An epic trek re­veals an is­land im­bued with char­ac­ter and his­tory

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - I AN ROBERT SMITH

THERE’S usu­ally snow on moun­tain­tops in Crete, I re­flect, even in June. So, for authen­tic­ity’s sake, I’m im­pressed by the bril­liant white drift that bars my as­cent to the sum­mit of Mount Ida, or Psilori­tis — ‘‘high moun­tain’’, as the Greeks call it.

Lo­gis­ti­cally, though, it’s awk­ward, es­pe­cially when, fol­low­ing a mem­ory of goat tracks across the oth­er­wise smooth sur­face, I sink knee-deep in the stuff. As I de­tour up­wards over a scree slope, a ris­ing gale sug­gests I’m near­ing the top. Known as the ‘‘roof of Crete’’, Ida, at 2456m, is the high­est of the many tow­er­ing peaks that, grouped into four dis­tinct mas­sifs, form a jagged lime­stone spine run­ning the length of this elon­gated and ruggedly beau­ti­ful is­land.

I soon find the true sum­mit of Ida lies another 1km away across a windswept cobalt void, crowned by a dry­s­tone chapel that, from afar, re­sem­bles a bis­cuit-coloured igloo.

I make it even­tu­ally, tramp­ing with mount­ing ela­tion up a stony ridge of­fer­ing stu­pen­dous views.

The wind forces me be­hind the chapel, where I lean against the sun­warmed stone. As the sweat dries to salt on my skin, I gaze over what seems like the four cor­ners of Crete — south over the Mes­sara Plain to the coast at Matala and be­yond, east­ward to the Dikti range and west to where the fa­mous White Moun­tains ap­pear to hover in midair.

The big as­pect is matched by an epic his­tory that goes back to when Zeus was a boy. Le­gends vary as to whether the god was born on the moun­tain or raised in a cave on its slopes but, ei­ther way, Ida’s sa­cred na­ture is im­plicit. The Mi­noans recog­nised this, walk­ing in pro­ces­sion from Knos­sos, leav­ing of­fer­ings of elab­o­rate pot­tery in the Ideon cave of leg­end and in the Ka­mares cave far­ther south.

In later cen­turies, Crete’s un­for­tu­nate habit of fall­ing un­der for­eign oc­cu­pa­tion gave Ida another role as both a sym­bol and a cen­tre of re­sis­tance. Dur­ing the long Ot­toman pe­riod, the moun­tain teemed with pre­pos­ter­ously armed Kle­phts liv­ing in a state of per­ma­nent re­volt.

They were suc­ceeded, dur­ing the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion of World War II, by the gueril­las of the Cre­tan re­sis­tance and their Bri­tish Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Ex­ec­u­tive col­leagues who lived among the caves and sheep­folds of Ida and other moun­tains.

Traces of this in­cen­di­ary past linger at Anoyeia, where I be­gin my jour­ney. Spilling over a pre­cip­i­tous lime­stone spur, the fa­mous shep­herd­ing vil­lage sits at 700m in the east­ern foothills of the range. I ar­rive mid-af­ter­noon, the last pas­sen­ger on the Her­ak­lion bus. At the lower square, I dis­em­bark into blaz­ing heat and the fierce glares of a gath­er­ing of men seated be­neath a wal­nut tree. They seem dis­in­clined to speak un­til I re­mem­ber the tra­di­tional Greek cus­tom by which it is the per­son mov­ing (me) who is be­holden to speak first. I do, and re­ceive a vol­ley of replies.

It’s noth­ing com­pared to the wel­come that au­thor Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor re­ceived when he came this way af­ter he and Billy Moss and their Cre­tan band had snaf­fled the Ger­man gen­eral Hein­rich Kreipe from his car out­side Knos­sos. ‘‘ Men turned their backs,’’ Antony Beevor wrote in Crete: The Bat­tle and the Re­sis­tance. ‘‘Women spat and slammed win­dows shut.’’

Ad­mit­tedly, Leigh Fer­mor was wear­ing Ger­man uni­form, which wasn’t much in fash­ion on Crete in the spring of 1944. It took the be­mused SOE of­fi­cer some time to re­as­sure the lo­cals who he was, where­upon they im­me­di­ately light­ened up. Stal­wart in sup­port of the Re­sis­tance and their al­lies through­out the oc­cu­pa­tion, the vil­lagers pro­vided sup­plies for the kid­nap­pers’ march over Ida and down to the south coast. The Ger­mans later took their re­venge, raz­ing Anoyeia and shoot­ing 45 lo­cal men.

