“Crete is a combination of the whole world…but you need more than 10 years to discover it”
I am talking with Nicolo, an old Cretan man, in a beautiful old Kafeneio in Heraklion. The walls around me are covered in old – you know when you look at something and you feel like it hasn’t changed for years, and probably never will. Away from the bright neon lights and televisions of the bars, restaurants and cafes of the modern centre of the capital of Crete, it’s a little like stepping back in time.
And the old men at the bar have the same aura. Another figure, Kosti, looks at me through eyes full of experience, still shining brightly. He has the look of someone who has seen the world and lived it. He nods in approval at my journey, telling me I am doing the right thing, that it’s good, especially the walking. For all the reasons I love to walk and travel – to meet people, to talk, to see, to feel and to learn – he understands. Nicolo tells me that he and his friends are the last of the old generation of Heraklion with Turkish roots. Most of them came during the great migration which happened after 1923, in the population exchange, when Greek Turks were forced to return to Greece, and Muslim Turkish Greeks returned to Turkey. His grandmother was from Ismir, but he spent his life growing up in Heraklion. And it is this Turkish influence which represents the soul of old Heraklion, these men who now watch modern Greece, and Greeks, struggling through a crisis which is not just economic. Turkey and Greece are intertwined on this island, and for me it is this combination which has created such a rare atmosphere, incapsulated in the earth and the people.
My journey through Greece up to this point had been about reaching Crete, a place of so many myths and history, an island of dreams. It is here that the myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth was born, in the kingdom of Minas, the king who gave his name to the first civilisation of Ancient Greece, the Minoans. Daedalus built the labyrinth and when Theseus came to the island, Minas’s daughter, Ariadne (whose beauty in ancient mythology is rivalled only by Helen) fell in love with him. Daedalus told Ariadne to give Theseus a ball of string to help him out of the labyrinth, and, after killing the Minotaur, Theseus carried off Ariadne. To escape the wrath of Minas, Daedalus and his son Icarus made wings from wax and feathers, soaring into the sky. But Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wings melted, and he plummeted to the sea.
Myth mingles with history, seen in the crumbled remains of the Minoan Civilization, which inhabited the island from about 2000 BC down to 1450 BC. During this time disaster struck, not once, but twice: firstly, around 1750 BC the palaces were destroyed (at the same time a huge volcanic eruption occurred on the island of Thera, creating the modern day island of Santorini, and there is an unproved theory that huge tsunamis resulting from the eruption rocked Crete and caused the destruction); afterwards the palaces were rebuilt, with more grandeur, and more splendor, before the final collapse of the Minoan civilisation, which gave way to the Myceneans. But even now there is no certainty about the causes, and countless theories abound. Nobody can really say who the Minoans were, and amongst the many hypotheses, I have my own ideas, which come from being here on the island, walking around the ancient sites, and seeing the incredible artefacts in the museums. I had the sense that this was a peaceful Civilization, where women ruled – somehow there is a very feminine quality to everything. At Knossos you can still feel the special power of the place, despite the reconstructions, which have become as much a part of its history as the original foundations.
Personally I thought they add to the grandeur, and help the visitor imagine how the palace looked, how the people lived, and the different ceremonies that were obviously so much a part of life 4,000 years ago, pictured in the frescoes and the beautiful art. All is now displayed in the fantastic archaeological museum in the centre of Heraklion, where you can really get a sense of the powerful influence women had on society.
History, both ancient and modern, is part of the land. The old men still proudly proclaim how they helped the English during the Second World War, bringing them food from the villages to the caves where they were hiding out.
I was invited to Anogia for Easter, a village famous for its partisans of the past, and now for its cheese and it’s people – some would say the heart of Crete. In Anogia a wedding has 3000+ guests, and people from all over come to eat lamb, lamb and more lamb. And to drink raki…lots of raki. At Easter it’s something similar!
But what I didn’t know is that during the Second World War, the Germans considered Anogia to be the centre of English intelligence and the guerrillas of Crete used it as their base. It was a place of Nazi resistance, and in return the whole village was burned down. I discovered all this as I wandered the streets on Easter Sunday, coming across the statue to commemorate the war heroes of the village.
