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Ode on a Grecian Turn
Hit the Winding Roads of Crete for Ground-Level Glimpses of Island Life, Past and Present

By William Casey
The Washington Post
Sunday, March 21, 1999; Page E01
   


The owner of the local Shell station spoke no English. Examining our rental car's right front tire, which was hemorrhaging air as fast as it could be pumped in, he mumbled a few words in Greek and headed back to his garage. He quickly reappeared, hammer in hand.

Soon he was bashing at the rim: Bam bam bam. I was slipping into shock. I'd already ruined a tire, now this local Zorba was beating my wheel into a plowshare. How many drachmas was this going to cost?

He stopped banging. We added some more air and it stayed in. The tire looked fine; it was fine. Somehow, the hammer had made the wheel, the rim and the tire all better. We drove off in our Renault, and had no problems with our tire for the remainder of our stay.

Well, that's Crete. Greece's southernmost and largest island, half again the area of Delaware, is alternately desolate, spectacular and congested, scenic and occasionally downright ugly, a rugged home to 500,000 energetic Greeks, thousands of recklessly driven automobiles and numerous wild goats. It boasts world-class beaches, a supply of seaside tavernas sufficient to keep outlanders filled with hearty Greek food and prices that are hard to beat. Yet it's also the kind of place where guys who speak no English magically "fix" your car with a mini sledge. It's magic, in a rustic sort of way.

Crete offers historical sites galore--far more than the minimum daily requirement. The island was home to the Minoans, a culture that reached its peak around 1500 B.C., a thousand years prior to the heyday of ancient Greece. Western culture's foundation rests firmly on the Greeks; the Crete-based Minoans, in turn, contributed mightily to Greek civilization. Enjoying a convenient location in the busy mid-Mediterranean, Crete has been variously under Venetian, Turkish and of course Greek control over the course of three millenniums, and its cities and rural landscapes contain ample testimony to these periods.

And of course, Greece is the world headquarters of "larger-than-life" characters. We didn't run into Zorba the Greek himself (though Nikos Kazantzakis was born in Iraklion, Crete's capital city) but we regularly encountered friendly, colorful and eccentric Cretans: the exuberant restaurateur in Zakros, the historian-cab driver in Iraklion, the hyper-energetic soccer addicts huddled in a Neapoli bar and of course the hammer-wielding countryside mechanic. The irresistible vitality that characterizes this island and its hearty inhabitants can be contagious.

A week in late October wasn't enough to cover every hectare, but it enabled my friend Betty and me to appreciate a good portion of the island. We disembarked at Iraklion, not only its bustling capital but also Crete's largest city, after a four-hour ferry trip from the island of Santorini. Late October is the tail end of Greece's tourist season, so we traveled with no reservations and only a general idea (based on Lonely Planet, Michelin and Rough Guide tour books) of how we might spend our time.

Renting a car in Iraklion was a lot easier than driving one. Nearly every kilometer offers a near-death experience. Greece has the second highest rate of automobile fatalities in Europe, and it gives every appearance of trying to unseat Portugal as No. 1. Still, we were able to putter along for several hundred miles along the coast and into the island's center without any collisions (another earthly miracle!). Visitors should expect sharply curving roads not wider than a driveway.

Heading west from Iraklion, we made our way to the city of Rethimnon, a small seaport. This was accomplished in 45 minutes on Crete's only modern highway (the "New Road") which runs east and west. Again, the disparity caught our attention: A modern highway slices its way along the island, yet the narrow, twisting connecting roads reveal an underlying network of slightly improved cart paths.

Luckily, detailed knowledge about ancient Achaean or Minoan civilization is not a prerequisite for appreciating Crete's heritage and beauty. We were largely ignorant of matters archaeological on our arrival, but it's painless and satisfying to learn bit by bit as you go along, enough to gain an understanding of what's there and why it's considered significant. A subsequent visit to the Archaeological Museum provides even more context.

You certainly don't need a degree in history to appreciate the city of Rethimnon. Its heart centers on a charming, ancient core that's endearingly labyrinthine and congested in a friendly, unpretentious way. The old part of town is thick with cafes, bistros and shops concentrated in a small area. People are everywhere, and not just tourists: a large complement of locals still make their homes and raise families in this intimate environment. Second stories jut over narrow streets in testimony to their medieval origins.

