CHAPTER 3: Exploration
“We’ll get some food, soon” I told the children as we pulled into one of the little side streets of Chania (pronounced Heinya) the second largest city of Crete. “Lets just look around here.” It had only taken us about an hour to drive from our little beach stopover west of Iraklion and we were all hungry. But the Venetian Fortress beckoned.
We parked as close as possible to the glittering expanse of lights heralding shops and stalls and restaurants that formed a huge crescent shape of land cocooning the sea. On one end of this crescent moon bay, the fortress, half in ruins, guarded the eastern point. We explored the empty rooms and halls and balustrades and tried to imagine it filled with soldiers at ease, their weapons at their sides, and the jocularity as they swigged the local raki in metal cups. We stopped and leaned over a crenulated stone balustrade. The water lapped below the high western wall where it was easy to imagine the harbor filled with a flotilla of Venetian ships as I had seen in many paintings.
Chania has its two faces. The outskirts and expressionless part of the city that could be taken for almost anywhere, and then the cobbled, twisting mysterious old city with all the charm and ambience of lives lived centuries earlier. A step back in time. We were in a Disneyland time warp, but it was real.
Dinner with our family meant stopping at at least three different stands or stalls. Everyone’s tastes in our family were very specific.
“Tyler, do you want pizza?” I turned to son number two already knowing the answer. Pizza for some of us worked fine, and the pizza was delicious. But for those who couldn’t stomach tomato sauce, it didn’t work. “I’ll try to ask them to leave off the tomato sauce.” But there were crowds at this stand and with my limited Greek I couldn’t communicate this obscene request.
“I’ll just have plain spaghetti, mom.”
“That’s all you ever have,” said Ashley. “Really Tyler, you should eat some vegetables
And healthy stuff. Just try it with the sauce. It’s good.” But Tyler refused to put his taste buds in jeopardy.
I loved the souvlaki, with succulent meat sliced from the huge leg of lamb or pig that turned slowly on a spit next to a constant flame. Trent had to have that without the tzatziki or cucumber sauce, and tomatoes and onions and lettuce that they added. Naked souvlaki, we called it. The pastries wrapped in Phyllo with just cheese worked for Ashley sometimes but the spinach ones, which I loved, well that was too much green vegetable for my picky kids. For Tyler, the staple that year seemed to be plain spaghetti – no sauce. Just cheese. This unusual request seemed to stump the pizza people. They would furrow their eyebrows and say “What?” I repeated the request in my halting Greek. “ spangéti, chorís sáltsa. móno voútyro.” Then then they would shrug their shoulders and deliver over the pale tasteless looking pile of noodles, albino worms I thought. And my son would eat. For days, Tyler existed on plain spaghetti.
We each ate our choice of food sitting on the edge of the cement embankment of the bay as people engaged in mumbles of unintelligible conversation strolled behind us. There were restaurants, souvenir shops, food stalls one after the other, delighting us with the colors, smells and sounds of vibrant life. We found a bland hotel in a bland part of town, but we were fired with the adventurers lust and slept like the innocents abroad that we were.
On the map, going from the north coast to the south of Crete looks like a simple one hour drive. In reality, the long skinny shape of Crete has a backbone that has protected the southern coast from centuries of invasions. Eventually the invaders filtered down the perilous slopes, hostile ravines and rugged angry terrain to the south. But they rarely conquered it. What is there to conquer? Small fishing villages, stark hills sparsely populated with enclaves of feuding peasants and nomadic shepherds.
It is easy to imagine only 50 years earlier before electricity and TV signals how isolated they were. But for us, having arrived in the progressive 80’s at least the small serpentine roads over the mountains were passable. Thirty miles an hour was top speed, and the occasional woman in black, leading her donkey, laden with sticks, or the moustached man, scarf rakishly tied around his head herding a handful of frisky goats made progress slow. Every once in a while we stopped to gaze over the birds eye view of our island, ripples of hills and valleys, dust colored and olive green, until the distant azure of the coast appeared hazy and almost as a wavy mirage.
After several hours winding dizzily on dirt roads we reached the Southern coast. We had been told that on a clear day you could see Libya from here. It was not clear enough that day, but we were nonetheless delighted to encounter civilization again. We parked our car in a little village which was right on the coast, and was bordered on the east by a huge stretch of white sand that culminated in a rocky mass of boulders and cliffs. We strolled toward the simple white dwellings and several taverns and cafenaeos that hunkered close to the sea. Only a smattering of small fishing boats rocked limply near a man made breakwater. Some with sails still pointing upward were nestled like small chicks under their mother’s wing.
We ambled along the road, and tried to blend in as the dark, somber eyes of the men sitting and smoking and drinking coffee followed us. All men. I wondered often what unwritten rule in Greece kept the women from sitting out for hours with their friends, relaxing, gossiping, drinking coffee or ouzo. Were they not allowed to socialize? To smoke and play card games or simply fiddle with their worry beads taking a load off their feet? Conversation seemed to stop as we ambled by. The men that were gathered around tables smoking, downing a half full glass of dark ouzo or nursing a blackened dredge they called coffee, followed our progress with intense focus. Obviously a blonde woman with four rowdy kids bouncing behind her didn’t pass this way often.
“Hey Mom, I’m hungry.” Ashley pulled at my sleeve and pointed. “There’s a place that has food.” I knew that the snacks we had purchased at a small shop outside of Iraklion were not going to sustain us for dinner. In the car were dried noodles and a camp stove. A pathetic repast. I turned in at the one open rather pathetic looking shop and let each of the kids pick out something for dessert and a piece of fruit. The little retail establishments in Crete were like many all over Europe. A far cry from our massive, warehouse-like pristine grocery stores. Goods were stacked haphazardly without any rhyme or reason, usually only one or two of a kind. Small tubs of fruits and vegetables were placed out in front, and going inside one had to wind through a narrow cluttered aisle, which was the extent of the store….a narrow cluttered aisle.
I bought some green onions and carrots to add to the soup, a box of juice for our libation and the kids debated endlessly over chips and candy. We walked away from the little settlement and headed toward the east end of the deserted beach and set up camp. This meant each of us setting out a sleeping bag and small pillow. This end of the beach about 100 yards from the town was protected by a rocky incline, where one could find little pockets of secluded sand and boulders creating individual little enclaves.
“Mom, I’m going to sleep here,” Trent called over his shoulder as he hefted his bag and sleeping apparatus towards the distant bank of cliffs that rose like a sentinel beside us. Ty followed him off into the distance.
“Ty, you have to find your own place,” Trent hurried his pace and called back. “This is mine. I’m going to find the perfect space for my sleeping bag, a little rock for my head, a place to put my book and flashlight, all cozy. Just big enough for one.”
I could tell by the way Tyler shuffled off in a different direction he was disappointed. But Clay ran up behind him calling “Hey, Ty. I’m coming. Let’s find our own fort.”
“I’ll bet you a hundred dollars you will all be down here by me when it’s dark.” I smiled. “Now go and gather some wood. We’re going to have a fire.” For the next hour the kids explored, gathered wood, climbed up the small ravines and boulders until they were just little figures in the distance.
I was born a non worrier. It’s nothing I tried to develop, and it may seem indifferent or irresponsible to some. I think of it as a gift. My progeny were off being children. If they fell, they were learning their limits. How does one gain an education unless by trial and error? I guess I have a “Pollyanna” faith in the universe. Because I had faith that they would be protected, they usually were. So I set about making dinner while Clayton teased sand crabs, Ashley made a fairy castle out of rocks and sand and Trent and Tyler disappeared around the outcropping of rocks that were the boundary of our little bay.
The weather was mild and delicious this early in September. We had taken a dip in the water when we first arrived, and now that it was dark, our stomachs were filled and we lay back on blankets and looked up at the sky as it seemed to darken before our eyes, slipping from a purple shadow to a blanket of black.
“There’s the first star,” Ashley called out exuberantly, pointing with a hand we couldn’t see.
“That’s a planet.” said Tyler. ”That’s Venus.” No one contradicted Tyler. He just seemed to know those kinds of things.
“There’s another one,” Clay exclaimed with triumph. One by one we watched as the night sky gave us a show, unveiling its jewels bit by bit until it felt as if a shower of tiny lights had been poured into the heavens. I don’t remember seeing a sky so illuminated except at my parent’s cabin in the Uintas, miles from habitation. Here the intimacy of the space above us seemed to blanket us with protection. It’s as if that night sky knew we needed protection and it was saying, “We are here, every night, even when you don’t see us, but you can rely on us to be above you as you journey, to comfort you when your weary day is done. We will not desert you. When in doubt, step away from man and look up and feel our spacious peace.”
