Crete: First Impressions

I’ve visited Crete several times now, always in the winter. I was predisposed to like the place and its people: from listening to my father’s, rarely told but always heard, stories from World War II; from reading tales of ancient history; and simply from meeting Cretans themselves. Eventually, my first visit came in early January 1992 during my seasonal break from teaching in Rhodes. The text which follows comes from the journal I kept at the time.

I sailed into Heraklion, the ship gliding on a glassy sea. It was a crisp January morning, under a bright blue sky, and snow-covered mountains fringed the city. Those sugar mountains were my very first impression of the island as I came up on deck after the night crossing. I checked into a twilight hotel in this bustling city of faded, charming, careworn streets, then went out to meet up with my beaming, absorbed, Cretan friends. I’d never seen them on home ground before and they appeared transformed, larger than life, so happy to be ‘home’.

I was mesmerized by the street markets and traders – it was the season for bananas and they were everywhere at 400 drachma a kilo. They were just part of a wonderful selection of fresh fruit and vegetables – all brightly colored and even brighter tasting. There were cheese wheels, animal carcasses, loaves of bread, paximadia, and loukoumades. These last I had for breakfast – I’d never tried them before – a syrup-coated dough confection, deep-fried and covered with chopped nuts.

The next day, I headed out on the road to Rethymnon – passing ‘banana houses’, bee hives, new hotels, coves, mountains, olive groves, lemon and orange trees. Once past the, seasonally-deserted, tourist strip, Rethymnon was a pretty, quaint town with obvious seafaring links. Many of the houses were faded-painted, some had outside wood-paneling and carving. The sugar mountains loomed large in the distance as I went out to eat in the small, brown-wood-worked, sheltered fishing harbor.

From Rethymnon, I traveled south-east to Ierapetra. Europe’s most southerly town. Not for the first or last time, I was struck by how different local people appeared in each region of Crete – maybe reflecting the history of the island, certainly its geography. The town itself still showed its roots as a small market town quite clearly, despite being pervaded by tourism. Here, with very little choice out of season, I checked into a hotel which made me miserable. It was seedy and upsetting and felt grey, cold and almost sinister. I was the only woman ‘guest’ and this generated a great deal of unwanted attention. I was, at least, grateful for the good weather – meaning I could be out of doors for most of the time I was there – and for the view of the mountains from my room.

Hours there seemed like weeks as I waited to meet up with a group of local friends to celebrate Epiphany. Finally, my rescue party arrived. By this time – really not very long at all – my British irritation and inhibitions had set in. I took some time to ‘defrost’; they took me to VIP Bouzouki Club. I thawed out – as we drank, smiled, and danced all night surrounded by people so joyous and proud it could gladden the heart of any die-hard cynic (British or not). Even though I had to return to that hotel, I slept very soundly indeed, waking up just in time to check out.

I was glad to leave the next day; despite ‘normal’ life resuming after the holiday there was nothing to make me want to stay. The sudden return of the everyday meant that the whole town did take on a warmer, busier aspect and the shops looked enticing – but I still left while I could. I moved on to Sitia along a green and fertile coast, watered by full rivers pouring into the sea. High, terraced mountains marked a route used by farmers and shepherds to drive livestock to Ierapetra from outlying villages and sometimes back again. I was told that, for some, this market journey could take two days on foot.

Heading inland, so upwards, I passed windmills, windswept hills and olive groves. I stopped to visit an olive oil production unit at Nea Presos. This was then a small place working with Italian and Greek machinery to produce 8 tonnes of olive oil per day. Indoors, out of the piercingly bright January sunshine, I remember dark green smells, sludge and shed leaves, producing dark golden oil at the end as the small black rich olives were processed.

Arriving in Sitia, I was relieved – I felt better there than in Ierapetra. It was then a town not obviously dependent on tourism, even though in season it patently existed, and had the air of an old trading port. People from different places had settled there over time; some very classy flotsam and jetsam along with the usual quota of embittered expat types. I checked into a 26-room hotel to find I was one of two guests for my entire stay. This type of knowledge usually only encourages me to kick up my heels and behave skittishly – I did rein it in, though, as I was still ‘a stranger in town’.

Yes, despite the ‘people from different places’ thing, I was stared at constantly as an obvious outsider – I might have been the only person in town with blonde hair and blue eyes. Many men and women stared until I caught their eye and then hastily looked away and moved on. I was grateful that other outsiders were around to draw the fire of eyes once in a while – the gypsies had turned up at the same time as me. The man, women and children were in town to sell colorful rugs; happily and noisily living in the open, washing and cooking by the sea from the side of their open lorry.

As all good things must, this trip had to end – I was sad to leave Sitia, sadder to leave Crete, but anxious to go as the ship I’d been promised had decided not to sail (or at least not to call in at Sitia). What to do? A hasty visit with a friend to a local office of Olympic Airlines, where I was instructed to look way more distressed than I felt while they did the talking. OK, so I did have pangs of guilt as I was supposed to be back at work after the holiday and don’t like to let people down, but I had fallen in love with Crete and wasn’t too fussed about leaving. In any case, there were no seats available on the next flight out. I did being distraught and sobbed loudly (it pains me to write this, but I did). A phone call was made. A local woman decided she didn’t really need to travel that day. I had my ticket.

So, I had to travel under her name – Paraskevoula (surname withheld, just in casing). A taxi took me up to the tarmac strip with a small hut at the end of it, which served as an ‘airport’. I couldn’t believe this was really the place, and only let the taxi driver leave me when I caught sight of the windsock. Once in the hut, my passport was checked against my ticket and I was nodded through with a wink (after all, ‘Jane’ and ‘Paraskevoula’ are uncannily close). I waited with a coffee for the light aircraft which would take us to Karpathos, then Rhodes. It landed, we boarded – me, a youth football team, their coach, their manager and a priest.

The football coach and manager were already completely drunk (Dutch courage, perhaps?) and the priest was exceptionally fervent in his praying and need to bless the aircraft – especially once on board. To while away the time, the pilot chatted me up and told me how lucky I was that he was interested in me as he was otherwise faithful to his wife, but once in Rhodes he would be staying at the Grand Hotel and I should come up and see him sometime. Of course, it was entirely my choice (he said) but he’d never had any complaints (he said) though of course he was faithful to his wife (he said). He did provide a welcome diversion from the vomiting/ unconscious ‘responsible adults’ travelling with the football team and from the increasingly hysterical priest. I was quite impressed when we did a flypast of his auntie’s yard while she was hanging out the washing in Halki. To give her her due she waved and smiled at the aircraft.

Back in Rhodes, I left the airport at speed and avoided the Grand Hotel for a while. I made it back to work in (fairly-ish) good time and was soon into the swing of things again. It took some time for those rays of Cretan sunshine to leave me though but, well, in truth you know they never really have.

I first published this on axrhodes on 01/11/2013.

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