Bliss! This is the Greece I first fell in love with
In the east of Crete, Peter Hughes is taken back to the simple beauty of the Aegean of 40 years ago
Real deal: The Chiona Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
The best restaurant table in the Mediterranean is number 18 at the Chiona taverna on Crete. Probably. My assertion is safe because to challenge it you need to have been there, and so few of you have. And that’s the point: the taverna is on the eastern edge of Crete which, for Mediterranean holidays, is virtually terra incognita.
The maps don’t quite say “here be dragons”, but they do show Chiona as being a little over 100 miles from Heraklion airport: it took me a good two and a half hours to drive.
When you factor in a near four-hour flight from London, you pretty much filter out families with young children, and anyone else for whom travelling is the downside of travel.
Having got there, what then? Well, there’s table 18 at the Chiona taverna for a start. It’s perched just above the sea, at the end of a little rock promontory beneath two tamarisk trees. Wavelets, clear as spring water, slosh among the rock pools at your feet. If the wind gets up, and the rocks get doused with spray, you move to the main restaurant above. If it’s calm, and a sunset torches the horizon, the sea smoulders red with reflections.
Setting apart, it’s the sort of taverna where the cutlery arrives in the bread basket, the wine in carafes, and if you ask what fish is on the menu they’ll say, “we’ll show you what we’ve got”, and take you to the fridge. This is authentic Greece – Greece as it used to be. That’s the secret of eastern Crete: it could be the Aegean 40 years ago.
I was there because four new villas have been built at the relatively deserted southern end of the mile-long Kouremenos beach. That’s a bit of an event in these parts, particularly as it’s unlikely that any more building will be allowed nearby. Development is tricky anyway because of the risk of disturbing any lurking archaeology, but since the villas were completed a year ago the immediate area has been declared a nature reserve and any further building is supposedly prohibited.
A game of backgammon
The nearest village, Palekastro, is just over a mile away and is as low-key as its surroundings. The “square”, where the main road splays either side of a restaurant, may lack the shape of a square but it has all the accoutrements – a church, four palm trees, a mini-market and nine cafes and restaurants. It’s where a fishmonger arrives in a pick-up truck, announces his arrival through a loudspeaker, and sells his fish from white polystyrene boxes. Round the corner there’s a patisserie selling homemade spinach and cheese pies – spanakopita and tiropitakia – and baklava pastries, sticky with honey and crunchy with pistachio nuts.
Palekastro has a small museum. It was set up 30 years ago, not with an endowment or major donation, but by local people finding things from their homes they no longer needed, like photographs, furniture and traditional costumes: possessions that now represent a past still within touching distance. One exhibit is a wooden board, the size of a small door, with spikes in it which a donkey dragged over grain to thresh it.
The next day I drove into the hills with captain Manolis Ailamakis. Just south of Palekastro, Manolis parked his 4x4 and led me up a short track. There, set into the ground, were the remains of a circular stone tank, about 5ft deep and 30ft in diameter. The sides were collapsing and the floor, which was originally paved, was overgrown with wiry mountain grass. “This is where we separated wheat,” he said.
He described the scene; how dozens of people would watch as the grain was tipped into the tank, and either a donkey or a cow would be harnessed to a board like the one in the museum. Manolis turned and pointed to a clutch of small white houses across a shallow valley. “Lagada,” he said. “The village where I was born.”
Manolis is in his early 50s. His father was a farmer but Manolis went to sea. Today he is master of a 310,000-ton supertanker, shipping crude oil to China from the west coast of Africa: hence “Captain Manolis”, his Louis de Bernieres-redolent moniker. His roots, though, remain close to Lagada and a land whose scenery and society owe more to the way they have adapted to nature than to accommodating tourists.
We drove through grizzled hills, desiccated by summer. Manolis remembers when the same hillsides were brassy with wheat fields and alive with birds; now they are blotched by dark green olive groves.
The changes have come from the discovery of subterranean water. Plastic pipes, thick as pythons stretched beside the road, irrigate the olives with water pumped from bores almost 900ft deep. The east of Crete is different to the west. Around Palekastro there are no big resorts, massive developments, monster hotels or major tourist attractions. The chief attraction of this coast is that there are no attractions, at least none that would draw the incurious. The people of the east claim to be different.
“We are more warm and hospitable, less chauvinistic,” I was told. Or as captain Manolis puts it: “Here we look you in the eye. In the west they always look you in the pocket.”
