We landed at Heraklion sometime in early April. The ferry gliding in, like a vast white sea bird, to rest next to the red-brick arches of the city’s Venetian arsenal.
But we left straightaway for Rethymno, 80 kilometers to the west. Heraklion’s charms – and its shabbiness – would have to wait for later in our exploration of the island.
We’d barely got our bearings in Rethymno when Greek Easter crashed down on us.
Dutifully we took a place with all the Rethymniotes outside the large, looming ‘Four Martyrs’ church in the centre of the town 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 didn’t look out of place and fitted in with the hundreds of other people milling around with their glowing, held candles, all taking a light off each other.
The light had 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 as well – 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, staring down at us. Happy to be seen, wrapped in expensive coats, they would snap 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 up high.
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, to last you through the year.
I was passing one house – crouching low and shielding my flame with a cupped hand, stupidly desperate to get it home without it going out – when a man came out of his doorway and, in celebration, fired 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 at us and went back inside.
I was still a little shaken, and still deaf, as we made it back to the village where we had found a house to live in, up the hillside above Rethymno town. Outside the 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. Well this was Crete – where everyone seemingly had a gun, and everyone happy to use them. In celebration, in showy boast, or through some long-held, ancestral, blood-feud grudge.
The street signs of every small town were pitted with gunshot holes. Crete is a proud, wild island.
A friend of mine back in Corfu had warned me before we came here of the guns, and the fiery 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 showing 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 – in Rethymno they have a special technique called adikristo, antichrist, where the meat is contained in racks facing each other to protect the roasting from the wind. 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 carried on long into the night.
Rethymno is beautiful. I had lived on 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 both these styles. The grand Venetian citadel, the squat, domed mosque. Plus, of course, as everywhere, the old ancient Byzantine remains sitting next to modern boxy flats of the city. Rethymno is a microcosm of Greece, as is the whole of Crete: with its beaches, the mountains towering beyond, the gorges, the olives, the vineyards…
I chose, however, 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 or just sat staring at nothing in the hot air looking like dusty curios themselves.
In the evenings though ‘To Havesiliki’ was the place to go. Rebetiko and raki. Raki is the drink of the island. Strong and pure and, on this island, 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.”
But Nikos often drank your drink as he came to the table to serve you. He would then looked surprised at the empty tray in his hand and, looking a little confused, turned round and get another. Usually that had gone by the time he came back too.
Tall, wiry, beak-nosed and bearded, both eyes crossed, Nikos roughly kissed and slapped my face – and everyone else’s who came through the door – in happy greeting, and was always the drunkest man in Crete by closing time. Souvlaki or gyros pitas was necessary of course to line the stomach. 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, as everywhere in Greece, it has its own unique style – is that they’re all served here with just yogurt not tzatziki.
Another good café for drinking I found – the cheapest raki in town – was ‘Arabas’. I was sat outside one night when I met 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 from town to town, through the tiny villages, posing as a tsolias and asking 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 liked it here, he told me, 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, and suddenly this man who had looked a sad dejected clown in his ludicrous costume hunched over his drink on his small table, was up on his feet, excited. He rushed to tell people in the bar, passers-by, of this compliment. He grew in stature. Started boasting and strutting.
“Can I ask you a 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 said. “But I think, in my heart, probably no.”
“He does! He does!” Costandinos was full of animation now. His pom-pom slippers slapping on the smooth stone cobbled Rethymno pavement, the oversized sleeves of his frilly bright white shirt billowing in the night.
“He drove away Zeus! You don’t 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 wheezing with laughter like a dog chewing a rubber ball.
I felt Costandinos was just getting started, but then he noticed a small man coming down the dark paved back street. This other man seemed to be another homeless hawker and was talking to himself, having trouble walking. He came level with us and stopped, spat on the ground and said something to Costandinos and started jeering at him. The hulking figure of Costandinos who was stood there, knees bent, caught frozen, mid-stream, visibly shrunk. Embarrassed. I watched as he shamefully hide his sign that has been hanging round his neck the whole time: “Photo with me – only 1 euro”. He sat down again at his table.
