Tuesday, January 23, 2018

It’s all Crete to Me: Heraklion, Greece

Sunset over Dragon Island, Crete, Greece.

Just beyond the coast of Crete, near the port city of Heraklion (Iraklion), is a long stretch of craggy islands that the locals familiarly call The Sleeping Dragon. Cock your head slightly to one side and squint your imagination just a little and it is possible to see the monster's long neck curling under his hoary body.

On the beach, a tanned and muscled Cretan lazily spears hunks of feta and explains the significance of dragons in the rocks. George, it turns out, is a freelance photographer with National Geographic. He has just come back from a few years spent in California and speaks English with an accent that hails from somewhere between Salonika and St. Louis.

"Crete is antiquity in the modern world," he says. Antiquity that's evident not just in the Venetian and Ottoman ruins dotting the island, but in the land itself and in the eyes of its people. The key, he suggests, is knowing how to recognize the shape of the past in the present.

Heraklion, the island's largest city and natural centre, is a pastiche of old and older. The famed Minoan ruins at Knossos, just eight kilometres south of the city, mark the place where Theseus felled the mighty Minotaur about 8,000 years ago. More Minoan artifacts rest in Heraklion’s Archaeological Museum, perhaps the finest collection of its kind in the world.

A view from the Minoean Palace, Knossos, Crete, Greece. (Photo by Deror_avi)

Impenetrable stone walls down by the city's port are mute memorials to Venetians who bought the island from the Crusaders in 1204. Just beyond, a lone minaret is a bitter monument of the island's long-standing occupation by Turks, who from 1669 held Crete captive until Greek sovereignty was confirmed by the Treaty of London in 1913. With the exception of the brief military occupation by Germans troops during the Second World War, Crete has remained a part of Greece ever since.

The sea has shaped Crete. It has given it an enviable Mediterranean climate that favours the olive, the grape, the carob and the orange – all leading crops that still bring the island a sizeable profit. It has also left it vulnerable to hordes of sea-travelling invaders. A thousand years ago marauding Arabs broke the long peace of the Roman and Byzantine Empires (67 B.C. to 826 A.D.) when they seized Heraklion, fortified the place and used it as a base for slave raiding and piracy.

Today the invaders are sun-worshipping hedonists, mostly northern Europeans who throng to Crete to turn their pale bodies into golden love objects. Germans are the most conspicuous: their nakedness contrasts sharply with modest Cretans who come to the beach in trunks, shorts or dresses. There are so many Germans that beachside tavernas in Paleochora offer menus written in Goethe's tongue in addition to those written in Greek.

In Hania (the island's former capitol) corruption walks hand in hand with hedonism. The loud, tinsel-bright discotheques clash with the serene blend of Venetian and Ottoman architecture decorating this striking coastal town. Down by the bus depot, shaggy hustlers flamboyantly hawk cheap metal trinkets.

Heraklion's Venetian Port.

The real Crete is decidedly elsewhere. At Hania, hop on the Omalos-bound bus and escape to the Samarian gorge. This is where Crete humbles and inspires. Samaria, the hamlet that gave its name to this rugged canyon, is a contraction of Ossia Maria, or Mary the Beatified. Mary was an Egyptian courtesan of the Byzantine period who reformed and became an ascetic in the desert.

Walking the length of this mighty ravine it's possible to become converted yourself. The mountain air, perfumed by pine and cedar, cypress and sweet chestnut, soothes and invigorates. Rest by the clear mountain pools and listen to the forest swaying in the sun: there is no better antidote to the strain of city life.

The land has determined the character of its people. Strong and stubborn, Cretans are nurtured by the vigorous village life of the island. They are also lavish. Entire afternoons devoted to lunching, evenings devoted to drinking, brash love, rash marriage and three-day celebrations - these are signs of a people who live life to excess.

Accordingly, the food is rich, succulent, loaded with calories. You find the best examples not in tourist restaurants like the one in Hania whose awning brazenly advertizes Typical Greek Food, but in unpretentious kitchens where locals come to eat when their wives are on strike.

A taverna, Crete, Greece.

In Heraklion, just a stone's throw from the Archaeological Museum, is the marketplace where some of the best food on the island is served up in countertop restaurants lining the narrow passageways. Mezedakia – small plates of delicacies – include salty taramosalata (cod's roe), little pies of cheese, spinach or seafood wrapped in flaky filo pastry, and hearty salads of black olives, anchovies, cucumbers and tomatoes, all mixed together in olive oil and tossed with fresh herbs.

There's also bite-sized pieces of crisply fried squid, roasted eggplant and rice-stuffed vine leaves in an egg and lemon sauce. In Crete you must drink and eat at the same time. Ouzo, the anise-flavoured spirit, goes with everything. Retsina, the sharp-tasting resinated wines of Greece, might not be to everyone's liking. Some of the non-resinated wines like Demestica or Mavrodaphni are inexpensive substitutes that go well with the island's robust food. Before taking a sip, clink glasses with your neighbours and say Yiassas (your health). In Crete, it's the fastest way to make friends.

Penelope, who runs a beachside taverna just west of the Venetians walls in Hania, is one of those lineless, ample and enveloping women who live on the island. She and her two sons serve native dishes to visiting Turks who come to the taverna to laugh, dance and sing with the Cretans.

Like the Turks, Penelope took me into the bosom of her family. It was easy to see how Crete could absorb the extravagances of invaders and come out more vibrant for it. If each sea-travelling migrant was as easily charmed as I, then it's no accident that they chose to leave the best of themselves behind.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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