The Ballards - Greece Crete


In April 2000 we holidayed in Rethymnon, Northern Crete.
Crete is stunning, once you get away from the other tourists, who congregate on the coast: an endless line of sweaty, overweight, pallid flesh deliberately acquiring radiation burns and overeating in an attempt to forget their humdrum existences.
Rethymnon is like all Greek cities: an overwhelming pall of exhaust fumes, droning mopeds and an undercurrent of raw sewage: inadequate road systems, endless moped hire and beachware shops, and Germans in yellow taxis.

But outside Rethymnon, you can touch Greece.
One moment you are in the city, but a moped mile later you are back 1,000 years in a little Greek village with old women in black, old men playing cards and drinking Ouzo, the smells of cypress and pine trees, old monks in black with wispy beards swinging incense and muttering in ye olde Greek, beaten silver ornaments, dusty streets and writing you can't even guess at, so any menu becomes an adventure.
The city is still audible, but the modern lifestyle hasn't leaked in just yet.

We visited several restaurants where the language gap was so wide we had to go in to the kitchen and point to the (universally delicious) items available.

Actually, Rethymnon is not so bad down by the harbour. Here the trade is mixed fishing and tourist activities, the harbour having been done up, doubtless with EC money.

We left the city as quickly as possible and visited markets and gorges, monasteries and villages, fuelled by Greek salads and Ouzo, fresh fruit and curiosity.
One supermarket on the outskirts of Rethymnon wouldn't let us leave the shop (at 10.00am!) without 2 glasses of Ouzo each, which contributed to our driving, certainly.
Is it any wonder they have a dreadful accident rate?

Many of the roads on the island are unsurfaced and very rough as a result, making moped riding unpredictable and wearing.
So we gave up on the mopeds and hired a Renault Twingo-thing which buzzed and screamed and barely had enough power to get us up the hills.

The hills are remote and peaceful, with goats and monasteries dotted across the hills.

The monasteries are quiet: too quiet.
They actually absorb sound, in some DiscWorld-type distortion of reality.
In the back of your head a monk-chanting soundtrack runs all the time, but in reality there is no sound.
Perhaps there is something in Terry Pratchett's theories of monks absorbing and storing time, but maybe it's sound they're absorbing...

Much of Crete is built on limestone and we are always suckers for limestone caves so we visited the Melidoni cave for a cool refreshing afternoon's bat-guano and Alien-like accretion viewing.
I'm convinced there's an Alien-chewed traveller in its astrolabe seat in one of these caves somewhere...

Crete played a bit part in World War II, when it was considered strategic, like Malta.
But unlike Malta it was invaded by the Germans, who treated the Greeks very badly indeed.
Reading Anthony Beevor's account of the war in Crete, I can understand why the Greeks like the English more than they like the Germans...

We hired a boat from Bali. This is the most fun you can have on the water: get right away from anyone else and do your own thing.
Picnic in bag, mobile phone (thank goodness for GSM, we broke the prop on some rocks.....), towels, a good book and some suntan lotion.

We found a deserted bay inaccessible from the land side and just chilled out all afternoon in the sun.
We ate our packed lunch, read and sunbathed, swam in the rock pools, climbed a bit, read and sunbathed a bit more, then then headed for home. The best day I've had on holiday for years.

We visited several ruined and abandoned villages: now the tourists and the money are on the coasts many of the traditional villages up in the hills have been abandoned, which is a shame. Wouldn't it be fun to buy one, do it up and live in it?

Endless winding paths, maintained as much by the passage of goats as by people, wind up and down the hills and everywhere is so quiet, just the absence of noise is restful.

We visited the Irini Gorge, a remote spot on the tourist map. Every year in the late winter and early spring this gorge is scoured by runoff from the melting snow on the mountains above. For the rest of the year it is remote, quiet and pleasant. The high cliffs protect you and the flora and fauna from the direct sunlight for much of the day, giving a cooler, more pleasant experience than out in the open countryside.
Starting out at the top of the gorge the riverbed is utterly dry, giving the illusion of a lack of moisture. And yet the plants grow well. Half a mile down the gorge, however, damp patches begin to appear as the water climbs closer to the surface, and soon small rivulets are wending their way down, parting and joining around the bigger rocks.

Further on down the walls close in and someone has gone to a great deal of effort to ensure the path continues, by adding wooden walkways and dynamiting tricky sections.
But by that time we'd had enough walking in the hot sun and were ready for a dip in the pool...

Heading for the South coast you get a better idea of why the Germans couldn't hold the island against roving partisan bands. The hills turn in to mountains that even now do not have navigable roads exploring many of them.

Ravines many hundreds of feet deep open up next to the road and often the bottom is invisible, quite apart from being inaccessible.

The roads wind up and up until suddenly you pass through a col and there is the whole South coast dropping down to the sea. On this remote coast many more monasteries are to be found, and interestingly Venetian bridges still exist (I didn't know the Venetians ever had an empire: I hought they were always too busy bailing out their cellars...)

On our way to Chania we passed Souda cemetery where many hundred of WWII Allied dead are buried.
It's a sobering place; that this many people had to die just to keep Hitler off the throne of Europe. And in our parents' lifetimes.
But the dead have a great view out over the bay where the Greek Navy keeps its boats (yes, both of them...).

Chania is like Rethymnon: a modern, dirty, Greek city with a nicely restored and largely non-functional harbour.
Judging by these photos, Heraklion is much the same, ruined by the fact that we visited the city on a Bank Holiday and everywhere except the pastry shop was shut...

So we'll have to go back.