. Neri Oxman, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Once the women opened the boxes of silkworms, they placed the hundreds of eggs on a clean piece of linen between some woolen blankets or in their armpits at night to hatch the eggs. They then moved the silkworms onto the prepared straw mats, where they had already placed a layer of fresh and finely chopped mulberry leaves. This procedure was repeated several times until all the eggs in the linen had hatched out. After the silkworms had grown some, the women no longer fed them with finely chopped mulberry leaves but with whole mulberry branches laid on the straw mats, which immediately became filled with silkworms. 

When the silkworms had grown big, they were generously fed with whole mulberry leaves three times a day until they were ready to go through the pupal or third stage in their life cycle. The women gathered clean twigs from thyme, sage, broom and other plants and placed them in all directions on top of the straw mats. On these branches, the silkworms enclosed themselves in airtight cocoons that they spun. If the women did not put the branches in the sun within a few days so that the worms died, they hatched into small butterflies, broke through the cocoons, and flew away.

lace making spinning gavalochori greece
Kyriakos Fronimakis Producing Silk in his Back Yard, Gavalochori. "Gavalochori - Its Identity," Emmanuel Vorinakis

Silk production could be interrupted by a number of factors. Summer rains, although rare, were an enemy of silk production because wet mulberry leaves cannot be used as food for silkworms. Silkworms are also extremely sensitive to noise, chemical substances, and smoke, so during the short time that the silkworms were growing, villagers did not burn gypsum, a mineral that was mined on Crete and used as a fertilizer for wheat fields. The smoke, which smelled like burned sulfur, would kill them. 

Due to the large production of silk in Gavalochori, some women did not grow silkworms but specialized in separating the silk from the cocoons. In the silk workshops, the cocoons were heated in large boilers until they became soft and the glue dissolved so that the thread could be taken apart. With a forked branch, these women picked up the silk using a thin rod that other women then collected on a large spool. One of these silk factories or workshops was located just down from the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, where a chicken coop now stands.

kopaneli lace gavalochori
Making Kopaneli Lace, Gavalochori. "Gavalochori - Its Identity," Emmanuel Vorinakis
Gavalochori Then and Now
Making Kopaneli Lace, Gavalochori. Tasia Fronimaki

Although many villages on Crete had silk workshops, some did not, so women from surrounding villages often came to rent mulberries in Gavalochori to make the silk fabrics for their daughters’ dowries. Those who wanted to make silk in the village came with their cocoons and an animal loaded with firewood for the fire to heat the water. All summer long, under the shade of trees, women produced silk not only from Gavalochori but from the surrounding villages. 

Along with the making of silk, the women of Gavalochori participated in the art of bobbin lace making known as kopaneli (κοπανέλι), in which lace is made from silk thread on a bolster pillow with bobbins. The art of bobbin lace dates to the 16th century in Europe, and it appeared on Crete between 1906 and 1908. A nun from Gavalochori, Minodora Athanasaki, learned bobbin lace making when she attended a school in Athens and then taught it to the rest of the nuns in her convent of Holy Prodromou in Chania. Because there were many nuns in that convent from Gavalochori, the art spread quickly through the village as the nuns taught it to their relatives, and from there it spread to other villages in the region. The art of bobbin lace is still practiced by a few women in Gavalochori, and they sometimes gather together in one of Gavalochori’s public buildings or squares to work together on their lace projects. You can see samples of the lace and as well as a pillow and bobbins for making the lace in the Folklore Museum in Gavalochori. 

Silk production died out in Gavalochori and on Crete because of a disease among the silkworms and because of the import of cheap and readymade silk from the East and Europe. 

Gavalochori Then and Now
Stamatoula “Matina” Apostolaki, Making Kopaneli Lace, Gavalachori. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori
Gavalochori Then and Now
Stamatoula “Matina” Apostolaki, Making Kopaneli Lace, Gavalachori. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori


The carob tree is native to the Mediterranean region and can grow up to 15 meters (50 feet) tall. It doesn’t bear fruit in its first 15 years, but once it begins, a single tree can produce one ton of beans in one harvest. Carob trees once were a major source of revenue for the villagers of Gavalochori, and carobs were often called the “black gold of Crete” because of their brown-black color and the revenue they produced. Carob pods are used as a cocoa or chocolate substitute, as feed for livestock, and as firewood. Carob charcoals have been found on Crete from the late Minoan age (1560-1050 BC), so there is a rich tradition of growing carobs on Crete. In the early 20th century, Gavalochori was said to produce the best Cretan carobs. 

