DAY ONE : ARRIVALS
The flight to Crete… eight grueling hours from Detroit to Amsterdam, with all the expected (but still maddening) snafus from the airlines, then a four hour flight to Athens, followed by a genuine puddle-jumper (the Mediterranean) to Iraklion, Crete. The flight to Crete?
Worth every stress-filled second.
Because at the end of it, we wound up in one of the most stress-free, intriguing islands in the world. Situated south of mainland Greece and north of Libya (on a clear day, you can see Ghaddaffi), Crete is the largest by far of the Greek islands (more than three thousand square miles) and a favorite holiday destination for most of Europe, due in part to its endless coastline, world-class beaches and resorts, and equally, to its astonishing history. When Greece is referred to as ‘the cradle of civilization’, note that the Minoan culture of Crete was in full swing long before the Greeks existed; in fact, when Homer wrote of King Minos; Theseus and the Minotaur; and Daedalus and Icarus, he was relating what to him was already ancient mythology. In the real world, human settlements on Crete date to the aceramic Neolithic, more than twelve thousand years ago—an era before pottery had been discovered. Clearly, this makes it the oldest civilization in Europe.
We landed in early evening, as the intense heat of the Cretan summer was waning, met at the airport by our friend and mentor Bill Damas (when in Crete he reverts to his birth name, Vasilios Damavoletes) and his lovely wife Eleni. With a rental van driven by the Damas’ nephew Miro we followed Bill and Eleni over the Idi mountains, which contain as their crowning glory Psiloritis, nearly eight thousand feet tall—a peak which was to play further roles in our visit. By night, the winding, hairpin-turn trek through the rugged lands southwest of the capital city of Iraklion seemed impossibly treacherous, with sheer drop-offs, falling rocks, and the continual risk of oncoming cars that may or may not be familiar with the next curve in the road. By day? Not much better, as the numerous roadside memorials attest—miniature churches left at the site where someone’s journey was interrupted by a fatal accident. Navigating Crete mountain roads is an acquired talent, one which we are relieved to discover, both Bill and Miro possess.
Along the route we stopped at one of Bill’s favorite tavernas, Aetos, in the village of Anogia. Under the hospitable eye of owner/chef Manolis, we received a full-bore introduction to the healthy cuisine of Crete, which included ‘ofto’, a spit method of roasting meat (goat, pork and lamb) over an open flame, a technique which Manolis claims ‘dates back to Minoan times.’
From there it was another winding road to Bill’s home village of Veni, nestled beneath Psiloritis. Needing to remain close to his roots, where his brother and sister (along with their extended families) still live, Damas has undergone over the past half-decade or so, to create a magnificent home overlooking Veni—the true splendor of which would have to wait until daylight to appreciate.