The Delights of Western Crete
This wasn’t my first visit to the Greek island of Crete, I had visited before with my family but we had concentrated our efforts on the popular Eastern side with its tourist resorts and the famous ruins at Knossos, full of ancient myths and stories about Minotaurs and Zeus and various warring gods. We had wanted to see more of the island but as Crete is very long and thin it seemed prudent to take one side at a time. This time my husband and I were visiting the quieter more rugged West, the place where more recent adventures had taken place, an area full of mountains and gorges, hidden caves, monasteries and old fortresses.
We began our explorations at the town of Rethymnon, which now has an international airport, meaning that you don’t need to make the long journey from the east of the island. This seems to be opening up the western side rapidly although there is still much to be discovered off the beaten track and quite often the only way back from a drive is to retrace your route as roads frequently come to an end.
Rethymnon has a relaxed pace these days but evidence of its Venetian and Turkish heritage tells of a different past when it was continually fought over. The beautiful harbour was originally built by the Venetians although the Turks added to it, most notably the lighthouse at the end of the stone pier. Now it is lined with fish tavernas, where thanks to deep, clear waters you can sit eating your catch of the day and feed the survivors in the water at the same time. We had wandered slightly away from the harbour and were beckoned into a restaurant on a dusty side street to have a look. Walking through to the other side we found ourselves in a tinier harbour with fishing boats lolling tranquilly next to old wooden schooners and modern yachts all on a blue circular pond. We sat down immediately, ordered the seafood platter and a sharp dry white wine and that was the next two hours taken care of.
Behind the waterfront are mazes of narrow alleyways that we continually got lost in, luckily every so often a sign for the main harbour put us back on the right track. There is evidence in these streets of both Minoan and Roman remains. The city suffered badly in the battle for Crete during World War II, but thankfully the heart of the old town survived and here you can see a wonderful mix of Venetian and Ottoman old houses - sometimes both styles on the same house. We also came across a Turkish mosque, now used as a music school and concert hall. It had once been a Christian Church but the Turks had added minarets and domes to convert it. Rethymnon has a popular university too, which fits very well with its history, as it was always the intellectual centre of Crete whoever was in charge.
The town is dominated by a fortress with walls rising high above the streets, it is thought to be the largest Venetian fortress ever built and the climb up is well worth the superb views over the sea and harbour. Once at the top we wandered about in the peaceful sunshine imagining lives of the soldiers, first the Venetians who were here from the 13th century although they didn’t complete the fortress until 1586 and then Turks who invaded and took possession of it in 1646. We looked at the newly restored chapel which, like the music school, had passed from Orthodox Church to Mosque when the Turks occupied and back again when they were thrown out in 1898. Yellow butterflies floated in the peppery air as underfoot we crushed wild camomile and layers of pinecones into the dusty path and savoured the tranquillity high above the bustling town.
The next morning I awoke very early, before dawn in fact, but the curtains and window were open and the whole frame was filled with a huge lemon-coloured moon that appeared to be sinking behind Lefka Ori or the White Mountains. The mountains, named so because of all the limestone, appeared more charcoal in the early light, but I sat for an hour or so on the balcony wrapped in a blanket and watched them whiten with unseen sunbeams and the moon quickly drop behind their peaks like a basket-ball into a net. The sun brought life all over the valley. Lights were being switched on, birds began to chirrup extremely loudly, a cock crowed and a man coughed and in the distance the first motorbike revved its engine. The day had begun.
Our day was to be in Chania, the old island capital and one of the most ancient settlements in Europe dating back 7000 years. There are Neolithic caves above the town and produce from Chania was sold in the markets of Jerusalem at the time of Christ. There is an aura of grandeur and an even larger Venetian harbour than Rethymnon, complete with a matching lighthouse and protecting stone sea walls. The Old Town stretches inland surrounded by the New Town. A Venetian trading port for over 500 years they built the ships here that enabled them to dominate the Mediterranean. When it fell to the Turks they very quickly built the impressively domed Mosque of the Janissaries on the harbour too.
