WHAT better way to explore Greece’s largest island, Crete, than hippy style? Two friends and I did that recently – and even bravely decided to leave everything to the goddess of fate as true hippies would. Even choosing Crete was a spur of the moment thing: We booked the air tickets a day before departure!
That the goddess directed us to Crete is not surprising: she’d feel right at home on this island, for much of its allure lies in the spirit of its places. There is hardly a grove, mountain or stream that is not sacred because it is dedicated to a deity or where the ghosts of the past still linger.
The power of Poseidon still pounds Crete’s shores, ceaselessly shaping the land that has been called “the garden of the universe”. Crete is where gods were born, where myths flourished, and where Europe’s earliest civilisation, the Minoans, rose from the Mediterranean.
According to Greek mythology, Crete was the birthplace of Zeus, chief of the gods. And it was also here that a half-man, half-bull called the Minotaur devoured young men and women in the Labyrinth until it was defeated by the warrior Theseus.
The roots of such legends may lie shrouded in historical mystery but the ruins of entire cities leave little doubt that an advanced group of people once ruled here, centuries before the Greeks and Romans made an appearance.
Crete is sited between the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. The epitome of a typical Greek island, it is just the place for visitors to enjoy the sun, sea and sand. On our way from the island’s capital, Iraklio, to the next town, Hania, we stopped at what we thought was a secluded beach far from the madding crowds.
Once we actually got down to it, though, we found hordes of sunbathers sprawled on deck chairs (each costing eight Euros, or RM37, to rent for the day). Shying away from the sun, I sat under a huge umbrella and quickly applied sunscreen lotion onto my skin. Here lies the difference between Asians and my two Caucasian friends, who happily joined the sun worshippers.
Perfect is a holiday that is free from the hectic schedules of tour operators or worrying about having to catch the next bus to town. On our hippy holiday, time ambled as we relaxed and moved at our own pace, experiencing local food – Greek salads and heros, which are pieces of grilled meat – and culture by visiting small quaint villages as we drove around the island. Life certainly seems to be as good as it gets when one dines leisurely in an ancient tavern, serenaded by traditional Greek music.
The scenery we encountered along the drive mostly comprised olive tree farms, isolated white-walled homes on hill slopes and sun-kissed shores.
Spending two nights in a motel in Hania was a wise choice. This town, Crete’s second largest after Iraklio, has so much to offer. In the past, Hania was under the control of various armies, from the Romans and Byzantines to the Turks. Today, its invaders are tourists. Thus, peace lovers are warned against venturing here if crowds and shops stocked with souvenirs are not their cup of tea.
The town’s old Venetian quarter is charming, though, with enough shops to please the most ardent of shoppers. The covered market, modelled after a famous one in Marseilles, France, has a wide range of local produce, from olive oil soap and pottery to cheese and fruits.
And if you walk around the harbour and along the sea wall, you will come to the Venetian lighthouse, which is the city’s emblem. The inner harbour sports an array of touristy restaurants and taverns. A night in the town for us included people watching at a sidewalk café by the harbour and a game of billiards.
Lunch the next day was a barbecue by the beach under the noon sun. I was glad to have survived this activity although my friends were not so lucky – their backs were brutally sunburnt.
Later, we decided to visit two Greek Orthodox churches nearby called Moni Agias Triadas and Moni Gouvernetou. Secluded and serene, the surroundings lend both monasteries a mystical air. I felt like an intruder attempting to stir up echoes of the past. In Moni Gouvernetou, a priest appeared mysteriously and spoke to us. He gave each of us a postcard and performed some sort of a ritual to bless my two Christian friends – who do not know till this day why they were singled out.
Since we were doing the hippy thing, we couldn’t miss the village of Paleohora as it was discovered by real hippies back in the 1960s.
Situated on a peninsula with a beach on each side, it was declared a great place to kick back in by the hip crowd back then, and it still has a very relaxed feel. Locals are certainly laid back enough to leave shop and hotel counters unattended often.
Not that Paleohora doesn’t offer activities: from dolphin cruises to windsurfing, visitors are spoilt for choice. And the best thing is, despite the village’s popularity, it is still relatively cheap to stay here.
Of course, a trip to Greece isn’t complete if you don’t visit at least one of its ruins. We decided to check out the Palace of Knossos, which is about 5km south of Iraklio. Until British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans began excavating here in 1900, little was known about the ancient people who inhabited it. Using every possible clue and remnant, he rebuilt large parts of the palace – walls, floors, stairs, windows, and columns.
Although the palace was built in 1900BCE, the ruins seen today are from more recent times, 1700BCE, when the palace was rebuilt after an earthquake. The palace once again was destroyed by an earthquake between 1500 and 1450BCE, and survived for about 50 years before a great fire destroyed much of it and it was abandoned.
Despite having to stay on a walkway, visitors still get a good sense of the structure’s labyrinthine nature. For us, this magnificent archaeological site offered not only a physical journey through a landscape, but also one through time where we could imagine the legacy of Europe’s greatest ages.