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 leave 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’ve barely got our bearings when Greek Easter crashes down on us.
We dutifully take 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 – gather. Happy to be seen, wrapped in expensive coats. They snap into action at certain points, as the priest drones 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 am 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 shuffle.
The shots’ sounds ricocheting round the close old buildings of the town. My hearing becomes a shriek of white noise. The man grins and goes back inside.
I am still deaf as we make it back to the village where had found a house to live in, up the hillside above Rethymno town.
Outside our small local church is 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 is Crete.
Where everyone seemingly has 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 are 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 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 wishing 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 will have to be an island trod carefully through over the next few months.
“Christos anesti!” – Christ has risen – we all say to each other outside the church.
“Alithos!” – he really has – we all reply. As everyone in Greece must.
Sheep’s innards soup is eaten. Whole lambs are put on the spit for tomorrow. Dyed red hard boiled eggs are 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, carry on long into the night.
Rethymno has real beauty.
I have been to the Ionian islands with their Venetian architecture, and I’ve stayed in the far north east of Greece, in Thrace, with its old Muslim communities still thriving today. Rethymno is 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 in 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 Rethymno has what must be the most well-preserved old town in Greece.
I choose, though, to sit my Rethymno days in the dark ‘Dyo Roy’ café.
Populated by the cantankerous old men of the city, the ‘Dyo Roy’ is 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 peer 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 turn on and the small galley kitchen serves up great Cretan meals.
So in the evenings, I go instead to the bar ‘To Havesiliki’.
Rebetiko music is played live here. And, like in the whole of Crete, raki is drunk.
Raki is the drink of the island. A strong, powerful, clear spirit. Unflavoured. And pure here on Crete – never giving a headache.
Nikos, a disreputable friend of the owners, who does the serving at ‘To Havesiliki’ gives us bottle after bottle for free.
“I don’t want your business,” he says. “I like you. I look at people, if I don’t like them, I don’t serve them.”
Nikos often drinks your drink as he comes to the table to serve you. He then looks surprised at the empty tray in his hand and, confused, has to turn round and get another. Usually that has gone by the time he comes back too.
Tall, wiry, beak-nosed and bearded, eyes crossed, he roughly kisses and slaps my face – and everyone else’s who turns up – in happy greeting every time we come through the door. Nikos insists I pour drinks for everyone in the bar (not pay for them, but I have to pour them) and give them out, whether they want them or not. He is the drunkest man in Crete by closing time.
Souvlaki or gyros pitas is 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 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 – is ‘Arabas’.
I’m sat outside one night when I meet Costandinos.
Costandinos is dressed as a tsolias – one of the ridiculous looking Greek soldiers, in the costume they fought the Ottomans in. Foustanella skirt, scarlet fez, stockings and garters.
Costandinos tells 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 has been his life for years and years, as long as he can remember. But he’s settled here in Rethymno for a while now, he says to me. He likes it here. He has a good pitch by the huge doors of the vast Venetian fort above the town.
Although it isn’t really, I tell him his English is good.
Suddenly this man who had looked a sad, dejected clown, hunched over his drink on his small table is up on his feet, excited. Rushing to tell people in the bar, passers-by, of this compliment. He grows in stature. Starts boasting, strutting.
“Can I ask you a philosophical question?” he asks quickly, spinning round and pointing a finger at me “Does God exist?”
I’m taken a little aback. Well, I hope so, I tell him. But I’m afraid I think probably no.
“He does! He does!” Costandinos is 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 leans his face close to me, “No sex!” he claps his hands on his stocking-ed knees.
I feel Costandinos is just getting started, but then he notices another, small, man coming down the dark paved back street. This other man seems to me to be another homeless hawker. He’s talking to himself, having trouble walking.
He comes level with us and stops, spits on the ground and starts laughing. Laughing at Costandinos. Costandinos stood there, knees bent, caught frozen, mid-stream.
This tiny deformed man wheezes and mocks at the hulking figure, who visibly shrinks. Embarrassed.
I note Costandinos shamefully hide his sign that has been hanging round his neck the whole time: “Photo with me – only 1 euro”.
Manolis has a good tavern in our village above the city.
He’s a weather-beaten old man, with a moustache you could hide in. A sailor back in his day, he sailed the world many times over…picking up hardly any word of English whatsoever.
His skin is burnt deep with sun and salt, and he now spends his time up here on dry land being henpecked by a fearsome wife – who won’t allow him to set a price for whatever you eat in his taverna as what he sets is always half what she thinks you should pay.
Manolis tells us about a club he’s in. They walk the mountains and gorges of Crete. And there are many, many mountains and gorges of Crete.
We tell him, vaguely, we might be interested in coming on one of these walks one day… and then, not thinking any more on it, settle 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 are sunk.
Next morning, at 5am, there is a hammering on our front door.
It’s Manolis. I pear out into the darkness, his almost-black face beams a smile back.
“We go now. Come, come…”
Before we really know what’s happening Giristroula and I are bundled into the back of an old military coach with a collection of Greek faces and beards staring up at me.
We’re driven out of Rethymno – on the very north coast – down through the island towards the south.
