If it had been the year 1204, things might have been different.
We still would have traveled from Italy to the Greek island of Crete, but not via Pisa, where we caught an inexpensive but horribly frustrating Ryan Air flight. We would not have flown at all, I suppose.
We would have hitched a ride on a Venetian galley embarking on the Fourth Crusade, its crew and captain determined to shore up La Serenissima’s Mediterranean outposts and tame Constantinople. This, the Aegean’s largest island, was so valuable strategically that the Venetians would stop at nothing to secure it.
And so, for about 450 years, the floating city on the lagoon controlled Crete, well, its northern shore anyway. Inland, native Greeks tended to rebel against Venetian dominion, usually at great cost.
But along the relatively accessible northern edge of this 250-kilometer long island, turned up in the eastern sea by the African tectonic plate, Venice operated its sea ports, fortresses and trading posts in its effort to monopolize world commerce.
We were able to imagine Medieval Mediterranean life when we visited the crumbling hilltop fortress of Gramvousa, overlooking a pristine, sandy bay on one side and the open sea on the other. And we marveled at the well-preserved castle that sits at the mouth of Heraklion harbor, what was once the main center of Venetian life on the island.
To visit Crete, therefore, was very much like stepping back in time — or completely out of time, depending on whether we were afloat in the cool waters, trekking through the gorgeous Samarian Gorge or dining on delicious foods so traditional their dates of origin are hard to pinpoint.
It helped that my vacation reading included Roger Crowley’s terrific history of Venice called “City of Fortune.” As I read about pitched sea battles, early Western colonialism and economic imperialism, intensely violent rivalries with the maritime republics of Pisa and Genoa, costly run-ins with pirates, confrontation with Ottoman rulers and the slow but steady accumulation of wealth by Venetian nobles, I was traipsing across a land that had once been exploited by these very same men.
Crossing the landscape
I guess I expected something different: an arid landscape populated by goats, sheep and olive trees, an open expanse of wild thyme and caper plants, tumbleweed here and there, a smattering of small villages, a languid population whose main concern was finding shade.
Instead, we found warm people eager to engage in conversation and share their bounties, yet careful to avoid overselling themselves. We found goats, to be sure, and plenty of olive trees, but little open expanse, and no tumbleweed whatsoever. Just wind, sometimes a lot of it.
Crete is a rugged, mountainous terrain that plunges hard into the sea along its southern edge while poking at it with extended land-fingers on the northern side. The earth turned up so quickly from the water all those epochs ago that it cracked in the process, leaving behind numerous deep canyons, gigantic peaks — the White Mountains — that can reach as high as 8,000 feet and receive snowfall despite the southern clime, and gracious verdant valleys hidden between the coasts.
Its botanical population is unusual due to the diverse topography, ranging from wild herbs, prickly shrubs and desert flowers to more water-dependent tall pine, mosses and wetlands flora.
Have I mentioned the rocks? There were lots of rocks. Dark rocks and light rocks. Big rocks and small rocks. We saw large trees that, amazingly, grew from the sides of rocky cliffs, their roots somehow curling into crevices to form a strong grip, for there was no soil to speak of.
On our first full day, we traced the northwest coastline in our rental car, from Chania to Kissamos, where we joined a large boatload of tourists headed for the tip of the Korikos peninsula, one of those fingers extending into the sea. Our destination was a barren, sandy lagoon called Balos Bay, one of the best swimming sites of the island, and the ruins of the 16th century Venetian fort that overlooks the sheltered cove from the top of Gramvousa island.
The crystal waters were too shallow to allow the ferry to dock, so it stopped some distance from shore, its crew transporting clusters of passengers to the beach in small dinghies.
We assumed our place at a waiting umbrella and immediately waded into the rippling waters of this warm corner of the Mediterranean Sea. A couple of hours later, we were climbing in our flip-flops over loose rocks to the fortress above, a long, steep ascent.
But it was worth it. Up top we traversed what little was left of a fortress city, marveling at the physical strength it must have taken to build and maintain it. The view was spectacular, but I was left wondering about the long-ago residents who, looking from their windows, longed for a swim in the sea below. The knowledge of the sheer effort required to get from there to the shore, then back again, must have dissuaded many.
In the gorge
The next day, we resolved to drive across the mountains to the southern village of Chora Sphakion where we would eat a nice waterside lunch before catching another boat to Aghia Roumeli at the mouth of the Samarian Gorge.
We wanted to hike the gorge (now a national park). Well, not the whole gorge. That would have required a rugged, full-day, 11-mile trek. We did it “the lazy way,” starting at the sea and walking several miles into the canyon along the burbling brook, to the Sideroportes or “Iron Gates,” the narrowest part of the vertiginous gorge where the two sides are about just 11 feet apart and nearly 2,000 feet high, then back again for a quick swim in the sea and the 6:30 p.m. ferry.
