Crete Off the Beaten Track: 3,000 km to Freedom - by Mr. O

September 12, 2019

blue patterned towel - anaskela

I was hoping for a Fiat Panda like we had in Skiathos, but Vasilis the car rental guy in Crete gives us a bright orange Suzuki. 

“Shit, that’s smaller than I expected,” I say. 

With an air of pride, Vasilis takes one last drag from his cigarette and crushes the butt with his foot. He smiles. “It’s the smallest we offer.” 

With Vasilis the car rental guy supervising, we manage to squeeze our family of four, along with the car seats and far too many bags, into this orange crate. I propose a new rule of thumb for this type of travel, dear parents: children 12 years or younger get no leg space. So here we are, snug and ready for an epic, off-the-beaten-track Cretan road trip, with 25 days to explore the biggest of all Greek islands. 

“What is this?” asks Vasilis, pointing at a thin, meter-long, black rod-like thingy sticking out from one of our bags. 

“Ah,” I say, while cocking my thumb and index finger like a six-year-old playing cowboys, “it’s for to psari.” The fish.

Everywhere we traveled this summer – Skiathos, Athens, Crete – I tugged along my spearfishing gun, our summer’s most prized purchase and the ultimate sand magnet.

The spearfishing gun – let’s call her Anemone – is not an ideal travel accessory. Anemone is long and doesn’t pack into luggage; Anemone is fragile but also deadly, so we can’t just walk with her onto the plane.  On top of all this, not many airline staff seem to know how to handle a sophisticated tool such as Anemone, so she tended to cause a bit more confusion than usual at check-in. Am I the first person to have hopped puddle jumpers within Greece with this kind of equipment? Sure seems so.

Let me explain a typical outing with Anemone:

  1. Wake up at dawn, because the experts told me that’s when the good fish are swimming. 
  2. Toss on a bathing suit, grab your mask/snorkel, a towel and Anemone.
  3. Walk down to the beach.
  4. Towel resting on a nearby dry rock, start gradually into the chilly morning waters and commence questioning this expedition – and your sanity.
  5. The sun has just risen and the colors under water are still dark, adding to the mystique of this outing. WTF am I doing?
  6. You swim, seeing the usual underwater life – small fish a plenty and little else.
  7. You see what might be a big, juicy fish come in site and get excited, so you unlock the trigger.
  8. You blink, and that sucker’s gone. Long gone. Don’t even bother to go after it – as I quickly found out, us humans cannot outswim a fish.
  9. After about an hour, your bones slightly frosty, you get out and dry yourself quick.
  10. Swallow whatever pride you have left and head back home to face your family.
  11. After a week or so of this routine on one island, in what was supposed to be an idyllic fishing spot, the amateur spear fisherman moves onto a different island in search of more fertile hunting grounds.  

Exploring Crete on and off the beaten track

Faithfully, Anemone sat in the Suzuki’s boot amongst the children’s beach buckets and pink Barbie water wings, always ready for action. Little did I realize that in Crete we would be spending a big portion of our time road trippin’ through hills and mountains – not exactly spearfishing territory. 

Imagine a big chunk of the Alps in the middle of the Aegean Sea covered in olive trees for the most part, and that’s Crete. It’s a beast of an island and not for the faint of heart. Sure, it boasts some of the nicest beaches in Europe, but even those require a certain degree of athleticism, flexibility, endurance and willingness to go out of your way and around many stubborn goats (see Seitan Limania or Balos, for example). Even the famed – and packed – Elafonissi Beach, with its pink sands and unforgettable sunsets, is a long, mountainous, and at times treacherous drive away from anything remotely considered civilization – unless you’re spending the night in one of the handful of hotels/rooms that are in that remote southwestern corner of the island. 

Once you leave the coast and hit the hills and subsequent mountains, you’ll see a landscape that although familiar in places possess elements of the otherworldly. The road from Makry Gialos to Sitia and onto the magical Vai beach is possibly the most beautiful drive I have ever done. Rolling valleys golden with wheat (or was it just really tall, dead grass?), alpine mountain peaks, olive groves, screeching eagles flying above you in search of varmint, goats perched on high rocks, little white churches perched on even higher rocks. With windows down, cicadas humming at high decibels, I was Easy Rider in a neon orange, Japanese sub-compact rental.

At some point earlier in our journey, a great man told me of a place called Theriso, a mountain village in Crete with an eponymous gorge and deep historical significance: it’s the birthplace of Greek Independence from the Turks, way back in 1905.  “It’s marvelous,” he said. 

Having done the minimal research to know that there were several lunch options in the village, we embarked towards Theriso on our last full day in Crete. Up a non-descript road, past non-descript homes we went, until we reached the ruins of St. Nikolaos church – parts of it dating back well over 1,000 years ago. And after this, the Theriso Gorge begins. 

Unexpectedly impressive, this 12 km uphill, narrow road is flanked on both sides by a wall of rock, a little stream to one side and just a whole bunch of goats gracefully jumping from boulder to boulder, causing mini rock slides and generally just getting in your way. Never does my shouting “baaahhh baaaahhh” cause these goats to move, and yet without fail, I do this time and time again. Goat on the road? I go “baaahhh baaahhh” like I’ve got mad goat disease. (Side note, one day driving around, my kids and I were “baaahhhh-ing” away at a pack of goats without realizing the shepherd tending to them was right there. In all my life I have never been given such a look of utter disgust.)

We’ve been zigzagging the orange matchbox for 25 days throughout the entire island; along the north, east, west and southern coasts, through the White Mountains, valleys, dry riverbeds, and past thousand-year-old olive trees and innumerable gorges. Reaching Theriso’s square seems like the perfect Hollywood ending to our Cretan sojourn. A guy at a “Traditional Products” stand offers me a shot of raki and I gladly accept it. I take one more for good measure and a third just because my wife’s not looking. 

A statue of Eleftherios Venizelos, the leader of the rebellion against the occupying Turks and father of Modern Greece, stands in the square, holding what looks like a walking stick or, could it be, my Anemone? As I get closer I realize it’s a little rifle, not a version of the spearfishing gun that’s buried in the back of the car next to the jack and wimpy spare tire. Imagine starting a revolution with a spearfishing gun…like something John and Yoko would’ve done from their Manhattan bed.

While my wife and kids are exploring the nearby swings, I sit on a bench in the square. There’s a little church behind the statue of Venizelos and an elm tree with a trunk wider than the orange Suzuki and a canopy like an Airbus. Possibly the most purely magnificent shade I’ve ever sat in. Not a bad place to start a rebellion that will liberate an entire nation. Not bad at all.

And it was here under this marvel of nature that the thought occurred to me: if by some sort of miracle I ever do shoot a fish and bring it home, would my wife be capable of cleaning it?

The trick to Crete, if one really wishes to get to know the (is)land, is to embrace the vastness and appreciate not only its famed destinations, but the roads that are taking you to there…the journey. And on these roads you will meet the real Cretans; the ones with dirty nails and gentle smiles, the ones pulling a bunch of weeds on the side of the road or the ones offering you a drink because you look like you need it. Cretans are historically tough, with an independent and revolutionary spirit – but they are also the most welcoming, kindest, proudest of all Hellenes folk. And by the way, their cuisine is second to none in Greece, as is their sense of hospitality.

Just don’t f*ck with their goats.

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