When we picked Crete for our winter refuge, I thought of nice beaches. Most people do, apparently. I had no idea of the ruggedly beautiful, mountainous landscape, the fragile hardiness of its nature. I knew nothing of the snow-capped mountains, hidden plateaus, gorges and canyons, caves and crevasses, of the spring wildflowers in a hundred hues and the feast of edible mountain herbs. I wasn’t expecting soaring vultures and stinky mushrooms, or the most amazing sausages I’ve ever tasted (pork marinated in vinegar for a week then stuffed into rugged sausage casings and smoked over hot coals, mmm, mmmf, mumf, nom nom nom – when I die, put a bite of Cretan sausage into my mouth and I’ll leave existence a happy girl).
Once again, life offers a reminder that the best adventures are to be had when you stop moving. In a mere three-and-a-half months in Crete, much of that time spent indoors working at the computer and sheltering from some terrible weather, we have barely done justice to the place. We’ve only made it to three of the five or so mountain ranges that grace this island which, given its modest size (260 km east to west and 12–60 km north to south) packs a remarkable haul of peaks over 2000m. We have walked through a mere handful of its many hundreds of gorges. And, despite having hung out with a fair number of Crete’s speleology (caving) enthusiasts, we have thus far ventured into only a couple of the vast network of caves with which the island is riddled.
But one of the most striking aspects of our stay has been, for me at least, yet another total realignment of my sense of historical perspective. Although John has lived in Greece before, it’s my first visit to the lands of classical antiquity. The ancient world was something I was intellectually (and I use that word in the loosest possible sense) aware of, but didn’t quite seem real – it was shrouded in legend, historical uncertainty, unreliability.
I think the unconscious logic (again, an over-generous term) in mind went something like this: the bible is fiction, more-or-less, so everything up to and including Jesus is basically mythological. Plus some stone ruins and pots and stuff – the marks of human civilization but not a comprehensive account. Therefore BC ≈ almost unimaginably old, all available information to be regarded as unreliable, save perhaps for some brief flourishings of observational science and semi-reliably-recorded history with ancient Greece and Rome. Oh, and the Egyptians were pretty cool too, even if they were a bit obsessed with death and cats – and they sort of invented farming. Didn’t they? As you can tell, history was never my best subject at school.
But once you’ve ridden a bike on rutted Roman cobbles, they suddenly seem very, very real (both the cobbles and the Romans). And kind of … contemporary. The Romans made it well into the ADs, after all, and modern Europe seems to have more in common with the Roman Empire culturally than with subsequent life in the Dark Ages. And once I got over the impressive grandeur of Hellenic temples and the realism, precision and inexplicable grace of the statues and friezes in Athens, another surprise was that, as it turns out, the period I tend to think of as Classical Greece and imagined as a grand extended period of peace, enlightenment and stability was not that long before Rome, and was at its height only a hundred or so years (if that) long – a mere blip.
A trip back in time through and beyond the historical roots of Europe was, to tell the truth, probably a less significant driver of our itinerary than the hope of getting to a nice mild spot to spend the winter – somewhere that perhaps one might want to pop a cardie on if heading out for supper in a local taverna of an evening. As far as a warm winter refuge goes, however, we seem to have picked the wrong winter to spend in Crete. Like put-upon cartoon strip characters languishing under an eternal cloud, the violent storms which dogged us all the way from Genoa chased us south to this usually arid island not far off the North African coast and continued to hurl torrential rain, thunder, lightning, hail and, eventually, snow at us. Crete, a highly porous limestone island, is currently bursting with water, like a saturated sponge ready to go SPLOT!
But in terms of expanding yet again this sense of historical perspective, it couldn’t have been better. And we have been very lucky that both shelter from the storms and a fantastic guide to Crete’s culture and history came to us in the form of Chryssa, a friend of a friend of John’s, who invited us to share her beautiful house, just inside Heraklion’s Venetian walls, with her and her lovely kids, Fereniki and Konstantinos. As a keen caver, former rural cultural and development officer and general all-round babe, she also introduced us to her circle of fantastic, interesting, adventurous and knowledgeable friends whom we’ve been very lucky to hang out, play music, and explore the island with while we’ve been here.
Better still, Chryssa and friends are in the process of setting up an alternative tour company, Petassos, which offers journeys through Crete’s history, culture, landscape and gastronomy. Within a week of arriving, we were ‘helping’ check out one of their planned tours: marching up to Karfi (photos of our trip here), the hidden mountain refuge of the last of the Minoans, with the encyclopaedically-brained Dimitris as our guide.