Nowa­days el­derly chaps with curl­ing mous­taches and long mem­o­ries haunt the lanes and kafe­nions. Wear­ing tra­di­tional tall, black leather boots, baggy trousers and fringed sariki head­bands, they are liv­ing relics of an ear­lier, more heroic age. Their fe­male coun­ter­parts, sprightly de­spite their wid­ows’ weeds, lie in wait for tourists out­side tiny houses.

Leav­ing Anoyeia for the coun­try­side, I en­counter swarthy young men in cam­ou­flage gear herd­ing flocks of sheep across parched hills swathed in thorny aro­matic plants and hardy prickly oak. The air whirs with the drilling of ci­cadas. Be­yond an ech­e­lon of ridges, Ida bulks against a flaw­less sky, its flank streaked with snow.

I pass old cheese­mak­ers’ huts with thick stone walls and cor­belled roofs that re­mind me of the royal bee­hive tombs at Myce­nae in the Pelo­pon­nese.

Now and then a gun­shot rings out and my hair stands on end.

The air has fresh­ened and I’m aware of a new clar­ity of light by the time I reach Nidha. At 1400m, it is the high­est of sev­eral large up­land plains on Crete, a flat, green, ovu­lar de­pres­sion en­cir­cled by moun­tains. The Ideon cave looms over­head, while lower down a derelict ski re­sort houses an un­likely tav­erna. Lunch­ing on the bal­cony, I speak with the pro­pri­etor’s son, who tells me there were Aus­tralians here at Nidha ‘‘dur­ing the war’’.

Along with sol­diers from Bri­tain and New Zealand, the Aus­tralians were part of a scratch force as­sem­bled in May 1941 to op­pose the Ger­man air­borne invasion. Fol­low­ing the de­feat, many were stranded. Rather than sur- ren­der, large num­bers took to the moun­tains, where they roamed for months, in some cases years, fed and shel­tered by lo­cals who risked be­ing shot for do­ing so. Their mem­ory en­dures on Crete where, nur­tured by a vig­or­ous oral tra­di­tion, both the bat­tle and its af­ter­math have be­come a mod­ern epic.

Next morn­ing, while climb­ing the rose-tinted moun­tain­side as the first ten­drils of sun­light streak the east­ern sky, the land­scape feels rich with as­so­ci­a­tions. I pause to drink at a spring, then again at a chapel abut­ted by a pair of well-tended graves, one be­long­ing to a par­ti­san ex­e­cuted by the Ger­mans. Noth­ing moves ex­cept the sheep on the plain. In the rar­efied at­mos­phere, their bells chime with a dul­cimer clar­ity.

I as­cend a fold in the moun­tain­side be­tween tilted slabs of rock. Snow pools in de­pres­sions and runs like a seam along the bot­tom of the gul­ley. Scat­tered around its sod­den edges, wild­flow­ers catch fire when the sun rises and floods the moun­tain­side with light. De­scend­ing into a val­ley, I meet a shep­herd with his flock. He points the way to the sum­mit but warns: ‘‘There’s plenty of snow this year.’’

The snow is be­hind me now, leav­ing only the de­scent, a painstak­ing haul down Ida’s western flank. The tem­per­a­ture soars as the alpine re­gions re­cede. Har­den­ing into fo­cus be­low, my desti­na­tion, the Amari Val­ley, is a patch­work of yel­low fields and wooded hills dot­ted with white vil­lages. Far from the tourist trail, the Amari is another of Crete’s leg­endary places, cher­ished by the Bri­tish SOE men who chris­tened it ‘‘Lo­tus Land’’ on ac­count of its nat­u­ral abun­dance and cheer­ful in­hab­i­tants.

In the late af­ter­noon, am­bling through olive groves and vine­yards steeped in length­en­ing shad­ows, I de­cide lit­tle has changed in the way of fer­til­ity. Nor have the peo­ple lost their spark, as I find when I sit be­neath a vine trel­lis out­side the kafe­nion at Vistagi.

Af­ter greet­ing the lo­cal men, I lis­ten as they hold a mut­tered de­bate re­gard­ing my coun­try of ori­gin.

‘‘Is he Ger­man? Aus­trian?’’ Pre­sum­ably th­ese are the na­tion­al­i­ties of most vis­it­ing walk­ers.

Fi­nally some­one ven­tures the ques­tion, and eyes light up when I say I am from Aus­tralia.

‘‘Ah, Af-stral-eeia,’’ the men re­peat one af­ter another, and I find my beer has been paid for even be­fore it ar­rives.


Snow-cov­ered Mount Ida, known as the roof of Crete, is the high­est of the is­land’s peaks

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