Monday, July 15, 2019

Five days on Kythera




'Not all may sail to Kythera' and they say you should always allow an extra two days either side of your visit to this legendary island... the oceans might swell or the mists lower, and your plane or once weekly ferry might be cancelled. Ours wasn't exactly cancelled but it must have been a close call, as the winds were high and the white horses bucking at Kissamos harbour. The crew were handing out sick bags before the ship departed. Later we discovered we had sailed in a gale force wind - Beaufort scale of 8 - not exactly a hurricane but not far off!...In any case, we sailed, on a rolling vessel and we made it to mysterious and mythical Kythera. Once the ground had stabilised and we had driven up along the ridge with already breathtaking views, we stopped to ask directions at a souvlaki bar (also partaking of a coca cola - yes, the only antidote to seasickness) - and started to take in the peculiar mix of dramatic natural beauty, fascinating historical relics and welcoming locals that this island offers.

Looking back to the port of Diakofti and the wild seas!
Kythera is mythically the birthplace of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who arose out of the swell of the sea (after Cronus cut off Uranus's genitals, as the legend goes...). The baths of Aphrodite, with their limestone arches rising out of the billowing seas, lure you  - you see plenty of photos on the tourist pamphlets, but, like many of the island's secrets, can be frustratingly hard to get to (but see below).


But we saw plenty! Two monasteries, two springs, two bakeries, more than seven tavernas, byzantine frescoes housed in a museum-church (that was actually open, of the 300 + that are on the 280 square kilometers of the island!), ruined Venetian castles, fertile valleys, dramatic gorges, waterfalls, a water course with disused watermills, stunning and deserted beaches and hip towns with a newly established nightlife scene alongside cafes and outdoor tavernas in the church square, incredible sunsets looking back to the Peloponnese, a pottery, a little fishing harbour...it is quite an amazing place for a small island with a population of less than 2,000 in the off season - which is most of the year. 


Kythera opens up to tourists in July and August and many - it felt like most - of these are Australians of Kytherian origin,  part of the mass migration after WW2 - returning with their families. In the most remote village, don't bother with your Greek phrase book, they will call over Philip or Yiannis who was in Brisbane or Sydney and who speaks English with the broadest accent, to help you find your spring or your Byzantine church. But despite this apparently unnatural influx of tourists, it still feels like a 'real' island. Most of the businesses do their hard work in summer but remain open all year. There are several pharmacies, ATM terminals, car hire companies, tavernas in remote locations and hotels and guest houses that are surviving and some even flourishing, due to the willingness of young Kytherians or Greeks from other islands or parts of the mainland seeking to start up something different and enticing.

North of the island, looking towards the Peloponnese


We drove to our guesthouse - Xenonas Fos Ke Choros,  an incredible construction (from scratch) by Albert Blok, originally from the Netherlands, using local stones (of which there are endless supplies) and design. Just to stay here was an experience in itself, sensational views at every turn - of the valley with hilltop towns, the Ionian sea, the dry stone walling, the brilliant blue everywhere. Inside was cool stone aesthetics and comfort, very private, space to spread out and witness the sky changing and the brilliant starry nights. 
Romantic Xenonas Fos ke Choros at night

Simple meal in the kathenion down the road completed a rough day rendered tranquil!
Albert's information enabled us to put together a comprehensive itinerary to capture the best sights and experiences. In his brochure we discovered the Monastery at Damianos was open on the 1st July (the only day it was open all year!) so we headed for that.

This ‘family’ monastery, Agios Kosmas, was set into bare hillside, with the brilliant deep blue of the Mediterranean beyond. The service apparently started at 7am but it was 10.30 by the time we’d finished our leisurely breakfast of yoghurt, honey and peaches. It was standing room only inside the church. We didn’t enter but could peek into the richly decorated interior where a whiskered and glamorously robed priest was swinging incense and chanting. 

Greeks seem to come and go quite casually during their (rather long) services. There were people of all ages. At one point everyone exited and filed down to a wooded copse, where more blessings and flapping and blessings with bunches of strongly scented thyme and rosemary continued. I managed to get a photo of the kindly priest.




Afterwards they handed out special sweet 
bread and holy water, 
at which point, having partaken of some, we departed for our next monastery, Myrtidiotissa, another one quietly sited on a peaceful slope, this one a little higher and with sweeping views to the sea. We drove down a rough track to what we thought was going to be a beach, winding treacherously down a dizzyingly high and narrow one-car lane 'road', getting lost, but looking back to an incredible view of the Agia Sofia cave (4 million year history) and the mountains plunging straight into the sea.