Manolis had a good tavern in our village above the city. He was a weather-beaten old man, with a moustache you could almost have hidden in. A sailor back in his day, he had sailed the world many times over, picking up hardly a word of English whatsoever. His skin was burnt deep with sun and salt, and he now spent his time up here on dry land being henpecked by a fearsome wife – who wouldn’t allow him to set a price for whatever you ate in his taverna as what he charged 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– the 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. Unrelenting. It was Manolis. I peared out into the darkness, his almost-black face beamed a smile back.
“We go now. Ela, ela. 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 us. We were driven out of Rethymno – on the very north coast – down through the island towards the furthest point south.
As the light outside started to strengthen, I could see the pale-pink mountains of the centre of Crete surrounding us. The ravines, like 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” the word for ‘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 sat at a deserted café pointed us the 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 trekked downwards, knees straining at the decent, stepping on dry hardy plants amongst the baked 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 came raining down as he passed me, scudding along fast on his back. I stood and watched Manolis and some of the other strong Cretan men in the group fashion some sort of human stretcher and carry him back to the top. As I stood and watched, 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 the island. Perhaps one even as hard as Crete itself.
At the bottom of the canyon we were marched on, still without any real clarity to me as to where we were heading.
We carried on with our trail of 20 or so Cretan men and woman: rucksacks, boots, handkerchiefs over the their heads. We passed an 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, I asked. Where was he now? The man’s eyes narrowed, he took a long look at me as if he was speaking to a child.
“He fell off Mount Ida. Now? Well now he’s…how should I say it… now he’s necros.” He made a little sign of the cross three times and kissed at his fingers as he walked on.
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 a deserted beach. 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 prowled around smoking deeply. I wondered what was going to happen now. Now we were so far away from anywhere, when I heard the buzz of a boat. I turned as it appeared on the horizon, getting closer, an old man at the prow. He was a 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 and just as extraordinary, 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: laundry hanging outside, the squeak of a pump inside generating some power or water. I couldn’t believe it, but then one of our group told me that these cave-dwellers had disputes with each other, this was no hippy utopia. Often these neighbours would set fire to each other’s caves. I stared up, desperate to get a glimpse of these rock people, but I was too soon bundled away with the group, strapping on their rucksacks, off the beach and back into another canyon.
We were walked through two close towering points of rock, known round here as the Gate of Hercules, and on and on again, along the coast, in and out of the village Lentas and up and over the soaring cliff, the Lion’s Head, looking out to sea.
Then we reached the end. Where we were always heading… At the end of every trek it was a rule that one of the group had to host a gathering for all the walkers. It was Christos’ turn today. At his house, hidden away on its own at the foot of the mountains, as the sun set and the sky faded with streaking golds and faint blues, he took his task of hosting in quite ridiculous overblown style: killing two sheep on his farm for us and his barrels of wine never ending throughout the night.
Giristroula was conducting research in schools in Crete. This was why we were on the island. She had been in the schools of Rethymno but was later based at a school in Agouseniana for a few weeks, so I went with her to see this small village sat alone in the hilly wilds outside the city.
I first spent the morning walking round the small, tight paths and past the large dominating church before ducking into an old dark kafeneon for Greek coffee. I ordered and 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 but they didn’t speak.
The old man, in his raggedy old clothes and cap, suddenly remembered he needed to get back to his farm work and gathered up his things. He paid for his raki and I then heard him say “Oriste. Kerase ton oti thelei…” – Here, take this for whatever he wants to. He nodded over at me. This man who hadn’t spoken, had only sat a few minutes in the same cafe as me, 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 as he left and as I thanked him, and then he was gone.
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, as many Greek widows do.
She left me for awhile to go and tend her animals at the back of her cafe – to chase chickens and wrestle with pigs – 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 under 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 then marriage and children and a lifer in northern England. 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 eastern 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 vigilantes. Three times they sent her to Spinalonga island on the boat, across the small channel of water from the town of Plaka – sent away from real normal everyday life on mainland Crete with the true cases of horrifying leprosy – and three times she came back, when the doctors confirmed her crippled hands were nothing more than arthritis. Maria’s sister had a daughter, as her daughter grew up and started to fall in love and one day 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 she never saw her family again.
Maria sat her chair close to me as she told me these stories. She talked with no self-pity for herself or for her sister. She spoke and waited with patience, as I strained and faltered and checked with my terrible Greek.
Then Giristroula turned up after her lessons. Now all could be translated fully.
