Friday, 18 March 2011

The Cretan Runner

The little, white, Fiat Uno ground it's way up the mountain road, and I swear I didn't get out of 2nd gear for about 15 miles - that's saying something for an Uno. Taking the shortest road from the South to the North and Herakleion is not without hazard, even in peacetime.

The beginning of the climb was almost the end of it, when H.I. spotted something on a cliff-ledge, about 80 feet above where I was trying to wrestle the little car to prevent it from either going into a storm-gulley, or over the other side to the rocks and the sea, 400 feet below.

"Oh my God - look at that!" she cried, and - selecting 1st gear again on a tight bend - I pressed my face right up against the flat glass windscreen to look.

High above us, a tiny mountain goat-kid was perched on a two-inch ledge and being called by it's mother, who was also perched on a similar sized ledge, about 8 feet away from it's off-spring, and it's off-spring was plucking up the courage to spring-off. Both ledges were on a vertical face of rock which - to our eyes - seemed to have no greater foot-hold than the average wall of glass, so - of course - we became transfixed as to how the situation would resolve itself.

We need not have worried, because these goats have been doing the same thing for thousands of years, and as the little goat sprang impossibly from one ledge to another, both off-side wheels of the Uno went into the storm drain, and I rammed my foot onto the accelerator and somehow managed to scrabble my way back onto tarmac again, not that the tarmac was much more reliable than the drain. Over the previous couple of days, we had encountered no less than 3 German families in distress - all in the white, Fiat Uno hire cars - and ALL of them had managed to overturn them on what appeared to be dead straight, hazard-free roads. Two of them were actually upside-down, so I reckoned I showed great skill in keeping ours from being written off. It might have been a different matter if we had been going in the opposite direction, and I had a 400 foot drop to the sea, however.

As we climbed the pass and headed for the down-hill, northern part of the passage, I saw something strange on the road ahead.

We got closer, and then I realised that some fool had placed a huge boulder right in the middle of the road, then - for some reason - had painted it with white-wash. Angry and confused, I negotiated the white boulder and gunned the little car toward a sharp, right-hand bend, cursing the idiot locals all the way.

As I sped round the bend, I became aware of a distinct narrowing of the road, which was on the narrow side anyway. Then I saw that the half that we were not supposed to be driving on had completely collapsed and was now probably nestling amongst the olive trees, some 1000 feet below. Yes - the white boulder was a warning which those in the know knew to mean, "HAZARD - ROAD GONE!" It helps to know the highway code, no matter which country you find yourself in.

On the way down the other side, we stopped for a coffee and something to eat at a roadside shack, then carried on to one of the saddest sights I have ever seen in my life.

There, in a wide and extremely fertile plain which nestled amongst the rising hills, stood a charming village with springs and waterways running through and around it. Large olive groves flanked it, and the road seemed to respectfully skirt around one edge.

As we drove around, the absence of animals, people or automobiles made us realise that - despite the fruitful location - it was utterly deserted, and we wondered why.

Later, we discovered that the entire population had been executed by the Germans as a reprisal for an attack by some mountain Resistance fighters who had killed several German troops, and nobody had the heart to move back in - even 60 years afterwards.

The whole landscape is steeped in history - some modern and some ancient. We stopped off at the famous Minoan hillside rock-tombs shown above, and they are pure (or as pure as you can get) sculpture, nestling amongst almond groves in the same way as yew trees decorate ancient British cemeteries.

George Psychoundakis and the Cretan Runners. Some of these old men were running little cafes when I was there, but sadly I didn't know of their continued existence - or even their survival. I may do more on this - I'm getting nostalgic.


  1. Greece (and its islands) is such a beautiful place. I really regret not having spent more time there. We always hired mopeds (or took busses) to get around. I don't know which is more perilous.

  2. Fascinating stuff Tom - sad about the village = there are a few places like that around and the sadness seems to be steeped into the stones. Glad you found what the stone meant in time!!

  3. that sounds like a fabulous holiday, Tom, in spite of (or even because of) the white knuckle journey along the mountain track. That would have made a brilliant photo of that little goat perched on the ledge even if it wasn't a fantastic time to shoot! Really sad about all those villagers being murdered. Perhaps the silence of the stones is as it should be!

  4. on holiday in turkey my previous partner and I came across a village that had been totally relocated by the authorities ( perhaps you or cro could tell me why perhaps?)
    I have a feeling that the population was greek and up-ed sticks to their homeland...

    It was a melencholey walk...almost similar to one I had when walking around the village of theresienstadt in the Czech republic

    an interesting post tomas

  5. Went to Corfu on an 18-30 holiday (yes, I really know how to lower the tone!) Managed to appreciate the beauty of the island in spite of mucho ouzo drinking. Our attempt to get to Albania by pedalo failed (luckily) after we sank a few yards from shore.

  6. They may have been Kurds, John.

    All you need to do is sit on the beach and wait for the Albanians to come to you, Sue. Though saying that, I think 18-30 may be a bit too old for them. They prefer 12-15.