THE MOST IMPORTANT single thing to know about Greece is "endaxi," pronounced "endocksee." This means "okay," and you say it whenever you can. People will love you and think you're a sport. But don't try it on the tourist circuit in Athens, because they are tired of it there and would rather show off their English and therefore are apt to snarl, "What? Huh? You wanna taxi?"
Just about everyone who goes to Greece starts with Athens, gets turned off by the shrieking traffic and green air, flees to the other mainland sites infested with tour buses, and then tries the most famous islands. On the last day, with luck, those travelers still surviving check in at Crete.
And there they discover what they were looking for in the first place.
Because Crete is what the rest of Greece used to be. Many parts of it are still free of tourist clusters, prices are lower, the whole island bristles with astonishing Minoan ruins and ancient monasteries, the swimming is fabulous (sometimes), the shaggy-coated oranges are the best in the world, and some areas still are shrouded with the tall pines that once grew all over Greece, before the Roman shipbuilders cut them down.
And wildflowers: In April and May you can go pleasantly crazy trying to spot the 130 species peculiar to the island, from acres of blood-red poppies to the rare, almost legendary wild peony. And rocks. Absolutely staggering rock formations and caves.
Our priorities were: explore Minoan ruins, photograph some great rocks and get out of the city for a while. Athens would have to wait.
So we did our Greek trip backwards.
We flew into Athens one April afternoon, switched airports, and without any nonsense took off on Olympic for the rural airport at Chania in the west of Crete. You can land at Heraklion, the largest city, but this is a miniature Athens, and while it has its charm--as does Athens--it is definitely a city.
We stayed in the Doma at Chania, a high-ceilinged old residence that once was the British consulate. For a B hotel it was considered pricey: $22 for a double overlooking a lovely curved bay and the sea. (Later, on the beach at Plakias, we found a beautiful just-opened A hotel, the New Alianthus, with a balconied room facing mountains and in view of the sea for $18. In Heraklion a comfortable C hotel, again with harbor balcony view, costs about $20. All with breakfast.)
What does one see in Chania? The museum is a good place to start your Minoan experience, with its mosaics and early pottery and elegant tiny seal rings. The market is a fine, shouting place of a thousand smells. Perhaps best is the neat little harbor. At night you sit with your ouzo at a quayside taverna and watch the lights make dazzling, nervous streaks on the black water.
The food is oily, but Greek olive oil seems much lighter than Italian; moussaka and pasticio, of course, but also stuffed tomatoes and zucchini, mullet and smelt, octopus and squid (expensive), beef patties with melted graviera cheese, the Greek gruyere and tsatsiki, the great yogurt-and-sliced-cucumber salad. Not to mention the ubiquitous "Greek salad." Good bread with every meal. You can drink the water, everywhere.
In most places you walk right through to the kitchen and pick out what you want from the display. Ask for "heema," the house wine, usually a rose' retsina.
Taking local buses is fun but eats up time. We finally rented a car, which was well worth the stiff cost, for it took us to all sorts of obscure places. There are scores of local rental firms, and we tried something called Zoom, drew a doll-sized Fiat with no gas, bald tires and faulty starter--the only car they had. It heated up badly in the first mile, so we dropped the whole thing and went to Avis.
One day we drove to a monastery, Moni Gouverneto, on the peninsula above Chania, checked out the 15th-century icons, visited Spileo Katholikou, a shrine in a deep cave, and hiked down a rugged, rocky gorge high above the glinting blue sea. Suddenly we stumbled onto some steps, and rounding a corner we came upon an amazing sight: a gorgeous arched stone bridge, 50 yards long and 20 feet wide, covered with grass, leading from a complex of abandoned white chapels and cells across the deep dry gulch to . . . nothing. The other side was just more rock, without even a trail. Far down the yawning valley we could see a few hermit beehive huts.
The bridge was done with great skill, superbly dressed stone blocks fitted precisely, arching 100 feet above the stony bed. Why was it there? Work as prayer?
We drove through a still-green countryside (it goes brown in June, like California) to a Roman ruin and a Turkish fort above Souda Bay, overlooking on one side the sea, which on Crete is almost always with you, and on the other a counterpane land of olive orchards, patchwork fields, rolling hills that led to the foot of the overwhelming snow-tipped Lefka Ori mountains.
By the way, there is a typically beautiful and moving British military cemetery at Souda, and World War II monuments to the Resistance are scattered around western Crete. Outside Chania stands an outrageously tasteless German monument in the form of a pouncing eagle--or maybe it's a shrike.
