Our previous post had a last minute addition of a few photos from near Sitia that deserve more detail.
The ancient port has Roman fish tanks that seem a good idea for today. They’re a series of large nursery pools that allow fish to breed in their thousands. They mature there before heading out to the sea where they’ll be targeted by every man and his rod.
I hope inshore fish stocks have benefitted from a couple of months respite during the lockdown, although I suspect that the dangerous commercial fleets have carried on raping the seas regardless.
High above the port there’s an impressive fortified Venetian tower but there’s little else historic in the pretty resort.
The whole town smells of new paint as the bar owners rush to open on 25th May or 1st June depending on how they have interpreted the rules. It’s easy to imagine it thronged with tourists, and the many restaurants and bars are praying that it soon will be again.
Minty’s photos were from our overnight spot several hundred metres up where, on a wide corner of the E75, a bar clings to a bend that offers a stunning view even by Cretan standards.
At this bar there’s something that typifies Greece, and particularly Crete, that helps make it so special.
The bar hasn’t been open since last season. The weeds were waist high in what could be a pretty garden. There was a layer of grime over everything that comes from existing in these wind blown parts. But its door was open. The door to the bar on the leeward side was kept open by a couple of blocks so that the three cats who live there could get in and out. Inside chairs, fridges, maps, post cards and the paraphernalia of any tourist place are left unprotected. They know it’s safe.
It has clearly had visitors, there were several empty bottles on the tables, but all neat and tidy.
The opposite of this display of trust is the tradition of vendetta that is alive and shooting on the island.
Literally, blood feuds between families where honour is bestowed upon he who kills. Feuds arise over many issues, but these days they’re less about women and more about land and grazing rights.
Much is made in the press of the occasional revanchist outburst in the mountain villages that sound so idyllic in the tourist literature. A report in a US paper made it sound as if the streets of Crete were bristling with enough guns to scare the gangsters of the Bronx.
It’s true that you see a lot of guns here. At weddings and festivals there’ll usually be a few youngsters loosing off rounds. And there are no wild animals that could be used as an excuse for carrying a rifle. Sorting a family dispute by murder is pretty harsh and is indefensible as a traditional way of life, what’s more it’s so at odds with the general feeling that this must be the most peaceful place in Europe. But it happens here, and it’s happening now.
Let’s get all the negatives out of the way in a few short paragraphs.
The beautiful isle of Spinalonga is a source of shame that Greece tried to keep under wraps until it realised the attraction and financial benefits the place offers.
Right up until 1957 Spinalonga was a leprosy colony where the dispossessed sufferers existed with few rights, and without the medication that could have halted their decline. Ironically they had a relatively good war as the Germans kept them supplied, but didn’t dare establish a command post on the island.
The island’s history kicked in with the Venetians who fortified the 8.5 hectares to help them protect their trade routes, and indeed they hung on to Spinalonga for nearly 50 years after they’d ceded the rest of Crete to the Turks. Hey, I read that while researching the place. It doesn’t make sense to me, the effort must have far outweighed the gain, but the results of their efforts make it an attractive destination today.
We camped among the tamarisk on the beach at Plaka overlooking Spinalonga with beach showers and a clean toilet handy by. The van dwellers enjoyed for free the view that’s available to the owners of the bristling of new villas available at half a million plus.
Along much of the shores of Crete the raggedy tamarisk is now coming into its own. The strong winds here rip the salt cedars to shreds during the winter, but the new growth soon fills out to offer delicate shade along the beaches.
For several nights we’ve camped among the trees in different places. The soft morning sun filtered through the pink tinged greens is a good start to any day.
Tzermiado. Lasithi Plateau.
After ten weeks on the coast it was time to climb.
There isn’t much that’s flat on Crete, but the Lasithi Plateau is exactly that, 25 square km of very flat fertile land. It’s apparently the most naturally productive area of all Greece (as opposed to the unnatural productivity of the hot houses).
Our road climbed slowly for well over an hour, reaching 900m and a view across the whole plateau surrounded by mountains and wreathed in cloud.
There’s green here, an English green that’s so different to the green of the olives further down. There are trees, real trees, olives somehow don’t count as real to me now. These trees are washed by frequent rains, the water table is high and refreshes everything. There’s grass too.
We dropped into the biggest village of the plateau, Tzermaido.
The Wanderers came into town dressed in flimsy shorts and lightest shirts, but on the plateau the temperature is only nudging double figures. We both dived into our underseat storage for long jeans and warm top layers that haven’t been seen in months.
Tzermaido. Living history.
We have been in the gentle Euro-tourist friendly coastal plains for so long that happening upon a real mountain village came as a shock.
Probably half the houses are empty, and falling down to a degree that suggests they haven’t been repaired since the last big earthquake. Yet next door to utter dilapidation there might be a smart house with its garden tended. New places are springing up among the dead buildings. It’s a curious mix.