The old quarter of Rethimnon is adjacent to the Venetian fortress--despite its size, the fort proved unequal to the task of keeping the invading Turks at bay--that's dominated the harbor since the late 1500s. At the same time, it's a city that's lively and open with its cluttered, unattractive tourist facilities thankfully dispersed along beach terrain to the east, leaving the older part of the city largely intact.

A major attraction for visitors to western Crete is hiking the length of the Samaria Gorge, the deepest and perhaps most spectacular canyon in Europe. There are different options for taking on this moderate challenge, but all require an entire day. It's a worthwhile investment of time and energy.

A torturous but fascinating two-hour bus ride up into the mountains brought us to the tiny village of Omalos, not far from the head of the gorge. Everyone clambered off the bus for a rest and breakfast--local rolls, heavy Greek coffee or Nescafe, some candy bars and several kinds of fruit. Most of our fellow hikers were German or British.

The Samaria Gorge has been a national park since the 1960s but is open for visits only about half the year. During the winter rainy season, the river bed is an impassable torrent, but in the summer months it becomes an uneven, rocky hiking trail, descending along a 12-mile route. The hike took more than six hours, including a short lunch break at the now-empty village of Samaria. At one point, the path narrows to only 10 feet wide with walls soaring nearly a thousand feet overhead. The scenery was awesome.

Eventually we made our way to the gorge's outlet, the town of Ayia Roumeli that sits on Crete's southern coast, overlooking the Mediterranean in the direction of Libya. There a typical light Cretan meal composed of a Greek salad, stuffed grape leaves and chicken kebab fueled us for an hour-long ferry voyage along the coast to Loutro, followed by another spine-tingling bus ride to Rethimnon.

Hiking the gorge was the longest of several forays to Crete's interior. Once away from a nine-mile strip of development hugging the northern shore, the visitor finds a wholly different world: farmers tending fields in ancient, clustered villages, carrying on an agricultural way of life rooted in a distant century. Few locals in these places spoke English.

Crete's rough terrain is characterized by many small (and a few larger) plateaus, some of which experience unique micro-climates. It's not uncommon to find adjacent farming areas supporting very different crops: vegetables, olives, bananas, oranges, apples. Most of these subsistence enclaves are populated by the elderly--the children and children's children having emigrated to the city (any city), often to work in tourism jobs. All this is evident in the landscape. Driving on the east-west route, the roadside presented a random sweep of actively tended olive groves, orchards suffering benign neglect, others wholly overtaken by native regrowth.

Eventually we picked up and headed to the other end of the island, destination Sitia. About two hours from Iraklion, Sitia is the last significant Cretan city going east. While accommodating to visitors, it is much more a working city, and less a tourist destination, than its sisters to the west. Our $24 room at the Hotel El Greco overlooked the charming harbor.

From Sitia, it's a short and scenic drive to Zakros, the most recently excavated of four major Minoan palaces. We were able to combine a modest hike through "The Valley of the Dead," which leads to the ruins, with an hour of poking around at the palace ruins. The Minoan civilization was centered on Crete and flourished during the second millennium B.C. The golden age of Greek culture followed the Minoans by about a thousand years but focused on the mainland in Athens. As with any complex historical site, it's worthwhile to take a tour when one's available: There's a great deal more to see and appreciate than meets the eye. Zakros is small, so we had to make do with a self-guiding map. Twenty minutes of deciphering preceded our first step.

The most widely known Cretan antiquity is Knossos, on the outskirts of Iraklion. We had visited Knossos on our first day, and it provided a good introduction to the Minoans and what they were all about. Knossos is by far the largest and most elaborate palace site--more than a thousand rooms at its peak in about 1500 B.C--and is surrounded by extensive grounds. King Minos and the Minoans were considered exclusively the stuff of Greek myth until Knossos was discovered about 100 years ago and excavation was initiated by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. As it turns out, "fantasies" such as the labyrinth, the escape of Daedalus and Icarus and many others are now accepted as being firmly rooted in ancient Crete.

