I caught a bus the next morning that said Xania on the front, but I was not going so far as that. I had decided upon Episkopi as a place to stop and have a look around. The road climbed heavily out of Rethimnon and after some beautiful roadside villages, the bus stopped in Episkopi.
Episkopi was a large village with all sorts of agricultural work going on all around me. Plenty of donkeys and small rotovator type motors with large trailers going all directions. There seemed to be some small factories – perhaps more like co-operatives here for making wine and olive oil and processing the waste. Indeed the local olive oil was very good indeed. I sat and had a lazy coffee in one of the kafeneons on the main street and was given two slices of bread and a small plate of olive oil to try. It was a deep yellow and tasted really wonderful. I asked where the restaurant was and told it was just along the street. Actually the greek word is estiatorio and it is not really a restaurant as such but more of a place where everyone goes for lunch. They just have two or three set dishes and you take your pick by going out into the kitchen to choose one. I chose meatballs with potatoes in tomato coloured sauce and it was a lot to eat but I enjoyed every bite. The bread too was really fresh and tasted excellent. It would be a really healthy place to live here on this kind of simple food all made from fresh local produce carried into the village by donkeys.
I started talking to some of the men in the cafe and they told me something of the area in which they lived. Inland a little was the village of Argiroupolis and, a little further on, is Asigonia.
Both of these villages are remarkable. Argiroupolis is founded on the ancient Greco-Roman city of Lappa, some of which had been recovered in the upper part of the village. Down the hill there are some famous water springs which flow through a popular taverna. The water is always good to taste and are said to have magic properties. I tasted the water and it was very good, but no magic happened, except the magic of Asigonia where the next bus was taking me very slowly up an extremely precipitous road.
As far as I know, Asigonia has no ancient site beneath it, but it is quite a large and wealthy village. The road we climbed to get to the village was apparently quite newly made and the bus could just about negotiate it. Before the making of the road the climb to Asigonia was very difficult. It could be done on a donkey if you knew the way, but it was dangerous and difficult all the way up to the village. According to the villagers, this was the work of their saint and guardian, Saint George. Because, not only of the difficult climb to the village, but also of the vulnerability of travelers along the path, it was simple to protect the village from harm from invaders. They say that thanks to St George, no Turk nor German ever made it to their village, so they live a charmed life. In fact rocks and large boulders can be dropped to devastating effect on people who were not wanted in the village so it was possibly an intervention too far.
The wealth of Asigonia comes from its wealth in sheep. The position of the village is such that it is a crucial meeting point for flocks on the surrounding mountains. In the village is accommodation for the shepherds, for some it is their homes, and perhaps more importantly there is a co-op there which turns the milk from the sheep into cheese called graviera – a bit like Swiss gruyere.
In the spring on St George’s day all the shepherds in the district bring their flocks down from the hills – and that is an absolutely huge number of sheep – to be milked and the milk given away to the villagers or any stranger that may be there. The flocks are milked by the shepherds, the milk handed to the mayor and his helpers and then the sheep are blessed by the Papas, bread is broken with the shepherds and they lead the sheep out of the village. Flock by flock. Not too far though, for that evening in the village there is one heck of a party.
It was much later in the year when I arrived in Asigonia. I got off the bus and walked a little way up the road where I was confronted with a huge man, aged maybe fifty with a British Army belt and the most amazing boots I was ever likely to see anywhere. “Are you German” he asked. “No” I said “I am British.” “That is good” he said “I kill Germans.” Then he passed on his way.
I have to say that Asigonia was a strange village. It was large and it always seemed to be cloudy. But there were real benefits to being there and you felt it more than saw it. For example, low in the village there are springs where people go for their water and as I walked up toward the village from the springs I saw an old lady carrying bags of water. I said hello to her as I walked with her. I asked if she would allow me, a strong young man, to help her carry her load. “Of course” she said, so I carried her water up almost to the village. Then she took the bags of water back and told me that she was grateful but she carries her own load in her village. She looked about eighty years old and then she said “you will stay with me while you are in Asigonia.” “Of course” I said.
So I stayed in her house, what house it was. She had her rooms upstairs and I had my room downstairs. This was not a large house but it was built on a forty-five degree slope. The kitchen was in the middle and I had a fine room with a double bed that was a little damp but bothered me not at all. I shared the room with twelve chickens, one of which seemed terminally sick.
In fact it died the next day and I felt a little sorry for it, but not Maria, she cooked it for supper. Now to her it was entirely natural to cook and enjoy a sick chicken, but for me it was more difficult. Not that it mattered – I enjoyed it very much. Along with the Cretan sautéed potatoes in olive oil and her lovely horta.
That night I went out to the kafeneon. This was no ordinary kafeneon. There was a lyre player and a bouzoukia player and the music was odd but incredible for all that. I was immediately recognised as a foreigner and was extensively quizzed as to my nationality, background, age and family plus what land we owned, which herds of sheep and how our cheese turned out. I did my best to answer all the questions over the noise of the musicians but as the evening grew later and the beer turned to raki and then to Johnny Walker Black Label and the dancing grew more and more intense my background was either accepted or forgotten and I became almost at one with them.
Then the village telephone that was buried under the upturned beer crate stage on which the musicians played, began ringing. Four large shepherds walked outside the kafeneon door, extracted an amazing armoury of hand guns and blew the newly installed telephone wires away. I mean completely.
I was so far away from home and yet here I felt perfectly secure. Philoxenia protected me and the kindness and goodwill of these people protected me especially in Asigonia. But guns, I had never really seen one before. And these people had been drinking a lot, and I mean a great deal more than in Britain and they were armed to the teeth, so much so that there was a little girl picking up shells from the gunfire to put into her box.
Before today I had no experience of this, and now today, I had experienced it. More than that one of the shepherds was boasting about what brilliant shots the British were. He put a glass on his head, gave me his what looked like a 45 colt and told me to blow it away. I said no. He said that I shouldn’t be so modest and handed me the gun. I said that I had nothing to prove and that I really liked the Johnny Walker.
“No problem” he said, “it is wrong to show off, to boast, that is why I love you people. You come to our island to fight for freedom as if it matters not at all. And then you go. Good people. Excellent people. Have some Johnny Walker.”
The party got better and then the musicians gave up after nearly eight hours of playing. Hands were shaken, promises made and the future formulated. I went back to Maria’s house and crashed out completely. The next day in the light of the perfect sunshine I took the bus back to Episkopi, but I will never forget Asigonia. Never.