Abandoned agricultural machinery joins the knackered pickups that slowly rust where they last stopped. There is a slew of rusty and greasy machinery on the main street that makes this feel more like Morocco than Greece.
It has been a while since we have been curiosities, but here the stares make up for weeks of being ignored.
An old man asks if I’m English, he speaks his kalimera, but he steps back in evident fear.
A bent over old crone hobbled by in her weeds, complemented by a black facemask. She ignored me completely. Her witch’s get-up was spoilt somewhat when her phone rang with a kid’s party jingle.
Although this is even more scruffy than the most tatty Cretan town we’ve seen there is a subject that the town takes very seriously – growing food.
There is every imaginable fruit and nut tree. Walnuts, hazels and almonds seem particularly prized. Apples, soft fruits and cherries. Cherries are ripe right now. Ripe, plump, sweet and delicious. We last gathered cherries in Slovakia, but nothing like our haul today.
Dark garage floors are packed with seed potatoes, their weird purple tubers crawling from the withered earthy skins. Old folk sit outside of their hovels cutting these ready for planting.
Strips of soil are neatly planted. Only the vines run wild and unchecked.
And roses. This place has so many roses. Gardens are rarely looked after in Greece, but here even the years empty houses still have many roses. Perhaps they’re planted to pull black fly from the vines and fruit trees, perhaps they just like roses.
Among all this falling masonry and degraded concrete, right in the centre of town, there’s a €550,000 European project. It’s a car park and public space. It’s a representation of the windmills and irrigation dykes that characterise the landscape. It’s well designed, but poorly built, and like so much around it seems abandoned, unfinished. Perhaps it’s a metaphor too subtle for me to pick up on.
Cocks with bells.
No other person has crossed this modern concrete and strip wood space since we occupied it last night, yet there is plenty of action. On one side a cockerel bantam struts with his ladies, a bell hung around his neck that’s almost as big as his head. On the other a chicken cock crows, asserting his larger land rights commensurate with his impressive stature.
Guard dogs bark angrily, but are unable to prevent Minty gathering an impressive bowl of cherries.
In a bar where we’re told we’re the first travellers of the year there are photos of the plateau dotted with windmills. There were once ten thousand of these in the small area, each bringing water to a particular plot. Today they’re hard to spot without their sails, but once you’ve got your eye in you realise they’re everywhere. The simple, energy free, windmills have largely been replaced by chugging diesel pumps for now. I wonder if there’s a return to windpower among the more environmentally aware.
Sail. The term makes sense here. At home where the windmill’s wings are made of wood it seems odd to call them sails, but here they are made of sailcloth, easy to furl when the strong winds blow.
Degrees of separation.
When we woke on the plateau the temperature was below 10°. It hailed. It felt like winter.
Back down on the coast, after a steep switchback descent, we ran into rain, but in the afternoon we were stripped off and enjoying mid-twenties again.
The Minoan Palace of Malia was impressive, but perhaps we have seen enough Minoan remains now. If you’re on an archaeological tour of Greece don’t go to Knossos first. We made the mistake of seeing the brilliant best first meaning that the rest didn’t quite hit the mark. That said, the four thousand year old palace remains of Malia are pretty damn good.
Espresso and children.
When there’s just the two of us we don’t talk much.
Every morning we start with a cup of tea in bed.
After a dog walk I have two strong coffees, ideally before breakfast. Minty has another tea.
Minty will squeeze oranges most days.
Then we’ll stick to water until it’s time for something more interesting later in the day.
Occasionally, perhaps once a month, I’ll tempt Minty to a fabulous creamy coffee in any one of the thousands of coffee shops and bars across Greece.
And then she’s a creature unleashed.
It’s like filling a child with Haribo and espresso.
Her eyes light up.
Every thought that passes through her mind is expressed. She’ll sing, whistle, pull up moments from our ancient history as if they happened yesterday, chatter away like a demented parrot, tell stories, jokes and anecdotes.
After an hour she’ll fade, exhausted, and Polly and I can rest again.
Priceless. Well, actually about €2. Worth. Every. Cent.
Cherries to Apricots.
Thursday morning’s cherry breakfast was swopped on Friday for a lunch of apricots warmed in the afternoon sunshine near Zaros.
It’s another scratty little mountain town with an over generous cassock of churches, a monastery, and a special gift.
At 400m up the slopes of Crete’s highest mountain it has numerous springs giving particularly pure water, water that benefits the town in two ways. First there’s the trout lake that we’re parked alongside (no fishing, unusual in Greece) where large fish glide languidly in the sunshine. Then there’s the bottling plant, a local initiative that benefits the whole community to the extent that they don’t mind the huge lorries that plague their tiny streets.
Oh, and there are also frogs. Bloody noisy frogs.
Last night we bedded down to the sound of mass murder as a thousand crazed frogs screamed into the night.