As the light outside starts to strengthen, I can 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 are 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 pour off the coach, there is a great wing of sun high in the sky and a blinding bright morning scene has laid itself out.
A lined old shepherd man sat at a deserted café points us a way to walk and we set off, I still don’t really know where.
We start over the ridges and down into the canyons.
Crete has sharper mountains and a hotter sun than anywhere I’ve previously found in Greece.
We tred 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 comes flowing out over us all.
One of our party, an older man, falls badly.
Scree and rocks comes raining down as he passes me, scudding along fast on his back. I stand and watch Manolis and some of the other strong men in the group fashion some sort of human stretcher and carry him back to the top.
And I notice that I’m standing next to the half-perished carcass of a dead goat slowly decaying into the hot ground.
This doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a light stroll through Crete. One perhaps as hard as the island itself even.
At the bottom we are marched on, still without any real clarity, to me, as to where we’re heading. We carry 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 ask one of the men if there had been any really bad accidents.
“Oh no, it is a very safe club,” he tells me. Then pauses. “Well, we got lost earlier this year. On the White Mountains. In the snow. 48 hours without tents or supplies…”
Then he thinks of another “And, once, one of us…he… well, he fell. Off the top of Mount Ida…”
I’m shocked. What happened to him? Where is he now?
The man’s eyes narrow. He takes a long look at me, and speaks as if to a child “He fell off Mount Ida. Now? Well now he’s…how should I say…he’s necros.”
We are 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 wedge ourselves out to find ourselves on a beach.
Deserted. A clear polished blue-green sea. I’m told that this beach, in Minoan times, was the King’s personal beach. I can’t resist and take off my clothes and swim in the cooling waters. The rest of the group sit on the beach, rest aching legs or prowl around smoking.
I wonder what happens now, now when we’re so far away from anywhere. And then, quite surreally, a boat appears on the horizon. Getting closer. An old man at the prow.
He’s an old friend of the group and he’s here to take us around the promontory of rocks to another beach – Trafoulas. This one where the Minoan Queen’s party would bathe.
An extraordinary beach. Not just for its beauty, but in the cliffs surrounding there are many natural caves with people living there, in the hollows.
People have 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 live in these high rock caverns, which you couldn’t ordinarily have believed.
But then one of our group tells me that these ‘cave men’ have disputes with each other. This is no hippy utopia. Often these neighbours set fire to each other’s caves.
I stare up, desperate to get a glimpse of these rock dwellers, but I’m 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 are 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 stop. 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 fades with streaking golds and faint blues.
At the end of every trek, it is for one of the group to host a gathering for all the walkers. It is Christos’ turn today. And he takes it in quite ridiculously overt style: killing two sheep on his farm for us. The barrel of wine never ending throughout the night.
Giristroula is conducting research at schools in Crete. She is based at one in Agouseniana for a few weeks. I go with her to see this small village, sat alone in the hilly wilds of Crete.
I spend 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 order, sit down. The old woman owner and the only other man in the place, playing cards, raise their eyebrows in response to my few words of introduction. They don’t speak.
The old man, in his raggedy old clothes and cap, remembers he needs to get back to his farm work and gathers up his things. He pays for his raki. “Oriste. Kerase ton oti thelei” – Here, take this… and for whatever he wants too, he nods over at me.
This man who hasn’t spoken to me, has only sat a few minutes in the same cafe, and who looks as if he has hardly even enough money for himself, has paid for my coffee, and anything else I want.
He makes one final, almost imperceptible bow of his thick powerful head to me, as he leaves and as I thank him, and then he’s gone. Displaying real Crete hospitality, here in this completely out of the world place.
I talk to the old lady owner.
Maria is over 80 years old.
She has long black hair and a thin, strong face. She has been running this kafeneon for 59 years. Her husband died nearly 40 years ago and she has been dressed head to foot in black every day since.
She leaves me awhile to go and tend her animals at the back of her cafe – chase chickens, wrestle with rams – so I study the decorations, the maps on the walls, newspapers, portraits of Nikos Kazakajakis and Crete’s other famous sons… and then I spot a picture of Maria herself.
Some years ago now, but it’s definitely her. Stood, huddled, in an old-fashioned coat. On a wharf. Under tall buildings. Underneath Liverpool’s Liver Birds.
Maria comes back, brushing a muddy hand over her headscafed forehead, her knees filthy with fresh dirt. I ask her about the picture. She sighs, sits, and slowly starts 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 fell 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 them 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’s 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 were 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 arthritic suffering.
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 seeing her family again.
Maria sits her chair close to me as she tells me these stories. She talks with no self-pity for herself or for her sister. She speaks and waits with great patience, as I sit and strain and falter and check with my terrible Greek.
Giristroula then turns up after her lessons. Now all can be translated fully.
Maria jumps up from her seat though. She rushes out the back and fusses around. She must find something to offer the new visitor.
Finally she finds a few chocolates and opens a bottle raki. She offers 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, 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 drive 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 pass through the gate.
“Hi! Hello! Hullo! Guten Tag…” the guard calls out, running after us. Trying every variation he can think of. I curse that we’ve been caught and will have to pay. But Giristroula answers back in Greek.
