Further back along the coast from Maleme, a short way inland on another hill, is a small church surrounded by graves. Just below it, a row of stone monuments throw dark shadows in the dust and a line of puny trees struggles in the wind.
This is Galatos, where a battle weary band of Cretans and New Zealanders, with one tank and little ammunition, roaring haka (war chants) from every region of Aotearoa, took the village of Galatos from the Germans. They cleared the way for the Allied retreat across the White Mountains and, for the lucky and the strong, the evacuation from Sphakia
I am standing on a hillside, in a field of red daisies, just above the village of Maleme, on the north coast of Crete. To the east, olive groves stretch for miles, wrapping around clusters of white stone houses and blue-domed churches. To the west is a straggle of villages. Luxury seaside resorts sprawl among them, their terra cotta courtyards and bright swimming pools mirror the impossible colours of the Cretan sand and sea. Just below me is a bank of grey-green olive trees and beyond it a strip of flawless blue sky meets the fabled azure of the Aegean Sea. It’s a postcard perfect Cretan vista.
But all around me are grim reminders that the world is not perfect. To my right stand three grey crosses and at my feet are two small white plaques. On the other side of the field are another three crosses and behind me three again. Neatly spaced and hidden among the daisies, lie 4, 463 more plain white plaques. This is the resting place of the Fallstirmjager, or hunters of the sky, the German paratroopers who dropped from the sky one fateful day in May 1941, to take possession of Crete. Barely visible through the trees is a strip of parched earth. Rusted, twisted remnants of metal and chunks of broken concrete lie among the weeds at its fringes. This is Maleme airfield, the first objective of the German invasion
At the gate of the Cemetary, display boards tell the story of that invasion. Code named Operation Mercury, it was to be a surprise attack, followed by a swift and easy conquest. It was not. The Allies were waiting for them here on Hill 101, the very hill where they are now interred. Many of the Fallstirmjager were picked off as they floated through the sky. Others were mown down as they hit the ground or as they ran for shelter in the olive groves. Others, who landed near villages, met their deaths at the hands of local Cretans desperate to defend their homeland. It is a profoundly sad story – a story that highlights the horror, the tragedy and the pointlessness of war.
If grand hotels, restaurants, bars, discos, souvenir shops, traffic and sunseekers have colonised the coastline of Crete from Chania to landsend, in the hills, the villages remain untouched by any of the trappings of modern tourism and life is simple and peaceful.
The perfect way to explore the Cretan hinterland is on the little train. It chugs and grinds slowly but steadily up the steep, winding, narrow and dusty roads through the olive groves, past humble stone farm houses, beehives, tiny family churches and graveyards.
The little train seems ungoverned by any timetable, or by any schedule of stops. It pulls up at house by the roadside and a small boy brings quartered oranges for the passengers to try. It pulls in again at a track where a farmer sells olive oil from a truck. It stops at a village high in the hills and we buy fresh orange juice at the Kafeneon. On a back wall hangs a photo of a soldier. One the many young men, the sons, the brothers, husbands and fathers who went away to fight on the mainland leaving old men, women and children to defend Crete against the German invasion in 1941. Every house on the island has a photo like this and a story to go with it.
We wind back down another hillside on another road fringed by olives and oranges. It was down these roads that villagers, old men, women and even children marched, armed with ancient weapons, sticks, bats and even kitchen knives to defend their homeland. It was up these roads, a few short weeks later, that the Allied forces fled in retreat. It was up these roads that the Nazis raced in pursuit.
There is no trace now of the ravages and the debris that disfigured this landscape in the aftermath of the World War II. Orange groves and olives roll down the valleys and wrap around the villages. The countryside is beautiful, harmonious, perfect. But still, the Battle of Crete and remains clear in the collective memory of this country. It will never be forgotten.
The Galini Sea View is one of a number of large, modern hotels which have invaded the landscape around Aghia Marina.
In manner vaguely reminiscent of Club Med, it offers every possible enticement to enjoy Crete from within its pale yellow stone walls.
There’s no need to leave the Galini for anything really.
The Grand Blue buffet restaurant offers cuisine from all over the world for breakfast, lunch and dinner and just in case you feel that since you’re in Crete you should really do as the Cretans do, there’s a dedicated, traditional local section
There are two bars, one in the lobby (ideal for quiet people watching) and a poolside establishment, with a laidback daytime atmosphere and lots of lively and involving evening activities, like quiz contests.
