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Destination: Crete

Created date

December 31st, 2008

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Somewhere south of Iraklion I stopped using makeup.

Crete s spare but stunning interior landscape and sea-washed coasts made wasting time at mirrors seem silly. My daughter, Amy, traveling with me, doesn t use makeup at all and agreed there were better things to do. We were exploring the long (east-west), skinny (north-south) island of Crete, where there is only one numbered highway. All others are identified by the final destination, which was not always our destination. Given the vagaries of the Greek alphabet, the name might be impenetrable anyway. Navigating while Amy drove our rented car was a lot like trying to play croquet with the rules of golf. Of course, we got lost, but what a marvelous place to be lost in. We left Highway E 75, which runs along the northern edge of the island, turning off for the map s green-lined scenic route (well, all right, we turned off too soon and spent quite a few miles behind a dust-spewing cement truck, but we did get to the scenic route), and drove through mountain-rimmed Lasithi Plateau where orchards and almond trees thrive and a few ruined windmills remain from the thousands Venetians installed when they ran the show on Crete 400 years ago. Grand views and a pleasant lunch wiped out the cement truck experience. We weren t seriously lost until the next day. We had reservations for two nights at Aspros Potamos (www.asprospotamos.com), a cluster of 300-year-old stone cottages on a mountainside, renovated for guests willing to do without electricity. We were willing; we simply couldn t find it. The management offers to meet prospective visitors but we thought we d try to find it on our own. On our own gave us gorgeous views out over that portion of the Mediterranean called the Libyan Sea, lapping at Crete s southern shore, and also took us along the main (probably only) street of more than one pretty mountain village, but didn t bring us to the turnoff we were looking for. Lured by a sign that said Good Food, we stopped for lunch at a tiny place clinging to the mountainside. Good food pretty much encompassed the hostess s English, although when we asked for a menu she laughed and led us to a back porch where each of two Bunsen burners held a pot. We took a bowl from each and had probably the best bean soup we d ever tasted along with another very good polenta-like dish, surprisingly served at room temperature. Foods kept appearing: a bowl of tiny, delicious black olives, bread and Cretan rusks, cut-up tomatoes and onions, then chunks of pomegranate, each bud of fruit shining like a jewel in a case. Fortified, we called Aspros Potamos and made arrangements to be met. A dark-haired young man arrived in an ancient Peugeot that looked as though it couldn t climb a hill and proceeded to lead us up the mountain, the Peugeot never faltering, through the elusive turnoff, twisting here and there, and coming to the wholly delightful enclave, Aspros Potamos. Although there s a lot to be said for electricity, two nights with oil lamps and a bare-bones bathroom was a small price to pay for the experience of our two simply furnished rooms, reflecting a time and lifestyle far from our own. Outside, no view was less than beautiful. From the terrace where we often sat, joined by one or two of the resident cats, a triangle of sea shone beyond the hillsides. The Aspros Potamos way of life seemed only a moment ago, compared to that of the archeological ruins we compulsively visited, learning about life thousands of years ago. The history geek in me came out, my daughter told me. She may have inherited that trait from me. Whatever, we made our way through Knossos and other sites where those engaging people, the Minoans, lived their admirable lives at the same time the Egyptians were building pyramids. At Knossos, restorations instigated in the 1890s by the first excavator, Sir Arthur Evans, raise questions for the purists but are a considerable help to the ordinary visitor. Reconstructed red columns, narrower at the bottom than the top, have black and yellow capitals, their strong colors standing up to strong sunlight. Copies of wall paintings (the originals are in museums) have the blank spots filled in. This extraordinary site, dating back to 1700 B.C., may have been the first European city. It was the home of people who saw no need for city walls, who lived by trade throughout their known world, whose religion was sunny, and whose idea of the afterworld had no hint of Hades. Women played important roles. They had flush toilets. How can you help liking the Minoans? We went just about as far east as Crete allows, to Zakros, where Minoans with an eye to the eastern trade built a palace complex and where today a row of tavernas lines the beach. No sand on that beach but instead water-smoothed, many colored stones, striated with white lines or delicately mottled. A handful of them came home with me. We didn t swim there but we did swim elsewhere one of my rules of life is When at the Mediterranean, go swimming, a rule I can t enforce as often as I d like. The beach at Makriyialos has welcome sand and made for a lovely swim but at Sitia, on the north coast, we made our way gingerly across uncomfortable terrain. Amy, remembering the classic Greek film Never On Sunday, dissolved into laughter, comparing our mincing entry to Melina Mercouri s joyous rush into the sea. The men on this beach, unlike the men in the movie, showed no interest, although we did think they might be laughing. Once the water could support us, however, swimming was superb. The next day we got back on the numbered highway, returned the car, and boarded an overnight ferry to the mainland, where I took to makeup once again. Crete, however, had given us a grand time. Next up, Jane and her daughter, Amy, travel to Plaka, the old section of Athens, clustered below the Acropolis.

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