The people you meet in Crete; Dimitrios

Commonwealth war graves at Souda Bay, Crete
Commonwealth war graves at Souda Bay, Crete

Just beyond the gate to the Commonwealth War Cemetery, at Souda Bay, sheltered behind a hedge, is a makeshift cafe. There’s a little fat squat, round shouldered caravan and in the shade of a tree, a couple of plastic picnic tables. A man leans on from the open window in the side of the caravan.

“Come in! Come in!” he shouts cheerfully. “Beer! Coca! Come on! Come on!”

We turn in through hedge. It would be churlish to decline. The man settles us quickly at a table,  then joins us with a round of Mythos.

This is Dimitrios. He’s thin, rangy, with sparse grey hair, small sharp eyes, a smile that never fades andand endless fund of stories. Born and raised around Chania, he was a boy when war broke out. He remembers the days when the Allied forces gathered on the island and the morning when the sky filled with German paratroopers. He lives in the house up the hill now. It was his wife’s family’s house. During the war it was requisitioned by the German Commander. When the Commander was kidnapped and smuggled off the island, by the Cretan Resistance, his pistols were left behind and they remain, to this day, Dimitrios tells us with a laugh, under his bed!

As a young man, Dimitrios was a seaman. He travelled the world, even to New Zealand! He sees many New Zealanders here. They come to visit the graves. They all come to his cafe too.

“Ah Maleme!” says Dimitrios, as a tiny white goat trots out from behind the caravan,   “Some New  Zealand girls gave her that name. They came to see their Uncle over there!” and he gestures away over the hedge towards the graves that lie in neat ranks beside the sea.

The War Graves of Crete, the villages

In villages all over the island, lie the graves of the Cretans who gave their lives in the brief but bitter Battle for Crete and in the long, dark, dreadful years that followed it.

A village church, Crete
A village church, Crete

When the Nazi paratroopers dropped down on Crete in May, 1941, most of the able bodied men of the island were away fighting on mainland Greece. Undeterred by the impossible odds they faced, every remaining man, including old men and youths, armed themselves with whatever weapon they could find – ancient rifles, hunting knives, spades and sticks – and sprang to the defence of their villages.

At strategic Kastelli Hill this band of citizen warriors, with their makeshift weapons, held the invaders at bay. When the Allies were defeated and the order to retreat was given, a small force of young Cretans, Gendarmes and cadets drove the pursuing Nazis back and safeguarded their escape. Their bravery and heroism led  Winston Churchill to remark  “Hence we shall not say that Greeks fight like heroes but that heroes fight like Greeks”

So determined was the resistance of the Cretan citizens, that when Crete finally fell, on May 29,  4,000 paratroopers had lost their lives and it had taken the Nazis longer to conquer this small island than it had to occupy the whole of France.

For the people of Crete the war against the Nazis did not end with the Allied evacuation.  They refused to accept the conquest, and a fierce resistance movement arose in the villages and  mountains. The Nazis responded brutally; there were mass executions and villages were burnt to the ground but the Cretan people never gave in.  At one point there were 75,000 Nazi toops on Crete, but they never quelled the resistance. .

Over 8,500 Cretan men women and children had lost their lives before the Nazis were driven from their land.


The War graves of Crete, Souda Bay

Out on the edge of the sea beyond Chania, set between the outstretched arms of two rocky cliffs, is Souda Bay Cemetary, the resting place of the 1500 allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who lost their lives in battles to defend Hill 101, Maleme Airfield and Galatos. Among them lie those who were left behind to perish in prisoner of war camps or who fought with the Cretan Resistance and were executed alongside them .

The Commonwealth Cemetery at Souda Bay
The Commonwealth Cemetery at Souda Bay

Ranks of white gravestones stand to perpetual attention, on a parade ground of perfect green lawn. They look out beyond the trees, to where yachts blow across the impossibly blue water.   At the foot of each grave red roses and rosemary bloom. Carved on each headstone is a fragment of a story, a name, a rank, a serial number, a regiment, a religious symbol or the simple, poignant phrase,  “known only unto God”

Outside Souda Bay cemetery, in a small gatehouse, is a type of tabernacle, with a book, listing the names of all who are buried here. I recognise many – famous names, whose stories of bravery and heroism I know. I recognise family names  from home in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Outside this graveyard too, display boards tell the story of the  Battle for Crete – this time from the Allies side. Days before the German invasion, Allied intelligence had cracked the German enigma code and uncovered the operation they called Mercury, so they were prepared for the invasion. It should have been an easy victory, but it was not.  Broken supply and communication routes in the first crucial days saw the loss of Hill 101 and the Airfield at Maleme. After that, troops, already battle weary from their disastrous campaign in Greece, and depleted of ammunition could not hold back the onslaught.

