Among the high mountain passes or vast maritime horizons, en route to the archipelagos appearing like constellations in a half-submerged land, travelers notice right away that the island of Crete has an identity all its own. It tastes of spiced herbs and fresh cheese, such as mizithra, and has an eccentric color, surprising in its sudden variations.
It would suffice to stand and admire “that brazen set-design,” as described by Cesare Brandi, the art critic, that is the rebuilding of the lavish Minos’ palace in Knossos, to glimpse this very characteristic. Everywhere you look there are reverberations of the same color palette reflecting throughout Greece, both in its islands and in its mainland.
This happens especially in Crete’s western corner, the part protecting in its heart the remnants of a few city-states like Aptera (possibly a colonial settlement governed by the Dorian Apteros, one of the actors in Crete’s occupation circa the end of the Minoan era), a city overlooking the fiery reds of the mountain range, of the rocks wedged amidst low thyme, rosemary and dictamnus hedges. The latter, is a perennial aromatic weed – sacred to the goddess Artemis – rumored to be eaten by goats and to mend arrow wounds, and it would later be promoted to plant for visionaries and prophets. In addition to this, there is also the pearl shade of gray permeating the impervious cliff passages, interrupted by the sudden candor of small parietal churches hanging from high slopes, and by that singular “peeled” sky – Brandi, again, defined it in his “Viaggio nella Grecia antica,” while attributing to the many sea inlets running along the itinerary between Chania and Heraclion the adjective of “wine-like.”
The palette includes the milky white of clouds eternally masking the peak of Mount Ida, on top of which Greek civilization was born when Rhea hid young Zeus in a rock cleft (today a pilgrimage site in its own right) to shelter him from the cannibalistic propensities of his father, Cronus, all the while feeding her husband a much less palatable rock. Thus, the life of the baby god was spared the cruel destiny that befell the rest of Rhea’s children, and he was raised by a female goat, Amalthea, who fed him honey and ambrosia until he was grown and went on to conquer the throne: He overthrew his tyrannical father, forcing him to throw up all of his brothers. In doing so, he founded a new celestial world and, subsequently, a lineage of men and women to populate the earth.
Positively blooming at the dawn of time, today Crete appears more barren, covered by a vegetation close to the ground, with the exception of small palm trees by the sea, a native, protected species: the Phoenix Theophasti. We are, after all, in the land that grew olive trees since 3000 B.C. On the island, there are still about 4.5 million of them, and every five years they bear fruit, yielding smaller olives for the celebrated extra-virgin olive oil and larger ones,the kalamata olives, to be eaten.
Some of the trees have been at the mercy of the winds for at least 1,000 years, like the olive tree in Vuves, a village some 30 kilometers from Chania, considered one of the oldest olive trees on earth – to the point of having its own museum dedicated to its history and to that of its “neighbors.” One may also happen to spy banana and avocado plantations – avocados are true protagonists in the small village of Lapa, where people still preserve the way of life and habits coming straight from Venetian colonization, mostly in surviving houses: Here avocado can be drunk, eaten and even used as a rejuvenating skin moisturizer.
The landscape anomaly represented by Crete, as compared to the idea we have of “touristic” Greece, is in its numbers: Its land – besides, of course, its beaches – is made of some 500 mountain clefts – many of which host the 800 monasteries present in the island – 1,000 waterfalls, Europe’s longest canyon (the Samaria cleft, 18 kilometers long), and 60 mountaintops over 2,000 meters.
Crete is a labyrinth, as its own mythology suggests. It’s the symbolic prison for the Minotaur (son of Pasiphaë, Minos’ wife, but born out of wedlock through an adulterous relationship inspired by the gods) built by Daedalus to protect that very “regal” monster. Crete is disposed on layers, inhabited since the Neolithic era, and then “retold” in a whirlwind palimpsest of historically over-imposed conquests – the Minoan civilization spread its wings from here, where the Mycenaeans, the Dorians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Venetians and the Turks arrived to conquer – and it is an island in between the Aegean and the Libyan sea: It does not budge to any outside desire to control it.
“Again, I had that feeling of the back pages of Dickens’ novels, of a quaint, one-legged world, illumined by a jaded moon: a land that had survived any catastrophe and was now palpitating with a blood beat, a land of owls, and herons and crazy relics such as sailors bring back from foreign shores.” Thus wrote Henry Miller in his The Colossus of Maroussi, when, in 1941, he sailed from Marseille to the Piraeus, advancing, stop-over after stop-over, toward Crete and returning to the reader the images of a remote land, difficult to decipher for an overseas traveler.
The writer promptly discarded rationalizing explanations, and any and all attempts at conveying things in a rigid structure, in favor of a stream of physical impressions. At the beginning, by the mere pronunciation of a first word: “Most beautiful like black, water,” and then by tracing a complete portrait: “Greece is what everybody knows, even in absentia, even as a child or as an idiot or as a not-yet born. […] Crete is something else.” He went on writing, “Crete is a cradle, an instrument, a vibrating test tube in which a volcanic experiment has been performed.”
Moreover, each place has its own strong personality: Chania, for example, is Venetian, eclectic and individualist. In the words of another chosen traveler, Cesare Brandi, who published in 1954 his feelings in a little book by Vallecchi, Chania has “a haven that looks like a dismantled temple. And I mean that it has all of its dutiful natural structures, now barren, of course, appearing blandly as an ordinary town that at some point in time must have been prominent. Bitter fate, one befallen not on this city alone, but on an island that, after having been the breeding ground of a civilization that was primordial, mysterious, and most refined, preceding those along any coastline in the Mediterranean; and after just getting by with some honor up until the unexpected stroke of luck of falling under the Venetians – right at the end, when it thought it had escaped the Turkish invasion, those very Turks took it and in less than two centuries destroyed what was built in the preceding twenty-seven.”
It is appropriately Venetian one of the most beautiful among the monasteries – Tzagarolon – taking its name from the two brothers, Lorenzo and Geremia, who had it built. It is in the Akrotiri peninsula, a place where, walking toward the sea, one finds the Stavros beach, a most coveted landmark for the Western imagination, after Anthony Quinn’s sirtaki dance in Zorba the Greek on the notes of Mikis Theodorakis. It was the year 1964, and the sirtaki dance was born, inspired by the hasapiko, an ancient dance also called “the butchers’ dance,” straight from the Byzantine era. This dance, born with the intention of expressing freedom and life forces, has been adopted as a symbolic flag by the Greeks during the uprisings against the financial restrictions of the Troika.
Crete, nonetheless, is Europe’s mother and nurturer; it is a birthplace, and the myths reinforce this concept, time and time again. The Old Continent found its name here, notwithstanding the island’s marginal location. The Phoenician princess Europa, in fact, gave birth to Minos from a union with Zeus, moving from east to west and laying the foundation of a new civilization – a union, that between east and west, that was free from biases at the time the myth was born. Beautiful and sophisticated, she came from the city of Tyre where she fell prey to Zeus in the shape of a bull that appeared to be very tame when, in fact, he kidnapped her and transported her to Crete where she eventually gave Zeus three children.