A CRETAN VILLAGE WITH 2 MUSEUMS

Crete is the largest island in Greece, a place of dramatic mountain ranges and gorges dotted with ancient ruins and architecture from the medieval period onwards.  Known as the cradle of civilisation and the birthplace of Zeus, the island provides the backdrop for many of the Greek myths and legends we are familiar with.

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Throughout the mountains are scattered hamlets and villages and high in the dramatic White Mountains not far from Chania, lies the village of Therissos, which has not just one, but two museums.  One would be unusual in a place of this size (pop. just over 100) but to find two is extraordinary.

The-Modern-Resistance-Museum-at-Therissos
The Modern Resistance Museum

I visited the village two years ago when I was staying at Malarme on the coast, mainly to visit the Museum dedicated to the Greek resistance in World War II which I had heard about in the course of my studies in war history.

Saviour-of-Crete

Home-of-the-great--Eleftherios-Venizelos
Home of the great patriot, Eleftherios Venizelos

Sadly, my interest in the wars in which my own country had been involved had led me to neglect local Greek history.  I had a lot to learn about the resistance of Therissos over many decades, centuries one might say.

Talking to local people, I soon realized that the important museum for them was the one dedicated to the great Greek patriot and politician, Eleftherios Venizelos who fought for Cretan independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1887, who became the island’s first independent Prime Minister in 1905 and then Prime Minister of Greece in 1910.   Of more importance to the locals, however, was the fact that Venizelos was actively involved in the drafting of the Cretan constitution, that he took part in the armed uprising in 1905 which deposed Prince George, and that he negotiated the unification of Crete with Greece.

He lived in Therissos and his house is now a museum dedicated to Venizelos and other local people who were involved in the struggles for freedom from the Ottomans.

The other museum, one dedicated to World War ll, is a purpose built modern space with few artefacts but many pictures and letters.  Unfortunately, not many of these are translated but sometimes a volunteer is on hand who can help with this.  Entry is so cheap I felt duty bound to leave a large donation as it is purely self-supporting.  It is very local to the young men who died fighting the Germans in the mountains, a bloody conflict that is known for the savagery on both sides.

Photo from Resistance Museum in Therissos

Some of the pictures are harrowing and deal with the war on the mainland as well as the war on Crete, pictures of starving children, scenes from the village of Kandonos which was burned to the ground in retaliation for the killing of 50 Germans, and pictures of the terrible life lived by the villagers during the harsh winters.

War Memorial in Maloliopoulo

The savagery on both sides was legendary, from the locals shooting parachutists out of the sky in cold blood to the occupying forces, shooting whole families and villages on what often seemed a whim.

It is difficult to take all this in, surrounded as one is by a landscape of such beauty.

 

The-Dotto-Train-navigates-the-Therisso-Gorge I journeyed up from the coast on the little ‘Dotto’ train with which most of us are familiar in cities and resorts, but in this case, it traversed the famous Therisso Gorge.  It surged up the hill in under an hour, through magnificent scenery, the air heady with the scent of herbs, great swathes of wild thyme, rosemary, pine, marjoram, oregano, and fennel. Many of the olive trees along the side of the road are hundreds of years old and behind the rocky caves can be glimpsed walnut, almond, hazelnut and chestnut trees.

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Mountain Goats

In the village itself, red, white and pink oleander trees bloomed, the scent mingling with the smell of cooking from the little tavernas that were operating, some with open wood fires and all serving delicious Greek salads and fresh fish, alongside local dishes infused with the scent of pine seeds, olive oil and fennel.

The little Dotto train allowed about two or three hours for a visit, long enough to wander around the village, have some lunch and still have to time visit both museums.

I enjoyed the trip so much I went back a second time a few days later and spent more time in the museums, reading the letters with the help of a student and trying to come to grips with what had happened here where the resistance hid out for many years during the second world war, harried and hunted like animals, during bitter winters of extreme cold, and parched summers of extreme heat.

The photographs tell a tragic tale and I am haunted by them still.

