The first time we arrived in Chania it was market day. No one had told the lady at Google so she delivered us right into the thick of it. Big van. Big crowds. Bad mix.
That was hard, but at least we knew when market day fell.
Stopping off in Chania again we had two aims. Eat at Manos and go to the market.
It’s a grey day with occasional showers, grey streets busy with people in grey, but the air is thick with the smoke from many grills, and the smell feeds us a second breakfast. The market street is book-ended by a collection of barbecues that provide for the stall holders from dawn, then the customers until late in the day.
To turn onto the market is to turn on the colour. Each side is lined with stalls piled high with fresh goodness. Greens, reds, yellows, oranges, all so bright.
Immediately there’s a stall of oranges, peppers and tomatoes. Five types of orange, maybe six, some huge and weighing a pound each, right down to sweet kumquats that you sample on the move. Cherry tomatoes, vine tomatoes, plum tomatoes and beef tomatoes. I wonder what the ridgey ones are called? Peppers. Long pointy sweet red ones and the same shape in green that get pickled. Yellow round ones and big red round ones, it’s a caper of capsicum.
An apple store puts cider on the air. Here I love the tiny Zagori apples from the Pelion Peninsula. They’re two bite wonders with a good combination of sweetness and crunch.
Next are the greens. So many greens. Can I absorb vitamins by observation? Celery as long as my arm, with masses of leaves. Leeks approach a metre and tend to be kept standing in bunches. Bouquets of parsley, huge flat leaves. Mountains of radishes, here the green tops are used too. Then there are the weeds. Horta. Dandelion. Rocket. Spikey green weeds that are harvested with half of their root attached and sliced diagonally. Sorrel is offered super neat, each long leaf laid flat and gently bunched in 20s with elastic bands.
Cabbages. Who knew there were so many? I’m used to describing the big ones as footballs, but here we saw some as big as cow’s heads. These were sliced open and not tight leaved like the smaller ones. Most are straightforward purple, or light green. We always seek the smallest. They fit the tiny fridge, and will be eaten in a couple of meals. The cauliflower badge of honour seems to be for size too, broccoli is sold as cut stems as well as heads. We have yet to buy one of the sculptural aliens that the Italians favour, you know, the pointy light green love child of cauli and broccoli.
The pungent olive stores. Although the smell is Mediterranean it always takes me to Morocco where it first hit me as a callow teenager who’d rarely ventured out of Cornwall, and had probably never eaten such fruit. Olives are stuffed with anything small enough to fit. The strongest taste comes from the salted ones, but each packs a punch. As the world goes Corona hygiene mad, here for a taste of anything you simply dive into the vat with your hand.
Greeks don’t seem to bother with small potatoes, even new spuds are large. That fits with the general temperament of the country – unfussy, take what’s good, don’t dress it up.
21st century delights.
Rick made a comment on a post a couple of weeks ago about folk attracted to the south coast who choose to avoid many of the delights of the 21st century. It struck a chord and helped crystallise something I’ve pondered since first arriving in Greece in November 2018. It feels to me that outside of the big cities the Greeks have an impressive knack of absorbing progress as it suits them, but ignoring the rest.
Everyone has a phone, but they use it for talking to each other, imagine that!
No one is obsessively tidy. That’s particularly evident with buildings. What strikes me as scruffy probably saves a fortune in unnecessary upkeep.
They drive small cars or pick-ups and drive them into the ground. Again, it saves huge sums of money, and it’s probably a more environmentally friendly option too (although I doubt that’s a consideration).
They dress well for events, but generally Cornish Casual would be stand-out smart around these parts.
Apart from the difficult situation on islands hit by the migrant crises I suspect that the world arrives for summer, but is otherwise of little concern to most.
This is best characterised by the goatherd, wondering wild through the harsh landscape with his flock and dogs, seemingly unconnected to modern life. Alongside his traditional tools of dagger, pistol, shotgun and crook he’ll have an iPhone, and it’ll have better signal than any rural bit of England.
