Six days in Souda

The ‘Marina’ at Souda had only a couple of other visiting boats. There is a perception that the Bay and therefore this haven at the end does not encourage yachts and isn’t helped by outdated information saying it is a prohibited area. On arrival it all looked a bit dodgy, many of the lazy lines had broken and we had to use our anchor, I spied an evening rat scuttling by however at €10 a night and water and electricity, this was a good base for Western Crete.
Once settled and when the wind had blown away the clouds and along with them the ‘marina managers’ dark visage it was a welcoming place albeit with limited facilities, like none! At the end of the pier there was a large vessel, just months away from becoming a permanent feature on the shallow sea bed, nearby an old fishing boat was being worked on; fishermen and women came to while away the day, a noisy gathering of old men squeezed onto a little boat, consumed raki and discoursed loudly into the night and often two beautiful little remote controlled yachts made passage around the harbour. Youthful energy was here in abundance and the evening found the waters full of children being coached in kayaking, youngsters playing tennis and attending other activities in a sports centre.

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While here in Souda we hired a car for the day and on increasingly small roads drove into rocky countryside north to meet the brooding dark presence that had greeted us from sea a few days previously. Actually we went to find the Gouvernetou Monastery, said to be one of the oldest on the island dating back to 1537 – that is so modern, given the times I’m absorbed in at the moment! At the monastery they were obviously preparing for some event, as helpful ladies of the kind that always turn up at village events, were there organising the monks. We were told it was a celebration of St John and also a way of making money for the three monks in residence. They need 47 more monks to have it at full capacity assuming single cell occupancy! They raise poultry, keep bees, have a vegetable garden and fruit trees. The lady asked my name and I gave her my ‘Greek name’, Dorothea, gift of the gods! And she got excited and asked if I was a Catholic. I really felt I had let her down when I confessed to being ‘nothing’ her only other option. We left a donation but didn’t want to enter the raffle of buy anything but she insisted we go away with something so some unguents made from the honeycombs and good for the skin were parcelled up for us. We walked further down the well maintained stone track and first got to a large dark cave with stalagmites and tites where, so legend goes,there was a worshiping place to Artemis, just outside there was a tiny chapel cut into the hill. We carried on down, the path getting steeper and twistier and found the impressive site of the Katholiko Monastery spanning a ravine and looking down the gorge to the sea.

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Our road trip then took us south into the mountains on a good road, stopping for coffe and then for lunch later returning via a much smaller road to complete the loop over yet another of the many gorgeous gorges. We went on down to the German War Cemetery at Maleme – an incredibly moving place on a hill surrounded by the olive groves where many of these young parachutists had either been shot while descending or caught by their parachutes in trees or stalked through the olive groves by irate and brave Cretans armed sometimes only with sticks. There were dreadful casualties on both sides, the Allies weren’t organised and the Germans had misread the feeling of the people of Crete, they thought the population would be sympathetic to them. Reading some of the accounts was so sad, three brothers killed on the same day, absolutely terrible. Here and there among the thousands of memorial slabs laid flat on the earth the only vertical mark were crosses grouped in threes at intervals amongst the closely planted graves, were the occasional photograph, a bunch of wild flowers. Another night, as dusk fell, we walked to the Allied War Graves at Souda. This was in a more stark setting on the flat at the head of the bay, the gravestones standing vertical in regimented rows as the ones in Normandy. The saddest in both places were always the ‘unknown soldiers’. What struck us though was the contrast in the running of the two areas. The Allied War Graves are looked after by some government body while the Germans involve charities and youth organisations to tend theirs which has the dual purpose of learning about and remembering our recent history while forging links with other countries.

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We had a pleasant sail, feeling bold now and clear of the missile range, down through the ‘prohibited’ area and out along the coast east to Rethymnon. The old town is a jewel in the not so beautiful modern crown of angular concrete. Here the Venetian and Ottoman gentleness of architecture survives in places, their carved stone door surrounds, the closed in wooden balconies, the narrow winding ways, the fortress here the biggest the Venetians ever built. We found a lovely old Venetian fountain and enjoyed the Folk Art museum, wonderful vivid colours in traditional weaves. We went into a restored house that held, so we thought, the Centre for Byzantine Art, of course to look at the paintings but, if honest, a lot more to enjoy a rooftop view promised by their cafe! Up the stairs we went to be met at the top by three men sitting round a table, having a snack and playing backgammon, they looked rather surprised, told us the place was closed and there was no cafe but were very sweet and let us wander around and even put lights on for us.
In the evenings the ‘volta’ along the quay was impressive for the number of young mothers and just as often fathers, pushing out their babies and escorting their little ones on bikes, trikes and scooters. Here too we saw children in organised activity showing great skill this time on roller skates.

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From our short and limited acquaintance it has been striking that in comparison to her less favoured sister islands of the Cyclades or Dodecanese that Crete is booming, tourists are still here, young people are present and attending the universities, the land yields fruit, vegetables, olives, vines, nuts, grains, snails, cheese and meat – a lot for export.
It’s the sort of place where wild ideas overcome one, I can picture myself living simply with hens and goats, harvesting my olives and making good wine from the grapes on the vine. I would be a vegetarian of course because I could not possibly slaughter or skin anything but would pluck fresh fruit from my orchard which I would dance around at sunrise and sunset and get a reputation for being thoroughly mad – there that’s completely romantic and unrealistic but one can dream. In reality it must be a hard life.

Books! Books! Book! I am tripping over myself in a rush to read all I can about Crete while I’m here. I’m in danger of indigestion so fast do I want to consume the information, never mind that my pea brain will forget it all the following day. I already have on the boat Dilys Powell’s ‘Villa Ariadne’ and Adam Hopkins’ ‘Crete, It’s Past, Present & People’ and I’m digging into Edith Hall’s ‘Introducing the Ancient Greeks’, but now I’ve bought George Psychoundakis’ ‘The Cretan Runner’ and Nikos Kasantsakis’ ‘Freedom & Death’ a very common and ancient graffiti around here. The first three are wonderful and I’m salivating at the thought of the other two!

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