When carob growing was a prominent part of Gavalochori, the collecting of the carobs brought a general mobilization of the people in the village. Carobs are collected in September, and for the two or three weeks of the harvest, the village streets and fields were full of life and people. This was also a time when the whole village smelled of carobs. Some villagers in Gavalochori remember huge piles of carob pods everywhere, which children would lie in while munching on the pods.

Carobs were harvested using very long sticks to rake, beat, or shake the limbs of the tree, with the carob pods falling into a tarp below. Collectors gathered the pods and put them into large bags and loaded them onto mules and donkeys to take them back to the village. When the collection was finished, children and some adults looked under the trees a second time to pick up any carob pods that were left. The children sold these carob pods for pocket money. 

Carobs, Gavalochori. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori

Before Crete developed its own carob-processing plants, if the harvest was good, two to three big sailboats would come to Almyrida to pick up the carobs of Gavalochori. All the carobs that were left behind were stored in warehouses built by the sea—warehouses that today operate as cafes and restaurants. When the carobs were transferred to Almyrida, hundreds of animals and people could be seen moving like a human river toward Almyrida Bay.

Once carob-processing plants were developed, the carobs were taken to the village representatives of the merchants who would later sell them. Some carobs were brought straight to a representative’s home, and some were taken to the carob cooperative. In the evenings, the town crier would go from one end of the village to the other, crying out in a loud voice the prices that one merchant or another was offering for the carobs. 

Although carob harvesting isn’t the major commercial activity in Gavalochori it once was, it is still done by many farmers here. Some have entire fields of carob trees, while others have just a few carob trees at the edges of their olive groves. Carobs are harvested for a brief period at September (they must be harvested before the rains come and make the carob pods soggy), and the carobs that are harvested are sold either to factories on Crete that produce feed for animals or to factories that produce carob powder and other products for human consumption and use. 

carob picking
Harvesting Carobs, Gavalochori. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori
picked carobs in sac
Harvesting Carobs, Gavalochori. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori


Wheat, barley, and other cereals also used to be grown in the fields around Gavalochori. They were sown in the late fall and winter and harvested in June or July. For the entire duration of the harvesting period, the family lived at the site of the threshing, setting up their households under a shady tree and working, resting, eating, and sleeping there. 

When the cereals were ready to be processed, they were cut with a sickle and tied in bundles and left in the field to dry for a few days before being transported by donkey or mule to threshing floors. The threshing floor was an important structure on every farm, and some farms had two of them. A threshing floor was a circular, walled construction. Sometimes, it was inside a building with a smooth floor made of earth, hay, and water, or it might be made with stone or wood. Threshing floors that were outside were often located outside the village in a place exposed to the wind (you’ll see why soon). Many of them had solid rock floors, which were much more labor intensive to build but were more convenient at harvest time. Before the threshing period, the owners removed any grasses that had sprouted in the stone floors during the winter and wiped them carefully so that the grains would remain clean of soil and other impurities. At the height of the cereal economy in Gavalochori, there were about 250 threshing floors in the area. You will sometimes run across the ruins of a threshing floor in fields around Gavalochori, and you can also see one that has been preserved next to the Koumos Stone Village in Kalyves.

A threshing board was used to separate cereals from their straw. This was a thick slatted rectangular board with the front part narrower and curved upward like a sled and the bottom covered with razor-like metal blades. It was pulled by donkeys, cows, or horses, with a person sitting or standing on the board to drive the animals. Sometimes, to add weight to the threshing board, children or rocks were piled onto it. The animals were walked several times around the threshing floor in circles and then in figure eights, dragging the threshing board behind them, to tear the ear of the grain from the stalks and to loosen the grain itself from the husks. One of these threshing boards can also be seen in the threshing circle at the Stone Village of Koumos in Kalyves.

Gavalochori Then and Now
Threshing Circle, Drapanos, Crete. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori

The next step in the process was winnowing, which separates the chaff from the grain. The broken stalks and grain were collected and thrown up into the air with a wooden winnowing fork, which looked like a flat pitchfork. The chaff and straw were blown away by the wind, and the heavier grain fell at the winnower’s feet. Winnowing could take a few hours or as long as several days, depending on how hard the wind was blowing.

