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Greece

Cooking in the Mountainside Village of Zaros

By Sindhu V Roy

Last Updated: 15 May 2024

When you think back of all the trips you have taken in your life, there will always be one or two that stand out just because it connected in some way to your soul. Maybe it was a need of the time and space you were in, or maybe it was just an inspiration, an aspiration, to go back and live your life a little bit better. After all, isn’t that what the best kind of travel is about?

My trip to Zaros, Greece, was one such. Zaros is a picturesque little village tucked into the slope of the Psilorithis mountains, near the Heraklion area of Crete. Imagine a comparatively untouched Cretan village with small cobbled alleys set between quaint houses that stand crooked on the mountain side. Imagine again, an entire place that has sprung up around a beautiful blue Votomos lake, and whose water is so clear and pure that it is bottled and sold all across Crete. Then, add some patches of magnificent oak forests and stark Monasteries, and you will start to get a sense of this beautiful village of Greece.

A lake with a view at Zaros

A lake with a view at Zaros


How, though, did I decide to travel to this little location in Crete, when there are so many places vying for attention not only on the island of Crete, but around Greece?


Tickets. Check. Camera. Check. Enthusiasm. Double Check.


How it all started...

It all started with a line I stumbled upon on the internet - "Cooking classes by Vivi at Vegera, Zaros". There was something so romantic about the name Zaros, not to mention the lure of fresh, flavourful Greek food, that I impulsively clicked on it. Vegera as I read, was a little restaurant in Zaros, where the owner Vivi would give cooking classes to anyone who traveled up to it. The images threw up pictures of an idyllic setting, with rustic Greek houses set into the rise of the mountains.

Beautiful Zaros by the mountains

Beautiful, beautiful Zaros by the mountains


A mountain village in remote Crete. Irresistible Greek food with its olive oil and salads and stuffed vegetables and trout. Isolated monasteries and forests. The promise of a turquoise lake The romantic in me did not have a chance. By the next day I had connected with Vivi and quickly booked my flight to Athens, Greece.

Road from Chania to Zaros

Zaros is nestled in the center of Crete, an island famous for its stunning beaches, and a treasure-trail of archeological ruins.

Most visitors to this quaint village typically get to it from Heraklion, about 45 kms away, and known for its Minoan ruins and beautiful beaches. I, however, decided to visit Chania at the Western end, for its mix of history, ruins, incredible beaches and most of all - the famed seafood. Honestly though, it could just as well have been Heraklion.

There are daily ferries that take you from the Piraeus port in Athens, to the Souda port for Chania. It typically takes 8 to 9 hours, although there are some slower ferries. There are a few different ferry operators - Anek Superfast, Blue Star, Minoan Lines. The Blue Star ferries are more modern and faster though Anek Superfast offers larger boats. You may find their ferry bookings and details on some aggregator sites.

The green roads that lead from Chania to Zaros

The green roads that lead from Chania to Zaros


After spending three idyllic days at Chania, I was now excited about Zaros, the mountain village around which I had built up so much anticipation. Would reality be as magical as my imagination? I stepped into a bus to find out.

To travel to Zaros from Chania, you have to change buses twice over a 2.5 hour journey - in retrospect, I should have taken a taxi. There are plenty of car rental options from Heraklion not just to get to Zaros, but to drive around the gorges and beaches around it, with rates ranging from 10 to 40 Euros a day.

Unaware, I had taken the bus route. However, the charming old bus that took us on the last leg to Mires station made up for the discomfort of changing buses. The old, cheery bus driver drove rather carelessly up the winding road, chatting away with the village regulars. I was perched on a narrow seat right next to the driver and had no shame in admitting that I squeezed my eyes shut each time he jauntily turned the bends on the mountain road - seemingly unperturbed. At the same time, I badly wanted to peek at the beautiful view of plane trees and stone houses along the mountain side and yes. My excitement won. I needn't have worried because the driver expertly carried his daily load with the ease of someone born on the mountains.

A Bus to Zaros - carrying a slice of local life

A Bus to Zaros - carrying a slice of local life


There were a lot of older men and women in the bus, lines carved into their faces, on their way to and from markets with their produce. I met a gorgeous Greek girl who was on her way home from her University. The women of Crete are exceptionally stunning - imagine an island full of Jennifer Anistons - but I was to learn that they are also independent, often running family businesses even as Greek men chase Raki shots into the sunset.

The stunning Greek girl in Zaros

The stunning Greek girl who accompanied me to Zaros


An hour later, the bus pulled up into the village center, near Vivi's restaurant where I was headed. The Greek girl showed me to Vegera, where she was also headed for a bite and a chat before she went home. I felt blissed out at having connected to someone who had grown up at Zaros and could barely keep my excitement in check as we stepped up.

