Greek odyssey

Seeking serenity in high-season Crete? Dana Facaros finds the crowd-free, timewarp beauty beyond the island’s brochure beach resorts

In the village we sat sipping iced coffees, the ubiquitous frothy, bitter, refreshing taste of a Greek summer. Around us worry beads clacked; ducks quacked; and villagers doing their morning shopping stopped for a chat in the dappled shade of an olive tree. In the tiny main square of Fodele, we were only an hour away from the coast and Crete’s hulking capital, Heraklion, but it felt as if we’d travelled back light years.

Don’t get me wrong. Like everyone who’s holidayed here, I love Crete for its coast. Every time I’ve visited my cousin Despina over the years, we’ve lazed the hours (days, weeks) away on the quieter shores that unravel east and west of Heraklion, where Despina teaches English at a local school. I’ve always left with a deep tan and sunny memories, of wiggling our toes in warm sands and giggling over family anecdotes as the rays dry our swimsuits, while her architect husband, Theo, steps out in a suit and takes care of business.

But I was so glad we’d made the journey, this time off the beaten track, inland to the Crete that time forgot. Not solely because of the peace, the quiet and those caffeine hits, but because it showed me how much there is in Crete to see beyond the big brochure resorts.

Main image credits: The view over Chora Sfakion town

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A traditional Greek salad

I love Heraklion — the poster city for the whole island — as much as the other sun-seeking thousands who fly in for the bargain summer hotels of Agios Nikolaos, or the five-star resorts around the holiday town of Elounda, on the Gulf of Mirabello, a couple of hours’ drive east.

But this time, my annual date with Despina was to take a different tack. The two of us had spent the morning on the beach at Fodele. Theo was absent, working in Sitia, a port town a long drive away, towards the easternmost tip of Crete. We were gossiping and bronzing as usual, when clouds brought a sudden grey to the day, hanging over the mountains that sweep down to the sands. Despina sat up and took off her shades, gesturing towards the family pick-up truck parked nearby.

‘That might be it for a while. Fancy a drive?’

Did I? Motoring in Crete is always travel heaven: the peaks, the twisted-licorice byways, the olive groves glinting to the horizons. Unlike Greece’s smaller specks (Cyclades, Dodecanese), Crete feels like a fully-fledged country. In an hour you can roll from Greek island to Tuscany to Switzerland. Birthplace of Zeus, it is as old as time, home to Europe’s first literate civilisation, the Bronze Age Minoans, and scattered with their crumbling legacy. On Crete, it takes more than clouds to stop play.

‘As with so many archaeological sites beyond the main tourist circuit here, we had the moment all to ourselves’

As it happened, the sun was returning wanly as we drove into Fodele village, warming the valley we passed through to reach it, lush with orange, lemon and mandarin groves. We parked, sat and drank, shaded by an olive tree, a gnarly thing with leafy branches. Only a sign beside it reminded us we were not just in the back of beyond but in the arty heart of things. Fodele, it read, was the birthplace in 1541 of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, aka El Greco, the artist who matured, in Venice, Rome, Madrid and finally Toledo, into a singular force of nature.

Strolling, we found his birthplace, now a museum, and gawped at reproductions of his strange, visionary works, so defiantly unlike any other of the Spanish Renaissance age. 

‘I have to say he could only have been a Cretan’, said Despina. ‘He wasn’t afraid to be different.’ Cretans are famously fearless. When Nazi paratroopers invaded and occupied the island, men and women, young and old, fought them with scythes, butcher’s knives and rocks, even their bare hands. After the war, Nikos Kazantzakis (author of Zorba the Greek), charged by the UN to report on Axis atrocities, found the Nazis had destroyed more than 100 Cretan villages.

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A woman sits side-saddle on a donkey

One of the most infamous, Anogia, was our next stop, in the mountains above Fodele. We drove past clustered homes and olive groves, beeping sleeping dogs off the road and overtaking, much to our delight, a granny in black riding side-saddle on a donkey, who smiled and waved while engrossed in a mobile-phone chat. Slowly — ominously? — the landscape grew savage. A golden eagle hovered in the blue-black sky. Bells jangled as a herd of goats skipped off the road. The goatherd — mustachioed, clad in black shirt and tall boots — nodded with the noble bearing of a Homeric hero. Far off loomed Crete’s highest peak, Psiloritis: ancient Ida, sacred to Zeus.

Anogia greeted us, immaculately whitewashed, its photogenic square filled with café tables and wonky chairs. It was hard to believe this was its fourth incarnation. The Turks destroyed it twice. Nazis razed it in reprisal for harbouring members of the Cretan Resistance who had abducted the German General, Kreipe. After the war, the widows of Anogia’s fighters turned to needlework to survive. Even today houses are draped in vivid woven bags and tablecloths.