“Oh, you’re Greek,” he stops short. “Then you must enter here for free. It is a very important place for us…” He waves us in with a flourish. Eyeing me suspiciously at the British vowels in my “efharisto” thanking as I pass.
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 nods at us slowly as we leave, looks us over. He wants us to be sure that we know we have witnessed here something portentous and symbolic.
We drive down under the lit mountains, into lower-lying lands 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 continue 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 walk around the buildings of Spili – the water murmuring around me – when, just for the briefest moment, I look through the door of an old blue wooden, tattered, kafeneon.
“Come in, come in! Raki!”
I tell the old man that I’m just passing through, I don’t really have the time. But he’s already poured us both a glass and is holding it out for me. We drain them, and then he instantly pours me another. He sits me down, gets out some meze, tells me he’s not looking for any payment. He pours another couple of rakis.
This is Giorgos. Small statured, white haired, moustached, the wrinkled face of an amused brown mouse.
He was once a tailor and his kafeneo is called ‘Rafteo’ (sewing).. He even has his old ancient sewing machine in the corner.
Giorgos is well into his 90s but looks strong as a ram. He tells me he drinks 40 glasses of raki a day. I guess this must be the secret.
A coach pulls up in front of the kafeneo. None of the tourists look as if they have any interest in this great old bar whatsoever. All are heading for the shops of tourist tat and the bottles of bad, expensive, olive oil. One fat German steps off the bus and his trousers rip right up his buttocks.
Giorgos is 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 leave as the German is 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 have gone on their pursuit of crap carved wooden trinkets.
The last thing I hear as I leave them is Giorgos to the newly trousered German, in his old kafeneon: “And now of course we should have a raki…”
With a feeling of sorrow, we are to leave the area of Rethymno. And our slightly odd home.
Thalia, the landlady, has 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 suffers mental difficulties, however, is made to live outside on the rough ground in a ratty tent. It seems hopelessly cruel. He cries out in anguish most nights. Howling like a wounded animal. No one in the village seems to care. “Ya sou Apollonas!” they cheerily call into the crumpled tepee as they pass each morning.
We leave it behind us though, and take off to see the whole of the rest of the island. Following, from a little before 12, round the clock face of Crete.
Travelling east, the first stop – as it really must be – is 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 is 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.
Legend has it of course that 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 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 can see the frescoes as they were meant to have looked. We can truly picture how life was lived in this, the nursery of all human civilisation. The central courtyard stands, and passages linking some of the many hundreds of rooms that were here – though walls are now often filled with concrete. Staircases exist 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 head from Knossos towards Arhanes, we find 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, the old church there, sat, watching proceedings. There is also now a bizarre, tall, brutalist monument that has been put up to commemorate this incredible act of mad, heroic folly.
We drive 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 walk down the streets. I see 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 balloon out above the knee, and the sarik – a black, lattice, woven headscarf.
There are no women anywhere. Above us though, bearded men come out onto their balconies. They watch us like hawks as we walk along. I notice some have brought their guns out and start cleaning them, pointedly.
We sit in a café in the village square. I talk to some of the men there. When they realise that I am not from Crete but a visitor – and there is nothing to prove – they are open, friendly. Insist on getting me a raki. Of course.
We clink glasses. I absentmindedly touch the base of my cup on the rim of another man’s glass. Suddenly, all put down their drinks on the table. They tell me that I mustn’t touch my glass any higher or lower than theirs. The glasses must be at the exact same level. It’s a great insult here in Crete otherwise.
This cleared, we resume out toast.
They bring up the conversation of “Patrick”.
I 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 talk 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 points 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 looks at his drink “He was a great man.” There is a pause. “For an English.”
The talk moves to the time of the Germans coming into the village, extracting their revenge.
“My father had to leave as the Germans came,” says 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 is drinking at near-by table. He pulls a chair over, joins in the conversation. I am told this is Yalaftis
A one-time shepherd, with a moustache he could have sheltered his flock under, Yalaftis is now renown through the island and beyond for his mantinades.
These 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 is famous for sprinkling his with a bit of humour, satire, too. 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 is a pretty incredible skill.
As we leave, the men of this kafeneon say to us we must come to a wedding that is happening in the village in a few days.
I have heard much about weddings in Crete, and Anogia in particular.
“Ah yes,” one replies sadly “But this one won’t be big. Only last week there was a shooting here. One of the family that’s getting married was killed. It will be a very sad wedding now, a very small gathering.”
How many, I ask.
“Oh, nothing. Maybe just 1,000 people. Nothing,” he shrugs, 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 leave 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. Thanking them for the hospitality, hoping to come back for the wedding, but with more of these mountain villages to see.
The streets are deserted. Just one man outside a cafe.
“The owner will be back in a minute,” he says. “Come. Have a raki.”
It no longer comes as a surprise now.
We sit and have a drink. The cafe, again, has 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 turns up, fusses about to give us more raki and mezzes, and tells me the old photos are 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 tells 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 guess 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 – dies at the age of 98 while we are in Crete and, due to the Cretan roots, the whole of the island lowers flags, and of course shoot rifles into the air in commemoration. It is odd that such a wild, rebellious island has such a history of conservative politics.
