Anyone who has the great good fortune to live in Cornwall, beside the sea, has no reason to go on vacation at all. This I tell myself, with guilt, when I begin to feel restive, generally in winter, after too many rainy days. Soon the sou’westerly winds will cease, I can discard oilskins and sea boots, the sun will shine again, the straggling wallflowers bloom, and I can cross the ploughed fields down to the beach without being blown backward by a gale. And yet, a nagging sense of discontent remains. Hailstorms gather and April has not yet come. I glance at the weather reports of distant capitals and see that Athens is fair, with a temperature of 68 degrees.
I begin to dream of holidays long past, when, stouter of heart and stronger of limb, I set out, bound for Athens and a vacation to be spent hiking in the Pindus Mountains in northwest Greece.
There were no hotels deluxe in days — no package tours, but a bus in which the Greek driver crossed himself each time he swerved around a mountain bend, and where, as I swayed on the back seat, a woman homeward-bound from a village in the plains collapsed in terror on the floor beside me and was quietly sick on my feet. I remember a bed in a loft in café beside the mountain pass, a skinned lamb hanging from a beam, and goat cheese for supper. No “facilities,” as they say, but a stream gushing in the foreground and a convenient screen of undergrowth.
Those days, alas, are over — for me at any rate; my stamina for the rough life is not what it was. No longer, upon awakening, can I watch, with equanimity, lambs hanging from the beam — and rather than a jogging bus, I prefer a car driven by my son. So, although I’ve renounced my vagabond life, the lure of Greece remains, and above all Crete, hitherto unvisited by me, except for a day’s tour from a cruise ship. And long before that, I read about the island in every book I could find — from the many volumes on the palace of Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans to the stirring novels of Mary Renault.
Having made the decision to fly to Greece, and leaving all traveling arrangements to my son, I had nothing to plan but packing, which is easy enough in the 1970’s, when the pants suits I have worn in Cornwall for a quarter of a century have become the trend. Velveteen slacks for dinner — such are the joys of the present day. No hats, no string of pearls. A grandmother five times over, with another child in the offing, I think back to the dear old lady in her widow’s black and a cap on her white hair, who tried to coax my fumbling fingers to knit during World War I.
I always give myself two treats as a prelude to any holiday — the purchase of a brand of toothpaste never used at home, and a bar of exotic soap untouched before. This makes for excitement, and helps me over the pang of regret when I pat the dog good-bye and look back over my shoulder toward home. New toothpaste, new soap, and Crete. Could one wish for anything more?
Fasten your seat belts. Anticipation is the breath of life. My son, like his father before him, knows every aircraft lined up at the airport or soaring in the sky, and gives me their names. I could not care less. My sweet daughter-in-law, lovely, plucky, and pregnant, with a wistful look in her eye that means she is thinking about the two small boys left at home — one of whom shed tears at her departure — aligns herself to her fate. Pray heaven the winding roads of Crete are less rough than those over the Pindus Mountains, or I shall find myself acting midwife.
The first stop was at Athens, and twenty-four hours before we boarded the plane to Crete, I dragged my young companions to the Acropolis. Let the colonels take over, let revolutions come; they cannot change the beauty of the Parthenon, neither today, nor tomorrow, nor two thousand years in the future. For me, it is, and always will be, man’s supreme achievement — and to see it, as we did that day at sundown, with few tourists other than ourselves, is an unforgettable experience. This was my third encounter, but their first, and, a pagan at heart, I found myself wishing that their unborn child would be a daughter, and I dedicated her silently to the goddess Athena.
Neither ancient nor modern Athens, however, was our goal, but that island of my dreams, only an hour’s flight south, where goddesses older than Athena dwelt and where long ago the gay Minoans reveled within their palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, and Malea — before the earthquakes came, putting an end to one of the most sophisticated civilizations the world has known.
Crete’s subsequent history under Greeks, Romans, Venetians, and Turks shows how time after time a proud people defied occupation. In World War II, conflict between German paratroopers and a determined Cretan resistance was long and bloody. Today, peace has come at last to the island, reunited with Greece. The only invaders are tourists like ourselves, who, in high summer, crowd the coasts and climb the mountains, swarm into the cafes, peer at archaeological remains and so depart, leaving the rugged land to the surrounding seas and the winter snows that cap the White Mountains even in midsummer.
Although our plane landed at Heraklion, capital of Crete, our destination was Hagios Nikólaos on Mirabella Bay, some forty-three miles along the eastern coast of the island. A hired Volkswagen awaited us at Heraklion, and off we went, all three of us expectant and eagerly aware. Nothing surpasses the feeling of excitement that comes with the first sight of scenes unglimpsed before — new roads, new hills, new valleys. They make us, who look upon them for the first time, the equal of Cortez who stood upon that peak in Darien. Here, in Crete, the first thing I noticed was that the earth was red like my own neighboring Devon; the hills, when we left the plains and began to climb, had the same stark and rugged grandeur that one finds upon the loftiest Dartmoor tors. These were mountains though, not hills, and the winding road cut out of the rock face turned and twisted ever higher, with a sickening drop to the side of us. We went on and on without respite, all three of us craving food after an early Athens breakfast; it was now past two o’clock.
