Preveli Bay

My wife decided, as she often does, that we should go to Preveli Bay. It has a good beach and palm trees, we had heard. I had also heard that there was a road that now went close to Preveli which started right by the taverna beside the pond and the beautiful old Venetian bridge on the road to Preveli Monastery.

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Well we arrived at the old Venetian bridge and took the road that went to the beach. After about 100 metres of tarmac it became a dirt road. “Are you sure you still want to go,” I asked her?

So we continued on along the road with its steep slopes and sharp bends and after more than eight kilometres we came to a nice but scruffy beach with a big sign pointing to steps up the cliff side saying ‘Preveli Beach, ten minutes.’

We bought some water from the mini market (yes there is one there) and started to climb the steps. As we climbed, the steps themselves got steeper, higher if you like. “Are you really sure you still want to go,” I asked again?

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As we got to near the top of this fairly stiff climb, we came upon a narrow path that wound around the cliff side. In places you had to duck to walk under the cliff. It wasn’t easy going in the heat of the day. There were many more steps and steep cliff sides that looked a long way down. And then we came to the final edge and there beneath us was Preveli Bay.

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The green tinged river flowed down and across the sand and it is true, there are palm trees there.

We were both quite pleased with finding Preveli Bay and so we fed the geese by the bridge on the long dusty drive home.

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Visiting Skinakas Observatory

We decided to visit the Skinakas Observatory. Here is the blurb info:

“The Skinakas Observatory is located on the peak of Skinakas at an altitude of 1750 m., a few kilometres after Anoyia and 60 km from Heraklion.

The Skinakas Observatory has been built and operates as part of a scientific research collaboration between the University of Crete, the Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas (FORTH) and the Max-Planck-Institut for Extraterrestrische Physik of Germany.

The Observatory has two telescopes: a Modified Ritchey Cretien telescope with a 1.3m aperture (focal ratio of F 7.6) and a 30cm telescope (focal ratio F 3.2). The building for the small telescope was built in 1986, and observations started in 1987.

The large telescope is the largest telescope in Greece at the moment, and became operational in October 1995. The optical system was manufactured by Karl Zeiss, and the mechanical parts by DFM Engineering.

The favourable climatological conditions prevailing in Crete (large number of clear-sky nights per year) combined with the high mountains, place the island of Crete among the best locations in Europe for high quality astronomical observations. These facts were influential in the establishment of the Skinakas Observatory.”

Well it was some evening I have to say. We arrived after climbing the road higher and higher above Anoyia. After some kilometres we turned left onto a smaller road, not much bigger than our little car and we climbed again. Remember we must be around 5,000 feet up here. It is very high and though it was late summer – a heatwave in fact – we needed a coat to protect us from the cold wind.

When we arrived we were welcomed by the small staff and shown around the two telescopes. One of them, the main one, is very big indeed and operated electrically and what is seen is displayed on a bank of computer screens. Very high tech. Problem was that it was still daylight so they suggested we return around dusk to see what can be seen.

So we went down the little road and then turned left. I have to see where these roads go. On and on we went, still climbing with the huge bulk of Psiloritis (Mount Ida) to our right when we arrived at the end of the road on a small plateau. There was a half built visitor centre there. It will probably never be finished since there were so few visitors. We walked around this seemingly sanded desert plateau for a while looking for the statue built by a german girl to commemorate the resistance of Crete in the war. We didn’t find it. Perhaps next time. It is a very big plateau and there are a lot of sheep up there.

So then for dinner all the way back to Anoyia – there was nowhere else to get some decent food, and back up to the observatory. Now the first time we went there were less than a dozen people there. This time the place was crawling. Cars all over the place and many many young greeks keen to see through the telescope.

Unfortunately by this time, in the wonderful clear skies of Crete, the observatory was enveloped in cloud. And the cloud persisted so the staff would not open the top doors of the observatory. So we didn’t actually see anything in real time. They were mostly afraid that the telescope mirror would get wet.

Ah well, we’ll go back in the spring.

I love Crete very much.

Crete is not a new love, however. I first arrived here around forty years ago on the King Minos ferry travelling deck class. I travelled all over Crete – you can read about it if you go to the ‘Early Days’ links on the right hand side of the page where there is a lot about my Crete writing. Within a year I had settled down and I lived here for seven years or so, before, during and after the military coup of the colonels. Through the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and through the birth of my son in Heraklion.

