Colours of Southern Crete

sunset in southern crete

This photograph was taken on Sunday 15 October, near Tymbaki in the plain of Messara, 60 kilometres south of Heraklion. There are surely better photos of other sunsets, and I’m not trying to impress you with this one. I just want to share the beautiful colours of the Cretan sky with you and write a couple of words about how Crete always manages to surprise me with its many faces and changes from place to place.

I set off from Heraklion on Sunday afternoon to go to Tymbaki and vote in the local elections. I vote in Tymbaki because my family is from this southern town in Crete. My father wants us to vote there although we live in Heraklion, in order to keep in touch with friends, relatives and the place itself. I have often thought of changing my address on the electoral register to avoid an hour and a half’s drive, but I haven’t got round to doing so yet. Yesterday I was glad I hadn’t, as I enjoyed a lovely trip in spite of setting out from Heraklion in a bored and weary mood.

The weather in Heraklion was heavy and cloudy, with a temperature of 19 degrees centigrade. It looked as though it was about to rain, and driving south in the rain is tiring – it takes longer and you need to be careful.

As soon as I left Heraklion, the sun suddenly appeared from behind the clouds and I regretted leaving my sunglasses at home. The road was busy, with lots of other drivers heading to their villages to vote.

I’d recorded a CD of old Greek songs before leaving and now I was enjoying the music, the sun and the pretty scenery to left and right. Crete was becoming green again after the recent rain, the dust of summer was washed away and the colours looked more brilliant. Autumn in Crete is always beautiful, like a new beginning. It may herald winter but it doesn’t have that melancholy feeling. On the contrary, it’s a relief after the summer heat and bustle. The tourists are going home and Crete can relax, regaining its strength until the next season.
The trip flew past as far as Venerato. Here the old road starts again, with its bends climbing slowly to Agia Varvara. The new road is nearly ready and it’s supposed to be open to traffic by the end of 2006. Add one or two months to be on the safe side, and let’s hope that travelling to Messara in early 2007 with be quicker, safer and easier.

There was a traffic jam at Agia Varvara. The drivers were trying to squeeze through the narrow gap left by cars parked to left and right, and the queue advanced at a snail’s pace. Agia Varvara is the highest point of the road to Messara, and just after the village the road starts to wind its way southwards downhill. There’s a spot shortly before the turning to Ano Moulia that the inhabitants of Messara call “Moulianos Poros”. If it’s blowing here, it’ll be blowing in the south. The prediction is infallible but I’m not sure how useful it is, as you’re already halfway there and it’s too late to turn back if it is windy in the south.

I reached Agii Deka, passed by Gortys and continued to Mires. In Mires the weather was completely different to Heraklion. A warm breeze was blowing and the temperature was six degrees higher, 25 compared to 19 in Heraklion. Mires always has a dusty, sleepy air and I’ve never liked it. I’m always in a hurry to get through town and reach the coast.

I crossed the Festos junction and shortly afterwards saw Mt Psiloritis looming over the plain of Messara. The sacred mountain of Crete always seems more impressive from the south. At this time of year the peaks aren’t yet clad in their winter white, as the first snow will fall in about a month. But winter or summer, Psiloritis is always beautiful and I carry its image within me. What would Crete be without its high mountains? A lovely island but not mine, not what I call Crete.

At Tymbaki I left the car outside the high school, which was the voting centre today. I greeted friends and relatives and voted quickly before returning to the schoolyard, where I chatted with a cousin who was standing in the municipal elections. We discussed the elections, tried to predict the result, and I asked him what the locals think about the new harbour scheme. I heard the hope in his voice that perhaps the harbour would bring the long-awaited development and provide a new future for local people besides greenhouses.

I didn’t know what to answer. I don’t like the idea of the harbour, I’m afraid it’ll be too great a change for the delicate balance of nature in south Crete. What will the bay of Messara look like from high up in the mountains, with a massive harbour cluttering its embrace and dozens of container ships sailing in and out? But I know my view is that of the visitor who comes to enjoy the beauty of the south before returning to the city in the north. What are my needs next to those of the inhabitants, the people who make a living from the soil and hope for a better future for their children? What alternatives have I got to suggest to these people who want to see their town thrive and offer them the things they covet when they visit Heraklion?

I preferred to shut up and simply expressed the hope that the local people will have a say in the future of their home, demand reliable information and examine every detail carefully to make sure that the harbour really will offer them their dreams and desires.

I left Tymbaki and visited my friend Dinny at Pitsidia. I was welcomed by beautiful Bella, Dinny’s dog, who leaped up at me with wet paws. She’s just four months old and plays like a child, all fun and endless energy. She jumped up on the sofa, leaped into my lap, licks my ear, teased me in every way she could think of, tried to be the centre of attention. Dinny put her out and Bella stayed quiet for a while, but soon she started whimpering and scratching at the door until Dinny let her in again. The same thing happened several times and telling her off had absolutely no effect.

Dinny's dog and cat

Dinny’s house is a little animal kingdom. Last time I came there was just one cat in the house and a few others who came to the yard to eat and leave. Now there are eight cats in the house and eight hanging out in the yard. All this toing and froing has led some crotchety neighbours to complain, although Dinny’s yard is clean and all the animals seem healthy, well-cared-for and happy. The tiny kittens clawing my trousers and trying to climb up my back were particularly lovely. I’d like to take one home to Heraklion but I’m not at all sure how Dinny would like the idea, and anyway I don’t want to take it away from its brothers and sisters.

Dinny's cats

We talked about lots of things for quite a while, gossiped about the members of the forum, she told me about the Greek lessons for foreigners that will soon start in Pombia, and all in all it was a lovely afternoon with a good friend, whose optimistic viewpoint and smile I always appreciate.
I set off home late in the afternoon. Shortly before Kamilari I just managed to avoid a careless tourist who’d stopped her bicycle in the middle of the road. Luckily I saw her in time and drove on, admiring the colours of the sunset.

I was driving slowly, trying to find a good spot to take a shot of the colours in the sky. A little before Tymbaki I found the place I wanted and took a few photos. We have lovely sunsets in the north, too, but I believe that those in the south are the most beautiful I’ve seen. Maybe it’s because I feel better there. The south for me has always meant holidays and visits to friends and relatives, always pleasant occasions. That was where my grandparents lived, and when I was a child we used to visit them at weekends and at Easter and Christmas. I fondly remember my grandfather’s newborn lambs many years ago. I remember the pig being slaughtered and prepared for Christmas. I remember the kitten my sister found in an olive grove in the hills outside Tymbaki, how it loved to chase a small ball of wool I used to drag along on a string before the kitten dug its claws into it, and how sad we were when it died after eating a poisoned mouse.

I remember visiting the orchards with their orange and mandarin trees with my father, the olive harvest one year with gypsy workers who teased each other and us all day long and tried to teach me their language, probably to laugh at me repeating phrases I didn’t understand. Later there were more images of excursions in the area, camping on isolated beaches, walks and exploring in the hills and mountains of Messara, happy groups of friends.

old woman in Matala

I have many images to describe but more than I can fit in here. Many are pictures of yesteryear, which I can’t recapture because I have changed, along with the world around me. But I enjoyed this quick trip to the south of Crete, I really did.

It reminded me once again how beautiful my island is and how lucky I am to live here, in a land that can offer so many different images. It’s enough to leave home for a while, get in the car and go on a pleasant journey listening to Nikos Xylouris singing “Chromata, chromata ki aromata”. As long, at least, as the south and the mountains of Crete stay different to the north. As long as Tymbaki has not been transformed into Heraklion and Lendas into Malia, as long as the south remains “undeveloped”…

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