We landed at the seaport of Heraklion, the principle city of Crete, sometime in early April. The ferry gliding in, like a vast sea bird, to rest next to the red-brick arches of the city’s Venetian arsenal.
But straightaway we left that city’s charms – and its shabbiness – for later in our exploration of the island. There were other things to see first.
We headed west, to Rethymno.
And we’d barely got our bearings when Greek Easter crashed down on us.
We dutifully took our place with the others outside the large, looming, domed ‘Four Martyrs’ church in the centre of Rethymno on Easter Saturday, just before midnight.
A candle stolen off a small child held in my hand, lighting up my face in a sickly yellow glow, so as I don’t look out of place and fit in with the hundreds of other people milling around here with their glowing, held, candles, all taking a light off each other.
The light has been flown from Jerusalem to Athens. It comes from the Holy Light that they say miraculously appears every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It’s carried in a special aeroplane and then transferred to every church in Greece. And everyone believes – is quite sure – that their candle is holding the very light from the flame from Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem.
I had stood at this church yesterday too, on Good Friday, as large, decorated, floats that had been passing round the streets, with their ornate imitation coffins – coffins for Jesus: an idea that I thought he had kind of ignored in the first place – all started to gather, banking up, outside the church. Like buses at a city terminus at the end of the day.
On the balcony of the church now, the great and the good of Rethymno – those higher up the social order anyway than us down here on the ground below – gathered. Happy to be seen, wrapped in expensive coats. They snapped into action at certain points, as the priest droned his incantations into a microphone, frantically crossing themselves again and again, like families of scratching monkeys suspended high above us.
Then after the bells and fireworks of midnight, as Greek tradition states, we all set off with our candles to get them back home without the flame going out – a sign of huge bad luck – and to burn a thick black, charred, smoke cross on the door frame above our front doors – a sign for good luck for the year.
I was passing one house – crouching low and shielding my flame with a cupped hand, stupidly desperate for it not to go out – when a man comes outside and, in celebration, fires a gun, rapidly, bam bam bam bam, into the sky, a few feet from where I shuffled.
The shots’ sounds ricocheted round the close old buildings of the town. My hearing became a shriek of white noise. The man grinned and went back inside.
I was still deaf as we mad it back to the village where we had found a house to live in, up the hillside above Rethymno town.
Outside our small local church was a colossal bonfire with a representation of Judas on top, set alight, flames streaking from the top of his head. And yet more men stood outside shooting guns into the air.
This was Crete.
Where everyone seemingly had a gun. And everyone happy to use them. In celebration, in showy boast, or through long-held, ancestral, blood-feud grudge.
The street signs of every small town were pitted with gunshot holes.
It is a proud, wild island.
A friend of mine back in Corfu had warned me before we came here of the guns, and the proud rankling that lies deep within the Cretans.
He had been holidaying here once, driving round the island, when someone on the road had cut his car up. Instinctively he threw his hand forward with the common gesture of the open, splayed palm – the muja – as all Greeks do when wanting to show their annoyance.
The car ahead screeched to a halt. The driver’s door opened. The Cretan got out and walked purposefully back towards my friend’s car. Next thing he knew, my Corfiot friend’s head was pushed down forward hard onto the dashboard, a gun planted at his temple.
Crete would have to be an island trod carefully through over the next few months.
“Christos anesti!” – Christ has risen – we all said to each other outside the church.
“Alithos!” – he really has – we all replied. As everyone in Greece must.
Sheep’s innards soup was eaten. Whole lambs were put on the spit for tomorrow. Dyed red hard boiled eggs were cracked together, like conkers – the winner’s egg being the one that doesn’t break and gives its owner further good luck for the year.
The gunshots in Crete, though, carried on long into the night.
Rethymno had real beauty.
I had been to the Ionian islands with their Venetian architecture; I’d spent my time in the far north east of Greece, in Thrace, with its old Muslim communities. Rethymno was the perfect combination of all of the styles of Greece – the grand Venetian citadel, the squat, domed, mosques. And, of course, as everywhere, the Byzantine remains sitting next to modern boxy flats of the city.
A microcosm of Greece. As is the whole of Crete: with its beaches, the mountains towering beyond, the olives and the vineyards. And in Rethymno, what must be the most well-preserved old town in Greece.
I chose, though, to sit my Rethymno days in the dark ‘Dyo Roy’ café.
Populated by the cantankerous old men of the city, the ‘Dyo Roy’ was littered with hundreds of old black and white photos on the walls, bottles and pots. Greek bric-a-brac. Like a junk shop, with the old men reading newspapers, playing cards, looking like dusty displayed curios themselves.
The British and American tourists peered in, attracted by the ancient character of the place… and then beat nervous retreats quickly back out again, into the bright sunshine. Coming back with more courage only in the evenings when the lights of the café turned on and the small galley kitchen served up good Cretan dinners.
So in the evenings, I went instead to the bar ‘To Havesiliki’.
Rebetiko music was played live here. And, like in the whole of Crete, raki was drunk.
Raki is the drink of the island. The strong, powerful, clear spirit. Unflavoured. And pure here on Crete – never giving a headache.
Nikos, a disreputable friend of the owners, who did the serving at ‘To Havesiliki’ gave us bottle after bottle for free.
“I don’t want your business,” he said. “I like you. I look at people, if I don’t like them, I don’t serve them.”
Nikos often drank your drink as he came to the table to serve you. He then looked surprised at the empty tray in his hand and, confused, had to turn round and get another. Usually that had gone by the time he came back too.
Tall, wiry, beak-nosed and bearded, eyes crossed, he roughly kissed and slapped my face – and everyone else’s who turned up – in happy greeting every time we come through the door.
Nikos insisted I poured drinks for everyone in the bar (not pay for them, but I had to pour them) and give them out, whether they want them or not. He was the drunkest man in Crete by closing time.
Souvlaki or gyros pitas was necessary then, to line the stomach, and taken from the centre of town and eaten on the palm-lined beach looking out at the sea. The twist for pitas served in Crete – and, of course, everywhere in Greece seems to have its own unique style – is that they’re all served here with just yoghurt not tzatziki.
Another good café for drinking in – the cheapest raki in town – was ‘Arabas’.
I was sat outside one night when I meet Costandinos.
Costandinos was dressed as a tsolias – the ridiculous looking Greek soldiers, in the costume they fought the Ottomans in: foustanella skirt, scarlet fez, stockings and garters.
Costandinos told me he roams all over Greece, walking through villages and towns, posing as a tsolias and asking for people to give money for a photo with him. This had been his life for years and years, as long as he could remember. But he’d settled here in Rethymno for a while now, he said to me. He liked it here. He had a good pitch by the huge doors of the vast Venetian fort above the town.
Although it wasn’t really, I told him his English was good.
Suddenly this man who had looked a sad, dejected clown, hunched over his drink on his small table was up on his feet, excited. Rushing to tell people in the bar, passers-by, of this compliment. He grew in stature. Started boasting, strutting.
“Can I ask you a philosophical question?” he asked quickly, spinning round and pointing a finger at me “Does God exist?”
I was taken a little aback. “Well, I hope so,” I tell him. “But, I’m afraid, I think, probably no.”
“He does! He does!” Costandinos was full of animation. His pom-pom slippers slapping on the smooth stone cobbled Rethymno pavement, the oversized sleeves of his flowing frilled bright white shirt billowing in the night.
“He drove away Zeus! You know this? Yes! Zeus was powerful but he got too tired to fight. It’s true! Zeus and his gods on Olympus they all had too much sex!
Jesus knew what to do,” Costandinos lent his face close to me, “No sex!” he clapped his hands on his stocking-ed knees.
I felt Costandinos was just getting started, but then he noticed another, small, man coming down the dark paved back street. This other man seemed to me to be another homeless hawker. He was talking to himself, having trouble walking.
He came level with us and stopped, spat on the ground and started laughing. Laughing at Costandinos. Costandinos stood there, knees bent, caught frozen, mid-stream.
This tiny deformed man wheezed and mocked at the hulking figure, who visibly shrunk. Embarrassed.
I watched as Costandinos shamefully hide his sign that has been hanging round his neck the whole time: “Photo with me – only 1 euro”.
Manolis had a good tavern in our village above the city.
He was a weather-beaten old man, with a moustache you could have hidden in. A sailor back in his day, he sailed the world many times over…picking up hardly any word of English whatsoever.
His skin was burnt deep with sun and salt, and he now spendt his time up here on dry land being henpecked by a fearsome wife – who would’t allow him to set a price for whatever you ate in his taverna as what he set was always half what she thought you should pay.