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Best books on the history of the Battle of Crete:

Crete:  The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor (John Murray, Paperback – a division of Hodder Headline (1991).  Still regarded as the best history of Crete during WW11

The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis (trans. by Patrick Leigh Fermor):  John Murray, Paperback (first published 1955).  A first-hand account by one of the partisans from the mountains.

The Samaria Gorge, Crete

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The Samaria Gorge, fast flowing icy water and stones, stones, stones

It was when I was sorting through some old photographs of former vacations to make room for the overflowing baskets of new images I’ve acquired from  this year’s trips, that I came across those of the Samaria Gorge in Crete, a place I hadn’t thought about in years.

It was 1990 when I was there last if my memory serves me right, and I can still recall the icy-cold waters which we had to wade through.  I remember I had to buy a pair of trainers because I didn’t have adequate footwear for the trek and you aren’t allowed to enter without full preparation for the walk.

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Me, younger, fitter and wondering if I’ve bitten off more than i could chew, bearing in mind I hate having wet, cold feet.

I so enjoyed looking through my old photographs that I thought I’d write something about the Gorge and upload some of the photographs, taken on negative film on my trusty old Canon Camera.  I’ve had to scan  these in and because of their age the colour is not very good – a rather pinkish tinge seems to cloud them.

I know that the Samaria Gorge  hasn’t changed since I did the trek as I stayed at the Mistral Hotel in Malame in Crete last year and spoke with visitors who had done the walk.  They had to leave the hotel at 05.00 a.m to do this, came back exhausted but thrilled to have accomplished the walk (with boots, walking poles, mobiles, sat navs. etc.)  We didn’t have those sort of things when we did it as you can see from the above photograph.

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At times the cliffs on either side seem to bear down on you. Don’t rest beneath them, there is sometimes a rock fall

Samaria Gorge is situated in the National Park of Samaria, in the White Mountains in West Crete and is considered one of the main attractions of that lovely island.  It is 16 Kilometres long but the walk from the exit of the National Park to Agia Roumeli adds another 3 km. to that.  Even so, it is not the longest in Europe as it sometimes claimed: that honour belongs to the “gorges du Verdon” in Southern France which is a little over 20 km in length.

The Samaria Gorge starts at an altitude of 1230 metres and takes you down to the shore orf the Libyan Sea in Agia Roumeli, and the walk will take between 5 -7 hours to complete.  The terrain is rough and difficult to negotiate at times due to the water rushing over stones which can cause you to stumble, so you need to have a certain degree of fitness and walking experience.  I doubt if I could do it now, but in 1990 (it may even have been the eighties) I was younger, fitter, and up for anything!

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A few are hesitant about going on. This is the start of the trek.

Best way to arrive is by public buses (KTEL) from Chania to Omalos every morning when the gorge is open. Once you have walked through the gorge and are in Agia Roumeli there is a ferry boat to take you to Hora Sfakion for the return connecting bus to Chania.

Normally, the Gorge opens at the beginning of May and closes at the end of October, but if the weather is at all inclement, this can all change.  The gorge will also close on rainy days when there is a danger of rock falls.   Make enquiries before heading off to Crete if the Gorge is one of your main reasons for visiting the island.

Samaria Gorge, Crete
Negotiating the terrain in Samaria Gorge isn’t easy. It may be shallow but it is slippery

The park opens at daylight and closes at dusk but I would suggest starting at dawn if possible, as the first tourist buses arrive about 7.30 or 8.00 o’clock and it can get a bit crowded then.  You can start later, at say, 11.30 or noon when there are fewer people, but you will need to spend the night in Agia Roumeli because the last boat out will have left by the time you get there.  Spring is the best time to walk the Samaria Gorge, avoid the summer at all costs when the heat is intense.