But Maria jumped up from her seat, panicked, 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 looked 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. Maria, 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 the surrounding lands around Rethymno, driving out on the roads 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, eyeing me suspiciously at my clunky Greek thanking as we passed.
Arkadi Monastery has a sad and terrible 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 three days as the Ottoman Army called over 15,000 men to push them back. The Cretans took 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. Tables still lie in the halls where deep sword marks show where men had been beheaded. And then you reach the basement… The powder room was where the women and children were hiding, and where 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 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. Kept his look on us and kept nodding as we walked past. He clearly wanted us to know, to be completely sure, just how hugely symbolic what we had just witnessed was.
“Ta piasa” I said – I understand. I said it almost right.
The car took us down under the brightly lit mountains into the lower-lying lands, 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 then continued towards Spili, a village up in the hills with its village square ringed by row after row of Venetian lion heads spitting out fountains of water. I walked around the buildings of Spili – the waters murmuring 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’ – simply meaning ‘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 drank 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 had any interest in this great little 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 the bar as the German was falteringly thanking Giorgos, wobbling on one leg pulling 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 telling the newly trousered German “And now of course we must have a raki…”
It was time to leave Rethymno, and our slightly odd home. Thalia, the landlady, had let us stay above her villa – looking out north over the sea towards 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, falling-down tent. It seemed hopelessly cruel. He cried out in anguish most nights. Howling like a wounded animal. No one in the village seemed to mind. “Ya sou Apollonas!” they cheerily called into his crumpled tepee as they passed each morning.
We left our village, and Rethymno, behind us and took off to see what the rest of the island had to offer. Planning to follow – from the starting point here, a little bit just before 12 – the whole way round the clock face of 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 here, something in the very air. It wasn’t just by chance that the Minoans set up stall here.
Theseus slayed the Minotaur in this palace. The Minotaur that had been fed every nine years with seven youths and seven virgins that were 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 later abandoned as soon as he got out of Crete. The rotter.
The palace of Knossos is dated back to 1900BC. In 1900AD however, that mad British Victorian determination to civilise everything they came across, 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 Evans enriched or ruined the place really. Ok, so now we can see the frescoes as they were meant to have been seen; we can picture how life was lived in this, the nursery of all human civilisation. The central courtyard and passages linking some of the many hundreds of rooms are here, though the walls are now filled with concrete. Staircases exist where previously there had been just bent stones. But was it for Evans to do? Was it for him to tamper with time like this?
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 the General was kidnapped by a team of Cretans and British soldiers led by Patrick Leigh Fermor. A famously daring raid.
Leigh Fermor stepped out in front of the General’s car one night, with his hand raised, halting the car. A joint British and 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 a quiet road with the bushes for the captors to hide in and the old church which had watched all the proceedings going on still sat down on the side. There was also now a bizarre, tall, brutalist monument that had been put up to commemorate this act of mad action.
We drove on following the route Leigh Fermor’s team took towards Anogia. Anogia is a tough village clinging hard onto the side of the Crete mountains. It is well known on this island – the villagers here perhaps more than anyone else personify the unique traits of this area of Greece.
We walked down the streets and I saw a few men in traditional Cretan dress, costumes I’d heard about but didn’t believe people still wore for real: black shirt, tall black boots, khaki trousers that ballooned out above the knee, and the sarik – a black lattice woven headscarf. There were no women anywhere, above us though many bearded men came out onto their balconies. They watched us like hawks as we pottered along and I noticed some had brought their guns out and had started cleaning them, pointedly.
We sat in a café in the village square and 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 and I absentmindedly touched the base of my cup on the rim of another man’s glass, all of a sudden all the men put their drinks down on the table. I’d made a terrible mistake. They told me that I mustn’t touch my glass any higher or any lower than theirs, the glasses must be at the exact same level, it was a great insult here in Crete to do otherwise.
This etiquette cleared up, we resumed out toast and then 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 – Leigh Fermor would be an unpopular figure, 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 and gave a slow shake of the head. “He was a great man.” There was a pause. “For an English.”
The talk moved on 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, so 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, joined in the conversation and I was told this was 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 they are musically accompanied by a lyre. To conjure up these mantinades – like clever, wise, moving folk songs – from nothing and usually never to be repeated again, it’s an incredible skill.