More of the villagers appear in the kafeneon. Some of them do remember the original Venizelos. And more still remember when the Second World War invaded into these villages.
One old man talks 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, turns up and takes a seat. The men all call him Karagiorgas, a nickname meaning Black Giorgos in Turkish.
Karagiorgas pulls his chair close to me.
“You’re interested in the English here eh? You know, Patrick was here?” he tells me.
I sit up at this.
“Yes, with his German general. We kept them in the houses…” he waves 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, turns to us.
“He stayed with us. I remember it. I had just turned 15.” His piece said, he goes 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” says Karagiorgas. “But we had helped a German. A German parachutist fell to the ground in the fields over there.” Karagiorgas waves 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 says, getting even closer to me, almost as if he’s 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’s 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 exists, but perhaps in slightly less illustrious circumstances. The Zoniana fields I see 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 takes 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 tells me “If you thought that the whole of Heraklion looked this good… well, you’ll soon be very disappointed.”
We meet friends of my Giristroula’s family who live in the city. At his house, Nikos tells 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 spends every weekend going back to his home village and digs in his garden hoping to find this solid gold, lost, antiquity of unimaginable riches.
I laugh out loud at this.
Nikos doesn’t take the scoffing well.
“Everybody does it” he asserts, 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 sit in the family house and eat snails – a delicacy here too in Crete, not just in France, but these ones are small, worrying like the snails you see in your garden – and drink on with Nikos’ friends and family. It’s a good, raucous scene.
I make 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 snaps “I’m from Crete!” She then twists her chair away from me so not to look at me for the rest of the meal.
The glasses of raki are filled before you can finish them.
“Some people do find jewels you know,” says 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 see 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 ask 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 seems to be able to tell me.
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 seems to me to know she’s being looked at, as I stand and ogle, but she doesn’t break, continuing her 3000 year smirking forward stare.
No faux coyness from the Snake Goddess statue though. Brandishing her wild snakes, her breasts bare above her long layered skirt. Cretan pride and temerity is 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 now known – stands 8,000 feet tall, south west of Heraklion.
We climb its slopes. Stopping at the stone-built mitati – shepherd huts. All dark and deserted as we poke 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 climb 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 are 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 stand at the cave’s mouth, the only people here, and now only a silence exists.
Just a few, large, death-black crows caw near-by.
I watch as one crow calmly and slowly starts drumming its wings in the air. It takes off, flying east. Travelling in the direction we are to be heading.
I wonder what this bird would see as it flew along with us?
Back over Heraklion, over the brilliantly 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.
The crow would look down on Heraklion, with its ugly buildings sprawling in the dusty outskirts – giving reason for what I would hear the men back in the Rethymno cafes say: “The best thing about Heraklion… is the sign pointing towards Rehtymno!”
Then it would fly in the high Cretan air, and see us drive on to Malia, the second largest Minoan palace, set amongst the tourist junk. And then on into a slowly darkening afternoon, and into the eastern region of the island.
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, and the birds, hover on the terraces above the city’s lake, and take in the high view out towards the sea.
And then we hug the coast line up this cape of Crete. Finally leaving the road to scramble over rock and scrub to find Kolokytha Beach and sleep the night on the shore. Opposite a deserted island, home only to a thousand screaming sea gulls.
The gulls could fly above us the next day, watching our continued journey 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 over the blue plate sea takes us to the island on the very day they are 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 are getting ready to celebrate the day, exactly 60 years ago tomorrow, when the last patient left this island.
We exit out of Spinalonga’s long dark tunnel, from its hidden, spectral, town into the light of the jetty, as the final leper patient must have, and feel happy to leave the haunted island behind us. There is an uneasy feeling still left in this place.
Our bird followers could perch in the branches of 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, and twist their heads to watch as we pass by, back heading east.
Mocholas village to eat octopus in a tavern where the owner sits playing his violin – never serving. And then through the town of Sitia with its sloping streets and staircases. And past Toplou Monestary – battered by the Turks, shattered by an earthquake in 1622, punished by the Germans for their help hiding the resistance fighters and the allies’ radio equipment… but now sitting contently fat, high above the dry parched land of north eastern Crete.
The monastery owns all this land now. Including the palm trees – a variety completely unique to Crete. The thick forest of palms, stretching and swaying and ringing the pure white beaches of Vai… And the thousands of crammed holiday makers sat on it.
Ignoring the packed, greased, sun worshipers, and this grim scene in paradise, we turn away instead to the Erimoupolis beaches.
Climbing over the trails through the remains of an archaeological site of an ancient town that has slipped down its hill so now half of the houses and ancient paths are under the sea. We swim the clear sea, following the route of the ruins of a lost world sunk below us.
We continue to another beach – Maridati – and sleep the night there. The deserted sea, ringed by red cliffs our bath tub in the morning.
Our bird followers then flock with us, watching high above our car as we take snakey roads, down the eastern coast of Crete. Wheeling round in a tight group 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 rise. In these cliffs many caves recede, where the bodies of the great and good of Minoan society were laid to rest. We twist and turn our heads to take in these dark silent hollows high above us, where now crows nest amongst fossiled bones.
