Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Crete the Final Frontier

I had absolutely no qualms about leaving behind what must have been one of the wettest Augusts on record for a two-week holiday on the island of Crete in Greece.

My friends Kate and Luc, who emigrated there a couple of years ago, picked me up at the hot and chaotic airport of Heraklion and we sped off in their jeep in a westerly direction to Rethymnon, situated on the northern coast of the island—cans of ice-cold beer in hand.

It’s fifteen years since my last visit to Crete, and of course during this time there has been a lot of change and restoration. As a tourist attraction Rethymnon manages to cater for the wishes of its visitors without compromising its customs and traditions. The old town of Rethymnon for example, has still retained its charm, with the local butchers, bakers, and corner shop all still in existence. This is no mean feat in a day and age of the larger supermarket and mass production breathing down their necks.

Historically, Crete and particularly Rethymnon has a broad history dating back as far as the Neolithic period. Modern day Crete only became part of Greece as late as 1913, and its inhabitants played a very important part, during the Second World War, in thwarting the Nazi occupation. Rethymnon boasts a Venetian Fortezza, which is well worth a look and gives a magnificent view of Rethymnon and the surrounding area. Within its walls it has a small church and a mosque dating back to 1645.

For a complete guide to not only just the historical but cultural as well, take a look at: Rethymnon. Set up and researched by Luc and Kate Brusten. This is an invaluable site full of information on Rethymnon, for anyone planning a visit to Crete. It even includes an online forum.

The south coast of the island is easily accessed by moped, motorbike or car. Driving through the mountainous regions on the way is more than impressive. The roads twist over and around dry, orangey coloured rocky hills, daubed with green vegetation, which has managed to escape the heat so far; through gorges with sheer rock faces on either side. Village signs are shot full of holes in celebration of the birth of a child or just for sport. Locals sit in the shade on wooden chairs discussing life and the universe; the men often stripped down to their vests in an attempt to keep cool. Every bend in the road with an alarming drop seems to have a shrine in memory of someone who managed to misjudge it.

From the small southern town of Plakias, one can stock up with whatever supplies are needed before heading off round the bay to a smaller cosier beach. My personal favourite is Shinaria, whose beach is small stones instead of sand. Here the water is crystal clear and good for snorkeling. A little way off from the beach is a whitewashed restaurant with heavenly food. Forget looking at the menu and just ask the owner what he’s prepared today. It’ll be chicken, lamb or rabbit in a delicious wine sauce with chips; accompanied by the local wine and a parting obligatory shot of the local firewater—raki, which will leave you giggling on the beach in the late afternoon sun.

For the more intrepid visitor to Crete, there is always the Samarian Gorge, situated near the southern-west coast of the island. It is said to be Europe’s longest gorge and two million years in the making. This impressive and strenuous hike takes the walker about six hours, starting early in the morning, and covers a distance of eleven miles. The last part of the hike is along the rocky, river bottom through the “Portes”, (the gates) of the Samarian Gorge ending at the small town of Agia Roumeli. Here it is possible to eat and swim before heading out by ferry again.

Part of the beauty of the Greek lifestyle is that the pace of life is slower, allowing one to stop and stare. Whether lying on a beach, or a rooftop gazing at the stars, or eating out at one’s leisure with friends. Cretan food has become a gateway to the East, with its inclusion of Far Eastern influences, and has led to a wider variety in the Greek kitchen. Mezzes, a traditional dish, comprises of a lot of little plates of food (like tapas), hot and cold, meat, fish and vegetarian can all be enjoyed with absolutely no rush at one sitting.

As with most places in the world there is also an expatriate presence on Crete, who meets regularly for coffee mornings and lunches in small tavernas by the sea. There is the CIC (Cretan International Community of Chania) in Chania and the Rethymnon group, whose members I found to be very open and friendly.

    First published: Connections #13 Autumn 2006

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