Quaint, pretty Vegera restaurant, Zaros, Crete

Quaint, pretty Vegera restaurant, Zaros, Crete


You know how you build up expectations in your head and then are inevitably disappointed. This was certainly not the case. Nothing could have prepared me for the effervescent Vivi - owner, chef, and related to half the people who stepped into her pretty little restaurant. As soon as you step inside, the most delicious aromas wafted out from her large kitchen, festooned with threaded spices and garlic.

The effervescent Vivi of Vegera - the heart of life at Zaros

The effervescent Vivi of Vegera - the heart of life at Zaros

Keramos Studios Inn, the heart of Zaros life

After introductions were over, Vivi showed me to the Keramos Inn that was run by her aunt - the most charming, generous Katarina. She runs the place with her handsome shepherd farmer husband and a brood of adorable grand kids. It was as if I walked into an Enid Blyton book, except that they spoke Greek.

Owners of Keramos: Charming Katarina and her handsome shepherd-farmer husband

Owners of Keramos: Charming Katarina and her handsome shepherd-farmer husband


The Keramos Studios was created from an authentic Cretan home, boasting a rustic charm blending traditional Cretan aesthetics (beautiful paintings, artifacts, vases) with modern comforts. The rooms are small but air conditioned and comfortable, with balconies, and some look out onto the mountains. They also come with little refrigerators and a tea-kettle.


Katarina with one of her beautiful grandchildren


Please note that there are quite a few other great accommodation options at Zaros, from rustic Cretan experiences to luxury five-star stays. These include Eleonas country village, a gorgeous, aesthetically done up luxury stay with an olive and herb garden. Or, the popular family-run Idi Hotel that offers an excellent blend of modern amenities at a location close to the hikes.

Beautiful Greek artifacts at Keramos Inn in Zaros, Crete

Beautiful Greek artifacts at Keramos Inn set the tone instantly

A Golden Haired Little Girl, Ancient Water Mills and the Bottled Water Factory

Since it was mid-day already, I just dumped my bags in the room, and hopped onto an old jeep for a visit to their sheep-farm. Katrina's gentle husband and little grand-daughter with her beautiful, sparkling eyes and curly, flowing hair, accompanied me on a narrow, rough mountain road up to the farm - I confess I was very nervous until I realized he has been doing this for decades now. It was a pleasant afternoon watching the contented fluffy sheep and making friends with their beautiful German Shepherd (I think) sheepdog.


Katarina's grand-daughter with the sunlit hair who accompanied us on the sheep farm visit


I stepped further into the village to see the 400-year old water mills - out of the ten, two are open to visitors. Having ticked off this bit of history, there was still some daylight left, so I trekked down to the bottled water factory, through little crooked alleys with cobbled stone paths and askew houses. Zaros has been the source of natural spring water that is bottled and cold across Crete - in fact, the main Fountain in the central square is fed by spring water that is led through natural forces. The Votomos spring water and the bottled mineral water branded Zaros SA is actually considered the best in the world, no small claim, due to the exceptional qualities of its natural mineral water. Interestingly, the Votomos lake is an artificial one, created from the wetlands that lay there, to collect the spring waters that bubbled up from Amati and Votomos. A very friendly, flirty young man called Georgios showed me around the factory - interesting fact, every second Greek man seemed to be called Giorgio or Georgios, which means farmer.

The globally lauded bottled-water plant at Zaros

The globally lauded bottled-water plant at Zaros


By the time I reached back, tired but excited by a day of stony, uphill treks, chatty Georgios and blonde sheep, I could just barely eat a sandwich before I crashed. I promised myself a proper feast the next day. And the universe rewarded me for my patience, because the trip to Zaros was to introduce me to a whole new dimension of what good food can be like.

Town's bell tower at the center of Zaros

Town's bell tower at the center


I woke up early and came down the stairway to a heady smell of baked goods. The real reason why you should stay here is Katarina's famed breakfast, which was laid out across three wooden tables. The tables were groaning with freshly baked cheese, mince and spinach pies (spanakopita, kaltsounia and more); sweet and savory, crumbly pastries; yoghurt, milk and cream just extracted from the goats on their farm, honey, jams and a herbal Cretan tea (or fresh coffee). The generous Katarina even packs a picnic parcel of fruit and pastries and honey, pouring warm herbal tea into a flask for you when you venture out. Suffice it to say, I won the challenge I set myself to about tasting every kind of pie that was laid out.

Every house, every structure is a walk down Cretan culture

Every house, every structure is a walk down Cretan culture

Of a Blue Lake and a Green Gorge

My much anticipated cooking class was to be the next day - and there was a fun twist waiting to happen - but for the day I had another exciting trip planned. Zaros offers lovely treks from the brilliantly blue Lake Votomos, through the Rouvas Gorge, passing a 15th century Agios Nikolaos Monastery. Again, if you have more time on your hands, you may want to rent a car to plan trips to the nearby gorge, monasteries and Minoan settlements.

