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Thursday, 30 August 2012

The old Hania-Kissamos national road (Παλαιά Εθνική Οδος Χανιά-Κισσάμου)

Sometimes I feel I haven't travelled as much as I would like to in my own town. We drive along the same roads every day to get from A to B and to get our jobs done. Then we leave town and go elsewhere for a holiday. But I could easily take a holiday in my own area, without needing to drive further than 100 kilometres, not just to see but also to feel the most picturesque sights that I have not had the chance to get close to. I recently found a good opportunity for this during a drive out to Kissamos harbour. Instead of taking the highway, I took the curly route through some almost forgotten villages on the old national (mainly coastal) road that once linked Kissamos with Hania. It took longer, but I saw places I would never have seen if I had taken the national highway.


Coming off the motorway at the coastal town of Platanias (near Agia Marina), a choice village for many of our  package tourists, we drove on to Maleme village, where we stopped off at the old bridge rebuilt by the Nazis during WW2. Bridges were usually built in the traditional style of the area (eg with stone), or they were very rudimentary. The bridge was originally built in 1901, using steel imported from Germany, but it was designed and built by Greeks. It was partly destroyed during the Nazi occupation, and was roughly rebuilt by the Germans. It has been renovated twice since then. When the Nazis came, they built steel constructions that were made to last forever. Some of those bridges are still being used now, but others have become obsolete due to new roads being built alongside them - but they are hardly ever torn down, and in fact, they are maintained, because they are often used as footbridges and they have contemporary historical value. The Maleme bridge has been slightly renovated, but the basic structure is the one that was built 100 or so years ago. They are part of the legacy that has remained in Greece of German occupation during WW2. These bridges are admired for their durability - things made in modern times are not usually made to last forever, like these bridges.

The German-built bridge in Maleme is no longer in use - a road has been built next to it (on the right hand side in these photos).


The Maleme area is full of reminders of WW2. The German cemetery for soldiers killed during WW2 in Crete is located here on a little hill overlooking the panoramic view, a fitting place for the young lives lost to rest in peace.

At one point, in a nondescript village whose name we didn't manage to catch (I think it was Plakalonas), I drove past what looked like a very old grocery store, which also acted as a cafe, as grocery stores in small villages did in older times. I immediately realised that this would be a classic one-stop shop for the older residents of the area, which looked as though it was made up of small neighbourhoods with this grocery-cafe in the centre.

This grocery-cafe is probably where the mail is delivered, where fresh bread is delivered possibly daily form a local bakery in a larger area, where the bus stops, where the people meet up with each other, where they go to see another villager, where grandparents buy their grandchildren an ice cream, where they buy their gas bottle for cooking (and in the winter, for heating too), where they may buy locally made soft drinks, where they may see the odd passing stranger, where they will buy Greek ground coffee and sugar when they run out, and a koulouraki if they have last minute visitors, where they read a newspaper, and where they find out who died or had a baby.

Kafe To Athinaikon (Cafe "The Athenian") began operating in 1945, just as WW2 was over, when food supplies began to replenish in the area, when people began to make up for what they lost during the war, when they began to feel free to live as they once used to, and the fact that it is still going now almost 70 years later shows that its function hasn't changed for many of the older residents of the area. 

As you drive through the windy roads of the Kissamos area, you cannot help noticing the very green and highly fertile landscape, much of which is covered by olive trees. What you probably don't realise is that many of these groves are full of century-old olive trees. You will see olive trees with very warped twisted trunks. These trees outlive humans! 
Although the traditional image of Crete is found everywhere in the region, there is also a changing Crete tucked away in these secret nooks and crannies, a lesser known Crete to most people, created by non-Greeks who have adopted Crete as their homeland. These people have brought their own know-how to the area and offer services that are appreciated by their country's travellers; in this way, they help provide a greater range of services for the varying tourists whose tastes are now changing, and moving away from traditional tourism as it was known a decade earlier.

 st john baptist kasteli hania chania
Before arriving at Kissamos harbour, you will come across the church of St John the Baptist,. commemorating his birthday. The church is built on the side of a cave; the rock forms one of the walls of the church. This church always has visitors stopping by during the summer. 


The fertility of the Kissamos area hosts a wide variety of plants; this papyrus plant near Koleni village stood out against the clear blue sky, while the pumpkin's bold colours made a bold statement in the olive grove.

Still in the village of Koleni, we drove by a row of houses which all had their own private iconostasis outside their home, viewable from the street to the passerby. One of those miniature churches was dedicated to St Emmanuel of Sfakia, a home-grown Cretan saint. He was depicted in the icon as wearing the traditional formal outfit of the Cretan man - the vraka (Cretan trousers).


Not all things are as they seem - we passed what looked like a house built in the style representing old Cretan grandeur, left to the elements, with a grindstone which was now being used as a potted plant container.

To see these sights, you need a car, you need to drive off the beaten track (which is narrow with bendy curves) and you need about at least 90 minutes from Hania to enjoy all the sights I've mentioned. Even though we managed to stop at quite a few places, we still didn't manage to see all the secret Crete that I know is hiding inland behind the motorway - so I will have to make one more visit to the area soon...

By the time we reached Kissamos harbour to take the boat, we felt we'd already just been on a tour of Western Crete - but the fun was only just beginning!

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