I formed perfect hollows for the bumps and curvatures of my body in the sand, and then arranged my sleeping bag and pillow over them. I read to Clay and Ash by flashlight, swatting away little flying gnats while Trent and Tyler retired to their individual sleeping hollows in the rocks and sand yards away. I feel asleep instantly, exhausted with the anxiety of completing our first day in Crete. I barely stirred when I heard the rustling of two boys dragging their bags and pillows next to the three of us, to form a tight little circle of family.
My Uncle had lived in the small city of Sitia for six months on the Western part of Crete years before, and loved it. In his 50s and 60s he lived his dream of adventure. Mine must be hereditary. Reading Kazantakis’s Zorba the Greek had influenced Uncle Bob mightily so we thought we would at least pass through the town he loved. To do that it was necessary to go north again, as there was no road along the south coast. The villages weren’t connected to each other on the south, except by boat. For centuries these small fishing enclaves on the bottom part of the thin strip of land that is Crete had been isolated, wild and rugged. It meant another slow, bumpy ride over the mountain passes heading north.
We stopped for lunch in Iraklion and this time saw a much more enticing side of the old city. Trent and Tyler had used some of the money they brought with them from home, and each bought a slingshot from a souvenir shop. With windows down, and one boy on each side of the car, the stones were flying. It became a game as to who could hit a roadside sign as we whizzed past. When The boys ran out of stones we would stop the car by the side of the road, hop out and grab handfuls of little rocks. The women with their donkeys we had sped past overtook us and I’m sure wondered what exactly this carful of light haired children wanted with piles of random roadside pebbles.
I never regretted the slingshots. When the boys became more practiced and would often hit their target, making little dents in the metal, we had to be more circumspect. I didn’t want anyone complaining about little tiny indentations in government property, although judging from the state of road signs generally, they wouldn’t notice. My Davids with no Goliaths became rather adept with their weapons and I had to restrict their use to a fair distance from human targets.
Aghios Nikolaos was one of the larger dots on the on the map of Crete, and we had been driving for 2 hours towards Sitia. I took a turn leading off the main southeast road into another town so we could stop, stretch our legs and look around. In the little town center was a plaza with grass, a large statue of a Greek hero, and shops and restaurants surrounding this oasis of green. We followed the main road down a hill lined with colorful shops and parked where the sea front began. Boat masts were lined up like soldiers waiting for orders in the small lagoon. I read later that Aghios Nikolaos, a sleeping little fishing village, is sometimes referred to as the St. Tropez of Crete. Five months a year it is jammed with European sun lovers, but the other seven colder months it is small and intimate with just the local people breathing a sigh of relief to have their village back again.
I knew right away, before I even parked the car. I don’t know how I knew. One of those feelings that you never question. I pulled a “Brigham Young” (you need to know Mormon pioneer history to get that) and said to my children.
“Guys, I think ‘this is the place’.” Forget Sitia.
It was charming….not too big, not too small. We immediately were intrigued with what looked like a little lake surrounded on two sides by cliffs and the other two sides with paths leading upwards to the higher town.
The Lake was exquisite. Okay, the word exquisite hardly describes any lake. But in Agios Nikolaos the Lake was not only beautiful, but unique. It did not belong in a coastal town, half of it framed by sheer rock walls. One could almost imagine it nestled in an Alpine village in Switzerland. Lake Voulismeni is landlocked except for a small outlet that rolled into the sea. The only division between the lake and the sea was a narrow section of land crowned with an arching bridge over the river outlet, and a road that turned to the left or to the right to follow the coast in both directions. The lake was bottomless, so one of the postcards read.
“I’m sure it is NOT bottomless” remarked Trent, flipping now through a guidebook of Crete.”They just haven’t found the bottom. What about sonar?” Years later we read that a depth had been established. It was 210 feet deep.
“It’s cool the way the lake is freshwater, coming from who knows where, and then just dumps its overflow into the sea. “ Tyler chimed in standing next to a display of ornate knives. “ There must be a lot of underground rivers or something. I kind of like this place, it’s different.”
“I like it because it has playgrounds on the beach and the beach is right next to the town,” Clayton bumbled out with ice cream and chocolate on his face from the Magnum bar he was eating.
“Did you hear me?” I leaned down towards the group of them and spoke softly. “We are going to live in this town. It feels right.”
“Yeh, I think it seems good, Mom,” Trent smiled at me, always cool, calm and collected.
“Yeh, we’ve driven enough,” Ashley added, yawning. We need to settle in.”