Trekking up from Lake Votomos towards Rouvas forest in Zaros

Trekking up from Lake Votomos towards Rouvas forest


Pairing my straight pink dress with comfortable walking shoes, I headed out to the lake. Lake Votomos, as I was to learn, is actually fed by the spring water of Lake Votomos and Matis. It is a source of the freshest and most delicious water. Lake Votomos supports an entire ecosystem that bottles the water, gives employment to the local community and draws income from tourism. I would encourage you to head up just a bit and taste the fresh spring water from the source of the Votomos spring. The birds chirping in the air are not a bad value-add either.

The gorgeous artificial lake Votomos in Zaros, Crete

The gorgeous artificial lake Votomos, fed by natural springs


Although I did not take the trek into the Rouvas forest, I spoke to travelers who had, and they swear by the splendid views of the mountains and the rich flora and fauna that you come across. As I gathered, the complete trek itself would take between 4 to 5 hours if you start from Lake Votomos and end back there. The path has several signs to suggest the way, but apart from sheep and goat herds, it may get a little isolated. There are some very reliable local operators who take you on a guided, informed trek. Taking a guided trek through Rouvas Gorge is one of the best experiences you can have.

herds of fluffy sheep during the treks to Rouvas forest

Be prepared to say hello to herds of fluffy sheep on your treks to Rouvas forest


What I did do was stop at the Lake Votomos Taverna (attached to Hotel Idi) for a most delicious meal. I chose a fresh trout baked in olive oil and large lemons, with a side of crunchy salad and an ice-cream to chase it down with. You cannot go wrong with a fresh trout, an aperitif and a sparkling lake view.

The Taverna overlooking the blue waters of the Lake Votomos

The Taverna overlooking the blue waters of the Lake Votomos


Of Byzantine Monasteries and 14th century frescoes

I had heard about the two monasteries near Zaros - the Agios Nikolaos monastery and the Vrondisi monastery.

Agios Nikolaos Monastery

The Agios Nikolaos Monastery is right on the way to the trek to the Rouvas Gorge, about a 30-minute walk from Lake Votomos. It is said that nuns used to live in the Agios Nikolaos Monastery until some catastrophe caused destruction of the Monastery as it used to be. The Greek Calendarists then settled in the 19th century, recreating a modern, practical version of the monastery. I agree with many other travellers in that the modern structure looks startling and out-of-place in the rugged ancient mountainside. Only the Old Church of St Nicholas within it retains the original essence, with haunting, rich 14th century frescoes. There were a couple of monks who sat about without talking, and two old nuns in black who were peeling artichokes. A rather stern and magnificent monk opened up the inner sanctum inside which were ancient murals depicting religious milestones. I was at once impressed and awed.

The restored Agios Nikolaos monastery in Zaros

The restored Agios Nikolaos monastery

Vrontisi Monastery

My personal favorite though was the Vrontisi Monastery, which is about a 20 minute car ride away. Next to the food, what truly stirs my imagination is the thought of stepping into a site is the idea of stepping onto sites of ancient events and people from long ago. The 15th century Vrontisi Monastery is stark and even bleak, and you can almost see the ancient Byzantine monks who lived inside its rocky walls.

The grand old monk at the Vrontisi Monastery in Zaros

The grand old monk at the Vrontisi Monastery


This monastery had slowly become a center for the arts and knowledge, with artists and scholars from all over. However, due to its fortress-like structure, it had also become a focus for the Ottoman invaders. They destroyed most of the original structure, leaving only a few elements like the church dedicated to St Anthony And St Thomas. There is also a 15th century Venetian fountain that stands testimony to the art that was nurtured here. Water spouts from four lion heads while Eve and Adam are depicted over them. There is also a tourist shop should you want to buy some tokens - for me that just broke the spell of the monastery.

The fascinating 15th century Venetian fountain at Agios Nikolaos Monastery, Zaros

The fascinating 15th century Venetian fountain at Agios Nikolaos Monastery, Zaros

Cooking with Vivi

Vegera was my only plan for the next day, as I would travel out in the evening. I reached by 11 for the cooking class, fortified by Katarina's excellent breakfast - sensation overload alert, as I watched her work up the cream from fresh goats milk, and then lop a huge dollop onto my pie!

Sidhu showing off her cooking in Zaros

That's me, showing off my cooking tips


The nicest thing about Vivi's restaurant, apart from the truly fantastic food, is that you will run into the best of both worlds - global travelers and the local people of Zaros. One of them happened to be an Indian man who had some business in Crete, while the other was a young American girl who had come like me for Vivi's cooking classes, while she backpacked around the world.

