This series started on Oct. 15 and will continue every other Saturday. I’m taking a trip back in time to my 4-month backpacking rambles around Greece in the early 1980s, which planted the seed for my recent novel The Ariadne Connection. Again, I apologize for the sketchiness of the few photos I’ve been able to recover from storage.
My very first Mediterranean beach destination involved some rattletrap bus rides, cheerful misdirections, and a 3-hour stumble in the deepening dusk down a rocky cliffside trail carrying a heavy backpack. More than a journey through the rugged Cretan landscape, it was a trip through time—way back to the Minoans or Keftiu, the later Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and Turks, and finally the World War II German invasion only an eyeblink earlier in history.
The expansive island of Crete was the home to the 99 fabled cities of the ancient Minoans (or Keftiu), where King Minos built the labyrinth to contain the bull-headed Minotaur, the offspring of a sacred white bull and Minos’s wife (more about that in Part 1). Loutro (Greek for “Bath” because of the ancient bathing ruins fed by springs in the area) on the wild southern coast was once a port called Phoenix by the later Romans. After the Romans it was the base for Saracen pirates, then occupied by the Venetians and their shipping empire. The Turks later conquered the island, until finally Crete reasserted independence, was joined to Greece, and was occupied by the Germans during World War II.
Many of the fiercely proud Cretans still praise the Resistance fighters and have an uneasy truce with the hordes of German tourists we encountered at the major tourist sites. Loutro was rumored to be way off the beaten track away from the crowds, and indeed it was, with no roads and accessible only by rough trail down the mountains or by boat.
After flying into Athens and fulfilling my childhood dreams of exploring the Acropolis and the historical treasures in the museums, my adventure-partner Jim and I escaped the then-horrendous smog by taking a ferry south from Piraeus harbor. We were young travelers on a shoestring budget, so we spread our sleeping bags on deck and weathered a wild overnight storm across the Mediterranean. By morning, the seas had calmed to deep purple-blue (Homer’s “wine-dark seas”) frothing with turquoise behind the ferry. We landed at Chania on the north coast of Crete (dark photo of the harbor above). After exploring the Venetian ruins of that city (more about that in a future post), we heard about Loutro from the traveler grapevine and managed to squeeze onto a crowded local bus south to Chora Sfakion. (See Part 1 for a typical bus ride.) Surviving the maniacal driving up and down narrow, twisting roads over the White Mountains (surprisingly still snow-covered in April), we stumbled around town until finding another, even more decrepit, bus to the end of the line at the village of Anopolis, site of the ancient settlement above Loutro.
A flock of curious young boys surrounded me, touching my pale skin and hair and exclaiming over our hiking gear. They pointed the way toward the trail down to Loutro, which was difficult to follow in the rocky, scrubby terrain. A shepherd in the authentic Cretan garb of baggy pants, knee-high boots to protect against the thorny vegetation, and a tasseled head-scarf directed us back on track and recommended the Phoenix taverna at the cove. We finally reached the edge of the cliff and looked down, and then down, to the white alphabet-blocks of the tiny village nestled against the deep-blue sea. After a few spills on the steeply switchbacked trail, we staggered into the Phoenix for a meal of excellent kalamata olives, feta cheese, and tomatoes. In the dark, we found a reasonably flat spot on a deserted headland and pitched our tent, drank in a dose of sharp stars, and collapsed into sleep. (Oh, for those young bones that could sleep on stony ground carry a huge pack.)
From my journal:
We wake to the sounds of clanking, tinkling bells and look out the tent window to see goats clambering all over our campsite. A sunny morning with the threat of storm hanging over the harbor in dark clouds that cover the top of the cliff we descended last night. Good thing I didn’t look over the edge of the trail then. I climb out of the tent to look over the cove. Ti aurea! (How beautiful!) Sunshine reveals the cove’s blue depths and gradations of color, with jagged rocks below clearly visible in the amazing clarity. The countryside is dry, bare, and broken rock, with only sharp thistle-brush and a few tiny wildflowers. Only the ubiquitous goats seem to find it easy to ramble here.
We had carried our snorkeling gear, so the first thing we did was check out the cove. The water was surprisingly cold (I had naively assumed the Mediterranean would be warm, but after all, this was still only spring), but so clear it was like floating in air. The sea was rather barren-looking below, with only sparse seaweeds and a few nervous fish. Later, when we were swimming at another nearby cove, we understood their cautious attitude. A Cretan fisherman pulled up to the rocky shore in a wooden rowboat and unloaded his two young boys on shore with nets. They waded out waist-deep and donned diving masks while he rowed out a ways. After they scanned the water, they gestured to their father in the boat, who apparently warned them to keep their heads out of the water while he threw in a lit stick of dynamite. Boom! The kids scooped up the stunned fish and Dad loaded them into the boat. Later, other locals would confirm that this illegal practice of dynamite fishing had taken a big toll on the fish stocks near shore.
We found another cove around the next headland, where we swam into and through the rough tunnel of what might have been a lava tube, and Jim pointed out the quicksilver shimmer of our air bubbles trapped on the rocky ceiling. Emerging into the open cove again, we spotted submerged, carved columns of what looked like pale marble. Sitting on the rocky beach to warm up, I fell into a trance of time-travel, feeling the great weight of history on these shores. I was enraptured by the beautiful, engraved stone or gold seal rings of the Minoans that I’d seen in the Athens museum, and I was imagining beautiful Ariadne and her maidens in their flounced skirts and proud, bare breasts, dancing in the lush valley we’d traversed on our way south to the mountains. And those lithe bull-dancers daring to leap over the charging beasts–
A rude shove shook me back to the present, and I turned to see a scruffy donkey nudging me with his nose. Jim was laughing as a small herd of them invaded our peace. They started grabbing with their teeth anything that wasn’t tied down, including my swim fins, towel, and sweater. We were soon warm from chasing them down to reclaim our possessions. Heading back to camp, we found what appeared to be one of the ancient basins that Loutro was named for—a rough bath filled with fresh springwater to rinse off the sea salt. Humming with the timeless magic of this island, in the company of donkeys and friendly goats come to join the fun, we headed back to camp.
Next time: Exploring an ancient Roman road and ruins of a Turkish fortress above Loutro.
You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here on alternate Saturdays. Sara’s newest novel from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction.