CRETE – Island of Ouzo, Cats and Friendly Locals

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A chubby man called Manolis leads us to a tiny red Micra.  My suitcase struggles against stones on the ground and on noticing, Manolis picks it up with a giant hand, as if filled with feathers.

”This is your car. And this is for you,” he presents my father with a bottle of red wine, a product of Crete of course. After loading our suitcases into the boot, Manolis hands us his mobile number on a scrap of paper and insists that we call him if we need anything at all during our stay. He then bumbles into the distance of the pitch black airport car park.

My father starts the car and the stereo comes alive with bouzouki and cheery Greek song. He dances in the driver’s seat in excitement of the coming week and off we go to find our hotel, a good 45 minute drive away.

Crickets line the roads singing their hearts out in the arid grasses. The unmistakable perfume of pine resin floats in the humid air and a huge orange crescent moon hangs low in the night sky, its reflection splayed out on the sea to our left.

Families dine on terraces by the dim light of lanterns. Huge insects crash and die on our windscreen. The music plays on, familiar words and rhythms lament.

I have that feeling in my gut, the one I get every time I am here, not Crete, but here in the Mediterranean. A feeling of excitement and homecoming. I am about to fall in love all over again.

After a heat induced sleep we awake to a searing morning on the coastal town of Herssonisos. I open the windows wide and let fresh air into our room and am greeted by moderate September waves thrashing against red rocks. As anyone English can empathise, my immediate thought was ‘BEACH!!!’

Lifting my hand to alleviate the tickling sensation on my head I feel something hard and unfamiliar scuttling around my crown; the creature is promptly thrown across the room as I let out an almighty shriek. A maid rushes in ready for action, but instead saves the button sized bug.                                                                                                                                                          “Her name is Vermosa. Her smile is not pretty but she is not so bad.” She shows me the creature now safely snug in a cloth.

Tucking into a breakfast of cucumber and fragrant tomatoes on the restaurant terrace, I feel a tapping at my ankles. There, below a swaddling of table cloths, lay a tiny kitten begging for scraps. He quickly becomes my friend as I sneak him scraps of ham from my Dad’s plate. Then I notice he is all alone in the world and bullied by a big ginger tom, who steals his scraps and terrorises him. I go to fetch more cucumber but come back with a plate piled high with rose-pink watermelon and loukoumades – fried dough balls drenched in syrup and smattered with sesame seeds and cinnamon. Drat, this health kick is clearly not going to work!

After the first few days tanning under the sun, we ventured into Herssonisos town. The first thing I noticed on the dusty stretch of highway between Heraklion to Herssonisos, were numerous fur shops aimed at rich, mostly Russian tourists. Huge posters of glamorous women donning fur coats seem inappropriate in the 30+ degree heat. My annoyance is futile; it’s the way of the world and there is little one can do until the affluent Russians follow the fashion of Europe and go bust.

Herssonisos starts with Eucalyptus lined streets.  Local men sell fruit in their shade, perched on white washed walls. In the centre of town pubs and restaurants come alive and Herssonisos becomes like any other tourist hotspot. I find Mastic gum in a local supermarket and buy a pot. It’ll bulk up my tiny baggage allowance but it’s not every day you come across ingredients like that. I have no idea what to do with it so if anyone can suggest a good recipe using it, I’ll be grateful! We stop for a Frappe and despite putting my knowledge of Greek to use, the waiter replys to me in English. Oh well, at least I tried. My Greek lessons were useful to some degree; I can order a coffee, greet people, and say I love you – these are some of the most important things to communicate in life, aren’t they? If all else fails I’d use my hands and speak in a mix of Italian and Turkish hoping for the best.

Piskopiano and Koutouloufari are two small, traditional villages perched above Herssonisos at the foot of an illuminated rock face. Our first stop is in a family run taverna names David Vegera, where lip smacking mezze comes a plenty and cost as little as 1 Euro per dish. Stuffed courgette flowers (dolmades) and Fava bean puree adorn our table along with a massive greek salad, a sauteed mountain greens and calamari. For dessert, Galaktoboureko (Milk pie and oh my goodness, its good!). A small carafe of wine and some raki later our bill arrives. 20 Euros. If I think what kind of meal can feed two for 20 euros in London, I want to cry.

A short tour of Piskopiano leads us into a church square. A family of Albanians dine on their terrace nearby. They offer us raki and something to eat with a hand-on-heart gesture on hearing my father speak Italian. Part of me wishes we had taken up the offer just for the experience but we politely decline not wanting to impose.

