David continues his journey through the Greek islands. In Issue 2 he was in Cyprus, Rhodes and Santorini. Here he and Denise find themselves in Crete and Corfu.
Dark Labyrinth: Postcard from Crete
Apart from a brief spell fleeing the German Army in 1940, Lawrence Durrell did not spend a lot of time in Crete. He never lived here the way he had on Corfu, Rhodes and Cyprus, but he set a novel here called The Dark Labyrinth with references to, and indeed a comic modern twist on, the minotaur story. He also wrote profusely about Greece’s largest island in The Greek Islands, his tour de force study of the history, mythology, culture and character of most of the Aegean and Ionian islands. Highly recommended to any traveller or Philhellene.
The first impression one has of Crete is that it’s big. Well, I suppose it had to be. According to legend, the great father god Zeus was born here and also died here. As you approach the island by sea you slowly become aware of its length to the left and right and its height. The tallest mountain, Mount Ida, stands 2,456 metres above sea level and heavy snowfalls are common in winter, though less so than in former times. It was over this rugged range that Durrell’s friend Paddy Leigh Fermor, along with members of the Cretan resistance, escorted captured German general Kreipe to embarkation point on the southern side of the island. Despite being 260kms long and 56kms across at its widest point, only one third of the island is arable and yet it is very productive in terms of fruits, vegetables and olive oil, as it should be with over 30 million olive trees as well as carob trees, almonds, citrus groves and vineyards producing fairly decent wine. Natural forest is however rare, due to deforestation over the centuries and the grazing habits of goats and sheep which tend to keep the higher slopes rather bare. Some years ago the government had ideas about banning goats from the island, but this was abandoned due to the likelihood of riots by the large rural population. Despite the bull cult of ancient times, we saw very few cattle.
Our ‘boutique’ hotel, Porta Medina, is right in the hub of the old town of Heraklion, not far from Lion Square and the Venetian logia (them again) which was a two-edged sword: it provided easy access on foot to the main attractions of the city but also ensured night time racket of a significant level. The Greeks like to party and they start late and finish late. Little clubs and bars pulse to Grecian hip humping music, there are calls and hoots and motor bikes growl up and down the narrow streets. You rarely see Greeks drinking during the day unless it’s coffee or cola or water, but they get into it later and one hears the effects of this at about 4am. Some nights it bothered us, some nights we were too tired to notice. Our host at Porta Medina was unusual for a Greek in that he was tall and fair and very laid back. However, gentleman that he was, nothing was too much trouble. Turned out the hotel was in fact his grandmother’s house and to judge from it, the family were well-off and were now using the old place to keep some money rolling in. His recommendations as to where to breakfast and where to have dinner proved astute. Dinner at Peskesi was a treat: genuine Cretan food like liver and onions, fried snails, fava beans and the ubiquitous slow cooked lamb or goat; all at reasonable prices and just wonderful, friendly service.
By way of an introduction to the town we jumped on one of those dinky little tourist train cars which promised a 45-minute historic tour of the old town for €7 – except that it didn’t really. After much unexplained delay we set off for our first riveting stop; the vast industrial scale port facility, all concrete and glare, where we stopped again for aeons in the blazing sun. No one got on. Next stop the neo-Venetian bus station followed by the ancient Phoenician tennis courts; next a pharmacy at which a bunch of disgruntled English tourists got off before we moved onto the King Minos III football stadium. But at last, more bloody Venetian walls covered in unkempt scrub and, finally, back to the seaside and yet another old Venetian fort which we visited because it was cool inside and had lots of sea breezy gun ports and marble cannon balls which, surprising, haven’t moved much since my last visit in 1985.
Bus tours. Some people are not fans and we had managed to avoid them until now but decided not to hire a car in Crete. All those other smelly people who are so mauve you don’t know what they are thinking. But buses make an outing easy especially on a large mountainous island like Crete. We took two trips: one to Chania, a Venetian-influenced town on the western side of the island and another to Mesa Lisithi in the eastern mountains. You sit and relax, the driver knows the way and you see a lot of the countryside. The downside is some of the stops are, well, rather ho hum and often not places you’d chose to visit if touring with your own vehicle. On the Chania trip we visited Lake Kourna which we were told was remote and most scenic. Well, it was scenic, but remote?? There were tavernas and tourist tat shops everywhere and as for a quiet swim, the brochure told us there would be nice beaches to swim from; there weren’t. Unusual winter rains had covered the beaches in two metres of water smelling strongly of semi-rotten plant matter and nowhere to dive in from other than from the steps of the tavernas. But it was hot, so Denise and I stripped off and went in, to the mild amusement of the diners in the taverna.