Manolis told us about a club he was in. They walked the mountains and gorges of Crete. And there are many, many mountains and gorges of Crete.
We told him, vaguely, we might be interested in coming on one of these walks one day… and then, not thinking any more on it, settled down to our ntakos salad – particular to Crete: tomatoes and feta laid on paximadia – rock hard bricks of bread that can only be eaten when soaked in water, or the olive oil that’s oozed to the bottom of a salad.
Rakis were sunk.
Next morning, at 5am, there was a hammering on our front door.
It was Manolis. I peared out into the darkness, his almost-black face beamed a smile back.
“We go now. Come, come…”
Before we really knew what’s happening Giristroula and I were bundled into the back of an old military coach with a collection of Greek faces and beards staring up at me.
We were driven out of Rethymno – on the very north coast – down through the island towards the south.
As the light outside started to strengthen, I could see the pale-pink mountains of the centre of Crete surrounding us. The ravines, a cemetery of huge boulders. Rocks scarred through a million years of wind and rain and heat.
The other members of the club were waking up and talking to each other, each using the prominent “ch” sound only found here in Crete. A sound where the everyday “keh” (and) becomes “cheh”, where raki becomes rachi.
By the time we reached the village of Vasiliki and poured off the coach, there was a great wing of sun high in the sky and a blinding bright morning scene had laid itself out.
A lined old shepherd man sat at a deserted café pointed us a way to walk and we set off, I still didn’t really know where.
We started over the ridges and down into the canyons.
Crete has sharper mountains and a hotter sun than anywhere I’d previously found in Greece.
We trod down, knees straining at the decent. Stepping on hardy plants amongst the dry stones, crushing them under foot and setting off an overwhelming, overpowering smell of oregano that came flowing out over us all.
One of our party, an older man, fell badly.
Scree and rocks comes raining down as he passed me, scudding along fast on his back. I stood and watched Manolis and some of the other strong men in the group fashion some sort of human stretcher and carried him back to the top.
And as I stood, I noticed that I was standing next to the half-perished carcass of a dead goat slowly decaying into the hot ground.
This didn’t seem like it was going to be a light stroll through Crete. It was going to be one perhaps as hard as the island itself even.
At the bottom we were marched on, still without any real clarity, to me, as to where we were heading. We carried on through the canyon, our trail of 20 or so Cretan men and woman: rucksacks, boots, handkerchiefs over the their heads, passing a fantastic, ancient, deserted church cut into the rocks.
I asked one of the men if there had been any really bad accidents
“Oh no, it is a very safe club,” he told me. Then paused. “Well, we got lost earlier this year. On the White Mountains. In the snow. 48 hours without tents or supplies…”
Then he thought of another “And, once, one of us…he… well, he fell. Off the top of Mount Ida…”
I was shocked. What happened to him? Where was he now?
The man’s eyes narrowed. He took a long look at me, and spoke as if to a child “He fell off Mount Ida. Now? Well now he’s…how should I say…he’s necros.”
We were route-marched onwards. Forcing our way on through the sun lashed canyon bottom, mountains high above, through the tight gaps between rocks, and then finally we wedged ourselves out to find ourselves on a beach.
Deserted. A clear polished blue-green sea. I was told that this beach, in Minoan times, was the King’s personal beach. I couldn’t resist and took off my clothes and swum in the cooling waters. The rest of the group sat on the beach, rested aching legs or prowlled around smoking deeply.
I wondered what happened now. Now when we were so far away from anywhere. And then, quite surreally, a boat appeared on the horizon. Getting closer. An old man at the prow.
He was an old friend of the group and was here to take us around the promontory of rocks to another beach – Trafoulas. This one was where the Minoan Queen’s party would bathe.
An extraordinary beach. Not just for its beauty, but in the cliffs surrounding there were many natural caves with people living up there, in the hollows.
People had lived for years and years in these caves. The laundry hanging outside, the squeak of a pump inside generating perhaps power or water now giving the game away that people lived in these high rock caverns, which you couldn’t ordinarily have believed.
But then one of our group told me that these ‘cave men’ had disputes with each other. This was no hippy utopia. Often these neighbours set fire to each other’s caves.
I stared up, desperate to get a glimpse of these rock dwellers, but I was too soon bundled away with the group, strapping on their rucksacks, off the beach, back into another canyon.
Through two close towering rocks, known round here as the Gate of Hercules, we were walked on and on again, leading along the coast, in and out of the village Lentas and up over the soaring cliff – the Lion’s Head, looking out to sea.
And then finally, at last, we stopped. At one of the walker’s houses, hidden away on its own at the foot of the mountains as the sun sets and the sky faded with streaking golds and faint blues.
At the end of every trek, one of the group was to host a gathering for all the walkers. It was Christos’ turn today. And he took it in quite ridiculously overt style: killing two sheep on his farm for us. The barrel of wine never ending throughout the night.
Giristroula was conducting research at schools in Crete. This was why we were on Crete. She was based at one in Agouseniana for a few weeks. I went with her to see this small village, sat alone in the hilly wilds of Crete.
I spent the morning walking round the small, tight paths and past the high, dominating church before ducking into an old dark kafeneon for Greek coffee.
I ordered, sat down. The old woman owner and the only other man in the place, playing cards, raised their eyebrows in response to my few words of introduction. They didn’t speak.
The old man, in his raggedy old clothes and cap, remembered he needs to get back to his farm work and gathered up his things. He paid for his raki. “Oriste. Kerase ton oti thelei” – Here, take this… and for whatever he wants too, he nodded over at me.
This man who hadn’t spoken to me, had only sat a few minutes in the same cafe, and who looked as if he had hardly even enough money for himself, had paid for my coffee, and anything else I wanted.
He made one final, almost imperceptible bow of his thick powerful head to me, as he left and as I thanked him, and then he was gone. Displaying real Crete hospitality, here in this completely out of the world place.
I talked to the old lady owner.
Maria was over 80 years old.
She had long black hair and a thin, strong face. She had been running this kafeneon for 59 years. Her husband died nearly 40 years ago and she had been dressed head to foot in black every day since.
She left me awhile to go and tend her animals at the back of her cafe – chase chickens, wrestle with rams – so I studied the decorations, the maps on the walls, newspapers, portraits of Nikos Kazakajakis and Crete’s other famous sons… and then I spotted a picture of Maria herself.
Some years ago now, but it was definitely her. Stood, huddled, in an old-fashioned coat. On a wharf. Under tall buildings. Underneath Liverpool’s Liver Birds.
Maria came back, brushing a muddy hand over her headscafed forehead, her knees filthy with fresh dirt. I asked her about the picture. She sighed, sat, and slowly started to tell me the story.
When the British were in Crete during the war, fighting alongside the Cretans, trying to resist the sweeping roll of Germans taking control of the island, Maria’s older sister had fallen hopelessly in love with one of the British soldiers posted here.
As the Germans brought more and more enforcements onto the island, the British, losing the battle, had to retreat.
Helped by Cretans, risking their lives to assist the withdrawing British fighters, they were hidden and spirited away down south, to Moni Preveli, where the monks, guns hidden in their cassocks, as keen to fight the enemy as anyone, helped the British soldiers to catch boats there to take them away to Egypt.
Maria’s sister had followed her new love down through the island. Hiding in barns, and stranger’s attics as the Germans hammered on village doors. She made it down to Moni Preveli and onto the boat, and finally with her love back to his Lancashire city and marriage and children.
And later a rather lost, rather cold Maria visited her sister there in her small Liverpool home. Still the only time she’d ever been out of Crete.
Another of Maria’s older sister’s life had a less happy outcome.
Crete, and the small islet off its north east shoulder, Spinalonga, was the place where the lepers of Greece had been sent for the first 50 years or so of the last century. Away from the mainland. Infected, dying people, carted away, sent out of sight, to this rocky hulk just off Crete.
A sad chapter of Greece’s history, especially here where there was anger and worry and obvious suspicion of the disease and the potential risk of people carrying it.
Maria’s sister, though young, had arthritis in her hands. It caused them to bend and twist.
The islanders believed it was leprosy.
She was chased round the island by self-appointed gangs of vigilantly scrutinisers. Three times they sent her to Spinalonga island. On the boat, across the small channel of water from the town of Plaka. Away from real, normal, everyday life on mainland Crete. On the boat with the true cases of horrifying leprosy.
And three times she came back. Sent back when the doctors confirmed her crippled hands were nothing more than arthritis.