More on the roads.
If it’s a no-entry don’t worry, just put your hazard lights on and drive slowly to your destination. In the UK to be parked facing the wrong way on a one way street will get you a fine, here you just leave those hazards flashing.
The solid white line. Nice isn’t it? Though we’re not sure what it’s for. On the side of the road most cars straddle it allowing easier overtaking. In the centre of the road it doesn’t seem to mean anything, if folk want to pass they will.
It pays not to get too close to the sides, often the road crumbles from the side to the middle and there’ll be no warning of an imminent collapse.
Over the ridge. Again.
After a night in Kalyves to find out about next week’s carnival we climbed towards the snow again. The pass at 780m wasn’t quite at snow level, but the landscape had become even harder than we’ve become used to. Rock prevailed and only a few ilex and myrtle bring some green.
Out target of Chora Sfakion on the south coast was an important evacuation point for the allied forces in WWII, but there were no roads to it back then. Today the road is one of life’s great drives, snaking down for miles with the Imbros Gorge falling to the left, and glimpses of the distant sea far below.
Askifou War Museum.
Immediately below the pass the land opens into the almost alpine fertile plain of the village of Askifou. We wound ArchieVan around the tiny streets of the village to find George Chatzidakis’s War Museum.
We received a typical Cretan greeting from his son, Andreas.
An iron firm handshake.
“Kalimera (good day).”
The raki was excellent, a good flavour and no burn.
Andreas talked us through some of his 2000 piece collection that includes truly ancient muskets used by the resistance through to the vastly superior arms of the huge German force.
It wasn’t all guns. Interesting were the English and German cigarettes (short two puff and throw filterless fags), razors, medical equipment, radios and clothes. There were books of songs, propaganda leaflets from both sides, maps, posters and more.
Crete had a population of around 440,000 at the time of the 1941 invasion. They were scraping a living before 75,000 Axis troops took over the island demanding sustenance. It seems there’s a story to every town and village, and still plenty around to share them with a willing ear.
After a couple more shots of Raki (for Minty) we were on our way down and down to the pretty little port of Chora Sfakion where preparation is underway for summer. Across Greece the peace has been shattered by a hundred thousand hammers, saws, and the gentle swish of paintbrushes as every bar that has been closed for winter sweeps out a dune of sand and smartens itself for Easter and the first brave holiday makers.
Chora Sfakion is the last stop on the ferry from last week’s gem village of Paleochora. The ferry chugged in backed by the setting sun as we pulled the blinds and said goodnight.
Tuesday 25th February.
We have had good days right through winter.
I’ve had plenty of swims.
Today though was the first when, early in the day, we knew we’d be seeking shade, and we changed our jeans for lighter, shorter clothes.
I sat out reading in shorts until 5.30, and we ate dinner an hour later as the sun made its spectacular goodnight display. Hot country creatures scratched their first evening chorus of the year.
There will still be storms, heavy rains, floods and gales to come, but here it’s interspersed with joyous days like today.
Crows fly in for dinner.
19 crows pulled on their DJs and feasted on the goat carcass that had been washed onto Plakias beach by the floods. “This is no murder” they squawked, “We’re the cleaners.”
The crows here are pretty big, but they were mere sparrows against the soaring carrion hunters we saw riding the thermals of a gorge near Ano Rodakino.
Crete has depressingly little wildlife, but does have serious birds of prey.
At the top of its trophic hierarchy, above even the Golden Eagle, is the Griffon Vulture. This magnificent creature has a wing span of up to 2.8 metres, it sounds even better in old money, that’s 9 feet.
We first spotted a pair above us, then more, until at one point thirty vultures filled the sky and we were plunged into a scene from Lord of the Rings where a CGI artist had become overly enthusiastic.
Looking up at the birds they’re black against the sky, but here we were high enough to look down on some too and these showed off their light brown plumage. It was these lower birds that were closest to us and gave a true sense of their scale.