Behind a fortress wall lies the Kastelli Quarter, which is the oldest part of town and where excavations have uncovered Minoan and Roman artefacts. The wall around the Quarter originally had four impressive gates but bombing during the Second World War destroyed two of these along with a great many Venetian Palaces and Medieval houses. In the labyrinth of shaded lanes inside we stumbled across Turkish Baths and ancient ruins sitting amongst tiny shops and bars. There is said to be a Minoan Palace buried here but it can’t be excavated because all the Venetian houses were built on top. The Jewish Quarter was still very quiet. Chania’s Jews, who had been there since Alexander The Great’s time suffered terribly in World War II, and the old whitewashed ‘Tree of Life Synagogue’ was still closed but we had lunch at Xani’s next door where we were invited into the kitchen with its wood-burning oven to choose our dishes. It was here we were told the story of an old Jewish Rabbi who had returned to save the Synagogue but no-one seemed to know whether he had left or died but the key was missing and so all that could be seen now was the outside walls and a pomegranate tree dropping its fruit onto the tombstones.
The New Town had something to offer too though. Not only modern shops and restaurants but also a fabulous market hall built in 1911 copied from the design of the market in Marseille and built in the form of a cross. The ceilings are high and echo with the noise of the sellers touting their wares as they serve locals and tourists alike with great gusto. I was offered live octopus, giant-sized fruit and bottles of ouzo but instead bought plastic bags of Cretan spices and teas, complete with instructions and a list of their medicinal properties, including a ‘cure-all’ called ‘Dittany’ that I was told is only found on Crete. They turned out to be a wonderful souvenir, lasting for months and invoking the hot scents of the Cretan countryside whenever I used them.
Although it is seventy years since the end of World War II it is still vividly remembered in Crete. There was much suffering here and war memorials are everywhere. Heroic acts by locals and Allies are retold both orally and in all the books available. The late Patrick Leigh Fermor is probably the most famous. He was sent to Crete to help organise resistance against the occupying forces and the book by W Stanley Moss telling of their exploits in these mountains, (which included the audacious kidnapping of the island’s German Commander, General Kreipe, made into the 1957 film ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’), is sold everywhere. The young German soldiers haven’t been forgotten though and the cemetery at Maleme holds nearly 4,500 graves of their bodies collected 20 years later from their temporary burial sites. Most were parachutists who were simply shot out of the sky on 20th May 1941 as 6,000 were dropped onto Crete. The attack was defeated by the Cretans and the Royal Navy at every point except Maleme and that critical point changed the course of the battle and Crete fell in ten days. A cross erected there says ‘Their deaths should be a reminder to us to keep peace between peoples’.
The British, New Zealand and Australian casualties are buried at Souda Bay, a stunning stretch of coastline overlooking a cerulean blue Aegean Sea. The graves as at Maleme are immaculately tended but it is heart-breaking to see how many don’t have names but are merely labelled ‘Known unto God’. Most had been killed in the last week of May 1941 and in the olive grove entrance a marble plaque in the wall declares that the land has been given by the Greek people ‘as the perpetual resting place of the sailors, soldiers and airmen who are honoured here’. The pure white headstones are laid out in straight ranks as they would have stood in life, but this time the grass is soft and they face the incredibly picturesque view of the horseshoe bay and each one has a red rose tree laid at his head, softening the starkness of the stone.
Driving back towards those white mountains we realised how tough the retreat for survivors must have been. The Royal Navy made risky evacuation landings at night on the other side of the mountains but it was an arduous crossing on foot hiding from air attacks by day and hiking exhaustedly at night. Local people assisted often at great cost and the Monasteries that opened their doors found that even they were not immune to Nazi retribution.
Our road was populated by bony goats chewing on the parched summer herbs and wended between cliff walls that gave fleeting respite from the white-hot sun before we were out in the open again climbing and dipping and admiring the citrus valleys below. Relief and refreshment came with the discovery of an inland lake. Set in a valley, it offered the cool delights of fresh water swimming and iced bottles of local beer under a shaded veranda. We opted for the latter and watched the more energetic share the lake with tiny fish, kingfishers and dragonflies. There were some small turtles on the shore too but they were undisturbed. Electricity hadn’t reached this far yet so everyone left in the evenings for hotels on the coast and I couldn’t help hoping the new airport wouldn’t change that too much.