Maria’s sister had a daughter. As her daughter grew up, started to fall in love, wanted to get married, Maria’s sister knew the talk, the mistrust about her still existed around the island. She didn’t want the stigma to affect her daughter’s chances of happiness.
So she left her island, never to return.
She went to Athens. And by chance, feeling she should do something to help those troubled by disease, she found work in the leprosy hospital there in the capital – the Iavavra hospital – but never saw her family again.
Maria sat her chair close to me as she tells me these stories. She talked with no self-pity for herself or for her sister. She spoke and waited with great patience, as I strained and faltered and checked with my terrible Greek.
Giristroula then turned up after her lessons. Now all could be translated fully.
Maria jumped up from her seat though. She rushed out the back and fussed around. She must find something to offer the new visitor.
Finally she found a few chocolates and opened a bottle raki. She offered them and looks a little shamefaced.
No one can visit someone’s home in Crete and not be offered something. If she couldn’t have offered something, it would almost be the very worst thing that could happen to Maria. Maria, who was stood here in her widow’s black, in her empty kafeneon, with her sisters missing from her long island life.
We set out to explore on our own the surrounding land of Rethymno.
We drove out on the roads, drifting over the lit highlands, and down towards Arkadi monastery.
A 16th century monastery with touches of the Italian renaissance about it. A place of studying and science, in the otherwise unenlightened days of the Ottoman Empire here in Crete.
We passed through the gate.
“Hi! Hello! Hullo! Guten Tag…” the guard called out, running after us. Trying every variation he could think of. I cursed that we’d been caught and would have to pay. But Giristroula answered back in Greek.
“Oh, you’re Greek,” the guard stopped short. “Then you must enter here for free. It is a very important place for us…” He waved us in with a flourish. Eyeing me suspiciously at the British vowels in my “efharisto” thanking as I passed.
Arkadi Monastery has a terrible and sad history.
In 1866 the Cretans of the surrounding area rose up against the Ottoman rule. Around 1,000 men, women and children revolted against the Turkish, fighting for 3 days as the Ottoman Army called over 15,000 men to push them back. The Cretans taking refuge in the monastery.
A large copper bullet still here, lodged in a giant plane tree, in the monastery’s court yard bares testament to the fighting that went on. Tables still lie in the halls where deep sword marks show where men were beheaded.
And then you reach the basement.
The powder room was where the women and children were hiding, and the fighting men were pushed back into. With the Turkish at the doors, and the ammunition running out, all hope lost, the head abbot of the monastery gave the command and the remaining gunpowder was lit.
All lives sacrificed rather than be caught. Taking many Turkish lives with them.
Nothing is more noble or glorious than dying for one’s country runs the inscription in the monastery. The man at the gate nodded at us slowly as we left, looks us over. He wanted us to be sure that we knew that we had witnessed here something portentous and symbolic.
The car took us down under the lit mountains into lower-lying lands, quickly invaded by dark. Towards Margareta, a village of ceramic makers – their wares outside every small stone house, pottery hanging from trees, ludicrous large clay creations sat up on every roof.
We continued down to Spili.
A village up in the hills with its village square ringed by row after row of Venetian lion heads spitting out fountain water.
I walked around the buildings of Spili – the water murmuring all around me – when, just for the briefest moment, I looked through the door of an old blue wooden, tattered, kafeneon.
“Come in, come in! Raki!”
I told the old man that I was just passing through, I didn’t really have the time. But he’d already poured us both a glass and was holding it out for me. We drained them, and then he instantly poured me another. He sat me down, got out some meze, told me he wasn’t looking for any payment. He poured another couple of rakis.
This was Giorgos. Small statured, white haired, moustached, the wrinkled face of an amused brown mouse.
He was once a tailor and his kafeneo was called ‘Rafteo’ (sewing).. He even had his old ancient sewing machine in the corner.
Giorgos was well into his 90s but looked strong as a ram. He told me he drinks 40 glasses of raki a day. I guessed this must be the secret.
A coach pulled up in front of the kafeneo. None of the tourists looked as if they have any interest in this great old bar whatsoever. All were heading for the shops of tourist tat and the bottles of bad, expensive, olive oil. One fat German stepped off the bus and his trousers ripped right up his buttocks.
Giorgos was straight out to help. Beavering around, batting away the German’s protests, wrestling him out of his trousers, getting them on his old machine, stitching and repairing them.
I left as the German was falteringly thanking Giorgos, wobbling on one leg putting his trousers back on, looking a little desperately to see where all the others of his party had gone on their pursuit of crap carved wooden trinkets.
The last thing I heard as I left them was Giorgos to the newly trousered German, in his old kafeneon: “And now of course we should have a raki…”
We were to leave the area of Rethymno. And our slightly odd home.
Thalia, the landlady, had let us stay above her villa – looking out north over the sea to Greece’s mainland and west to the White Mountains. Her brother, Apollonas, who suffered mental difficulties, however, was made to live outside on the rough ground in a ratty tent. It seemed hopelessly cruel. He cried out in anguish most nights. Howling like a wounded animal. No one in the village seemed to care. “Ya sou Apollonas!” they cheerily called into the crumpled tepee as they passed each morning.
We left it behind us though, and took off to see what the rest of the island had to offer. Following, from a little before 12, round the clock face of the whole of Crete.
Travelling east, the first stop – as it really had to be – was Knossos. The great palace, set out like the cells of a giant beehive, that was the very centre of Minoan civilisation. One of the very first places of culture and advancement on the entire planet.
It is in an extraordinary location. There’s something you just feel in the smooth contorted hills around you. In the very air. It wasn’t just by chance that the Minoans set up stall here.
Theseus slayed the Minotaur here. The Minotaur that was fed every nine years with seven youths and seven virgins, sent here to be eaten alive. Theseus made it out of the Knossos labyrinth, following a thread left by the Minoan king’s daughter, Ariadne, who he’d seduced. And who he abandoned as soon as he got out of Crete. The rotter.
The palace of Knossos was built in 1900BC.
In 1900AD however, the British Victorian civilising determination meant that this Minoan masterstroke monument was beset by renovations and revisions.
The excavations and remodellings were made by English archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans. Concrete and colour were added to the broken stones, the laid out halls, the aqueducts and potteries.
It’s hard to say if it ruined the site or if Evans ultimately enriched it.
So now we could see the frescoes as they were meant to have looked. We could truly picture how life was lived in this, the nursery of all human civilisation. The central courtyard stood, and passages linking some of the many hundreds of rooms that were here – though walls were now filled with concrete. Staircases existed where previously there was just bent stones.
But was it for Evans to do? Was it for him to tamper with time?
Nearby is Villa Ariadni.
Built by Evans to live in while he conducted his work at Knossos. It was later the villa of General Kreipe.
Kreipe was the German commander in Crete during the Second World War.
In April 1944, Kreipe was kidnapped by a team of Cretans and British soldiers led by Patrick Leigh Fermor. An incredibly daring raid.
Leigh Fermor stepped out in front of the General’s car one night, with his hand raised, halting the car. The British/Cretan gang then emerged, coshed the driver, bundled Kreipe into the back and then, with Leigh Fermor impersonating Kreipe, passed several road blocks into the high mountain villages.
There they were hidden while the Germans hunted them, before they marched the General for many long days over the vast Cretan mountain ranges down to the south of the island to ferry him away.
On a crossroad, as we headed from Knossos towards Arhanes, we found the very spot where the abduction took place.
Now just a little distance away from a large flyover, but still an all-quiet road with the bushes for captors to hide in and the old church sat there watching proceedings. There was also now a bizarre, tall, brutalist monument that had been put up to commemorate this incredible act of mad, heroic folly.
We drove on following the route Patrick Leigh Fermor’s team towards Anogia.
Anogia, a tough village clinging on the side of the Crete mountains, is well known on this island. The villagers here, perhaps more than anyone else, personify the profound traits of this area of Greece.
We walked down the streets. I saw a few men in traditional Cretan dress. Costumes I had heard about but didn’t believe people still wore for real: black shirt, tall black boots, black or khaki trousers that ballooned out above the knee, and the sarik – a black, lattice, woven headscarf.
There were no women anywhere. Above us though, bearded men came out onto their balconies. They watched us like hawks as we walk along. I noticed some had brought their guns out and started cleaning them, pointedly.
We sat in a café in the village square. I talked to some of the men there. When they realised that I was not from Crete but a visitor – and there was nothing to prove – they were open, friendly. Insisted on getting me a raki. Of course.
We clinked glasses. I absentmindedly touched the base of my cup on the rim of another man’s glass. Suddenly, all the men put their drinks down on the table. I’d made a terrible faux pas. They instructed me that I mustn’t touch my glass any higher or lower than theirs. The glasses must be at the exact same level. It was a great insult here in Crete otherwise.