In Heraklion, the principle town of the island, we discovered ‘Gum Tree Place’. This is not a local appellation, but happens to be a major transport interchange around a park shaded with large attractive eucalyptus which prompted Denise and I to discuss the way in which eucalyptus have colonised the Greek landscape. Durrell mentions them often. There are thousands of them and they do not look out of place alongside the olive and carob in this warm dry climate. We doubted whether many of the tourists or locals knew they were Australian trees. They line roadways, shade parks and squares and really do a great job of enhancing the landscape and keeping Mr Sun at bay. Fortuitous since, apart from a few coolish days in Istanbul, we had plenty of sun and heat all the way from Cyprus to Corfu. But not generally that sweaty, tropical heat, rather, a dryer heat which, if you get into a natural or man-made loggia with the breeze wafting, is rather pleasant, especially with a cold lager to hand.
Crop Café. This became our daily breakfast spot as we had a small discount from the hotel. It was run by young blokes and had a trendy coffee culture vibe which turned out to be well deserved as Denise found the coffee very much to her liking – strong flat white with real milk. Our host took coffee seriously too. You can always tell when they start explaining the provenance to you and ask whether you want Nigerian or Brazilian coffee. Personally, I don’t care if it comes from Botswana or Massachusetts. Just give me an espresso and shut up. But we got the spiel, decent breakfasts, friendly service and good coffee as well as a little glass of sparkly water to cleanse the palette before downing the espresso. Now, maybe coffee aficionados have encountered this phenomenon before, but I hadn’t, so I took it all with good grace until one morning a waiter who was not familiar with us explained the little glass of sparkly water thus: “Clean your mouth out.” What was the cheeky sod insinuating? Deep inside he had touched a raw comedic Australian nerve and I felt like saying, “I’ll clean your mouth out for you, you cheeky bastard.” But I didn’t. Later, we had a good laugh about it as we took our second bus trip out and up into the Lasithi Plateau.
Once again, we passed miles of villas and hotels along the seafront out from Heraklion which had barely existed when I visited Crete in ’85. Then we cut inland up a steep narrow road into the uplands. I honestly don’t know how these bus drivers make it round these hair pin bends and once again I found myself unable to look at the cavernous yawning descents to certain death that loomed far too often for my liking. The Lasithi Plateau is marketed as having ten thousand windmills in an area 12 kilometres long and 6 kilometres wide; and, indeed, our guide repeated the fact several times but these days this is false advertising. When I came through the gap in the ranges back in ’85 the white canvas-sparred windmills covered the plain like so many white butterflies whirling in the breeze. This high plain, being an old volcano, is very fertile and is one of Crete’s food bowls. However, rainfall is erratic and the windmills were built by Venetian overlords, to pump water onto the fields. Whether through changed agricultural practises or neglect, few of the old windmills turn today. Indeed, many were just rusting away in the fields, a sad reminder of their former glory rather like the shambolic villages surrounding the fields which were run down and unkempt, despite the spin our guide kept putting on them. She had to be sent up.
“Well, you have just been to the very nice village of Shitholiki in which poorly maintained concrete hovels stand next to ruined stone cottages or vacant lots covered in rubble, off cuts, bits of scrap metal and general rubbish. You are very lucky to see such a lovely place on your trip.”
In his 1978 account of Crete in The Greek Islands Lawrence Durrell wrote:
“Life in the small villages is as horrible as the same sort of life in far Wales or far Scotland; full of bigotry and ignorance, and the perennial low IQ which spells death to art. It is a horrible life, not only full of physical privation but of intellectual strangulation. If I never regretted it, and really managed to enjoy it, this was because I was fascinated by the language and people, and buoyed up by the marvellous classical landscape which is so full of magic that it wallpapers even your dreams. People who don’t have precise things to do or study, who are in need of outside stimulus or crowds, will find that life in a Greek village will turn them claustrophobic within a year. It is quite understandable; for a Greek villager, life in Surbiton (suburbia) would do just the same.”
