We’ve finally achieved slow. It’s something we’ve tried to do for years. Now on Crete our mileage has dropped and we’re seeing lots more of what’s immediately around us. Fewer miles driven. More time to enjoy.
We have only seen a fraction so far, but I understand that there’s just one town on Crete that may be called beautiful, and that’s Chania.
Although established in pre-history, Chania’s beauty results from the work of the Venetians who occupied Crete from 1204-1645. The engineering rulers built massive strong walls with bastions, towers and a moat. They created a large safe harbour that doesn’t look much different today, and they safeguarded the water supply with a network of aqueducts and cisterns.
The Turks then took over for almost 300 years. They built mosques and public baths while further strengthening the walls.
Stand anywhere high and see a bristling of minarets, domed churches, and glimpses of the city walls. The fortifications are built in warm honey coloured limestone that’s perfect against the deep blue backdrop of the sea.
The old town has more restaurants than you might ever have time for, and the scruffier new town has smart brand shops that we haven’t seen since Athens. It attracts the beautiful people in their droves, and of course they’re all in black and smelling expensive.
A bookshop. It’s English titles stretch to a few hundred volumes, and I’d read every one. It’s Greek selection looks so inviting, just the script makes me want to own some of them, but with my shaky 500 word vocabulary I may struggle to read anything beyond a Mr Men.
We’ll be back here. Books are much more expensive in Greece compared to the UK. The Euro tally kept my purchases modest.
At the sea front Manos Taverna we queued for ages to get a table then ate a perfect long Sunday lunch over a couple of hours. The food came slowly. The tiny kitchen fed forty or more tables, and every Greek table groaned under the weight of its food.
The bread was good, the rosé stronger and better flavoured than we’re used to. Fava came on a massive plate and could have fed a family, we took it away and snacked on ours for a couple more days. We tried mountain greens and found them good. They’re weeds drenched in oil and lemon juice and leave you feeling virtuous. Chips. Oh my, when did chips ever taste this good? Sweet. Some soft for Minty, some crispy for me. And then the best ever calamari.
Just four plates. And before the bill, a perfect cake with ice cream and a flask of Raki.
The restaurant heaves with hungry, noisy Greeks from the time it opens for a solid six hours. The takings must be huge, but so is the generosity. Not only was the cake and the Raki on the house, so was a flask of rosé. Nectarius, our waiter, was spot on, even though his attention was demanded from every direction.
In the morning I went in search of the source of the restaurant’s bread. At the shop the baker taught me to ask for apló krouasan – plain croissant.
A place to stay?
Chania would be an excellent town to live near. You need not become an urbanite. There are utterly wild options within a few miles of its glamour. I’m drawn to live in wild places now, but I can’t turn my back on the lure of the bright lights. When those bright lights also offer a great beach it’s hard to know what’s stopping me.
As soon as you break free of the town’s embrace knackered pick-up trucks dominate the roads again. I mention them often but I suspect it’s a vehicle phenomenon most tourists won’t see. In the summer the island’s roads are crammed with little white hire cars diluting the effect.
Time for prayer.
Chania was special. We’ll definitely return.
After the exciting bustle we sought calm, and found it in another monastery.
Gonia Digitria is built on the edge. Its view stretches across the 40kms of Chania bay to the Akrotiri peninsula where we visited three holy dormitories last week. It was peaceful, modest, and most special for its simple pebble mosaics.
Lonely Planet suggests that this coastal town makes few concessions to tourists.
Few towns achieve real in the way of Kissamos.
The high street has three tractor dealerships, and numerous agricultural suppliers piled high with fertilisers and seed. A metal worker sat outside his workshop hammering out a part for a machine that would have been thrown away at home. Yet there are smart cafés and the quintessential old men’s coffee shops. And fine home stores – among the gilt legged tables one had a dark wood throne in the window, it had golden swans for arms.
I wonder if there’s anywhere left in Britain where you can buy a pair of socks, then nip next door to order your new Massey Ferguson and discuss the deal over coffee in the patisserie down the road.
The average age of the pick-up is definitely more than 15 years. Most are hanging. The mile and a half drive down the main street is an exercise in concentration as old and young stagger into the road to avoid the hazards of the pavement. Ancient cars and trucks emerge slowly from side roads substituting lack of speed for bothering to look. Scooters struggle by with their riders carrying unfeasibly large loads.
Yet it was in Kissamos that we went to the smartest supermarket we’ve seen on the island.