I have been back here many times since then staying up to a month or two when possible, but I had a career to achieve, mountains to climb that in old age seem almost invisible back there in Britain.

When you are young everything is important. You may well love a remote island in the south of Europe but there is pressure to build the house of cards that life is. The cards collapse and then you build them again, and again. I worked hard, I built an entire career to senior support engineer status and then watched the position die. It makes you wonder what the purpose was, what those goals and ambitions really amounted to. But, I suppose, that’s another story.

I never lost my love of Crete for a minute. I probably possess every book about Crete that existed. I studied the recent history of Greece and Turkey, the unlikely death of King Alexander who, by being bitten by a barbary ape, died and changed the history of the world. The rise of Mustapha Kemal Attaturk, the exile of Venizelos, the changes and wars in Thrace and Anatolia and the exchange of populations. The two world wars and the pain and the changes they brought. But Crete survived all of this, one way or another. Did you know that Cretans volunteered to fight for the Greeks of Cyprus in the Turkish invasion of 1974. They took their planes and set off across the Agean for Cyprus. I visited their graves in Nicosia, they died, shot down by Greek Cypriots. I have heard so many stories told by shepherds and library books. Some are amazing, others are incredible. Nearly always they are true, at least as true as the storyteller’s art is true.

In so many ways Crete has changed, but in an equal number of ways it has not. People always came to Crete for so many reasons. From the Acheans to the Albanians, from Barbary pirates to Venetians, Ottomans, Germans and the British; and still they come. They always will.

Now I am back in Crete with my wife. We have retired and we have bought an Olive grove with 35 trees. Old trees, several hundred years old that produce good oil. We built a house in a busy village among our olive trees. Life goes on. I feel no culture shock because I lived here so long ago and in a sense Crete has always been part of me.

So that, at least, is a part of my story. To you who have come recently to this ancient island I say to you, love it. Love it with the same stresses and strains that any relationship brings. Learn its history, the pain and glory and you will grow with the island. This is a strong place with a great deal of heart and it has a great deal to offer to you. It will come to you as you settle here. Time has all and no meaning here. It is the place that matters, trust me.

Memoir of Athens 1974

I fell in love with Greece the first time I visited the country. I can’t say it was love at first sight as our arrival on Greek soil was a very scary experience. . . .

My family and I had been living in Kenya since 1969. My husband was a fuel injection engineer. Kenya had a policy of africanisation during the sixties and seventies and my husband was training Africans to run a workshop in Nairobi, a job he really enjoyed. We had progressed to having a yearly contract with all expenses paid for one month’s holiday a year in the UK. We decided to take advantage of this opportunity and make a two day stop-over in Athens, a city we had always wanted to visit.

So one June evening in 1974 our Air France flight landed at Athens airport. As we glided along the runway I looked out of the window to see tanks lined up on the edge with their turrets pointing at the plane. “Oh my God” I thought, “We have landed in a war zone.”  Living out of Europe for so long had meant that we were somewhat ignorant of European Politics and had not realised that Greece had had a very turbulent political history. We knew nothing of the military Junta which was ruling Greece at that time and which would fall a couple of months later. Before we were permitted to leave the plane a military official boarded complete with gun and inspected all our passports.

With these formalities over we were allowed on Greek soil. After this nerve racking start procedures through the airport went smoothly and we were soon in a taxi heading for the city centre. We couldn’t believe the chaos, traffic was nose to tail completely congested moving, or rather crawling, in every direction. There was noise and commotion everywhere.We had the name of the hotel written down which was just as well as however we pronounced “Omonia Square” the taxi driver didn’t understand us. However I produced the written script and fortunately he could understand it although all the street signs appeared in the Greek alphabet.

Eventually we reached the hotel which was in a side street off Omonia Square with just a bright glass door opening onto the street. We marvelled at the marble floors which greeted us and the clean open appearance of the foyer. The Receptionist was very helpful and we were soon relaxing in our family room.

The children were soon asleep after their long day and we went to the dining-room to eat. The room was quite dark and only one other table occupied but we were tired and wanted a simple meal before joining the children in sleep. We weren’t sure what wine to order with our meal but the waiter highly recommended a retsina. The food was good but we decided that the retsina was definitely a acquired taste.