As we left, the men of this kafeneon said to us we must come to a wedding that was to happen in the village in a few days time. I had heard much about weddings in Crete, and Anogia in particular. “Ah yes,” one replied sadly. “But this one won’t be so 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 a thousand people. Nothing.” he shrugged, pulled a drooping apologetic face.
Cretan weddings are extraordinary events, so I’d been told. Huge gatherings – cars drive round the villages with a loudhailer inviting everyone – and the family have to pay for everything. The gledi, the food, the drinks, the music. 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 these huge, lavish affairs. 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 architect knows the couple will have the 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.
Zoniana. 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, and 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 we left the village,” she said, as if it had been a one-time event. Perhaps it had.
They had just got married in these photos, she was 14 and when they travelled to Chania it had also been the day of Venizelos’ funeral. The Cretan Eleftherios Venizelos is the father of modern Greece, leading the country in its bold new steps after it had twisted and struggled itself out from under the boot of 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 here in Crete and, due to his 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 that only votes for the left also has this history of conservative politics here.
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 had 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, 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, in a conspiratorial whisper. “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.” said Karagiorgas “They would have killed us all, would have burnt the village to the ground…But we had helped a German. A German parachutist had fallen 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 up, 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. “Years later. He came to see the village. And 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.”
It’s a unforgettable place, that much is ovious. 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 are 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 back in the capital of Crete, Heraklion. Men, hot and harassed in suits and sweat-stained shirts, pacing out of banks and offices 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 “Because if you thought that the whole of Heraklion looked this good… well, you’ll soon be very disappointed…”
Cretan men seem to strut everywhere – a practice worn in over centuries I imagine.
They strutted through Heraklion, with its ugly buildings sprawling in the dusty outskirts giving a good illustration of what I’d 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 great, 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 it went on in the heat of this old drinking joint, the music going round and round in circles, 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. Over dinner at his house Nikos told me more about the island. He had grew up in the small village of Lyttos, south west 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 digging 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 said, a little wounded. “In my village, on the main road, 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 and ate snails – a delicacy here too in Crete, not just in France, but these ones were small, worryingly like the snails you see in your garden – and we drank on with Nikos’ friends and family. It was a good raucous Greek scene. I made the mistake at some point though 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 disappear, 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 shone as gaudily as Disney Land.
The Minoan Lady – La Parisienne – fragment of fresco from Knossos in the museum, 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 know she was being looked at, as I stood and ogled, but she didn’t break. Continuing her 3000 year sultry forward stare.
No such coyness from the Snake Goddess statue though, 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 one summer day, stopping at the stone-built mitati – shepherd huts. All dark and deserted as we poked our noses in, but each one with the overpoweringly rich smell of the large round dusty sheep’s cheeses left fermenting on the stone shelves.
We climbed on and up and over the mountain passes slipping into stone to the cave where Zeus was born. A vast, deep, cold cave in the scraped rock looking onto the valley of Nida. The immense plain lies totally flat below, spread like a magic carpet of green. The mountains all around 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, Kronos, 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. In silence now, 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 started drumming its wings in the air. It took off, flying east. Heading in the direction we were to be travelling too.
Lasithi and tracking back westwards
Stopping first at Agios Nikolaos, the capital of Lasithi – the eastern state of Crete – with its large villas and streets of shopping, we were soon on the peninsular towards the towns Elounta and Plaka. We took a small boat in bright sunshine from the pretty blue tableclothed tavern by Plaka’s beach to the blighted island of Spinalonga.
As we landed we could see people here 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 and the hospital. They were getting ready to celebrate the day, exactly 60 years ago, when the very last patient left this island.
We walked round, past the cemetery and over the rocks to the other side, back through the lanes, and when we exited out of Spinalonga’s spectral town via the long dark tunnel into the light reflected up from the sea round the jetty – as the very leper patient must have – we were relieved to leave the island. There seemed an unsettling feeling left in the bricks of this place and I felt ever sorrier for Maria’s sister as we sailed back to the mainland.
The grossly obese olive tree watched us drive past at Kavousi. The most ancient olive tree in the world, so they say, planted 1,300 years before Christ.
We headed down the east coast, stopping and climbing over the trails through the remains of an ancient town, Itanos, that had slipped down its hill so now half of the houses and paths were under the sea. We swam in the clear water, following the route of the ruins of a lost world sunk below us.
