Rambling around in Crete

3rd-5th October

Weds 3rd October: I took a midday bus from Heraklion down to Pistildlia, near Matala on the south coast. The journey time was unpredictable and us such, it did not pull in to my small village until around 3pm. After asking a couple of locals I found my homestay, Jodi’s Pension. Jodi is a New York American who married a Greek man, Niko, came to Pistidlia 32 years ago, and did not leave. I can see the strong attraction for many expats to this part of the world: the slow pace of life, the warmth, the beauty of the landscape and people, the Raki…

Jodi gave me a warm welcome and I liked my little room, and certainly had two peaceful sleeps there after the dog-driven racket of Heraklion.

I worked out that I may have time to walk up a neighbouring mountain to a Monastery called Odhighitria; at least I could get as far as the village of Sivas and maybe a car would stop and give me a ride at least part of the way. I walked for 4km or so, unfortunately and of necessity on the roadside, and on the narrow shoulder too (as Greeks don’t really walk, at all) and after a few minutes with my thumb out a couple of tourists stopped and gave me a lift to the turn off to Listaros, where they were staying. So it was another 4km walk to the monastery, but I got there by 5.30pm, and the light was good enough to appreciate the location and the beautiful surroundings – it is in a very isolated spot with stupendous views over a wide part of central southern Crete. The tower is Byzantine, dating from 960, and the church contains frescoes and icons from the 15th century. There is also a charming museum with an olive press and other agricultural items from previous eras in Cretan life.


Entrance to the Monastery of Odhightridia


Frescoes at the church at the Monastery


I lingered for about an hour, bought some olive soap from one of the monks (they specialise in olive oil production there) and started my descent. Luckily for me a car stopped almost immediately, a young Italian tourist with his Russian girlfriend and the young man’s father, all on holiday together.

They dropped me in Sivas, a lovely little village with a square and a few tavernas facing it, and from there it was 3km back through olive groves, where I met and spoke with a young guy out with his grandmother, picking olives (the very early crop, still pink – they usually do not harvest until late October) and they showed me the way to Pistidlia. Back at the pension I met and spoke with Jodi, who told me that her husband’s father used to tend the flock and look after crops at the Monastery, and every day Niko, as a boy, had to make the walk up the hill to take food to his father – that’s at least 10km each way. The family had only one donkey, and it was in use elsewhere. Jodi was astonished I’d made the walk and back in 4 hours, but I did let on I’d had transport part of the way!

I found a taverna for red salad, hummus with parsley and lemon, and a glass of Cretan red wine, and tried to content myself with the exceedingly slow service – they don’t want to rush you here, but there is only so much internal conversation I can have for 2 hours or more – a long time to consume a small meal!

I slept very soundly that night, lulled to sleep by the tinkle of sheep’s bells from neighbouring farms and chickens and assorted farmyard creatures and a fair number of the inevitable dogs.

Next day, Thursday, it was time for another walk – one I had been planning carefully from New Zealand, where it looked like I could make the journey on minor roads and avoid the traffic. A long wait for the bus to Festos (the plan was to bus up the mountain, and walk down) but it was a short 5km trip. I arrived before the worst of the crowds descended. Festos is one of the main archaeological sites on Crete; it is situated on a magnificent outcrop overlooking the Messara plain and towards the mountains of Psiloritis and the sacred cave of Kamares, high in the mountains.


The theatral area at Festos

This is where the famous Festos (or Phaestos) disc was discovered. See my earlier blog post relating to the exhibition of this disc in the Heraklion museum. It was very hot up there, so much so I had to keep seeking shelter from the sun. This is a fascinating site, without the partial restoration that Knossos has undergone, and was excavated by Italians at about the same time as Evans was working at Knossos. It was fascinating for me to see how the Minoans lived – the impressive drainage systems, storage facilities, archival or adminstrative systems, and the main court, around which was a two-storey building with doors and windows – it was possible to see the niches where the doors were hung. The royal or noble living quarters were clearly visible in their splendour – with gently graded steps as befitting nobility, and views to the Psiloritis Mountains: how wonderful! They liked to live well and comfortably, as we do. I enjoyed a lovely snack and coffee on the terrace overlooking the Psiloritis mountains – it was extremely pleasant there, under the bougainvillea looking at the view and sipping coffee.


Festos as it was under the Minoans

I had thought I could walk on the minor road to my next stop, Ayia Triadha, but the man at the Festos ticket desk told me it was “difficult” and advised me to follow the main highway; in fact this added another hour of hard, hot slog to my walk and meant I had to again walk on the narrow hard shoulder, with cars and trucks whizzing by ( I later saw that it would have been easy to take the shorter, minor road). The only consolation to following this longer route was finding the tiny and ancient church of St George near the turn off to Agia Triadha. I then had a hill to climb to this second site, again another Minoan town or palace in a beautiful and atmospheric location with few visitors. It looks out over the Gulf of Messara, a few kilometres away, although in Minoan times the sea would have been right up to the foot of the settlement. The steps leading down to the sea from the town are clearly visible. The row of shops is also very clear – how amazing to actually walk from shop to shop as the ancients did thousands of years ago. The jumble of houses opposite the shops completes a scene of Minoan industry and bustling town life. Again, hardly any restoration here at all. And this time only half a dozen visitors.