The roads are generally quite well signposted in Greek and English but they don’t always follow the one printed on the tourist map. Back to Mylopotamos where I had read of lush waterfalls, watermills and brooks as well as a legendary taverna under the plane trees. We certainly found the taverna, impossible to miss, and unfortunately already overflowing with busloads of tourists…who turned out to be, surprise, surprise, Australian. It looked like the taverna was not to be that day, as advised by a local woman selling gorgeous smelling botanical products, soaps and creams and such - who turned out to be Sottish. She suggested we eat after the crowds had subsided, and to walk beyond the ‘Murderess’s waterfall', down the irrigation stream that used to power the 23 Neraidos (water nymph) watermills of a bygone era.







It was certainly pretty at Fonissa, but marred by the bus crowd and people taking selfies against the waterfall. Again, the tip to continue on was rewarded, we met Philip, watering his beautiful gardens within a stone courtyard, who must have been the caretaker of a little museum where artefacts from the watermill era were on display. No longer the crowds to warrant keeping the museum open, which felt a little sad.



But we kept walking and past more gorgeous little waterfalls and through ferny glades, with a sound track of creaking frog life, trickling water; very peaceful. Back at the lower end of Mylopotamos we wandered through a strange little town of abandoned dwellings, one or two carefully renovated and inhabited…a strange experience. 





Back at the taverna, still no easing of the clientele, so we decided to head back, have a snack, rest, and venture out again for dinner.
It proved to be a great choice. We headed up to Potamus (getting lost at first again on the little winding lanes and ending up in another tiny village, mostly deserted and crumbling but greeted cheerfully by an old lady in her dressing gown). Potamus was a great little town, very 'happening', lots going on, people - not just tourists  - everywhere, lots of shops and nice big village square with restaurants and village life. Even bars and coffee shops…the new guard. We shopped for souvenirs from the Maneas general store (nice linen and a ball of sisal string, made in Greece) that really took my fancy, I don’t know why.


Maneas' general store in Potamus

I bought some tsipoura from a local artisan who also sold herbs and jams. As soon as we sat down at our chosen restaurant a man from Brisbane spotted us and came over to chat. (I guess we look like Australian tourists!) He and the other couple they were with come regularly to the place of their birth. They rent out apartments in Agia Pelagia and love their holiday there every year. Food in Crete and now Kythira I have found to always be excellent, even the most mediocre taverna serves up a great salad and the ‘fried potatoes’ are always good as they are cooked in olive oil, which just cannot be of poor quality even if it tried. We had zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese, pork in lemon sauce and roasted aubergine slices with meat and tomatoes…yum.



Next day we headed southward, down through Karvounades but missing the bakery (which apparently has its own historic wood oven) ...anyway we headed on through to Livadi, another busy little town and stopping, this time, at the bakery, also famed. I got out my Greek phrase book, ready to look up numbers and quantities of all sorts of Greek sweets and pastries, when the woman fired back at me in her broad Queensland accent. She’d lived for many years there but had returned to Livadi with her husband. We bought bougatsa, my absolute favourite, loukoumi, Greek delight with rosewater (also known as Turkish delight but the Greek version is pretty good), amygdalota (almond) biscuits and other pastries we really shouldn’t have purchased and didn’t need…


Livadi deco
Out to the back roads and a visit to the local potter, Roussos, whose father and grandfather were both potters on Kythera. Immaculate garden of orange trees, huge bushes of basil and thyme, a lovely display and some tourist sized pieces to take home, of course.



On to the little church-museum with some lovely frescoes, and to the Katouni bridge of 1826, built during the ‘British period’. A graceful construction, with overflow holes, through which you can peek at more olive groves, crumbling Minoan stone, limestony hillside, azure skies…




Then onwards through Kalamos to Kapsali and Chora or Kythira, the capital. Breathstopping views approaching these two towns – of the twin bays of Kapsali (likened to the shape of the breasts of Aphrodite) and the castle top view of Hora.


Hora (Kythera)


We stopped at an (apparently) uninhabited clifftop mansion and sneakily took photos from the top of their stone wall. 

A swim stop at Kapsali at the non beach lounge end (cute little change huts) and then the agonising choice of which taverna? We wanted local fish, the best position, a true taverna experience – not demanding at all! In the end we got everything on the list - calamari, Greek salad, bread, olive oil, views...
Kapsali


We had read that Hora is active in the mornings until about 2 o’clock, after which everyone goes for their siesta or the Kytherian equivalent.