While Durrell’s observations may be insightful, I think what has really changed is that modern life, as well as the current Greek economic situation, has ripped the cultural guts out of these inland villages and, to some extent, we have seen this everywhere. But, with varying degrees, it’s the same in rural villages all over the world. The age of the peasant rooted in local tradition and religion has passed and the age of the city-dweller with regional and global links is in the ascendant. But I keep a thought for the old yiayias and walking stick men with weathered faces sitting in the village square under the trees with a faraway look in their eyes, maybe remembering the old times.
If you want a cardiovascular workout, visit the so-called birthplace of Zeus high in the Dikti mountains above Lasithi. And you can see why Crete is Zeus’s island: it’s big, mountainous, impressive and prone to storms, snow and gales as well as fierce heat – capricious, just like the ancient gods. Having not ascended the acropolis at Lindos, we determined to ascend the steep and winding path to Zeus’s birth chamber and, puffing and blowing with several pauses on the way, we made it without bursting a valve. As the day was warm, the coolness of the cave was most welcome, but the many steps in and out were not. A German, who had walked up just behind us smoking cigarettes, said “Ja, we all come to see Zeus but he must be out. Too many visitors.” Ok, not very funny, but a bit of contact with a fellow traveller, you know. After the cave we picked our way down through the broiling sun to where a pint of Mythos lager awaited in the tourist camp below.
Up at these altitudes, above the sea haze, the sky really comes down to meet you. It is touchable. In Colossus of Maroussi Durrell’s friend Henry Miller wrote:
“The vault of blue spreads out like a fan, the blue decomposing into that ultimate violet light which makes everything in Greece seem so holy, natural and familiar. In Greece one has the desire to bathe in the sky. You want to rid yourself of your clothes, take a running leap and vault into the blue.”
Crete is of course home to the Minoan civilisation, possibly the oldest in the Mediterranean. At the site of Knossos Palace (said to be part of the oldest city in Europe) and at the magnificent archaeological museum in Heraklion, we marvelled at its beauty, scale and sophistication. The Minoan Queen, around 2000 BCE had the first known flushing toilet linked to a sophisticated sewerage system as well as earthenware channels that brought fresh water into the palace complex. It is not known exactly what caused the demise of this culture; some historians claim the massive volcanic eruption at Santorini had a lot to do with it, while others argue that the Dorians from mainland Greece put them to the sword. Crete, we learnt, has suffered many invasions over the millennia, the most recent being by the Nazis. But, they all still speak Greek and the bells of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Greek Orthodox churches still ring out over the island.
I first visited the palace site 35 years ago and it hasn’t changed much. This five-storey ancient command centre is still being excavated, so the work begun by British archaeologist, Arthur Evans, early last century continues. While it is well worth a visit, more areas are roped off than when I first clambered around these ruins. Yet, in many ways the surrounding valley and countryside appeals more. You can clearly see why they built a palace here. Four thousand years ago a significant river flowed by the palace to the port six kilometres away on the coast. This waterway can still be traced on Google maps, but is a dried-up water course these days. Climate change, it’s not a new thing. Farewell to Crete, a big mountainous island that plunges from 2400 metres high to the sea within a god’s hand span and has 30 million olive trees, three goats and lots of grim Russian tourists.
Prospero’s Cell: Postcard from Corfu
“Corcyra is all Venetian blue and gold – utterly spoilt by the sun. Its richness cloys and enervates. The southern valleys are painted out boldly in heavy brush strokes of yellow and red while the Judas trees punctuate the roads with their dusty purple explosions …
The architecture of the town is Venetian; the houses above the old port are built up elegantly into slim tiers with narrow alleys and colonnades running between them … There are curiosities; the remains of a Venetian aristocracy living in overgrown baronial mansions, buried deep in the country and surrounded by cypresses.”
So wrote Lawrence Durrell in his lyrical and highly impressionistic novella Prospero’s Cell: a guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra, a description as accurate today as it was in 1935. Unlike the dry, bare-topped Aegean islands, Corfu is rich and green, lush with olives and cypress and, in places, overgrown with vegetation due it having the highest rainfall of anywhere in Greece. Durrell made the claim via his alter ego Count D that Corfu was Prospero’s Island, the setting for Shakespeare’s 1613 play The Tempest about a group of marooned Venetians who fall under the spell of a ‘Greekish’ isle ruled over by the magician, Prospero, with attendant island spirits, Ariel and Caliban. For indeed Corfu is a Greek-ish island in that while the inhabitants speak Greek, it has a definite Italian feel which is hardly surprising since the Venetians ruled the island for over 400 years, established a Venetian Greek aristocracy and over three million olive trees, via the means of a bounty to the local peasants, whose labours became a cornerstone of Venetian prosperity.
Unlike Cyprus, Rhodes and Santorini, I had been to Corfu before, in April 1985. I remember the trip around the bay to a hotel somewhere near the New Fort where at breakfast I was surrounded by stuffy English types in tweed jackets eating bacon and eggs while perusing The Times. By this time, I had read some of Larry and Gerry’s books so, then as now, Durrell tourism provided a focus for my travels although then I had little idea where to go. I saw Mouse Island, toured the interior including the Valley de Ropa, legendary haunt of the Count D; called by Paleokastritsa on a day too cold for a swim, before cutting overland to the wild, windswept northern coast which in those days appeared largely uninhabited save for a few local peasants and fishermen (how things have changed). I do remember well the excellent rustic Greek food, good cheap meals served at village tavernas with honest local wine and wondered why the English generally avoided such places or insisted on fish and chips which, by the way, it is still a prominent advertisement, along with burgers and yeeros at many Corfiot cafes.
Fast forward to June 2019 and I was back in Corfu with Denise on the last leg of our Greek island tour to attend the Durrell Library of Corfu’s Islands of the Mind, a symposium/festival of islands as physical and metaphysical places, at which I was scheduled to give a talk on Bitter Lemons, Lawrence Durrell’s account of his troubled years on Cyprus during the 1950s Enosis crisis.
Our base of operations, the Hotel Bella Venezia, proved an excellent place from which to sally forth each day either on tours of the island or, for five days, to attend the symposium, a twenty-minute stroll across the Old Town to the charming Solomos Museum, former home of the Greek poet and nationalist Dionysus Solomos who penned the Greek national anthem. The hotel staff were helpful and friendly and the rooms, though small, were charming and quietly air-conditioned which was a blessed relief after long, hot days in the Grecian sun – we often came home dripping like warm wet towels as Corfu is more humid and sweatier than the dry Aegean islands. And the excellent buffet breakfast was served in the traditional Corfiot garden where they had this amazing side-loaded orange juice machine which made the best OJ I’ve ever had – except maybe for the guy in Bellapais, Cyprus, whose oranges truly came from the Garden of the Gods.
Although the festival ran for five consecutive days, it was well planned in that the sessions began at 9:30 or 10:00am and were over by around 2:00pm so there was time for long lunches at tavernas with new friends, sightseeing or going for a swim. The talks and presentations at the symposium were generally interesting, delivered by well-established authorities in the field of either island studies, the Durrells, or both – so how I got in remains a mystery although I am told my Bitter Lemons talk went over well. Lee Durrell, Gerald’s widow, gave a fine talk on the ongoing work of the Durrell Conservation Trust and the Jersey Zoo and it was great to see Pete Hay of the University of Tasmania put his home island and its famous devils on the map, so to speak. Perhaps a couple of presentations and round tables drifted into territory that some might regard as overly esoteric, but there were humorous interludes too and pleasant lunches at local tavernas with newfound friends.
A genuine highlight of the festival was a mid-week boat journey to Kalami Bay which was home to Lawrence Durrell and first wife Nancy Myers from 1935 – 1939. We assembled at the Solomos Museum amid some mild confusion as to what to do next. Who is in charge? Where do we go? Finally, two Greek guys with badges rolled up and led the gaggle of Durrell-addled geese to the port and two white and blue painted caiques, which had been hired for the ‘ten sea mile’ journey across wonderful blue water on a clear sunny day with a sea breeze keeping us cool enough under the shade cloths. We all clambered aboard and got chatting to a whole bunch of people we had never really met before and who turned out to be great company. And what an interesting mix of people: writers, scholars, lay enthusiasts, psychologists, lawyers, readers and even people who had no interest in Durrell or islands at all, not to mention the cheery Greek crew who had a well-stocked beer cooler in case we got thirsty.
