How to go swimming in two seas at once, where to search for authentic tablecloth, and whose help to seek when you meet a goat

 

”How is it like in Crete?” my friends ask me.“Again? Aren’t you tired of it? It’s nothing else but Crete. What about other islands? Or other countries, after all?”

How do I best explain it? When you come home after a hard day’s work (no, a week’s work! a week in November!), put on your slippers and take a seat on a sofa with your hands resting and legs stretched, do you really think about this being just one more Friday night, the same slippers and the same sofa? No, you don’t. You enjoy this freedom of indolence, these fleeting moments of splendid, proper, sought-for idleness.

Crete is my annual weekend, my sofa and my slippers, my relaxed hands resting in blissful inertia. A good habit of mine (which unfortunately becomes more expensive every year). Flings with other islands and with mainland Greece have made me love Crete even more.

I love Crete respectfully. I do not dare to say I know everything about it in every detail (though I have traveled throughout it quite a lot). But I give a sniff of resentment every time I see “We’ve rented a quad, and it took us three days to travel the island over” in travelers’ reviews.

I love Crete quite leniently. I overlook its unauthorized dumps, confusing road navigation and bread in Rethymno and Chania restaurants that all of a sudden is not free any more. I love Crete tenderly. I am cautious about recommending places to people. What if they won’t see the island through the cubical architecture of the hotels and madly expensive seafront coffee shops? What if they won’t appreciate it? While every town, every cup of frappé, every hairpin turn makes me love Crete more and more.

“The shape of the island resembles...” That is usually the beginning of any story about a piece of land surrounded by water. Crete resembles nothing. It is just big, elongated from west to east, with a wide center. Only two points of it are narrow, making it look as though its northern and southern coastlines are stretching out towards each other. Remember those places. It is there that you can go swimming in two seas at the same time – the Sea of Crete and the Libyan Sea.

A wide strip of a new national highway runs along the northern coastline and connects the large (by Cretan standards) cities of Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion, and Agios Nikolaos. Down south from it lies a network of smaller roads that make hairpin turns in certain areas. That is surely where the excitement is. Though a kind of excitement not to everyone’s liking, because the main thing there is... How can one describe the main thing?

You stop by the roadside somewhere up in the mountains. For instance, on your way from the northern to the southern coast, or vice versa. You shut off the engine, and hear the silence all around you. You won’t find many cars here. A white village lies below you, where the mountains descend gradually to one of the two seas. It should have narrow streets, wide enough for one car at a time. But a tavern owner tries to always place a couple of tables on the sidewalk. And he himself is always sitting, swinging his beads, at one of those tables.

Fearless goats walk above you on steep rocks, from which some pebbles break off and fall from time to time. How the goats manage not to fall is beyond any understanding. But still, they keep their balance, moving their hooves with accuracy and precision, and jingling their bells (apparently, made out of food cans, from the sound of them). And the only things you hear are that jingle and an occasional thin “me-eeh”. This is the main thing that cannot be described.

Now let us talk about the other main thing. Namely, the gifts you can find here.

The obvious choices are olive oil, olives, tzatziki spices, honey, raki, souvenir magnets. But if you are in a real hunt for authentic things, you should head for the mountain village of Anogia, a hard-to-reach depository of embroidered tablecloths, pillowcases and other textiles such as runners, napkins, panel pictures, hardly practical but still lovely pouches and so on.

“But all that stuff can be bought on the streets of Chania and Heraklion,” you would say. Yes, it can. But that’s a boring alternative. Besides, Anogia is a natural place of residence for the people who make all that linen and woollen and cotton pieces of beauty with their own hands.

Пытаясь найти хоть какое-нибудь тенистое место в монастырях полуострова Акротири – это совсем рядом с Ханьей, – невольно вспоминаешь церкви Русского Севера, в особенности Кирилло-Белозерский монастырь. На Крите, во всем жарком, ярком, розовом и мандариновом, существование суровой обители на берегу прохладного Сиверского озера кажется почти фантастикой.