This cleared, we resumed out toast.
They brought up the conversation of “Patrick”.
I had wondered if – as the villages here, particularly Anogia, suffered terrible reprisals for their help in hiding the British and Cretan kidnappers: burnt to the ground and mass executions – Patrick Leigh Fermor would be an unpopular figure here, wise not to mention him.
But these men talked in great admiration for the man who went on in later life to explore and live and write extensively on Greece. The Hellenophile’s Hellenophile.
“You see this statue,” one pointed to the head and shoulders up on the plinth behind him “That’s Giannis Dramountanis. Do you know him?”
“He was the leader of the resistance here! Do you know who the godfather was to his daughter?”
“Patrick!” He looked at his drink “He was a great man.” There is a pause. “For an English.”
The talk moved to the time of the Germans coming into the village, extracting their revenge.
“My father had to leave as the Germans came,” said one man, a great flame of white hair and a great white bushy beard meeting round his grizzled face, like an albino lion’s mane.
“He would have been tortured to death. He hid in the mountains. When he came back, my mother didn’t recognise him. He’d aged years. A long thin beard, scars all over his face. She made him sleep in the garden for a week before she believed it was him.”
One man was drinking at near-by table. He pulled a chair over, joins in the conversation. I was told this is Yalaftis
A one-time shepherd, with a moustache he could have sheltered his flock under, Yalaftis was now renown through the island and beyond for his mantinades.
Mantinades are Cretan 15-syllable poems. Almost like limericks. Famous from Crete and, again, most famously coming from Anogia.
Mantinades are not written down. Most often they are just improvised, live, on the spot. Usually they are about love, sorrow, pain. Yalaftis was famous for sprinkling his with a bit of humour, a bit of satire. Sometimes accompanied by the lyre. To conjure up these mantinades – like clever, wise, moving folksongs – from nothing and usually never to be repeated again, it’s a pretty incredible skill.
As we left, the men of this kafeneon said to us we must come to a wedding that was happening in the village in a few days.
I had heard much about weddings in Crete, and Anogia in particular.
“Ah yes,” one replied sadly “But this one won’t be big. Only last week there was a shooting in the village here. One of the family that is getting married was killed. It will be a very sad wedding now, a very small gathering.”
How many, I asked.
“Oh, nothing. Maybe 1,000 people. Nothing,” he shrugged, pulls a drooping apologetic face.
Cretan weddings are the most fantastical thing. Thousands are invited – cars drive round the villages with a loudhailer inviting all and everyone – and the family have to pay for everything. The gledi – the party – the food, the drinks, the dancing.
But all the guests will give money as they turn up, it’s a sign of honour to be seen to give as much as you can. The married couple will end with more than they ever spend on this huge, lavish affair.
Land is bought and architects employed only on promises made before the wedding, when the couple have no money. The marriage house will be built ready for the wedding night, on just the recognition that the couple will have much cash after the building, after the wedding.
We left the men of the kafeneon in this pretty square in this hard village: coloured flowers in boxes round the old plane tree, old men as hard as the rocks that surround the village sitting and drinking. We thanked them for the hospitality, hoping to come back for the wedding, but with more of these mountain villages to see.
The streets were deserted. Just one man outside a cafe.
“The owner will be back in a minute,” he said. “Come. Have a raki.”
It no longer came as a surprise now.
We sat down and had a drink. The cafe, again, had black and white photos all over the walls. A great, camply over-dramatic, portrait painted of the owner as a Cretan hero stood imperious on the mountainside.
The wife of the owner turned up, fussed about to give us more raki and mezzes, and told me the old photos were of her and her husband. They were taken by a professional photographer in Chania.
That was the day that she and her husband had left the village.
She told me she had just got married, she was 14. They travelled to Chania. It was the day of Venizelos’ funeral.
The Cretan Eleftherios Venizelos is the father of modern Greece, creating a liberal vision and bold direction for the country after it had twisted and struggled itself out from under the Ottoman control. He must have died in the 1930s though. I guessed this lady meant his son. Another politician: politicians and leaders in Greece flow down through the great families, like regal inheritance. You are often just born into governance in Greece.
The leaders of the latter-day right-of-centre New Democracy party – the Mitsotakis family – are descendants of Venizelos. The patriarch of the Mitsotakis family – Konstantinos – died at the age of 98 while we were in Crete and, due to the Cretan roots, the whole of the island lowered flags, and of course shot rifles into the air in commemoration. It is odd that such a wild, rebellious island has this history of conservative politics.
More of the villagers appeared in the kafeneon. Some of them did remember the original Venizelos. And more still remembered when the Second World War invaded these villages.
One old man talked about how, as a boy, he would hear the women of the village shouting “The goats are coming!” – code for the Germans. And the men would have to flee, to hide.
The bar owner, Georgios Parasiris, looking actually not so unlike his portrait on the wall, turned up and took a seat. The men all called him Karagiorgas, a nickname meaning Black Giorgos in Turkish.
Karagiorgas pulled his chair close to me.
“You’re interested in the English here eh? You know, Patrick was here?” he told me.
I sat up at this.
“Yes, with his German general. We kept them in the houses…” he waved his hand forward at the jumble of houses running away down the main road of the village. “Every night each neighbour would change them. It would be their turn to hide them for the day.”
The old man who had first invited us to have a raki in this cafe but who hadn’t said anything, had just gazed into the distance, turned to us.
“He stayed with us. I remember it. I had just turned 15.” His piece said, he went back to his contemplation of the road in front.
“The Germans shot many of the men here. They would have killed us all. Would have burnt the village to the ground” said Karagiorgas. “But we had helped a German. A German parachutist fell to the ground in the fields over there.” Karagiorgas waved his hand back behind him in the opposite direction.
“His parachute hadn’t opened. We helped him, fixed him, sent him on his way. Then, when the German army came, looking for the General, they took 18 of our men. Lined them up against the wall there. They were ready to shoot…when a man came running. He had a letter. A letter from the German command. The parachutist, he was a captain. He told the army not to shoot. It was luck for those men.
Not everyone was so lucky though…
And, you know, Patrick came back…” Karagiorgas said, getting even closer to me, almost as if he was revealing a confidence.
“Years later. He came to see the village. When I told him I was the son of Konstantinos Parasiris, his face went white. He grabbed me. He hugged me. He said my father was a great friend. He had helped him very much. He said he would never forget Zoniana.”
Well it’s a unforgettable place, there was no doubt of that.
The defiance, the sense of grand lawlessness, the bonds between men. The sense of honour – which the islanders here even have a special word for: levendia.
These characteristics had been indispensable when driving out the Turks. Or standing up to the Germans.
Now it still existed, but perhaps in slightly less illustrious circumstances. The Zoniana fields I saw rolling away above me were the key provider for Cretan marijuana. Infamously good, and grown and protected with an ugly ferocity up here in the Zoniana peaks.
It took some time to adjust to being in the capital of Crete, Heraklion.
Men hot and harassed in suits and sweat-stained shirts, pacing out of banks and up the main street, past the Venetian Doge’s palace and fountains. The ‘Street of Deceit’ – so called by the residents of Heraklion, as one told me “If you thought that the whole of Heraklion looked this good… well, you’ll soon be very disappointed.”
Heraklion, with its ugly buildings sprawling in the dusty outskirts – giving reason for what I heard the men back in the Rethymno cafes say: “The best thing about Heraklion… is the sign pointing towards Rehtymno!” We spent the nights at the dilapidated kafeneon Saranda Avga – Forty Eggs – where a heavy-built patron, Chronis, insisted on teaching me how to dance the hasapiko.
“Front!” he would shout, as we lurched forward, his powerful hand clasped over my shoulder. “Now to the side!” as we kicked our legs leftwards. “Back!” On and on in the heat of this old drinking joint, the wine and beads of sweat pulling down the edges of his heavy tobacco-stained moustache.
We met friends of Giristroula’s family who lived in the city. At his house, Nikos told me more about the island.
Nikos grew up in the small village of Lyttos, south west, and inland, of Heraklion.
Homer wrote of this village, when it was once a great city, famed in the Greek world. And famed for a golden statue: the Lyttos Boy.
Nikos now spent every weekend going back to his home village and dug in his garden hoping to find this solid gold, lost, antiquity of unimaginable riches.
I laughed out loud at this.
Nikos didn’t take the mocking well.