There is a shop, with great souvenirs and all necessities, a library with books in a variety of language and a business centre (in case you can’t let go of it al)l.
There is a gym, of course, and two pools – one indoor and one outdoor. The outdoor pool is surrounded bya lawn covered in deckchairs which never seem to be vacant, at least not in daylight hours. A group of enthusiastic young animateurs from Eastern Europe rouse the occupants at regular intervals for aquatic activities but they never fully vacate. There’s always some mark of ownership left behind!
If you do feel like a dip in the sea, it’s a short stroll down the hill, across the road and down an alley past the Galini Beachside hotel. This Galini is an older, smaller, humbler Galini but it has a pool, a restaurant and a bar and moreover, it has a charm that its big sister up on the hill does not. Besides, it’s closer to the sea. Out in front on the sand, dozens of deck-chairs and sun umbrellas are lined up, but like those at the pool, these are fully occupied in daylight hours. Luckily, just nearby, an enterprising gentleman has his own deckchair domain, (albeit without umbrellas, but then who comes to Crete for the shade?) and for the cost of a couple of euros you can recline from sunrise to sunset and beyond.
Our seven days at the Galini were really most enjoyable. I took full advantage of the Cretan section of the buffet at the Grand Blue. I didn’t swim in the pool or darken the doors of the gym, but the hike down and up the hill the long swims in the Aegean were workout enough. I didn’t once stretch out on the Galini’s deckchairs, either pool or beach side, nor did I take shelter under its umbrellas, but I benefitted fully from the Cretan sun and added a few euros to local small business. We dipped into a quiz night (but were defeated by a family of Brits) and enjoyed a night of Cretan dancing with the animateurs. I loved our cool, airy comfortable room with its sumptuous bathroom and its balcony with a glimpse of the sea.
All in all the Galini was a good base from which to explore and discover Crete.
Our Cretan holiday began with the classic traveller’s catastrophe – a missed flight. The 06.00 time printed so clearly on our tickets, meant six a.m. not six p.m. If it had meant 6.p.m., our tickets would have said 18.00. Of course, we knew that. We were shocked, surprised and embarrassed that we had made such stupid and basic mistake. After all we’d spent years now racing around the world with never a slip. We wasted several hours shaking our heads and blaming each other. (YOU should have realised, YOU should have checked, WHO had the tickets? WHO could have asked for them? – If you’ve ever missed a plane for this reason, you probably know the lines)
The situation worsened when finally we rang the airline. There was no plane to Chania that day or the next – our week long Cretan escape was disappearing by the day. But wait, there was plane to Heraklion the next morning at 06.00. Never mind that Heraklion was several hundred miles from the resort at Agia Marina where our room with the balcony and the sea views awaited us, it was in Crete and tomorrow evening we could be there. We’d already won back a day. We were packed, ready and good to go. Things were looking up.
After misinterpreting our tickets and missing our flight to Chania the day before, we were leaving nothing to chance. Before the crack of dawn, we were at Gatwick airport waiting for next flight into Crete – destination, Heraklion.
Our fellow travellers were a team of lads heading off on a boys’ own drinking adventure and a team of lasses (distinguishable by lurid pink t-shirts emblazoned with ‘Nikis Hens night”), heading off on a girls’ own pre-wedding drinking adventure. Both parties were already armed with vessels of booze of various sorts and seemed to be having a jolly old time.
On the flight, the lasses grew louder and the lads grew quieter. I wondered, not without a tinge of disquiet, if we were all headed for the same destination.
By the time the plane began to spiral down towards Heraklion, I was the only one awake and I contemplated its faded stones in luxurious silence.
There was no bus bound for Chania, at least not any time soon, and having already lost a day of our holiday we were reluctant to let go of another. We took a taxi.
Georgios, our driver seemed completely comfortable, if not downright pleased, with the prospect of the long trip to Chania and back. First we climbed, away from the coast, between steep rocky cliffs sparsely dotted with pines and shrubs and I thought of the World War II New Zealand soldiers, my father among them, on the run in this alien landscape. The road rose sharply and steadily to the summit and then sloped gently back down to the coast.
We passed slowly through straggling seaside settlements, remnants of villages with tiny churches and low stone cottages, punctuated all too often by looming modern resorts and hotels. On roadside signposts, I began to recognise names from old childhood stories – Galatos and Maleme.
“Agia Marina!” announced Georgios suddenly. So here we were, at last, a day late, but nonetheless about to begin our Cretan adventure.