The gorge ends at our third great Minoan palace…and we take a narrow, ribbon-like, road with countless turns, up and up – Crete’s south coast and Africa behind us – past completely dead, deserted mountain villages.
We stop at Hametoulo and wander the alleyways. Frightened out of our wits by one old lady who appears. She still lives in this ghost village. She was born here and won’t leave, even though every other resident has. She brings us out chocolates and raki and a chair. She obviously wants to sit and chat. So we sit on the wooden kitchen chairs, the walls around us white with heat, the sun in total charge of the day.
The road crosses us over wild gorges.
Then through the bird’s eye view we can be seen descending the steep cliff of Gallini.
The route down the rocks is hidden. None of the locals will tell how to get there. A tiny darkened broken path starts through bushes, off the main road, behind someone’s villa. But it is worth finding. An incredible remote beach waits, suddenly deep, dark, evening waters. Completely for ourselves.
We fly along the southern road to Ierapetra in the morning.
I’m 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 it 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 – seems to walk around bare-chested and shirtless.
We take a route through the Asterousia mountain villages. The Cretan accent so thick here that even my Greek traveller with me can’t even understand when we ask for directions.
The road rises dramatically.
We’re lost, but carry on. There’s really no other alternative anyway. The dirt track gives no space to turn round. We just have to keep going forward.
The road turns this way and that, violently. We climb and climb. So high up we can 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 flies from the wheels, covering the car. Mile after mile, the car swings round the curves, nothing but the big deep blue sky over the drop of mountain swaying in and out our windscreen.
Suddenly we are freewheeling down the angled track towards a monastery.
Our blackened car squeaks up to the gate. Moni Koudouma.
A monk, up a ladder, pruning a tree, descends quickly – I’m expecting the worst, shooed away as we were when we once asked to stay at the Meteora monasteries in northern Greece.
“You’ll stay won’t you?” says the monk before we get to say anything to him. “Please. Stay. You must be lost. It’s getting late.” He swings open the gates. It’s a wonderful welcoming.
I thank the monk for taking us in. He’s saved our skin.
“Well we can’t turn anyone away. It’s not our house of course. It’s the Madonna’s house.”
He adds “But she would always show us a sign if you were a bad person…”
We stand 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. I feel he is waiting for a sign, any sort of sign…
Eventually, he gives in and we are taken into the dining room – the trapeza.
It is 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 seems appropriate that the dinner served to us is overflowing plates of fish and baskets of bread, nothing else. Simple but perfect. Eaten in complete silence.
Afterwards we walk the grounds of the monastery. I see the criminal looking men walking the head monk around and around the garden. The short, shrewd looking one has his arm round the monk’s shoulders and is talking closely into his ear. Talking him into something. The lunk behind follows, tripping over his feet.
At night we are 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 is just outside the great walls of the monastery.
The monastery itself is shrouded in darkness, only one light on in a room at the very top of the imposing retreat.
The workmen, who have all day been repairing bits of the old monastery, sit outside. Like some medieval scene outside the city gates, they sit and drink and smoke and talk loudly, sing songs, through the dead of the night. It’s almost like they are sitting out in a village square. Right under the monk’s windows.
The small crafty man seems to be leading the carousing.
Over dinner, the monks had asked us to come to the service the next morning.
“From 5am to 7am” they tell 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 turn off my phone, fall back to sleep.
Suddenly the wind blows 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 arrive at the service, the scene is full of smoke and chanting. Monks on their knees, noses to the ground. I note we are the only two to have come. The shifty duo have not made it.
I also note one monk, who doesn’t seem to be wearing the completely correct clothes – not the exact flowing black robes of the other monks – stands at the back, behind me, his head lolling. He is battling not to fall asleep. I notice too, under his loose black sleeves he has tattoos running up his arms.
After the service the monks invite us to their quarters and offer us a small, plain, breakfast.
We sit and talk. The head monk tells me he’s been here 23 years, he rarely, if ever, leaves the monasteries’ grounds.
Another tells me that all monks change their names when they come here. He tells me vaguely about his life before, some business he ran, and it seems 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, is anyone’s guess.
When I take a photo of them all – beaming like a group of happy, middle aged secretaries on an office’s day out – I note the tattooed monk covers his face, not wanting to be ever recognised.
The head monk tells 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 are 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 to explore.
We swim and dive for hours as the sun climbs, 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 leave, I note the small trickster-looking man still talking the head monk into some sly plan. He offers us a diabolical leer as we pass.
I feel 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 waves us away from behind the gate till our car disappears over the brim of the mountain.
Travelling west along the southern coast of Crete, we have crossed back into the state of Heraklion.
A few people have left their cars to walk a gorge.
Packs of evil-faced goats are 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.
This gorge is Agiofaraggo.
Which rather comically means ‘Saint Gorge’.
We walk the gorge for a few hours down to the beach. And perhaps I’ve changed my mind and maybe, after all, this is the best beach on Crete…
All other hikers have left, so I take my clothes off and swim. Not realising that this is a terrible wrongdoing. The tiny church we passed built in the gorge should have alerted me. There are hermits – somewhere – up there on the cliffs above me, many of them living there now, alone with the birds. And they do not appreciate nakedness.
