Friday, January 11, 2013

goats on the island of Crete

I kept my eye toward the harbor and my ear toward the sound of a returning seaman. Ed's ferry was to dock in the old port at around 6 in the morning. Someone would have to let him into the Mama Nena b&b (they call it "charming hotel," and it is) once he made his way to it. That someone would be me. (We are the sole guests right now and the proprietors don't live here: this is their grandmother's old home. They live out on a farm several miles outside of the town of Chenia.) At 7 a.m. I hear the pounding on the front door. Three flights down and I see my sailor man come in from the sea. You'd think he'd collapse after a night of sleeping on the floor of a ferry boat, but no -- he is hyped and heroically steady on his feet and ready to go.

First, I show off our lovely views. To the harbor (put the two photos side by side in your imagination):

DSC08673 - Version 2

DSC08674 - Version 2

And to the mountains in the south (yes, snow covered!):

DSC08680 - Version 2

But the sea is the draw for us. I say to Ed -- look, a fisherman right under our window!


Then there's breakfast. Matina -- one of the three children of Nena -- hovers over us. This is from our farm: she points to the oranges, the goat cheese, the olives, the marmalade. She and her helper are so perfect and talented at this innkeeing thing that I have to wonder if she, like our hosts in Alacati, Turkey, had traveled far and wide to learn her craft. No - she says simply. I travel with my sons to all their lessons! There is no time right now to travel outside of Crete! 

Ed is busy enjoying his breakfast. He's already made friends with Matina's helper by showing his love for her olive oil marble pound cake: he helps himself to a generous slice every time he passes through the kitchen. This has happened many times today already. (It's a great cake! -- he tells her each time and she just smiles and smiles.)

DSC08675 - Version 2

Matina knows her island well and she is a great source of information and tips: what to see, where to drive.

Ah yes, we capitulate and rent  a car again (at $70 for five days, it seems worth it: the tiny hamlets in the mountains are hard enough to reach; without a car, we're stuck to a different, town-centered itinerary). But the rental boys are adamant --pick up the car at the airport! That's the deal!

My sweet sailor man offers to take the bus over to the airport and come back with the car. (Or maybe it's that he relishes navigating on his own for a little bit; stumbling though the driving idiosyncrasies of a new place is tricky and my driving suggestions are often times, well, possibly superfluous.)

While he's attending to the business of getting the cheap rental (it's quite different than going, say, to a Hertz or EuropCar; there's no front desk at the airport, no spiffy van to take you to your vehicle, the dispatcher is somewhere else, the cars show up out of nowhere...), I take the time to stroll through Chania.

This is the second largest town in Crete (Heraklion, at 175,000, is three times larger and they say three times less attractive). And whereas Cesme, Chios and Mytilini (our three previous port destinations) were working towns -- geared more toward conducting the business of producing and distributing goods and services for a larger region -- Chania is a good looking girl and in the summer, she draws her loyal following. (There is also a considerable British expat population present -- they flock here as they do to the other less expensive regions of southern Europe and, like elsewhere, not learning the local language well, they're forced to stick with their own lot. I learned all this by sitting next to an expat on my flight over. Not surprisingly, many of the cheap airlines provide direct service from London to Crete.)

I make my way to the covered market (there is also an outdoor one as we learn later, trying to make our way through the maze of streets in the old town). Fresh fish, salted fish, olives -- all the predictable stuff. And some other additions: natural sponges from the sea. Olive wood utensils and bowls. Spices, including three foot long cinnamon sticks and dried bunches of oregano. Nuts, honeys and nuts in honeys.

DSC08698 - Version 2

DSC08689 - Version 2

DSC08690 - Version 2

DSC08691 - Version 2


DSC08695 - Version 2

DSC08684 - Version 2
(just outside the market hall)

I don't linger. I'll be back with Ed another time. I walk back along shopping streets, then along the water's edge enjoying the sunshine. The temps are climbing into the mid fifties. It really is a gorgeous day.

DSC08700 - Version 2

DSC08706 - Version 2
(I never know what the signs mean)

DSC08710 - Version 2

My occasional traveling companion drives up to where we'd arranged a meetup and we head out toward the hills. Crete has a series of fantastic gorges and though the biggest and the best are inaccessible in the winter, we get a taste for them almost immediately as we leave town.