Now, Australia certainly has some award-winning beaches, but there is something unique about swimming beneath the walls of a 14th century Venetian fort or beneath the shrine of St Arsenius, where Larry and Nancy used to bathe nude and where the ‘Priest vs Margot Durrell’ scenes were filmed for the ITV series The Durrells. Denise and I also enjoyed a refreshing plunge after the vinous lunch laid on for us at the White House, Larry and Nancy’s former home which is now a taverna – still owned by the same family that rented them the cottage all those decades ago. Over lunch we heard talks by Joanna Hodgkin, Nancy Durrell’s daughter from her second marriage, who has written a book Amateurs in Eden about her mother and Larry’s time on Corfu; and later an interview with Simon Nye by Dominic Green. Simon is the writer of The Durrells TV series and a thoroughly decent chap to boot.
In Prospero’s Cell Larry describes the White House “set like a dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water. The hill runs clear up into the sky behind it, so that the cypresses and olives overhang this room in which I sit and write.”
An apt description and one as true today as when it was written, except that a lot more villas and resorts surround the bay nowadays. And yet Kalami Bay is still a beautiful spot and, as Denise and I discussed as we swam about in those cool, tranquil waters, it was relatively easy to imagine what it was like in 1935. The White House at Kalami concluded our trilogy of Durrell houses as described in his three island books that we had set out to discover on this journey. We even managed to get a look inside the White House, which is now a hotel. We rather boldly asked an English family who were in beachwear sorting out the kids, if we could look in. They said OK and pointed to a large off-white table which they had been told was there in Larry’s time. The White House is a substantial dwelling, three storeys with a large taverna connected to it. During their stay, Larry and Nancy (who had come into some money) had the third storey added and wanted large windows for wide sea views. The owners wanted the windows to be small as a precaution against winter storm surges which were apt to crash against the house and large windows could be easily broken. Apparently, Larry and Nancy insisted on the large windows and then went off to Paris while the work was done. No guesses as to what sort of windows they found upon their return some months later.
Has the island been ruined? Well, it depends on your frame of reference. Lawrence and Gerald Durrell were both appalled by developments on Corfu in the 1960s and ‘70s. To me, in 1985, it seemed a Mediterranean paradise, home to my Durrell heroes. Now, 35 years on, the changes are obvious. Kalami Bay is still beautiful, but furrowed with villas and resorts not always in the best taste. The same is true of the glorious swimming place, Paleokastritsa, on the west coast. The water is still deep, clear and refreshing, but get in before the tour buses arrive or you’ll be walking a long way to have a dip. We got in before 10am and managed to park right near the beach which is pretty much as Lawrence describes it in Prospero’s Cell. You can swim out into the bay in the clearest blue water and see the caves that Larry explored over 80 years ago.
“The little bay lies in a trance, drugged with its own extraordinary perfection – a conspiracy of light, air, blue sea and cypresses. The rock faces splinter the light and reflect it both upward and downward…here are the grottoes. Paleocratritsa has two of them, one of them reachable by boat and beautiful. The walls are twisted painfully out of volcanic muscle, blood-red, purple, green and nacreous.”
To the south below Gastouri (where Australian Robert Dessaix lived and set his novel Corfu) the island is much less developed and the old charm remains in mountain villages such as Chlomos which we visited with our friends Bruce and Kit Choy on the day after the symposium closed. There are scenes and locations straight out of The Durrells series. We wandered through the village, little changed for decades, and came upon a peasant couple, sat in the shade of their modest home, making up long bundles of oregano. And true to the Greece Durrell knew, they gave us some herbs with a warm smile. We also encountered a young Greek man with good English who had grown up in Germany and was returning to visit Mum and Dad and other relatives; a familiar refrain on our travels – island as places you leave for better economic or intellectual activity, unless you prefer a more traditional approach to island life.