Saying hello: A red-haired longshoreman hauling wine crates off a truck in Chania broke through the general Greek chatter to call out to me, startlingly, "Top o' the mornin' to ye" as I sat over coffee on the quay. The accent was pure Liverpool. "You're a long way from home," I said. He grinned. "Who's foossy?"
At Preveli monastery a bearded priest in a tall black kamelaukion found out we were Americans--still a novelty in rural Crete. "From Chicago?" he asked hopefully.
While we waited in the car for a herd of goats to cross the road, the ancient herder grinned back at this couple with the friendly waves and tried out his English. "Hello boys!" he croaked.
On May Day city people poured into the beach hamlet of Plakias for a spring feast. Daisy and buttercup wreaths adorned all the children, most of the women and quite a few trucks. By evening the place was boiling over: families picnicking in the olive groves and on the long, broad beach; lambs turning on portable spits; people crowding into every taverna and cafe', packing every outdoor table, crowding every surface with beer bottles and wineglasses and plates of food.
That night a three-piece band played by the midget pier and the dancing started, classic line dances with subtle interwoven steps and wild sole-slapping high-kicks by the leader, family dances where the women joined in and the patriarch, steady despite the wine, gyrated with solemn grace. It went on all night: singing, dancing, chattering, laughing. Everybody got drunk, but there were no fights. A man tried to balance one-footed on a bottle on the table, and his friends propped him up hilariously and then eased him gently down.
Some of the young German nomads camping at Plakias joined briefly in the dances but kept off to the side. One felt this was no tourist show. It was real.
Over the next few days we visited many hard-to-reach villages. We stopped at Spili, a mountain town with waterfalls coming down to the street, and Amari, drowned in wildflowers, and Vrises, where we sat by a rushing stream and ate the local specialty, rich yogurt doused with honey.
We spent a day at the Minoan ruins of Phaestos, walked to nearby Agia Triada with its ancient villa, searched for a hilltop Greek temple site at Polirinia, completely lost in the mist until a breeze swept down the valley revealing a breathtaking green panorama. Here an old man named Vassily beckoned us into his hut, gave us cookies, almonds, oranges and raki, the powerful Greek marc. He had photo albums of himself with his guests, from all over the world.
Watch out for the road maps. A highway that looks like at least a six-lane autobahn on paper probably will turn out to be a two-lane blacktop with horrendous potholes. You will see five or six pebbles in an arc along the outer edge of a frightening cliffside road: your only warning that half the lane is washed out underneath. Some roads are completely blocked, on occasion. Also a town may be depicted in 36-point type on the map but contain barely 200 souls and not so much as a gas station.
A city bus to Vathypetro: more ruins, more sweeping vistas, more pleasant strolling among vineyards and a picnic in tall grass under a eucalyptus tree--bread, cheese, yogurt, oranges, cucumber. We took another picnic to a cave above the fabled Lasithi Plain, with its windmills and crazy-quilt farms, but skipped the Dictaean cave that is supposed to be the birthplace of Zeus, because it was overrun with sightseeing buses.
You try to go where the buses aren't, but at the major sites and cities there is no escape. Why do they never turn off their engines? They may be the wave of the smoggy future: Tourism in Greece generally is down, but it is up 22 percent in Crete this year. And speaking of smog, be prepared for a country where everyone, but everyone, smokes.
On to Heraklion. A Greek-speaking British friend took us to wonderful places. We hiked with her all over the spiky Lasithi hills seeking an ancient town. Met a 75-year-old shepherd who had helped excavate the place. Found wild peonies, to our speechless excitement (but had run out of film). Ate broiled swordfish and raw sliced artichoke at down-home tavernas.
We gave two days to the archeological museum--whose best exhibit, the Minoan frescoes, was closed by a damaged roof--and the controversial palace at Knossos. Some scholars are furious at Sir Arthur Evans for restoring as much as he did, even to reconstructing columns and simulating wooden lintels with painted concrete. His justification was that the palace had been as many as four stories high and that it had to be restored to give any sense of how it looked. In any case, it made a spectacular climax to our weeks of scrambling over bits of crumbled wall.
We never did get to eastern Crete. That's for next time.
One windy day I saw a swallow balancing in midair high in a cleft between two mountains. Then I realized the mountains were a mile away and the wind was blowing the olive trees halfway to the ground. For a long time the bird remained almost still, wings barely shifting as it hung there, far, far up in the sky. Those wings had to be seven feet across. It was an eagle.
There is some rain in Crete in April and May. The wind can be cold, the swimming impossible, even in the Libyan Sea off the south coast. By the end of May, however, you should be getting all the sun you want.