You never know what you’ll do when your inhibitions fall away, but fall away they did on a visit to Crete.
I’d been on the northeastern shore for several days when I agreed to join a group of travelers planning to circumnavigate the island’s eastern coastline. We planned to leave Agios Nikolaos, our home base, the following day.
Reuniting early the next morning, we eagerly piled into our rental van. The day dawned beautifully—the sky was that particular Aegean blue and the sun felt hot on our skin. The road was dusty. The air smelled divine, scented by bank after bank of sweet-smelling oleanders. The wild thyme played its part too, adding depth to the already fragrant air.
The landscape was rather unimpressive at first, but the barren hills soon gave way to craggy, mountainous coastline. As we drove along, I observed Orthodox chapel after Orthodox chapel dotting the landscape. According to statistics, there is one church for every seven Greeks and that I do not doubt. The plentiful chapels topped precipitous peaks, appeared cradled by olive groves and cropped up amidst cemeteries surrounded by fences of cypress.
The morning, like the coast, slid uneventfully by. We stopped here and there to take in the magnificent views or to investigate roadside memorials. The memorials, which varied in style, contained photos and personal mementos of men we assumed had met their untimely end on this lonely Greek highway.
Just as the sun reached its zenith, we passed a small church set close to the road. I impetuously expressed the desire to ring a church bell, and the driver, much to my surprise, hit the brakes and backed up. The die was cast.
I took a deep breath, hopped out and dashed up the steps, taking them two at a time. My heart was racing, but I pressed forward. Before grabbing the bell pull, I tested the weathered door to make sure there were no priests or parishioners about. The door was locked, the way proved clear. I grabbed the thin chain draped loosely around the iron hook securing it and pulled: once, twice, three times.
The sound like my spirit bounced from the valley walls, careening off distant red-tiled roofs in its ascent to the sky. I felt light as air, giddy with excitement and, I must admit, a touch guilty. Post-bell pull, the time between my rather sacrilegious crime and our stop in Ierapetra—the only city on Crete’s southern shore—passed by in an adrenalin-induced blur.
We ate lunch along the promenade facing the Libyan Sea shaded by umbrellas and palm trees on combinations of Greek salads, kalamari and crusty bread followed by short heavy glasses of ouzo. Other than the Venetian fort marking the harbor and a crumbling minaret, this ancient Roman port lacks the Greek charm so prevalent elsewhere. Lulled by the sound of the sea teasing the shore, I stared contentedly into the distance, contemplating Africa, which lay due south as the ibis flies.
Our daylong coastal meander ended when we turned inland to make our way back across the island. With evening coming on, we stopped to visit picturesque Kritsa set in the mountainside with its sweeping views of Mirabello Bay. Occupied since Minoan times, this traditional village of steep alleyways lined with well-preserved houses is known for its handicrafts—embroidery, lace-making and weaving.
Winding our way upward, we finally stumbled upon the village center. Lined with tavernas, lace and souvenir shops, it was filled with tables and chairs. The tables were a welcome find and we laid claim to a few. Around us men were playing backgammon or Tavli and widows in black sat making lace by hand, their wrinkled hands moving quickly despite their age. It was a peaceful spot.
As I savored a glass of local white wine, I reflected on how quietly time seemed to pass here and on how truly perfect our day had been. I was content to have seen the coastline, rung the church bell and spent time in one of Europe’s southern-most spots, but duly disappointed I hadn’t indulged my second impetuous desire: kissing a classical Greek statue. Charm, beauty and history aside, I now had the perfect reason to return.
Note: Though we took a rather laissez-faire approach to our coastal meander, choosing not to sight-see, there are some fabulous things to see. Here are a few I would have taken the time to visit had I been on my own:
- Toplou Monastery – this rather forbidding fortress hides a flower-bedecked cloister within and a remarkable collection of Byzantine icons.
- Palace of Zakros – this abandoned Minoan settlement was only discovered in 1960. Since the site had been forgotten and therefore never plundered, archaeologists have learned much about the daily life of the ancient Minoans.
- Napoleon’s house in Ireapetra – this rather unassuming structure guards a secret. Legend has it this was Napoleon Bonaparte’s last pit stop before he sailed south to lay siege to Egypt in 1798.
- Church of Panagia Kira – this Byzantine church is said to contain the most complete set of Byzantine frescoes on Crete.
- Ancient Lato – this windswept and less-visited Doric city is well-preserved and offers unparalleled views of the sea and of the Lasithi Mountains.