Crete for all seasons

As I slowly grow older I search for great movies that really talk about the Crete I know and love. They are rare but here is one that is very good indeed. It is about Crete in all seasons including specific journeys in autumn and winter when the beauty og the island is extraordinary. Here is the film:



I hope that you enjoy it, it is well over an hour long, but do watch it all. There is a great deal of wisdom and knowledge here.



The Amari Valley – the movie

At last I have found a pretty recent, hour long video professionally produced of just the beautiful Amari Valley that I have often mentioned. It is still one of the best places in Crete to see although the main roads seem to avoid it. It is the biggest area to the south of Rethymnon and has lots of beauty and history.



A stunning medieval castle and a tale of ghosts . . .

Frango Castello Castle

Frangokastello looks very much today as it did when it was built in 1371. In this area of south western Crete live a race of people called the Sphakiots. They are strong and brave and fear no man. They can be a severe problem to people who come to conquer them, as did the Venetians. So the castle was built here by the sea on a small plain under the White Mountains of Sphakia. Then . . . well, nothing happened. The Venetian soldiers stayed in and around the castle and the Sphakiots stayed clear of them.

But let us get on to the ghosts that still appear here, it is said. They are called the Drosoulites, the men of the dew, in English. The legend tells us that they appear on just one day a year at early dawn. A day in late May when it is damp and windless, they walk in single file through the castle and down into the sea. I have spoken to people who say that they have seen them, but they have never been photographed.

Some say that they are the hallowed ghosts of the men of Hadzi Michalis Dalianis who stood here in the castle with his 600 men in 1878 against the Turks. Eight thousand turkish soldiers were sent to deal with them.

Others say that the ghosts are simply a mirage of Libyan soldiers from across the Mediterannean, but nobody really knows. However Frangokastello keeps on being one of the most perfect 600 year old castles you will ever find.

What can we do? We Dance.

Here in Greece the recession is biting, in Crete the tourist numbers have dropped. Many people have lost their jobs. So what does a Cretan do? They dance.

Last weekend the people of Crete got together along the 200 Kilometres of National Road that stretches the length of the island, and they danced. Just like that. It cost nothing and people felt better. Now the Guinness Book of Records has accepted this dance as the world’s longest dance, so we may even be famous.

Here’s a movie of the dance:

In a way this reminds me of Zorba, from the book by Katzanzakis who was born here in Crete.

Here is the quote: “It was the dancing. When my little boy Dimitri died…and everybody was crying… Me, I got up and I danced.  They said, “Zorba is mad.” But it was the dancing — only the dancing that stopped the pain.”

Author of leper bestseller shuns Hollywood

THE bestselling author Victoria Hislop has rejected an offer of about £300,000 from Hollywood to turn her debut novel about a leper colony off Crete into a blockbuster film.

Keen to preserve the integrity of the book and to give something back to the Mediterranean island on which it is based, Hislop has instead allowed one of Greece’s main television channels to dramatise her story for a fraction of the fee.

Since its publication in 2005, The Island has sold more than 1m copies in Britain alone, won several awards and been translated into more than a dozen languages, including Greek. The popularity of the novel in America led to Hislop, 50, being courted by several film studios.

“Some were offering me high six-figure dollar sums for the rights,” said Hislop, whose follow-up novel, The Return, set in Spain, has also been a success.

After spurning Hollywood, the author settled for “far less” from Mega, the Greek broadcaster, which is turning The Island into a 26-part drama that has just started filming.

“I really don’t mind,” said Hislop. “What I wanted, and will now get, is a chance to have a say in the TV series.

“Of course it is the writer’s script, but I feel much happier with some of my input and knowing that the Greeks, who took the book to their heart, will care about making the series and keep loyally to the plot.

“I was simply not happy with the approaches from America. I was worried what might happen to my story and my characters.”

Hislop is no doubt mindful of the fate of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, a wartime novel set on the Greek island of Cephalonia, which was filmed in 2001 by John Madden, the British director.

In the hands of Universal, the US studio, Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz were considered miscast as a captain in the Italian army and his Greek girlfriend.

De Bernieres later remarked: “It would be impossible for a parent to be happy about its baby’s ears being put on backwards.”

