(By kind permission of The Bay, www.theswanseabay.co.uk )
26 degrees, blue skies, not a drop of rain – that’s the way to spend Christmas. I was assured the weather was not typical for December, but I didn’t miss the odd rainy day. My previous winter trips to the Mediterranean have been in something like nice Welsh spring weather.
My starting point was Chania in the west, and Kissamos-Kastelli even further west. It was a two centre holiday. Olympic do not run direct flights to Chania in the winter so it was an overnight flight from Heathrow via Athens. Have you ever slept on a bench in a bleak deserted British airport at 4 am? Athens is a twenty-four hour operation. All the cafes and shops were wide open in the early hours. Cue Greek breakfast and the first mind-blowing coffee.
I set off a day after my sister and her family heading by car and Eurostar to Chamonix. A text told me they were stuck in a blizzard on the motorway near Dijon. I ordered another coffee.
The coach transfer to Kissamos took an hour along good roads. (I have seen some real shockers in remoter parts of Greece.) Kissamos is in the early stages of joining the Cretan tourist market to share the island’s three million visitors a year, but in common with the rest of the island the tourism side pretty much closes down in the winter. Perhaps I am maligning the typical tourist. What I mean is that the inevitable tourist traps are closed, but Crete is open. If you can bear to eat in tavernas instead of fast food joints, drink local beer instead of Heineken, and share in the life of Cretans, this is the time of year for you.
Xristouyenna, Christ’s birth. In common with many European countries Cretans celebrate en famille on Christmas Eve, though the Greek Orthodox Father Christmas waits until New Year’s Day, his saint day, to give presents. He is St Basil, Agios Vassilis. Carol singing (the Kalanda) is very much alive on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and the Eve of Epiphany. Groups of children go from house to house singing the carol of the day (one for each Eve), accompanying themselves on triangles. On Christmas Eve Kissamos was alive with the sound of singing and triangles.
Expect to be offered Christmas biscuits, melomakarana (sweet honey covered) andkourabiedes (icing sugar coated), at every turn. Forget mince pies and turn off the calorie counter.
First footing, the Podariko, brings luck when a child is the first person to cross the threshold on New Year’s Day. The child brings skylokremmyda, a plant with thick green leaves and a bulb, to leave on the doorstep and steps into the house right foot first to receive a gift of money for the New Year.
Kissamos is at the base of a long broad inlet bordered by two steep-sided peninsulas. The port, three kilometres away, is the point of entry for ferries from the mainland. Ferries do still run in winter but with a much reduced schedule. Given the frequency of the short flights from Athens the ferry would only be a maritime enthusiast’s way of reaching Crete.
It will not come as a surprise to The Bay’s readers that I was on a walking holiday with a group of like-minded temporary expatriates. While many of the small villages we passed through are accessible by hire car or bus they are not in any tourist guide. Seek them out, leave the ersatz tourist strips behind, and savour Cretan Crete. The Greeks are surely the most friendly and hospitable nation in Europe.
On Christmas Eve we walked across the Rodopou Peninsula and through the village of Ravdouha. Madame Dorothea in her black dress was waiting for us at the tiny taverna with little spinach and cheese pasties, and freshly squeezed orange juice. I was used to picking up pasties from a baker for an al fresco lunch, but these small treats straight from the oven were the gastronomic highlight of the holiday for me. I daren’t say how many I went back for, but it must have taken most of the rest of the holiday to walk them off. The beaming Madame Dorothea was rewarded with a jig on the piccolo (it comes into the story later) and performed a spirited Greek/Irish dance around the taverna.
The walk ended at a sea-front taverna overlooked by a very large house in an estate. Nana Mouskouri lives in the house and occasionally comes into the village to sing, but not that day.
It’s time for a word or two about drinking in Greece. Teetotallers can read on anyway out of curiosity. Forget the wine list, ask for a carafe of the house wine, and save yourself a sizeable number of euros. The house white wines are universally drinkable, but be a little wary of the red. Some house reds look more like rosé and have a light port or sherry taste. Ask to taste before you order in case it does not suit you. Greek beer is a lager called Mythos, which to my ale-conditioned palate is indistinguishable from any other lager and is more than acceptable especially after a long day walking.
Raki is fire-water. Literally. On Christmas Eve the taverna owner threw glasses of rakion the fire as his contribution to global warming. Think poteen, moonshine or the Frenchalcool m de contrabande. You may be offered a shot at any time and especially at the end of a meal. It is on the house. The taverna gives it away and could well have distilled it in the back room. According to my guide book, ‘… as long as you eat food with it, don’t mix it with other alcohol and drink plenty of water, you can drink considerable amounts without serious after-effects or hangovers.’ I want my money back. The strength varies from eyeball-curdling to anatomically indescribable. Take your shot in the spirit in which it is given, and don’t be tempted to make an evening on it.