It was Manolis who built the villas at Kouremenos beach, and impressive they are too. Cuboid in shape, stone-clad and named after four of the muses, they are built in a staggered line at right angles to the sea. Urania is the one closest to the beach, a couple of hundred yards from the water’s edge, and consequently the most expensive. The villas are essentially identical: one-bedroomed, air-conditioned, and with spacious dining-cum-sitting areas. They are exceptionally well kitted-out with life-enhancing hardware like dishwashers, TVs and DVD players.
Enclosed in their own gated compound, each has a good-sized terrace with a 30ft swimming pool, outdoor dining area, sun beds, brick barbecues and gardens. The gardens were still immature when I was there but are big enough to assure privacy. There are some thoughtful touches: a fresh water shower at the gate leading from the beach, cool-bags for picnics and shaded car parking.
Five minutes’ walk away is an excellent taverna which will also deliver hot meals. All in all they demonstrate a canny understanding of the kind of couples who are going to stay and their level of expectation.
For them the beach is probably not the biggest selling point. Which is just as well, unless they wind surf.
Kouremenos is renowned for its wind. Most days the north-westerly meltemi funnels into the bay to the exhilaration of two wind surf centres and the aggravation of bathers whose legs are peppered with gritty sand. The beach opposite the villas, though, is uncrowded, safe and scenic. It ends in the sheer cliffs of a great heap of a hill called Kastri. Villa dwellers are likely to be as interested in excursions away from Palekastro as immersion in the Med. There is much to see.
Peter Hughes was a guest of Simpson Travel (020 8108 4775; simpsontravel.com). Depending on the villa, seven nights of self-catering at Muses Beach Villas cost from £800 to £925 per person in late October with two sharing. The price includes car hire and return flights from Gatwick. Fares from regional airports will vary. The season runs from May 1 to Oct 23.
The Toplou monastery is one of the oldest, largest and richest on Crete. It is also one of the most belligerent. The name comes from the Turkish word for cannonball, which is thought to relate to a gun mounted on the monastery when the Venetians fortified it in the 16th century. In the Second World War resistance fighters used the monastery to hide a radio transmitter. Its discovery cost the abbot his life. Today, along with displays of ancient books and icons, one room is devoted to Second World War relics, including a radio set and a Sten gun.
In the Bronze Age, east Crete was a portal for the Minoans to North Africa and Arabia.
At Zakros there are the extensive ruins of a Minoan palace. Behind the site is a ravine named the “Gorge of the Dead”, so called because of the number of Minoan tombs found there. The walking trail through it is a climax to the Imax-scale landscapes around it.
There are less well-preserved remains of one of the largest cities of Minoan Crete at Palekastro. Roussolakkos was inhabited between about 2500 and 1200BC and was later venerated as the birthplace of Dikteon, the Cretan god of wine.
If the buildings at Zakros resemble a city cut off at the knees, only the ankles remain of Roussolakkos. Its most fabulous treasure, the Palekastro Kouros, is in the archaeological museum in Sitia, 10 miles away.
It’s the statue of a young man carved from hippopotamus ivory that still bears flecks of the gold that once dressed it. It’s only 19in tall, slightly charred and is missing its midriff. Yet the wonder of being within inches of so exquisite a figure made by human hand some 3,500 years ago crashes the imagination.
Roussolakkos was also famous for the sophistication of its drains. Which is ironic when four millennia later, in new buildings like captain Manolis’s villas, you still can’t flush paper down the loo. But then that’s Greek authenticity.
10 hidden highlights
When you think of how important tourism is to the Greek economy – it contributes around 25 per cent of GDP – and how established its holiday industry is, it’s surprising to find how much of the country remains relatively undiscovered. But Greek tourism is mainly comprised of unknown nooks and inconsequential crannies – here are 10 of our favourite places off its beaten tracks, bookable through the smaller, specialist operators listed.
