I THE SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY Meet and Crete
An epic trek reveals an island imbued with character and history
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