The two great monasteries of Crete are Arkadi and Preveli.
Arkadi is the more striking, but my petition to joint the brotherhood will be sent to Preveli.
Perched high on the cliffs I imagine its monks fishing as well as tending their vines and menagerie. Many Allied troops sheltered here in 1941 before being secreted into British boats to flee to Egypt and there are gifts of thanks from some who survived.
Below the monastery there’s a mini palm forest that borders a chilly mountain stream. Here the crickets spread their wings for the first time in 2020, crashing clumsily through the undergrowth.
It’s unusual to see such trees with a clear river instead of some fetid swamp. It was a delight we enjoyed as I conjured up the hamper I’d order from Fortnum’s to be delivered right there, right then. It didn’t come.
On the beach three inseparable geese friends reign, and in the hill there’s a smart tent pitched on a spot that’s perfect in every way except the small matter of obtaining supplies.
After two warm days the flowers are bursting forth. We noticed the first almond blossom on Monday, and now every almond is in flower.
A carpet of sun loving clover fills the olive groves. These flowers don’t bother opening unless the sun is direct and hot. This morning I sat for ten minutes with my eyes shut in contemplation. When I looked again the previously shy clover was open all around.
The climb from Preveli starts through an intense gorge. Can a gorge be intense? I think so. Here the barren sides towered several hundred metres above the road that clings precariously to the side giving you frequent glimpses to the rushing river another hundred metres below.
Spili is a mountain village that defies the Greek norm. However romantic the term ‘mountain village’ sounds, in this country they’re untidy places where the ratio of pick up to car is about ten to one, and you wish some incomers might come to dilute the gene pool.
Spili is relatively smart, the air feels wonderfully pure, and the main street thrives with tavernas and produce.
Old men and baked potatoes.
We braved a bar where the last tourist had been eaten back in 1979. The old boss was stuffing potatoes into the oven at the top of his woodburner.
Our two beers (€4) were accompanied by a meze of salted tomatoes, olives, cucumber slices, feta, peanuts (salted on the outside of their shells to keep them dry), rusks (Cretans eat a lot of rusks), some meats, cabbage with lemon juice (damn good). Our second beer came with the same again plus one of those baked potatoes fresh from the fire.
Many old boys came for Raki, a chat and a potato, eaten with just salt and no implements. As novices to this art we waited for another’s lead and learnt that the potato takes a blow to the head, splitting it, then you peck away at it with your fingers. If you’re Greek you pour on a 100g of salt too.
The owner’s cousin engaged us with tales of the war and his new life in Canada. He’s stuck in Crete at the moment as he fears travelling through the Corona incubators of airports and planes.
Soon Rakis arrive for us, “This one’s from me.” The owner’s son tells us, “And this one’s from your new Cretan/Canadian friend.”
We leave having eaten dinner, had beers and Raki for just €8. When I suggested he keep the change from my €10 note it was as if I’d left a valuable gift.
There were waves from the old men as Polly and I passed this morning.
After weeks of nothing, Corona is all over the Greek news as the media machine spreads its panic far faster than the virus could manage on its own.
As I type Minty served our morning Vitamin C injection, pink grapefruit and orange juice. Freshly squeezed on our new super juicer.
This afternoon we’ll head back to our familiar haunt of Kalyves for carnival. It’s going to be noisy.
Later that day.
As I mentioned before, Greece is good at picking and choosing the global events it gets involved in. Corona was ignored, but now it has taken hold and it’s been given maximum focus.
The massive economic and cultural event of carnival has been cancelled across the country. They’ve been preparing for weeks. I’m sure many rogue towns will hold events anyway.
Not being religious types we didn’t understand the meaning of carnival before. It doesn’t help that carnival seems to happen at random times across the UK. Carnival means no more meat (carni val), and (should) precede lent. Apparently Greek women refrain from washing their hair during this week, believing that it’ll turn white should they do so.