Back in the car we wheeled round the bottom right-hand corner of Crete, onto the south side of the island and hit the gorge of Zakros – the gorge of the dead. A few people had left their cars to walk it: evil-eyed 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. We walked down into the gorge and, above the flowering trees with deep pinks and whites on the riverbed of the gorge, the sheer cliffs of red rock rose over us. In these receded cliffs caves the bodies of the great and good of Minoan society had been laid to rest. We twisted our heads to take in all these dark silent hollows high above us, where now crows nested amongst the fossiled bones.
The village of Hametoulo was completely empty. We wandered the dead alleyways and were frightened out of our wits by one old lady who appeared out of nowhere.
She still lived in this ghost village – she was born here and wouldn’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 white walls around us sizzling with heat, the sun in total charge of the day and listened to her tales.
Later we puttered on along the southern road to Ierapetra. 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 some important meeting – seemed to walk around bare-chested and shirtless. Even the local priest passed down the street was wearing a green plastic eye shade, looking like some card dealer in a drinking saloon.
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 heavy and thick here that even Giristroula couldn’t understand what was being said when we wound down the window and asked for directions from the old men sat on benches by the side of the road in their heavy clothes in the roasting heat. One man pulled what looked like a clown’s handkerchief from his pocket to wipe at his seamy face.
The road rose dramatically. We were lost, but carried on as there was really no other alternative – 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 so high we could see great swathes of Crete’s south coast flowing away from us below, with huge hungry bites taken out of it by the African sea. The dust flew from the wheels, covering the car. Mile after mile, the car swung round the curves, nothing but the deep blue sky swaying in and out our windscreen.
Suddenly we were freewheeling down an angled track towards a monastery. Our blackened car squeaked up to the gate. Moni Koudouma. A monk, up a ladder, pruning a tree, descended 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?” said the monk before we got the chance 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. Told him he’d saved our skin, we had nowhere else to go.
“Well we can’t turn anyone away. It’s not our house of course. It’s the Madonna’s house. But,” he added, leaning closer to me, “She would always show us a sign if you were not a good person…”
We stood for a while here in the flowering gardens, not speaking, the dying sun triggering off huge flares of orange and purples in the sky above the dormitories and the chapel. The monk appeared to waiting for a sign, any sort of sign… Eventually, seemingly satisfied, he waved us forward 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. The dinner was overflowing plates of fish and baskets of bread, nothing else. Simple but perfect. Eaten in complete silence.
Afterwards we took a stroll in the grounds of the monastery and I saw on the far side 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 50 or 60 hanging golden icons. Our stone room was just outside the great walls of the monastery. The monastery itself was shrouded in darkness, just one light shining in a room at the very top. The workmen, who had all day been repairing bits of the old monastery, sat outside the walls and like some medieval scene outside the city gates, they 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-looking man leading the carousing.
Over dinner the previous evening, 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 seven. But even then – and with a golden morning sun pushing its beams through the metal grate of our tiny window – I turned the phone off again 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.
We arrived at the service – the scene full of smoke and chanting. Monks on their knees, noses to the ground. I noted we are the only two to have come, the two shifty men hadn’t made it. I also noted that one monk, who didn’t seem to be wearing completely the 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 too. I noticed 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 and told me vaguely about his life before, some business he had run, 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 in the mountains with the monks, I didn’t like to guess.
I had read that criminals left their old lives to join the 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 sat 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 left, 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 lying in the sea to explore. We swam and dived for hours as the sun climbed, throwing out a blinding light over the sea and rocks.
Back on the beach, a little tubby black 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.
Later, having hauled ourselves out of the sea and dried off, we packed the car and started out on our way. I saw the small trickster-looking man still talking the head monk into some plan, he offered us a diabolical leer as we passed. I felt sad that some come and take advantage of the monks here. The monks 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 stood and waved us away from behind the gate as our car drove off down the dirt road. They were still waving until we disappeared over the brim of the mountain.