All four Minoan palace sites (Phaestus and Malia in addition to Knossos and Zakros) on Crete have been identified fairly recently. Zakros is the most recently discovered: Excavation began there in the early 1960s and continues today.

As we headed back to Iraklion for our midweek flight to Athens, we were able to visit the tourist center of Ayios Nikolaos and the more isolated and picturesque port of Elounda, a short distance north. All the while, it was hard to resist being diverted on to side routes, permitting us to experience the interior--with its stone walls, abandoned windmills and tiny villages. In these areas, the new must give way to the old. More than once we stopped so that a flock could be guided from one grazing area to another by local herders.

There was one additional chore remaining in Iraklion: returning our redoubtable yellow Renault. It had performed as advertised--and then some, considering the variety of terrain to which it had been subjected--but I was still anxious about that once-troublesome front tire as I pulled up at the rental place. The clerk seemed cautious as he circled the car dutifully. He may have looked at that wheel for an extra moment or two. But I suspect in Crete the sledgehammer is viewed as an acceptable tool for automotive maintenance.

He handed me a receipt--another of Crete's small miracles.

William Casey lives in Albuquerque, N.M.

DETAILS: Exploring Crete

WHEN TO GO: Because of its central Mediterranean location, a visit to Crete can be scheduled for April through October, or even early November. Summer months mean hot and sunny weather, congested beaches and high prices--but also deeper tans for those who are so inclined.

GETTING THERE: Air and ferry are the only two practical ways to make it to Iraklion, Crete's capital city and transportation hub. Direct flights are available from major cities in Europe. The 50-minute flight from Athens is also an option, especially for those who want to combine a Crete visit with a trip to other parts of Greece. There are several Athens-to-Iraklion flights daily, with more in the warmer months, with round-trip fares starting around $140.

Ferries are numerous and much less expensive than flying from other parts of Greece. Schedules vary radically by season, so check them carefully. The trip from Athens is overnight and costs $50 per person for a cabin, but there is service to and from other cities and Greek islands as well as from Italy. A ferry ticket from Santorini to Iraklion--a four-hour hop--costs about $10.

GETTING AROUND: Crete lacks train service but does offer an adequate system of inter-city taxi and buses. For those interested in a single destination, a taxi or bus is likely to prove satisfactory and a sure money saver. For travelers interested in exploring different parts of the island, renting a car is a must. Roads are narrow and often dangerous by U.S. standards.

WHERE TO STAY: Rates vary considerably by season, but a range of accommodations is available in most places on the island. Modern, full-service hotels are available to those interested in city or tourist beach destinations during the high season. Expect rates from $80 to $250 for rooms that include TV and a telephone. At the other end of the spectrum are very simple hotels, with generally modern and clean rooms--albeit small and lacking in electronics--that can cost as little as 5,000 Greek drachmas (about $19) in the low season and two or three times that in the summer. We found such places easy to find around Crete with the help of guidebooks. Away from popular north-coast areas and cities, prices will be more attractive--but expect the choice of hotels typically to be more limited.

WHAT TO EAT: Greek cuisine is heavy on the oil--Cretans in particular are proud of their olives and olive oil--and staples such as traditional Greek salads (cucumbers, tomatoes, olives with feta cheese) are universally available and always made with fresh ingredients. Lamb, pork and, to a lesser extent, chicken are the most common meats served. Fish is a good bet in Crete, too. Fresh fruits and vegetables are available in abundance. Our very favorite Cretan dish is an appetizer called Dakros, which was available when we inquired, even when it wasn't actually on the menu. Consisting of a crisp, coarse brown bread topped with a mixture of fresh tomatoes with oregano and other spices, it is an industrial-strength variation on familiar Italian bruschetta. In the wine department, numerous local reds and whites are worth sampling. The experimentation is enjoyable and worth the effort. Two quirks we encountered: Souvlaki is very common, but for some reason we never found lamb on a kebab. Whole olives are often served, but inclusion of chopped olives as an element in dressings or sauces seems unknown. Go figure.

INFORMATION: Greek National Tourist Organization, 212-421-5777, www.vacation.net.gr.

--William Casey

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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