I’ve always thought myself a ‘traveller’ rather than a ‘holidaymaker’. I suppose it’s all down to personal exertion; the amount that you feel you have to ‘cram in’ to the time you have and the time you feel you can afford to take to relax, rather than ‘be there’ and ‘be doing’. I’m not good at sitting and doing very little, let alone doing nothing at all. I like to return home thinking that I have a little more understanding about a place, a people and a culture and, even if I never have the opportunity to come back, I’ll still be ‘better off’ for the experience. I sometimes fight against enjoying the cosseted bubble of the resort hotel and have always tried to avoid the ‘organised’ experience, if I feel that I could have managed the whole thing on my own. OK, I admit, I’ve lost that battle on a few occasions and have been grateful for an infrastructure to see me through – China, and India spring to mind.
Granted, when the children were small and funds permitted it, we tended to go ‘on holiday’; but as often as not, this would mean packing them in the back of the car and driving south for hour after hour, day after day, in search of the ‘interesting’. The bonus might have been the clear blue Mediterranean and golden sandy beaches; but these were always interspersed with the familiar – architecture, ruins and legend.
Over the past few and more recent years, ventures have tended to be less relaxation and more a case of inquisitive searching out. The ‘I’ll never pass this way again’ philosophy is still filling my bucket list and there are still places to go and things to see.
However, this year, I’ve returned to Crete for what you might well call ‘a holiday’.
We last came to Crete in 2002, flying into Chania in the west and exploring the island. We went to Knossos, following in the footsteps of Theseus and the hoof prints of the Minotaur. We went to the old port at Heraklion, visited ancient Aptera and walked the Samarian Gorge.
This time, we’re well off the beaten tourist track. We’re off to Margarites, a traditional hilltop village, east of Heraklion, west of Chania and south of Rethymon, in the foothills of Mount Psiloritis, which towers over 8,000 ft above sea level.
We’ve rented a villa from Lefteris, an Athenian who has married into a Margarites family and now owns Villa Messogea, at the end of the village. It’s a vast place that sleeps 12, but is ideal for the two of us, two grand-children, two children and their respective husband and wife.
Crete, Greece’s largest island is beautiful. The coastline is spectacular and the mountains plunge down to the coast offering hillsides of olive farms and vineyards. The coastal national road would be the easiest route if you’re travelling west from Heraklion airport. However, never, ever trust the sat-nav. If you’re not careful, and we weren’t, it’ll take you on a circuitous route that must have been trod, in turn and over time, by Neolithic man, Minoans, Turks, Greeks, Germans and goats! The old road winds itself, hairpin bend after hairpin bend, over mountains and through passes. Villages come and go. Some, the lucky few, have a shop or a taverna; others exist as a sparse collection of huts and stone walls with a metal road sign informing you where you think you might be; a sign punctuated with frighteningly large bullet holes. And this is not the peppering of a shotgun cartridge…these are seriously large holes!
We have twelve days to lie back and enjoy the Cretan sun. So, let’s park the regular routines of sleep, pool and more sleep. What is there to see? Let’s start with the village of Margarites.
In the morning, the village plays host to the tourists that either drive here or are brought up from Rethimno by a little yellow train – a dreadful contraption – that winds its way around five villages for an exorbitant cost. By lunch-time, they’ve all gone and the village is left to the locals and those for whom this is albeit, a temporary home.
Villa Messogea is right at the end of the village. At the highest point. Across the road is a panoramic viewing point that looks down the Margarites gorge. Deep down, at the very bottom, you can just make out the movement of wandering goats. You hear them before you see them. The clanging of metal bells ring out in the early evening as they make their way home for the night. There must be predators in the gorge and on the hillsides – certainly something is confident enough to make its way up to us and nose around our barbecue for leftovers.
By day, the local firemen pitch up at the edge of the gorge under the shade of a tree and sit in a makeshift gazebo waiting for the call they hope will never come. They seem happy and resigned to sitting around, spending their days chatting. From time to time, one will pop off up and reappear half an hour later with iced coffees and endless supplies of cigarettes.
The road from the villa heads downhill past artisan ceramic workshops. The clay is so fine here that one firing is said to be enough. The pre-fired, pre-glazed pots, bowls, jugs and endless other forms dry out in the shade, awaiting their turn in the kiln.
Every home owns a dog. Nothing that would win Crufts, I’m afraid. Nothing that would even win Bash Street Secondary Mutt of the Year Show. These are cross-breeds. A lot of mastiff in most of them. They all have one thing in common. They seem to spend their days, and nights, throwing themselves at you on the ends of short chains. No, actually, they have another thing in common….none seem to need dental treatment. They all have a full set of, what appears to be, very sharp, if rather yellow, fangs. By the end of our time one or two will have given up and decided that we must have become locals. Some are less sure and can’t resist a last lunge from the other side of a wire fence.