However, even here in the more remote south, the visitor today, if he or she knows anything about olive farming, will observe that many of the trees are overgrown, no longer able to bear fruit and stand in fields thick with grass and weeds. While well-pruned and well-maintained groves, with nets stashed ready for the winter harvest, show that olive farming continues, numerous FOR SALE signs on ancient trunks or rusty gates suggest that the peasants have found a cash crop far superior to the olive grove; and developers are quick to snap up plots which are either secluded or which have majestic views down long valleys to the sun-blue Ionian Sea. In 1985 the north coast of Corfu was wild and sparsely inhabited. A few peasant houses and fishermen’s huts could be seen amongst the scrubland and stunted olives. Now, from Roda to Kassiopi, villas, hotels and resorts line up along the coast like confectionery vying for the ever-growing holiday trade.
So how have the Greek islands changed since the mid ’80s? The tourism, of which we form a part whatever we may think, is described by critics as a cancer which is slowly eating them up. On some islands tourism’s contribution to the economy is close to 80% which puts considerable pressure on local government to ‘keep building on’ at the expense of the landscape.
It’s a lot more expensive. Eating out is comparable to Sydney prices quite often. Tourist-based capitalism works quite well – service is friendly, tavernas are clean and there are decent toilets nowadays – a far cry from the steel pole and hole in the floor set-ups I remember from 1985. Taxi fares have been fixed and the service improved to provide a positive tourist experience. “We are ambassadors,” a driver in Athens told us. “The first people you meet off the plane.”
The Greeks are friendly and hospitable, sometimes in a slightly disorganised way. For example, I can’t imagine Australian ferry companies allowing a mad jumble of pedestrians, cars and trucks to exit or enter the vessel at the same time. But somehow, they make it all work and seem to take the chaos as just part of any given day.
Many government businesses and stores close at 2pm. Only some reopen. Rubbish is a big problem. There are designated places for garbage to be taken – and this is done, but the government then fails to deal with it in a timely manner. Whether through lack of funding, incompetence or corruption (or all three) the stuff builds up and, according to our friends on Corfu, gets a bit ‘fruity’ by August when the heat really kicks in. Readers will of course be aware of the Greek economic crisis which devolves essentially around a high level of government debt, not helped by corruption and tax avoidance at all levels of society. The cash economy is alive and well in Greece as we found out but about which I felt conflicted. The net result is that government services can be underfunded. For example, here are some straplines from Kathimerini (July 2, 2019): HOSPITALS LACK AIR-CONDITIONING AMID HEAT WAVE; GREECE FACES EU FINE FOR NOT CURBING WATER POLLUTION; TOURISM NOW THE MAIN DRIVER OF THE PROPERTY MARKET.
If the new government, just elected, and those that follow it, can foster genuine changes in Greece’s economic and political culture, this is likely to improve revenue flows, reduce debt, ensure public utilities are properly funded, and above all, restore faith in public administration; then garbage will be dealt with, tourism better managed, and with improved economic and academic infrastructure, maybe fewer young Greeks will leave their homeland for destinations abroad.
Well, what a wonderful odyssey this tour has been. From Cyprus to Corfu, a minor epic filled with brilliant white and blue light and a host of people, places and memories that have yet to settle into our souls. As the green island of Corfu slipped away into the azure blue behind the big jet engine’s roar, I reflected on our Greek island sojourn. We had found three more Lawrence Durrell houses and experiences, places and people evoked in his books for which we felt a genuine connection and attraction. This return visit reminded me of why I had loved Greece so much when I first visited: The spare, rugged country, Arcadian woodlands, simple rustic foods like octopus in red sauce, and all the breezy warm light over the soft blue sea – a ‘blue thirst’ indeed. And above all, the unique way in which the ancient and not so ancient past – through ruins, language and culture – is still, and probably will always be, woven into the present moment. Like waking in an air-conditioned hotel near the funky new archaeological museum in Athens and waving at the tourists strolling around the Parthenon.
David Green is a semi-retired history teacher, poet and freelance writer whose main focus is Lawrence Durrell’s island books, and his essays and stories on travel and Spirit of Place. In 2012 he wrote and narrated Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller: A Wartime Correspondence , a radio documentary for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. After a visit to Provence in 2015, David published Out in the Midi Sun: Adventures in Lawrence Durrell Country in Café in Space: The Anais Nin Literary Journal.
He is currently pursuing an interest in Taoist poetry and Durrell’s relationship with peasants and other rustic characters.