Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Sfakia (Σφακιά)

The last time I visited Sfakia, an area of southern Crete, was sixteen or so years ago at the invitation of a friend whose mother lived in the village of Rodakino. It was summertime and my friend's brother had gone fishing. He had bought back a 'smerna' (sea eel), which his mother cooked for lunch. I can still remember how delicious that meal was. I had never tried eel before, but anything cooked within an hour of being caught would have tasted delicious. I hadn't been back since then. Last Sunday, we visited Sfakia as a family, having talked a lot about it for a long time. It's a long and winding road to get there, even though it seems so close by: the area known as Sfakia is basically right on the other side of the Lefka Ori (White Mountains) that we see from our house.

Lefka Ori last Easter during a long winter, as seen from my home. What's on the other side of those white mountains?
Sfakia consists of a collection of villages starting from the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) located on rocky mountain slopes, reaching right down to the Libyan sea on the south coast.

This area was regarded as a fort in its own right. It is said that Sfakia was never conquered: not by the Arabs who came to Crete in 824, nor by the Ottomans. The Venetians kept a garrison in the coastal village of Hora but did not venture further into craggy hills. Sfakia played an important role in the evacuation of allied troops during WW2. But the terrain proved formidable; it could only be crossed by people who knew the paths and had developed the appropriate walking skills needed to traverse its very difficult terrain.

Olive trees growing in rocks
Sfakia is full of steep bare hills and many narrow gorges. The landscape changes abruptly once you leave the village of Vrysses in Apokoronas. Lush foliage and plentiful water gives way to desert-like hills and rocky terrain. It is hard to see the soil that roots the trees. The gorges of Sfakia are now famous hiking routes, including the Samaria Gorge. Less well known is the Aradena gorge, the Imbros gorge and the Sfakianolaggo gorge. In the winter, these places fill up dangerously with water and may close to the public suddenly due to potential flooding which could prove fatal. This happens even in spring when the nature reserve is open to tourists; locals helped in a rescue effort just last May to track all the visitors in the are and get them out safely.

Krapi basin
Such remoteness has an effect on the people living there. The population of the area live in the pockets of plains that are dispersed across the territory. They are said to be proud and belligerent, and not easily approachable. Times have changed this of course, as the road to Sfakia is now one of the most modern and cleanest roads in Crete, and people are now able to connect with others much more easily than before. The latter has perhaps tamed the locals to a certain extent. But the connection that Cretans feel with their land is what keeps the people of Sfakia in the area. The terrain is now less difficult to traverse through modern means of transportation, and agriculture in the area has also benefited from machinery and more direct sources of water. But winters can be torturous: snow hampers driving conditions and can cover the ground for months, depending on how heavy the winter is, while electricity supply is not always guaranteed. There are times that the locals will see more sheep and goats than they do people. They live in very steep elevations of up to 650m altitude with a direct view of the sea and the lower ground which, on a snowy winter's day, will not be within their reach due to climatic conditions So for many reasons, Sfakia still remains remote.

A very informative local - she enjoyed talking to all the people that passed by her cafe.
"Don't ask too many questions to anyone", my husband had warned me before we entered the area.  As we drove towards Sfakia on election day, we decided to stop off for a coffee at the Krapi basin midway between the picturesque village of Vrysses with its fountains and the Askifou plain. The area was very rocky and desolate, with sparse vegetation. But still, there were olive trees growing directly out of the rock. The female owner of the cafe, who looked as though she were in her 50s, was very talkative; she had learnt how to flag down passersby to what looked like the garden of her private home. "Going for a ride after voting, are you?" the woman asked us. She herself had steered the discussion towards politics, as is only natural for the day. She wore leggings and her blouse had seen better days. She knew we were not from the area: she would have known us if we were. We explained that we were from Hania and felt like a snack - souvlaki, as the sign on her establishment suggested - before we carried on to the Aradena bridge. "Shall I bring you a menu?" she asked us. It was obvious that souvlaki was not on the menu.

Sfakiani pita: This is a seamless cheese pie topped wth honey. Take a ball of plain flour and water pastry (with a spot of olive oil in it), open it into a round and place a ball of strained goats cheese (mizithra) onto it. Roll up the pastry into a pouch and flatten it without breaking the pastry. Then fry it lightly in a lightly greased pan, on both sides, and serve it topped with honey. It's very popular in various forms, all over Crete.
Her grave-looking daughter came to take our order. I suggested we have a Sfakiani pita, which I often make at home too, but we wanted to see how different it would be if we had one in its county of origin. "Do you still need me?" the girl (who also wore leggings) asked us while we were debating how hungry we were and how many pitas we would order. We made up our mind quickly after that. While we waited for the pitas to be cooked, we watched a young boy dressed in camouflage kicking a can around the garden. It sounded cacophonous to say the least; he showed no awareness of the din he was making. His mother was obviously the girl that had taken our order. Marrying your daughter off at a young age will ensure that she will stay in the area. Allowing her the freedom of choosing her own course in life means that the village will eventually be deserted, as if it weren't already. She will be tied to her children, and eventually to the land.

