Early Days Chapter 04

I found the path outside the village and climbed over the hill. I could see the sea to my left and kept on going. Eventually the path descended towards the beach and became easier. Now and then I had to climb uphill to pass over a promontory but I cannot say it was a difficult hike. Some miles later I came over the top of a hill and in front of me was a large herd of sheep and goats. And sure enough there was a shepherd. An old man dressed in the Cretan headress with a large pair of fine leather boots. He looked at me but said nothing. I spoke, “good day, how are you” I said in Greek. “Very well he said and how are you?” I replied that I too was very good and that I was traveling to the west. “Come with me” he said. I followed him uphill a little way and in an almost hidden hollow in the hills was his house. In fact it looked more like a shed but it had a good roof and a terrace outside where we sat down. He gave me some wine and looked me directly in the eyes and said “what news?”

What news? I didn’t have any news. In fact I didn’t know what in the world was going on, but I spoke about Myrtos and how the road had been started from Irapetra and one day should come this way. How it was being made by the young soldiers. I explained where I came from, from England, and how I hoped to get to Ano Viannos. He was very pleased to hear all of this ‘news’ and he got up and went and milked a sheep, put the milk in a bowl and gave it to me with some rock hard rusks. Then he sat down again. “Eat” he said, so I did. The rusks soaked up the warm milk and I found it delicious. Also very filling. “Viannos is not so far” he said, “maybe ten cigarettes.”

Luckily I had already come across this means of explaining distance by the time it takes to smoke cigarettes. It was explained after a fashion in Myrtos and I got the drift. The shepherd then told me how famous his little bit of coastline became when St Paul was shipwrecked here. I was going to hear more St Paul stories, but they were never the same. I thanked him for his conversation and gave him some tomatoes and a cucumber to lighten my load and he thanked me and wished me “good traveling, God is watching your feet.”

As the evening drew down I found a small rock hollow in which to sleep. I ate some bread and sausage and had a fine salad with some olive oil and cheese. I watched the sea for a while and felt myself falling asleep. Tucked up in my sleeping bag I slept alone with nothing between me and Africa. I slept for almost twelve hours.

Soon I was on the move again passing the tiny hamlet of Tertsa. There were other small hamlets perched just above or by the sea but the only decent sized village that I came across was Arvi, and that was pretty small. Just past Arvi was a track heading upwards away from the sea towards Ano Viannos so I started to climb the hill. The limestone here was strange, huge lumps separated by gorges or steep chasms. The pathway went left to right and right to left to climb the hill. Hopefully at the top would be Amiras but it seemed a long way up. Before arriving at Amiras I took a left fork in the direction of Viannos on a path that wove around the mountain. More sheep, and another shepherd. He stared at me as if I had just dropped in from Mars.

“Who are you,” he demanded? “Where are you from? Why are you here?”

I told him who I was and where I came from, but why was I here? I told him that I was just walking to Viannos. This was a strange conversation. Normally in Greece the stranger speaks first, but not here, it seems. He listened carefully to what I said in Greek and then, in English he said: “welcome to Viannos. My name is Yanni. You are very welcome.”

This time it was me that was astonished. Here I was on very remote mountain in Crete with a shepherd speaking to me in English. Very good English, in fact. But Yanni was not a simple Greek shepherd by any means. It was around five o’clock in the evening and Yanni went to get some milk from a compliant sheep which we sat down and ate with rusks.

Yanni’s story was amazing, but I was learning quickly that I had come to a very unusual place. He told me that during the German occupation of Crete in 1943 the commander in Iraklion had sent out an order to kill Viannos. Simply that. To kill everybody in Viannos village and the villages around Viannos. Yanni’s mother had taken her two tiny children to tend the sheep which were some miles from Viannos. There the children played around the hut and the sheep grazed the hill. It was late in the year of 1943 but the sun was still warm and the quiet gentleness of the sea made this a special time for them. As they played there, German trucks arrived in Viannos and started shooting everyone they could find. Men, women, children and old people. They went to all the surrounding villages and just shot whoever was there and then set fire to the villages. Yanni says that they could see the fires in the distance. When they returned a couple of days later, it was a holocaust.

All of Yanni’s family died except his mother and little sister. His father and grandfather and grandmother all gone. So many people died for no reason. Around five hundred people in these small villages were lost. Yanni was protected to some extent from all of this because as an eight year old he had to protect his sister and the herd of sheep that was all they had. He grew up very quickly. The reason for this massacre according to the Germans had been a reprisal for an attack on German soldiers by one of the resistance leaders in the region of Viannos, one Manoli Bandouvas.

