It’s a warm evening and you linger over the reflection of the moon on the distant sea as you listen to the gentle sound of the waves. You’re sipping a glass of wine and nibbling on a basket of fresh pitta bread, ready to enjoy a feast after a hard day exploring the island of Crete.

At that moment the sharp, unmistakable sound of Zorba the Greek strikes up, and the scene is complete.

I don’t know how many times I heard that tune on my last visit to Greece. Yet although I was all too well aware of the identity of the music, I have to confess that I had no idea who Zorba was and why he held such a central role in modern Greek culture.

Zorba the Greek

Created by Nikos Kazantzakis and a charcter in is his famous novel Zorba the Greek, Zorba was a irrepressible  lover of life played to perfection by Anthony Quinn in the eponymous 1964 movie.

Zorba is a formidable character who befriends British recluse Basil (played by Alan Bates in the film), who happens to be on his way to Crete to open a mine that he was left in a will. Despite possessing wildly contrasting personalities, the two men instantly form a strong bond and their friendship sets the scene for the whole story. The rather stiff Basil is gloriously uncomfortable in the face of the attentions of a young widow. It is Zorba who tries every trick in the book to coax Basil to fall under the widow’s spell. When he finally succumbs, it is the prelude to a terrible tragedy.

The central theme running through the book is one of living life to the full and not letting the opportunities that life offers to us slip away. With Zorba’s persistent guidance Basil does eventually loosen up and in a poignant ending (not giving too much away!) Basil asks Zorba to teach him to dance on the beach in a symbolic acceptance of a more fun-loving approach to life.

Kazantzakis was born on Crete in 1883 in the village of Myrtia, a short distance south of Heraklion, at a time when the island was still under Ottoman rule. He wrote prolifically and produced several Greek classics, yet he is best remembered for his creation of the Greek hero Zorba in his 1946 novel.

For those who want to learn more about Kazantzakis on their visit to Greece, a trip to the village of Myrtia, which now houses the Nikos Kazantzakis museum, is highly recommended. Here you can learn about the life of the famous author and see many of his personal effects, including correspondence between him and several major political thinkers of the 20th century.

Crete is an island that is renowned for its rich history, healthy cuisine and magnificent landscapes. All the right ingredients for those who are less inclined to study the author’s life in detail but want to celebrate the lifestyle that his character Zorba so colourfully followed.

Take a look at our Holiday Ideas for Crete page to see details of painting classes, cookery lessons and more.