The Island tells the tale of Alexis Fielding, who goes in search of her Greek mother’s past, uncovering tragedy and passion. The TV adaptation will employ about 300 local actors and is expected to cost £3.5m — despite the country’s economic meltdown.

The writer, who owns a house on Crete with her husband, Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye magazine, will even have a small speaking part in the drama. “I’ve been learning Greek for the past couple of years,” she said. “I’m fairly fluent now.”

She also said the deal did not preclude secondary rights being sold to a British film or TV company at a later date.


The Greek Weather Forecast

Currently we have late November weather. Some sunny days, some cloudy. Somedays even rain. We start to think again of spring and the coming summer.

But here in Greece, the weather forecast always cheers us up. Even if the weather is awful. That is because of Petroula, Star TV’s weather forecaster.

Hope you enjoyed it.

Oh Margaritas . . .

Skywatch Friday

Margaritas, a small village in Crete south of Rethimno and Iraklio with blue skies and a gentle breeze.

Small church in Margaritas

Small church in Margaritas

This was a few days ago but now, the first week in August, we have clouds, white puffy cumulus and some darker cirrus. I have never seen such clouds here in August. But back to Margaritas . . .

Pottery baked for tourists

Pottery baked for tourists

Of course there are many potters in Margaritas, but here we see other pottery shapes made apart from the many regular pots produced here. The potteries are part of the attraction to this small village on a hill, and many people come here to stock up shops all over the island with pots.

Sleeping kittens curled with each other

Sleeping kittens curled with each other

So the day goes by and come two pm, everyone enjoys siesta.

Crete’s extraordinary synagogue

By Antony Lerman

Chania, Crete. The holidaymakers look thinner on the ground this year and the freshly fried calamari are no longer so cheap. But the draw of this old Venetian port city, with its long and visible history which somehow absorbs and Cretanises the kitsch shops and harbourside trinket sellers, remains strong. If you’re interested in seeing antiquities, there’s no shortage in this north-west part of the island. With a still youngish daughter, we tend to use the time for hours of uninterrupted reading on the local beach, a kilometre away in Nea Hora, which never seems to get too crowded. Where we stay we have a stunning view of the sunrise over the harbour and at that hour we can watch one or two patient fishermen casting their lines from the foot of the lighthouse, perhaps hoping for a tsipoura or two.

It’s not an escape. Once we would avoid buying newspapers. Now we switch on the laptop and can’t miss a thing. I gravitate to Middle East news, where “progress” in US-Israel talks is a euphemism for depressing stalemate, to the report about the record rise in antisemitic incidents in the UK in the first six months of 2009, and to the ongoing turmoil in Iran. But if I can’t switch off, one consolation at least is seeing things from a different perspective. This comes from a different pace of life. The ever-present mountains and sea, which can be kind and inviting one minute and cruel and forbidding the next. Just being in the eastern Mediterranean, a short hop to Egypt. And a sobering awareness of the bloody history of the Cretan people.

But it also comes from being connected to Etz Hayyim, a unique little Romaniote synagogue in the old town’s former Jewish quarter, which dates from the 14th century. By the time the 263 members of the Jewish community in Chania were arrested by the Nazis on 29 May 1944, of the two synagogues in the city, only Etz Hayyim remained. While the Jews were still imprisoned nearby in Ayas, the synagogue was already being vandalised, both by the Germans and the locals. They were sent by convoy to Heraklion in the east and herded onto a ship, the Tanais. Early the next morning, 9 June, the ship was hit by torpedoes fired from a British submarine. The ship sank and there were no survivors. The Jews were almost certainly on their way to Auschwitz.

Squatters who entered the Etz Hayyim synagogue after the Jews left badly damaged the fabric of the building. When they were finally forced to leave in 1957, the “abandoned” building became the property of the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece. Parts of the small site were then surreptitiously taken over by owners of adjacent properties. While the former Jewish quarter revived with shops, cafes and restaurants, Etz Hayyim became a convenient neighbourhood dumping ground and open air urinal. That could have been the end of more than 2,000 years of Cretan Jewish history.