Strolling down the road to the adjoining village, Koutouloufari, a buzz of life becomes us. There are busy tavernas, numerous gift shops and bars. Yet in between the new builds and are doorways leading to courtyards cushioned by plush purple Bougainvillea. Yiayias and Papous (grannies and grandpas) sit together outside to refresh themselves in the evening air. The Papous calmly play with Komboloi (prayer beads) while the Yiayia’s natter.

“Kalispera” One says noticing me spying on them through rickety blue gates.

“Kalisperasas,” I answer, remembering to address them formally.

I wonder around a gift shop unable to put down the five sets of komboloi I have firmly in my grasp while other tourists pick up soap and ceramics.

“Komboloi!” The shop keeper declares at the check out. “You look like your father.” he adds. His heavily pregnant wife smiles at us both while she caresses her swollen belly. I like this village.

The next morning I decide to go for a run along the seafront.

“Kalimera!” An elderly man hosing down some thirsty bushes calls out.

“Kalimera!” I reply.

I see a squashed baby turtle and morbid fascination gets the better of me; I stop to inspect it wishing I had my camera with me. The ginger tom bully from the hotel wanders up to have a look too. He brushes past my legs a few times and when I sit on a bench nearby he follows me and hops onto my lap. Curling up, he isn’t bothered by a local man driving past beeping furiously on his horn. Another jogger stops to look at us.

“It looks like you have made a friend there,” he says as he reaches down to pat the tom cat who moves his head out of the way and takes a swipe at the man’s hand. “He obviously doesn’t like other men!” he adds before jogging on. The cat, feather light in comparison to my own ginger tom cat back home, looks up at me just inches away from my face and still curled up on my lap, flips over to welcome strokes to his skinny belly.

Then I hear more miaowing from across the road. Under the upturned roots of a deceased olive tree is a handful of tiny kittens; some pounce and others snuggle with their snoozing mummy. The tom hops off and heads over, looking back at me as if to say “Come and meet the family!”. I make a few trips back to see the litter during my stay, with scraps of meat from the hotel buffet I’ve hidden in a napkin.

Back at the hotel Spiros and Vasilis, the restaurant managers, greet us daily with handshakes. They always make sure we get a table on the terrace over looking the pool with a sea view. Vasilis grabs my arm and comes in closer to whisper something terribly secret.

“I never tell guests this, only friends. You should visit Rogdia, a small town outside Heraklion. About 5km outside the city, you will see a sign for Rogdia. Ro-gd-ia OK? There you can eat the traditional Cretan food and see an amazing panorama. I take my wife there.” Traditional? Cretan? Panoramic views? I’m in!

“Any particular taverna?”

“They’re all good.”

Rogdia’s tavernas almost seemed mythical; after driving up to a crumbling mountain top twice, we reach a peaceful ranch and a convent. There are sheer drops either side of us and ahead, the most amazing view in which civilisation is a spec.  After heading so high, we were blessed with air so watery thin while the towns below sweltered. With each road bend a breathtaking view popped in and out of our vision. Luckily we find a make shift petrol station at the foot of the village.

“Taverna?” we ask the ancient attendant. He starts to ramble in Greek. We take his hand’s advice and just follow the road straight. We seemed to drive though Rogdia five times missing it, swerving to avoid numerous hobbling Yiayias before we found an open taverna.

Another family run affair, the taverna offered fresh fish, handmade mixed greens pastries and dakos, a traditional baked rusk topped with tomatoes, cheese and olives much like southern Italian Freselle.

“Una Faccia Una Razza!” My father says before tucking in. One face, one race – a favorite saying of mine and a concept on which this very blog was built. We were the only people dining in the taverna as the rest of the village took siesta. Me and my father we were perched so high on a mountain side that the view of Heraklion below seemed unreal. The owners sat around another table close to us by and ate grilled fish. Read more about Rogdia and surrounding villages here.

