Sunday, October 28, 2007

Into the Plateau

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands. This year my wife and I visited it for the first time. I used to think of Crete as being a very boring sun - scorched rocky place where few people in their right minds would want to visit - let alone spend a holiday. If you look at a map of just the outline of Crete, it looks like it should be rocky - it is a rather odd elongated shape with lots of sharp bits jutting off of it. A sea monster would stab itself on it if it got too close. There looks to be much scope for foundered and long-sunken ships. It is apparent that whatever route nature chose to bring to birth this rough honed island - it must have been violent. My negative leanings towards the island changed last year when we vacationed in Rhodes and met people who encouraged us to visit Crete. So we did.

I was stunned by the soaring grandeur of the place. It is a land of high mountains, steep gorges, hair-pin bends, vertigo inducing drops, valleys, canyons, beaches, beautiful towns and villages, friendly people, fantastic weather, ancient ruins, tradition, Greek Orthodoxy and good beer. In other words, I liked it and reprising General Douglas MacArthur - "I shall return" - but for an entirely different reason!

We hired a Jeep committing ourselves to explore deep into the interior and as far away from the tourist infested resorts as possible. We, of course, were not tourists ourselves, but explorers in a strange land! Studying the map, I spotted a winding road pretending to be a snake leading from Malia up into the mountains and finishing at the Lassithi Plateau. This looked like a day's adventure with the promise of "interesting" driving, lots of scenery and a good place to take lots of inspiring photographs. When I travel, I tend to photograph anything in sight that looks in the least bit interesting. Every day in Crete, I found lots of subjects which met this criterion, so my camera was kept busy, and it's going to take an age to sort out all the resulting images.

After driving upwards on the seemingly endless mountain road, becoming more and more mesmerized by the view the higher we got, we stopped off at the Ambelos Pass. The wind was howling around us whipping up dust which stung the eyes. It was reminiscent of the scene in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" where investigators are looking over a squadron of WWII aircraft which turned up in the wind-swept desert having disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle. The wind was like that. The reason for stopping was the line of seemingly giant ruined windmills guarding the entrance to the plateau from the slopes above. To a distant eye they formed a "v". In their former lives before becoming ruins, they were used for grinding wheat and barley to feed the villages of Lassithi. In all, there were 26 of them, only today they stand in a variety of stages of ruination. They stand like remnant sentinels at the entrance to the plateau.

Around the corner there were many tourist coaches pulled up at the gift shop and restaurant. Some people, though not many, had ventured up the adjacent slope to explore the ruins. I ventured up myself to satisfy my curious urgings, especially where ruins and echoes of the past are concerned. My wife decided to stay down and looked around the gift shop in my absence. I half ran and jumped up the rocky shale like one half my age and with the agility of a kri kri goat. I came to a desolate spot at the top windmill, above the hubbub of the crowds below with the breeze, tamed by the expanded space of altitude, my whispering companion.

This was a spot which had been encroached upon by twentieth century technology, there being microwave receiving and transmitting masts with supporting cables and power lines fanning and criss-crossing like the creation of a spider on a bad night. On the ground amongst the rocks, there lay strewn about many modules of redundant electronic hardware. Clearly, it was easier for the visiting technicians to litter the landscape with this high tech junk than to take it away and recycle it.

I surveyed the scene. Looking south I observed the road which spat out its final bends before leveling out into a circular route around the Plateau. The Plateau stretched out ahead of me, enticing in its appeal, and home to 16 villages - its fertile flat landscape a direct contrast to the surrounding barren mountains. But for the moment, it was time to stand in wonder, like Moses on the mountain top peering over into the Promised Land. After a little while, responding to my innate yearnings to take photographs, I explored each windmill in turn as I made my way back to the windy base of the path where my wife was patiently waiting for me. We drove into the Plateau.