“Everybody does it” he asserted, a little wounded. “In my village, on the main road leading out, every night you’ll see men digging. One man up, one down watching. If he sees a car coming he blows a whistle and all the diggers will stop and hide. It’s illegal to look for the old Minoan treasures you see.”
We sat in the family house and ate snails – a delicacy here too in Crete, not just in France, but these ones were small, worrying like the snails you see in your garden – and we drank on with Nikos’ friends and family. It was a good, Greek, raucous scene.
I made the mistake at some point of labelling the lady next to me as a Greek: a fairly understandable assumption really, given her country of birth. “I’m not a Greek” she snapped “I’m from Crete!” She then twisted her chair away from me so as not to look at me for the rest of the meal.
The glasses of raki were filled before you could finish them.
“Some people do find jewels you know,” said Nikos
“In my village, people who have lived there for years, who you’ve known all your life, one day they suddenly just disappear. And you know they’ve dug something up that’ll be worth thousands, millions.
Or sometimes you see women coming into the taverna wearing the jewellery. Actually wearing the earrings, dug up by their husbands! Thousands of years old. Cleaned and sparkling Minoan perfection…”
We saw Minoan perfection ourselves the next day, at the Heraklion Archaeological museum.
Hundreds of artefacts taken from the Minoan palaces – Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, Zakros – and the archaeological sites around Crete. Incredible treasures.
The paint – made so many thousands of years ago, just from beetroot and walnuts – still vivid on the vast vases and sarcophaguses. I asked around as to why it didn’t fade and go, like the bright paint we are told once covered the Acropolis in Athens, now all gone.
No one seemed to be able to tell me.
It did make me think though, that when ancient Athens was decorated like this – the Parthenon, the Agora, the temples – the city must have been shone as gaudily as Disney Land.
The Minoan Lady – La Parisienne – fragment of fresco from Knossos, shows how the Minoans had sensuality and sexual freedom and valued beauty: the red lips, the dark painted rings round the eyes. She seemed to me to know she was being looked at, as I stood and ogled. But she doesn’t break. Continuing her 3000 year smirking forward stare.
No such coyness from the Snake Goddess statue. Brandishing her wild snakes, her breasts bare above her long layered skirt. Cretan pride and temerity right there in the small, intricate figure, whose lure and witchery pulls you through the museum rooms towards her.
Mount Ida – or Psiloritis as it is also known – stands 8,000 feet tall, south west of Heraklion.
We climbed its slopes. Stopping at the stone-built mitati – shepherd huts. All dark and deserted as we poked our noses in, but all with the overpoweringly rich smell of the large round dusty sheep’s cheeses left fermenting on the stone shelves.
We climbed on. Up and over the mountain passes slipping into stone. To the cave where Zeus was born.
This vast, deep, cold cave looks out of the scraped rock and onto the valley of Nida. The immense plain lies totally flat below, spread like a magic carpet of green. The mountains all around were sat like floating turtles on the top of this pea-green sea of grass.
To hide the infant Zeus’ cries in the cave – so his father, Cronos, wouldn’t eat him – Zeus’ mother summoned the mythical Korybantes: dancing soldiers who would drum and clash their spears and drown out the wails of the new-born God.
We stood at the cave’s mouth, the only people here. A few, large death-black crows cawed near-by.
I watched as one crow calmly and slowly starts drumming its wings in the air. It took off, flying east. Heading in the direction we were to be travelling.
Lasithi and tracking back westwards
Agios Nikolaos, the capital of Lasithi – the east state of Crete – with its large villas and streets of shopping. We continued north on the peninsular to the towns Elounta and Plaka. Taking a small boat in the bright sunshine from the pretty blue tableclothed tavern by Plaka’s beach to the blighted island of Spinalonga.
The short boat ride took us to the island on the very day they were arranging festivities amongst the broken down Turkish houses; the preserved old shops that, amazingly, were opened and run by the lepers cast away from normal life here on Spingalonga; the lanes among the broken school building and stone washhouse; the hospital. They were getting ready to celebrate the day, exactly 60 years ago tomorrow, when the last patient left this island.
We exited out of Spinalonga’s long dark tunnel, from the hidden, spectral, town into the light of the jetty – as the final leper patient must have. It was good to leave the haunted island behind us. There was an uneasy feeling still left in the bricks of this place.
We passed the grossly obese, most ancient olive tree in the world – so they say, planted 1,300 years before Christ – at Kavousi, back on the mainland.
We headed down the east coast. Climbing over the trails through the remains of an archaeological site of an ancient town that had slipped down its hill so now half of the houses and ancient paths were under the sea. We swam the clear sea, following the route of the ruins of a lost world sunk below us.
We wheeled round the bottom right-hand corner of Crete. Onto the south side of the island.
We hit the gorge of Zakros – the gorge of the dead.
Above the flowering trees with deep pinks and whites on the riverbed of the gorge, sheer cliffs of red rock rose. In the cliffs caves receded, where the bodies of the great and good of Minoan society had been laid to rest. We twisted and turned our heads to take in these dark silent hollows high above us, where now crows nested amongst the fossiled bones.
We stopped at Hametoulo and wander the alleyways. Frightened out of our wits by one old lady who appears. She still lived in this ghost village. She was born here and would’t leave, even though every other resident had.
She brought us out grapes – hot from the sun as we placed them in our mouths – and two chairs. She obviously wanted to sit and chat. So we sat on the wooden kitchen chairs, the walls around us white with heat, the sun in total charge of the day.
We puttered along the southern road to Ierapetra in the morning.
I was told this town is the hottest in Europe. It doesn’t necessarily have the highest temperatures, but the temperature never really falls, so over the course of a year the town has soaked up the most heat on the whole of the continent. Every man – from the loafers on the street to businessmen clutching briefcases on their way to important meetings – seemed to walk around bare-chested and shirtless.
Travelling west along the southern coast of Crete, we had crossed back into the state of Heraklion.
We took a route through the Asterousia mountain villages. The Cretan accent so thick here that even my Greek traveller with me couldn’t understand when we asked for directions.
The road rose dramatically.
We were lost, but carried on as there was really no other alternative anyway. The dirt track gave no space to turn round. We just had to keep going forward.
The road turned this way and that, violently. We climbed and climbed. So high up we could see great swathes of Crete’s south coast flowing away from us, with huge hungry bites taken out of it by the African sea.
Any slip here would be fatal.
The dust flew from the wheels, covering the car. Mile after mile, the car swung round the curves, nothing but the deep blue sky over the drop of mountain swaying in and out our windscreen.
Suddenly we were freewheeling down the angled track towards a monastery.
Our blackened car squeakeed up to the gate. Moni Koudouma.
A monk, up a ladder, pruning a tree, descendeed quickly – I was expecting the worst, shooed away as we were when we asked to stay back at the Meteora monasteries in northern Greece.
“You’ll stay won’t you?” says the monk before we got to say anything to him. “Please. Stay. You must be lost. It’s getting late.” He swung open the gates.
I thanked the monk for taking us in. I told him he’d saved our skin.
“Well we can’t turn anyone away. It’s not our house of course. It’s the Madonna’s house.”
He added “But she would always show us a sign if you were a bad person…”
We stood for a while here in the late flowering gardens, the dying sun triggering off huge flares of orange and purples in the sky above us. It seemed he was waiting for a sign, any sort of sign…
Eventually, he gave in and we were taken into the dining room – the trapeza.
It was just us, the monks, the monastery’s workmen, and two shifty looking men. One short and cunning with darting eyes, one tall and idiotic looking.
It seemed appropriate that the dinner served to us was overflowing plates of fish and baskets of bread, nothing else. Simple but perfect. Eaten in complete silence.
Afterwards we walked the grounds of the monastery. I saw the criminal looking men walking the head monk around and around the garden. The short, shrewd looking one had his arm round the monk’s shoulders and was talking closely into his ear. Talking him into something. The lunk behind followed, tripping over his feet.
At night we were put in one of the small cell-like rooms – only a hard bed, cold walls, a jug and bowl. And many hung intricate golden icons. Our stone room was just outside the great walls of the monastery.
The monastery itself was shrouded in darkness, only one light on in a room at the very top.
The workmen, who had all day been repairing bits of the old monastery, sat outside. Like some medieval scene outside the city gates, they sat and drank and smoked and talked loudly and sang songs through the dead of night. It was almost like they were sitting out in a village square. Right under the monk’s windows.
The small crafty man was leading the carousing.
Over dinner, the monks had asked us to come to the service the next morning.
“From 5am to 7am” they told us “Come at any time.”
I set the alarm to go off at shortly before 7.
But even then – and with a golden morning sun pushing its beams through the grate of our tiny window – I turned off my phone and fell back to sleep.