Minoan culture on Crete traces back to around 3650 BCE, but things really started to get interesting around 1900 BCE when the first so-called palaces started to appear. Having flourished for well over 2000 years, despite natural cataclysms and invasion by the Mycenaeans, it was the massive volcano eruption in nearby Thira (Santorini) that seems to have fatally weakened what was by then probably a Mycenaean-dominated hybrid civilisation. When the Dorian barbarians invaded from the Aegean, the locals retreated from the grand palace complexes or cities or whatever they were and took refuge in high mountain plateaus.
Huddled behind a mist-drenched craggy nobble (or is it a nobbly crag?) over a kilometre above sea level, the Minoans built Karfi, a human eyrie, to guard the hidden fertile plateau of Lassithi, watching over the approach all the way to the northern coast.
This surprisingly substantial town/fort/administrative centre’s location speaks strongly of the desperation, but also the pride, technology and endurance of those who built and lived in such a place – a final testimony to the strength of this faded civilization which can still be traced in the DNA of contemporary generations of Lassithi farmers. Today it is guarded only by vultures.
Our visit to Crete’s most famous Minoan site, Knossos, a palace/ temple complex and administrative centre from the height of Minoan civilization, was a very different experience. Excavated in the early 20th century, wandering around this site you are (as others have observed before me) as likely to encounter its famous discoverer, the renowned archaeologist Arthur Evans, as you are the Minoans. On uncovering the labyrinthine complex, Evans posited that it must surely be the legendary palace of King Minos, “father” of the maze-dwelling half-man half-beast, the Minotaur – in fact the bastard offspring of Minos’s frisky wife and a particularly handsome white bull, whom she seduced by the cunning ruse of donning a great big wooden cow costume.
Evans wasn’t the first to suggest that the Cretan ruins were connected to the legends of the court of King Minos, and to call its inhabitants the Minoans, but he was probably responsible for cementing the idea, which is not without evidence (which I don’t understand well enough to go into here). The ancient Egyptians, however, seem to have referred to Crete and its inhabitants of this period as the Keftiu, though I believe the matter is not settled among historians – or at least not among Wikipedia editors.
A mix of a pragmatic need to protect the ruins from harsh weather and, one senses, a highly romantic imagination, prompted Evans to ‘reconstruct’ parts of the palace using modern materials, including concrete and chemical paints. Materials aside, the degree to which his reconstructions are even visually accurate is, of course, highly debatable, and it’s very hard to assess, as an ignorant tourist, where archaeological evidence ends and Evans’ imagination begins. Evans’ ghost lies over the place like a mist, occupying an amorphous space between the actual remains and the sense of the civilization he was trying to represent. At the same time, it offers an interesting case study into the history of archaeology and ideas about how to present historical sites to the modern public.
As well as exploring ancient Crete, we’ve been enjoying getting involved in contemporary life. It has been good to see that even though the crisis has bitten hard, people still have their lands to fall back on. People’s connection to their family land seems to hold particularly strong here. Despite severe rural depopulation, especially in mountainous areas (i.e. most of the inland areas), many city-dwellers still own land in the villages, and return several times a year to tend and harvest their olive groves. Everyone seems to have or have access to orange and lemon trees, and the mountains are full of edible greens, which a surprising number of young urbanites go to pick at the weekend.
While most of the veg and fruit harvest was over by the time we arrived, the olive season was just getting into full swing, and we were invited to earn our winter’s supply of limitless free olive oil by helping out. (The following pictures are from two different harvests.)
So first you pick the olives, or rather shake them from the trees by means of machines with little sticks or rollers on (people used to beat the trees with sticks before mechanisation) and collect them in large nets spread for that purpose under the trees. Then you bundle them up into sacks…
… and put them on the back of a truck and place two small children on top of them (Chryssa’s kids Fereniki and Konstantinos are undertaking that vital role here):
Then you take them to the olive oil factory. They get poured into a vat…
… run up a conveyer belt to a large hoover (sorry, generic sucking thing) which removes the leaves and twigs…
… then they get washed …
… and mashed …
… and then they go into here where something very important and quite hot happens, but I was still taking photos of the last bit when it was being explained to everyone else …
… and then they go into a big sealed vat that was too boring to photograph and no one seemed to really know what happened inside it anyway, and then your scarily green oil comes out here:
But it all settles down and makes beautiful clear, grassy olive oil, which you must then slosh liberally into or over everything you eat all winter. And then in Spring, you cycle to Indonesia in the hope of regaining your waistline.
One of our main reasons for staying in Heraklion – the relatively charmless (in spite of its massive Venetian walls) main city of Crete – was the hope of meeting local musicians to play with.
As well as some very enjoyable weekly sessions swapping Greek and Klezmer tunes with two accordion players, Polina and Ifgenia, we were also lucky enough to attend a few of the free classes at Labyrinth. One of the best-known musicians on Crete is in fact an Irishman (I’m tempted to say former Irishman, since he seems so much to be a part of Crete, and Crete a part of him) called Ross Daly, who settled on the island in the early 1980s and apprenticed himself to one of the most respected lyra players for over a decade. Combining his knowledge of Cretan music with Ottoman classical maqam, North Indian raga and no doubt other influences, he established a music school called Labyrinth, dedicated to making top-quality musical education accessible to all. He also tours and performs his own compositions and those of other members of the core Labyrinth ensemble. Daly’s contribution to Cretan music also includes working with luthiers to develop experimental instruments based on the bowed lyra (particularly associated with the Greek islands) and Indian instruments with sympathetic strings such as sitar and sarengi. In the video below, you’ll see Kelly playing a lyra with sympathetic strings and Ross playing the tarhu, a hybrid creation by Australian luthier Peter Biffin.
We’ve also had plenty of chance, despite the weather, to explore the island by bike and foot. Our first trip to the mountains was to spend Christmas in a refuge in the Lefkaori mountains with the Crete Speleological Society, for hiking rather than caving. The paradox of Crete’s environment was striking – it’s a hard land, rugged and semi-arid, with none of the lush greens of Italy or northern Greece; it seems to have more in common with the borderlands of Middle Eastern and North African deserts. Saharan dust blows in whenever the wind is from the south, and what little flora remains from the ravages of the summer sun clings determinedly to the bedrock. Yet despite the almost barren appearance of the hills from afar, take a stroll among them and you will discover a diverse and tenacious population of plants, many edible or of medicinal use. Dwarf oak trees with thorny leaves twist and plunge their way into solid rock, and early wildflowers, optimistic for the spring, take what shelter they can find to bloom.
I was immensely pleased (as anyone familiar with my personal obsessions will understand) to discover this nauseating, stinking mess:
… which turned out to be the remains of one of these:
We also took a fantastic cycling trip up to the Lassithi plateau and then over to the Astrorussia mountains on the south coast – sadly few photos as we were having trouble charging the phone, but here’s one Chryssa took on a different trip:
Crete is cycling heaven – though a mountain bike is recommended, since the best roads are unmetalled. John’s old-school Giant mountain bike, with Schwalbe Marathon tyres and wide straight handlebars coped well. My beloved but roadier Surly LHT, with narrow tyres, drops and a top-heavy handlebar bag which makes precise steering a challenge was harder to handle, and I ended up pushing the bike up a few hairpins, particularly on the road up to the Asterousia from Tsoutsouros, which is very steep and bouldery for the first couple of kms. But the effort was well worth it – we emerged from a dense sea mist into yet more hidden valleys, lush and green, and laced with picturesque (i.e. too impoverished to have been rebuilt in crappy concrete) villages.
Our planned route just happened to include the home of Jo, an old friend of Ben-from-the-band (and by the way, our new Reason Breeds Monsters EP is up online) and her lovely lover Miki. Jo, who was every bit as delightful as we would expect one of Ben’s friends to be, has just completed a PhD on the immunological properties of Cretan plant life, and is now happily away from the computer and getting her hands dirty on the farm. The poorly kid being fed below has happily made a full recovery and is now enjoying himself terrorising the chickens. Many thanks to Jo and Miki for their great company and hospitality at short notice, not to mention some of the best raki we’ve tasted thus far!
Our final trip around the island was with Chryssa – on the pretext of checking out itineraries and accommodation for Petassos. It was tremendous fun to travel around with someone who knows the island and its culture and history so well, not to mention a native speaker who can quiz locals about the history and geography. It certainly made exploring more exciting:
The cave turned out to have some shards of old pottery in it (you can tell they are old by the fragments of grit – modern local ceramics are smooth). An elderly couple, who fortunately turned up a few minutes after this photo was taken and Chryssa was safely back on the ground, explained the church’s founder had discovered the cave with ancient icons hidden inside in the cliff face in the 19th century (sorry, I forgot the date). A few nights later he dreamed that he should build a church there. Although the original burned down, this partly-restored building is still in use today.
Chryssa also came fully equipped to take us into some of the island’s incredible caves:
Leaving Crete and the lovely friends we have made behind has been a real wrench, bearable only alongside the decision to return some day and continue exploring this incredible island. After all, in our entire stay, we only visited one beach…