The grain was then further cleaned by coarse sieving using strainers that allowed grain to pass through while retaining large straw fragments, weed heads, unthreshed ears, and pods. The by-products of this coarse sieving were fed to the animals. Fine sieving occurred throughout the year as grains were needed for food preparation. You can see an example of one of these fine sieves in the “living room” of the Folklore Museum in Gavalochori. The residue from this fine sieving was usually fed to the chickens.

After the 1960s, the import of large agricultural machinery made the manual harvesting of cereals obsolete. Imported grain also became cheaper so that other crops—mostly olives—took over Cretan farms, and cereals are rarely grown now. Although the threshing circle and the threshing board are no longer in use, they may live on in key Greek traditions. Some scholars believe that the threshing circles could have been the origin of the circle dances in Greek culture—the crisscrossing steps that characterize Greek dance might originally have represented the kicking of the grain to separate it from the straw. Other theories say that the threshing circle may have been the origin of Greek theater, with the celebrations that followed the harvest evolving into theatrical performances and the threshing circles functioning as stages. You will sometimes run across the ruins of a threshing floor in fields around Gavalochori, and you can also see one that has been preserved next to the Koumos Stone Village in Kalyves. 

Gavalochori Then and Now
Grains Harvested on Crete. Walther Otto Müller, Wikimedia Commons
Gavalochori Then and Now
Gavalochori Then and Now


A very common tree that you will see growing on Crete and in and around Gavalochori is the fig tree. Figs are harvested in the late summer and early autumn and used to be a major agricultural product of Gavalochori. In fact, the products of Gavalochori that were most advertised in Chania and sought after in the early 20th century were figs. As soon as someone would shout, “Figs from Gavalochori!” in Chania, everyone would run to buy them because Gavalochori’s figs were known for being pungent and sweet. Greece remains one of the largest producers of figs in the world, but figs are no longer grown commercially in Gavalochori.

Gavalochori Then and Now
Figs, Crete. Schleichpost0, CC0, Wikimedia Commons
Gavalochori Then and Now
Harvested Figs, Crete. Bodulinek, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Animal Husbandry

The oldest profession on Crete is probably that of the shepherd—raising animals is mentioned in the tales of Homer and also evidenced in Minoan artifacts. Animal production is an important part of agriculture in Greece because more than two thirds of the country is hilly or mountainous and thus unsuitable for farming. Thousands of sheep and goats are still raised on Crete, and while you are here, you are likely to encounter what is known as a Cretan traffic jam, when you must stop in the middle of a road to allow a flock of sheep or goats to cross. 

Villagers in Gavalochori typically owned oxen, cows, horses, sheep, goats, and donkeys until around the middle of the 20th century. There were also villagers whose livelihood was dependent on raising livestock. They took their animals to their fields to graze in the morning and brought them back in the afternoon, sometimes spending the majority of their days in the fields. The fields in and around the village were fenced with stone walls and usually had an entrance that was closed using branches or stones. 

Now only a few small herds of sheep or goats are raised by villagers. You might see a few goats or sheep or even a pig on a plot of land in Gavalochori, and if you go exploring, you’ll find some paths blocked with a gate to keep animals in. It’s usually fine to open the gate and go through and continue on the path as long as you close and lock the gate behind you.

Sheep and goats are raised on Crete not only for their meat and their wool but also for milk production.Their milk is used in the making of cheeses such as graviera, mizithra, and anthotyros. And, of course, it is also used to produce that creamy, rich Greek yogurt.

Sheep, Crete. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori
Gavalochori Then and Now
Sheepherder Shelter "Mitato," Psiloritis, Crete. Andloukakis, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons


Stone cutting has been an occupation in Gavalochori since the Byzantine period. Using stone from nearby quarries, stone masons have constructed houses and bridges, fireplaces, staircases, bell towers of churches, and columns. Their exquisite craftsmanship can also be seen in the lintels above doors and windows, the thresholds of houses and public buildings, gutters, the openings of wells, fountains, tombstones, and slabs commemorating historic events. Renowned stone carvers were working in Gavalochori into the late 20th century, and the remnants of their work throughout Gavalochori give the village a sense of permanence and timelessness.