We wandered in silence through tiny medieval streets and around houses in varying states of repair - some smartly renovated, others left to crumble. Everywhere, bright crimson bougainville crept over the whitewashed walls – I guess, typical Greek island scenery. We found ourselves at a hip café, Fossa  – not a kathenion – a trendy café with two terraces, the lower of which supplied a view across a valley, stamped with slender cypress pines, olives and orange trees, the ruins of a Byzantine church, and foregrounded with two copper church bells. You could see both bays of Kapsali peeping through curves of limestone rockface, the little rocky islet also shimmering in the distance. 


And a flat white and a honey and 
thyme infused home-made lemonade with that!

By the time we’d finished our coffees and conversed with the owner  - (pleasantly surprised I think that we were from Adelaide and not Sydney or Brisbane, and who obligingly gave us his best traveller’s tips and took a top photo of us)  - some of the little shops were starting to open. We trailed back up to the top of the town, but found the archaeological museum disappointingly closed, and decided we’d better call it a day. I would like to return to Hora, we didn’t get to see the castle with views across to Crete and Antikythera, talk with the locals, wander a little longer through those interesting little streets. 




There was still the choice of taverna for the evening meal to work out.
We took up Albert’s tip of Kokkino Spaleto - a mezzo dopolio – midway I think between a taverna and a kathenion, and only had to drive ten minutes to the neighbouring town of Friligianika. Gorgeous little kitchen spilling its tables onto the church square and the promise of very local home cooked food. We were not disappointed – a wonderful fava bean dip with capers and kaltsounia, little pies made with spinach and local greens, Andrew had local Kytherian pork sausages and salad. For the first time since we’d arrived a cool wind had whipped up and it was a little fresh outside. We moved inside to an equally atmospheric space with historic photos of the town’s women in national dress adorning the walls as well as a framed example of the crimson spaleto (jacket) itself. An Italian couple from Bologna had also decided it was a little fresh and very quickly we got chatting - this was their fifth visit to the island and they loved it best of all the Greek islands they had visited, for its unspoilt appeal. It was like joining in on a dinner party with kindred spirits and I think the waiting staff wondered if we were ever going to leave…not that they were at all pushy.


Wednesday – sadly we had to check out of Xenonas – they were booked solid and we were lucky to get the three days we did – so a quick trip up north (getting lost again, but you can never really get completely lost – you just take longer to get to your destination) to the famous bakery, Karava, that supplies the special Kytherian paximadia rusks across the country and as we found out, soon also Australia. 
We were snooping through the back door at the baking in progress and Yiannis spotted us - we obviously looked curious, so he took us on a spontaneous tour. The sprightly octogenarian told us how they had built the bakery from scratch in the space of an old olive press - the presses were still on display in the main shop.


Yiannis had gone to Australia as part of the mass migration after the war but had always said when his youngest child turned seven he would return or they would never know their roots. As it was his son was now running the bakery and Yiannis – whom Andrew 
incorrectly guessed to be aged 72 - 
was the man on the floor. 
We had already bought 
copious pastry supplies from the Livada bakery, 
so sadly couldn’t indulge too greatly, but at a 
minimum had to sample the spinach pies and the 
Kythirian rusks with sesame and cheese that we 
had seen in the oven. We left contact details with 
Yiannis' son, for Gaganis brothers in Adelaide 
should they want to expand into South Australia! 
Hopefully so!






The north of the island is much greener than the south – historical battles raged between invaders and refugees from the Ionian and Cretan islands over entitlements to the more fertile region, creating ‘in’ and ‘out’ parts of the island which apparently still exist today (the Brisbane ex-pats told us about this – they were from the ‘out’ part). We drove north to the springs, past orchards of peach, pear and orange. We weren’t sure we’d ever get back up again if we drove to the bottom of the steep and curvy road leading down to the springs, so we parked up the top and set off on foot, past an incredible abandoned medieval hillside town.

Karavas

The walk to the spring was cool and shady, with the proverbial babbling of the brook and the shrill cacophony of cicadas a constant. Of course, there was a taverna at the bottom, even if not yet with large clientele – we were just a little ahead of the ‘season’. Such a peaceful spot to partake of  the locally made lemonade. We walked further downwards to another spring, this one a little more obvious at the end.





Back to check out of Xenonas  - sigh - and to head on through Mitata – the oldest settlement in Kythera and once a place of windmills – one is now restored and is the icon for a retreat in this gorgeous countryside, with its lush groves, cypress pines and green terraces reminiscent of Tuscany and (people say) Sardinia. A far cry from the bare slopes around Diakofti where we first arrived. Picnic was on the agenda today, and we found the perfect spot, down below the Mitata springs, on a shady patch of grass under two pine trees and looking towards the impressive ravine, the omnipresent byzantine church and a hilltop village to our left.