Nudity did for the hippies of Matala too.
Matala was once THE site for the original dropouts back in the 60s.
The early bohemians who turned up at the undeveloped fishing village, living in the cavities in the cliff – set out like an apartment block of caves: ground floor, mezzanines, upper stories – and who lived harmoniously with the backwater locals of Matala 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 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 are full to the brim. Games of rackets and screaming kids. The caves are charged to enter and are poked about by bored looking holiday makers in bright red shorts and caps.
‘Zorbas’ snack bar does a great roaring trade.
Majestic Minoan palace number 4 – 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 to a fantastic kafeneon in the village of Sivas, which is decorated from ceiling to floor, toilets, back doors, every inch of space, full of painted Orthodox wooden icons.
Crossing west back now into Rethymno – our bird friends, high on the wing above us would have an easier time than we do getting down to the miraculous Agia Pavlos beach. Requiring, as it does, the explorer to blunder and plunge and trip and sink down a huge, 45 degree angled sand dune all the way down to the shore, as if lost in the Sahara – just across the Libyan Sea from where we stumble now.
And then we have to climb up again of course, knee deep, in the punishingly inclined sand ridge.
We later stop at Moni Preveli, where the monks originally helped the fleeing British army.
And then to Preveli beach, which is dirty coloured and, again crowded with people. It is a long slog down with no shelter from the punishing sun.
The beach is patrolled by two hooligan geese who attack Giristroula as she tries to take her trousers off to go for a swim.
As they hiss and bite and she is floored, trousers round her ankles, she looks up to see an unsmiling, purposeful, German tourist stalking over towards her, taking her photo.
“I can ask them to do it again if you want!” she snaps, angrily. The German looks a little embarrassed and slopes away. After one final snap.
It is the sweet water river running from the palm forest onto the beach that gives Preveli beach its character. We walk deep into the forest, away from the crowds, up over the river’s boulders, past sheep skeletons stuck between the rocks, on and on until we find an ancient Venetian bridge crossing the river, and we hit a road again.
Trying to be clever we leave the main road, and get lost on another bare dirt track, crossing the lit highland and down into valleys invaded by darkness – the birds are no help, no guide for us here.
The car bumps and bucks over the rocks. And a tire blows, as we plummet towards the quiet beach area of Agia Marina. There seems to be nobody here, mid-week in early summer.
We’ll have to sleep the night again on the beach. There is just one tavern – Anna’s.
We sit, dust covered and order 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 says. “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 ask.
“I charged him double for everything” Anna replies, keeping a close eye – her tongue flicking out of her mouth in pleasure – at the few drinks we’re building up on our table.
The next day, with help from some passers-by, we patch 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 stop off at a threadbare petrol station nearby and I ask the fat assistant in his dirty dungarees – not necessarily the most credible witness, to be honest – if he has seen the shadows of the dead soldiers.
“Fysika! – of course. Many times! Every year!” he tells me.
When the Germans invaded and took the castle in the Second World War, it is reported they saw the shadows marching towards them too. And opened fire at the empty wall.
Lunch of Sfakia pies – cheese and honey thick pancakes.
Sfakia is a bustling hub town, boats coming in and out, like the London Underground Central Line, linking the villages along the Cretan southern coast.
We climb round the cliffs – vertiginous and rocky – clinging to the edges as the boats move both east and west below us in the turquoise sea, to get to Glikanero – Sweet Waters – beach.
And then onwards on the road to Anopoli, when the road suddenly hits a toweringly high wooden bridge – the second highest bridge in Europe, someone later tells me.
We cross 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 watch us, heads rested on hands, seemingly hoping something might happen…
We make it over though. The village of Aradena on the other side is 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 can go no further.
Here the road along the south coast ends. An immense combination of mountain and gorge means we can’t get to the far south west corner of Crete. This is as far along the south coast as we can go. We’ll have to go round.
We head 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 is in hopelessly in love with its reflection: its old town, its harbour, its ancient houses and stone lighthouse.
“There are two types of people,” says the waiter in one café we sit in. “Those who see Chania as completely magical…and those who haven’t been here!” he grins 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 you are swimming on the west of Crete in the warm Mediterranean sea, the raw sun beating down on you, 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 am 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 leave Chania. Stopping at Venizelos grave high above the city. The atmosphere has a heavy seriousness. The meltemia wind is strong though. We’re buffeted as we look 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 is coming from the south – O Notos – this is 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 go, where Chania’s airport lies. 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 follow roads and signs advertising a beach and the Church of Katholiko.
We need to enter yet another gorge. Another hard climb down.
The open, rock-infested, ground reflect the midday heat back at us. As we descend we pass a sunken damp cave and head inside to cool off. Pressing through the rocks, further in, we are astonished to find the large figure of a wet and gleaming dirty white bear.
It’s a bear carved naturally from stalagmite, and looks to be bent drinking from a pool in front of itself. It is quite utterly surreal.