Heraklion’s core is ancient. It has that buzz of chaos and beauty most Mediterranean port towns hold; it charms with its dirt and its character. After a visit to the Church of St Titos, patron saint of Crete, we follow the crowds and head to the bazaar. Bustling shops with outdoor stalls line the streets. Here everything produced in Crete was available; olive wood utensils, ouzo, natural sea sponges, coffee, spices. I bought (as is my tradition) an Evil Eye charm and some natural Cretan tea (dittani leaves). But the best souvenirs for me are the experiences and their memories; stopping at Cafe Kalogerou on the main buzzy street, we drank sweet Greek coffee (kafe metrio) and ouzo. There were no signs in English to lure in passing tourists here, it was a thoroughly Cretan experience surrounded by Komboloi yielding locals whetting their appetites with mezze dishes while twidling their moustaches. I spy an eatery on the opposite side of the street which solely serves freshly fried loukoumades.                                                                                                                                    “Just wait,” Instructs my father when he notices me salivating. Then as our appetites got the better of us both, he led us to Agio Krani Aigo Thalassa, a busy taverna on the seafront. (It is near Hotel Kronos and the western most tip of the port on Leoforos Nerchou road.) Packed to the rafters with locals, we managed to snag a table and dined on calamari, sautéed fresh anchovies, mezze and more ouzo. After our meal was cleared away the waiter brings over a mountain of loukoumades with ice cream and watermelon. The table next to us receives small plates of candied fruits in syrup. Gypsies begin to sing outside, one bizarrely has a Zara shopping bag dangling from his arm. Ahhhh the Med.

A full belly and the relentless heat makes my eye lids heavy, but they’re soon revived by a strong smell of sage. An elderly man enters the restaurant selling his harvest from two laundry bags; sage, thyme, dill and lots of other herbs and edible weeds which I have never seen before. The battery in my camera has an untimely death and I can’t capture the moment. Another elderly man meanders between the tables selling lottery tickets, but profits from the bread basket instead as he stuffs his pockets. My dad gives him our bread too. He takes his hat off in salutation then leaves the restaurant.

Stopping off in Knossos my skin begins to burn under the scalding sun. It’s mid September and it seems summer refuses to die this year. We leave the car in taverna Pasiphae car park and not in the official one, saving us a good few Euros. In the short distance to the entrance of Knossos, we notice a table outside a gateway piled high with crates of fresh figs. An elderly couple sit under the shade of the fig trees within the gated courtyard (I am falling in love with all the Yiayias and Papous here). Beyond them is the prettiest of all shrines I have seen in my time in Crete. We ignore the touristic shops and buy ripe jammy figs instead. I come away with a beautiful photo of that shrine and a sweet palate, much more precious than any mass manufactured ceramic plate.

Knossos is baking. The sun unleashes its fury on history enthusiasts and I stay in my father’s shadow to avoid becoming a shade of beetroot. The crickets out in force again, their song is deafening. I dread to think how big they are, monsters next to the tiny British ones who rasp rather pathetically in comparison. We stop at Pasiphae taverna for an awesome foamy Frappe, taking respite under the shade of it’s olive trees. It’s the kind of make shift place where the food is authentic and the staff are vivaciously, passionate and at time angry. Sacks of oranges rest against tree stumps. On our way out we’re held by Vasilis and his small army of men at the car park entrance.

“Una Faccia, Una Razza!” he shouts into the car window when he learns my dad is Italian. Dad always seems to make friends everywhere he goes.

“Viva I Cretini! Cretani?” my dad shouts back at him and the men just over his shoulder who crowd the car with smiles.

“Dad, I think you just called them cretins rather than Cretans?”

During our weeks stay we neither want to tire ourselves out or laze around doing nothing so we decide to forego a trip to Chania and decide instead to travel to Agios Nikolaos, a short drive east of Herssonisos. The road is well signed as we head east. We pass numerous shrines and I am intensely angered by failing to notice a beautiful monastery by the side of the road before it was too late to stop.

We pass Malia through in an instant and before we know it we’re climbing high on mountain roads. I wonder how much higher there is to climb and look out the window at the towering rock face above the car. There, perched on a perilous ledge is a goat surveying Eastern Crete. He doesn’t look bothered about the height.

Agios Nikolaos is pretty and tame. The bay shelters numerous cafes and restaurants and the streets house gift and jewellery shops. Under the trees which line the main street sits a Yiayia selling her handmade lace. Tourists walk by her as if she’s invisible and head for mass-produced tack. My Euros have by this point depleted and I cannot help her cause. Gutted! I manage to take her photo to ensure that she can be seen. I have enough for a drink at least and when I refuse a plastic bag the shopkeeper looks at me with amazement.

“Save the planet!” He declares gravelly-voiced.

We take the coastal road north and after breathtaking views we stop off at a blue flag beach for a dip somewhere along the way.