We had sought directions in the village prior, me conscientiously but unnecessarily flipping through the vocabulary A-Z of my Greek-English phrase book to find the word for ‘spring’. A puzzled local indicated to wait for the guy who’d been in Australia - who announced in yet another broad Queensland accent that we just had to go on down along the road ‘about a k’. While we were picknicking he and his mate whizzed past us in their car and stopped to check we weren’t lost – the spring was above us! Funny to hear that accent in the middle of nowhere, it seemed.


We found our way eventually to the pretty little port of Avlemonas, down a steepish ravine road - windy and would-be treacherous, except that people generally drive cautiously, knowing they may encounter a car coming in the opposite direction on the one lane road. There are rules about who gives way - definitely the car coming uphill has priority.

Avlemonas is picturesque - a little historic harbour lining a perfect, clear rock pool with platforms and ladders for easy access.

Avlemonas

At first glance perhaps a bit post-card touristy, until you realise that there are plenty of locals who actually live here, and the tourists tend to be large bands of Australian youth – not travelling in the same way as they do in Bali or Thailand – being the offspring of Kytherian Australians who want their kids to know the family origins. So while the Australian accents are again ever-present, they tend to emanate from family groups – three generations and all the boyfriends/girlfriends etc. Still – they were a bit too ‘Aussie’ for what we wanted – also Andrew’s eye was smarting from all the driving and maybe a bit of grit or grass, so we decided, after a rest, to return to Livadi and find the pharmacy  - there are three on the island and open til 10pm. The very helpful pharmacist gave him exactly what was required to fix it, so we decided to stay on, pick over the Wednesday Livadi street market (though sadly couldn’t buy many more glass-bottled olive oil, tsipoura or other treats). We ate at a local taverna, with a quiet, no pretences interior, lace curtains and a view to the village on the ridge. It had a terrazzo floor in two colours, the pink an extension of the green  - as yet another Philip, the estatoria proprietor, explained: the first was laid by his father in 1965 and the second was added by Philip in 1989 when he too returned from Australia after his father died, to take part in rebuilding the island’s economy.




Day four was going to be our ‘rest’ day, so we bathed early in Avlemonas in the gorgeous little rock pool and returned to our apartment for breakfast of omelette and tomatoes (with basil filched from the huge bushes growing everywhere – nobody would really mind!), some of that indescribably creamy goats milk yoghurt, fresh peaches and honey, we found the orange juicer as well. It was going to be hot anyway – so a rest day was needed – aircon and doing what the locals do until it is nice enough to venture out again. This time to Kaladi beach which I’d seen in the brochures. We were not disappointed – the water so clear and rippling turquoise, sapphire and lapis lazuli – reflections of gold and cream against the rock. We floated – high salt content so you can just float – and tried to put off the thought that sadly we would be on a plane home the next day (it turned out we waited on a plane for an hour next day…then missed our connections home...but that’s another story).


We also managed to find the ‘baths of Aphrodite’, so called as the goddess legendarily took her bath there, and the perfect taverna, Skandia, for our last night. This one established in 1975, set under the vines, the ubiquitous cat stretching out to join us – a meal of grilled cuttlefish, grilled vegetables and meatballs in red sauce - not an Australian accent within cooee.  



Back to Avlemonas for a late night coffee overlooking the warm lights reflected in the pool – so romantic!


Avlemonas



Our last day was about packing, sadly no time to return to favourite spots. We wandered down to the harbour to take a photo of the sundial on the Kavalini mansion. According to Tzeli Hadjidimitriou, whose excellent guidebook on Kythera we followed, this house was the Austro-Hungarian consulate in the 19th century – hard to imaginne in such a remote little port as Avlemonas - then a Customs house and coffee house before passing into an Italian family’s hands to be sumptuously restored. 

We had a last swim and early lunch of sardines and salad before making our way to the airport to (eventually) farewell this little gem of an island. We may have to return...





The baths of Aphrodite...actually not so difficult to find if you ask a local






Monday, July 9, 2018

Three Days with the Shepherds on Crete


I had to climb Mt Psiloritis, Crete’s highest mountain, and that’s how this started. The mountain scramble is a key plot point in my current novel (with the working title of Follow the Goat. or Saved by the Bell :) The film pitch is:  “Slopes, dope, love, goats: a slow romance at high speed through Crete” (all open for comment :).