Matala was once the prime site for hippies back in the 60s. They turned up at the undeveloped fishing village, living in the caves in the cliff – crazily set out like an apartment block: ground floor, mezzanines, upper stories of caves. To begin with they lived harmoniously with the simple locals of Matala. However, they were slowly joined by more and more beatniks and fashionable freaks as Matala became trendy. Eventually women would walk to the bakery and lounge in the café brazenly naked, shocking the redoubtable headscarved old Greek women and the goats and donkeys and the old priest. 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 here were full to the brim as Giristroula and I took a walk to see the old caves. Games of rackets and screaming kids. There was a charge to look at the caves and they were being poked about by bored looking holiday makers in bright red shorts and caps. ‘Zorbas’ snack bar was doing a roaring trade.
We left quickly, to the Minoan palace Phaistos – excavated but not restored – the stones and blocks, larger than at Knossos, lying scattered over the ground. This was more like it: ground where man and universe are meant to meet.
Trying to be clever we left the main road, and got lost on another bare dirt track, crossing the highland and down into valleys below. The car bumped and bucked over the rocks and a tire blew as we plummeted towards the quiet beach of Agia Marina. There seemed to be nobody here, mid-week in early summer and so we would have to sleep the night again on the beach.
There was just one dimmly lit tavern – Anna’s – further along. We sat, dust covered, and ordered some drinks. Anna, wiping an old cloth on the tables, no other patrons around, told us, quite implausibly, that the prime minster of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, had come here for a holiday and had come 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.” But wasn’t it a great coup to have him in your tavern, I asked.
“I charged him double for everything!” Anna replied with a cackle, keeping a close eye – her tongue flicking out of her mouth in pleasure – at the number of drinks that we were 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 during the Independence struggle against the Turks. In 1828 the Cretans were defeated, but not before they first took down many of the Turkish army with them. 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, taking people along the villages all along the Cretan southern coast. We drove on down the road towards Anopoli, when the road suddenly hit a toweringly high wooden bridge – the second highest bridge in Europe, someone later told me. We crossed over the bridge, 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 adolescents in the café on the other side watched us, heads rested on hands, seemingly waiting, hoping, something might happen, but to their disappointment though we made it over to the village of Aradena on the other side. The village 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 then we could go no further.
This was where the road along the south coast ended. 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 edge of the island as we would could get. We would have to go round the long way. 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, its stone lighthouse.
“There are two types of people,” said the waiter in the 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 wasn’t 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.
The church stood above 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, 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 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 the city of Chania, stopping first at Venizelos grave. The atmosphere was heavy and serious up here, the meltemia wind was strong. 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 was 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.
We drove out past the suburb of Souda. The heat was hard. We looked for a route somewhere down towards the sea, to wash off the dust off from all the days of travelling. Amongst the uninspiring industrial buildings around the airport we followed roads and signs advertising a beach and the Church of Katholiko.
Another gorge, another hard climb down. The open, rock-infested, ground reflected the midday heat back at us. As we descended we passed a sunken damp cave and headed inside to cool off. Pressing through the rocks, further in, we came face-to-face with the large figure of a wet and gleaming dirty white bear…. A bear carved naturally from stalagmite and looking as if it was bent drinking from a pool, looking 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 a ruined old monastery sat abandoned in the rocks. It must have been left by the monks fleeing the pirates who had 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, kicking with our legs to shoot like arrows down into the clear water, for what felt like forever.
We hit the top north west corner of Crete. Another dirt road needed to be taken to find the crowning islet in the sea at Balos – the bauble icon of Crete. We walked the strip of pure soft sands and then further south in Elafonisi where the sands take on an odd pink colour and the sea stays shallow for as far as you can ever seem to walk out. The atmosphere was getting strange though. 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 another unnecessarily tortuous detour over rocks and dirt craters to find a beach that we’d been told was a good place to camp for the night: Kedrodasos. The beach was good, but the wind was rising. The other people camped under scrubby trees on the sand peered out of tents and groaned and snapped the openings shut again as we passed with our stuff. Gusts buffering our faces.
Before dawn, our tent was blown apart, becoming a skeleton of sticks as the canvas hurtled down towards the sea edge. We lay, exposed in sleeping bags, as straggly campers passed us, grim faced, carrying their things, clanking billycans, looking like marching war refugees. The far west coast of Crete had become menacing. We followed this early morning procession of people deserting, and headed down round the island’s western 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, turning 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 had 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 the door wide, 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, and I realised these were the protectors of the gorge. We were with the wardens of Samaria.