Row of Minoan shops, Ayria Triada

In the corner of the site is a tiny church undergoing restoration, with some some frescoes – the 14th century church of Ayios Yeoryios.

I was beginning to feel hot and tired, and very thirsty, but the plan was to walk to the sea and swim. That was a very hot 4km away, first on a dusty road and then on a long paved road, with no shelter.


Detail from a fresco at the church at Adyia Triadha

Finally I reached the sea at an unnamed location (just south of the nondescript town of Tymbaki, for those following this on Google maps), and kept walking south to reach the busier resort of Kalamaki before I allowed myself refreshment and a break and swim. This was a good idea as at Kalamaki there were trees on the beach, and shade, and cool drinks to be had. I had my swim gear with me so changed for the most delicious swim in the Libyan sea and reflected on the fact that there was no land between me and the continent of Africa. And of all the galleys, ships and voyages that had been made for millennia in these very waters.

I pressed on as time was getting on, which meant plodding down the sand a kilometre or so to Kommos, past a very long line of European nudists – some lying in the surf line like naked mermaids, giving themselves skin cancer on their fair and blond Nordic bodies: I don’t care what they thought about me in my sunhat, walking shoes and shorts; I wanted to see another Minoan settlement here, which is almost right on the beach, but behind a fence. This is a very large settlement, a Minoan harbour town; in Minoan times the sea was a couple of metres lower than it is today. Due to Greece’s continued economic woes the site is closed to visitors, along with many others around Greece.

There is not the money at the moment to properly excavate, record and manage their many classical and pre-classical sites. Cars were parked right up against the fence and it was really hard for me to peer in and make much sense of what I was seeing. There are I read remarkable ruins here, including a road that has still has cart marks indented in it and runs for over 50 metres – I could not be sure I was looking at it. There is also the longest stretch of Minoan wall on the island but again I could not see it.

It was over 30C and I really needed a beer, feeling quite parched, so I headed for the little taverna on the beach, but I could tell from the evident impatience of those around me and the indifference of the waitress to the desperation of people trying to order, or pay, that I would be faced with a 2-hour delay in the simple act of downing a 330ml beer. So I picked up my sweat and sand and trooped out of there.

That meant a further 3 or 4kms to Matala (also another 3 back to Pisitdilia) and a climb over the headland and down a fast and scary road – on the narrow roadside – down into Matala village. This is famous as the place where legends such as Bob Dylan used to hang out, and Joni Mitchell used to sing of a “Matala moon”, and it was THE “hippy” hangout of Crete in the 1970s, when it was very simple and undiscovered by the world. Now it’s a tangle of tourist tat, but actually still has quite a bit of charm about it – but not at all the sort of place I’d want to holiday. There is a very small beach, and above it the Matala caves, which the Romans used as graves. They carved them out of the rock, they are not a natural formation. They may also have been used as early Christian graves, and had other uses over the years. They are in rows stacked above one another above the beach, and are actually quite striking.

I am learning and understanding such a lot about the human story here.

My guidebook said the caves are open to 7pm at this time of year but the ticket seller said to me it is now 6pm, and as it was 5.30pm he would not let me part with my 2 euros and go in.

Never mind – I had another swim here, and did some supermarket shopping for cooking dinner (there is a kitchen at my pension, and I am so bored with the extremely long service at tavernas I will really limit my eating out: it just is not a thing to do on your own) and reconciled myself to the climb up the mad road, over the headland, and collapsing dirty, sandy sweaty and tired into Pistidlia again, actually on schedule at 7pm. I guess I covered around 23km, and my back hurt from all the walking on hard surfaces.

A final note re Matala – I talked to an Argentian couple here who had a big chart of the world spread out on the sand. They have visited 112 countries, in the last 16 years of nonstop travel on their extremely aged motorbike, cleverly crammed with all their necessities. They ask for donations and sell jewellery to pay their way. An extraordinary life, and one I’d be heartily sick of after 16 years of a nomadic life – no place to call home but the uncomfortable seat of a rusty motorbike.

Friday 5th October: I was sorry to leave Jodi’s pension, as I liked it there – there were I think only two other guests, so it was very manageable.

I boarded the 9.45 bus to Iraklio, and it stopped at Mires and we waited 30 minutes for another bus to come and collect us to take us onwards. That was tedious as I am tiring of long bus waits. I did chat to a Flemish couple also waiting, who were friendly. She had gone to Matala as a young woman in 1976 and met three Danish girls there who have become life-long friends. I wondered about the accumulation of other meetings and life changes that have happened because of Matala – the people you find there who may change your life.

