ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
Over in the west, in the rolling, rural foothills between the ancient port of Chania and the glorious White Mountains, is a Crete that seems frozen in time, along with its unpretentious tavernas, its farming villages, its gorgeous orange groves, its twisting mountain roads, and its secret gorges. To be a tourist here almost seems a crime; you feel that you might somehow dislodge the delicate workings of a society that gives off an aura of absolute tranquillity.
But if you are going to be a tourist, do what we did. Rent a marvellous old farmhouse. We went to an Anglo-Cretan company, Pure Crete, that specialises in using local craftsmen and materials to restore old properties. Our walls were a yard thick; great stone slabs paved the floor; archways and huge urns proclaimed our Grecian surroundings as clearly as the words that drifted up from the people harvesting avocados just below our balcony. Then eat and more importantly, drink – in the local tavernas, where the hospitality flows as freely as olive oil over the feta salad. Walk the lanes which, in late spring, are fringed by as colourful a carpet of wild flowers as anywhere in Europe.
And scramble to the top of one of the great Venetian or Turkish coastal forts – the spectacular Aptera, overlooking the deep blue Bay of Souda, was just a mile or two from where we lived – and watch the sun set on essentially the same scene as the voyaging Ulysses might have enjoyed three millennia ago. Even if you confine yourself to this relatively uncrowded western part of Crete, the contrasts are remarkable. If you want a taste of the city life, Chania must be one of the most characterful old ports on the Mediterranean. Its vast, cross shaped covered market is its bustling heart, but most visitors end up in the lively bars and restaurants on the old quayside, or milling down the little alley where just about every leather-worker in the Aegean appears to be exhibiting his handiwork.
If you want beaches, well there is no need to go anywhere near the crowded sands by the big hotels. We headed up the peninsula north of Chania to Stavros: a lagoon of water as still as a mirror. It was bordered on one side by sand that was white hot and pristine, and on the other, a hundred yards away, by a sheer rock face that rises hundreds of feet out of the water. Here they filmed Zorba the Greek. Luckily, not too many people can remember that film now, so this paradise has had something of its former tranquillity returned to it. If you want history, it speaks from every rock, every vista, every Byzantine church, fort and ruin on the island. And not just ancient history, either. We drove the length of the old road south across the island, retracing the bitter retreat undertaken by British and Anzac troops during the Second World War.
The road corkscrews upwards into a rocky, almost lunar landscape, until suddenly you are into the ‘bandit’ country of Sfakia. It was here that British commandos hid throughout the war, emerging to do lightning raids on German positions; and it was here, too that the retaliation on innocent villages was at its most terrible. You drive that road, even on a sunny afternoon, and still you shiver. But at the end you come to one of the great sights of Crete, the castle of Frangokastello. And one of the great bathes as well. For as you do your gentle breast stroke in the Libyan Sea you look up to see castle walls rising straight from the beach, and behind them the great mass of the White mountains. And if you are a walker then western Crete offers every option from testing mountain hikes to gentle meadow strolls. You can rise at 5.30am, packed lunch and full water bottle hitched to your shorts, take the dawn bus to the mountain hamlet of Omalos, and scramble for six hours down the rightly famous Samarian gorge – Europe’s longest. But the Imbros Ravine, further east along the south coast, is almost as breathtaking, and far more congenial to a young family. We left Crete mildly burnt but seriously bitten – not from the famous mosquitoes, who kept their distance, but by the sheer profusion of calm pleasures.
As Crete’s greatest novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, puts it: ‘Whoever sets foot on this island senses a mysterious force branching warmly and beneficently through his veins, senses his soul begin to grow.’