When we reach Elounda our bellies are grumbling.  The town reminds me of Ischia’s Port. Leaving our Micra behind, we head along the seafront and its restaurants. Spinalonga island lies over a glassy slither of water to our left, it’s crumbling Venitian fort blends in with the island’s shrubbed rocks. We reach the terrace of Ergospasio restaurant and its traditional beauty begs me to start taking photos.                                                                      “Please, it is better around the corner,” says a swarthy looking man in his late 30s wearing nothing but swimming shorts, carrying an octopus in one hand and securing his small boat with the other. Embarrassed I have been spied posing for a photo, we follow him to the remainder of the hidden terrace. He slips behind the bar to greet two men sitting on stools sipping ouzo. They nod to greet us too.”Kalisperasas!” I say perhaps a bit too loudly.

“I’m Dimitris,” the octopus wielding man says, after placing two empty glasses on the bar. He extends a massive hand to my father and motions for us to sit.  With the other hand he pours Barbayannis ouzo into the glasses, a potent 46% alcohol brew. I quickly diffuse it’s strength with water turning the drink milky white.

“This is the best ouzo in all of Greece,” he adds.

Ergospasio restaurant is the type of place you stumble upon which reflects the very essence of its surroundings. The building used to be home to his forefather’s carob molasses factory at a time where olives and carob were the only sustainable crops on Crete’s rugged terrain. A second man joins our conversation, speaking in English with a German twang. He is in fact also Cretan, but lived in Germany for the last X amount of years working as an MD for a global brand. It was the first day of his annual homecoming and here he was in shorts and flip-flops discussing Crete with two lost tourists who had wandered off the trail. The third man shys away from conversation but smiles anyway.

Plate of cured mackerel in lemon juice, bay and dill, grilled octopus and marinated anchovies are placed in front of us. My gut tells me we may have been trapped unknowingly into an expensive meal, but Dimitris’ smile puts us at ease. Soon another two plates appear; one of dolmades and cheese and the other of juicy fresh tomato so haphazardly sliced but delicious. Cretan rusks and bread also become us. Our glasses are refilled. The man next to my father tells us about Cretan history and that the island we see behind us is in fact a peninsula with a secret hidden beach. While my father is busy I take Dimitris aside and ask him for the bill. He looks deeply offended

“Please, this is from me.”

“Sorry?” My fathers ears prick up as he over hears.

“No… You must let us pay,” I insist. “Please.” Dimitris is defiant and practically restrains my father’s hands as they begin to search his pockets. We are shocked at the incredible, generous hospitality. I feel a sudden lump in my throat but that may be the effects of the ouzo. We bid farewell and take some photos, Dimitris then reboards his boat and goes fishing on the calm waters. My father and I walk in silence back to the car, still in shock.

We drive towards that secret beach, past grazing goats and abandoned mills. The road turns into a dusty track just wide enough for our car. I have a heart attack when I see an oncoming 4×4. My father has to reverse 100 metres just inches away from plunging into the sea. But we are OK.

There are only three signs of human life on this remote peninsula. One is a crumbling chapel perched at the top and the olive and peppercorn trees planted in some kind of chaotic order. The other, after parking on a clearing of rocks and a long (and I do mean long!) walk down a rocky trail, were lone grills built into rocks by the sea. Grills, I can only assume, for passing fishing boats to cook their catch. The trail leads us to one of the most spectacular beaches I have ever had the fortune to visit. Water is crystal clear;  I hang my belongings on a tree branch and cool off. Bliss. There are no signs on the island, what on earth is it called? Thank God for Google and Google Maps. Kolokithia is its’ name.

A warning though; be absolutely sure of your route back to wherever it is you’re coming from. We found ourselves taking the coastal road instead of the highway. Great for exploring of course, but as the sun began to set fast and with very little petrol we ended up higher than the wind turbines. My hands gripped the edges of the map so hard when I realised we’d taken a wrong turn and had kilometres of hairpin bends awaiting us, that my knuckles turned white. As we whizzed passed Yiayias and Papous in the villages of Vroucas, Selles and Kourounes, villages so far off the beaten track, I looked at them trying to savour every last bit of the island. We gingerly veered around bends with no barriers giving onto sheer drops, there were no goats at this height. Just before night drew in we thankfully rejoin the highway at Neapolis. Thank you Manolis, for such a loyal car!

Our last night took us back to Koutouloufari.

“Komboloi!” Exclaims the shopkeeper again, in my favorite gift shop To Kellari. At the back of the shop there are huge barrels of raki, some plain, some flavoured with mountain herbs and honey. Lumbered with my bounty we wish the couple well with their new arrival and head home to pack.

A lady in a greengrocer’s next door waves at us. I’m not ready to leave, not yet. But then I never am.

 *  *  *

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5 thoughts on “CRETE – Island of Ouzo, Cats and Friendly Locals

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