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An afternoon in southern Crete


It was July 10, 2004 and I had a day off from the hotel.  The Olympic flame, symbolizing peace, good will and noble competition, was reaching its last stop on the south coast of Crete that evening in Agias Galini, a small fishing village tucked into one of a thousand coastal bays along this long, mountainous island in the Aegean.  Hundreds of people from the surrounding coastal and mountain villages of Crete arrived throughout the day.  The event was sure to begin, according to locals, sometime between late afternoon and sunset; trucks were unloading equipment against a backdrop of sunbathers; officials were arriving against a backdrop of history; Icarus and Daedalus had made their famous flight on waxen wings from the same point. 

I was an official tourist today and with my paper bag hugging a bottle of cold retsina and ever-so-oily dolmades, I searched for an overnight hotel.  The village of Agias Galini climbs so directly up the ocean hillside that wandering about is like walking through a giant game of snakes and ladders; one moves either up or down.  The narrow, winding lanes are bordered with tins of red geraniums, whitewash cottages, cool blue shutters and staircase cats.  There are no cars to contend with, only the occasional buzz of scooters.  It is a small, picturesque and quaint place, perfect for a few days’ rest.

At the very top of the hill was a beautiful hotel located on a precipice that overlooked the indescribable expanse of blue ocean that escapes in a universe of sparkling waves and sunlight as far as the eye can see.  It is really a nice view.  But with five young German girls for neighbours, I opted for sleep certainty and looked elsewhere.  Another hotel had soaked up years of ouzo and cigarette ash in seed-sized rooms and its fascinating labyrinthine layout required a map.  Across the road, a tall iron gate was open just enough to let me through and into a long, narrow rose garden overgrown with Grecian blends of bougainvillea and palms.  Ahhh, this place was just right.  Shaded stone garden walls, eight feet high, protected one from harsh sunlight and souvenir stands.  The main marbled floor and staircase were cool and the owner, Asimina, was cooking up something spicy in huge kitchen pots.  Eventually, she fed a table of ten young men who generously invited me to join them in the afternoon meal.  The place felt homey and comfortable, despite being initially disconcerted with its name, The Hotel Idi, and the friendly owner led me up to a peaceful room on the second floor with purple blossoms gently fluttering on the balcony and against the curtains. 

The early afternoon dissolved in a downhill stroll to the ocean.  Ten minutes out of town there is a secluded and quiet beach used by folks from an inland campsite.  Small rocky forts had been built to provide privacy, shade and comfort while reading great and/or trashy novels, drying out your towels and storing sunscreen, sandals and fish harpoons, (honestly) etc.  The next few hours were spent on my back in ripples and currents of water, and then sand, and then water, and then sand; repeat procedure until you need an ice cream which is easily located on the return trip.  Music melts from a dozen open-air cafes, filled with friendly waiters, that overlook the usual tourist strip of sun chairs and rent-a-brellas. 

At around 4 p.m. I returned to my little English-Greek villa-hybrid right out of My Family and Other Animals and out of all disrespect for etiquette and good taste, dug into the dolmades and downed it with retsina while twiddling my toes on the balcony edge.  I was utterly happy.  Eventually, the afternoon drew to a close as they say and the torch arrived via athlete and was welcomed and passed along to, among other athletes, the bakery owner’s daughter.  This part was actually missed as I had fallen asleep but plenty of mothers in the bakery highlighted it the next morning. 

With the flame’s arrival, everybody came down from the mountain or in from the beach and circled the square.  I sauntered down to a seaside café and sipped o.j., tapping my toes to the musicians tuning up.  The temperature by then was a steady 43 degrees Celsius and a trifle warm.  In the cordoned-off area, government officials sat in business suits and clergymen perspired in black robe regalia draped over their seats and selves.  The rest of us hung about in mostly tank tops and sunglasses.  The runners arrived, the crowd cheered, the music played, the horns honked and the altar, resembling a large steel drum, was set alight by the soccer player, Giorgos Fragakis. 