Then came the descent at last, and beneath us glittering Mirabella Bay and the unspoiled fishing village of Hagios Nikólaos. White houses clustered at the water’s edge, with our hotel a five-minute drive to the west.
Minos Beach Hotel is a long, low building, with spacious rooms and a terrace where one eats. Each guest has his own cottage on the grounds, where hibiscuses and geraniums bloomed. Ours, by the greatest fortune, was right on the sea itself — separate balconies, sun-drenched, the water lapping the rocks below.
“This,” I said, looking about me, “is Paradise. I ask for nothing more.”
And Paradise it remained, without one moment’s afterthought, throughout our holiday. No regret for the rucksacks of long ago, no hankering after goat cheese on a mountain top. This was my territory: whitewashed walls of a simple room, plain as a monk’s cell, bath and “facilities” adjoining. Three steps from my balcony and I was in the sea — morning, noon and night; because dusk came ear could throw off my swim suit, take a shower and don the velveteen dinner slacks, and watch darkness creep down upon the distant mountains opposite, while the harbor lights of Hagios Nikólaos and cottages across the bay cast gold reflections on the water. I could have happily stayed on my balcony at Minos Beach all day. Nevertheless, with explorer’s zeal undimmed, we knew that it would waiting for us in late afternoon when day was done and our energy spent. (We had so much to see elsewhere that must not be missed.)
There was Hagios Nikólaos itself, my Cretan Mevagissey, with fishing boats moored in the harbor and little boutiques selling Grecian bags and pottery — hand-woven, hand-molded — so much more endearing to the eye than the brass trinkets mass-produced in Birmingham, which we offer the visitor back in Cornwall.
Cafes, where we sampled the local wines and liquors; the Bottomless Pool beyond the bridge, said to have unplumbed depths; the dusty roads along the coast fringing the gulf, beside which would be other beaches, yellow spits of sand with no swimmers but ourselves; and a sea so deeply to turquoise that if you captured it on film it would become vulgar, brash. Goats browsing in the scrub; women slapping the weekly wash on great flat stones; villages where at midday the men sit grouped in clans with cards in hand and glasses at elbow, staring with amused disdain at the mad dogs and Englishmen who venture forth under Crete’s sun.
Crete’s Minoan past, however, had to be shared with present-day delights; so, I dragged my young from the sands, where they would have basked all day, and forced them uphill to the ruins of the town of Gournia, overlooking the gulf. We went on a separate expedition to mighty Knossos itself, the palace of the Double-Axes, home of the legendary Minotaur, bull-child of Queen Pasiphaë, consort of King Minos. The shale site was excavated and reconstructed by Sir Arthur Evans at the beginning of the century, and today is the glory of Crete. Malea, contemporary with Knossos but less known to the traveler from Heraklion, was red-hot under the sun the day we saw it, the stones and walls brick-red in hamony. Huge jars for storing oil stood sentinel in the court. Nearer to our base and closer to our own century in time — a mere 3rd Century B.C. — were the ruins of ancient Lato, then one of the strongest towns in Crete; the ruins are perched high above Mirabella Bay. We went westward along the coast across an isthmus and two narrow channels, whipped icy blue by a sudden northernly breeze, and stared in morbid fascination at the abandoned island of Spinalonga, a leper station not twenty years ago, from whose bleak buildings the doomed inhabitants once ants once gazed towards the mainland.
So little time remained and so much we had not seen: Phaistos and Gortyna, the whole of central, southern, and western Crete. The Greek Easter was upon us, with the solemn procession on Good Friday through the streets of Hagios Nikólaos at ten o’clock at night and Judas, in modern dress, hanging from his tree on Saturday. Cristos Anesti — “Christ is risen” — was my greeting to the waiter who brought my breakfast on Easter Day. His courteous reply was, “Christ is risen, indeed.” The presentation of sweet bread and crimson egg. Then, the last swim, the last glimpse of that lonely monastery high on a distant mountain to which we had climbed one vanished dusty day. We had risked death or miscarriage or both to be welcomed by two smiling, wrinkled peasant women (the good Fathers being absent at their prayers), who knew what I meant when I said Nero — and kindly gave us water. They pressed olives upon our pregnant one of the same name, who reluctantly shook her head.
Olive, Irish Catholic born and bred, had instinctively kissed the ikon in the monastery chapel, but there was one final ritual that I had kept in store for her. A mile or so from the airport, up a side road in the hills, there is a cave cut out of the rocks where Cretan women through the centuries have carried offerings to the dweller within, Eleuthera, goddess of childbirth. The entrance is marked by a fig tree. If in ancient days torches flared in the murky sloping depths, matches sufficed for us as we groped our way through goat droppings and mud to the fearsome pillar at the far end of the cave. We scattered flower petals upon the altar stone — and what faded blooms were those, I wondered, beneath the fresh? How many furtive women shunning the Orthodox faith had crept into this cave through the years and cast their prayers and tributes in recognition of an older ritual? To whom did they give thanks when their children were born? It does not matter. The gesture, like woman’s intuition, dates back a hundred thousand years.
Lovely Crete — smelling of thyme and broom and olive groves, watered by mountain streams, encircled by the sea, cradle of civilization, home of those first small dark-eyed sailors who piloted their crafts into the western ocean and found their way past Iberia to Cornwall — we shall come back again next year.
God willing — and Eleuthera. ◊