On a clear day from the summit of this sacred peak - thousands of pilgrims make the ascent each August - you can see all the furthest points of Crete: north, south, east and west. In my novel my two reluctant protagonists, on the run from the bad guys, chance upon a guide leading a tourist up to the summit by moonlight - but then lose them and have to find their way down, with help from the shepherds and, of course, a goat. If in doubt in the mountains, watch what the goats do. They are really smart.

Eleni from Greentour, Crete, a local ecotourism operator, responded with the kind of warmth and enthusiasm that I had come to expect from Cretans. I had been the recipient of wonderful generosity and hospitality in my 1980 travels as a young Australian backpacker. I could have an overnight stay with the shepherds, she offered, to see how they make those wonderful cheeses.
Cheese, olives, mountains, wild herbs, stone shepherd’s huts, goats. This was the starting point. But just a fraction of what was to come in three packed days of scrambling around the mountains and the verdant Amari valley, with its chapels, springs and village fountains, orchards, oak forests and memorable characters, some of whom are still living lives barely changed over the centuries.

We drive up from Rethymno to meet Giorgis, the shepherd of shepherds in this region, and a thoughtful, gracious representative for their concerns. At Lochria we change vehicle and Giorgis takes us high, high up along treacherous mountain paths that have been degraded by recent rains. ‘The weather is very unstable,’ I am told. We see no one on the road, only goats and sheep, but pass ancient mitata, crumbling remains of the igloo shaped huts that are still used to store cheeses and for shelter. Some of the sheep, Giorgis tells us, belong to his brother – he seems to recognise them. The vegetation is bare and stunted: rocks, stones, wind curved olives and low lying clumps of prickle bush. Giorgis holds up a dried clump as a bouquet and makes a joke that I understand despite my non-existent Greek.



We see a grouse and, up in the skies, many gryphon vultures, who play an important part in the eco-chain by cleaning up dead animal carcasses.


We arrive at a simple shelter where Giorgis occupies himself immediately with the wood stove – there is a slow cooked lamb to prepare for tonight, and it is quite chilly. We look directly out to the bare ranges, though fog seeps through the gap, obscuring the view 1700 metres below to the sea. The soft sound of bells rings clearly through. We see the flock crawling across the grey, scratched face of the slope; like white suds rolling towards a drain. Eleni has made cheese pies with mint, white mushrooms with an ouzo flavoured batter and she is now assembling a green salad, chopping red luscious tomatoes and offering around salty shrivelled olives that she has prepared herself. We consider the weather. It is not likely that we will be able to access Psiloritis from this southern side tomorrow. We will decide in the morning.

Giorgis has to lure back some goats who have strayed, so we don rain jackets and head out, passing by the springs where we fill up on thyme scented mountain water. There is a mantinada at the spring - a rhyming couplet, very Cretan, engraved in stone. Eleni translates: Cold water, gift of the god to old Psiloritis, the highest of peaks over all of Crete.
We do a bit of goat clambering ourselves. Giorgis sprinkles corn seeds to attract them back, explaining that if they find food in this location, they will return. For a moment I wonder where he has disappeared to around the craggy rockface – but he turns up, smiling, the lines of his face and his grizzled grey beard perfectly blended into the landscape. He shows me a piece of rock that has a kind of etched pattern – maybe a kind of faint fossil, but it looks like a Japanese ink painting. He gives it to me – “for my office”. We return to the shelter for a siesta and Eleni makes me a mountain tea (dictamos) with honey, enjoyed since Minoan times and good for digestion and healing.

Back to dinner preparations; there are potato chips to be cooked in olive oil and the lamb ribs to check. The feast is laid out and consumed with gusto, accompanied by homemade wine. 

We should pay a visit to the neighbouring shepherds, Eleni suggests, and prepares some items to take to them; coffee supplies, whisky (the Famous Grouse brand), and some other basics. On the way Giorgis drives up an almost impassable track and stops to point out that the Ideaaon Andron or Zeus’s cave (baby Zeus of mythical fame was supposed to have been raised here) is over the other side. He knows the cave is another important setting point for the novel – my two protagonists have to take refuge here. We retrace our tracks to visit the shepherds – Kostas and Irini and their two granddaughters, staying for the school holidays.
Outside their shelter the flock of sheep wait patiently, down from the mountains and penned so Kostas can keep an eye on them – a little wary of ‘rustling’ in these parts. We enter the  dwelling, having to stoop low under the door frame. Inside there are five people and two fires, one of which heats a huge cauldron of milk that is becoming cheese – Irini stops stirring to greet us and to prepare cubes of graviera and other cheese varieties of varying coulours and consistencies, as well as some sesame coated sweet treats.
Kostas has one of the longest beards I have seen and ruddy smooth cheeks. He is most pleased to see Giorgis, as he has many matters to discuss. The two girls squeal with delight at seeing Eleni and regard me with curiosity – I have my camera which gives me something to do while everyone sinks into excited chatter. Kostas is concerned about the roads, about their cheese production, about the chapel they want to build on the rise. Another young man sits to the side, warming his beans on the fire. He speaks to me in English and I discover he is from Afghanistan, but escaped when he was thirteen. He spent time in England then came to Greece, to Crete.