As well as the story of the Allies, the boards tell of the bravery of the Cretan and the Greek people, who fought relentlessly for years to defend and free their land. The story ends with Winston Churchill’s tribute “From this day forward let it be said not that Greeks fight like heroes but that heroes fight like Greeks”

The war graves of Crete, Galatos

The Graves of Galatos
The Graves of Galatos

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

The War Graves of Crete, Maleme

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.

The German graveyard at Maleme, Crete
The German graveyard at Maleme, Crete

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.

In the hills of Crete

If grand hotels, restaurants, bars, discos, souvenir shops, traffic and sunseekers have colonised the coastline of Crete from Chania to lands end, in the hills, the villages remain untouched by any of the trappings of modern tourism and life is simple and peaceful.

Selling Olive Oil from the back of a truck in Crete
Selling Olive Oil from the back of a truck in Crete

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.

Next post; The War Graves of Crete

The Galini Seaview Hotel, Aghia Marina, Crete

The Galini Sea View is one of a number of large, modern hotels which have invaded the landscape around Aghia Marina.

The Galini Seaview Hotel
The Galini Seaview Hotel

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.


Crete, a bad beginning

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)

In the hills of Crete
In the hills of Crete

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.

Mastiha in Microlimano

I first met Mastiha one evening in a tavern in Microlimano, the smallest of the three historic  harbours of Piraeus, just south of Athens.

A yacht hovers outside Microlimano
A yacht hovers outside Microlimano

Although it was a warm Autumn evening, the restaurant had its terrace awning drawn down against the breeze that was rattling the masts of the yachts moored off shore and tossing restless breakers down on the beach.

We were the guests of some local gentlemen who spared nothing in sharing their hospitality. It was a long dinner of numerous courses and as many different accompanying wines.  In the sheltered terrace, with the sound of the breeze and the waves, the smell of grilling seafood, the glow of candles, gentle Greek  music,  lively conversation, it was cosy and convivial. Just when I thought we had sampled almost every possible dish and drink that Greece had to offer, our hosts introduced Mastiha.

It came in a shot glass, in the shape of strong liqueur that slipped down the throat like liquid fire, smouldered in the belly, spread a warm glow through the veins and finally burst into the brain like a meteor.

The essential ingredient of this potent liqueur is an aromatic resin, also called mastiha. It comes from the tree known in Greek as “schinos” and in Latin as Pistacia lentiscus.  Incredibly, although the tree grows in other of Greece and the Mediterranean, it is only in the southern part of the island of Chios that it produces mastiha. The resin emerges, in drops shaped like tears, from cuts made in the bark of the trunk and branches. It is then left to air dry and harden on marble dust.

Mastiha holds an important place in Greek tradition, both culinary and cultural. It is used in numerous ways.  For many years it was enjoyed mainly as a chewing gum. It was also a popular summer treat known as ipovrihio or submarine – a thick taffy, served by the spoonful and dipped in iced water.

Mastiha is still enjoyed as chewing gum and dessert.  For many, especially on Chios, it is an aperatif  of choice, often over ouzo and in some parts of Greece, it is served instead of brandy, at funerals.  Nowadays, Mastiha is also the main ingredient in over 300 food, cosmetic and health products and its fame has spread far and wide.


Mykonos, Part 13, From the First to the 21st Century

With the fall of Rome, in the first century AD, Mykonos became part of the Byzantine Empire. It remained so until Constantinople fell in The Fourth Crusade in the 12th century.

Holy water at Panagia Tourliani
Holy water at Panagia Tourliani

In 1204 Andrea Ghisi, a relative of the Doge of Venice, occupied the island and it became part of the Venetian province of Tinos. Then, in 1390, at the request of the people of Mykonos, it was given over to direct Venetian rule.

In 1537, while the Venetians still reigned, Mykonos was attacked by the Ottoman navy, who established a fleet on the island. Under the Turks, it  was important naval centre, a position it enjoyed until the end of the 18th century. During this time it also saw a great deal of pirate activity.

In 1821, the Revolution against the Ottomans erupted. Led by Mando Mavrogenous, a wealthy local woman who sacrificed her fortune to the cause, Mykonos played an active role. Their efforts paved the way for national independence which was won finally in 1830.   Mando Mavrogenous is now a national heroine and her statue sits in square in the main town of Mykonos.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Mykonos slowly lost its hold as an important port and naval centre. After World War I,  people began to leave the island to find work in mainland Greece and in foreign countries, especially the United States.

1873, the French School of Archaeology started excavations on nearby Delos and the first tourists arrived on Mykonos.

By the 1930s Mykonos had become a holiday destination for the rich and famous and tourism had become the island’s number one industry.

During World War II Mykonos served as a major port for the Allies and was subsequently occupied by the Italians and then the Germans.

After the war, tourism picked up again and from the 1950s until the present day, Mykonos has played host to countless visitors from all over the world. Since has earned its stripes as one of the world’s most desirable holiday destinations, it looks set welcome millions more in the future.