As in the Peloponnese, Crete also had a strong Venetian influence. After the Fourth Crusade (1204) and the fall of Byzantium in the Hellenic area, Crete was given to Bonifacio, Marquess of Montferrat. He chose to sell the island to the Venetians for 100 silver marks. The locals did not really accept the new rulers of the island and for the next 30 years the Venetians struggled for control of the island. Eventually, however, they took their prize and chose Chania as the centre of administration.
The modern towns of Chania and Rethymno give a wonderful insight into the Venetian control of the island, and you can lose yourself in the labyrinth of the beautiful old paved streets, lined with Ottoman and Venetian influenced houses. They are filled with all the typical tourist shops, but if you turn a corner you find yourself in narrow flower filled back alleys which are completely empty, and it’s like stepping back in time.
Crete is a place of astonishing natural beauty…and energy. From the moment I arrived I felt it – life – something unseen which imbibes the land and its inhabitants. And even if many people tell me that those who live here do not see it, in my walking I have sensed that it is part of them, their way of living, their traditions. Although make no mistake, this is not always the case, and Crete is not the place it once was. And if you’re not careful, you can get caught up in something else. Where once there were olive groves, now there are immense hotel resorts, piping out all inclusive holidays to the Northern European tourists…and Russians. Increasing numbers of oil rich Russians, eager to snap a picture, posing like models wherever they are taken by the tour bus, or guide book to file out in huge groups, a flag waving tour guide at the front of the line. Of course this is what many of the tourists do here, it’s just the Russians are very new to it. We (the English) have been doing it for years. Take a walk through tourist towns such as Hersonissos and you will be jumped on by the restaurant touters, trying to entice you towards the tourist menu which changes price depending on the language. And many of the locals have worked on this over the years, creating a perception of Crete, something for the tourists which doesn’t even scratch the surface of real life. They came down from the mountain villages to build tavernas, apartments and hotels on the beaches, to make a better living. And gradually, year by year, they returned less and less to the villages. This was before everybody travelled in cars – donkeys, horses, carts and feet were the means of transport. So instead of carrying everything up and down every day, they left it all behind. So much so that you can pass abandoned villages with houses still full of crockery and dusty furniture. Moth eaten clothes dangle from pegs on the walls, and tables, beds and chairs are falling apart inside the rooms. Doors hang on broken hinges, cracked windows decorate the exterior, and the gardens are overgrown, surrounded by crumbling walls. I loved walking through these places, where you could imagine the people still sitting at the dinner table, and create a little vision of how life used to be.
However, when the boom came, and big hotels started to take over, many locals were marginalised, and if there is a crisis then it is this: unsustainable capitalism. All inclusive holidays and overpriced tourist towns are geared towards a money oriented way of life. Instead of visiting the island and seeing the people, the culture, and experiencing something different, so many people are encouraged to stay in their hotels, sit in the sun and think about their tan, surrounded by everything familiar, in an artificial creation of “Crete”. It is the tourism which is an imitation of local culture and customs and the experience is artificially generated. Everything is “traditional”: food, villages, tavernas. They cater for this industry but lose their heart at the same time. And increasingly taverna owners in the villages tell me that with each passing year there are fewer tourists – many spend their holidays around a swimming pool, eating pizza, chips and ready made cheese and ham sandwiches in huge hotels, as part of their package holiday. This is our disease now. We are so attached to a perception of “The Holiday”, lying on a beach “relaxing”, an idea perpetuated by a money driven industry, which provides sun, sea and sand. Quality and natural simplicity are replaced and we often forget, or simply ignore where we are. And how can you ignore an island as magical as Crete?
The natural beauty of the island is something to behold, and over 3 months I fell in love with this island, met incredible people, and made wonderful friends. And for some reason I was drawn towards the east of the island, to go and explore with no real objective but to see what there was to see, to visit the ancient sites of the Minoans, and just…to be. For me it really does have everything 🙂