As is the custom, we are offered raki and Kostas and Giorgis settle into the whisky. Eleni asks Irini if she can show me the cheese store in the mitata, and takes the century old key. With the girls we have to crawl through a narrow entrance. Once inside we behold a space accommodating at least a hundred (at a guess) rounds of cheese, each bearing the markings of the sieves that they have set in. Some are moulded; some fresher and younger. Eleni is helping Irini’s community in the steps required to be able to sell the cheese commercially.
Back to the main dwelling and Kostas is in full flight discussion with Giorgis; it enables me to take some more photos. On the walls there are holy icons and high on the shelves are old cheese sieves made from bamboo. Irini does stone engravings and paintings, she shows us some of her creations that will decorate the chapel. It is time to return – we travel by clear moonlight over the rough ground. A long day and possibly a mountain climb tomorrow, though Giorgis is doubtful. Full of contemplation of the mystery of another world, centuries away from me, I sleep deeply.

The fog appears to have lifted in the morning and we can see all the way down through the many blues of the sky and sea to Agia Galini below. But the weather will worsen, Giorgios advises, so better not to take the risk. Change of plan – we will descend, with the possibility of accessing the mountain from the Northern side tomorrow - and visit other spots relevant to my novel. We farewell Giorgios, but only for the day – Eleni had been enquiring as to the possibility of taking me to a Cretan wedding. Incredibly Giorgios knows of one happening that very night (unusual for a Thursday) in a village in the Amari Valley. But is it a problem that a stranger will be attending? With over 1,000 guests expected, I will hardly be noticed, Giorgis explains.
Agia Galini is appropriately tacky for the purposes of my novel. It is fun discussing plausibilities with Eleni. Where does my protagonist meet Captain George and his goat? is there really a bus that goes to Heraklion? What size are the boats in the harbour? We continue on; Eleni has prepared a picnic lunch that we enjoy in a grove of 2,000 year old olives, with the view of Psiloritis ever before us. 





Then, a stopover at a lovely mountain resort in Gerakari, a now peaceful village in the Amari Valley, but in 1941 razed to the ground by the Nazis in retaliation for the Cretan participation in the resistance and the famous kidnapping of General Kreipe. Trying to put this atrocity aside, I anticipate a relaxing bathe in the pool, a hot shower and a rest before the big event of the evening.
We meet Giorgios half way and travel on together. We make a stop to film some goats clanking and duelling and generally raising havoc. In the bride's village, crammed with cars, I stop to pick up a bullet shell on the road. Ah – Eleni tells me. When the bride leaves for the church they fire in the air. She seems concerned – are you afraid of that? I tell her as long as I can take cover (!) the experience will probably find its way into the novel.
I peek into the church – so tiny and certainly not capable of holding the quantity of invited guests. Half of them will go straight to the reception, Eleni explains, so there will be two lines of greeting and two opportunities to bestow the traditional gift of money. I calculate 1,000 guests at approximately 50 Euro a head. Enough for a small deposit on a house?