DSC08726 - Version 2

It's a quiet road. Well, not exactly quiet. First, we encounter the bleating of the sheep.

DSC08735 - Version 2

They scamper off as we pause the car. Sheep always run in packs. Dumb sheep. They have no independent thought processes. (But they produce the cutest little lambs!)

DSC08739 - Version 2

Then we encounter the goats. A whole herd is resting by the side of the road.

DSC08765 - Version 2

As I get out to take some photos, some, especially those with little kids, pick themselves up to move on.

DSC08757 - Version 2

I don't want to disturb them, so I head back to the car. It's interesting that they aren't afraid of cars. We look out the window (on Ed's side) and we're charmed by the variety of sounds their bells make. This is only the second video clip I've ever bothered with and so you'll have to forgive the sloppiness here -- not helped by the fact that I am awkwardly leaning over Ed's lap to do this, but I really want to give you 60 seconds of the enchantment we felt as we listened and watched. Imagine their thoughts, their conversations, just in this little snippet of film:


Alright. Time to move on. Hills beckon and the goats must roam.

Up we go and here's the fantastic part about Crete: you're on this small island of warm summer sunshine and quite decent winter weather as well, and then, within minutes, you're touching snow.

DSC08774 - Version 2

DSC08782 - Version 2

It's really quite magical! I think -- this is not possible. I'm used to places with snowy mountains. Colorado. The Alps. And places with orange groves. Florida. Seville. But here, within a handful of miles, the two worlds meet.

DSC08815 - Version 2

The road is curvy as anything and it is potmarked and narrow. It's rare that you see such snaked roads in America. In Greece they are the norm: up it goes, with 180 degree turns, up the hill, then down again, to the next hamlet and the next.

DSC08799 - Version 2

DSC08794 - Version 2

I can't really mind (even as we pass too many crosses by the side of the road where I can only imagine some less fortunate have missed the spin around). It's too beautiful a drive to be completely scared. (Even though I do offer a meekly delivered bit of advice on how to navigate the most treacherous segments.)

There are, of course, the olive groves.

DSC08800 - Version 2

And the churches --  high in the hills and along the road, too.

DSC08803 - Version 2

DSC08805 - Version 2

And now it's late afternoon: time to retire the car for the day. We take a pause to enjoy our fetching "Stella" room at Mama Nena. The three rooms of the hotel (I know I said four yesterday - that was an error, there are only three) are named after the women in the family: greatgrandmother Argyri, grandmother Matina, her sister Stella.

(The face of the Mama Nena can be seen, of course, from the old harbor: it's the narrow red building. Our windows are the two top ones.)

DSC08819 - Version 2


DSC08820 - Version 2

We do laundry too (traveling light means you do laundry... several times): the presence of radiators makes drying anything here a breeze.

And in the evening, we cross the old harbor for dinner at the... well, I can't really help you here. The name is entirely in Greek. This place:

DSC08821 - Version 2

...where the owners have actually set aside indoor space for the nonsmokers (so they are half compliant with the law, even as everyone else is not at all compliant). We order a Crete salad (which has the addition of Crete greens and goat cheeses, both fresh and aged) and spinach pies...

DSC08826 - Version 2

and we share a chicken roasted in olive oil and lemon and with potatoes, as well as a dish of mountain mushrooms and greens.

DSC08828 - Version 2

DSC08827 - Version 2_2

And we breathe a sigh of relief -- we're back with the small prices we've come to expect and love here. And the food is superb. Fresh and honest! And the waiter treats us (and probably everyone else) as if we were his most special guests. There is an element of sincerity in restaurants that I love so much here. It's not just a pasty grin: the smile comes from the heart.

We walk back along the harbor. Ed tries to make friends with cats. Most wont let him come near them. This one fellow was only mildly skittish -- he moved around enough to make for a very imperfect photo, but I had to put it up anyway: I'd never seen a cat with such a clearly defined 'mustache!'

DSC08835 - Version 2

The lights shimmer in the waters of the harbor. We can hear music in the cafes. People talking, laughing, late late into the night.  The problems facing Greece seem distant. Elsewhere. Crete, our innkeeper tells us, lives under her own god.

Crete is Greek, but a person from Crete is a Cretan -- a Kritikós (Κρητικός). The gods smile brightly on this island in the southern waters of the Mediterranean. Yes, it surely feels that way here.