Ruins of an old fortress, Askifou Plateau
"I was wondering if you could give me some information", my husband asked the girl when the pitas finally arrived. He wanted to ask the girl if she knew a friend of his in the area. "If I know it," the girl answered quite abruptly without looking at him. She did in fact know the answer to his question but it was difficult to understand if she was not lucky enough to inherit her mother's genes, or if she was simply tired of the remote Sfakiot way of life, or if she was simply living up to the Sfakiot image:
"Sfakiá is notorious for the harshness of the environment and the warlike people. Sfakians themselves are still considered somewhat beyond the reach of the lawmakers and tax collectors of Athens, with vendettas over stolen sheep and women's honour still fought late into the 20th century, with a whole village abandoned. Stealing and banditry had been considered a way of life in the mountains..." (Wikipedia - Sfakia)
I was not surprised that no receipt came with our order. As it was election day, and I had decided not to vote, I no longer have the right to complain about what happens in my country.

Enclosures housing wild game in captivity, Askifou
We continued our drive, where we passed by the Askifou plain where you come across a paradoxical sight: In the middle of nowhere, in an environment full of goats and sheep which move around freely, an 'outdoor sports resort' suddenly comes into view. Wild game is kept in cages, and released on payment for hunters. If the game is not caught, it remains in the wild, and therefore continues to breed - if it doesn't run into other trouble after being reared in captivity for so long. The resort is associated with the Valirakis family, a well known name in the area - and in politics too: the conspiracy theory is that you need to be both rich and well connected to develop this kind of thing quickly without being hampered by authorities.

Signs of gun-loving locals - the Imbros gorge is shorter and more manageable than the Samaria Gorge.
As we passed a sign pointing in the direction of a village in the area, my husband remembered what happened to him three decades ago when he bought a fare here. "Can you take me to Goni?" a woman asked him while he was waiting in the rank in Hania. "Of course," he replied, while at the same time watching the faces of some of his colleagues. Taxi drivers have a way of communicating to each other without words, and the faces of his colleagues were signalling that this fare was not the best one. Nevertheless, the woman entered the taxi and sat in the back seat, and he set off. She told him that her mother was ill and she needed to see if she was OK. What she didn't tell him was that she was fleeing from her husband who thought she was cheating on him. Even though mobile phones had not been invented back then, it didn't take long for him to find out where his wife was going and who she went with. As my husband entered the road for Goni, he suddenly heard gunshots flying over the cab, which made him stop driving abruptly. Before the woman got out of the car, she threw some drachmas at him. "Get OUT of here as fast as you can!" she said to him, "and don't stop driving whatever you do!" Guns are thought to be part of the Cretan culture, but we northern Cretans like to say that it's the Sfakiots that give us a bad name.

Excellent road conditions in the Sfakia region
After driving past the entrance to Imvros gorge and going through three recently built tunnels on a very clean stretch of road, the fertile coastal plain of Fragkokastello came into view. Thanks to the arrival of better water supply, which is the drilled from the seabed and pumped way up to the mountain villages, it is now possible to grow pretty much anything in the area. It is not the tastiest water to be had, but it is clean and potable. Some of the locals prefer to drink bottled water. Before this system of water supply, the locals collected rainwater. It is due to the water supply that tomato plants can now be cultivated in the rocky terrain of Sfakia. The traditional cuisine of Sfakia is known for its sparse use of vegetables (mainly wild greens) and high protein content.
Hora Sfakion

We were now approaching Hora Sfakion by the coast. This was not the end of the road for us. We were still 600m short of altitude to reach our final destination. To get to Anopolis (and then on to Aradena), we had to drive down near to the coast before we start to drive up again in the mountains. Hora Sfakion is basically a tourist town now, with a mess of buildings - homes, cafes, restaurants, hotels and homes-turned-into-hotels - piled one on top of the other. Hora is naturally the largest town in the area, since it is by the coast. Mountain living is tiring and trying - you only live there if you are in danger or if you have nowhere else to go. 