Sue

A good solid hour of speeches, tributes and choir singing possibly helped to ease the comfort of the twenty officials who could only get warmer sitting beside this now huge ball of fire a few feet away.  The entire little village was on fire.  Everything shone in the heat – the square glowed as the sun set with its own ceremony; brilliant white tavernas, glittering waves, mountains of stage equipment and mega-speakers; it was a bright moment, all around. 

Eventually the ceremonies ended allowing folks to link hands and begin dancing in the darkening square.  Others savoured late night meals of morning-caught fish or roast lamb. Enormous restaurant verandahs, stacked four or five stories high one atop the other, lean out into the night’s sea breeze and provide beautiful ocean vistas.  The evening twinkled on, families linked arms beneath the bayside lamps and strolled past gently rocking boats and fishermen, starfish and winkles, nets piled high beneath an indigo sky strewn with stars.  And then it was over: hundreds of people from the surrounding coastal and mountain villages of Crete left throughout the night. 

At six o’clock the next morning, I headed out of the hotel and looked once again, breathlessly, at the unbelievable panorama that this hilltop provides of the Aegean Sea.  Out on the street, I took the first lane that tumbled in sand and rocks to the ocean below.  Everyone was asleep; the cafes were silent, the houses were silent, the dogs were quiet and the roosters had even paused from their earlier staccato melodies.  The ocean, however, continued to play riffs and ripples along the shoreline.  It was cooler now but extremely pleasant with a powerful salt breeze accompanied by sunshine toddling over the dry distant mountains.  Turning inland onto a path of scrubby grass and old man olive trees, I discovered a wonderful walkway on a cliff overlooking the river valley.  Not far below were farm and garden plots filled with sheep, goats, chickens, a donkey or two and even an ostrich.  The path overlooked a flat, green, broad valley patched together with a dozen of these local farms and gardens.  The valley was divided in the middle like a zipper by a broadening silver river that was crossed by two bridges; one modern metal and one rickety fun wood and bamboo, near the river’s mouth. 

I returned to the ocean and crossed each of the bridges before strolling back up the steep hill for breakfast on the terrace.  Freshly baked bread as soft and fluffy as down lay like pillows on the plate beside a hard-boiled egg, some cheeses and cake.  A jar of jam and a pot of boiling hot tea, a rarity, perfectly sustained my Spartan sense of delight.

Following breakfast, I thanked Asimina enthusiastically and returned on the bus back to Matala carrying a little stamp as a reminder of the Olympic flame together with a big loaf of bread as a reminder of the little village.

Travel Details: 
Agias Galini can be reached by island bus service from the northern cities of Heraklion, Rethymnon or Chania or via transfer at  Phaestos.  Travel time is under two hours and fares are under 10 Euro, depending upon the departure city.  The journey passes through Crete’s central mountains and villages, and along some of the world’s most beautiful coastline overlooking diamond blue waters – it is inexpensive and fabulous sightseeing.  There are up to nine buses a day in peak season and they range from air-conditioned plush-seated models with TV to local bumpety green bus service, occasionally filled with lively school children and livelier chickens, and with crops of religious and colourful memorabilia attached to the driver’s front window.

Car, Scooter & Bus Rentals: 
Monza Travel offices are located throughout Crete.  Telephone:  0030-28920-45359 (Heraklion, Rethymnon) 0030-28320-91004 (A.Galini).  Fax: 0030-28320-91035.

Sights & History:
Agias Galini is located in the Messara valley and was originally one of one hundred Minoan centers of Crete.  There are numerous archeological sites in the surrounding area including the ancient Minoan palace of Phaestos and the Roman ruins of Gortys where the world’s first civil laws were written into stones.  There is the interesting Byzantine Church of Panagia situated in Agias Galini’s cemetery.  Nearby can be found Daedelus’ cave from where began the famous mythical flight of Icarus and Daedelus. 

Additional Information:  A wide variety of websites exist including http://www.agia-galini.com/.  Accommodation varies with doubles costing 40-60 Euro per night, and singles costing 30-45 Euro during peak season between July 15th and  August 31st.  Additional tourist information may be found at the Hellenic Tourism Organization, 2 Amerikis St., 10564 Athens, Telephone: 30-1-3271300/2 or e-mail info@gnto.gr.

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