Caught the bus westward from Episkopi to the charming village of Vrisses but had little time to explore as quite soon another bus arrived heading for Hora Sfakion. I jumped on and sat in the middle of the bus to get a clear view from the windows. We were going over the Levka Ori, the white mountains.
Actually there was hardly anyone on this old bus. It barely looked as if it could climb a hill never mind a mountain. Still I was an optimist and once we had left Vrisses I was amazed that the bus began to climb a steep road little wider than the bus itself. Furthermore the engine purred as if it was hardly making any effort at all. This is a special bus I thought and wondered who had worked miracles on the engine.
Hora Sfakion must be about twenty kilometres as the crow flies from Vrisses, but in reality the distance was much further owing to the left to right and right to left way the road had been constructed to climb the mountains. It was a good road too, narrow but tarmaced.
I had some time to think on the bus. What was the road like back in the early 1940s when this route, from Hania to Hora Sfakion had been the escape route of the British, Australian and New Zealander forces trying to outrun the German Airborne invasion of Crete. These men had been the Allied Expeditionary Force in mainland Greece when it was overrun by the German Panzer Divisions. With many of them wounded the British Navy rescued them from southern Greece and brought them to Souda Bay in Crete. There they tried to get it together to defend the island from what became the world’s first and most intense air invasion. They had just a very few planes, a couple of simple tanks and some anti-aircraft guns. Then they had their own hand guns, most of them, but little else.
When the Germans attacked the island of Crete, it was said to be used by the Germans as an exercise for their hardest and highest trained troops. Along with bombers, gliders and fighters the Germans attacked Crete at Maleme and a couple of other places along the north coast. Did they get a surprise. Their intelligence people told them that the Cretans were a fine hospitable group of people, they would welcome the Germans with open arms. Anyway the cream of the Cretan fighters had been captured and routed up near Albania.
As the first paratroopers drifted to the ground they got the shock of their lives. They were being attacked by old women, old men and children. Not just attacked, but being killed before they hit the ground. So many Germans died that day, as the gliders landed, they too were attacked with a completely unknown ferocity. This was from the ordinary Cretan people. Some with guns but so many with pitchforks and knives. In addition there were savage attacks on the German troops by Maori platoons, Scottish Guards and groups of Australians and New Zealanders.
But the Germans kept on coming and once they had secured the airfield at Maleme it was the beginning of the end of the invasion. It was decided to rescue as many Allied troops as possible and hence the long walk over the very way that I was now traveling in my bus.
In those days the road was just a dirt road and it didn’t even go all the way to Hora Sfakion. The men who managed to cross the mountains ended up walking along the bottom of the Imbros Gorge to get to the south coast of Crete. That is a long way to come in the heat of the day and the sharp cold of the night though they did their very best. A huge line of men constantly under attack by Stuka aircraft they kept on moving. So many didn’t make it, but a huge number did make it and were taken off the island back to Egypt by the Royal Navy who still had control of the seas. Others dispersed and stayed on the island to help in the fight against the occupiers. Some became famous and some became prisoners. Many died.
It was already about one o’clock so I started looking in my bag for food but couldn’t find any. A few minutes later we stopped at Askifou, a village on a small plateau high in the White Mountains. I stayed on the bus as the driver and all the other people – about four of them – got off. About a minute later the driver walked around the bus, banged on my window and said “Ella, come off for food.” So off I got, leaving my bag on the bus as had the other people. I followed them all into a biggish house and sat at the table as did they. “We stop here for food” the driver said, “everyone.”
Then food started coming, plate after plate of beans, meatballs, potatoes fried in olive oil, horta, salad, wine and bread. I ate plenty and there was still loads of food left. The strange thing was that this meal was superb. Each tomato tasted fantastic, the potatoes were sublime and the horta was perfect. Fantastic. Perhaps it was the altitude, but probably not.
Then there was a time for talk and some more of the local Cretan wine – including the bus driver – in all it was a fine time, like being out with friends regardless of the cost. The local accent in these parts though was different, it wasn’t too easy to recognise some words, but who cares, that was excellent wine.
About an hour and a half later, the driver said “lets go” and so I started looking for money to pay for the meal. “No no” said the driver, “its all settled and since you are xenos, for you it is a gift.”
I couldn’t believe it, but I knew better than to argue. I thanked everyone very much for this meal – which must have cost more than my bus fare – and we all got back on the bus plus two others who were waiting in Askifou.
After Askifou we passed the top of the Imbros Gorge where all the soldiers had tramped their way down. But for us it was the new road built by the wonderful Greek engineers and the soldiers doing their national service. Great, I thought. Until I saw the road.
To be fair it was a very good, if narrow, road. The difference was that we had climbed higher and could see down into the gorge. I mean straight down. This was probably the most precipitous road I had ever seen never mind traveled on and the driver full of wine. Nobody cared, of course. Cretan bus drivers were famous for their daring. The people on the bus chatted away like old friends and included me in their conversation which was just as well because as long as I talked to them I wasn’t looking out of the window. And out of the window one had the impression that the bus was flying through thin air. Left and right it went and just kept on going. Some bus and certainly some driver.
Then some of the passengers dropped off to sleep and the bus kept on going. The driver was singing too, a beautiful song that I failed to understand as I looked left and then right seeing nothing almost but the Libyan Sea.