Suddenly the wind blew the iron door – that we’d locked and barred – open with a crash on the hard stone walls, making us flee the beds, scurrying to the ornate church in the monastery grounds, eyes raised to the heavens, touching foreheads, looking for forgiveness from above.
We arrived at the service. The scene was full of smoke and chanting. Monks on their knees, noses to the ground. I noted we are the only two to have come. The shifty duo had not made it.
I also noted one monk, who didn’t seem to be wearing the completely correct clothes – not the exact flowing black robes of the other monks – stood at the back, behind me, his head lolling. He was battling not to fall asleep. I noticed too, under his loose black sleeves he had tattoos running up his arms.
After the service the monks invited us to their quarters and offered us a small, plain, breakfast.
We sat and talked. The head monk told me he had been here 23 years. He rarely, if ever, left the monasteries’ grounds.
Another told me that all monks change their names when they come here. He told me vaguely about his life before, some business he ran, and it seemed quite clear he had racked up large debts that he had to get away from…. And WHAT the tattooed armed monk had done in a previous life to have had to run away and to be here, miles from anywhere, dishing out the sacraments, cleaning the toilets, hiding with the monks, I didn’t like to guess.
I had read that criminals left their old lives to join to monastery set – but still kept reminders: a photo of the old gang, posing after some raid, some successful robbery, pinned to their monastery room wall. Like a photo souvenir of an old football team. The good old days.
When I took a photo of all the monks here – beaming like a group of happy, middle aged secretaries on an office’s day out – I noted the tattooed monk covered his face, not wanting to ever be recognised.
The head monk told me you don’t have to have walked a religious path in your previous life to come here, to become a monk. You just turn up. And work. And study. And pray. He will tell you when you are ready.
Before we go, we were taken down to the beach. Set behind the monastery, completely private – though, of course, none of the monks go swimming themselves.
It might be the most fantastic beach in Crete.
A perfect semi-circled shore, the clear emerald water becoming sudden-deep. Caves and coves lying in the sea to explore.
We swim and dived for hours as the sun climbed, throwing out a blinding light over the sea and rocks.
Back on the beach, a little black tubby figure of a small monk stood on the shingle, hands locked over this round belly, rocking up and down happily on his heels watching us.
As we left, I saw the small trickster-looking man still talking the head monk into some sly plan. He offered us a diabolical leer as we pass.
I felt sad that some come and take advantage of the monks here. They say they can never turn anyone away, and so, word having got around, some people come and stay for weeks. Crowding the monk’s tranquil beach in the day, hoovering up their free fish and loaves in the evenings.
A couple of monks waved us away from behind the gate till our car disappeared over the brim of the mountain.
A few people had left their cars to walk another of Crete’s endless gorges.
Packs of evil-faced goats were up on the bonnets and the roofs, stretching for the hard thin leaves on the trees above. Hooves making deep scratches in the paint, nibbling jaws bending at the aerials.
Matala was once the prime site for the hippies back in the 60s.
These early bohemians who turned up at the undeveloped fishing village, living in the cavities in the cliff – crazily set out like an apartment block of caves: ground floor, mezzanines, upper stories – lived harmoniously with the backwater locals of Matala. Then they were slowly joined by more beatniks and fashionable freaks as it became well-know and increasingly trendy.
Eventually women would walk to the bakery and lounge in the café, brazenly, naked as sin. Shocking the redoubtable headscarved old women, the animals lead through the village, the old priest. Eventually Giorgios Papadopoulos – the terrible dictator of Greece from 1967 to ’74 – sent in the troops to remove the hippies.
Harsh vibes remain.
The white sand beach were full to the brim. Games of rackets and screaming kids. The caves were charged to enter and were poked about by bored looking holiday makers in bright red shorts and caps.
‘Zorbas’ snack bar did a great roaring trade.
Minoan palace Phaistos – excavated but not restored. The stones and blocks, larger than at Knossos, lying scattered over the ground. Ground where man and universe are said to meet.
Then deep into Cretan countryside, a fantastic kafeneon in the village of Sivas, which was decorated from ceiling to floor, toilets, back doors, every inch of space, full of painted Orthodox wooden icons. Where man and universe certainly meet.
Trying to be clever we left the main road, and got lost on another bare dirt track, crossing the lit highland and down into valleys below invaded by darkness – the birds were no help now, no guide for us here.
The car bumped and bucked over the rocks. And a tire blows, as we plummeted towards the quiet beach of Agia Marina. There seemed to be nobody here, mid-week in early summer.
We’d had to sleep the night again on the beach. There was just one tavern – Anna’s.
We sat, dust covered and ordered drinks. Anna tells us that Prime Minster of Greece Alexis Tsipras came here for a holiday. Came to her taverna for a coffee.
“I didn’t recognise him at first,” she said. “Then, when I did, they had to hold me back from throwing him out.”
Wasn’t it a great coup to have him in your tavern, I asked.
“I charged him double for everything!” Anna replied, keeping a close eye – her tongue flicking out of her mouth in pleasure – at the few drinks that we’re building up on our table.
The next day, with help from some passers-by, we patched the tire up and set out again, passing the Frangokastello fortress.
A Ventetian castle, the Greeks used it during the Independence struggle against the Turks. In May 1828 the Cretans were defeated, but not before they first took down many of the Turkish army.
At dawn, every anniversary, in May, the shadows of the Cretan soldiers are said to appear on the walls of the fortress, marching in file. They have been seen many many times, by quite rational, lucid, people.
We stopped off at a threadbare petrol station nearby and I asked the fat assistant in his dirty dungarees – not necessarily the most credible witness, to be honest – if he had seen the shadows of the dead soldiers.
“Fysika! – of course. Many times! Every year!” he told me.
When the Germans invaded and took the castle in the Second World War, it was reported they saw the shadows marching towards them too. And opened fire at the empty wall.
Sfakia was a bustling hub town, boats coming in and out, like the London Underground Central Line, linking the villages all along the Cretan southern coast.
Onwards on the road to Anopoli, when the road suddenly hit a toweringly high wooden bridge – the second highest bridge in Europe, someone later told me.
We crossed over it, the planks under us creaking, the metal support moaning and straining, the valley below with the distant channel of river and rock. waiting, open mouthed.
The bored adolesents in the café on the other side watched us, heads rested on hands, seemingly hoping something might happen…
We made it over though. The village of Aradena on the other side was abandoned.
Since a blood feud started in the 1950s when two boys argued over a sheep’s bell, of all things, resulting in gruesome vendetta murders in the families until the whole village deserted in fear.
And we could go no further.
Here the road along the south coast ends. An immense combination of mountain and gorge meant we couldn’t get to the far south west corner of Crete. This was as far along the south coast as we could go. We would have to go round.
We headed up north and west, towards Chania – the capital of the western state of Crete.
Full of itself, twinkling with pleasure at its own beauty, Chania was hopelessly in love with its own reflection: its old town, its harbour, its ancient houses and stone lighthouse.
“There are two types of people,” said the waiter in one café we sat in. “Those who see Chania as completely magical…and those who haven’t been here!” he grinned toothily at us. But I’m not impressed. Very beautiful, yes. Very beautiful if you can see through the battalions of tourists.
The Turkish area – the Splantzia – is more interesting. Narrow streets, houses built inside old ruins. The square surrounded by old knife makers, old kafeneos, and the tree where the Turks once hung Orthodox followers here.
The church stood above us was first a monastery, then a mosque – the minarets still remain – then turned back into a church. Neatly summing-up Greece’s impossible history.
The mountains standing above the church, standing high above the whole city, are the White Mountains – Lefka Ori.
This huge, sky-scraping range always appears to have snow on the top. It is an optical illusion, but very odd when swimming on the west of Crete in the warm Mediterranean sea, the raw sun beating down, to look up and see these apparent floating peaks of snow, rock and ice.
The largest peak in the White Mountains, Pachnes, is only around 3 meters lower than the highest peak on the whole of Crete – Mount Isa.
I was told, with the arch rivalry between the state of Chania and Ida’s home, Rethymno, the climbers of Chania always take a pebble when they climb Pachnes to place at the top. Hoping one day to claim top spot of the island.
We left Chania. Stopping at Venizelos grave high above the city. The atmosphere had a heavy seriousness. The meltemia wind was strong though. We were buffeted as we looked out over Venizelos’ solemn view of his city.
Wind is a constant companion in Crete. Something to always recognise and occasionally fear. If the wind was coming from the south – O Notos – I’m told this is serious trouble. Swimmers get taken out to sea, pulled out beyond the tide. Roufihtra they say – like the sucking up of spaghetti.
