Monday, January 14, 2013

when the sun shines brightly on Crete

To laugh, at the beauty of it, at the splendid sun that pours down at us here, today, at the blue waters of the Aegean, the warm breeze that comes in from the south -- to laugh at it all, the mishaps, the aborted adventures but also the ones that surpassed expectations. Yes, to laugh, or at least smile at this radiant day on the island of Crete.

But first, there is breakfast, prepared by Diana (yes, that is her name!), in the sunny kitchen of the Mama Nena.

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We managed to eat our way through the entire marble cake and so she baked us another. With olive oil again. And bits of chocolate throughout.

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Always, she encourages us to finish with yogurt. Dribbled with the honey of the thyme covered hills.

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And what do we have planned? The clouds have almost completely receded -- sucked in by the mountains. There, they fight their last battle, but we can tell they don't stand a chance: it's going to be a fine day!

We don't want to drive much. Ed is tired of it, I am scared of it (even on this gentle day of a drive equal to maybe 20 kilometers each way, we have two near misses -- one by a passing car and another when a dog runs out in front of us, forcing Ed to slam the brakes hard). So we go to the Akrotiri peninsula. It's the next bit of land jutting out into the sea just to the east of Chania. And though it's close, it feels oceans away.

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Oh that blue sky! How fortunate we are to have these last days on Crete be so full of the topaz blue and azure green and all shades in between.

We make our way slowly, leisurely, to the tip of the peninsula. That's Stavros beach -- as viewed from the hills to the side the little bay.

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It's nearing sixty right now and though most anyone here would regard this as winter jacket weather, some have a different attitude.

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Stavros beach may be familiar to anyone who has seen the movie Zorba the Greek. They filmed the last scene here -- the dance on the beach. Stavros Beach. Not surprisingly, there is a taverna with the name Zorba to the side. Closed now for the season.

We're in Stavros because I read somewhere that you could hike along the edge of hills that jut down to the water and reach the Agia Triada monastery and then, too a gorge -- for additional hiking. All this turns out to be not exactly correct. But, we don't know this yet. We find a path (which looks remarkably like the goat paths that traverse the mountainside) and set out along the coast.

I ask Ed if a goat could send rocks hurling down towards us. It's a pretty steep incline -- enough so that we walk much of it in the shade of the northern slope. He comments that we're seeing more sheep than goats right now.


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We continue in this way for an hour, maybe longer.

There are clumps of herbs and brush and quite a number of wild bulbs, threatening a splendid spring showing of flowers.

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And old, crumbling shelters, made of the boulders from the hillside.

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At what point do we decide to turn back? When we encounter the local foragers, with plastic sacks of herbs and unknown to us plants? I ask them if we can reach the gorge and monastery this way and the old man shakes his head. His hand indicates sharp incline. Dangerous. A word I understand.

Even then, we continue a bit more. But after a while, I stumble, sending rocks down toward the water. It's not really a threatening stumble -- I have plenty of space to catch myself. And I do so by putting my hand down on a shrub. A dozen sharp needles pierce my palm, as if I were smacking down a porcupine with fully extended quills.

Ed tries to remove some of the spikes from my hand, as I stand there wondering how the sheep know to steer clear of the prickly menace.

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And still we continue.  But, within a few more steps the path becomes indistinguishable from the treks of animals. It's always tempting to go just a little more, but by now there are too many signs that this hike is not meant to reach a destination.

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I am quite happy to be on the retreat. On a credible path, bathed by sunshine...

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Smiling at the loveliness of the view before me.

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Alright, we could not reach the monastery on foot. Let's try by car. It's the usual guessing game: sometimes there'll be a directional sign, other times not so much. Go this way! No, maybe not. Turn around. Okay, maybe that was right after all... Eventually we do find it and it is really quite enchanting.

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Picture yourself cloistered here,  making olive oil for the market, retreating into the quiet of the courtyard scented by jasmine in the evening.

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I ask the priest if the church is open. I don't think he understands English, but he does pull out a huge key and manipulates it so that I can go inside. It's quite pretty, with a good bit of delicate ornamentation, but I don't linger. Another priest is engaged in rituals of worship. I am the interloper. I retreat.

I join Ed in the courtyard. He has made the usual friend there.

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We're ready to leave, but I'm curious about the gorge and the hike down to it. Ah, the gorge. That's in another monastery. The Gouverneto Monastery.

It's not far. Maybe five kilometers. We follow the winding road (what else is new)...

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... up to the Monastery and there we find a sign. Winter hours: 16 - 19. Well now, that's twenty minutes from now. We nap in the car waiting for permission to enter.

And when it is in fact 4 pm, we walk through the gate and bypass the chapels and courtyards altogether. (No photos for you: they're not allowed here.) The goal is to find the gorge and the relics of an older monastery within in it. I read on someone's Internet site that it's a hefty descent (and therefore also ascent on the return).

Ah, to be a goat... How do they do it? How do they keep from tumbling down into the ravine?

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We find the path. It's a well kept path, but it is steep. It makes its way down, between the hills and then, after another bend and twist, you see it -- the gorge.

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... and within the cliffs, there are caves, and sweeping stone walls arch the hills, and really, the place is hauntingly beautiful.

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It's 4:30 now and we have a bit of a concern about daylight. The sun sets sometime after five. We still haven't reached the relics of the older monastery. (I want to have a conversation with the monks or priests who set the winter hours to be so late -- why give us permission to enter the gorge so late,  when there isn't enough light to climb out of it afterwards?)

Finally. We are between cliffs of copper stone. And there it is -- Greece's oldest monastery (or relics of one). Dating to the 11th century.

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I tell Ed we must hurry back up.  Just a minute more, to walk among walls of stone that have seen centuries roll by - one after another, and another and then a handful more.

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In the end, we have plenty of daylight to help guide us up again. The sun sets just as we begin our trip home, to Chania, to the Mama Nena.

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Dinner? Yes, well, we'd promised the affable Steolis -- the owner, cook, waiter of Chania's vegetarian (and vegan if you're so inclined) restaurant that we'd stop by there on this night. (We encountered him in front of his place the other day and he enticed us with breads and cakes and we said okay okay okay, we'll eat here Sunday!)

(On the way to dinner, we meet again the cat with the mustache. This time he is willing to pose for a photo.)

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We are the only diners at Steolis' place this evening (his business picks up in the summer season), unless you count his daughter and her friend.

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Steolis tells us we are here on a good day because he has just baked many loaves of bread.

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And prepared an eggplant dish with garlic, raisins and pomegranate seeds. In fact, he sort of takes over picking dishes for us -- half a portion of the chestnuts and onions, some wilted greens from the hills, a pie stuffed with dock leaves, yogurt with honey. And a mystery tea made from herbs that only Steolis could possibly name.

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Eating here is sort of like eating at your parent's place again: you don't dare voice objections and you have to be prepared for stories that are not only about the food but also have a bit of a philosophy of life component to them. Ed and I meekly eat and listen and the food is actually quite good, so it is a fine experience. Though we breathe a sigh of relief when we're out. Sort of like getting permission to leave the table after you've finished.

The walk back to Mama Nena is lovely: the stars are out tonight. We're hoping for good weather for the next and final day on the island.