Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Western Crete

Pan, Iraklion Archaeological Museum

Knossos site

North Gate and Bull fresco at Knossos
Dolphin fresco from Knossos

It is forty-five years since I last visited Crete during a month-long tour around Greece and Italy on less than £1 a day including travel. PM Harold Wilson had restricted foreign holiday expenditure to £50 per person, if George Osborne did the same today, limiting it at £1000 per person, the UK's balance of payment crisis would be achieved by far more progressive means than by his austerity measures that put a disproportionate burden on the young and disadvantaged.

In 1970 we had arrived at Crete on a badly listing tramp steamer from Rhodes and, after a few days in rooms at Aghios Nikolai and then Heraklion to visit Knossos, we spent the remaining nights in the caves above the beach at Matala on the south coast to save our drachmas. This visit was more conventional, a fortnight near Chania in western Crete. We were staying in a traditional Cretan village below the impressive White Mountains that rise to 2400 metres. As on all our jaunts this year we encountered the symptoms of climate change with only 6 days out of 14 giving Mediterranean sunshine, the rest were wet and cloudy with storms causing an untimely closure of the Samaria gorge in the White Mountains during our first week.

Before leaving home I had re-read 'Ill Met by Moonlight' by W. Stanley Moss, a book that described the kidnapping of the German General Kreipe by a special unit from the British Army. It is a tale of adventure with the local partisans helping the British travel through the mountainous terrain with the General as a prisoner. On arrival, I was lent a copy of 'The Cretan Runner' by George Psychoundakis, a local shepherd, who carried messages and guided escaped British troops to the south coast from where they were taken off by submarines to Egypt. The Cretan Runner was translated into English by Patrick Leigh Fermor, the travel writer and army commander of the Cretan operation. He also provided a foreword to both these books. They increased my thirst to spend time in the mountains and four days were spent climbing or walking down the splendid gorges of the White Mountains.

We began our exploration with the long trip eastwards to visit the Minoan ruins at Knossos. In 1970 I had been mesmerised by the extent and splendour of a site where the visitor was free to roam around at will. This time it was a more ordered offering with carefully constructed boardwalks to guide you round the ruins that had been excavated and partly reconstructed by Arthur Evans, the British Archaeologist,  at the start of the twentieth century.

Far more impressive was the excellent Heraklion archaeological museum that had benefited from a recent refurbishment. The presentation of the exhibits and the descriptions were of the highest order. The journey to Heraklion involved a 270 kilometre round trip along the E75 main road. It hosted some of the most hair-raising overtaking manoeuvres imaginable with vehicles travelling at the notional top speed constantly forced by speeding taxis and cars onto the hard shoulder whose width was variable determined by rock outcrops and overhanging vegetation.

During the rest of the fortnight, we visited the quite magnificent beach of Elafonisi in the extreme south-west, which is ranked as one of the top ten beaches in the world by Trip Advisor. We enjoyed the Agia Triada Monastery on the Akrotiri peninsula north of Chania. Nearby we despaired at the despoliation of the beautiful circular beach at Stavros, the location of the film, Zorba the Greek. Another day we explored the ruins at Aptero, one of the most important cities of ancient Crete, which overlooks the plain of Chania. We spent another rainy day in the visibly prosperous city of Chania with its magnificent Venetian harbour, busy markets and hordes of happy tourists. As with Heraklion, the Greek crisis seemed to have had little impact on the vitality and hospitality in these splendid cities.
Agia Triada Monastery
Elanofisi Beach

Stavros Bay

Hail Caesar - Roman ruin at Aptero
The Venetian harbour at Chania
Harbour at Chania

Best of all was the walking and on every sunny day, we set forth to walk down gorges, enjoy coastal walks and in my case climb in the mountains. We completed two of the many gorges: Imbros and Irini, and the coastal walk from Chora Sfakion to the village of Loutro that involved a tough exposed descent and a slog across the Sweetwater beach that sits below an unstable rock face. The sight of mainly older German and Scandinavian nudists was a bit like perambulating through a Beryl Cook picture book with the subjects stripped of colourful clothing. Although some of the German nudists do wear brightly coloured crash helmets as well as sun bloc following the death of nudists by rocks falling from the precipitous cliffs above the beach.

I managed a day in the White Mountains, climbing the quite stupendous Gingilos mountain, generally regarded as the best of the many peaks in the range, and then on the last day tackling the 18 kilometres long Samaria gorge, which had been made the first national park in Greece in 1962. It had been closed for most of the time we were there as a result of the rain and winds that caused falling rocks. So we had a full schedule of visits and lots more that could have been tackled had we more time available. Crete still provides lots of opportunities to enjoy the local hospitality and sumptuous scenery below the radar of commercial tourism.

Bareback goat riding and heading for the hills

The Loutro path, not for the faint-hearted
Loutro path from the ferry
Sweetwater beach for nudists with hard hats
Sweetwater Nudist Beach

Sweetwater cafe

The food was remarkably cheap and plentiful although even I began to wonder how many more Greek salads I could eat. All meals ended with a flask of Raki and a cake provided 'on the taverna' and we seldom had to pay more than 15 euros per head for a three-course meal that included a carafe of excellent local wine. What a contrast to the dystopian world of Gatwick airport. We had stayed at an airport hotel in order to catch a 6am flight and suffered a dreadful meal at one of the many irredeemably awful franchised food outlets. We made the same mistake on the return whilst waiting for a flight to Scotland. As an entry to the UK Gatwick is a homage to UK chain franchise outlets with underwhelming service and products as well as rapacious customer exploitation. We were already missing the easy customer friendly, local produce and healthy offerings in Crete. Our only consolation on arriving at Gatwick was that, unlike others on our holiday, we were spared the ultimate holiday indignity: a spin round the M25 on the drive home.

Everything about the demeanour of the Cretan people, their generosity of spirit, friendly nature and focus on local food and drink was an exemplar of how local rather than global services enrich the experience and promote international respect. Crete remains civilised; families and communities are self-sufficient in a way that those of us in more fractured societies aspire to reignite. And this is despite the efforts of Europe and the global corporates to force Greece to comply with trading agreements, exploit its economic opportunities with an emphasis on tourism. 

I had a bit of a spat with a tour guide/commander who was in charge of the coach and boat travel to and from the Samaria gorge for 40 German tourists and 3 Brits. He dismissed Syriza as a bunch of amateur politicians who were denying Greece the opportunity to benefit from the munificence of Europe (Germany). He decried the recent election result in which Syrizia received only 38% of the vote on a 60% turnout, which made them unrepresentative. I explained that it was pretty much the same ratio as the Conservatives in the UK but at least Greece had some measure of proportional representation that required Syriza to work collaboratively. Unlike the UK where we had a majority government arising from the votes of just 24% of the electorate. And when I pointed out that Crete, like all the Greek islands except Chios is strongly pro Syriza, he went apopletic.

It had been clear from the Cretans that we spoke to that they thought Syriza was more protective of the Greek way of life and for retaining some control of its destiny. The guide did not like my challenge and the Brits on the coach were designated as 'self-guided hikers' as opposed to his platoon of German walkers who were marched down the gorge by the commander/guide. It was almost a re-enactment of events in 1944 except we all escaped from Aghia Roumeli, the landlocked village at the foot of the gorge, on the same boat and had a good laugh with each other. It transpired that the tour guide was Dutch and keen to show off his command of languages. He knew who his paymasters were and seemed to find the Brits a bit too anarchic.

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