“Wooden ships on the water, very free and easy
Easy, you know the way it’s supposed to be
Silver people on the shoreline, let us be
Talkin’ ’bout very free and easy.”
– Crosby, Stills, & Nash
§ § §
I’ve been here before – twice. The second time was to produce an episode of a travel television show, a four-day whirlwind of locations and logistics and then I was off to another country, another episode. Most of my experience was reduced to watching video footage in the edit suite. Yeah, I know – sounds tough. But seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to be just a tourist so much in my life. If third time’s the charm, then I just had to return.
And so, after twelve hours in the air – Vancouver to Toronto to Montreal to Athens – it took less than an hour in a puddle jumper to arrive in this Mediterranean city that was considered ‘modern’ more than three thousand years ago. This is Heraklion or Iraklio as the locals call it, the capital city of Crete.
This island is one of those magical places that time seems to have forgotten all about. You might expect a place that’s so steeped in epics and legends to look and feel very old, well… look, yes – feel, not so much. There are fortresses and battlements and ruins (oh my!) even in the middle of town, but also contemporary buildings and shops, modern architecture and the always-friendly Greek people. And being surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea is a constant reminder of why the colours of the Greek flag are sun-bleached white and deep blue.
Presently, I am sitting at a restaurant table on the beach. It is late, it is dark, and I am starving. The white sand, barely visible in the rising moonlight, continues to release the heat it absorbed earlier in the day. I am devouring locally-caught calamari and freshly-baked garlic bread, all the while nursing a half bottle of iced Retsina. But it’s the sights and sounds offered by the seating arrangements that are keeping me entertained.
This restaurant is typical of the many small bistros and tavernas you find all over The Med, but this one stands out because of its location. The bistro itself – the kitchen and the bar – is on the island side of a narrow street, while the tables and serving areas are beachside. This street runs east-west along the Aegean Sea on the north coast of the island until it winds its way up into the hills via Highway 90. The restaurant is situated on the outer cusp of a roundabout with a tight, almost hidden left turn. Waitstaff must ‘throw the dice’ as they make their way across the street to take orders and deliver food and drink. It’s midweek, so not as busy as it might be. Still, there are no crosswalks, no signals, not even painted lines that might give staff even a false sense of security. My waitress, Nina, carries a flashlight and wears a white t-shirt, white shorts, and white sneakers with an orange reflective strip on both heels. Not a fashion statement!
The handful of vehicles I have seen and heard while enjoying my late supper have been mostly regional delivery trucks. Knowing the road well, they make their way around the bend, mindful of the setting. However, two other cars emblazoned with rental stickers take the corner at speed, oblivious to the restaurant situation. I ask Nina if there’s ever been an accident. She rolls her eyes and says, “Not today.”
I must sleep. My hotel is mere minutes away, but first, I have the road and the vehicles to negotiate with… on a half-bottle of Retsina.
Morning… well… mid-morning, truth be told, brings a bright sunny sky. At home, winter is approaching, but not here. A warm toasty temperature married to a slight breeze blowing in from the sea equals perfect driving conditions. Shades on, windows down, throttle up.
I’ve been driving for less than ninety minutes, mostly up into the hills, and I find myself in the central highlands with spectacular 360-degree views. The twisty bits of the narrow roads here are an absolute gas to drive. A sheer rock face on my right, a deep gorge to my left… no guard rails… no other cars in sight… the scent of wild thyme growing literally at the side of the road wafting through the vehicle… it’s all quite the heady experience. One can easily get lost.
I turn onto a dirt road leading down and into a small valley, more of a crater, really. I pull over and step out into tranquil air, still warm and fragrant, but… different. It’s quiet here. There are palm trees, a small lagoon, tiny birds, and butterflies. And then I hear it… a sound. But what is that sound…? Singing, maybe, in the distance…? Is it someone’s radio? A Bluetooth speaker, perhaps? But there’s no one else here.
Captivated, I move around the small valley to the other side of the lagoon. The sound becomes more distinct. In the distance, I can just about make out the singing voices of… women…? Really? I’m in the middle of the island in a small valley and… this makes no sense.
I confess my mind begins to wander off to the magical stories of Odysseus and the Sirens. Am I caught in the clutches of legend, about to be shipwrecked on the mythical rocks of fate, never to be heard from again? I am not in Kansas anymore.
I follow a small path and move toward the upper lip of the valley, climbing to its edge. The singing gets louder. As I emerge at the top of the hill, I can see a group of women and girls, some mere children, others quite elderly. They are singing and picking fruit. At least, that’s what it looks like.
As I get closer, they notice me. The women smile and wave, beckoning me to come over and join them (The Sirens! Definitely!)
We’re in a meadow on the edge of a grove of olive trees, some more than a thousand years old. Several large collapsible tables are crowded with various settings of fruit, bread, pastries, paper plates, and cups. On either side are a dozen or so bushel baskets overflowing with… olives. Two of the women are lifting the baskets into the back of an old flatbed truck. Two of the girls are flying a kite. The singing doesn’t stop.
I am offered a paper cup containing a murky liquid known on the island as ‘tsikoudia’. More commonly called ‘raki’ versions of this highly alcoholic homemade drink can be found all around the Mediterranean. It is a mixture of distilled grapes flavoured with honey and cinnamon, and it is wicked!
I watch as a handful of the women spread blankets under one of the trees and then grasp the trunk and shake vigorously. Scores of ripe olives fall to the ground. Many of the women laugh as the fruit bounces off heads and arms, some olives getting captured within the confines of overalls, brightly coloured dresses, and hats. It is olive harvesting time, and in any other country, this would be a block party.
As the women begin to pack up, I slowly make my way back to the car. One of the women runs after me. She hands me two pastries wrapped in a bright cloth of blue and white (of course). She hugs me, and I thank her, we smile, and, leaving the Sirens to their work, I return to the car. The singing once again drifts into the distance.
Less than an hour later, I am further west and parked on a promontory overlooking a rocky beach. I can just make out the rusted prow of a shipwreck sticking out of the blue water about a half-mile from shore. I laugh to myself – “Sirens?” I brush the remaining crumbs from my shirt and tie the blue and white cloth to my rear-view mirror. Magical indeed.