Vivi prepares the American backpacker for the cooking session

Vivi prepares the American backpacker for the cooking session


We headed into her large kitchen that was stocked with all kinds of vegetables - fresh organic local produce, crunchy and juicy - Zucchinis and eggplants and huge bell peppers. We learnt how to make Gemista (pronounced Yemista) by stuffing flavourful, crushed potato and cooked herbed rice into the vegetables, basting olive oil on them and baking them until the flavors intensified. I could happily become a vegetarian if the dishes were like these.

Vivi's kitchen in Zaros festooned with aromatic spices

Vivi's kitchen festooned with aromatic spices


We also learnt to make a delicate egg-based sauce for the pasta and a slow-cooked chicken, stewed with local golden olive oil and garlic and wine. I felt blessed and satiated and happy. What we made was what she served to the guests at her restaurant, along with some moussaka and salad and wine.


Fresh organic vegetables waiting to be stuffed with goodness


It is interesting to note that Vegera offers no menu - you are served a full course meal with the best of whatever was prepared on the day, complete with wine and dessert. Her delicately prepared yet hearty home-cooked meal has drawn people from all over the world to Zaros.

The famed slow-cooked chicken stew with olive oil, wine and vegetables

The famed slow-cooked chicken stew with olive oil, wine and vegetables

When Indian Spices meet Cretan Dishes

Then came the whimsical turn of events, something I recount whenever I speak of my Crete travels. Vivi and I had been chatting about Indian food and she claimed that Indian food overpowers the dish with spices. I bet her that I could win her over. She accepted the challenge with some complacency, and fetched me cloves, cardamom, pepper at my request. I then toasted and ground them up into the spice mixture that we call Garam Masala. I sauteed some lamb with garlic and onions, splashed wine, added a pinch of Garam masala and let it simmer for over an hour, until the meat fell off the bones. After my initial confident claim, I confess I was very nervous at the idea of a brilliant chef delivering a verdict. But Vivi loved the dish and the flavours so much that she even went on to use the spice mix in the cake that she made for the guests the next day. I can tell you I was really happy to have the Chef's approval.

When Indian Garam Masala meets Cretan cuisine

When Indian Garam Masala meets Cretan cuisine


In the evening, we all sat eating the meal together, spread across four round tables set outside. As the sun set, the local residents slowly gathered around in a circle, holding hands and dancing the Kalamatianos. Yelling, happy, content. I can tell you that it was a sight, and experience, that I will not forget in a hurry.

The Zaros soccer team ready for a match

The Zaros soccer team ready for a match


And so ended my search for cooking classes in Zaros - and I was to go back home with head, heart and body satiated. What I will carry back with me are not just the beautiful Turkish and Venetian artifacts I picked up, but the artichokes that Katarina stuffed into my bag, the sight of an entire village dancing in the sunset, the deep lines into the face of the woman who sold almonds from a cart, and the memory of the beautiful people of Greece.

Young, curious vibrant Zaros residents

Young, curious vibrant Zaros residents

Road Back to Reality

I headed back to Athens early the next day - a bus to Heraklion and then a ferry to Athens. Crete has to be the most undersold destination in the Mediterranean - and Zaros the best kept secret. If you're like me and prefer real experiences, quiet beauty and a healthy dollop of history thrown in - then you may want to reconsider the usual suspects in Italy or even Santorini and head this way.

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Things To Consider

Crete being a land of beautiful beaches, spring season (April to June) is perfect weather for exploring the lush landscape or sunbathing at the pristine beaches. Autumn The weather is not as hot as the summer months, and the tourist crowd tapers out.
Zaros’s culture and art is centered around the Byzantine monasteries in its region. Each one boasting of architecture from the 15th century and ancient, beautiful frescoes. You can learn about the lyrical instruments of Lyra and Flute also.
Zaros cuisine is all that is best in Cretan food - a happy spread of meat, cheese and vegetarian pies, baked meat and chicken, intensely flavored stuffed vegetable dishes with an accent on fresh, organic produce.
Zaros is as safe as it can get - whether you're a woman traveling alone, or as a family, - it is a small village where everyone knows everyone. People are friendly, and tourism being a major revenue generator - you are certain to be taken care of.
Wear hardy walking shoes and trek around endlessly on the mountain slopes and forested areas - meeting only herds of sheep and goats or cattle for long stretches. Explore the Rouvas gorge or the area around the Lake Votomos and discover a new bird or flora each time.
Good walking shoes are a must. Shorts and t-shirts are perfect for the summers, or a sun dress with a hat. A windcheater for the occasional drizzle. And sunscreen to enjoy the Mediterranean sun without worry!

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