There are ancient inscriptions dedicating the great bear to the Gods. The roof is burnt with obvious fire dedications to this weird apparition.
Further down the cliffs is a ruined old apparitional monastery, sat abandoned in the rocks. It must have been left by the monks fleeing the pirates who attacked these shores for centuries.
We cross its red, cracked brick bridge and carry on down to the dry river bottom to meet the sea at a deep empty rock lagoon, and we dive and swim for what feels like forever.
We hit the top north west corner of Crete. Balos.
Another dirt road needed to be taken to find the crowning deserted island – a luminous icon of Crete. We walk 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 ever seem to walk.
The atmosphere is getting strange. The sky swirls and constantly changes colour. The depthless water starts to ridge and writhe.
We criss-cross down the west coast of Crete and take a turn off the main road and take 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 is good. But the wind is rising. The other people camped under scrubby trees on the sand peer out of tents and groan and snap the opening shut again as we pass with our stuff. Gusts buffering our faces.
Before dawn our tent is blown apart, left as a skeleton of sticks, the rest hurtles down towards the sea edge. We lie, exposed, in sleeping bags as straggly camping hippies pass us, grim faced, carrying their things, clanking billycans, looking like deserting war refugees.
The far west coast of Crete has become menacing. Uninviting. We follow this early morning desertion and join the procession and head 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, is now attempted daily by hundreds of sweating tourists in unsuitable footware – who often have to be rescued by the mysterious custodians of the gorge who turn up out of nowhere, often on mules, to take the twisted-ankle brigade down the long way out to the exit.
We decide to avoid the crowds and start our trek down the gorge late. Rather too late. The sun has already shifted up on its shelf and started its move downwards.
We climb and descend ourselves into the gorge, along the dried river beds, through the forests of scented pines, over the sun-cooked rocks. But time is getting on.
As we pass 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 opens.
“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,” says Giristroula, truthfully if a little pedantically.
“Amaliada?” says the camouflaged stranger, in his sturdy boots and cap. “Amaliada??…
My wife’s family are from Amaliada! You must stay!” he opens wide the door, pushes his cap back on his head.
“Stay…” he flings his arms backwards “We have good wine…”
From the backrooms of this refuge come out others, in fatigues and boots.
I realise these are the protectors of the gorge. We are with the wardens of Samaria.
As a darkness drips down from the sky, and the heat-drenched day becomes a heat-drenched evening, the five men and two women stationed here this night in the old huts and ruined buildings all summer long, invite us in, chat to us while the walkie-talkie radios buzz with news of a Belgian man who’d fallen somewhere along the route.
And then the tables come out…
The workers of the gorge, when everyone is 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 groan under the plates of grilled meat, salads, and barrels of wine. It’s incredible hospitality for them to invite us into their company. The glasses clank together, laughter rides over the gorge as we feast.
A very tall man arrives on a very small donkey. Red shirt, beanpole thin, slim neat moustache, long serious face. This is the fire warden of the gorge. He has 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 toasts 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, dropping the glass to his mouth down to drain it dry. It is his first of many.
As we stuff ourselves, Manousos turns up.
Manousos is the chief of the gorge.
Fierce face, strong greying beard, shirt unbuttoned to his stomach, robust and capable. He’s been up the top of the cliffs dealing with stray wild animals.
He’s 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 greets us with some chariness. Looks at Nektarios, the rather meek man who first invited us in, as if he is some gullible simpleton.
We all carry on with this great banquet. As Manousos sinks some of the wine, I feel he relaxes slightly. Not so aggrieved at having these strangers in his midst.
I try some conversation.
“This is great meat,” I say gnawing on a plump bone. “What is it?”
“The last Englishman who came through here,” grunts Manousos, not looking up. His face not showing the slightest trace of humour.
Eventually as the food disappears, the tall fire warden drains more and more glasses of wine – balancing them on his elbow, drunk from the tip of his toe – the others laughing and gossiping, Manousos does open up.
This sanctuary here in the middle of the gorge is 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” says Manousos.
Oh, I’m sorry. I thought I’d heard of these animals…
“It’s called an Agrimi.”
Manousos drains his drink, wipes the edges of his beard, sighs, looks sadly at the glass, and turns to me.
“There was a man from Crete,” he says. “He wanted to give one of these goats to Harry Trueman. You know Harry Trueman, yes? The president of America?”
I tell Manousos that, yes, I’ve heard of him.
“He put the goat on an airplane,” Manousos continues. “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 shouts, story over, and snatches a glass off the fire warden’s forehead and pours me a great glug.
“I guess you’re not so bad for an English,” he says to me. “They usually mess everything up here.”
He looks out at the black gorge. A young kri-kri – or is it agrimi? – trots freely over the walled terrace. The fire warden slaps at his legs in his shorts, starts a drinking song as the others of the group clap and cheer 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 roars.
The fire warden has slumped under the table. The other wardens are still helping themselves to the plates of food. Manousos pours for us himself.
“The British took the king of Greece all the way down this gorge,” Manousos says.
“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 says, 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 sniffs deeply, takes another deep swig.
