[ 21:15 thursday 25 august – irakleo, crete ]
i’m sitting by a busy roundabout whilst sardines are grilled on a brazier in front of me. how good is that!
so, i made it to crete. my dawn bus from methoni to kalamata was half an hour late which meant i missed my planned connections. but it turned out there was an alternative route via sparti. this involved the most vertigionous mountain route, the very mountains from which the ancient spartans used to toss any babies they judged imperfect.
from sparti there was indeed a connecting bus so i got to gythia in time for the weekly ship. i crossed the causeway to the pine-covered islet where paris and helen consumated their ill-judged affair and had a sneaky skinny-dip whilst i was waiting. there was a fierce westerly wind and the ship arrived three hours late.
i slept through the whole crossing and woke as we were docking. it was three in the morning. the nearest settlement, kissamo, was several miles away. i started trudging along the road with my rucksack. after half a mile i spotted a cove below the road with a big old pine tree sotwenty minutes later my tent was set up under the tree and i was settling down to sleep.
the tree provided such effective shade that i didn’t wake til eleven. emerging from the tent i encountered my first cretans, an elderly couple who seemed slightly put out to have their morning swim intruded upon. i greeted them cheerily, had a swim myself, then packed up and continued on my way into kissamos.
my first requirement was coffee. having had a succession of unpalettable experiences i tried a different tack and ordered a “greek coffee” on the central square. revelation! what arrived was a bitter dark brew in a little copper jug, already sugared. it was delicious. i thought that greece had no coffee culture but i’d just been ordering the wrong stuff.
i studied the bus timetable and bought a ticket to a village called kampos. i knew nothing about it but it was the final stop on the farthest-flung route so it seemed like a good place to go.
getting there involved another hairpin adventure with spectacular views over the wild coast and pounding surf far below. i was the only passenger left by the time the bus got to kampos. i stepped off into a tiny mountain village, perched at the head of a verdent valley descending to the glistening sea. the bus turned round and started its journey back. the silence was only broken by the occasional braying of a donkey.
i got myself a room in a taverna, took a shower, then asked the bar-keeper which path to take for the coast. he looked at me with surprise and asked if i was going on foot. i replied emphatically that i was so he told me which turnings to take.
it was a trek, but it was magical. after following the valley down for an hour i stumbed upon a tiny whitewashed church in the mist of the trees. there was nobody around. palm leaves were placed around the door. a big rusty key was waiting in the lock. i turned it and the door creaked open. unbelievable. the walls and ceiling were covered in byzantine frescoes, crumbling but still largely intact. the figures were simply painted but invested with great intensity. i felt moved to be there, alone with the wind and the passion of the men who applied these pigments a thousand years before.
to the side of the church was a rocky chasm where the ground fell away vertically to the valley floor far below. i felt sure this powerful point in the landscape was the reason for the church’s existence.
continuing down the path below the church i found myself pushing through much denser vegetation, nourished by the hyper-fertile soil washed down the valley by aeons of winter storms. wild vines twined through the trees and i picked off a bunch of perfectly ri grapes which i munched as i continued.
finally the path emerged onto a stony beach where the breakers were growling and crashing. a couple of ruined houses stood at the back of the beach. i found a sponge torn from its roots by the waves, its black membranes still intact.
the sea was too rough to swim but there was a sheltered harbour which offered enough shelter to go in. afterwards i dozed on the rocks whilst i dried out, then began the walk home.
at the taverna everyone seemed to know where i’d been and felt i needed to be fed. the plates put in front of me included wild vegetables from the mountain and, to my great delight, seaweed.
later on i was joined by a bearded fellow who didn’t look cretan. this was gijs van amstel, a dutch pschoanalyst-turned-writer who had decided to make kampos his home five years ago. he was an intriguing character, intelligent and slightly crazy. i admired his courage. he was the first outsider to come to live in the village and that can’t have been easy. i sensed his relationship with the villagers was not straightforward.