Past the suburb of Souda we went, where Chania’s airport lay. The heat is hard. We look for a route somewhere towards the sea, to wash off the dust off from days of travelling.
Amongst the uninspiring industrial buildings around the airport we followed roads and signs advertising a beach and the Church of Katholiko.
We enter yet another gorge. Another hard climb down.
The open, rock-infested, ground reflect the midday heat back at us. As we descend we passed a sunken damp cave and headed inside to cool off. Pressing through the rocks, further in, we were astonished to find the large figure of a wet and gleaming dirty white bear.
It was a bear carved naturally from stalagmite, and looked to be bent drinking from a pool in front of itself. It was quite utterly surreal.
There were ancient inscriptions dedicating the great bear to the Gods. The roof was burnt with obvious fire dedications to this weird apparition.
Further down the cliffs was a ruined old monastery, sat abandoned in the rocks. It must have been left by the monks fleeing the pirates who attacked these shores for centuries.
We crossed its red, cracked brick bridge and carried on down to the dry river bottom to meet the sea at a deep rock lagoon, and we dived and swam for what could have been forever.
We hit the top north west corner of Crete. Balos.
Another dirt road needed to be taken to find the crowning deserted island – the luminous icon of Crete. We walked the strip of pure soft sands reaching out to the enclave. And then south to Elafonisi where the sands take on an odd pink hue and the sea stays shallow for as far as you can seem to walk.
The atmosphere was getting strange. The sky swirled and constantly changed colour. The depthless water started to ridge and writhe.
We criss-crossed down the west coast of Crete and took a turn off the main road and took another unnecessarily tortuous detour over rocks and dirt craters to find a lesser-known beach that we’d been told was a good place to camp for the night: Kedrodasos.
The beach was good. But the wind is rising. The other people camped under scrubby trees on the sand peered out of tents and groaned and snapped the opening shut again as we passed with our stuff. Gusts buffering our faces.
Before dawn our tent was blown apart, left as a skeleton of sticks, the canvas hurtled down towards the sea edge. We lay, exposed, in sleeping bags as straggly camping hippies passed us, grim faced, carrying their things, clanking billycans, looking like deserting war refugees.
The far west coast of Crete had become menacing. Uninviting. We followed this early morning desertion and joined the procession and headed down, round the island’s corner, back onto the island’s southern edge.
The Samaria Gorge. The largest gorge in Europe.
What was once a challenge in amongst the beauty, was now attempted daily by hundreds of sweating tourists in unsuitable footware – who often had to be rescued by the mysterious custodians of the gorge who turned up out of nowhere, often on mules, to take the twisted-ankle brigade down the long way out to the exit.
We decided to avoid the crowds and started our trek down the gorge late. Too late. The sun had already shifted up on its shelf and started its move downwards.
We climbed and descended into the gorge, along the dried river beds, through the forests of scented pines, over the sun-cooked rocks. But time was getting on.
As we passed the broken-down remnants of the old village of Samaria – where people once lived, having to make the trek up the gorge for daily provisions rather than for an exacting day of holiday fun – the door of an old building opened.
“Hey, what are you doing there? It’s late. You’re very late. You might not make it to the end of the gorge now you know… Where have you come you from?”
“Amaliada,” said Giristroula, truthfully if a little pedantically.
“Amaliada?” said the camouflaged stranger, in his sturdy boots and cap. “Amaliada??…
…My wife’s family are from Amaliada! You must stay!” he opened wide the door, pushed his cap back on his head.
“Stay…” he flung his arms backwards “We have good wine…”
From the backrooms of this refuge came out other figures, in fatigues and boots.
I realised these were the protectors of the gorge. We are with the wardens of Samaria.
As a darkness dripped down from the sky, and the heat-drenched day became a heat-drenched evening, the five men and two women stationed here this night in the old huts and ruined buildings, invited us in, chatted to us while the walkie-talkie radios buzzed with news of a Belgian man who’d fallen somewhere along the route.
And then the tables came out…
The workers of the gorge, when everyone was gone and the gates at either end were locked at the end of the day and silence reigned here in the middle of quite-the-most-beautiful nowhere, sat down to an incredible meal.
I don’t know how they made it, but the trestle tables groaned under the plates of grilled meat, salads, and barrels of wine. It was very kind of them to invite us into their company. The glasses clanked together, laughter rode over the gorge as we feasted.
A very tall man arrived on a very small donkey. Red shirt, beanpole thin, slim neat moustache, long serious face. This was the fire warden of the gorge. He had been trotting his mule over the rocks and ridges all day, scanning the borders for any problems here in the cinder-box dry ravine.
He now toasted his arrival back at base by balancing a long glass of wine on his nose, giving me a look out of the corner of his eye, and then, in one move, not using his hands, dropped the glass to his mouth downwards to drain it dry. It was his first of many.
As we stuffed ourselves, Manousos turns up.
Manousos was the chief of the gorge.
Fierce faced, strong greying beard, shirt unbuttoned to his stomach, robust and capable. He’d been up the top of the cliffs dealing with stray wild animals.
He’d been walking the 16 kilometers of the gorge every day, sternly patrolling his land since 1974. He was born at the very tip of the gorge at Omalos. He greeted us with some chariness. Looked at Nektarios, the rather meek man who first invited us in, as if he was some gullible simpleton.
We all carried on with this great banquet. As Manousos sank some of the wine, I felt he relaxed slightly. Not as aggrieved at having these strangers in his midst.
I tried some conversation.
“This is great meat,” I said gnawing on a plump bone. “What is it?”
“The last Englishman who came through here,” grunted Manousos, not looking up. His face not showing the slightest trace of humour.
Eventually as the food disappeared, the tall fire warden drained more and more glasses of wine – balancing them on his elbow, drinking from the tip of his toe – the others laughing and gossiping, Manousos did open up.
This sanctuary here in the middle of the gorge was surrounded by the feral animal particular to Crete – the kri-kri – a wild goat that can only be found on this island.
“It’s not a kri-kri” said Manousos.
Oh, I’m sorry. I thought I’d read somewhere…
“It’s called an Agrimi.”
Manousos drained his drink, wiped the edges of his beard, sighed, looked sadly at the glass, and turned to me.
“There was a man from Crete,” he said. “He wanted to give one of these goats to Harry Trueman. You know Harry Trueman, yes? The president of America?”
I told Manousos that, yes, I’d heard of him.
“He put the goat on an airplane,” Manousos continued. “Took him to America. But he was stopped. At Washington DC. They wouldn’t let him bring the goat in. He argued and argued but it was no good. So he just left the animal there, in the airport. Left it there till he was allowed to take it to Trueman.”
Typical Greek thinking.
“They gave in of course. Of course they did, there was a goat walking around, eating the airport…
So he took it to the White House. Showed it to Trueman. Trueman loved it. But he couldn’t pronounce the name. Couldn’t say ‘agrimi’. So, because it came from Crete, he called it a cre-cre.” Or kri-kri.
“Trueman was touched by this Cretan man bringing his goat all that way to show him. He told him he can give the man anything he wants in return. Anything. ‘You can bring your family here. We can give you a good life.’ Do you know what he asked for? What the only thing the man wanted? He asked for an American gun. That’s all he asked for. A gun. So Trueman gave him a big American pistol and the Cretan man was happy. Went on his way, back to Greece with his goat.
Here! Give the Englishman some more of the wine..!” Manousos shoutd, story over, and snatched a glass off the fire warden’s forehead and poured me a great glug.
“I guess you’re not so bad for an English,” he said to me. “They usually mess everything up here.”
He looked out at the black gorge. A young kri-kri – or was it agrimi? – trotted freely over the walled terrace. The fire warden slapped at his legs in his shorts, started a drinking song as the others of the group clapped and cheered him on.
“The British helped the government in the civil war. Helped kill men here, and after we’d helped them fight the Germans,” Manousos says.
“During the war against the Germans they didn’t understand the Cretans. Didn’t understand how we can fight. We told them we could fight for them, we just need the weapons. They gave us a handful of bullets. Nothing. And they said ‘Remember when you are captured, the last bullet is for you.’ They thought we would all fall. They thought nothing of us. They were amazed when they saw 70 year old men, Cretan grandfathers, fighting with their teeth against the Germans.
And then they turned against us.
An Englishman stood right where you are. A soldier who’d fought with us, and then turned to fight against us. He didn’t realise that we learnt to hunt the agrimi though. Very difficult to hunt. Good training. One of the men here was able to hit the English right between the eyes. They got the message…
More wine for us!” Manousos roared.