The outside walls of the buildings on the central streets of Anogia are fully lined with embroidered, woven and knitted textiles. And each house has a tiny door to the Ali Baba cave – small dim room full of piles of textile treasures. Every room has its mistress – a lively old lady who sits on a low stool next to the entrance, knitting or embroidering. The embroideresses have needles with colored threads pierced in the collars of their dresses (black ones, despite the hot weather).

These old ladies normally do not speak a word in English, but this does not hinder the communication. It’s enough to simply point at things – white tablecloth with blue geese, grey linen one with scarlet roses, pillowcases with a small boat and pink sky, with a rooster and (surprise!) a camel, with white houses and a blue sea. Yes, that one, and a bigger one for a big table, for a big bed, five of them, no, six, and that one over there. How much will it all cost?..

Bargain. Mind the counting. Mind your children. And don’t be upset if you find the same stuff, but few euros cheaper, on the streets of Chania and Heraklion. You have been to a textile heaven, after all.

In my attempts to find some shadowed place in the monasteries on the peninsula of Akrotiri close to Chania, I couldn’t help but remember the churches of the Russian North, in particular the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. The existence of austere hermitage on the bank of the cold Lake Siverskoye seems near impossible here on hot, bright, pink and tangerine Crete.

Entry to the monasteries usually costs a couple of euros, but doorkeepers quite often let their coreligionists in for free. And it may be closed, then you will find a paper on the door saying “We apologize, but guests shall not have access for some hours so that the monks can pray.”

Agia Triada, the monastery of the Holy Trinity, is small, housing only a few monks. You will not see any of them in the daytime, but you will find cats everywhere, hiding in the shadows and stretching on warm stones.

Gouverneto Monastery, or Our Lady of the Angels, is located very close to Agia Triada. Like all Cretan monasteries, it looks unpretentious – a low-rise dome over rundown walls. But look around! The mountains. Below is a sea of deep scenic blue color. The ruins of the earlier Gouverneto Monastery that was destroyed under Turkish rule are nearby. And there is a remarkable echo.

On your way from Rethymno to the coast of the Libyan Sea, towards Plakias, visit the Preveli monastery. It hosts a small but outstanding museum with a great collection of icons and a lovely menagerie with arrogant peacocks playing a leading part. The mountain monastery of Faneromeni is not along the way, and you have to take a separate trip there. Splendid views, especially stiking at dawn, reward you for the twisty route.

You will find the bright and joyful Monastery of Agios Georgios Selinaris halfway from Agios Nikolaos to Heraklion. Saint George is one of the most-revered saints here. He is considered the patron saint of shepherds and other stock farmers. Given the number of goats jumping out into the road and blocking cars, every second driver at Crete should pray to Saint George.

A small chapel can be found here and there along the peaceful side roads. Their doors are closed to prevent goats, rather than people, from getting inside – a key always hangs next to the doors. And nobody is inside, only a box with candles and icons.

The most revered icons have tin plates. Some icons are covered with them like a Christmas tree with strings of garlands. A hand, eye or leg – whatever needs to be cured, is engraved on the plates. Or a house, a car, or engagement rings, whatever a person in pray needs more. I do not know if they sell a plate with Crete shape on it. I would buy one and hang on an icon to make sure I come back again and again.

Cuisine

  • There are no binding rules here, except for the high prices in the restaurants with a view. As for the rest, a restaurant with its menu translated into many languages can prove to be a wonderful place, while a seemingly authentic cafe can turn out to be really bad. They may charge you one euro for a slice of bread in one place and give you a complimentary loaf of bread because they saw you enjoy dipping the crust in olive oil in another.
  • The tales of huge servings are the stuff of legends now, as the Greeks have adopted quite a European approach in this matter.
  • It is the strength and sweetness of the coffee that remain unchanged. But God forbid that you buy it to take away – it tastes great only in a coffee shop at any of Crete’s promenades.
 

Теxt: Anna Ratina

Published on: February 26, 2018