m y r t o s

[ 12:34 monday 29 august – myrtos, crete ]

seated atop a wall in the shade of a lemon tree. barren scrubby hillsides ring the horizon around me. i’m waiting for the bus to ierapetra. who knows when it will come.

doves coo assertively in counterpoint with the dry scrape of cicadas. an occasional cock-crow or snatch of laughter drifts out from the village. across the road a man climbs a ladder and starts picking grapes. i arrived here three days ago because i missed a bus to the place i thought i wanted to go.

my previous despatch, written by the roundabout in iraklio, left a couple of gaps which i want to fill in. i left kampos at seven o’clock on thursday morning and spent the next twelve hours traveling. eastward via kissamoss, hania, rethymno; then southward across the plains to agia galina and phaestos.

shortly after kissamoss the package tour resorts started springing up and soon formed an unbroken strip along the coast. this kind of mass tourism puts me in a dark and misanthropic state of mind. wherever i look i see the gaudy death of the human spirit. i find it painful to see.

i had great hopes of phaestos, the second largest minoan site in crete. sir arthur evans turned. knossos, the largest site, into a kind of archeological disneyland in the nineteen twenties; enthusiastically rebuilding large parts of the palace complex. hence my choice of phaestos, which was spared his attentions. but here too the ruins had been heavy-handedly tidied up and the cement was all too visible. i suppose i came seeking some sense of “logos”, of reaching back through four millennia to touch the civilisation who lived here. the site was spectacularly located on an isolated hilltop with fertile plains all around. but i found myself completely unmoved by what i found there. i left on the first bus for irakleo, deep in my own thoughts.

after spending the night in irakleo and missing my bus the next morning i picked myrtos on the spur of the moment and started out. passing beyond agios nikolaos and turning inland through the harsh sun-baked mountains we finally left the resorts behind. it felt as if a shadow lifted from me and i was filled again with excitement. ierapetra, europe’s southernmost town where i changed buses, was small and unpretentious. an old fellow was snoring propped across two chairs in front of his shop. i went to great lengths to get a photo without being spotted.

from ierapetra to myrtos i travelled in a battered old bus hung with good-luck charms. a dozen chattering villagers and their shopping were clustered sociably at the front. a crazy old fellow sat beside me. from time to time he touched my arm, stared and muttered softly. i smiled reassuringly and muttered nonsense back at him. the hillsides west of ierapetra were striped with polythene-covered greenhouses, the most intensive agriculture i’d seen in crete.

drawing into myrtos i felt a peculiar sense of arrival, as if this was the place my journey had been leading to. there’s nothing outwardly exceptional about the village. just a cluster of bougainvilla-draped concrete cubes on the fringe of a shingly bay. a little old stone church nestles in the middle. four hundred people live by agriculture and tourism. one baker, two supermarkets, a shop selling trinkets for the tourists. a row of tavernas behind the beach that shut down in winter. streets punctuated by plane trees under which black-dressed old women sit, watch and cackle together.

wandering with my backpack along the deserted main street a  lady with a strong face emerged from a doorway, saw me and demanded “you looking for room?”. “maybe” i replied. she said “follow mylta!”. so i did, up a side street, through a door and up several flights of stairs into a light-flooded apartment. three-quarters of the wall area was glass. the furniture was simple but carefully chosen and positioned. i laughed and put down my bags. she brought me coffee and biscuits.

that evening i sat writing and drinking raki in a small taverna on the street below my eyrie. there were ten people eating and conversing at a table to my left. one of them took out a guitar and started tuning it. another produced a bazouki. they started playing, then another person began to sing. a drum appeared. then a flute. i sat listening, captivated, my first encounter with cretan music. from the standard of the performance i assumed they were professional musicians, but afterwards the taverna owner told me that the people on the table were his family. four of them were returning to work in athens the following morning having spent the summer together in myrtos. the dinner was a celebration to mark their last night.

i discovered there was an old minoan settlement on a hill beside the village. one afternoon i set out along the narrow thorny path winding upwards from the roadside. soon i noticed the outline of walls, a walkway paved with smooth-worn stones, a mysterious circular structure. as i climbed higher dressed stones and walls seemed to poke out from every bush and shrub. scrambling up to the summit i found a large paved terrace and a row of much larger rectangular stones, presumably the ceremonial centre of the complex. the view was magnificent, mountains on one side and sea on the other. i was completely alone. it was everything i’d hoped phaestos would be. the sense of time and history was overwhelming. i remained there until the last chink of sun had disappeared behind the mountains then descended to the village in the gathering twilight.

yesterday i felt oddly restless. it took me some time to figure out that i was basically lonely. i’ve had much less interaction with other people than i usually do when i travel. i don’t know why. maybe i needed some solitude. but yesterday i felt a strong need to connect with someone.

once i realised this i started feeling anxious that no opportunity would arise. but of course it did, just at the moment i least expected it and in a form i could never have imagined. yesterday night was intense and exhillerating and full of significance for me. maybe i’ll write about it sometime, but not now.

this evening i plan to take the overnight ship from irakleo to athens. tomorrow afternoon i fly back to london. these are probably my last words from greece. so, andio.

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