Crete, A Perfect Dad Treat!
28 June 2014
Few weeks ago I decided to treat my dad with a father-son trip. A trip to Crete, Greece! That was my way of expressing my huge thanks for being the best dad in the world! And hey, it's Father's day!
Travel destroys assumptions you make about places you've never visited. My father and I had travelled widely in the northern Cyclades islands of Greece, but we’d never been to Crete.
Somehow we'd pictured the island as a great dusty rock populated by goats and brawny men with huge frightening moustaches, all dancing about on table tops and calling each other 'Zorba'.
We were therefore unprepared for fertile valleys and plateaux lined with neat rows of olive and fruit trees, or sweeping, sparkling bays backed by granite hills that glowed against the blue reflection of the sea. The island was permeated with the smell of honey.
An even greater culture shock was the pretty harbour town of Agios Nikolaos (St Nicholas), which we strolled into each night from our hotel.
I know the Greek economy has moved on in recent years, but I wasn't prepared for sea-facing esplanades lined with stone benches and a fountain, chilled-out cocktail bars where the well-heeled drinkers lounged on white sofas, restaurants with linen tablecloths, and taxi drivers driving air-conditioned Mercedes.
For several days we wandered around in a daze. Were we in Italy? The south of France? Even the local buses - the spine-busting, beaten-up old crates of island legend - had been replaced by luxury coaches with air-con and tinted windows...it was Greece, but not as we know it.
Crete is enormous. We hired a set of wheels in our second week and drove over 400 kilometres, but only covered the eastern end of the island. It's the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. It's a wonder the island doesn't sink under the weight, but the place is full of character and relatively free of the worst excesses of tourist tat. We’d been warned of touts outside the restaurants: they consisted of sweet smiling girls from Croatia who apologized for interrupting.
When you sit near the harbour at Agios Nikolaos, you see how rapidly Greece is changing. Contemporary bistros jostle with restaurants housed in nineteenth-century mansions. The nightlife is fast and cool. Local kids ride their Italian scooters from one café to the next, chatting with friends drinking iced coffees, anxiously scanning their mobile phones in the constant hope of bulletins from other friends. These technology-and status-conscious children hardly existed in Greece 10 years ago.
One day we drove along hairpin bends and through tiny bougainvillea-strewn villages until we reached a ridge dramatically lined with ruined stone windmills and were flung up, up and over into the fertile Lassithi Plateau. Here we visited the dank Dikteon Cave, the mythical birthplace of Zeus. People have lived and worshipped here from Neolithic times. It was a heart-stopping 10-minute climb up switchback trails, but upon reaching the mouth of the cave, the amazing panoramic view of the distant plain spread beneath made you understand, truly, the legend of Olympus.
We explored secret coves occupied by ourselves and a goat (yes, there were many goats, and they all wear collars with tinkling bells that sound like wind chimes), remote villages where we'd eat fresh fish at seaside tavernas and practice my terrible Greek, and a pretty village on a beach called Myrtos, which in 1943 was razed to the ground by the German Army as a warning to the local resistance movement. The village now has prosperous-looking shops and a beachfront promenade lined with cafés and restaurants. Every other chair is occupied by a sleeping cat.
Another day we visited the ruins of a large Minoan port, Gournia, which held 1,000 inhabitants around 1500 BC. It’s a large site, first excavated in 1901 by an American archaeologist named Harriet Boyd-Hawes, the first woman ever to direct a major excavation in Greece. Nowadays it is difficult amongst the straggling paths and broken walls of stone encircling tiny rectangles of earth to imagine a town large enough to contain a provincial governor’s palace. You don’t get a sense of living, breathing people.
We had better luck when we visited the small archaeological museum in Agios Nikolaos. There, amongst the patched-together plates and cups and jugs, were vast storage vessels as big as a man, tub-shaped caskets from Minoan cemeteries, and some truly arresting statues. An enchanting clay figurine of a dolphin had been found buried with a child – the mourning parents had placed toys beside their little boy. This suddenly made the Minoan people come alive.
Our trip to Crete served as a reminder (if a reminder was truly necessary) of the beauty of the Greek islands and the warmth of the Greeks themselves. I cannot count the number of days my limited halting Greek brought us free desserts and brandies in the tavernas. With its proximity to the North African coast, Crete remains warm when other areas of the Mediterranean are cooling off; it’s a fine place to come in late autumn and even better in early spring, when the hills and valleys are covered in wild flowers.
Come here for the sun, the sea, the legends and the hospitality.