Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Calm before the Storm, Part 2: Retreat from Reality (Early September in Southern Crete)

Greek Vacations

I’ve said that life in Greece is no vacation. Okay, I admit it; sometimes it is, for those of us with the time and means to temporarily escape from the reality of the socioeconomic crisis. We were fortunate enough to manage some modest trips this year. Many families did not leave town, instead limiting themselves to local beaches they once scorned (if they were lucky enough to live near a beach)—hardly surprising as the unemployment rate hovers around 25%, with something like half of youth unemployed, many salaries (including D’s) cut by 50% compared with two years ago, and taxes and utility prices climbing while rent and grocery costs haven’t dropped at nearly the rate of salaries, pensions, and benefits. And news reports suggest all of this will keep getting worse.

Greek vacation patterns differ from those of Americans. Or rather, those of the middle and upper-middle class Greeks I know have, in the past, differed from those of my American family and friends of the same class. Greeks are much more likely than Americans to live with or near their extended family members, so that they feel freer to travel away from family, rather than joining them for holidays. Before the crisis hit, some went skiing in the Swiss Alps or visited Euro Disneyland; others spent Christmas in New York City. Athenians tended to flee to the islands in August, while Salonicans headed to the northern resort of Halkidiki. Island dwellers sometimes explored other islands, but many spent vacations in “the village,” where they may have family and/or an ancestral home, often with olive groves or other produce attached. Living atypically far from our families, we have spent most of our vacation time with family and friends in the Athens area or, on the rare occasions when we could afford the trip, in the U. S. But for a brief escape, we’ve found that Crete has far more to offer than we could ever find the time or money to enjoy, so that there’s little reason to leave the island for vacations. Western Crete is famous for such gorgeous beaches as Falasarna, Elafonisi, and Frangokastello, and last year we first explored south central Crete, falling in love with its varied offerings of beaches, gorges, and scenery.

Heading Southeast of Chania, then through Kotsifou Gorge

This year, we again drove east through wooded hills toward Rethymno, then turned south to cross the mountains in central Crete, heading toward the Plakias area on the southern coast. The evergreen forested mountain views punctuated by villages and olive groves were sufficiently interesting that I was surprised how soon we reached the stunning little Kotsifou gorge, which runs from the village of Kanevos toward the coast. I enjoy passing through this gorge repeatedly, because its stark cliff faces feature such fissures, bulges, and variations in shape and altitude that upward gazes rival entranced stares between the narrowly separated towering rock walls, with their own bulges, turns, and fascinating irregularities. As the light changes toward late afternoon, deeper shadows create an even more spectacular show. A priest who worked for the foreman in charge of building a road through the gorge many years ago may have been as awed as I; he caused a church to be erected there, half built into the face of the gorge’s stone wall.


Lodging and Food:  Simple Choices

This year, we skipped the time-consuming study of internet sites and the repeated stops in Plakias to inquire at hotels and headed west of the village to Creta Spirit, the same medium-small, family-owned apartment/studio complex where we’d been pleased with our clean, roomy apartment last year ( Then, we occupied the largest apartment they have: a large separate bedroom and spacious living/dining/kitchen area where the kids also slept, a large bathroom with a tub, and a short hall. Unfortunately, that wasn’t available on short notice this September, but Theodoros and Maria Arabatzis, the friendly, helpful multilingual owners, had added a comfortable, attractive new unit suitable for a family, with a good-sized living area plus a bedroom loft overlooking it. It’s not as big as the other, and the bathroom doesn’t include a tub (as opposed to an enclosed shower), but it’s just as clean, carefully designed, and well-equipped, down to the cooking and eating utensils, hair dryer, drying rack, wash tub, and clothespins. So aside from our little guy having trouble getting enough sleep—it’s hard for one to sleep when the others don’t, there—it was a pleasant place to stay. Its blonde wooden stairway and ceiling create a cozy atmosphere, and while the windows don’t offer impressive views, the spacious private balcony compensates with its panoramic view of the sea.