Now Viannos hated the German people. Many also hated Bandouvas and his men. They quietly rebuilt what they could of the villages of Viannos and grew silently and apart from the rest of Crete. They had little faith in government and in Iraklion. They just tried to live what was left of their lives. Today, twenty-two years after those awful days it was not so different. They had been sent a teacher for the school some years before, from Attica in mainland Greece and he had been accepted there at least to teach the children. That was how Yanni spoke English because one day he wanted to leave Viannos and go to America. I don’t know if that day ever came, but what Yanni had to live with and grow up in was not something I could easily understand. Even today, many years on, I find the story deeply shocking. It certainly happened though, just as he said.

We slept that night in the shepherd’s hut. Next day we woke early and moved the sheep up to the fold where Yanni had to milk them. He showed me how to do it, and I was some help to him but I feel that milking sheep needs strong wrists and fingers, stronger than mine. The milk was put into a tank and taken to the road where a truck would pick it up later. Then Yanni took me to Ano Viannos, his village.

It was a difficult walk up to the village. We passed several houses on the way but there seemed to be no one at home, not that I could see anyway. Finally we arrived at the village centre and Yanni took me to his house where I met his wife and his four children. Yanni was obviously very proud of his family and introduced them to me one at a time, even the baby. Then he decided we should go to the cafe to meet the village men.

We entered the cafe and there at the tables sat about eight men. All quite young like Yanni who was about thirty years old, and one old man who sat silently watching from the corner of the room. Yanni went straight into fast Greek which I caught a few words of. My name and the fact that I was English came out as well as the fact I was walking, which was noted. Most Greeks that I have met prefer to ride, a car or a donkey even. It was usually assumed that I was too poor to possess these forms of transport.

The men got up and walked over to where we were standing and introduced themselves. They were actually very friendly and started to ask me all the usual questions about where I came from and what am I doing in Viannos. I tried to explain the best that I could. Where was I going? I told them that I wanted to go to the Messara Plain. I had heard it was very beautiful and that they had Minoan sites there. This started a long conversation about the Messara which was just a few miles west of Viannos. But the conversation was not about Minoans, it was about how many of the Messara villages had been burned and destroyed by the Germans. I thanked God that I was not a German tourist. I don’t think that this place is ready for them yet.

Later we said our good byes to the men in the cafe and Yanni took me back to his house where his wife had made a splendid meal. There was mutton stew and a whole chicken. “Freshly killed for Raymond” Yanni announced proudly. We all sat around the table, including Yanni’s wife. This was unusual too, but this was Viannos. We drank wine and we thoroughly enjoyed our evening. Yanni talked of the future and how he wanted one day to take his family to the United States where they could work and grow rich and get away from Viannos for ever. I told him that I didn’t think it was that simple, America was a long way away and things were different there. It was not so bad for a young man on his own, but with a family and four children it might be difficult.

“But for a young man here there is a future,” I said. “Tourists will come and they will want to be beside the sea. Whoever owns seafront property will win out in the end. That is the future as far as I can see.”

“We shall see what we shall see” said Yanni, and he was surely right about that. I stayed two or three more days at Yanni’s house. I learned more about Viannos and liked what I learned. Here were deeply proud and honest people who worked hard and asked no one for anything. Good people.

Here too I learned more about what the war and the occupation of Crete by the Germans had meant to these people. At home we talk little about the war, but then we were never occupied. These killings at Viannos were truly terrible. It happened following the armistice for the Italians who occupied eastern Crete. The biggest resistance group in the area was that of Manoli Bandouvas. His men included Cretans, Greeks, even stray British and New Zealand troops that had been unable to get away. The British in the island helping these groups, Patrick Leigh Fermor and others had decided to take the Italian leader, General Carta to Cairo. Fermor got supplies and weapons to Bandouvas to assist with this and the taking over of the Italian’s weapons. For some reason Bandouvas got the impression that the British were about to invade the island and promptly attacked a German column. Some say a hundred died, some say only twenty, but this gave the German commander, General Muller, reason to attack the Viannos people. Apparently the Bandouvas attack on the German column happened in the Viannos region. Between 350 and 500 Viannos people of all ages and sexes were murdered. In a place like Viannos, that has to be lived with somehow. Yanni and his family were coping with it, but it was a truly difficult task that he had taken on.

Yanni got me a ride with a friend in a pick-up truck to the eastern end of the Messara Plain. I was grateful as I preferred being driven to walking, especially with that rucksack which, as ever, was restocked with more free food.

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