The tradition of stone cutting continues in an updated form in the stone factory Petrokataskevastiki, owned by Christoulakis Apostolos, located outside of Gavalochori on the road to Almyrida. The stonecutters there use modern tools to cut and craft the limestone in the quarry at the site. The benches in the main square in Gavalochori were made in this factory.

Gavalochori Then and Now
Men Cutting Stone, Gavalochori. Folklore Museum of Gavalochori
Gavalochori Then and Now
Chalk Quarry, Crete. Wouter Hagens, CC BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons


One aspect of daily life in Gavalochori that dates to ancient times and tends to be taken for granted is the meticulous process of collecting and distributing water. Water has always been scarce in Gavalochori. Rainwater, a precious gift from the skies, was a significant source of water in earlier times. The architecture of houses always included systems to direct rainwater into strategically placed cisterns. These cisterns were underground reservoirs crafted to capture and store the rainwater, providing a lifeline to the community during the dry seasons. When the rains started in the late fall, the villagers cleaned their roofs so that the water that drained off of them was clean. That water was carried through a channel system that funneled water into the cistern. These structures showcased the resourcefulness of the community in utilizing natural elements to their advantage.

As the village flourished, the quest for water led to the development of wells. These wells delved into the earth’s veins, drawing forth the life-giving elixir to sustain both humans and the land. A walk of about one kilometer (half a mile) from the center of Gavalochori brings you to the captivating remnants of a bygone era—the Venetian wells—a historic spot that contains 24 ancient wells. The rainwater that collected in this spot was first used by the Dorians, a tribe of Greeks who conquered Crete around 1100 BC (which is why the area close to the wells is still called Dorkes). The wells were designed and built sometime during the 15th or 16th centuries by the Venetians with a distinctive blend of functionality and aesthetic appeal.

The Venetian wells were not typically used by the residents of Gavalochori to supply drinking water. The site was an important gathering spot for the villagers, however, because they watered their animals there—cows, oxen, horses, donkeys, sheep, and goats; met other villagers; and shared the latest news. Moreover, this was the spot where the women did the laundry, using open fires built near the wells to heat the water. Efforts to preserve and protect the Venetian wells are under way, with local initiatives aimed at maintaining these historical landmarks for future generations. A major challenge to any future restoration projects, however, is that the wells were built with a type of dry-stone method that is not practiced by many stone masons today.

In more recent times, Gavalochori developed wells that drew on two underground springs that run across Gavalochori. The well closest to the village was called O Pigados (“The Well”). At 24 meters (26 yards) deep, it was an important source of water, especially in the summer. You can view this well on a stone platform at the start of the old road that climbs up the hill to Vamos on the south side of Gavalochori.

With the passage of time, Gavalochori adapted to the changing tides of technology. The clinking of bucket chains was gradually replaced by the hum of modern pumps, and the village embraced innovations like plumbing and water-distribution systems when a municipal water system was built in the late 1960s. This system draws water from springs in the nearby village of Armenoi.

In the present day, Gavalochori faces new challenges in water management. Striking a delicate balance between meeting the needs of a growing population and preserving the delicate ecosystem requires careful consideration. A major issue is that during the high tourist season in Gavalochori, water is often not available to houses built high on the hills surrounding the village. The problem is mainly found in the area near the Church of Saint George because this specific area is provided with water from another network, which frequently malfunctions.

Stavros Stavroulakis, who is a municipal councilor, was eager, in a recent interview, to describe future plans and projects of the municipality regarding water management in the Apokoronas area. To enhance the area’s water security, the village of Maza in Apokoronas is gearing up for two groundbreaking drilling projects that are poised to provide the entire region with more than 1 million cubic centimeters of drinkable water. Geologists and hydrologists have identified promising subterranean water reservoirs there that, when tapped, are expected to yield a substantial and reliable supply of high-quality water. This quantity will add to the 1 million cubic centimeters of irrigation and drinkable water already supplied by the underground springs in the village of Armenoi. The projects, costing approximately 4.6 million euros, are expected to be completed in 2025 and to bolster the existing water infrastructure by 100% for at least the next 30 years. In addition, according to Stavros Stavroulakis, the municipality will also apply for a license to exploit the abundant water supplies of the village of Stylos.