The next morning we were up bright and early and at the Reception asked directions on the best way to the Acropolis. “Oh that’s easy”said the Receptionist, “I’ll call you a taxi. You don’t want to walk in this heat”. The heat of Athens, especially this early in the morning was refreshing after the heat of Africa but we did as were bid and clambered into the taxi only to be dropped a few minutes later at the base of the Acropolis.

We clambered to the top to view the Parthenon, marvelling at the workmanship and wondering how they could have built such a temple so long ago with such craftmanship and with no mechanical tools. We took photographs and leisurely wandered down and were relieved that we had visited early in the morning as the tourist buses had started to arrive and there were now several hundred people on the path, climbing up to the Parthenon.

As we reached the bottom my husband realised that he had left his camera at the top so he hastily climbed back up and thankfully the camera was still sitting on the rock where we had rested. He commented “People around here must be pretty honest, the camera would have gone in a flash in Kenya,”

We decided to have a wander around the little streets and came upon a streets of market stalls with copper and brass glinting in the sunshine. After some haggling, we purchased a beautiful brass balance which I still own. Later we came upon stalls selling lace items and crocheted bags made out of cotton string. These can still be found in Greece but tend to be crocheted from nylon now. Another purchase was made which proved to be useful for many year. We then came across the jewellery stalls and my husband treated me to a gold ring with the Greek key design cut out of it, to remember our visit. But I already knew that this was going to be a couple of days which I would never forget.

We stopped for a coffee and had our first taste of the Greek coffee served in little cups complete with coffee grinds, again something we decided had an acquired taste. A taste which I have now acquired and genuinely enjoy my “sketo helenico”.

After our break we started to make our way back towards Omonia Square,  stopping at the bright colourful fruit stalls to purchase fresh strawberries and cherries. Every stall holder was calling out his wares and admiring the children’s bleach blonde hair, it was so obvious we were tourists. The stall holders were thrusting cherries and strawberries on the children which they really enjoyed so we purchased bags of fresh delicious fruit to sustain us through the day.

Eventually we reached a quieter part of the city where there was a restaurant  in a square with tables set out under hibiscus trees. We decided we would have an early lunch and then head back to the hotel for a rest. We wondered how we would be able to understand the menu written in Greek but we should not have had any concern as it was quite simple. Once we settled ourselves at the table the owner beckoned us in to the restaurant to see the food on offer. There were beautiful large peppers and tomatoes stuffed with rice, dishes of mousaka, meatballs in tomato sauce, french beans in a sauce and many others. We decided on the mousaka with a salad and it proved to be a good choice.

After our leisurely lunch we strolled back to the hotel. We had learned that there was going to be an open-air performance at the acropolis that evening and thought that if the children slept we could all go out there again that night. Unfortunately the children were out of the habit of having a siesta and after a while became restless and noisy. My husband was still tired after the flight and climbing up to the Parthenon twice so I volunteered to take the children out for a walk.

We were amazed to find the streets deserted. It must have been about 3 pm and the city was asleep. We walked a little way to a square. On the way we were window shopping and admiring the beautiful window displays. Eventually we found some seats in a small square under the shade of some trees. We were sitting quietly there when we heard a bump, bump sound coming from behind us. On turning around we found a man dressed just in a pair of trousers and a vest, manouvering a large wooden barrow full of oranges down some steps. He came across to show us his wonderful ripe oranges proving how fresh they were by showing us the crisp leaves still attached to some of them. Of course they were irresistible and another purchase was made. The children and I sat on the seat in the shade peeling oranges while the sweet juice ran down our fingers.

We wandered back to the hotel just as the city was beginning to come to life again about 5 pm. Despite all the fruit the children were still hungry and the hotel receptionist pointed us in the direction of a cafe/snack bar where the children consumed the Greek version of sausage and chips.

The children were obviously too tired to attend an outdoor performance so we decided we would have to eat in the hotel again while they slept upstairs. We had an enjoyable meal but were a bit perplexed to find the same half drunk retsina bottle of wine presented to us yet again. The waiter was so proud of his national drink we didn’t like to tell him we had left it because we didn’t like it, but the water tasted good. So after another alchohol free meal, we went to our beds.

