Crete: Island rocks, from ruins at Knossos to nightlife of Iraklion
So we had come to Crete, famous isle of maze and Minotaur, seeking ruined temples and dead kings. We would quickly find bad gin and the world’s biggest rubber tree.
That’s what the photographer and I made of the weird foliage anyway. We walked through the college-student-crowded center of Iraklion, a clutter of café tables outside where the bars run one into the other and you’re not always sure which waiter is yours.
We had come to see ruins a thousand years older than those of Athens, to feel the gravity of such things, to gawk at priceless museum pieces, to weave our way across Crete to the drowsy beach towns on the other side. But on these first evenings it was like Fort Lauderdale during spring break, only with the roar of televised soccer and the pine-tree taste of Balkan gin telling us it was southern Europe instead. And all of it boiled beneath the glossy boughs of the impossible rubber tree.
Iraklion at night was a war of sounds: the soccer, the brick-in-the-washing-machine clunk of techno music, the persistence of restaurant men hawking lamb. All that and an unending parade of summer-pretty women, skirted and leggy in defiance of the fact that it was autumn everywhere else.
Unfortunately, I eventually would succumb only to the charms of the former: the restaurant hawkers and their stuffed leaves and grilled chops.
“You don’t like, you don’t pay,” went the pitch. We were in front of a place called Sammy’s. The huckster told us to get the special, stuffed tomatoes.
I know the food, he kept on. “I cook all day.”
The photographer, Mike, would later observe that this guy claimed to cook all day, but we never saw him anywhere but outside Sammy’s, tormenting tourists.
We sat and talked to a less cloying employee, a waiter, about this teeming town.
You should see it during the high season, he told us. “It was crazy.” September apparently was nothing.
The waiter told us he thought Iraklion was a cubist wreck of concrete — ugly and squat and buzzing. We would find this the recurring view of the locals. Iraklion looked nice at night to us, the hubbub of it anyway, and the Andy Warhol colors of the college clubs and the formal black of the posh joints.
The mornings fulfilled the waiter’s promise. Iraklion, Crete’s capital, looks boxy and modern and hastily assembled. A stroll through the street market was lively at least: spice and vegetable markets, the place full of old-cupboard smells and the staggering scent of the vacant-faced fish, slack-mouthed in rows. Particularly unappealing was a skinned rabbit, all tendon save for pop-eyes, bobtail and furry feet, suspended by wires.
“Very nice,” the merchants would say.
We headed for the Iraklion Archaeological Museum, famous for its Minoan artifacts, the thing many tourists have on their mind when they visit the town. There were statuettes of bare-breasted goddesses, looking fierce and waving snakes. There was the rot and color of murals of dolphins and bulls. The ubiquitous cracked urn. Arrowheads or spear tips, once bearing menacing gleams, now aged into dirty greens and autumn browns.
Yet for all its academic interest, the museum was just that, a museum, tiring and bustling and virtually hissing with the shushes of tour guides. It felt like school.
Outside was a small café, right there on the museum grounds. A friendly 42-year-old security guard named George Agelakis bought us shots of grainy coffee.
I may only be a guard, George said, “but I work for civilization.”
The Cretans are obsessed with their artifacts, and George admitted as much. In the late ’70s, a mob rioted to try to keep anything from being exhibited abroad. Many still don’t want to pay museum or excavation entrance fees.
“They say, ‘They are ours. We don’t have to pay,’” George went on, smiling through the bristles of his moustache. “They think it’s something of themselves.”
The foreigners come in droves and George takes them aside whenever he can. He met Barbra Streisand once. (“She was very nice.”) One of his favorite one-liners came from an English couple who were moved by the existence of 3,000-year-old pottery and whatnot: “It’s nice to see something older than we are.”
George loves the museum. But even he complained of Iraklion’s industrial complexion, while he praised its proximity to beach and mountain. And its philosophy of life.
What did he call it? Something I couldn’t pronounce but sounding vaguely like “harmony.” I asked him what it meant.
The answer was long: It meant services at an Orthodox church, the smell of oil and of candles burning and the velvet quiet of it, no microphones or even lights.
“You’re happy and you’re sad at the same time,” he explained.
Maybe you’re sorry for some sin, but there’s forgiveness if you want it. Maybe your girlfriend dumped you, but maybe she’ll come back. The inescapable clang and ecstasy of foreign pop on MTV versus the feta-cheese solace that’s in the old Greek music.
“There’s hope,” George said with resolve. “That’s the thinking of Greece. Crucifixion and resurrection.”
We soon bade George and Iraklion adieu. We stopped for a couple hours at Knossos, another one of those tourist must-dos, a ruin of stone and tour guides and blinking old men that three millenniums ago was a palace.