Typical driving conditions in Sfakia
Trying to keep an area 'traditional' in a modern connected world is like fighting a losing battle. Hora is where the ferry boat takes you after you finish walking down the Samaria Gorge at Ayia Roumeli. From there, you take a bus back to Hania. Thus, Hora handles a lot of people during the summer. At the start of the season in April, about 2,000 people walk through the gorge. By June, this figure grows to more than 20,000; in August, 30,000 cross it. Therefore, Sfakia is not as remote as it is made out to be. There is even a nudist hotel in the area, and most of the craggy beaches serve nudists. But all is not sweet as the name of one of those beaches suggests - a tourist died at the beach of Glyka Nera (literally: 'sweet waters') when a rock fell off the cliff and landed on her in May of this year. Sometimes I like to remember that God did not make these places for humans, which is why there is no road leading to them: you can only reach them via a narrow gorge-like walking path, or by ferry along the coast. But Glyka Nera beach is now so popular among the select bunch of naturists that are willing to make the walk that they park their cars on the side of the road and then hike the rest of the way. We also saw quite a few tourists with their backpacks and hiking sticks walking along the motorway back and forth from Glyka Nera to Hora. Other than that, our only companions on the journey were the eagles and goats. 

We think they're crazy - they parked here, to walk down to the beach that you see in this photo.
The road to the village of Anopolis is nothing less than daunting: a series of winding roads that take you higher and higher up the barest hills I've ever seen in Crete. The village is not visible from the road, making you wonder why and how on earth anyone would want to live up there. Nowadays, the first sign of habitation in the greater area is always a cafe/restaurant. Since the arrival of tourism, where once there was nothing, there is now a homely building perched on a cliff with an eye-catching sign hinting at its vantage point and the smells of something cook coming from within. And almost side by side with the ruins of what clearly looked like a rich person's 'arhontiko' (villa) in older times, there are also signs showing just knowledgeable the once remote Sfakiots are in modern times: signs in English are commonplace, and it is not an exaggeration to say that nearly everyone in the whole of Crete can speak enough English to direct a tourist or have a brief conversation covering basic topics such as food and politics.

A pertinent site for election day - just before we arrived in Anopolis
We had reached the main square of Anopolis where we saw a large crowd of people gathered. The local schoolhouse - it is doubtful whether it actually operates during the year: Hora's primary school has just 7 pupils, and it did not open this year due to staff shortages (due to the crisis) - was being used as a polling booth. While we were there, we saw a steady stream of people coming in and out of the schoolhouse, identification documents in hand. They had obviously gone there to vote. Not all people who vote in Anopoli live there - they are mainly registered there for demographic purposes (to retain their farmer status perhaps, or simply for nostalgic reasons). So for some of the 'locals', this was a moment to get back to their roots and perhaps to make a show of their comeuppance: some of them arrived more stylishly than others. A New York licence plate was hammered into a Mercedes parked outside the school. The Kriaras name has an connection to Sfakia, as well as the island of Milos. Many vendettas ended with a Sfakiot family moving to Milos to avoid more fighting. Milos was a safe haven for many Cretans in this way.

Primary school, Anopolis
My husband remembered a story that a past girlfriend related to him about the school. She had the position of primary school teacher/principal in Anopolis. "Every Monday, I have to sweep the yard", she told my husband. "Of what?" he asked. "Rifle cartridges," she replied. Education of a different sort took place during the weekends. The schoolhouse of Anopolis also reminded me of a Greek friend who was a kindergarten teacher. After working in a number of private nurseries, she finally landed her first state teaching position - on the tiny island of Gavdos, which is visible from Sfakia (and so is the even tinier island of Gavdopoula), although it is not part of its administration (it belongs to the country of Selino, whose largest municipality is Paleohora). According to Wikipedia, in 2011 Gavdos had a total population of 152 people. But in reality, fewer than 50 people live permanently on the island. My friend had just three enrolled students at the school. She spent two years there in order to get preferential treatment when she asked for a transfer back to her hometown, which she was given because she had spent time working in an isolated area, as the state allows. The kindergarten was fully equipped as a school: it had a television, a computer and a printer in the school. But there was no internet connection, and most of the time, the telephone and electricity lines did not work. It is doubtful whether that school is still open now.

Old arhontiko (nobleman's villa) showing signs of abandonment
Quite a bit of sensationalist journalism has been used on the subject of these 'closed' schools. Of course we need teachers for all school-aged children in Greece. But there are other models that can be copied, instead of having to physically send teachers to remote sparsely populated areas: the Correspondence School of NZ comes to mind. In the internet age, there is really no excuse for not having such a model in remote areas, nor is there any excuse for parents not taking an active role in their children's education. Greeks are no longer illiterate, and wifi is available everywhere - even the restaurant at Anopolis (where we later sat down for a meal on our return journey back to Hania) had wifi. You really can't expect the state to do everything for your children.

The beginning of the Aradena gorge, leading down to the sea
Just a few kilometres away from Anopolis was the final stage of our journey. Aradena forms of a cluster of abandoned villages in the area, named after an archaeological site in the vicinity. Nowadays, Aradena is visited mainly for its wooden bridge, which you can stand on and stare down into the gorge from the comfort of 138m altitude. Aradena was not connected to coastal Sfakia until only very recently, via a Bailey bridge, in 1986. The building of the bridge led to the opening of a cafe - of course! - at the site, and during the summer months, it is used for bungee jumping - what else! The trappings of modern life are now an everyday part of mountain life, even in places like Sfakia which are often labelled 'traditional' - that has now become a synonym for 'touristy'.