It is a perfect evening. Soft summer light settles on the ancient stonework. Most people sit chatting in the courtyard outside the church. Eleni is pleased to encounter an old school friend. Sure enough, at a given moment I am startled by a loud volley of gunfire - a group of men, in their black shirts and Cretan headscarves, take turns to show off with rains of fire. There is actually a billowing of orange flame that accompanies some of the shots.
Later I ask Giorgis what sort of guns. Kalashnikovs, he says without hesitation, and a Luger, a Thomson, a Beretta, a Zastava and a Browning, a Smith Wilson - there are a lot of guns. It is not strictly legal, Eleni explains – but what police officer is going to confront a band of Cretan men fired up - literally speaking – at a local wedding?
I was told 1,000 guests but I am still astonished to enter the outside area of the taverna honoured with the task of feeding such a crowd. There must be at least fifty long tables of twenty places set. We take a seat opposite some friends of Giorgis, though Giorgios hardly has time to settle to his meal as he greets just about everyone who walks in. The main course is lamb, tender, slow cooked in lemon and accompanied by a delicious risotto made from the juices. The waiters bring bowls and meat out on huge trays. Salad to follow. Then the music starts up – a semi circle of musicians with traditional Greek instruments – the lyra, the bouzouki and more. The bride greets them all and garlands them with a Cretan scarf. I get up to try to film it - then find my way back to my seat, dizzy with the excitement of it all. One of Giorgis’s friends throws a scarf around my neck – welcome to the country!
A shame we cannot stay until the wee hours – for it looks like it will be possible to climb the mountain tomorrow, and I need to claim at least 7 hours sleep. On the drive home we are all in good spirits – it has been a wonderful and unique experience. I ask Giorgis, through Eleni, if he knows of a taverna owner with rent rooms on the southern side of the mountain, someone who might be that character in my novel, who might offer safe haven to my two protagonists as they stumble down the mountain. He thinks for a minute. He doesn’t know of any tavernas in the small towns on the lower slopes. Wait a moment, he says. ‘That person is me!’ It’s true, Eleni says. Giorgis is always being called out to rescue lost and stray hikers, sometimes even in darkness. More often than not, they end up at his place, as there is nowhere else to stay! I tell Giorgis he has earnt a minor part in my novel.
The talk turns to goats again and I tell them of the play I will see on my return – the Edwin Albee play, The Goat or Who is Sylvia – about a man who falls in love with a goat - and there is much laughter. I am warmed by the thought that we share the same humour, if not culture and language. 12.30 in the morning and I fall, exhausted, to sleep.
Breakfast at the hotel is a smorgasborg of Cretan specialities from the region - sour cherry cordial, Cretan omelette, cheese and spinach pies, honey and yoghurt, fresh eggs. Unfortunately, I can’t fit it all in.


I am over-ready with boots, daypack, walking sticks, jacket, chocolate. We meet young Giorgios at Arkadi – the monastery I have visited before, gracious in its peaceful setting today but scene of a tragic sacrifice in 1866 when Cretan civilians were unwilling to yield to their Turkish oppressors.
Young Giorgios is an excellent guide, knowledgeable and friendly, full of attention to the smallest detail, and especially to my comfort as a woman twice his age about to make the ascent up to 2435 metres. Like Eleni and Giorgios senior he is similarly open minded and generous of spirit. We drive to the northern side of the mountain to access the path via the high mountain towns of Livadia, Zoniana and Anogia. The tough men of this so called ‘devil’s triangle’ have a reputation of holding out against the law and of skirmishing with the authorities trying to police the illicit cultivation of marijuana in the secluded areas. All of this is critical scene setting and plot set up for my novel, to which Giorgios contributes with his close knowledge of the region. There is plenty to discuss.
We pass a female grouse and ten little chicks on the road, scurrying up the hill, too fast for a photo.
We stop at a stone refuge, still being constructed, and ask the labourers to take a photo of us as we set off. Giorgios sets a steady, slow pace before me. The hike is, of course, hard going but the temperature is perfect – no wind. 
Within ten minutes of starting. we stop to view a golden eagle, Giorgios thinks, wheeling majestically over the slopes.
Giorgios finds and explains the fauna – little hardy alpine flowers, buttercups and violets and tiny things growing in cracks.
 It is steep – of course it is steep! Three hours up. 600 metres to the saddle and then a more graduated slope (at least, Giorgios promises) to the summit – if we make it before the clouds roll in.
And we do, almost, make it to the top but Giorgios is wary of being caught in the billow of fog that is on its way, so we take our photos with the little chapel of Timios Stavros in the background – another half an hour across, but with no possibility of seeing the four corners of Crete today.
  





I don’t mind, really – the north eastern view is magnificent enough from where I stand – looking towards Heraklion and all the way down to the Aegean. It would be nice, of course to sit on that saddle and see the Libyan and the Aegean seas at the same time – but I am satisfied to have made it this far.


The descent is excruciating, though, as my knee is troubled and the loose pebbles are treacherous. I survive, with one slip and a tumble, my hand landing on a clump of prickle bush - ouch! By the end I am hobbling like a hunched old Greek woman. But it is a triumphant photo that the workers take once we get back to our starting point.

We are not yet done – there is Zeus’ cave to see, though the light is falling. We drive back through Zoniana where Giorgios knows of a local taverna for a celebratory Greek coffee. Metrio – with a bit of sugar - the taste takes me back forty years when this was the only coffee that was served. The woman remembers Giorgios from a mountain hiking group that used to stop here. She is curious about me – she knows Sydney. Soon, apricots and raki appear. She comments on my Cretan lace scarf from the wedding – and indicates that hers are better quality. I agree and happily purchase one from her.
Onwards on the high and lonely road towards the Nida plateau and the cave. We pass no other vehicle – there is nothing here except sheep and goats, some of whom do not move from the middle of the road without quite some beeping. The sun drops in the sky, casting the mountains in austere, imposing majesty. 

I can’t help but think of the hot shower that supposedly awaits us at the Shepherd’s shelter where we will stay tonight, a complex based around a traditional mitata, lovingly built by another dominant character in the region, Papandreas: shepherd, builder extraordinaire and a man who also doubles as a priest.

The road seems long and my knee is aching. A sign indicates there is a further 1.5 kilometres to walk (upwards) to the entrance. I am determined and try to ignore the pain. We set off, though I wince at every step. It turns out there was a road that we only see when we arrive at the top. Giorgis returns to get the car, ever attentive to my pain! But when I finally stagger to the grilled entrance, I see it is closed. There are no opening times advertised, so we couldn’t have known. Like I said – I am determined. Despite my knee, I see a way of climbing up and over the barrier and I am there! At the legendary cave, very sacred for the Greeks; a number of relics from Minoan times, even, have been found here. I view the large entrance to a cavern, watch the swallows flit in and out, and my voice echoes. I have no inclination to stay long, with the lure of the shower and dinner foremost on my mind. But also – it feels isolated and lonely. Unlike my protagonists, who have to spend the night here – I will be warm and comfortable tonight.
But Giorgios regrets to tell me - he is not sure there will be a shower. Certainly, no electricity - that requires the generator. Papandreas has been called away and will not be there to greet us – nor are we sure he will be there in the morning. There may not be breakfast. Is it worth it? Perhaps I should return to Rethymo to seek a bland, boring hotel bed – but with the possibility of a shower. As it is so late, we decide to think it over at a taverna instead of buying food to prepare. We stop for a delicious souvlaki, salad, pita and heavenly mizithra in Anogeia, hopping with evening energy and life.

I am decided; I will forego the shower and we continue on to Papandreas’ shelter, just out of the village of Krana. The chance of meeting this charismatic shepherd is worth much more than a hot shower after a six hour mountain hike! There is a washbasin and a clean toilet. We put our mobiles on flashlight and Giorgis finds the headtorches. He makes up a simple bed on the couch, with clean white sheets. We open the window to the clear mountain breeze and after a scan of the starry sky and a glimpse of the silhouetted constructions, I fall into a comfortable and grateful sleep.


We are woken next morning by the sound of a truck. Papandreas starts early, there is much to do.

Papandreas has to keep moving but I manage to get a photo that I think will go viral, of him milking the sheep – the ewe upside down and inelegantly pulled though Papandreas’ legs so he can squeeze the milk from the teats into the bucket. It takes about thirty second per ewe - they don’t seem to mind!


He takes us to the mitata, beautifully constructed, yes, for the tourist market but authentically and expertly done - it is an awesome monument to the hard work of Papandreas and his sons. There are wood ovens and a lamb spit, a proper milking set up and pens for the goats, a quarry, long stone benches, herb beds, sheep and goat pens. Of course there is breakfast! Papandreas pulls out a graviera and an anthotiros, (a softer, less mature cheese) and finds us apples, tomatoes and honey. Giorgis makes an excellent Greek coffee and once again, I don’t regret my decision. 
Giorgis explains to Papandreas, the dilemma I had deciding whether to stay or return to Rethymno for a hot shower.‘But why would you?’ he comments. ‘When this is your second home?’

I laugh, warm with the feeling of welcome that I have been lucky to re-experience - after almost forty years - in this most generous and hospitable of places. Eleni and her team are trying to do something very special - challenging and very authentic: tourism where you really connect with locals and see the world through their eyes. It is a fond farewell to Giorgios when he drops me to the bus station at Rethymno, where I will board a bus for Chora Sfakia on the South Western coast of Crete. I will join my writing group in the little fishing port of Loutro and complete the next stage of my novel – incorporating these unforgettable experiences with Eleni and her shepherds on the mountains of Crete.






Five days on Kythera

'Not all may sail to Kythera' and they say you should always allow an extra two days either side of your visit to this legenda...