An islet in the Ionian Islands, Meganisi used to be a day trip from neighbouring Lefkada. Now it has a handful of comfortable villas and a new hotel opening in 2018. Tourism is creeping in but not enough to alarm the locals or the yachties who have long viewed it as an exclusive anchorage. Peter Hughes
♦ Ionian and Aegean Island Holidays (ionianislandholidays.com), James Villa Holidays (jamesvillas.co.uk), Simpson Travel (simpsontravel.com), Sunvil Holidays (sunvil.co.uk)
Now that Athens has moved its airport away from the city, all the more reason to take the back door route to the islands. A morning flight, a short taxi ride to Lavrio and there will be time to look for Byron’s signature on the temple at Cape Sounion before catching the evening boat to Kea, with onward connections to the western Cyclades or Syros. But Kea is such a seductive place, just stay put. Adam Ruck
♦ Hidden Greece (hidden-greece.co.uk)
It may seem perverse to include the country’s second city, but Thessaloniki contrives almost nothing for tourists. Not that there isn’t a lot to see – 19 museums for starters and remnants of a long and stormy history. With a port, government offices and four universities the place has a year-round life of its own, as well as some of the best restaurants in Greece. At Veria, 30 miles away, is the tomb of Philip II of Macedonia, one of the most dazzling archaeological discoveries in Europe. PH
♦ Sunvil Holidays
The island in the Cyclades is where the Venus de Milo was found, but visitors in any numbers have yet to find Milos. A volcanic island, the ground is so hot in some places that tavernas leave stews to cook overnight in pots they bury in the sand. There are stunning beaches, many of which can only be reached by boat, and the usual range of simple, if characterful, tavernas. PH
♦ Greek Sun Holidays (greeksun. co.uk), Sunvil Holidays
Only an hour by high-speed ferry from Santorini, Folegandros has the same magnificent drama without the crowds, glitz and inflated prices. Fishing boats and donkey paths lead to a string of crystal coves. Evenings are spent figuring out which is your favourite taverna in the four squares of the brilliant white Chora, as you sample matsata (rabbit or rooster tagliatelle) and rakomelo (grappa with honey). Hike off the hangover with a dawn stroll to the hilltop Panagia church, a zigzagging 20-minute ascent from Anemomilos, to watch the sun surface from the Aegean. Rachel Howard
♦ Sunvil, Greek Sun Holidays, Hidden Greece, Islands of Greece (islandsofgreece.co.uk)
Wild, mountainous and very Greek, Amorgos has never been as fashionable as its famous Cycladic neighbours, Mykonos and Santorini. While there are islands with better beaches, there are few with better hiking. Old mule tracks and a mountainous interior make it irresistible to walkers. The monastery of Hozoviotissis is spectacular. It looks like a plaque plastered on to a cliff face high above the sea. PH
♦ Greek Sun Holidays, Hidden Greece, Islands of Greece, Sunvil Holidays
Stoupa and the Mani Peninsula, Peloponnese
Mountainous and relatively inaccessible, Greeks consider the Mani peninsula to be wild and remote. In the Outer Mani, set amid olive groves, the little resort of Stoupa sits below the rocky peaks of the Taygetos mountain range, whose highest point, Profitis Ilias, soars 7,896ft. Built around three sheltered turquoise bays, Stoupa offers a peaceful retreat from modern day life, as well as plenty of inspiration to delve into the ancient myths of gods and nymphs, and the tales of medieval tower houses and the region’s famous blood feuds. Jane Foster
♦ James Villa Holidays
It’s 75 minutes by ferry and almost centuries in development from Rhodes, its fellow Dodecanese island. Halki is one of those undemanding islands where the daily decisions come down to when and where to swim, whether to start a new book and which taverna to go to. There is only one village, although many of the houses, especially those on the waterfront, are now holiday homes. If you want to be strenuous, walk into the dry interior, perhaps up to the medieval castle built for the Knights of St John. PH
♦ Greek Sun Holidays, Hidden Greece, Sunvil Holidays
Hidden away between the larger Cycladic islands of Naxos and Amorgos, Koufonissia is made up of two tiny islets, Ano Koufonissi (Upper Koufonissi) and Kato Koufonissi (Lower Koufonissi), separated by a 656ft sea channel. While Kato Koufonissi remains uninhabited, Ano Koufonissi, with its whitewashed Cycladic cottages, has a buzzing little community of 366. Locals live mainly from fishing; there are no real roads and hardly any cars, so everyone either walks or cycles. It’s also much loved by yachties, who moor up their boats along the seafront to unwind after visiting the noisier and glitzier islands of Santorini and Mykonos. JF
♦ Greek Sun Holidays, Hidden Greece, Sunvil Holidays
When I first went to Tilos more than 20 years ago there was a group of rather bookish Britons determined that the island should never find its way on to a tourist map. Now this tiny place, midway between Kos and Rhodes, is gaining recognition, not for tourism, which remains very small, but for its exceptional green credentials. The entire island is a nature reserve and about to be wholly dependent on renewable energy sources. PH
♦ Greek Sun Holidays, Hidden Greece, Sunvil Holidays