By Yannis Samatas
I have just driven past Georgioupoli and turned towards Vamos. I am in the Apokoronas area, one of the greenest landscapes in Crete, dotted with pretty traditional villages, between Chania and Rethymnon.
I have often taken these roads and the landscape is engraved on my memory. But the wounded hillside in front of me is not in any of the images I remember.
On the mountain opposite, the green carpet covering Crete at this time of year simply doesn’t exist. A huge section of the slope has been devoured by bulldozers. Vomiting black smoke, they have turned the rocks, thyme and sage bushes into flat, cement-covered terraces. Large two-storey houses in pastel shades have already been built on the terraces, while a red car parked between them is visible from a distance.
I leave my car and take a few photos, still shaken by this unexpected sight. The bright yellow sign on the right of the road, a few metres further on, answers my questions as to who has taken over this pretty hillside.
Directly from the builder, the sign proclaims, these homes were constructed to house the Northern Europeans who, deprived of sun and blue sea, seek them in the southernmost corner of Europe, beautiful Crete.
After Spain and Cyprus, it is now Crete’s turn to surrender to the peaceful invasion of well-off foreigners. Over the past few years, people who do not hesitate to spend a few hundred thousand euros in order to enjoy the Mediterranean sunshine for a few months a year, have been buying up land and property at increasing rates. Suddenly, in just five years, FOR SALE signs are sprouting, faster and faster, among the ancient olive trees of Apokoronas and indeed across the whole of Crete. These signs feed the prospering class of estate agents and constructors, professions flowering in Crete in the new millennium. Especially as regards estate agents, the question springs to mind: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” The agent sells a house to a Northern European customer, the customer moves to Crete, drinks his fill of sun and sea and then decides to become an estate agent in his turn, selling more houses to friends and acquaintances, in an attempt to redeem the inflated price he paid for a piece of land or a ruined house in some village. An easy job with big profits, they say – but is it true?
I drive on to Kalyves. Once there were three villages a short distance apart: Kalyves, Almyrida and Plaka. Today they are indistinguishable; Plaka and Almyrida especially have merged into one. New houses pop up one after the other, on their own or in small groups, covering the hills by the shore.
What strikes one is the size of these houses. These aren’t just simple little homes but luxury two- and three-storey buildings, often with a swimming pool. Why do you need a pool when you’re just a few steps from the sea? Hey, when you pay 250,000-1,000,000 euros for a seaside villa, why not put in a swimming pool that will look pretty when it’s lit up at night? Other cultures, other concepts…
Don’t get me wrong, the houses aren’t ugly. Some are even much more beautiful than those built by Cretans for their families. After all, Cretans themselves have shown the greatest lack of respect for the local environment and the beauties of the landscape. What annoys me in this case is the huge change taking place in Apokoronas and the area’s consequent loss of identity.
Although close to the large city of Chania, Apokoronas remained until recently an area of outstanding natural beauty, with only mild forms of development. There was some tourist development here and there, mainly in Georgioupoli and Kalyves, and to a lesser extent in Plaka and Almyrida. Apokoronas was one of the first places where mild projects were implemented, such as the agrotourism business in Vamos, where old houses and schools were renovated and transformed into lovely traditional hostels, respecting the traditional local architecture. Similar efforts followed at Machairoi and Provarma.
Unlike these projects, the new building development doesn’t follow these models but imposes western-style houses next to traditional village homes. How can the huge, modern, impressive villa harmonize with the plain and simple, traditional stone-built house?
Apokoronas, in fact, has been taken by surprise by the development of recent years. The same goes for the rest of Crete. The blame lies exclusively with the Greek State for its lack of planning and regulation to preserve the island’s traditional architectural identity. No-one is saying we should ban building on Crete, nor should we make our foreign friends the scapegoats for the problems besetting the island. In any case, the reaction of the local Apokoronas community to new development is largely positive: there is a rise in land values, a boost to the local economy and an influx of life and action in villages at risk of being left deserted by the exodus of young people to the cities. Of course, there are still those who are worried and saddened by the unconditional selling-off of Crete, as shown by the red X someone has painted over an estate agent’s sign.
A short drive around the lovely area of Apokoronas gives rise to many questions and considerations:
Since we already have shining examples of new developments which respect the Cretan environment and local architecture, such as the village of Milia in Kissamos, why don’t we learn from the sensitivity of those daring romantics who resist easy profits and embrace local identity? Why can’t we see that Loutro in Sfakia retains its beauty because the Archaeological Service has enacted stringent regulations to preserve the local traditional style of architecture – white houses with blue wooden doors and windows? Or is a better example supplied by Santorini and the preservation of Cycladic architecture?
Yes, foreigners will always want to come to our country and build homes here, but it must be done in a way that respects the natural beauty and architecture of Crete. Let them come here and receive guidance, help and protection.
– Guidance in their first steps and the process of relocating to a foreign country.
– Help in understanding how things are done in Greece and learning the Greek language.
– Protection from unscrupulous salesmen who will try to exploit their ignorance and good faith and sell them run-down ruins at prices usually reserved for luxury town-centre apartments.
It is disgraceful that all information currently comes from friends, acquaintances and private or commercial websites, while the Greek State is invisible. It is disgraceful that this land with its thousands of years of history has been abandoned defenceless to the new state of affairs, with no planning for the future.
Let those responsible act now, before we see a faceless, characterless, soulless Crete. Let us plan for the future so that we may visit Apokoronas without feeling sorrow and nostalgia for the lost beauty of yesteryear.