A refreshing interlude at a mountain retreat on Crete
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