Crete is famous for its gorges. The Samaria Gorge is said to be the longest in Europe. It leads to the south coast where there are no roads and the only ways back are to retrace your steps or take the ferry to a bus stop. Walking the gorge is a must-do for 170,000 visitors a year, many of them perhaps infrequent walkers enjoying a once in a lifetime experience. The Bay’s readership will be able to provide an appreciable number of Samaria hikers. Unfortunately the ferries do not run in winter so we walked the nearby Imbros Gorge instead. Imbros is less hiked than Samaria but at least as spectacular. The gorge descends 600m, its walls of rock reach over 300m high, and at the narrowest point there is just 2m to squeeze through.
Think for a moment about sharing a gorge with 170,000 others. Taking into account various mathematical assumptions about season, weather, and holiday patterns, on an average summer day you could expect to meet the entire population of Clydachwalking down the gorge or bumping into you on the way up. That is one crowded cleft in the mountains. On 28th December we did not meet a soul the length of the Imbros Gorge. No one. No one at all.
One of our number was a retired teacher from Bradford. In the depths of the gorge he played lays and laments on the piccolo. Imagine the acoustics of a concert hall a thousand feet high and a hundred feet across. The piccolo is a small instrument. If it is to be heard in an orchestra the rest of the band had better be quiet for a while. The Imbros echoes carried the music for miles, reinforcing note upon note, the last tonic sounding alone seconds after the player had ceased.
Cretans consume 31 litres of olive oil per head every year, compared to our half a litre. 17 litre cans of extra virgin olive oil are piled high in the mini-markets. Cretans and other south Europeans live longer and have significantly lower incidences of some nasty diseases than north Europeans, including us. Many studies have identified the importance of the south European diet to a long and healthy life. I rest my case – Sam, over to you.
Cretan Olives are harvested between November and March. The technique is to spread nets under the trees and beat the olives off the branches. At one time this was done with sticks, but now a hand-held powered harvester similar to a brush cutter is used. Most olive groves are privately owned and individual harvests are on a relatively small scale, though the overall harvest is huge. Families help each other, and there is an influx of workers from north Africa. The fallen leaves are also collected to be used in medicinal teas. Olive trees, twelve to fifteen feet high, dominate the fertile landscape.
By the way, chips fried in olive oil are without compare.
The second part of the holiday was based back in Chania, once the capital and now the second city of Crete. The old walled town, with its mixture of Venetian and Turkish architecture, is centred on the harbour. A cheerful schizophrenia is epitomised by Agios Nikolaos, formerly part of a Dominican priory, which has a bell tower at one end to match the minaret added by invading Turks at the other.
There are many small hotels and pensions in the back streets and alleys. There is a long tourist strip along the bay to the east, but it was largely shut and we only saw it when passing through on a bus. The waterfront tavernas were full of Cretans on Christmas Day enjoying family reunions and celebrations. In the summer they retreat to the new town as the harbour is overrun with visitors. Most of the museums were open and are well worth visiting. I could have spent a week in the Naval Museum.
The history of Crete is long and bloody. When the island wasn’t being invaded there were internecine quarrels and wars aplenty. Crete has been invaded and ruled by Minoans, Mycenaeans, Dorians, Romans, Venetians, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans and most recently Germans. Crete did not unite with Greece until 1913 and retains a fiercely independent spirit.
The German airborne invasion at Maleme on the Gulf of Chania in late May 1941 was described by Churchill as the some of the hardest fighting of the war. Casualties, especially among the invaders, were appalling. The defeated allied troops, with the Kiwis in the thick of the battle, retreated down the Imbros Gorge and were evacuated by sea to North Africa. There are many well kept war cemeteries, including the German cemetery on the hillside overlooking Maleme, where the 4,465 men who died between 20th and 22nd May are buried. One of our party stopped before one grave and bowed his head. The 20 year old soldier died on 21st May 1941, the day this man was born.
Crete is steeped in history. The Minoans were building palaces when we were still bashing each other over the head with clubs and dragging our women round by their hair. Iraklio and Knossos to the east are the main Minoan centres but given the athletic nature of this holiday were out of reach this time. I shall return, perhaps to share the experience of the great American writer Henry Miller when he first beheld the palace of Phaistos high above the Messara Plain.
“’God, it’s incredible!’ I turned my eyes away. It was too much, too much to try to accept at once … I felt slightly demented … I no longer felt the need of enrichment; I had reached the apogee, I wanted to give, to give prodigally and indiscriminately of all I possessed. I wanted to stay forever, turn my back on the world, renounce everything.’