Ter­rain spot­ting

A re­fresh­ing in­ter­lude at a moun­tain re­treat on Crete

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - IAN ROBERT SMITH

Two kilo­me­tres from my desti­na­tion, the tar­mac runs out. This up­sets my driver, al­ready ag­i­tated by the forested peaks above, the gap­ing val­ley below and the ea­gle hov­er­ing, its wings aquiver in an au­tumn gale, a stone’s throw from the taxi. Clearly, we have reached a Ru­bi­con of sorts, so I pay the man and, shoul­der­ing my ruck­sack, start walk­ing.

Twenty min­utes later, I look down, through a mesh of leaves, on the flat rooftops of Milia Moun­tain Re­treat and hear the tok-tok-tok sound of some­one chop­ping wood. With the aroma of burn­ing leaves teas­ing my nos­trils, I re­alise the re­mote lo­ca­tion is in­te­gral to the mys­tique of this re­stored 17th-cen­tury vil­lage, which clings evoca­tively to a moun­tain­side high above the western end of Crete.

Scat­tered amid olive, chest­nut, arbutus and oak, above a ravine run­ning with fresh moun­tain wa­ter, Milia’s lit­tle stone houses hark back to a sim­pler, more self-re­liant era. In their pared-back el­e­gance they pro­vide the per­fect set­ting in which to em­brace a life­style close to, and in har­mony with, na­ture. Back to ba­sics is the vibe here but al­though I soon reg­is­ter the ab­sence of ameni­ties such as flat-screen tele­vi­sions, DVD play­ers and spa pools, a visit to Milia is not about hug­ging trees and liv­ing on boiled rice. Rather, this wel­com­ing out­post, which Na­tional Geo­graphic Ad­ven­ture named in 2008 as among the world’s top eco-lodges, of­fers guests the op­por­tu­nity to en­joy what many con­sider the true face of Crete.

When in the late 1980s Iakovos Tsourounakis and Gior­gos Makrakis talked of restor­ing their an­ces­tral vil­lage, they wanted to re­vive the old way of life, which had been largely for­got­ten on Crete in the post-World War II ex­o­dus from the coun­try­side. Milia had been aban­doned in 1948, its houses were in ru­ins, the sur­round­ing coun­try­side de­graded by fire and gen­eral ne­glect.

“Ini­tially Iakovos and Gior­gos sought to heal the land,” ex­plains Tas­sos Gour­gouras, the Athens-born son-in-law of Tsourounakis and half-owner of Milia with Makrakis. “They ter­raced the moun­tain­side across the val­ley and planted trees, to pro­vide food, but also to pre­vent ero­sion,” he says, “and when they re­built, they did it from the ru­ins up. They didn’t bull­doze ev­ery­thing and start again, which would have been eas­ier and cheaper.”

The re­sult is ac­com­mo­da­tion in houses that look, and feel, au­then­tic. Me­tre-thick lime­stone walls en­close rus­tic in­te­ri­ors with tim­ber ceil­ings slung across mon­u­men­tal beams of hewn chest­nut wood. The decor is sim­ple but at­trac­tive, with hand­made fur­ni­ture, colour­fully wo­ven rugs, tra­di­tional hand­i­crafts and, for when the weather turns cold, a fire­place or a wood-burn­ing stove. With a pri­vate and pretty ter­race, my abode fea­tures a wooden slat bed and a great slab of naked lime­stone in the rear wall where it abuts the moun­tain­side. With the ex­cep­tion of the elec­tric lights (but no power points; charg­ing and Wi-Fi are avail­able in the es­tia­to­rio), comfy or­tho­pe­dic mat­tress, func­tional bath­room and a re­sort-style pol­ish, it looks much as I imag­ine it would have a cen­tury ago.

Milia has come a long way. Em­ploy­ing so­lar power and a range of other eco­log­i­cally sus­tain­able strate­gies, it sources most of its food from its own or­ganic gar­dens and an­i­mals. Bread is baked daily in a wood-fired oven, while Milia pro­duces ex­tra-vir­gin olive oil, thyme-flavoured honey, yo­ghurt, an as­sort­ment of cheeses and a ro­bust red wine made from the in­dige­nous ro­maiko grape.

It’s hardly sur­pris­ing the cui­sine is deeply rooted in Cre­tan tra­di­tion. Served in the cosy, stone-built es­tia­to­rio, at plain wooden ta­bles il­lu­mi­nated by can­dle­light, it is the kind of fare that black-clad grand­moth­ers pre­pare from un­writ­ten recipes go­ing back hun­dreds of years.

Dur­ing my stay, I en­joy sta­ples such as lamb with rose­mary, goat served on a bed of vine leaves, pep­pery lentil soup and fava, or yel­low split peas, which are pureed and served hot with ca­pers and slices of smoked pork. I de­velop a thing for kalit­sou­nia, yummy cheese pies lath­ered with honey, and one morn­ing I break­fast on an ex­tra­or­di­nary dish of figs, ca­pers, mush­rooms and pome­gran­ate gar­nished with pars­ley and olive oil, which I top with a fried egg and lash­ings of creamy myzithra cheese.

Cour­ses are avail­able in cook­ing, bread-mak­ing and the col­lec­tion of herbs. Milia’s friendly staff can also ex­pe­dite vis­its to vine­yards and olive oil pro­duc­ers, as well as hand­ing out maps and ad­vice and cups of restora­tive moun­tain tea. When I visit, in Oc­to­ber, the raki mak­ing is un­der way with a fire blaz­ing un­der a huge cop­per still and roasted chest­nuts are ubiq­ui­tous. Walk­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties are many; one day I un­der­take an ar­du­ous trek to the vil­lage of Polyrinia with its an­cient acrop­o­lis, which leads through groves of olive and arbutus and down a mag­nif­i­cent gorge scat­tered with au­tumn wild­flow­ers.

Jus­ti­fi­ably proud of his es­tab­lish­ment, the ge­nial Gour­gouras be­lieves Milia can be a role model for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. “At Milia,” he ex­plains, “na­ture is big and peo­ple small. For many city peo­ple this is a huge change. They are used to be­ing at the cen­tre of ev­ery­thing.” He adds, “The im­por­tant thing is to main­tain qual­ity and not to com­pro­mise our ideals in the face of con­stant change.”

In this re­spect, he says, the dirt road lead­ing into the vil­lage is vi­tal, be­cause it keeps out the masses. “If the road changes,” he de­clares, “Milia will change.” • milla.gr/en/

Milia Moun­tain Re­treat, top; a rus­tic gue­stroom, above

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