We also returned to some favorite restaurants this year. Iliomanolis Taverna, at the edge of the Kotsifou gorge in Kanevos, is so well known and oft praised that some people drive an hour or more out of their way just to eat there. It’s a simple, modestly priced family run enterprise which continues to flourish in spite of the death of its namesake last year. One can always find a dozen or so Cretan foods ready, including tender meats cooked in a tomato and olive oil sauce. The home-made spoon sweets there are the best and spiciest I’ve had, almost good enough to eat without yogurt (although such things have always been too sweet for my American palate). Closer to the coast, two restaurants in Mirthios, a village in the hills above Plakias, feature striking views of other villages, hills full of olive groves, and the sea. One is recommended in tourist guides, but we happened to try the other and enjoyed the food as well as the view both this year and last.

Souda Beach: Pebbles by Clear Water, Caves, River, and View

The beauty of southern Crete may be rivaled by other spots in Crete, the rest of Greece, and other parts of the world, but for overall picturesqueness I doubt it can be surpassed. One beach after another yields its charms to the slightest inspection, and as long as the wind hasn’t stirred up the water too much, the sea is wonderfully clear, clean, and blue or blue green—far more so than in northern Crete. Arriving at our hotel close to sunset, we hurried on to Souda beach, the nearest one with a bit of sunlight left. We struggled over the pebbles next to the sea, then delightedly immersed ourselves in the cool waters. Swimming out beside the irregular rock walls that rise sharply next to a small, palm-lined river, I disappeared—to D’s distress—in search of a sea cave I remembered from last year. I must have visited it earlier in the day then, for I recall that the white, lavender, and green rock inside it was brilliantly lit by rays shining through gaps between the piles of boulders that form the cave. This year, the cave seemed farther out—quite a swim—and more dimly lit. Seeking a resting spot, I welcomed the chance to step onto algae-covered stones, explore the pile of boulders inside, and peek through the frame of the cave’s opening. A small cave on the beach doesn’t offer quite the same fascination or fresh cleanliness, but it does provide another picturesque frame for our view of the sea and the distant hills still lit up by the sinking sun.

Plakias Beach: Big Waves and Little White Lilies in the Sand

Plakias initially appears to be an unremarkable Greek tourist resort, with the usual restaurants and cafes, shops full of souvenirs and beach goods, so-called “super” markets, and hotels facing a long, narrow, partly sandy and partly pebbly beach in a large bay. But we continued past all of that toward the stark cliffs, where I thought the waves might be less dangerous for the kids as the wind picked up, and discovered that nudists had claimed the best part of the beach: a glorious, wide expanse of soft sand, partly in dunes full of white sand lilies I’d never seen in such abundance. With waves substantial enough to teach our kids how to handle the Atlantic (as I did during childhood trips to Delaware), and a gorgeous view of hills and mountain villages in the misty distance toward sunset, Plakias beach turned out to be both a children’s and a photographer’s paradise. There is plenty of room for everyone there, modest or free-spirited.

Exploring to the East:  Toward Agios Pavlos on a Blustery Day

We’d truly enjoyed the tonal separation between layers of hills and peaks visible at sunset from Schinaria beach last year, as well as the hike down into the Helidonion (Swallow) Gorge at Preveli, with its palm-lined stream and “forest” (by Greek standards) near the beach. However, curiosity and increasingly strong northerly and westerly winds impelled us to bypass those and explore farther east this year. Our map, the most detailed I’ve seen of the island, suggested a “scenic route” on an “unpaved road of good quality,” as far as we could determine. Branching off toward Ammoudi beach, away from the road to Preveli, we inquired at a cafĂ© and were told that our Nissan sedan could handle the road. However, after struggling along for a kilometer or two over dirt and stones, ruts and bumps on a winding single lane next to an unguarded free fall into a gorge, we met an old farmer with his daughter in a 1970s or 80s era pickup truck. They debated the wisdom of our continuing in our ten year old “nice car.” Should we go on, at least heading downhill rather than struggling upwards, or should we retrace our painfully accomplished route, which had already upset our daughter’s stomach?
The father’s arguments prevailed, and we reached the windy, lonely Ammoudi beach, where we discovered an even more scenic route that was apparently unknown to our mapmakers, or newer than the map: a better gravel road running right along the coast. There I encountered the most spectacular seaside drive I’d seen since Oregon’s coastal highway in the 1980s. While the well-paved American highway surface certainly provides a smoother ride than the rutted Greek gravel road, the views are reminiscent: a rugged coastline with layers of cliffs and hills, impressive boulders, and expanses of luminous, turbulent sea. In southern Crete, we traded safety (a single lane with no guard rail) for proximity, often driving quite close to the water toward Agia Irini and Agia Fotini. We took a break at the tiny pebbly beaches on either side of immense boulders at Agia Fotini. My daughter and I tried to swim there, but the sea churned up such a lot of seaweed and sand in its strong crosscurrents that she just drifted back and forth in the shallow water that washed over the pebbles, while I exercised away the stiffness of our drive in cautious four-stroke laps through rushing waters, toward and away from shore. We enjoyed a seaside meal at the well-known taverna in what used to be carob warehouses before proceeding on paved roads toward the three boulders of Triopetra—a beach far too open to the elements to stop at, as gusts created small sandstorms that swept out to meet powerful waves in a sea full of whitecaps and suddenly shifting, windswept currents.

We wandered aimlessly for a while, lost on the paved but inadequately marked mountain roads, passing unconnected swaths of burnt land where the wind must have been as strong as we saw it back on the day of the fire, no doubt wildly blowing flaming leaves and branches, lifting them up and setting them down some distance away. We eventually located Agios Pavlos, with its protected cove and the only beach that looked calm enough on that tempestuous day. On the far side of the beach, a long staircase led up the cliffside. After a refreshing swim, we climbed the tempting steps, which led toward a massive sand hill and another beach. Armed with a picnic supper and some argumentative children, we continued along the promontory to the far edge of sand above us so we could witness the sunset where the world seemed to end. It was breathtakingly worth it; even the children were awed into peace. Directly below us, a long, steep dune led down to a sandy beach; beyond, sea, more sea, yet more sea, and the rising and falling lines of hills behind which the sun was almost ready to sink. I used to claim that the island of Santorini was the sunset capitol of the world, but now I’d say Agios Pavlos is just as amazing a spot for watching the approach of darkness, as we did perched high above sand and sea.

Hiding from the Wind:  Calm in Two Sheltered Coves 

We knew that was our best day for exploring, since the forecast called for even stronger winds the next day, and indeed we got them. In some places, it was too windy to even sit or stand outside and enjoy a view (5, 6, 7 on the Beaufort scale—up to 38 mph winds and 19 foot waves, whole trees moving on land, rough to very rough sea, near gale force). I’d seen trees, grasses, and other plants violently blown and bent by almost hurricane-like winds many times in northern Crete, and I’d seen plenty of whitecaps on winter days when boats weren’t allowed to sail (so that we received no fresh cow’s milk on the island). But this was the first time I saw the wind pushing so many warring currents one way and then, suddenly, another, and the first time I witnessed misty curtains of sea water raised by the wind in the distance. It was a fascinating sight, but not one to encourage lounging on a sandy beach. However, the two small coves within 10 minutes’ walk of our hotel were adequately enclosed by cliffs—about 20 steps’ worth, I suppose—to offer some protection from the squalls and the current. Knowing the forecast, we’d saved them for our last days in southern Crete, and then we rediscovered their charms: clean, clear turquoise waters; picturesque boulders to climb; appealing views toward and beyond Plakias; and bits of shade next to the cliff walls and (with a bit of scrambling over rocks) under a tree. The pebbles and rocks destroyed my flip flops last year, so I came better prepared this time for quaint little beaches without umbrellas, showers, or other frills. On our last morning, we really hated to leave that little bit of neverland. It was harder to go than last year, perhaps because we were aware that the reality we had to face after returning from our retreat was much harsher. More on that soon.

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