Another early start to the day. After breakfast we asked the Receptionist where he recommended we should visit, bearing in mind we had to be at the airport in the evening for our flight to the UK. He suggested the Temple of Poseidon at Suonia on the Attica Peninsula south of Athens. It would cost a fair bit for a taxi ride but he recommended the local bus and told us where to find the bus stop. We found this without any trouble and soon we were sitting on a full size coach with Athenians off out for the day. After leaving the city behind us we started travelling on a road which followed the coast. There seemed to be numerous hairpin bends on this narrow road and at most of them there were at least one shrine. We just hoped we had a good driver. At various intervals the bus stopped to let on more people. Some were off to till their fields complete with mattock or pitch fork. Others had acquired various livestock which they were transporting back to their village. Some had boxes of day old chickens or fully grown rabbits and I believe one lady had a young kid goat.

Eventually we came to the end of this winding road and arrived at the beautiful Cape Suonia where the temple of Poseidon dominates the landscape. We climbed up to the temple from where there is a beautiful view of the sea and the beach below. There were hardly any houses here just a couple of tavernas on the beach itself. It was still early in the day so we had the ruins to ourselves. We had been told that Lord Byron had written his name on one of the columns but we were unable to find this. It quite shocked me at the time to think such a revered poet was capable of graffiti on such a beautiful monument.

It was getting warmer and the sea looked inviting so we wandered down to the beach where the children did the usual things, building sand-castles and paddling in the sea. We decided it wasn’t a good place to swim as there were a lot of jelly fish washed up on the shore. It was getting towards lunch-time so we went to see what the taverna had on offer. We thought fish would be good option as we were on the coast and it had been a long time since we had eaten any fresh salt water fish. The taverna owner showed us some beautiful bright eyed fish and then promptly weighed it on his balance to work out how much our lunch was going to cost. He then took the fish away to put it on a charcoal fire to cook. We were surprised to see several black and white photos on the wall of the taverna showing Jackie Kennedy who had made a trip to Suonia while she was the first lady. There was also a proudly displayed letter from the White House thanking the owner of the Taverna and the people of Suonia for their hospitality. I think it is the only time I have ever eaten where “celebrities” have been entertained.

After consuming a much needed cold drink, our food arrived beautifully cooked and full of flavour. Despite what is said about British fish and chips we decided the greek version was certainly better. Sat outside on the verandah of the little ramshackle taverna, overlooking the sea, we felt that we were in paradise.

Soon after our leisurely lunch it was getting hot and the tourist buses had started to arrive so we decided to leave the beautiful quiet beach and return along the tortuous road by bus back to the hotel and pack ready to take the flight to UK that evening.

As we took off from Athens airport and headed north, I promised myself that I would return to this magical place with such  warm and welcoming people. Little did I know that it would be 30 years before I could fulfil that promise.

Submitted by Ann

The Olive Tree

I bought a field in Kriti where grew an olive tree,
I watered it and pruned it with assiduity,
Until I found I owned the ground
But did not own the tree.

So I bought the tree, for weeks I thought
The haggling would not stop.
Now I can pick my olives, and start a little shop.
Oh No, they cried, you bought the tree but not the olive crop.

At least I can sit under it, a little seat I made,
Where I could smoke a cigarette and drink some lemonade;
But no, although the tree was mine
I did not own the shade.

In my despair, I cut it down, if not for shade or food,
It might provide a cheerful fire
If that was all it could . . .
Alas, although I had the tree, I did not own the wood.

Anon (As far as I know)

Romiosini – The Soul of Greece

The trouble with Romiosini is that it is what could be called Greek fundamentalism. No two Greeks that I know have ever given the same definition. It is tied up with their identity and their soul, but it is not exclusively either. It is about Greekness, but not the Greek State as such. It is Hellenic and Byzantine and it is almost incomprehensible to foreigners and difficult to describe,even by Greeks.

All agree that the origin of the the word Romiosini is from being part of the Roman Empire – eastern Rome which became the Byzantine Empire which was largely Greek and based around its capital Konstantinopoulos and included the borders of the Black Sea and Mikra Asia – Asia Minor. The ‘Megali Idea’ was the concept back in the 1920s that this Empire could be regained, an enterprise which resulted in catastrophe and the exchange of populations with a result of nearly two million refugees.