It was a grand wreck, sure enough. Stone and column and restored fresco proudly propped up against the ages for tourists to see and tour guides to charge fees to explain. I wandered around while Mike did his shutter work, but after a while it felt like a chore. I didn’t quite sense the — you know, that presidential race word — the gravitas, the feeling that civilization sprang from here and all that stuff your old social studies teacher would have said. I mostly felt the sun and the dust and the jostle of too many tourists. I hit the grainy coffee stand to stay awake.
We crossed the street for a quick lunch of stuffed tomatoes and cheese and grilled octopus, the proprietors chasing away the backpackers who tried to relax on their steps without buying. Afterward we headed to Hania, a town on the western end of the island not far from the U.S. Navy base at Souda Bay.
We drove along the coast and we could see the sea, the water glowing the same hot blue as a gas grill. The blasted, stubbled countryside eventually surrendered to the machinations of vegetation, and soon the shrubs and trees were thick.
At first, downtown Hania didn’t look much different from Iraklion, only with menacing graffiti protesting the nearby base: “U.S. Bastards Go Home,” “Everybody Say, F*** the U.S.A.,” “U.S. Marines Die in Iraq.”
Past the angular drudgery of the new city, though, lies the old stone heart, a Venice with color, a labyrinth of cafés and restaurants serving spicy digestive grenades and liquor.
On the pier, old men chatted and fished, whiling away the day to the smooth-running zzzzzzz of their reels and the occasional soft splish of a fish.
Sammy’s was only a memory, but Sammy would be at home in Hania, what with the waiters and constant pitch: “Hungry? Drink something maybe?” “Where you from? Germany? Let me tell one thing — we cook in the ceramic way …”
We eventually would give in and take a seat. The scene at sunset in Hania is like some undiscovered Monet: the sea silver and slick as steel, shadowed mountains glowing orange round their edges like hot coals, the lighthouse opening its lone bright eye as the sea finally goes black as oil.
There are a couple of restaurants in Hania that are like art themselves: Hellenic sculptures with roofs collapsed long ago and everything inside all stone of tumbled beige, the open air full of wine-fueled ballads and strings.
We ate at one of these and we walked through the town, vines hanging over alleys in loops, Gypsy kids beating on drums or dangling from the flexing boughs of sailors’ arms like gag Christmas ornaments.
The old market quarter lacked this Venetian charm but sported charms of its own, like the places that sell bottles of ouzo for ridiculously low prices. Among these was the Dionysos Cellar with its brother-and-sister owners.
Michael Kassimatis was 28 but had already taken over his father’s business, peddling the stiff gasoline that his uncle made. He offered us “raki,” the Turkish name for it, but by any other name speedboat propellant still tastes like speedboat propellant.
“It’s like your moonshine,” Michael said.
He pointed at a photograph and began to reminisce about Dad. Then he eyed us before cutting us off in mid-sip.
“Don’t drink it like a girl.”
So we knocked it back and felt the full electric heat of it fire our esophagi into light sabers.
“The raki from the factory is 40 percent. Limited. Ours is stronger. This is the most popular drink in Crete. The homemade is cheaper, better, stronger,” he said.
Michael wasn’t just a peddler of Cretan moonshine — he also did spices and ouzo and wine and olive oil. I asked him what was the best thing about this place.
“The womans,” he said, leaning in so his sister and girlfriend wouldn’t hear.
Then he surprised me by suddenly sounding like a Hemingway.
“In the summer, at the beach, everyone is friendly. In the winter, we have many mountains. The point is, the summer is warm, and the winter is colder. And now is shooting time for rabbits and grouse.”
His sister Katrina, one year his elder, jumped in. It was the wildlife and the hills, she contended, that make her isle special.
“There is the wild Cretan goat,” Katrina said. “You can find only here. You cannot kill them.”
Katrina told us how morning comes and pulls back the curtain of the night, and the day plays in sparks on the sheen of the sea, and the years are sliced into sweet sections of high season and tourists and the too-short break, and the people in the town are dismayed because the money dries up but relieved because they can finally breathe.
The next day, the next season, the next year, all ambling forward in blissful and identical succession.
“Time,” she said, “goes very slowly here.”
We were only in Hania a few days, but I learned to negotiate the Venetian section without mixing it up with the army of Sammy’s. We spent more time on the other side of the lighthouse, the drowsy pier, a strip of polite seafood joints and bobbing boats and schools of tiny fish bouncing off the stones like silver bullets.
During the day we were ushered around by a guy named Paul who worked for the Navy. We had some Navy news to file, covering the war on terror, keeping the world safe for democracy and all the red-white-and-blue rest of it. Paul was married to a Greek and had lived on Crete for I don’t know how long.