We lunched at a little taverna called Aetos, on tender lamb ofto, redolent of fresh mountain air and wild herbs, slow-cooked, shepherd-style, from the heat off charcoal embers. It tingled the tastebuds, but the overriding sensory takeaway from Anogia was for the ears and eyes: in a tiny museum we found the works of a folk artist nicknamed Grylios (‘bulging eyes’), who started sculpting and painting naïf, heartfelt scenes of the village at the age of 68. While we took them in, tunes fluttered from a lyraki, a three-stringed violin played by Giorgios, his son.

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The Venetian Walls in Heraklion

The road back to Heraklion had more in store: at Tylissos, we savoured the solitude of half an hour, late afternoon, among three ancient villas built by the Minoan people in the 16th-14th centuries BC. As with so many archaeological sites beyond the main tourist circuit here, we had the moment all to ourselves. A breeze wooed eerily in the pines as we ran our fingers over the warmed stones, channelling the long-haired Minoans in their colourful kilts. ‘Like Bronze Age hippies,’ I said to Despina, lost in her remoted-eyed trance.

Returning to Heraklion was a shock to the system. Tour buses growled at traffic lights. Bars rang with chattery European languages — the high-spirited voices of crowds gearing up for the night. But the fading apricot light lent a kind of aura. Despina, having stopped to buy oranges, took me on to the Venetian Walls, then up the steps to the bastion where Nikos Kazantzakis, one of the most celebrated Greek writers of recent times, was buried. Despina arranged the oranges around his tomb. ‘He requested fruit instead of flowers,’ she explained, then translated his famous epitaph. ‘“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free”.

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A typical feature of local houses

Something about this special day had liberated me, too — the elements, the savage scenery, the real people with classic customs. The raw remoteness had made me want more. So it was serendipity when we opened Despina’s front door to find Theo home a day early. He’d had to leave his car in Sitia due to an electric-cable failure, and hitch a lift back home with a colleague. It would be ready the next day, but Despina was too busy to fetch it. So was he.

Me? Next morning I was on a bus heading east, with a quick stop at Agios Nikolaos. As smells of coffee and oil from its bus station faded, I felt bliss. The highway snaked around the coast, the bays glinting like shields far below in the silver light. The Gulf of Mirabello veered from arid late-summer peaks to isles caught between sea and sky in shades from pale turquoise to cobalt.

‘The highway snaked around the coast, the bays glinting like shields far below in the silver light’

The conductor checked my ticket. ‘What a beautiful day to ride the bus,’ he exclaimed. He was a cheery soul in his 60s, with a sweet smile and twinkling eyes.

‘A beautiful day indeed!’ I chimed in.

He regarded me curiously: ‘Where are you from?’ (Translation: I can tell you’re Greek, but a bit dodgy).

‘My father’s from Ikaria.’

This response always gets a knowing look. Ikarians have a reputation for being slightly bonkers, although he was clearly undeterred.

‘And what are you doing in these parts?’

Running an errand for my cousin, Despina, I told him, whereupon his eyes grew wide. ‘Despina is the name of my mother, my wife and my daughter. I am Nikos. You must dine with us while you are in Sitia!’

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The old Venetian harbor in Rethymnon

I dialled home to Heraklion and told my cousin. She asked to have a word with Nikos, who was thrilled to speak to yet another Despina. When he passed the phone back to me, she said, ‘He sounds lovely. Find a hotel and stay a couple of days. Theo can do without a car for a bit.’

In Sitia I found the best of both worlds — the simplicity of a mountain village, and the buzz of a real Greek beach town, by the clear waters of the Aegean. A string of tavernas curled around a waterfront parade studded with fat palms, and cafes sighed with poignant Cretan music played by musicians who wandered from one to the other.

I found a hotel and, looking out from my window as the evening turned purple with nightfall, saw lamps like pearls, flickering and showing the way to town.

It was steeped in the feel of ‘Old Greece’. At a dusty newsstand I found books still priced in drachmas. I inhaled the special, unmistakable scent, a mix of freshly ground coffee, cinnamon and oregano, wafting from the grocers’ shops in the alleys. There was the happy hubbub of Greek families carving up fish at lamp-lit tables by the quay. Carefree children pedalled about in the warm air, as elderly folk watched them, and the world, pass by.

What good fortune, finding myself alone with a car and a free diary for a day or two. I motored east to Vai, an extraordinary strand studded with a thick grove of palm trees — the largest in Europe — grown, says legend, from dates discarded by Arab pirates. I pootled up to Itanos, a cove as tiny as a bite from a biscuit, for a swim in waters of glass, overlooked by the remains of an ancient site. And when my phone rang, and Nikos insisted on honouring his invitation the next night, I felt as good as anointed.

At the end of a pitted lane just beyond Sitia, his rosy-cheeked wife (Despina), opened the front door of their generator-powered cottage, and welcomed me like a long lost relative. We dined on Cretan bruschetta (dakos), tzatziki and stuffed tomatoes. 

I couldn’t drive back to Sitia, so they made a bed for me on the sofa. And there I slept the sweetest sleep, coiled in the heart of this real, tourist-free, homely Crete.

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Credit: Dana Facaros/ The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing