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Sunday, 10 June 2012

Κρήτη μου, όμορφο νησί (Crete, my beautiful island)

Every year, my children's primary school organises a school trip for the whole school just before schools break up for the end of the term, and the long Greek school summer holidays begin (12 weeks in total). Crete is isolated from the country, so it isn't possible to leave the island for a day trip, but parents are always welcome to accompany their children on this trip, and most of the time, I join mine because the coach ride takes us to some of the lesser visited areas of Crete, and at a cheaper price than taking a private vehicle, with the added bonus of having someone else do the driving.

Despite the relatively small size of the island - the fifth largest in the Mediterranean Sea - Crete's fame and tourist value is mainly due to her wide variety of landscape, archaeological significance, historical importance and areas of natural beauty for relaxation and leisure. Visits to the beach, which invariably involve more responsibility on the part of the teachers, aren't preferred, but most Cretan children spend most of their summer by the beach (and needless to say, we have some of the best beaches in Europe). We generally stick to the west of Crete because it takes at least two hours to get to Iraklio (the northern mid-point of the island) from Hania, and another two hours to get back, so that's a long driving time. There are endless possibilities for interesting places to visit, and there is no shortage of ideas for stops en route. In fact, every few kilometres on the highway, you will come across a sign showing a notable point of interest on the next exit.

ladies at knossos
The beautiful ladies of Knossos were recreated form the few remains that were still left on the frescoes.

Crete is world-famous as the island where the first civilisation of Europe, Knossos, was based, since it is the origin of Cretan, Greek and European culture. This was actually my children's first day-long school trip. It is located in Iraklio at the mid-point of the northern coastline, so all children from all parts of Crete probably visit it at some point in their primary school years. There are also areas of great significance in Cretan history, which allow Cretan children to gain knowledge of their island's historical developments by direct experience. Two years ago, we visited Arkadi, which played an active role in the Cretan resistance of Ottoman rule during the Cretan revolt: the death of nearly 1000 Cretans in the Arkadi monastery in 1866 bought attention to Greece and her fight for independence. 

Arkadi monastery, in the prefecture of Rethmino

Apart from historical sites of interest, we now have our modern wonders being built in Crete as she modernises, like the dam (Fragma Potamon) in the Amari valley of Rethimno, with a capacity of 22.5 million cubic metres of water; when it is full, its depth reaches 44 metres. Water is precious on an island that doesn't get much rainfall during the hot dry summer months.

The Rivers Dam, in the prefecture of Rethmino

The areas of natural beauty are often used as stopovers to admire the Cretan scenery from many different angles. Sometimes there seems to be nothing to do in these areas with thos ebreathtaking views, apart from just sitting in the shade and gazing out at the landscape. For this reason, it could be said that the locals don't often visit these places themselves, because they are out of the way and the costs of getting there don't warrant the excursion. The annual school trip provides me with an opportunity to travel to such places and remind me of my majestic surroundings.    

This year, the trip was more relaxing and less rigidly structured, due to the economic crisis. Other years, we paid for the coach and a pre-ordered meal (which in my honest opinion wasn't always very good and invariably involved too much meaty food that never all got eaten and was simply thrown away). This year, we only paid for the coach (€6.50 per person) and we could bring or buy whatever we wanted to eat along the way without planned dining stops. The bus tour involved both long and short stopovers, depending on the area, where parents and children (including those unaccompanied by their parents, who had their teachers as guardians for the day) were free to spend it in any way they wanted, as long as they got back to the bus by the set time.

Our first stop was at the seaside resort of Georgioupoli, a quiet sleepy village off the highway. Twenty years ago, there were about half a dozen cafes or tavernas in the area. Now there are - well, too many, which looks rather silly in the middle of a crisis. I first visited Georgioupoli with my mother, who had heard of the church built in the sea, which I visited with her. This year, I took my children there too; I have started to go full circle.

While we were walking over the rocky causeway to get to the church, I was amused to see other children following me. None of the other parents bothered to come - most stopped off for coffee at one of those seaside resorts.

Our next stop was at the 3,500 year old cave of Melidoni, which has been used by the local residents since its formation. It was dedicated to Gaia (the goddess of the earth) and Hermes (the gods' messenger). In modern times, it is now a cave of great environmental value, as well as being a site of historical interest due to the deaths of civilians in the cave in their attempt to avoid the Turks during Ottoman rule.

The kiosk before the entrance to the Melidoni cave afford splendid views of Mt Psiloritis (2450m). The old village houses in the surrounding area are built in the style of the Venetians, early conquerors of Crete.

After a brief guided tour in the cave, we got a quick glimpse from the coach of the beautiful Venetian village of Melidoni where the cave is situated. The village was recorded as early as the 14th century, and many of the older buildings there are built in a style reminiscent of those times: arched gates, tall heavy doors and stonework.

After the cave visit, we had another short stopover at the village of Margarites, situated close to Melidoni, also originating during the time of the Venetian occupation. Margarites is well known all over Greece for its pottery, due to the numerous deposits of clay in the area, which explains to some extent the long pre-occupation of the inhabitants with the art of pottery. Permanent kilns were set up in the area since the beginning of the last century. The decline of the pottery industry began in the 1960s, once plastic became more practical and cheaper to produce, but the potter's skill is noticeably still alive in Margarites, and there are local people who have been involved all their life in this trade. 

The old traditional pottery style of Greece, the making of urns and other such functional vessels, is still going strong in the village of Margarites, and they sit side-by-side with the newer art forms of clay work, such as wall hangings and ornaments. 

For lunch, we stopped off at Rethimno, a venetian town smaller than but similar to Hania, where I took the kids for a souvlaki, an economical and enjoyable Greek kiddies' treat. Because we had a lot of time to spare, with the promise of an ice-cream dessert, I lured them into visiting the Fortezza of Rethimno with me, a very well-maintained historical site.

 Rethimo is a small town, so most sites worth visiting are tightly clustered together, but to admire them, you still need mroe than a day. (Needless to say, no one followed us up here, after all that retsina and souvlaki...) The pirate ship in Rethimno harbour made quite an impression on my son, who also saw it asail from the coach!

On the way back home, we also got another stopover by the picturesque Lake Kourna, the only  natural freshwater lake in Crete. There really isn't much to do here, except chill out!
 Potato fields, vineyards, olive trees - the residents are well set up to be self-sufficient in a remote area. Many of them also tend sheep and goats, rabbits and chickens, so they are never out of meat and cheese for their daily use.

The natural beauty of the Cretan landscape, the ease with which the earth yields enough food to feed her people, and her relative proximity to the mainland without being too close to it have all helped to make Crete a permanent home to many of our tourists who have sold up in their homelands and come to live here. It really is quite a good place to raise a family, without being too small to make us feel disconnected with the rest of the world.



The coach trip refreshed my early holiday memories of my homeland. It's difficult to experience Crete in this way on a regular basis due to the economic situation and the daily routine., even though we live relatively close to such beautiful surroundings. Most of the time, most of us take a lot of what our homeland has to offer us for granted. But most of the time, such scenery also needs a good παρέα and κέφι to be enjoyed fully. A busload of jolly parents and their children, especially after a few retsinas, raises everyone's spirits.


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