Thursday, 23 August 2012

Etesian winds - Meltemi (Μελτέμι)

Since the beginning of summer, not once did I see a choppy sea or a cloudy sky. This summer has been a very hot one (to a similar extreme as the last winter, which was very cold), with a still air that made you gasp for breath. Last weekend, for the first time in nearly three months, we felt strong winds and saw waves crashing onto the shore, taking everything with them in their wake at a stretch of ten metres.

August is known in Greece for its meltemi winds: "During hot summer days, this is by far the most preferred weather type and is considered a blessing. They are at their strongest in the afternoon and often die down at night, but sometimes meltemi winds last for days without a break" (Wikipedia). The dry meltemi winds have a cooling, soothing, reviving effect on our parched sunburnt skins. On such days, it is pure joy to be outdoors in summer. On days like this, no one stays indoors. This is the first day in the summer that I took a walk by the romantic picturesque old Venetian harbour which sits over my town like a jeweled crown. We took a stroll in the late afternoon, along with what seemed like the whole town, as the area was busy with tourists and visitors promenading along the port, with many taking a seat at one of the eateries for some al fresco dining.

We started off our walk by the old ABEA factory where olive oil soap was produced en masse for the first time in Hania. The chimneys are all that remain of it now as the factory was forced to relocate due to environmental issues - the area where it was situated (known as Nea Hora - the 'New Town') had become a flourishing suburb, the first in Hania to be built outside the western walls that once enclosed the old town. The former ABEA site is now home to a local high school, and there is free parking available here, within a few minutes' walk to the port area.

 The chimneys of the former ABEA factory

Across from the ABEA site, we caught our first glimpse of the sea, crashing over the barricade separating it from the swimming pool that belonged to the former XENIA hotel. XENIA was demolished a few years ago, in order to renovate the old city walls, and exploit the potential of the area as a local heritage site. The hotel, which was built in the 60s, was declared an illegal site, as parts of the old wall had been destroyed in order to build the hotel's restaurant and kitchen areas. The hotel continued to operate for two decades, until it was forced to close down, and later demolished. The renovation works were successfully completed, in conjunction with the archaeology department of Hania, which helped to reconstruct the city walls to their former state. The moat area that surrounds the former fortifications of the city is now used for open-air exhibitions and fairs during the summer, when the weather guarantees no rain or high winds.

 The western moat of the former city walls of Hania in 2009 (left) and three years later (right) 

The fate of the pool is yet to be announced, but from what was visible of the area, everything is slowly being dismantled and cleared, making way for more modern recreation areas. The water foamed furiously, as it drove outwards onto the shore, covering the kiosk where we were standing with water as the sea spray streamed over it. 

The former XENIA swimming pool area (above) and the now bare western wall (below) on which the XENIA hotel sat. The wall continued uninterrupted along this road in former times. Nowadays some parts of it don't exist; over the years, damage and/or demolition carved out roads in its place. 

The landmark of Hania is its lighthouse, which locals refer to as the faros. It never fails to please, even during a gusty sea when it becomes an even greater spectacle. Before its most recent renovation a couple of years ago, it was last renovated in the early 1800s. It has been presiding over the harbour for almost 600 years, but its present form was built on the base of the previous one, which had a different form. The Venetians who originally built it probably did not envisage that it would look like a minaret six centuries later, which is how it was shaped by the Egyptians, who the English 'gave Crete to' once the Turks left!

The other landmark of the Venetian port is the former mosque at the central square of the harbour. This has been used in many ways since the Turkish Moslem population left the island. At one point, it was a tourist information bureau, now it is mainly an art exhibition centre. A friend of mine was in fact staging her works in it over the weekend while we were there. Across from the lighthouse stands the castle-like fortress used in former times to guard the town - it now houses the naval museum. 

The old port is a magical place to be when the sun starts to set. It's far too hot during the day in the summer to enjoy the atmosphere, as the area offers little shade, unless you choose to sit under the awnings of the eateries lining the quay. The buildings now all have some commercial function: souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels. In the past, they were mainly private dwellings, until the advent of mass tourism in the town. Since then, they have been built on, renovated, and changed in form, keeping abreast of the changes in society.

The tiles at the outer edge of the harbour were rather slippery from all the water splashing onto them. It felt a little strange to be wading our shoes through so much water at this time of the year; in mid-August the meltemi signals its presence, but temperatures rarely drop below 30 degrees Celsius, as they did last weekend. Cretans look forward to this time of year - it's the best part of summer in our eyes, after the torment of over-heated houses and the still stagnant hot atmosphere. Heatwaves also produce very strong winds, but they come from the south (unlike the meltemi which comes form the north) and they create an exhausting humid heat that debilitates you, sapping away your energy during the day. There are times during those hot windy periods when the sheets of your bed feel like they're on fire - you get no rest in such weather. That's when you wish for the meltemi to come sooner than its time...

We waded our way through the water and the crowds, finally stopping off at the art exhibition, where we took a peek inside before sitting at Aroma Cafe, next to the mosque, for a coffee and ice-cream. Refreshments at the harbour are not cheap, not even during a crisis (it is August after all), but all the businesses have a menu card available outside their business for potential customers to browse through. I set a maximum for spending money on this outing at €10.

Individual servings of ice cream cost about €4-5 in most places; it may sound expensive, but you need to remember that there is no time limit placed on you to eat what you order, you can sit here for as long as you like, you will not be harassed to leave as soon as you finish your order, and you will be able to enjoy your time here in peace and quiet (save the clacking of the backgammon peons).

In order to meet the budget, I convinced the kids to have the waffle with Merenda spread and three balls of ice cream of their choice with chocolate topping and nuts (€7), while I had a cappuccino (€3.20). Our bill was slightly over what I had budgeted, but few Europeans stick to their budget these days, and even though there's always a fear that the surplus will come out of another budget which cannot itself be compensated for, money always seems to be found somewhere to plug the gaps, so I won't worry myself too much about the extra €0.20 I had to fork out (0.02% over, to be exact). I suppose I could have a plain coffee when we go back there another time - but that is going strictly against what I've budgeted, as a second outing isn't on the cards this summer...

Bonus photograph: this view always makes ex-pat Haniotes a wee bit teary-eyed; if only they knew how difficult it is for most Haniotes living in the town to catch this view on a regular basis...

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