The fire warden had slumped under the table. The other wardens were still helping themselves to the plates of food. Manousos poured for us himself.
“The British took the king of Greece all the way down this gorge,” Manousos said.
“To escape. During the war. They had to get him out of the country. He slept his very last night in Greece in the surgery right over there,” Manousos points over to a block of buildings.
“He wrote his last announcement to be broadcast to Greece, and then left.” Manousos lifts his glass, mumbling into his drink, “The scumbag…
His donkey,” he said, pointing “His donkey with the gold of Greece in the saddle bags, it fell into the canyon here.
You English, you were very quick. You collected up all that you could. Kept our gold.” Manousos sniffed deeply, took another deep swig.
“We still search for any gold here now, while we work. We’ve never found any yet…”
The tenacious women, who spent the days here building up the gorge’s paths, and who had let us take part in this Samaria nighttime feast listened to Manousos and nodded, sorely. The fire warden was fast asleep under the table.
Gone 2am, fat and drunk, we were shown to a room, just next to King George II’s. It smelt terribly of horse manure and I realised as we sleep under the rough blankets this must serve, at some times, as the stables.
I woke up to a face-full of bugs.
I pushed the door open. The scene was utterly unrecognisable from last night.
In the hot, bright day, walkers were swarming all over the old broken down site of the old Samaria village, asking the gorge workers, as if concierges, for snacks and drinks. Being wafted away by the black vested, thick-biceped Manolis on walkie-talkie duty that morning.
The fire warden had slept the night out in the open under the table. He looked groggy and smiled sheepishly at us before climbing back on his mule and trotting into the dark green paths.
We said our goodbyes.
I felt emotional. They didn’t have to let us in to their world. They should have shouted at us to leave the gorge last night. They should have said what were we thinking? How could we be walking so late? We should have followed the rules.
Manousos even said to Giristroula: “Did you try and cheat us? Did you plan to stay here? We don’t let people stay you know. One man once told us he had fallen. Said he was in agony. So we let him stay, let him eat and drink with us. The next week, he turns up with his whole family… Malaka! After that, we don’t want anyone to stay…”
We hugged. Took a photo of the group.
Manousos had long gone. Up at dawn to patrol his kingdom.
We walked the rest of the gorge, pushed through the Iron Gates – the colossal pillars of rock, just 4 meters apart from each other, but rising up above 300 meters. We walked on to the end.
All the gorge walkers sit on the white-hot sand and wait for the boat to take us away. No roads, only a sea exit from here.
The boat chugged in and chugged away again, cutting us through the pure turquoise blue to the village of Sougia.
The temperature at this low southern point of Crete had pushed over 45 degrees. The hot desert air was dense and heavy. A strong wind blew from Africa, whipping and tearing at everything. To stand outside was like being hit by a thick middle-eastern carpet.
We rented a cheap hotel room and sat for days, sweating inside this white box. The blinds drawn down. We were prisoners, the weather our jailor.
Like Odysseus again, kept captive by Calypsso.
The people of Sougia swear that Calypsso’s cave was here. I knew from our jounreying it as being in Othonoi, up in the small scattering of islands north of Corfu.
“No, no. The cave was here. I tell you her cave was here.”
Well, where exactly? I asked.
“Well you can’t see it NOW,” said the old, deep-lined Sougian man, annoyed at this suggestion of doubt. “There was a great earthquake. It covered all the caves. But it WAS here. It was. What, you don’t believe me??” He turned his back to me, and hand thrown in the air, outraged and insulted.
We only left our hotel cell in the evening to eat at a near-by tavern. The lady owner told us she thought the temperature could drop tomorrow, but that she’s now fearful that this drop in heat would cause an earthquake.
All we wanted to do was to get a boat.
The wind has cancelled all services for days now to Gavdos – a tiny island off this south west coast of Crete. A mystical place that we were desperate to see. A place where usual rules do not apply.
Eventually we turned up at the jetty in the early morning light, as we had been doing for day after day… and it was there! Like a shining mirage, finally the boat to Gavdos was running.
I would have thought the people who live on the island – and there are only around 50 official residents all year round – these people who had been stranded for days at this quayside, sleeping in the heat, renting rooms, being put up by friends would be furious. They needed to get to their homes to see families, transfer provisions, food, medicine. I’d imagined this exasperating delay would have frayed nerves and tempers. But everyone was sanguine, unfussed, chatting to the boatmen, used to these delays… Gavdos people don’t stick to usual habits.
For around 20 minutes, when the boat docks, Gavdos exploded into life.
The tiny island went from just a sleeping cat, legs sprawled out hanging over a wall, to a chaos of broken down vans belching smoke, crowds pushing, tourists stood looking confused in the dust, men carrying heavy thick sacks on their heads. The harbour a sudden riot of life. Before just as quickly falling quiet again.
The cat rearranged itself again, out of the blistering sun, in the shade of the old cafe.
We were the last people to leave the quayside, lugging bags onto our backs. A solitary man looked up from his tinkering at the back of his old truck. Where are you going, he asked. Do you want me to take you?
Well, we didn’t know where we’re going. But we told him a lift there would be perfect.
He took us to Korfos beach where we pitched a tent in the trees next to forgotten Minoan walls.
Through the next days we hitched lifts in other broken-down cars round this tiny island. There were just a handful of tavernas, no real hotels, no electricity, everything running off generators for a few hours each day.
But Aiga Giannis beach was full.
Full of straggly hair, bongos, cross-leggedness, smoke. No one big on clothes though. A dark haired girl walked over the hot sand completely naked, sunburnt breasts, thick wild pubic hair, her eyes closed, a spread beatific smile. She moved her hands over the faces everybody she passed. People danced on the beach to sounds inside their heads. The living was free and quite fantastically out-of-it.
The sea was warm as a pan on the stove. The wind calm now. Mainland Crete brooded at us over the water.
Gavdos is a land away from all normal expectation of time and place. It didn’t take much to find ourselves lost in this untouched land away from people and habitat. In fact it was harder not to find yourself on your own, among this outrageous terrain. Mysterious plants. Wild birds pausing for breath on their migratory runs. Sandy slopes plunging down to pure blue seas.
We sat for long afternoons at a tavern with some small rooms to rent. The old fishman owner – Stratos – with his kind, lived-in face, and his daughter Anna who fixed us great food – tsigariasto – Gavdos goat with onions.
Anna told us about the island. And about the one policeman based here.
I had seen him earlier, at the harbour, leaning on a wall, smiling, doing very little, contentedly waving at the chaos of newcomers coming off the boat. Tall, a little dim-witted-looking. Khaki uniform. Very short shorts.
She told me he very happily walked the island, smoking joints, chatting to the locals. Whenever there was trouble though he makes a point of not getting involved, fleeing the scenen.
When a huge trance party took place on the beaches for several days and night and the locals complained, they broke up the party, scattering the revellers. The policeman was found in the middle, passed out, face-down in the sand, grinning blissfully to himself.
All part of the crazed feel of this small, bursting island.
Greece was terrorised for 25 years at the end of the last century by the feared revolutionary anarchist group the ’17th November Gang’. Over 100 attacks on Greek, Turkish, UK and US targets. Many killed, brutally assassinated. The leader of this terror group was tracked down to Gavdos.
He lived all alone here, keeping bees.
The boat back to Crete had been delayed too, for day after day. No reason given. Even more so than getting here, leaving Gavdos seemed a nigh-on impossible task. But it was a task we didn’t really want to achieve anyway.
One day we treked off towards the south of the island. Into the valleys. The sun unwilling to hide, even late in the day, beating down hard on us. Rocky climbs, through a discarded village: Vatsiana. A woman – surely the same one from back in Hametoulo? – came out of her house slowly in the day’s final heat, like a congenial tortoise. looking to chat. Bringing us a raki and a couple of stools.
About 5km through rough pathways, the birds around us seeming to be intoxicated by the light of the falling dusk. Then onto the high coastal cliff. And then finally we could see Triopetra beach.
Unlike the other beaches of Gavdos, this one looked almost lunar, other worldly. A vastness rockiness opened up out to the sea as we climbed down. The Libyan sea, flooded blue, flowing out of Europe, here at the very most southern point of the continent. Nowhere further to go. We had reached the very end.
We waded in the sea. Then walked onto the final rocks. There was a chair someone has built on the perfectly alone rock promontory, to mark this end of the western world.
As if this was the western world!
To think that would be a pretty laughable suggestion really. This wasn’t Europe. This wasn’t even Greece.
This was Crete.