The new water projects are poised to bring about myriad benefits for Gavalochori and the Apokoronas region. Reliable access to clean drinking water is a cornerstone of public health. The new water-supply network in Apokoronas will prioritize the well-being of its residents by adhering to stringent water-quality standards through regular testing and monitoring. Investing in a modern water- supply network also brings economic benefits to the region. Improved infrastructure enhances property values, attracts new businesses, and stimulates economic growth.

Reflection on the methods of water collection over the years in Gavalochori unearths a legacy of resilience and resourcefulness. The community’s ability to harness natural elements, engineer intricate systems, and foster communal bonds around water sources speaks to a profound connection with the land and a deep understanding of the importance of this life-sustaining resource.

Gavalochori Then and Now
Water Works, Apokoronas. Stavros Stavroulakis, Municipality of Apokoronas
Gavalochori Then and Now
Venetian Wells, Gavalochori. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori

Traditional Gavalochori Architecture

Although houses of new construction are being built in Gavalochori and especially on the hills above the village (mostly by expats), Gavalochori has retained its traditional feel in part because so much of its architecture has been preserved. Many of the homes in Gavalochori are 300 to 500 years old and are either one- or two-story houses constructed of three primary materials—stone, soil, and wood. The use of these natural materials allowed and still allows the houses to “breathe.” 

The walls of traditional houses were constructed with stone between 50 and 70 centimeters (20 and 27 inches) thick, providing natural insulation. Both regular and irregular stones and strong mortar were used to build the stone walls. A characteristic feature was the use of small stones and soil between the bigger stones. These stone structures were then covered with a plaster made of reddish clay soil mixed with sand and lime. The stone frames around the wooden windows and doors were left exposed. 

The floors of the house were usually made of wood, but the main courtyard, the kitchen, and the bathroom were earthen and paved either with pebbles or large rectangular stone slabs.  

The houses of Gavalochori typically had flat roofs. Thick tree trunks made of hardwood such as oak were used to create the beams and joists for the roof. The ends of the beams and joists were burned until charred to make them less susceptible to rotting. The beams rested on special recesses on the inner sides of the stone walls of the house, and the joists were placed on top of the beams. This was followed with a layer of either slats or reeds with their length perpendicular to that of the beams, followed by the branches of shrubs to protect the house from the soil that would next be added to the roof. Sometimes, these branches were replaced with regular planed boards, stone slate, or reeds (and in more modern times, a thin layer of concrete).

Above the bushes, the surface was very uneven, so to level it, a layer of soil was applied. The surface was leveled with a layer of ordinary soil 5 to 10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches) thick, building it up more at one side to create a slope that would allow for the flow of water off the roof. It was moistened with water, pounded, and smoothed with a trowel. Then a special clay-like soil with insulating and waterproofing properties was laid on top of the first layer of soil.  This second layer was 10 to 15 centimeters (4 to 6 inches) thick and was pounded with special hammers and rolled with a cylinder made of chipped stone. This layer of soil also followed the incline established by the first layer of soil. Most houses in Gavalochori had a sterna (στέρνα), a cistern carved out of stone in the ground, and to facilitate the flow of water into the cistern from the roof, a wide gutter was formed either by a plaster coating or a chiseled channel in the stone wall. 

Every three or four years, additional soil was added to the roof, increasing the weight of the roof and resulting in the bending of the beams and joists. When this happened, a wooden vertical pole was erected to prop up the roof. After many years, the soil was removed, and the roof was completely rebuilt. 

The construction of a roof had to be done without interruption, so it was usually undertaken on a Sunday or another festival day with the help of friends and relatives. It was never done when the moon was waning to ensure that the roof would not leak.

Gavalochori Then and Now
Interior, Cretan House. Fredpn8, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
Gavalochori Then and Now
Cretan House. C messier, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

One-story houses tended to belong to poorer residents, and they featured an arch that divided the house into spaces. The family slept in one corner, another corner was for the kitchen, another for the storage area, and another for the animals. Above the animals was a platform or mezzanine where the straw and fodder were kept.

Two-story houses belonged to more prosperous residents and typically had a ground floor, a mezzanine, and a first floor. Next to the house or in the back was the olive mill and the stable for the animals. The house was built in an “L” or a “U” shape around a courtyard surrounded by a high fence and gate, and the entrance into the house was directly from the street into the courtyard. 