“We still search for any gold here now, while we work. We’ve never found any yet…”
The tenacious women, who spend the days here building up the gorge’s paths, and who have let us take part in this Samaria nighttime feast listen to Manousos and nod, sorely. The fire warden is fast asleep under the table.
Gone 2am, fat and drunk, we are shown to a room, just next to King George II’s. It smells terribly of horse manure and I realise as we sleep under the rough blankets this must, at some time, be the stables.
I wake up to a face-full of bugs.
I push the door open. The scene is utterly unrecognisable from last night.
In the hot, bright day, walkers are 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 this morning.
The fire warden slept the night out in the open under the table. He looks groggy and smiles sheepishly at us before climbing back on his mule and trotting into the dark green paths.
We say our goodbyes.
I feel 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 of walking so late and that 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 hug, take a photo of the group.
Manousos has long gone. Up at dawn to patrol his kingdom.
We walk the rest of the gorge, push through the Iron Gates – the colossal pillars of rock, just 4 meters apart from each other, but rising up above 300 meters. We walk 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 chugs in and chugs away again, cutting us through the pure turquoise blue to the village of Sougia.
The temperature at this low southern point of Crete has pushed over 45 degrees. The hot desert air is dense and heavy. A strong wind blows from Africa, whipping and tearing at everything. To stand outside is like being hit by a thick middle-eastern carpet.
We rent a cheap hotel room and sit for days, sweating inside this white box. The blinds drawn down. We are prisoners, the weather our jailor.
Like Odysseus again, kept captive by Calypsso.
The people of Sougia swear that Calypsso’s cave was here. I know 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 ask
“Well you can’t see it NOW,” says 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 turns his back to me, and hand thrown in the air, outraged and insulted.
We only leave our hotel cell in the evening to eat at a near-by tavern. The lady owner tells us she thinks the temperature might drop tomorrow, and that she’s now fearful that this drop in heat will cause an earthquake.
All we want to do is 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 has attracted us, where usual rules do not apply.
Eventually we turn up at the jetty in the early morning light, as we have been doing for day after day… and it’s there! Like a shining mirage, finally the boat to Gavdos is 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 have been stranded for days at this quayside, sleeping in the heat, renting rooms, being put up by friends would be furious. They need 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 is 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 explodes into life.
The tiny island goes 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 rearranges itself again out of the blistering sun in the shade of the old cafe.
We are the last people to leave the quayside, lugging bags onto our backs. A solitary man looks up from his tinkering at the back of his old truck. Where are you going, he asks. Do you want a lift?
Well, we don’t know where we’re going. But a lift there would be perfect.
He takes us to Korfos beach where we pitch a tent in the trees next to forgotten Minoan walls.
Through the next days we hitch lifts in other broken-down cars round this tiny island. There are just a handful of tavernas, no real hotels, no electricity, everything running off generators for a few hours each day.
But Ai-Giannis beach is full.
Full of straggly hair, bongos, cross-leggedness, smoke. No one is big on clothes though. A dark haired girl walks over the hot sand completely naked, sunburnt breasts, thick wild pubic hair, her eyes closed, a spread beatific smile. She moves her hands over the faces everybody she passes. People dance on the beach to sounds inside their heads. The living is free and quite fantastically out-of-it.
The sea is warm as a pan on the stove, the wind is calm now. Mainland Crete broods at us over the water.
Gavdos is a land away from all normal expectation of time and place. It doesn’t take much to find yourself lost in this untouched land away from people and habitats. In fact it is harder not to be on your own, among this outrageous terrain. Mysterious plants, wild birds pausing for breath on their migratory runs. Slopes plunging to pure blue seas.
We sit 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 fixes us great food – tsigariasto – Gavdos goat with onions.
She tells us about the island. About the one policeman based here.
I had seen him earlier, at the harbour, leaning on a wall, smiling, doing little, contentedly waving at the chaos of newcomers coming off the boat. Tall, a little dim-witted-looking, khaki uniform, very short shorts.
She tells me he very happily walks the island, smoking joints, chatting to the locals. Whenever there is trouble though he makes a point of not getting involved, fleeing.
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.
It is 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 and 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 has been delayed too, for day after day. No reason given. Even more so than getting here, leaving Gavdos seems a nigh-on impossible task. But it’s a task we don’t really want to achieve anyway.
One day we trek off towards the south of the island. Into the valley, the sun seemingly unwilling to hide, even late in the day, and beating down hard on us. Rocky climbs, through a discarded village: Vatsiana. A woman – surely the same one from back in Hametoulo? – comes out slowly in the days final heat, wanting to chat, bringing us a raki. Like a congenial tortoise.
About 5km through rough pathways, the birds around us intoxicated by the light of the falling dusk. Then onto the high coastal cliff. And finally we can see Triopetra beach.
Unlike the other beaches of Gavdos, this one looks almost lunar, other worldly. A vastness opens up out to the sea as we climb 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 have reached the very end.
We wade in the sea. Then walk onto the final rocks. There is a chair someone has built on the perfectly alone rock promontory, to mark this end of the western world.
As if this is the western world!
To think that would be a pretty laughable suggestion really. This isn’t Europe. This isn’t even Greece.
This is Crete.