Ode to a Cretan Urge
By Nan Sniper
Thirty years ago, I walked Crete’s spectacular 16 kilometre-long Samaria Gorge. At its end lay the Libyan Sea, a luminous sight of brilliant blues. Unfortunately, I had no time to linger; the boat had arrived, but I promised myself I would one day return.
Now older, I’ve come back, accompanied by my brother Jon who was equally eager to explore Crete’s southwestern waters with its breathtaking backdrop of rugged mountains. Our Cretan quest not only involved all modes of transport – car, boat and foot, but also the rental of a century-old house in quiet Patsiano village.
From our lofty terrace we could see in the distance the sea and Frangokastello Castle. Villagers say on May 18th, the sword-swinging ghost of hero Hadzi Michalis Dalianis appears at its entrance waiting to ambush the Turks. No sighting for us, but we did enjoy watching the swifts and yellow-bellied finches darting amongst the orange, olive and lemon trees surrounding our house.
Anyone for artichokes? They were there too. Towering behind us was a rocky massif speckled with yellow and pink bushes called ‘catsoulia’ and ‘aspalathos’. Here, orleander and jasmin flourish, even amidst the Cyclopean boulders of gorges whose inner depths display an abundance of wild flowers.
They say 170 rare floral species brighten the landscape. Many we admired while hiking – in particular, the remarkable red dragon lily whose impressive vertical spear dwarfed tinier treasures: multi-coloured orchids, campanula, poppies and tulips. Thyme, oregano and sage sweetened the air everywhere while wild Cretan goats offered an ear-pleasing concert of plaintive ‘cri-cri’ vocals.
Driving through villages, Jon skillfully negotiated hairpin turns whose only distraction was the ‘drop-dead’ panoramic view of sea below – great for producing a simultaneous rush of fear and joy. Twice I dared the treacherously high narrow road circling Crete’s White Mountains that rise 2,452 metres above sea level! Houses teetered on rocky crevices creating a craggy but worthwhile descent to pristine, unpopulated beaches.
Loutro & Marmara Beach
One such haven was Marmara Beach that could only be reached on foot. We set out for Marmara from lovely Loutro where picture-perfect, white-washed houses hug a sandy bay. Marmara’s marble rocks hanging over the sea were a welcome sight after hiking uphill for two hours trying to find this beach. It was the only time we got lost because there were no signs – typical on Crete’s E 4 Pan-European trail that traverses over a quarter of the island’s 1000-km –long coastline.
We had reached Loutro by boarding the boat that leaves the attractive port of Hora Sfakion. But its allure is tainted. Occasionally, gunshots rip through the air; vendetta feuds still persist here. No wonder the Venetians never succeeded in subjugating its inhabitants, plus Cretan families own more guns than they do goats.
No worries: Hora Sfakion also has friendly tavernas where people hang out waiting to catch the ferry to popular Paleochora and Ayia Roumeli – the final spot for hoards of hikers spilling out of Samaria Gorge right into Agia Roumeli’s magnificent waters – the same bay that inspired me decades ago.
Hora Sfakion boasts a cozy nice beach too. We swam there, then feasted on Sfakian feta pie at Three Brothers Restaurant overlooking the water. This yummy appetizer became a staple for Jon and me – squid and spanokopita coming in a close second. Cretan yogurt topped with honey is simply the best! This nectar of the gods was often offered to us, along with oozo – a sweet gesture of Cretan hospitality.
Indeed, Cretan generosity is as legendary as the island’s tragedies. One event in particular poignantly demonstrates such courage. It took place inside Arkadi Monastery’s gun powder enclosure during a Turkish assault on November 9, 1866. Spurred on by Abbot Gabriel, Cretans refused to surrender, and agreed to blow themselves up – taking hundreds of Turks down with them.
Arkadi’s museum made me cry. Inside were remains and relics from that moment, the most moving being a hairbraid from a woman killed in the massacre.
Equally stirring were the cozy Byzantine churches we visited in villages near Arkadi in lush Amari Valley. In Meronas, Pappás (Father) Manolis appeared with an enormous key to let us into Ayia Panagia. It held a treasure of 14th-century frescoes, icons shining with gold leaf, and a huge1901 bible with a heavy silver embossed cover. Noticing my reverence, Pappás Manolis suggested I convert to Greek Orthodox, but the 13-day process was not on our itinerary.
The mountains and gorges of Crete
Instead, we went looking for Zeus! Ascending partially up snow-capped Mount Psiloritis, Crete’s highest mountain (2,456 metres), we walked towards the Idean Cave where the god was nurtured. No thunderbolt there – just a huge gaping hole, far less inspiring than those gorges we hiked – colossal cavernous million-year-old monuments of limestone and sandstone teeming with life.
Each gorge presented a different challenge: Near our house, Kallikratis was a rocky ascent; Imbros Gorge’s beautiful descent offered various vistas resplendent in flowers, little lizards, singing birds and richly coloured geological protrusions where wild goats poised. Aradhena gorge was so arduous, even Jon turned back at an impossible boulder impasse. It was the goat skeletons that got me. If a goat can’t hang on a cliff face, I wasn’t about to try, so I returned to Marmara Beach lying at Aradhena’s opening. Fifteen minutes later, Jon joined me, defeated by the 90-degree boulder face.
Of all the gorges with caves we explored (Crete has 3000 caves), one in particular will forever haunt our memory. Trying to find the entrance descent to Kourtaliotiko Gorge, we managed to climb down, but waters ran through a narrow ravine and there didn’t seem to be a path at all.
Suddenly, a beautiful nymph from nowhere appeared, a waif-like lady was coming to our rescue, lithely crawling on all fours down the gorge to greet us. She told us to follow her and she would take us across the water. Shoes off and wading through the turquoise clear moving waters, we followed this creature who brought us safely to the path, but instead of guiding us further, she insisted we come to her home.
“It’s just up a way,” she said in a soft voice. Indeed, it was up, but in a vertical direction. This mysterious lady’s home was a cave! Her name was Sylvie Pommer. Austrian-born, she left a decade ago, living in caves – this one for the past five years, two of which she spent chiseling out huge sections (she showed us her tools). Her no-rent cave space came complete with a fire spot for grilling, a hose gushing mountain water, even pillows to sit on and flowers to admire in vases lining the walls.
We had one of our best meals, cave-cooked by Sylvie: keftedes (meat balls), marinated artichokes and a Greek salad. She rarely ventures out, except for food shopping in nearby Asomatos village. The herbs covering Kourtaliotikos’ fertile slopes were tasty fresh. Our tea was made from mountain tree leaves.
We nicknamed Sylvie ‘Circe’, an enchantress who held Odysseus under her captive spell for ten years. Now it was our turn to be beguiled. Sylvie’s lectures about love, earnest manner and sweet voice lulled us into reverie.
We never did finish walking the gorge. My big bold Cretan adventure ended up there with Sylvie and Jon – travelers in a land resonating with Minotaur myths, Minoans and impenetrable mysteries that confound the imagination.