The various levels of the house and its rooms served very particular purposes. The entrance to the house was used for storing food such as wheat, oil, and wine as well as the cauldrons in which the inhabitants made wine and raki. The first floor included a large rectangular room that was the living area of the house. It typically had its narrow side to the street and two or more high windows and exterior doors. Behind this room were the bedrooms of the house. In the middle of the courtyard, there was usually a carved stone sink for washing clothes, a cistern that collected rainwater from the roof, and a stone staircase that led to the first floor. You can see this kind of courtyard in the Folklore Museum in Gavalochori. 

The furnishings inside the house were simple, as you can see in the Folklore Museum. They included a bed, a sofa, a chest, a weaving loom, a small table, a few chairs, kitchen utensils, dishes, pots and pans, basins, candlesticks and oil lamps, and a washboard. Kitchen utensils were stored in the niches that you see inside houses and in the courtyards of houses.

Gavalochori Then and Now
Kitchen Area of House, Folklore Museum, Gavalochori. Fábio Castel Garcia, Foundation for Gavalochori
Gavalochori Then and Now
Courtyard, Folklore Museum, Gavalochori. Sonja Foss, Foundation for Gavalochori

And Now

Life in Gavalochori remained fairly unchanged until the late 1960s, when electricity was brought into the village and its municipal water system was built. Before that, oil lamps were used to light interior spaces, and all of the houses had cisterns, typically made of stone, which stored the water from rain. There were some wells fed by two underground streams—the one closest to the village has been preserved. You can see it on a stone platform at the start of the old road that climbs up the hill to Vamos on the south side of Gavalochori. 

For a small village, Gavalochori has many features more characteristic of much larger towns. That’s because it used to be much larger. In the early 20th century, the municipality of Gavalochori had a population of about 1500 people, but since then, there has been a significant population decline. Today, there about 300 residents of Gavalochori, including some expats. 

Gavalochori has 14 neighborhoods that were originally populated by one, two, or three family clans living in each. There are an additional 4 areas in the village that do not have buildings, creating a total of 18 neighborhoods. Many natives of Gavalochori are still able to name and point out its various neighborhoods. 

Gavalochori has 12 churches, which undoubtedly seems like a lot for a small village, but there used to be even more—15, in fact. The law states that a church belongs to the parish of the nearest village, so the adjacent villages of Kalyves and Vamos took advantage of this law and removed three churches from the Gavalochori parishes to which they had belonged for centuries—the Church of Saint Mammes, the Church of Mother Mary of Kera, and the Church of Saint Andrew.

οικισμοι Γαβαλοχωριου neighborhoods
Neighborhoods of Gavalochori. Sofia-Raphailia Mandi and Androula Agapiou, "Gavalochori of Chania: Issues of Protection of a Traditional Community"
Gavalochori: A Tour on Foot
Overview, Gavalochori. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori

Gavalochori has two main squares—Gavaladon Square (the main square) and Platanaki Square, and it used to have two more for a total of four, suggesting that there was a lot of gathering for various purposes going on in Gavalochori.

Gavalochori now is a working village that has two tavernas, a kafeneio (coffee shop/pub), two markets, two artisan shops, a hair salon, a taxi company, a civil engineering office, and a stone-cutting business. See them all here. While these are all valuable businesses that help keep the village alive, compare this to the early 20th century, when Gavalochori used to have about 40 kafeneia. Its Cretan residents generally engage in agriculture or the raising of animals, and some work in the hospitality industry in villages on the coast during the tourist season. You will also find some teachers, psychologists, musicians, chefs, and IT workers in the village. Most of the expats who live in Gavalochori are retired, but they come from a variety of backgrounds— some were professors, youth workers, arts administrators, nurses, and builders.

Gavalochori has been declared by the Ministry of Culture a historically preserved place and a landscape of particular natural beauty as well as a site of popular architecture without significant modern alternations. Historically protected monuments in the village include the old elementary school, the 24 Venetian wells, the pre-industrial olive mill, and the Folklore Museum. The Cultural Society of Gavalochori is an organization that sponsors programs and festivities and engages in fundraisers of various kinds to support and uphold the old traditions of the village.

Pre-Industrial Olive Mill Gavalochori
Pre-Industrial Olive Mill, Gavalochori. Fábio Castel Garcia, Foundation for Gavalochori
Gavalochori: A Tour on Foot
Venetian Wells, Gavalochori. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori
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