Abandoned house, Ai-Yianni
There was an asphalt road continuing out of Aradena which we decided to take, since we had come so far, keeping in mind that we would probably not be making this journey again for quite some time. The road led to the last village in the area, Ai-Yianni (Agios Ioannis), where my husband had once gone hunting with a friend whose family was from the area. They had parked their car on the outskirts of the village and walked along some tracks where his beekeeper friend kept his hives. They were hoping to see a hare, or perhaps something bigger but it turned out that this was not a good day for hunting. When they returned tot he car, they found hand-written sign on it: "Don't bother coming back unless you don't mind all your tyres slashed." At least they warned him. This family trip was the first time he returned to the area. He wanted to find the old couple who had invited them to their table for dinner that evening after their walk through the area. But all we found were abandoned houses. The village was now a ghost town.

Disease-ridden pine tree
The road from Aradena to Ai-Yanni is worth driving through. Alpine territory starts at this point, with the emergence of a pine forest which seems to have undergone some recent destruction, a victim of the crisis, when people began using more wood for heating, and whatever could be chopped down was chopped, to be used for heating or for making a quick buck. It is quite a hike to get to this area, and since locals continue to guard it like a fortress (see above paragraph), one can only assume that locals are involved in this unscrupulous trade. But the pine trees also face other dangers - they have obviously been afflicted by a pine tree disease and are slowly dying. Nature takes revenge on man's folly in various ways.
Olive trees, Ai-Yianni

You will also come across the most unusually shaped olive trees, of the likes that you will never have seen in northern Crete. Apart from the trees sprouting directly from what looks like rocks, they have also undergone a transformation in appearance due to the climatic conditions. The trees receive only natural irrigation (rain) and snow covers them in the winter. Many of the trees show signs of damage (their branches have broken) and their trunks have adapted to the climate by becoming thickset. They look nothing like the classic gnarled olive tree of a more temperate climate. You can tell where the snow has reached these trees by looking at where they begin to form their leafy branches. The combination of terrain and climate is difficult not just for the people. Animals are always moved to lower ground in the winter.

Platanos, aka Popi's taverna
We wanted to continue driving in the Ai-Yianni region, but had second thoughts because the road started to deteriorate. Our journey had finally reached its end, and it was time to make the return trip back home. We stopped off for lunch at Platanos taverna at Anopoli. Just ask where Popi's taverna is - make sure you ask for the Sfakiot specialty: tsigariasto, goat meat braised in olive oil and wine, and staka, a creamy buttery dip that goes well with friend potatoes, bread, meat, you name it. Popi speaks excellent English so you can have the menu explained to you if you don't speak Greek or you don't know the local delicacies.

German motorbike, WW2 period - Askifou War Museum
On our way home, we stopped off at the self-styled War Museum of Askifou. It was started by a young man after WW2, by collecting the remains of machinery, equipment and other artefacts left behind by British and German troops. It was then continued by his son, and there seems to be hope of the grandson continuing this venture, although he was present only in a photograph. It was the womenfolk who explained to us (the only visitors at the time) the history of the collection. Some of the explanations didn't seem to concur with my knowledge of history, but I could see that the two women who gave us the tour (they were mother and daughter, but could easily have been mistaken for sisters) had their speeches well-rehearsed, so we let them do their spiel. Entry is by donation according to the sign, but the ladies don't forget to remind you to leave something 'for the maintenance of the museum', and they also state the amount you should leave: "10 euro for all of you," the mother said, quickly followed by "but only if you've got it", in view of the times we are living in. All in all, an interesting collection of bric-a-brac, some of which we'd seen before in places like the IWM London and Les Invalides. "Look at the tyres," she said, pointing to a German motorbike. "They look new, and the motorbike still works." She then asked us if we were in the area for voting purposes, and proceeded to denounce the memorandum, grieving over the loss of our traditions in favour of western norms. Both mother and daughter were dressed in shorts and t-shirts. They seemed well accustomed to western norms themselves.

The rest of the family preferred ice cream; I ordered kalitsounia, another form of fried cheesy pastry topped with honey.
It was still quite warm when we got back on the road, so we stopped off at the big cafe/snack bar in Kalami for a refreshing ice-cream.  I asked the children if they enjoyed this trip into a relatively remote part of Crete. "If you marry a local boy," I joked with my daughter, "we'll  visit often and you can cook up a goat for us." She wasn't impressed. My son said that he wouldn't mind coming to the area again on an annual basis, "for the history," he added.

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