As a darkness dripped down 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 has gone and the gates at either end are locked at the end of the day and silence reigns here in the middle of quite-the-most-beautiful nowhere, sit down to an incredible meal. I don’t know how they make it, but the trestle tables groaned under the plates of grilled meat, salads and barrels of wine. It was incredible generosity for them to invite us into their company. The glasses clanked together, laughter rode over the empty 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 horizons 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 ate, Manousos turned 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. Manousos had been born at the very tip of the gorge in the village of Omalos. He greeted us with some chariness and 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 and, as Manousos sank some of the wine, I felt maybe he had relaxed, 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, however, as the food disappeared, and 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 seemed to mellow.
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 empty 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.”
“Trueman was touched by this Cretan man bringing his goat all that way to show him. He told him he could 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 the man asked for? What the only thing he 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 and his new gun…”
“Here! Give the Englishman some more of the wine..!” Manousos shouted, story over, and snatched a glass off the fire warden’s forehead and poured me a great slug of wine.
Manousos stared at me. “I guess you’re not so bad for an English,” he eventually said. “They usually mess everything up here.”
He looked out at the black gorge. A young kri-kri – or 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 this after we’d helped them fight the Germans…
During the war against the Germans the English 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, after all that, 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 plates of food over his prone body. Manousos poured two huge glasses 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 pointed over to a block of buildings.
“He wrote his last announcement to be broadcast to Greece, and then left.” Manousos lifted 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. Never found any yet…”
The fire warden was snoring under the table now. It was 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 slept under the rough blankets this must have served, maybe it still did, 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 new 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 to look for fires this new day.
We said our goodbyes to this kind group. They didn’t have to let us in to their world, they should have shouted at us to leave the gorge last night. Manousos even said to Giristroula last night: “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…”
Manousos had long gone this morning. 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 four meters apart from each other, but rising up above over 300 meters- and walked on to the end. All the gorge walkers sit on the white-hot sand at the end in Agia Roumeli and wait for the boat to arrive to take them away. No roads, only a sea exit from here. The boat chugged in, picked us up, 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 felt 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 kept captive by Calypsso.
The people of Sougia actually swear that Calypsso’s cave was here. I knew it from our previous journeying 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, a 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 was now fearful that this drop in heat would cause an earthquake. All we wanted to do, however, was to catch a boat.
The wind had 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.
We turned up at the jetty in the early morning light, as we had been doing for day after day… and finally it was there. Like a shining mirage, the boat to Gavdos was running at last.
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 everyday habits.
For around 20 minutes, when the boat docked, 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 we going, he asked. Do you want me to take you? Well, we didn’t know where we’re going, but a lift there would be perfect. So he took us to Korfos beach where we pitched a tent in the trees next to old 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 Ai Giannis beach was full. Full of people with wild hair, full of bongos, cross-leggedness, smoke. No one big on clothes. A dark haired girl walked over the hot sand completely naked, sunburnt breasts, thick pubic hair, her eyes closed, a spread beatific smile on her face. She moved her hands over the faces everybody she passed as people danced around her 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 all 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 the old fishman owner Stratos and his daughter Anna fixing us food – tsigariasto – Gavdos goat with onions. Anna told us about the island, and about the one policeman based here.
I had seen him before, at the harbourside, 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 walks the island, smoking joints, chatting to the locals but whenever there was trouble he made a point of not getting involved, fleeing the scene. When a huge trance party took place on the beaches for several days and night and the locals complained and finally formed a group and 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.
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 than getting here, leaving Gavdos seemed an impossible task. But was it a task we 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 deserted village: Vatsiana. A woman – surely the same one from back in Hametoulo? – came out of her house slowly in the day’s final heat, poking out like a tortoise, looking to chat, bringing us a raki and a couple of stools.
We carried on through rough pathways with the birds mad around us in the sky, seeming to be intoxicated by the light of the falling dusk. Finally, on a high coastal cliff, we could see Triopetra beach. Unlike the other beaches of Gavdos, Triopetra looked almost lunar, other worldly. A vast rockiness opening out to the water 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 into the sea. Then walked up onto the final rocks. There was a chair someone had built here on the perfectly alone rock promontory to mark this end of the western world…
What was I thinking? As if this was the western world! This wasn’t Europe. This wasn’t even Greece. Here…here was Crete.