In fact the history of modern Greece has been largely a story of catastrophe from the Ottoman occupation until recent years. Greece has always been at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and apart from the fact that everybody wanted a piece of the pie and Greece has suffered invasion after invasion and internal dissension such as the civil war and the military Junta, Greeks themselves are torn between being of the West or the East. Many folk dances are distinctly Anatolian and the bouzoukia came from the Ottomans as did the Greek fetish with fishing with lamps. Thus the average Greek, who is far more aware of his history than most nationals, is essentially of a schizophrenic nature. Even the language, cleaned after the Ottoman yoke and called Katharevoussa was the official language of Greece except that the everyday language of Greece was and is Dhimotiki. Two different words for the same thing had to be learned by the children – one word at school and the other at home – basic things – ithor and nero – water….. artos and psomi – bread.

Today there is a Modern Greek State, but it is less than two hundred years old, although Greek history goes back through Homer to the Acheans and beyond. Greeks say they are Greek, but not in the same way as an Englishman says he is English. It is easier to be English, we can point to a country and say ‘that is England’ but as recently as one thousand years ago, it was changed for ever by the Norman Conquest. There may be pride in an Englishman’s heart but it does not compare to the breadth of that in the heart of a Greek for romiosini.

It is difficult to define something like romiosini, few Greeks can do so clearly, but it is the something in the Greek soul that keeps Greeks Greek. The shadow puppet plays also taken from the Turks have become essentially Greek where the Greek peasant bows and scrapes to the Pasha, but outwits him in the end. That is Romiosini.

Zorba, the character created by Katzantzakis, although seemingly larger than life – is a distillation of many of the facets of romiosini – something that is often almost larger than life to a Greek.

And it is the incredible love for life that Greeks posses. They fight life and they go along with it, but always, they love it. They have discos and supermarkets, but even they are very Greek in character. Greeks take from many cultures and turn it into something very Greek. That too is romiosini. Although the politics and the places change for Greeks, they can point to a language and a history and traditions in dance and song that have remained unchanged for three thousand years ‘in spite of’ the catastrophe and trauma that living at the crossroads of a tempestuous world has brought them.

Where else can you ride a bus when a man will just get up and sing for the pure pleasure of it and nobody think that strange? Where else would you find the traditions of revolution in the name of eleftheria in every village. Where else would you find ‘to horio’ at the heart of national life. This is all part of Romiosini. The biggest and most well organised resistance in the war came from the people- EAM ELAS, and the language of Greece today is the language of the people. Wherever the Greeks have been threatened they have resisted. A Greek is superb at philoxenia – hospitality – parea – ambience but also a petra – a rock when you try to take his Greekness from him. It is perhaps no coincidence that on the road from Paphos to Lemessos there is a place called Petra tou Romiou.

A Greek is a Greek is a Greek, but it is romiosini that has kept him that way. No-one will change that and wherever Greeks go – and emigration has always been a problem in Greece, they will stay Greek and most likely they will return to their own village to die. A Greek is like anyone else, but in times of adversity, they are superb. Only in Greece, the top national holiday is called Oxi day. The day Greeks said ‘no’ to Mussolini. It is in the tradition of three thousand years that Greeks have said no to those who would oppress them, and they will fight. They do not always win, but in the end they do, because that oppressor will never have the satisfaction of seeing the Greek tradition beaten or dead.

That is Romiosini.

Ithaca

If you decide to go to Ithaca,
Hope that the journey is long,
Full of adventure and experience.

Those Laestrygonians, the Cyclops, angry Poseidon,
Do not be afraid of them
For you will never see them on your way
As long as your thoughts are pure
And passion touches both your spirit and your flesh.

The Laestrygonians, the Cyclops, fierce Poseidon,
You will not meet
Unless you carry them in your heart;
Unless your heart puts them before you.

Pray that your journey be long,
That there will be many summer mornings
When with joy and delight you will enter harbours
You have never entered before;
See Phoenician ports, gain gifts
of mother of pearl, coral, amber and ebony
Perfumes, sensuous and varied,
As many as you can sense.

Visit those varied Egyptians cities
And gather knowledge from the wise.

But always, have Ithaca in your mind.

Your destination is to arrive there,
But do not hurry your journey –
Better that it may last many years,
That you toss out your anchor at some island

As you grow old, richer for having traveled,
Expect nothing from Ithaca
Other than the journey of your life.

For without her, you would never have begun,
And it is this that Ithaca has given you,
What more could she offer?

And if you do arrive
And find her poor…
Ithaca has not deceived you.

For you now have the experience, the wisdom to know
What all these Ithacas mean.

C. P. Cavafy
October, 1910