Hidden from the hordes
AFTER dinner we strolled up through the village.
Locals sat outside their houses in the darkness, taking refuge from the summer heat. There was a low hum of conversation; our kalisperas were politely returned from the shadows. The scent of jasmine hung in the air; and in the village square, a street lamp flickered on the leaves of the cypress tree outside an old fashioned taverna.
Not a disco, a bar or even a souvenir shop in sight. I tried and failed to remember being in such an unspoiled Greek village. But then, of course, this was Crete.
Crete really is a land apart. Almost as close to Africa as it friedman jewelers is to Athens, it is the birthplace of the first advanced European civilisation, the Minoan; a rugged island with a turbulent past and a boisterous, disconcertingly direct people. Travelling here at times takes you back to an older, half forgotten Greece before mass tourism.
Not that Crete is short of foreign tourists the island receives more than a quarter of all the visitors to Greece. But it's big enough to absorb them. While parts of the south and north east coasts have been given over to resorts, the north west remains largely untouched.
Here, the Lefka Ori the White Mountains rise up in the centre of the island; dramatic, snow capped even in June, home to a rural culture that clings fervently to its roots. And the village of Stalos has deeper roots than most.
Stalos first appears in written history in the 17th century. The name derives from Talos, a mythical Minoan giant who protected Crete and whose statues were often found on the coast, looking out to sea.
Our base was across the valley at the Villa Pandora, a newly built villa with a rustic feel pandora silver charms and a swimming pool and terrace looking back down to the sea. In early evening we looked across the valley as the light drained from the sky: hawks glided on the thermals, swallows wheeled and dived. From down in the olive groves came the yapping of dogs and the cough and bray of a donkey. The sea was an inky band in the distance. Perfect.
The coast in this part of Crete hasn't escaped tourism entirely. Resorts such as Agia Marina and Platanias form a more or less continuous strip of shops, hotels, tavernas and bars that hug the flat shoreline west of Chania. But the excesses of other tourist towns have been kept to a minimum this is not the place to come for a week's clubbing. And driving westwards, the development soon falls away to reveal the unchanged island beneath.
Nowhere is this more so than at Falasarna, on the western tip of the island. "The best beach in Crete," one local claimed. "Or Greece. Or the world." This might have been overdoing it, but I could see his point. A spectacular descent down hairpin bends led to a peninsula of sand stretching out into the choppy ocean, flanked by rocks and, to the north, the ruins of the Minoan ancient city of Falasarna, now being excavated.
We waded through the breakers and out into the crystal clear water, marvelling at the outlines of the central mountains sloping down to the coast in a series of serrated ridges. On a bluff overlooking the beach was a small beach bar that looked as if it had been constructed in a hurry out of driftwood.
Yet the barman conjured up some excellent retsina from a local co operative, wonderful salad and a plate of dhakos, the local version of bruschetta, with the bread softened by olive oil, and rubbed with tomato and onion. Even the humblest Cretan taverna can muster up a feast.
The lower slopes of the Lefka Ori form a dramatic, windswept landscape. Goats and sheep stroll across the roads; wide, swooping valleys are rich in tomatoes, cucumbers and olives. It comes as a shock to discover how warm rural Cretans are and how dignified.
Strangers stop you in the street and welcome you to their village. Small glasses of head banging (and tongue loosening) raki are produced; direct questions about one's background, financial and marital details follow. Cretans make eye contact and ask you to return it. They approach visitors, as it were, head on.
The other side of this casual assurance is, of course, the fierceness to eject foreigners should the need arise. The Cretans have seen off wave after wave of invaders: Venetians, Turks and, most recently, the Germans in the Second World War and they pride themselves on their independence. Most men still sport obligatory curling moustaches. In the more remote villages the older women wear black, and the men traditional knee high leather boots and tight, black fringed kerchiefs on their heads.
Traditional Cretan songs called mantinades, found nowhere else in Greece, tell of love, death and the struggle for freedom. The cult of the pallikari the Cretan fighter and mountain guerrilla of old: warlike, often barbaric, but always ready to resist the invader remains strong. I stopped one old boy who must have been at least 80 and asked for directions.
He answered me in that sawn off, sibilant Cretan accent that seems to go round corners. As he strode off, I noticed the heavy rifle strapped to his back. Going hunting.
The capital of the north west prefecture, and once of Crete itself, is Chania, a buzzy, vibrant place with a historical charm offset by the modern supermarkets and fashionable shops of its new town. In the old harbour at twilight, crumbling Venetian buildings seem to bleed their colours into the water, and the dusk blurs the boundaries between sea and sky.
It's a scene that El Greco, who was born Domenico Theotocopoulos in western Crete in 1541, might have painted, with its crimsons and greens, its long shadows and underlying gloom. But in fact, as darkness falls, Chania comes alive. Waiters hover outside tavernas, attempting to hustle passers by inside; peanut and pistachio sellers set up their stalls under yellow lamps; the volta evening stroll here is as elaborate and crowded as in any Italian or Spanish town.
We drank ouzo upstairs at the fashionable Thea bar, where waitresses in impossibly tight trousers sashayed between tables, and the youngish clientele blared into its mobile phones with Cretan zest. And we followed the local crowd around from the old harbour to the new one, where a superb seafood dinner cost about 5 each at a fish taverna with tables next to the water. The owner's daughter ran in and out with her pet dog, cats slept on chairs, and two aunties, both with cigarettes hanging from their mouths, did the honours in the kitchen.
Back at the Villa Pandora there were long walks up through the hills, where the scent of wild herbs and flowers blew through pandora bracelet & charms the olive and cypress groves, and the views back down to the coast were staggering. Or there were idle days by the pool, telling the time only by the clanging church bell across the valley.
In the village of an evening we'd watch the resident papas, in his dusty cassock, oversee this operation at the Evangelistrias church. On Stalos's main street, a simple strip of houses bordered the road: the old boys outside the village kafenion moved their chairs across the road in pursuit of shade, then moved them again as the Chania bus rumbled by.
Some village houses were white painted; others adorned by pots of geraniums and sprays of bougainvillea. But Stalos is functional rather than pretty. A cement mixer stood in the corner of the square; piles of logs for the winter were stacked outside houses.
Of the village's three tavernas (Stalos's one concession to tourism is to tempt local Greeks away from the tavernas of Chania and up into the hills for the evening), O Leventis was the best. A simple wooden terrace looked out over the valley; the smell of wild thyme came off the hillside, and on our last night a creamy new moon came up over the hills.
"Wait," said the waiter when it first appeared. "It will get even better." It did. The waiter then plonked himself down at our table to discuss the menu before we ordered a lengthy process, especially when extended to each table, but worth it.
His recommendations, I noticed, were not the most expensive dishes, but the freshest ones. Kalitsounia pastry parcels stuffed with onions or cheese; Apaki smoked pork; fried snails with vinegar; rabbit in lemon sauce. O Leventis's home made wine was rich, white and fruity.
We gorged ourselves, forgetting the nightly ritual that accompanied paying the bill. With it came yet more food sticky pastries, and a small flask of raki to wash them down. Just the thing to set you up for a stroll back up the hill, amid the whispered greetings, the warm night air, pandora beads usa the sparkling stars, and the heavy smell of jasmine.
Paul Mansfield travelled with the villa specialists CV Travel (0870 606 0013). One week at Panos Stalos villas in May costs from 430 per person (575 in July and August), based on six people sharing, including flights and transfers. Car hire with El Greco Cars (00 30 8210 60525) costs from 105 per week.
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