Finally at 12.30 we made Iraklio, and I had a quick refreshment stop at the station before dragging my suitcase up the hill to town (and breaking one of the wheels) to the car rental place. I should have asked them to meet me at the bus station.

I was I admit quite nervous about driving in local traffic, sitting on the left of the car, driving a manual, and of course on the right of the road, and finding the way along what are clearly not well-signposted roads. I am however quite a confident driver and having already been on the island 5 days I’d picked up something of the style – it is ok to be slow, you just hang over to the right and let the fast guys roar past. And once out of town, there is not much traffic.

I am still utterly bewildered as to how I went wrong driving out of town however – I was on the right road and even turned off into a town in error (thinking the sign was pointing the direction, not to the actual town off the highway) that was definitely on my route – but after a while it dawned on me I was retracing the road the bus had taken from Matala this morning! And over the mountain range again, heading south west and not east!

Cretan roads are poor – you can drive north/south ok but making your way east-west means navigating a very confusing complex of minor roads. There is the national road that hugs the northern coastline and that is what I thought I was on (the rental car man even pointed me in what I knew was the right direction when I set off) but somehow, and I may never know how, I was headed in another direction entirely. Fortunately I had purchased two very good maps of central and western Crete in Iraklio and by following those, a general sense of direction and a few vague and confusing signs, some of them taking me on impossibly narrow routes that could not possibly be major routes! – right past houses, almost hitting them! – I saw a sign pointing to Lasithki plateau, my destination, only 17kms. I had gone about 100 km out of my way – but re-routing back to Iraklio and getting caught up in snarls and starting again had no appeal.

It was frustrating to begin to see signs to Iraklio, only 50 or 40km away. But it was a very spectacular and interesting journey.

Never mind, I made it, and coming down from the extraordinarily wild, switchback and remote road over the mountains, with turns done in 1st gear that doubled right back on themselves, precipitate drops to my left, rocks on the road, stray sheep and goats – it was all a little familiar, like driving in parts of New Zealand or the Lake District in England. It was very picturesque, enchanting landscape, quite unchanged for centuries but for the plastic tunnels that farmers use everywhere here for crop growing – and these are very large, increasingly cover the landscape and can be seen from a long way off. Descending down from the tops and with the view of the whole plateau in front of me, and then entering the circle of little towns at – I think, given the complete absence of signs – Magoules – was really something. This area is famous for windmills, used by farmers as part of the irrigation system to bring water from the streams up to their farms (houses and farms are elevated to avoid flooding from the streams once the snow melt starts in spring).

This is the real, remote Crete – old ladies sitting on the doorstep, dressed in black, some with headscarf under the chin and over the head. Old men shuffling along or sitting around in groups chatting. Dogs sitting in the middle of the road, and they won’t get up for a passing car thank you very much.

The lady at the petrol station just past Ayios Konstantinos confirmed that my destination for tonight, Tzermiadho, was only a further 6km away, which given the impossible maze of roads, barely legible directional signs, and following a hunch that I was headed the right way, felt rather good.

Many people speak a little, some, or a lot of English – and they are very kind and helpful people.

I motored slowly into town, still vaguely irritated at having to stay on the right side of the road, but finding it easier than I thought I would (the downside of travelling this way is the absolute focus required, and admiring the view really means stopping completely), stopped and looked for a sign advertising rooms. Walking around I saw some guys walking along who did not look Greek, and they were dark and handsome (which is not to say that Greek men are not of course!) – and on getting closer I observed that they were Indians, probably here as farm labourers. I was astounded to hear an Indian tongue at this very remote location. Why not Cretan workers, when there is an economic crisis here? I must ask more tomorrow.

I found a sign offering rooms/chambre/zimmer. The woman with the rooms is French, but speaks good English, Christine – married to Vassili, a Greek man, who is very friendly and has lived in Tzermiadho all his life, he tells me.

I followed Christine for a kilometre out of town in our cars (the way I had come actually) and she took me to her house, Mansion Kronio, where I am in a little adjacent cottage with bed, bathroom, kitchen and living room, with a lovely view west to the sun setting over the plateau, and the sound of sheep bells tinkling, and little else. A very serene place, and it is this sort of serenity I’ve come looking for.

It is much cooler too than the coast – we really are up in the clouds, tonight I have a sweatshirt on, it snows here over winter, or certainly on the surrounding mountains.

My little Fiat on the Lasithki road

Motoring over the mountains towards the Lasithki plateau – looking south; the plateau is further on, northwards

This village is on the E4, one of the pan-European walkways. Tomorrow I will do some walking and exploring – the entire plateau can be crossed on foot in 90 minutes.

Near here is the Dhiktean cave; where Zeus was born, legend has it. The trek up to the cave can be made by mule but I will try to do it on foot.

As usual you can see more photos including those of Matala on my Facebook




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