By late afternoon, portions of the gorge were shaded, and a pleasant breeze fluttered through. From our perspective, we were able to admire not only the land’s physical grandeur but its effect on mankind, for numerous hikers crossed our path in a daze, leaning hard on their dusty walking staffs and clutching empty bottles of water.
Later that night, in downtown Chania, we ate excellent grilled fish and strolled along the harbor and Kanevaro Street, the old Venetian Corso, where Italian traders once conducted their business, warding off raiders and Greek bandits unhappy with the Republic’s ferocious defense of its hegemony.
But the days of hanging enemies in the public square or roasting them alive for all to see as a deterrent against treason are long past, thank goodness. Now there’s a Starbucks, a solitary roasted corn vendor, souvenir stores, restaurants galore and, on nearly every ancient street, a fish spa where locals and tourists alike swarm to dip their bare feet in tanks populated with dozens of little hungry, undiscerning critters who eat away dead flesh and sundry foreign substances nestled in the crevices of the skin.
It was hard to pass one of these spas without making a face.
The next day it was back to the beach, this time at the spectacular Elafonisi islet, which sits at the southwest corner of Crete, nearly connected to the mainland by an accumulation of sand that wants to form a bridge but can’t quite manage it because of the constant current.
It required an hour’s drive from Chania, our base of operation, along a winding two-lane road on which inexperienced drivers tended to go too slowly in sub-compact rental cars.
Here, we splashed first in the mostly enclosed shallow lagoon, then on the far side of the sandbar. It was idyllic, the best beach I’ve experienced, and we stayed the whole afternoon. On shore were two food stands and a corn roaster, changing boxes, showers and bathrooms. But it was impossible to resist the water’s lure.
By now you have figured out that, despite the fascinating Medieval Venetian legacy on the island, and a remarkable history even more ancient than that — Byzantine, Arab, Greek, Minoan, dating all the way to the Bronze Age — we didn’t spent a lot of time visiting the archeological sites (though we managed a morning stroll through Minoan Knossos, made mythical thanks to the conquering of its labyrinth-ensconced Minotaur by Theseus; and we alighted at the last minute at Ancient Thera atop Messavouno mountain during a three-day side trip to the volcanic island of Santorini). Rather, we were attracted by the havens and haunts that provided those hedonistic pleasures. Swimming, for example. Eating. Gazing at beautiful scenery. That sort of thing.
So I have probably got you thinking: Crete sounds fun! Nice people. Good food. Pretty sites. Yes, sure, but let’s not forget that those people have inherited something hard won. It wasn’t long ago, 1908 to be exact, that Crete became part of Greece.
Before that, it endured Ottoman rule (1669-1898), Venetian domination (1212-1669), repeated uprisings and severe repression.
For Venice, protecting the Stato da Mar (Territory of the Sea) was paramount and often required great shows of force against local populations. But it was probably the Ottomans who were the most brutal.
During the Cretan revolt of 1866, a large Turkish force bore down on the Arkadi Monastery in Rethymnon province where nearly 1,000 Greeks, mostly women and children, sought refuge.
Three days of battle ensued. Rather than face the wrath of the Ottoman soldier, the Cretans exploded barrels of gunpowder stored in the building, choosing martyrdom over surrender.
Or consider the bliss of Elafonisi beach, where we floated and splashed as if all cares had abandoned us. There, Turks slaughtered perhaps 600 people, again mostly women and children, and enslaved a couple of hundred more.
The Cretans were hiding from Ottoman soldiers camped on the beaches. They thought the far side of the small island would be safe, but a mule in search of its rider discovered the shallow water path, attracting the attention of the soldiers.
The history of Crete is very much a series of rebellions and massacres. It is a testament to a sense of identity that Cretans have managed to sustain over the centuries, despite constant attempts to quash it or make it subservient to more powerful forces.
That independence can be felt today. The Cretans are free at last. Their worst enemy now is a failed economy and the incompetence of politicians. No matter what happens now — whether fiscal austerity measures continue to wreak havoc, whether Greece gives up the Euro, whether another rebellion flares — the Cretans will go on surviving.
They will grow their olive trees, make their cheese and shepherd their goats. They will watch the rain dampen the White Mountains and trickle through the gorges to the sea. They will sell their honey and fish and roasted corn on the cob. They will transport tourists to pristine beaches on big ferry boats.
The world will thrash and burn, but Crete will remain in place, with a clear view of three continents, anchoring the Aegean Sea.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.
A view of Balos Bay from the Venetian fortress city atop Gramvousa Island.×
Crete’s topography and botany is amazingly diverse and interesting. High mountains give way to rugged seashore. By the water, the vegetation is windswept and sparse, but in the valleys and interior, it can be lush and green. Goats roam freely.×
A view of the old Venetian fortress at Retimo (modern-day Rethymnon).×
At the tip of Crete’s Gramvousa peninsula is Balos Bay, one of the best swimming sites of the island.×
Sunset over Santorini is a special experience.×
A side trip to Santorini, the southernmost island of the Cyclades, offered spectacular views of the sea-filled volcanic caldera and white hilltop settlements.×