It’s a place of contrast.
The beach walk.
Only a couple of miles west we hiked through wild country to pass this pint sized church and to laze in the sunshine, absorbing all we could, knowing that storms were coming.
I’m aware that I’ve typed the word peninsula more times in Greece than during the rest of my life. There are many. Especially here on Crete.
At the far western end there are two distinct outcrops that form the island’s two fingered salute. They are harsh environments. Steep limestone soars to a considerable height plunging the east into semi darkness long before the west.
Supposedly protected landscapes, both are grazed by sheep and goats meaning that nothing other than the thorniest scrub has a chance to grow.
We wanted to visit Balos Beach on the north west tip of Gramvousa. We set off nervously winding through the narrow streets of the last little village where ArchieVan was brushed on both sides. There’s a road after the village, but it’s rough. Winter has taken its toll on the already unmade road. At times it’s a skill challenge to negotiate deep gullies without ripping anything from the van’s underside. All with a huge drop to the right and only the sea to stop your fall.
A few miles in, but with a few miles to go we decided to ditch the van for its safety and continue on foot.
Walking brought the wild terrain closer. It was beautiful to me, inhospitable to Minty, neither of us would like to be stranded there, the wind punished us both.
We were dog tired by the time we reached the summer parking area but having got so far we knew we had to push on to see the beach on the other coast.
It was worth it.
Suddenly the land fell away before us, and even in the stormy winter light the topaz of the double horseshoe bay forced our gasp of joy.
West coast syndrome.
A few miles south, in falling light, we parked ArchieVan facing into the wind and snuggled down for a breezy night.
We try to park up early, and certainly before nightfall. We’re often delighted, but rarely surprised by waking somewhere special.
Falasarna bucked the trend and blew me away. The deep sandy beach stretches for a mile and a half, and with a strong westerly blowing there were white horses far out to sea. The cliffs are of natural concrete, sedimentary rock that has been weirdly sculpted by near constant winds blasting it with sand and salt.
The dog loves the beach and the dog loves the wind. Combined she’s barely controllable. Polly barked her excitement for a whole mile, and for once I didn’t try to silence her. I could hardly hear her anyway, so loud was the crashing of wind and waves.
Back in the van she wore eye liner of sand, cute as can be, but probably not so comfortable.
West coast syndrome. Give me the west coast. Scotland. Cornwall. Brittany. Portugal. Morocco. They’re so often wild, pounded by the sea. They’re hard places to live, but if that’s what you love the rewards come daily.
Thwarted. Turn back.
A chosen night spot was inaccessible. The track had washed away. We turned back.
Further along the main road south was closed. We could see the earth moving equipment trying to clear a landslide. There’s only one road down from here, and so getting to the pink and white sands of Elefonisi Beach on the south west tip will have to wait for another day. We turned back again.
Road clearing is a constant winter battle in Greece.
All that the environmentalists tell us about soil erosion from cleared land is here for us to see. It only has to rain for the hills to attempt a migration towards the sea. Roads fall away or are covered in silt, soil, rocks and house sized boulders.
Overnight back near Monday’s monastery of Gonia Digitria we again park facing into the wind and prepare for a wild noisy night of pounding sea and howling gales. If we make it through then we’ll make a new attempt south tomorrow.
Minty worked for years in food marketing with The Co-operative. We ponder food in a different way to most.
We’ll be in a supermarket and suddenly stop to consider the bounty before us, and the fact that it’s repeated in the shop down the road, and another across town, and then in every other town across the land.
Think of the simplest thing. Perhaps a can of baked beans. Then think of how many there are in Britain alone.
Today we thought of tomatoes. Where do they all come from? In Greece we see the answers to some of these questions. Orange groves stretch for mile upon mile in the plains, every tree bearing enough to keep a Sainsburys stocked for weeks. Olives. So many olives. And here on the west coast of Crete it’s tomatoes. Where there’s a coastal plain it’s silver with the glinting plastic of growing houses, every one crammed with tall tangy tomato plants. There’s plenty of sun, and Crete isn’t short of water despite its temperature. Locally they’re almost free. Often they’re piled high for the goats. But the goats prefer brambles.
I don’t like octopus fishing, but nonetheless this shot was too tempting to miss.
A final thought: Did Boris really refer to Nicola the Fish as “That bloody wee Jimmy Krankie woman” this week? I have little love for Blo Jo but when Minty read that it left me in stitches.