This is not a walk to do with children who could easily fall and injure themselves, although children accustomed to walking, say from the age of nine or so, should manage it.  Bear in mind though, that once embarked on the walk there is no quick exit anywhere along the way.  There are wardens in radio contact with each other along the way, who will help you in case of trouble or injury and the presence of well-maintained springs mean that you do not have to carry much water but there are no huts in which to rest.  The walk is long but not especially difficult for the experienced walker – the word here being experienced.  Every day some people manage to get into trouble, but they are usually those who have never attempted a long walk, or a walk over such rough terrain.

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Nearly half way along now

When I say rough terrain, I mean stony terrain.  You will encounter stones in all shapes and sizes, from uneven stones at the start to pebbles in the river bed (tiring on the soles of the feet).   You often have to cross the river bed by stepping on large stones which have been placed at strategic intervals and which require some sure-footedness.

The village of Samaria is situated roughly at the halfway point and most people take a rest here.  You may care to take a quick walk around the village where you will probably catch glimpses of the  kri-kris, the Cretan wild goats, but avoid approaching them if they are with their young.

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And lastly, a Cretan wild goat with her day-old kid. She was a Diva and refused to pose, deliberately turning her back on me.

And lastly, you can visit the gorge on an organised coach trip and the coach will usually pick you up at your hotel in the early morning.  You don’t walk in a group, once there you can set your own pace but you have the advantage of knowing there are other people entering the Gorge at the same time.  It can be a lonely walk if there are not many there on the day you choose to do the trek.

Essentials for the trip

You won’t need much water but you will need a water bottle which you can refill on the way.

The last part of the walk has very little shade so sun cream and a brimmed hat are essentials.

Sturdy shoes.  Something that won’t cause you to slip on the stones.

There are no shops, no cafes and no restaurants  inside the National Park so you must carry your own food if you are likely to be hungry.

It can be cold at dawn at 1230 metres so wear something warm .

Waterproof plaster in case of blisters.  You never know and help is a long way away!

 

The German Cemetery in Crete

The Granite Cross that Dominates the Entrance to the Cemetery

The huge granite cross, starkly outlined against the blue sky, dominates the entrance to the German War Cemetery in Malame, Crete, scene of some of the most ferocious fighting during the Second World War – the aptly named Battle of Crete. The cemetery, home to the remains of 4,700 German soldiers who died on the island, is easy to find as it is just off the coast road in Malame, a short distance from Chania.

The German Cemetery High Above Malame, Crete
The German Cemetery, high above Malarme

Once in the cemetery proper, one is faced with sombre, grey granite crosses dotted about the area with small granite plaques embedded in the ground, each one bearing the name of two soldiers who lie beneath.  Interspersed with the grey lozenge-like plaques are tough grasses and plant forms that can withstand the dry heat and the cold, snowy winters of Crete.

Plaque to a German Soldier
Plaque to a fallen soldier

The Battle of Malame in May 1941 has become famous as one of attack and counter attack, assault and retreat, with the Cretan partisans and what remained of the Greek army on the island, fighting alongside a New Zealand infantry company, the RAF and Fleet Air Arm personnel left stranded at the airfield.

Three crosses and two plaques.
Three crosses and two plaques.

Over 500 Junkers attacked in a blitzkrieg similar to that launched on Guernica, Spain, five years earlier.  Historians still query why the powers-that-be failed to realize that Hitler might try the same tactics again five years later.

Wave after wave of German paratroopers invaded the island. The Junkers were followed by an armada of paratroopers who were ferried in on gliders and parachute troop carriers and who darkened the sky as they descended in their thousands.  (There were 70 gliders each one holding 10 paratroopers and these were followed by parachute troop carriers). Many were shot as they descended or were enmeshed in the surrounding olive trees.

The invaders who died in this assault were initially interred at 62 locations on the island but in 1960, following permission from the Greek Government, the Germans were permitted to recover these bodies which were then transferred to the Gonia monastery at Kolymbari. (The Monastery had been a centre for the Resistance during the Battle of Crete and the monks were imprisoned in Chania prisons, after the Germans found guns inside the chapel).

German Cemetery at Malame
View of the German Cemetery with its crosses and granite plaques.

