Cretan Days: A modern invasion
After a short and comfortable flight from Athens, visitors to Crete land at Chania on the north coast of the island – and enter a world that is a whole life away from the crowds and craziness of modern Athens.
I took a taxi from the airport into town to the Ionas Hotel. Well, actually, I didn’t. The taxi stopped at the end of a road that looked like a building site and pointed out a dim light in the far distance, which he said he thought was my hotel so I set off into the dark alley dragging my bags after me, feeling like a not very wise man trying to find the right inn, and started knocking on the door of the place which looked like the picture I had seen on the website. No answer. Tried another door. Back to the front door. Still locked. Then a terribly, terribly English voice issued from the dark, “Are they expecting you?” The speaker was a woman who owned The Well of the Turk Restaurant (closed on Tuesdays) and she suggested that I try a place further down the alley which I had not noticed, and of course there it was – the Ionas Hotel – though there was no one there, either.
Knocking and pacing did not achieve much but eventually a Bulgarian family, also guests at the hotel, and guests who actually had keys to the place, arrived and let me into the foyer, pointing out a sign on the door I had not seen, giving a telephone number to call. Fifteen minutes later Eleni arrived – although her hips preceded her by three minutes. She was a lovely and helpful woman, but very amply built. Perhaps she had drawn from The Well of the Turk too often.
The hotel was a superbly renovated Seventeenth Century Venetian (or Turkish?) townhouse. It had just eight or nine rooms, some stunning ironwork in its staircase balustrades, a massage shower (that did not work very well) and a lovely rooftop terrace overlooking the alley I’d stumbled down the previous night.
The builders were hard at work restoring two or three other old buildings in the lovely area, the Splantia Quarter: an area of tiny cobbled alleys, four-storey houses with wooden balconies, churches tucked away in odd corners, strong scents of orange blossom and jasmine everywhere, washing hanging out over the alley, masses of orange and purple and red and white bougainvilleas crawling over shop fronts and restaurant awnings, and the minaret of an ancient Turkish mosque towering over everything. The minaret was a good landmark for me on my morning jog down to the old Venetian harbour and around the city walls and back again. Of course I got lost – as usual – in the tiny side streets but was able to navigate by the minaret: who said that religious architecture had no purpose in the modern world?
The Splantia area of Chania was very quiet, and a far cry from the main tourist areas to the west of the city, where the Chalidon Street area was heaving with leather shops, jewellery shops, tourists (and the season had only really just started), bars, leather shops, tourists, stalls selling post cards and prayer beads and a few more leather shops and tourists.
A huge section of the city was off-limits to people as there was archaeological work going on, uncovering more Minoan bits and pieces, but the lovely old walls with ground-down mill stones built into them were still visible in many areas. I strolled about the city and lovely Venetian port area, past the round-roofed and arching brick-buttressed Mosque of the Janissaries, the oldest building in the city. Thanks to time and the German occupation during World War Two, many other historic buildings are no longer standing.
The south coast
It’s about seventy kilometres from Chania in the north to Chora Sfakion on the south coast, driving along the spectacular Imbross Gorge road that winds and twists over narrow valleys in the snow-capped White Mountains – all 2400m of them – and past road workers carving a new road and tunnels out of the massive cliffs and crags on the western side of the gorge.
An occasional farm with its patchwork of yellows and browns and olive greens pops its head up here and there, and the ubiquitous flocks (or is it herds?) of sheep and goats could be seen climbing impossible slopes and heard bleating and ringing their bells.
At one spot I walked around the edge of a cliff to get a better view of the scene below me, and under a crumbling rocky outcrop that loomed above, I found the decaying remains of one mountain goat whose feet were apparently not as sure as it had supposed them to be. I can just hear the thoughts that went through its tiny head seconds before it fell off that rocky outcrop: “Bloody hell! I’m supposed to be a mountain goaaaat! Aaaaargh!” SPLAT – except he would have been speaking in Greek. Unless he was a bilingual goat.
I spent a week or so at the naturist Vritomartis Resort – a very pleasant place with all-white-painted buildings, green grass, pink and white oleanders … and plump pink and white and red Europeans.
The main hotel building has a couple of dozen rooms of various shapes and sizes scattered over two floors. Bars, restaurants and reading rooms are on the lower floor, leading down to the (rather chilly) pool and pretty gardens. There are quite a few bungalows scattered about the grounds, with tennis courts, a giant outdoor chess board with child-high chess men, and a couple of steep roads leading down to two pretty naturist beaches with a beautiful (but very chilly) clear ocean lapping the rocky shore.
My room faced the mountains rather than the sea, and I could enjoy the sights of cars hurtling down the impossibly steep road into town … and the buses creeping out of it. At about 7.00 pm each evening, the clusters of tourist buses which had lurked all day down near the harbour, waiting for their passengers to return on the 6.30 ferry from their various excursions, began the climb up the seven or eight or ten switchbacks leading back over the mountains, looking like a group of snails involved in some remarkable mating ritual, as their slime trails criss-crossed one another until they finally, exhausted, disappeared around the final corner of the top switchback, to gather strength to do it all again the next day. Lucky snails.
My room also offered spectacular sunsets over the mountains, and glimpses of tiny churches tucked into the hills. The Twelve Apostles chapel is slowly crumbling away, and has plentiful bird and sheep droppings adorning it, but also has an interesting doorstep leading into the area behind the icon screen. The doorstep is a carved marble slab with Arabic inscriptions and a crescent of Islam. By placing it where it would be walked upon by Christian feet, I presume it was one way in which the Cretan builders of the church showed their disdain for the invading Turks.
Please pass the hypericum aciferum
The hills are alive with the sound of Julie Andrews and sheep and goats scrambling through the rocks. Local peasants (well perhaps they were the local Mayor and his wife, but it sounds better to say they were peasants) spent their days searching through the scrubby hills nearby, searching either for the tiny berries that grow on some of the squat bushes, or for the leaves of the protected hypericum aciferum bushes which are, apparently, a relative of St John’s Wort, used in the treatment of depression! I think I’d get depressed just knowing that hypericum aciferum is a cousin of St John’s Wort. There are also masses of wild thyme, which flavours the meat of the goats and sheep who eat it, and which also seeps into the taste of local honey and local wine.
The guests at the resort – other than the red Europeans and me – were a mixture of South Africans, two from Cyprus, a lovely French woman and a few English people, with couples, families and one or two single people. On my first visit to the resort there was one remarkable family group. The patriarch was an elderly, very tall and chubby chappie, with a waist-long grey ponytail and a chest-long untamed grey beard. He seemed to be married to an Asian woman – Burmese? Cambodian? – and had had by her a daughter who was about as cute as any tiny Asian doll-child of three years can be.
There were also two stunningly beautiful girls – or women, if you are generous in guessing ages – who were accompanied by a couple of over-weight and unpleasant-looking men. The girls’ bodies – yes, I know, at a naturist resort one is not supposed to look at others’ bodies, and far less to assess them! But on this occasion it was not only justified … but almost obligatory! … The girls’ bodies as they lolled and cavorted by the pool and even when bopping on the dance floor, with a few spider webs of garments draped here and there, would have made even Michelangelo weep. After one raki too many, I asked the woman at reception who these girls were and got a very dismissive, “Oh – they are Russians!” in reply, as if that explained everything.
The rest of us were pretty unexciting by comparison, and could probably have done with a good dose of hypericum aciferum.
Hit the Road, Jack
One day I went persuaded my little car to accompany me on a small excursion – back up the gorge road, turning off at the village of Imbross heading for Kalikratis and Frangokastella and then home again.
The countryside was pretty wild – very steep hills, with low scrubby vegetation in most areas, and gaunt pines clawing tenuous holds on perilous mountain sides. Small villages seemed almost organic as they “grew” out of the ground. The squat houses and dry stone fences were all constructed from the same grey and pale ochre stones and rocks that made up the landscape, and it was hard to discern where earth ended and house started.
Each village had at least one church, and in some places there seemed to be so many tiny churches that there must have been one church for every ten inhabitants. Most churches were open to the elements and to visitors and most were remarkably untidy. Each one I visited had a couple of pretty silver- or gold-mounted icons and lots of cheap reproductions of holy paintings, but scattered about were old Fanta bottles of oil for the sanctuary lamps and piles of half-burned candles and tapers that had been removed from the candleholders, and dumped in old cardboard cartons whose sides had succumbed to age, damp and neglect, spilling their loads onto the floor.
While the switchback road leading down to Sfakion was exciting enough; the one leading down the Kalikratiano Canyon was even better! Imagine a fairy tale giant idly dropping and draping a long strip of liquorice over a rough mountain range … and you have a pretty good idea of what the road looked like. The road had hairpin turn after hairpin turn after hairpin turn, with a possible maximum speed of only 20kmh. There were no guidelines. It was all single-lane. There were no guardrails or security fences – just huge drops one side and cliffs the other. The road surface gleamed black and seemed to have been recently resurfaced and polished with boot black, but already in some of the bends, erosion was starting and I imagined it wouldn’t be too long before the edges were undercut and started crumbling away. Again.
The Fourteenth Century Venetian castle at Frangokastella was in quite good condition – its external walls were complete and some of the ornamental carvings were still there. Inside, however, all wooden floors and beams had long-since disappeared. According to my little guidebook, “… it was built by the Venetians “as a bulwark against pirates and unruly Sfakiots…” However, according to Nikos, manager of Vritomartis, Sfakiots are and have always been, heroic freedom fighters and feared throughout the Crete, Greece and the world, so I guess it just depends on whose side of the fence you are sitting. The castle has seen some bloody battles – against the Venetians, against the Turks and now against the relentless and superior forces of the invading tourist bus groups.
A chance encounter with a shepherd complete with grizzled beard, a cap with “Crete” embroidered on it and shepherd’s crook under his arm and binoculars around his neck made the afternoon much more jolly after a disastrous lunch where my delightful seclusion was shattered by the arrival of two coaches laden with loud sunburned tourists.
My conversation with the shepherd was not particularly productive, as my Greek was limited to Good morning, good evening, please, thank you uand See ya! and his English was limited to a bone-crushing hand shake as we parted our ways, but I think we established that he was looking after between one and two hundred sheep, that they grazed somewhere nearby and that they were good eating.
End of the day and end of the visit
Evening sounds at the resort: I wish I could say the twilight was ruptured by the sound of the slapping of greased hands on sunburned fat backs, but the pool was on the other side of the hotel.
What was audible was the bleatings and baa-ings and clanking of bells on the sheep’s and goats’ necks, all gradually diminishing as they worked their way to wherever it was they spent their nights. A battered old red pick-up truck drove down a side road, sounding its horn, and with the driver calling out to his flock, which gallooped after the truck, bleating, baa-ing and ringing their bells. If I were a sheep or a goat I think I’d find the perpetual clanking of my neck bell a bloody intrusion to intelligent conversation with my peers. But then, my intellectual equals would, like me, probably have a vocabulary limited to “Baa”, so great debates on the wonders of the world are probably pretty unlikely. As the animal noises died out, the starlings and other birds took over the skies with their calls, until they, too were silent, and all that could be heard was the clinking of the ice cubes in my gin and tonic before I staggered down THAT steep slope for dinner in the village.
In Chania I had dinner at The Well of the Turk (I had to go back to support the woman who had helped me out in my moment of distress!), which served a mixture of Moroccan, Arabic and Greek food, washed down with local beer and finished off with Turkish delight and complimentary raki. Considering the antipathy with which the locals treat or speak of the Turks, even hundreds of years after the invaders were driven out of the country, it’s a bit amazing that restaurants are even allowed to serve Turkish delight. Perhaps I had it wrong … and there is a Cretan sweet that looks and tastes like Turkish delight but is in fact Greek delight …
Another night in Chania I had dinner at a harbour-side restaurant where my red mullet was delicious. I got to like this tiny fish in Croatia last year, and returned to the same restaurant a couple of times to eat their mullet. I had a bottle of Lithios red wine with the fish – not a terribly exciting wine, and in fact so far I have tried several Cretan reds and a couple of Cretan whites and have not really enjoyed them much. Must get back to the old retsina!
At another harbour side restaurant, in the village of Chora Sfakion – two kilometres’ walk away from the resort – I had some tuna with a local beer and both were excellent! Another dinner was at the White Hills restaurant at the far end of the harbour. I’d had lunch there one day and had had a good meal: lamb slowly cooked in olive oil, with rough bread and a half pot of local red wine. Great stuff. On another visit I had pork smoked in mountain herbs. Yum.
More anon …
- Words and photographs © Christopher Hall 2014
- Date of journey: April – May 2008
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