One remarkable man had a different idea, and in the early 1990s decided that Etz Hayyim had to be reconstructed and renovated to become a living synagogue once again, despite the fact that there were no known Jews living on Crete. Dr Nikos Stavroulakis, a Jewish art historian, museum designer and curator, author, theatrical costume designer, artist, cookery writer and much more besides, who had returned to his late father’s house in Chania, persuaded the World Monuments Fund and some wealthy donors to back a plan to rebuild Etz Hayyim. On 10 October 1999, after five years’ work, 350 people assembled to witness the rededication of the synagogue.

Given the circumstances, this was an astonishing achievement. But Nikos would never have been satisfied with a beautifully restored synagogue that functioned only as an albeit essential memorial to the dead Jews of Crete and a mini-museum devoted to Cretan Jewish history. Yet creating any kind of “community” out of thin air might have seemed a task far harder than masterminding the synagogue’s physical reconstruction. What might trigger such a renewal?

At the synagogue service last Friday night, for the benefit of some American Jews visiting Etz Hayyim, Nikos talked about what came after the reopening. He recalled a line of Kafka’s, “a cage went in search of a bird”, and said this is what happened with the synagogue – and the bird came. Not that he meant Etz Hayyim’s “community” is in any way captive, but the very rebirth of the synagogue opened up the possibility for an incredibly diverse number of people to find some new meaning in their lives through the presence of the synagogue and their various connections with it.

There’s very little that’s conventional about Etz Hayyim. Nikos takes the services or brings in more practised people to do it on some of the festivals, but the life of the “community” includes musical events, lecture courses, communal meals and exhibitions. Jews with family connections to Chania have used the synagogue’s library and resources to trace their family trees. A few have worked on private study projects.

Why do I keep using inverted commas when I write “community”? Most of the people who visit or participate in the life of the synagogue are a transient group. There are Jews of all denominations or none. Some stay for months or longer; some just for a few days or weeks. There are also Christians and Muslims and people of no faith who find comfort in the ways of the synagogue. And there are some Israeli Jews who come and go. Very rarely is there a minyan, the 10 Jewish males required for formal prayer. This fluid, pluralistic, diverse and largely itinerant population makes Nikos hesitate to call what he has attracted a “community”—and the quote marks reflect that. And yet today they are truly unnecessary. Etz Hayyim’s community may be at the outer edge of what constitutes Jewish community wherever Jews live – but as anyone familiar with the Jewish world today knows, pluralism, diversity and fluidity are features of Jewish life found everywhere. Etz Hayyim is a kind of crucible where personal change and transformation can occur in what are both challenging and enriching circumstances. It’s at the frontier of modern Jewish experience.

I’m not an observant or a believing Jew. And there is nothing about Etz Hayyim which makes me want or not want to be one. But it makes me feel that the complexities of my kind of cultural Jewishness, which are replicated in so many Jews today, have their place here, not as nostalgia but as an edgy range of possibilities.

None of this makes antisemitism go away (there’s some of that here too) or generates new optimism about the possibilities of Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation (though dialogue groups have discretely spent time here). But I recommend the Etz Hayyim milieu, the awareness of many centuries of Jewish life on Crete and the resilience and determination of one Jew who revived Jewish life in Chania for helping keep a sense of balance and perspective on such preoccupations. And I know a great beachside restaurant, from where you can look out at the tiny island of Lazaretta, the larger island of Theodhori beyond, where the wild Cretan goat still roams, and, if you stay late enough, you can see the glowing red sunset, and enjoy perfectly fried whitebait.


Wild and Secret Crete


The tourists are beginning to come now, though not as many as before. Sure there will be more problems as we have already had with the olive harvest. It was a bad year. Excellent Cretan extra virgin olive oil was priced here at Euros 1.70 per kilo, more than a litre.

But the beaches are superb and wild.


And here is another. Perhaps it helps you see why I love this island.


The ancient village of Argiropoli is nearby, the ancient city here was called Lappa, built by the Mycaneans and the Dorians and even the Romans this place lived on until today based on its wonderful springs and unique location.


Here in the foothills of the Lefka Ori (the White Mountains) these villages live on with a deep traditions based on the past but with an acute eye on the future.