The village only hosts one supermarket. It’s really only a basic shop but it opens every day from dawn to dusk. Huge slabs of feta sit in their brine. The locals use it to accompany everything, but one speciality is dakos. It starts with a slice of soaked dried bread (usually half a brown bap) or a rusk and then it’s topped with tomatoes, feta and oregano. So very tasty. And finally, you have a clue what to do with the rock-hard rusks that are on sale, everywhere. The bakery sells other types of bread but none of it keeps for long in this climate, so most of the toast for breakfast is made from a square sliced loaf that has enough preservatives in it to make it very sweet and long-lasting.
Most of the businesses open from March until October. In one of the ceramic shops, I talk with the owner. A lady from nearby Perama, she rents the property for the season. In the winter and in her spare time, she is completing a degree in Maths and her English, which is excellent, is the successful result of an extra-mural course from Cambridge.
Whilst there may be the usual tourist ‘tat’, mass manufactured in China, there are also goods produced locally and you can see them being produced. We buy salad servers, hand-carved from the roots of the olive tree; and textiles, hand-woven in the east of the island. We also buy a ceramic lantern, designed to help keep mosquitoes at bay, but it’ll carry a nightlight quite nicely in wintry Wales.
Before we leave with our purchases, we share raki. It’s made in vast quantities by everyone and shared freely with friends and visitors. This particular raki is infused with thyme honey, also produced in the village and spiced with cinnamon. It’s delicious.
It seems to be generally agreed that the best taverna in the village is Mantalos, situated on a corner and offering diners a shaded terrace with views out over the valley and down to the coast. It’s run by a young couple and we go back night after night to enjoy the excellent food and share the scraps with families of cats that live around the village.
We often start with kolokythokeftdes, fried balls of courgettes, onion, cream cheese and mint. They are always delicious. Along with dolmades, tzatziki and a huge jug of local dry white wine, it prepares you for the main courses. The moussaka is excellent, but my favourites are the lamb chops – a plate of wonderfully barbecued cutlets, crisp and tasty. I also try the kokkinista, a slowly-cooked stew of goat kid. It’s every bit as good as the best scrag end of lamb stew you’ve ever tasted on a cold winter’s night in the North of England. There’s also rabbit on the menu as well as the usual souvalki and snail stew, a speciality of the region.
There’s usually no room for dessert but the λογαριασμό, the bill, always arrives with a plate of fresh watermelon and a jug of raki.
There’s usually enough time to stop off in the main square and sit under the eucalyptus tree and drink an ice-cold Mythos lager. If you’re lucky, the delivery man has brought it on draught but, really, it’s good enough in ice-cold bottles.
The village is equipped with a loudspeaker system so services can be relayed from the near by monastery, high on the hill behind the main square. This is a working village and at the weekend , the square is full of flat-back trucks parked while people attend church or sit drinking iced coffee and discussing the price of…..olive oil, I suppose.
On our first Sunday, there’s a baptism in process. All the locals have met for a meal – the street full of lines of tables and the ubiquitous white plastic picnic chairs, before heading up the hill to church. From the loudspeakers comes the wailing of some recently-born baby in fear of drowning in the font. It’s the strangest thing – hearing it echoing off all the buildings.
Children play everywhere. It reminded me of a visit to Mithymna in Lesbos, quite a few years ago. I commented to a local man in the taverna that I thought it was late for children to be playing out without supervision.
This is a community. (he told me) If anyone does anything to one of our children – we kill them.
Bearing in mind that theses hilltop villages have running skirmishes with the police over raki production and illicit trade and, if the road signs are anything to go on, there seems to be regular practice in the local gun club….I wouldn’t dispute that the threat of local rough justice is quite real.
Yet, Margarites really is a lovely village and we’re made to feel so welcome. On the nightly climb up the hill we pass groups of women sitting in the shadows, chatting, crocheting, and putting the world to rights. They all respond to a kalispera and reply ‘spera‘ and wave. The air is humid and the stars fill the sky. In the distance, the sound of goat bells and the occasional Greek song echo across the valley. It’s a magical place.
Perama and Panormos
The nearest town, Perama, lies about 3km north. It’s sleepy at the best of times, but it does have a selection of supermarkets, bakeries, fuel stations, butchers and other shops. It’s another working town and I’m on the look out for a builders’ merchants.
The lock on our main suitcase, sourced rather expensively from T K Maxx, has jammed and I’ve been forced to cut open the zip. Some how I’ve got to get it and its contents back to the UK at the end of the holiday.
