I spent some time in Frangocastello, watching the sea, thinking. How could it be that I, a young man, had come here and found so much? Appreciated so much? I was born after the war among the bomb dumps of London. I grew up and went to school both in London and in Dunstable near where my family moved when I was eleven. I always worked hard but there was something missing. I could never discover what it was until I came here, this small island between Europe, Asia and Africa. Why did this island resonate with me so. How could it be that I actually understood the feelings that I shared with the people of Crete so much more than with the people of my own land. It felt like home here. I don’t just say that, I mean it.
I came here because I wanted to go to the south of Europe. When I got here I found something extraordinary. These were not simple people living a rural life, they were incredibly complex people tied to their past and to all that it meant, but also people wired to the future who knew where they were going. They had morality, philosophy, religion, politics and so much more. They had spirit. I knew that I had to live here, but to live here I had to find a job in order to pay my way.
It was time to leave Frangocastello or I felt I might stay here forever. I said goodbye to Dimitri and his family and thanked them for all they had given me. ‘Tipota’ he said, it is nothing. But to me it was a great deal. Maybe even it had changed the way that I wanted to live my life.
We rode back into Hora Sfakion in the celebrated pick up truck and back to the kafeneon. I had missed the bus into Hania so I had to stay another day at least. Later I was talking to Costa who told me that if I really wanted to see Sfakia, then I should visit his village, Aradhena. Now he lived in Anopoli but he still visited his village to see to the property there. His father used to live there but he had died a few years previously so now Costa owned the property he inherited. ‘Will you come with me’ he asked ‘ I am going now’.
‘Yes’ I said, ‘I would be happy to come.’
So started an incredible journey on four donkeys. I took my pack and mounted one of the donkeys after Costa had removed all his supplies to the other two and mounted the final one. Off we went. Costa asked if I was OK and I said that I was. He led at the front and then the two loaded donkeys and me at the back. Basically we headed westwards and upwards. I held on for all my worth but the donkeys were surefooted and I suspect they knew the way anyway.
We climbed and climbed. It was almost vertical in places but the donkeys followed a well trodden path that had been made over several thousand years. How high did we climb, I wasn’t sure, maybe 750 metres. We passed some houses on the way up and Costas shouted something, what I am not sure because I was hanging on for dear life. It seemed quite a long way but probably not more than ten kilometres as the crow flies but this was hard country and the terrain was difficult but I seemed to be the only one that noticed.
We drank water from a goatskin bag and ate some rusks that Costa gave me and on we went, higher and higher. I remember looking down once or twice and beginning to understand what made Sfakia what it was, virtually impregnable. Finally we arrived at Anopoli. I got off the donkey and found I could hardly walk. Costas noticed my difficulties and said that it was the way that it is.
Later I remember reading up about the history of Sfakia and Anopoli was the birthplace of Daskalogiannis, Teacher John, a famous fighter of the Turks in Crete. Although the Turks came to Sfakia following the rebellions, they never lived there. It has long been the only free place in Crete.
The Romans were there and largely the population of Sfakia is said to be from the Dorians who came to Crete after the Minoans and the Mycaneans, The history goes back a long way, but the bravery and persistence of the Sfakians fighting whoever invaded them is legendary.
We went to Costas house and unloaded the donkeys. I was invited to stay for a day or so and I was happy to accept. Mostly we spent the time walking about the village and Costas telling me stories of the past history of Sfakia. I asked him about Ardhena and he told me it was a wonderful village to the west but with a sad past. Now it is barely inhabited, mostly because of the years of vendetta that it suffered but also because of the gorge. The Ardhena gorge was deep and constantly climbing from side to side became too much for the people that lived there in a modern world.
We took two donkeys and rode to the Ardhena Gorge so that he could show me. The gorge was very deep, maybe 200 metres and there were steps down one side and up the other. They have been there since Roman times he told me. I was amazed, the beauty of the sheer gorge was incredible.
We turned back to Anopoli and spent a quiet evening talking about the past and what they hoped for the future. We went to the kafeneon and spent some similar time with other locals from Anopoli. They were all tall proud men who didn’t speak as much as other Cretans, but what they said seem to matter a lot. Again this was another and very different part of Crete, but a vitally important one. I was proud to have met them and shaken their hands.
The next day Costas took me back down to Hora Sfakion. Had a tsikoudia and said goodbye. He asked me to come back one day. I said I would. Then he was gone. A fine man that I liked very much.
I spent one more night in Hora Sfakion and took the morning bus to Hania. I must have spent less than a week in Sfakia but it created a lasting impression upon me. The history was beginning to make a lot of sense. The past mattered to these people, it was about courage and pride. They loved their land and no-one would take it from them. No-one has ever succeeded in doing so.