Before we left, Paul took us to a favorite taverna, a beach place outside of town and there was cheese and tentacles and an offer of sea urchin, but no takers. The tables were outdoors and the sea was lovely and the sunbathers even more so. Soon, Paul told us, the place would slow down. The holidays would come and so would the harvest when not only farmers, but also doctors and accountants and everyone else, raided fields or even yards for olives. They would take the olives to presses and then they’d have the oil. Greek workers at the U.S. military base would even take time off for it.
That’s the sort of feeling, an ancient lull, that I had as we left Hania and crossed the island. More than one Cretan had told us of the isle’s multiple faces, and I was beginning to get it. The solar-blast limestone of the coast was soon a memory and gave way to the rise and flex of mountains, their peaks crowning slopes hewn like the veined necks of weightlifters. Goats were everywhere, lounging on jagged rocks as if they were La-Z-Boys.
We stopped at an outdoor café that looked like an unfinished cabin. Insect-eaten logs unleashed a persistent mist of fleas into open soda cans.
But the view was incredible. We were driving upward, all right. The cliffs looked like pyramids covered in the kind of moss you’d see on round, smooth stones in a river, only the moss was really trees — that’s how high up we were. The air was full of the mint smell of pine dryness and it seemed to craze the fleas even more.
Soon we were back in the car and cresting the height of the island, and then we were going down again, toward the sea. The pines gave way to stark beige rocks, and it was like we had traveled from Southern California to Montana to Tunis in one day.
We drove around this new coast for a while, just looking. The towns ran together. “Vraskas,” a sign announced. We turned a corner. Vraskas was finished.
There was a nice beach with the lazy sounds of chainsaw bees and kids flying warring kites, and the sight of northern Europeans sunning themselves in the altogether. Next to that was a castle supposedly haunted by doomed warriors, and Mike thought it looked like the perfect venue for Ozzfest.
We checked into a hotel in Hora Sfakion, de facto capital of these parts, terraced azure and white like all those postcards you see. The hotel was austere in a good way, simple and sun-bleached, with rooms that open wide to terraces facing the sea.
Waiters outside fed the stray cats that ganged around the tables. There was no bank machine and I needed one, but I respected the absence. I bought money from a souvenir clerk who will roll over your credit card with one of those hand-operated stamps and give you money but keep a commission for herself.
At one of the restaurants with cats, I asked the waiter about the town. He told me about 400 people lived there. “It is only a village.” He said the tourist season ran from March and into October. We were almost out of it.
I pressed for more, but he admitted he wasn’t even from Hora Sfakion, that no one at the restaurant was. But he pointed down the street to a place called Taverna Nicos. The guy you want owns that place, the waiter told me.
“He is open all day. He is there I think.”
So go there I did, and it was open but empty and looked a little like a cafeteria. Inside, a slender and keen-eyed man sat alone. It was no Sammy’s.
You Nicos? I asked the man.
He was. Nicos Braoudakis, 53 years young and suspicious. I told him I wanted an insider’s scoop on the town, and then he eyed me differently. His voice went from skeptical to intense.
“The story of this place, as far as I’m concerned, is the history — World War II, World War I … the people are so proud, so tough …. They don’t like people to press them.”
He pressed his hands together like the wings of a waffle iron.
During World War II, the locals helped troops from New Zealand and Australia escape the Nazis. And they had shown their pluck long before that. For four centuries, Turks ruled the rest of Crete, but they couldn’t crack Hora Sfakion.
Nicos produced old photos of these rustics, yellowed and costumed, all moustaches, hats to one side and rifles. A proud policeman wore epaulets and medals and a sword.
“This is how people used to dress. You feel very special. These people were Turk fighters.”
Nicos said he once traveled the world, even drove clear across the United States. “If you don’t go away, you don’t know how much your place means. If you don’t go away, you don’t know how much you love it.”
Foreigners apparently agreed. The tourists first arrived in Hora Sfakion in the late ’60s, he said. It went crazy in the ’80s and has never let up.
“One side, it’s good. Because it’s the business. But the other side is the culture, which disappears little by little.”
Some old friends had gone, to northern Europe and America. Others stayed, but they had changed.
“Now it’s only hustle, money. Once we were poor, but we were very happy to be on a mountaintop, to be a fisherman. Everybody’s trying to be a businessman.”
Just then a boy and a girl came in from the sun, and they wanted ice cream. Nicos had a freezer full of it, and, of course, he surrendered it.
“These are my kids.”
They threw their arms around their father and kissed him, ice cream bars waving. His hard face smiled.
Crete is famous for dead relics of cold stone, but its real treasures still breathe.