I find a suitable merchants that appears to sell everything and anything. Although I think I’m ready, I’m not prepared enough for what is like a re-run of the ‘Fork Handles‘ sketch from Messrs Barker and Corbett. Kalimera gets me through the entrance and a smiling welcome from the lady at the counter.
Do you sell duct tape?
Duck tape? Duck tape? Tape for ducks?
No. DUCT tape. I mime ‘tape’ – now, next Christmas when you’re playing charades….think back to this…it’s not easy.
I try a different tack.
My ‘valise’, it has BOOM….exploded. Mime pulling a suitcase, then carrying it……I need tape to repair it.
She smiles, puts up her arm and reaches down under the counter. A roll of masking tape appears. Well, we’re making some progress, I suppose.
No, DUCT tape – fabric tape – I mime masking tape and point at my tee-shirt. It’s not working……
Thank goodness for Google translator! The minute I say kollitiki tainia, we’re in business and I emerge with enough duct tape to tape up a whole flight of ducks.
I buy fresh green beans and extremely long potatoes from the next door greengrocers – they are surprisingly expensive. There seems to be a far narrower gap between the cost of fresh food and eating out then there is back home. It’s the same with the cost of alcohol. It’s actually cheaper to drink the local wine out of the jug than to buy it bottled from the shops.
Panormos is the nearest beach to Margarites. It has an awful lot going for it. Lovely shallow water, clear as glass, clean sand, showers, free umbrellas and loungers and two of the loveliest tavernas, dressed in Mediterranean blue and white looking out over the bay. There is no high rise development and parking is easy and free. There might be more touristy beaches at nearby Bali, but, honestly, why bother?
It’s about a thirty minute drive to Rethimno, the nearest city on the island. It’s a lovely town, but it’s always busy. Originally a home to the Minoan people, the town today dates back to 1250, when it was built almost entirely by the Venetians. It’s beautiful preserved, considering the action that took place during the Turkish and the Second World Wars.
Within the harbour wall, there is a crescent of tavernas. We sit eating yet another perfect Greek salad and enjoying a beer. The owner greets potential clients in their own languages. He’s fluent enough to cope in English, German, Russian, Italian and French. Only once does he baulk at the challenge.
Oh, you’re from Belgium….he moves on……
Rethimno is very popular. As a result, whilst there are some lovely shops selling items of quality, there are also many, many outlets selling all the goods you’d expect from a seaside resort. It gets lively at night, as well, with clubs and bars open until the early hours….(so I’m led to believe).
I have a bit of a close call at one such uber-cool cafe. Leaving the terrace, I go in search of a WC. Upstairs on a large open landing, there are mirrored cubicles marked as such. I go in and realise you can’t lock the door. It isn’t broken, there’s simply no lock. Not only that, the ‘mirrored walls’ are in fact one-way. You can see out into the bar, but they can’t see in to you! There’s nothing more unnerving that doing what you have to and seeing someone appear at the top of the stairs and make their way to your cubicle when you know it’s not locked…..well, it certainly focuses the mind and makes you not want to hang around.
It’s definitely time to head inland to the peace of the village, even with the thousands of cicadas all buckling and unbuckling their tymbals in unison.
There’s a richness of insect life in this part of the world. Dusk brings out the brown marmorated stink bug as well as the long-horned beetle. They keep the ants busy, especially in moving the deceased from one part of the garden to another.
Just a few miles from Margarites lies Arkady. It should be on everyone’s itinerary if you’re visiting the region. the monastery at Arkady belongs to the Eastern Orthodox church and dates back to the 16th century.
In 1866, when the Cretans were revolting against the Turkish Ottoman rule, 943 Greeks, mainly women and children sought refuge here. After three days of battle and under orders from the Hegumen, or abbot, they blew up barrels of gunpowder, being more willing to sacrifice themselves than to surrender. Thirty six more, hiding in the refectory were massacred by the Turks. A nearby exhibition has a fine selection of portraits of the martyrs and a selection of the bones of those who died. Only one woman survived and she is remembered by by bronze statue by the entrance.
This area saw a good deal of resistance to both the Turkish forces and the Germans in WW2. in nearby Melidoni cave, 250 unarmed villages were smoked to death by the Turkish forces back in 1824.
And so we return to Margarites and a last visit to Mantalos. There is too much to see in Crete for one visit. This is my second and I still don’t feel I’ve done the southern coast justice.
Alas, all too soon it’s time to pack and head home. Sweating over taping up a broken suitcase, we take one last, long look over the gorge before putting the Fiat into gear and heading out to Heraklion airport.
The British Airways Airbus takes us over Milos on the return journey…..hmmm? And why not?