We chose to travel anti-clockwise around the plateau, though that is irrelevant as either direction brings you back to the same spot. The plateau is some 860 meters above sea level, though you wouldn't know it, but for the dramatic journey up to it. Years ago there were around 10,000 windmills spread across the plain pumping up water to irrigate the farmland. We never saw one windmill, only the odd one which had been deliberately constructed near various tavernas, their purpose not to pump water, but to attract the tourists and boost the local income. The locals use diesel powered pumps today instead of windmills. Windmills look a lot nicer - but then that’s progress! We passed through a number of villages. They were all unspoiled and traditional rural Greek. Compared to ourselves and our lifestyle, there seemed to be a lot of poverty; we seemed to be stuck in a kind of time warp. In one of the villages I parked up and got out to take some photographs of the local architecture when I spotted an old lady in black, a widow - on a donkey. I snatched the camera to my eye - but deleted the resulting shot - out of focus - snatch shots are always hit and miss, and I missed on this one! The people of the plain have suffered a lot historically. Over the past few hundred years, Lassithi has suffered under two foreign invasions, first from the Venetians from the 13th to the 17th centuries. That was bad enough, but paled into insignificance compared to the utter savagery and brutality they endured under the Turkish occupation during the 19th century. The plateau was unprotected as the resistance fighters were fighting elsewhere on the island. When the Turkish army set foot in the plateau they utterly destroyed and massacred everyone - women, children, cripples and of course, the men. Cutting off the heads from the corpses they constructed a pyramid from them in one of the villages. No doubt they thought they had done a good day's work.

The plain itself had a hypnotic effect upon me. Having just driven through such rugged and steep terrain, the sheer billiard table flatness of the landscape inexorably drew my attention - though not too much, as I didn't want to crash the car! I was particularly interested in visiting the Dictean Cave. This is a cave in the side of the Dikte Mountain above the village of Psychro. According to tradition and legend, it was in this cave that Rea gave birth to Zeus, father of the Gods and men. There are various myths about Zeus, and one asserts that he lived as a man and died, and was buried in Crete. This was anathema and blasphemy to many in the ancient world and this version of the story of Zeus caused much indignation against the Cretans. A Cretan philosopher called Epimenedes lived around 600BC. He wrote a poem in honour of Zeus in which he states:

"They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being."

I have to admit, the last 2 lines of this stanza have definite biblical overtones. Talking of the Bible, in the Apostle Paul's letter to Titus, who he left to lead and nurture the church in Crete, he quoted Epimenedes thus:

"Even one of their own prophets has said, "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons." This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply…….."

In Paul's case, he was not concerned about the memory of Zeus, but rather a contamination by the "circumcision party" (don't ask!) of the gospel message he was trying to promote. I find it interesting that he should actually quote Epimenedes as the ancient philosopher's concern was for Zeus - whom to Paul would have in any case been a complete falsehood. The parallel here is of course, that they were both trying to protect what they saw as a divine truth and Paul quotes him, in my opinion, because it was convenient to help make his case.

Staying with Epimenedes for a moment, we are presented with a problem of logic. This is because he himself was a Cretan. Therefore, if he states "All Cretans are liars" - and he himself was a Cretan, then the converse must be true in that all Cretans must tell the truth! This is what has become known as the "Epimenedes Paradox." Paul either ignored this, or it had never occurred to him! As for Epimenedes himself, all his writings have disappeared. We only have glimpses of his writings through the writings of others. It's a shame he didn't have the Internet!

We drove into Psychro village and spotted the sign up to the cave. We turned up the steep track until we came to a dead end in the form of a car park with the local tavernas off to one side. Guess what! The cave was shut so we never got to see it! ("I shall return")……… There was no notice at the bottom of the road to warn you that it was shut on this particular day. The logic I guess was that the locals wanted all the tourists to go piling up there and drown their sorrows or comfort-eat when they discovered that the cave was shut. We comfort - ate a couple of really nice, big ice-creams - lovely!

It was easy to find the right turning to leave the plain. The give away was the sighting of the V-shaped pass and it's sentinel windmills. I shall return.


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