In 1971 the remains of 4,465 German troops were transferred to their current resting place in Malame, designed as a cemetery for the Germans who died on the four main battlegrounds of Malame, Chania, Rethymnon and Heraklion.  The cemetery was consecrated on 6th October 1974.

The human cost paid by the German and Allied forces in the fight for Crete was very high.  There is a little Museum on the cemetery site with information on the walls about the history of the battles but most Cretans dispute the interpretations offered.

View from The German Cemetery at Malame
View to the Coast from the German Cemetery

From the cemetery the view to the coast is stunning.  Standing at the top one can see far into the deep blue bay of Chania across hillsides dotted with olive trees, winding down to the Tavronitis River.  Goats graze among the trees, their bleating rising from below sounding eerily like a child crying. A thin ribbon of road runs between the olive groves and the Aegean Sea beyond, and it is hard to imagine the horror that erupted in this peaceful area 75 years ago, or to visualize the dead and dying that littered the beaches and fields.

Neither side has exact numbers of fallen soldiers.

R.I.P.

Best books on the history of the Battle of Crete:

Crete:  The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor (John Murray, Paperback – a division of Hodder Headline (1991).  Still regarded as the best history of Crete during WW11

The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis (trans. by Patrick Leigh Fermor):  John Murray, Paperback (first published 1955).  A first-hand account by one of the partisans from the mountains.

What is Serenity? It’s what Makes me Happy

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Serenity.”

A Thai Sunset - Phuket
A Thai Sunset – Phuket

This is a different sort of Post – it is one in which I’m responding to the weekly photo challenge set up by WordPress.  This week the topic is Serenity so here are a few images that to me represent that scarce emotion in today’s world, serenity.

The first one, below, may not look like everyone’s idea of Serenity, but this Cretan man had an attitude to life that was calm and benign.  He was one of the happiest people I’d ever met: even his donkey seemed happy in the heat of the midday sun.  It was a harsh life up there in the mountains but Andreas told me he had everything in life he needed, his olive trees, a few animals, a family in good health and all living nearby, and most of all, he said, he lived on Crete.

What more can I say?

An old man on a road in Crete with whom I shared my lunch.
An old man on a road in Crete with whom I shared my lunch.

Next photograph is very different.  I did an Art Tour once in France where we stopped at various place where some of the painters known as The Impressionists had painted: their pictures were hung in nearby galleries or galleries of some note further away.  Rouen I remember very well, as it was one of the places where it rained incessantly during our visit, but luckily, Claude Monet had painted more than 30 pictures of the famous Notre Dame Cathedral (many in the rain) so we were able to see it just as the artist had seen it.

When the group of painters who came to be referred to as The Impressionists evolved their style of painting from chocolate-box interiors to naturalistic outdoor scenes, they were helped by two mid-19th century inventions.   One was pre-mixed paints in tubes (akin to today’s toothpaste tubes), and the other was the new vibrant hues like chromium yellow and French ultramarine that freed them from the chore of grinding up lapus lazuli and mixing dry pigment in linseed oil to make colour.

What it also gave them was a complete change of perspective.   With these inventions they could now paint “en plein air” (outdoors), capturing the momentary and transient aspects of light and the ever changing colours of the clouds and using ordinary subject matter.

Alfred Sisley (October 30, 1839 – January 29, 1899) was an English Impressionist landscape painter who was born and spent most of his life in France.  A very disciplined painter, Sisley is recognized as perhaps the most consistent of the Impressionists.  He never deviated into figure painting or thought of finding another form in which to express himself.  The Impressionist movement fulfilled his artistic needs.

Below is a photograph I took of a scene he painted (I think his painting hangs in the Gallery at Honfleur).  To me it is serenity itself.  I photographed it on a day when the Normandy sun was shining, dragonflies were chasing each other over the Seine, the village of Bouille was quiet as the people rested after lunch and I captured the scene on camera as I remembered it from the painting.

Serenity.

A quiet scene where the only movement was of butterflies and dragonflies.
A quiet scene where the only movement was of butterflies and dragonflies.