Monday, May 29, 2023

End of Our Time in Sfakia

We are all packed and ready to leave. Well, that’s not exactly true. We are prepared to leave. Our tidy camp comfort has been returned to its hotel room standards; all our belongings are in the car; the final bill has been paid; and various staff members who offered us special kindnesses have been thanked. Yes, we’re ready to go, but we would really like to stay a little longer. 

Following my last installment, we really settled down to enjoy the resort and the little town of Sfakia. Wow! The town has experienced some intensive gentrification in the last seven years, but some things haven’t changed at all: Sfakian lamb and potatoes, towels drying on Ilian’s balcony, the Greek flag and Cretan hospitality. 

We were impressed by how many of the people we remembered and how many remembered us. Then we read that there are fewer than 300 people in the town. No wonder it was easy to remember them. Why they remembered us is anyone’s guess, but they did. One gentleman remembered we had been to Croatia, what wine we liked, where we stayed in the town before we found Vritomartis, and even some of the questions we had asked. Amazing!

A trip to the Filaki Beach was a must. We went on a stormy day, perfect for sitting up top and watching the angry surf. Not only was the scenery instagram worthy, the octopus salad was outstanding.

Some nice walks and another ride or two in the country scouting for wildflowers rounded out the time, but I didn’t spot anything new. We have decided that to see more, we would have to do a walk in one of the gorges (it’s going to take some conditioning before I sign up for that) or spend more time on the north side of the island (that will have to wait for the next trip). No new flowers, but the scenery was breathtaking.

The highlight of every day is dressing for dinner on the terrace. We score high marks for lingering over dinner, sometimes visiting with other guests, sometimes quietly waiting to spot the moon and Venus. 

However, on our last night, we broke with tradition and took a boat ride to  Loutro for dinner. Exciting ride, great meal, a delightful couple to share the evening, McClure and Reid from Tennessee, and a great way to wrap up our visit. 

We have met some wonderful Brits that I hope to stay in touch with. Andy and Cathy from Bristol and John and Sue from Nottingham. All four of them are delightful. We had a grand time with them over a long dinner with as many stories as calories and shared a couple evenings with them in the lounge. 

Speaking of evenings in the lounge, Stanley’s favorite was the Cretan Dancers. What energy! Super! For me, it was the Blues Guy because we got to show off our waltzing prowess - twice. Some of the karaoke was painful, but one woman brought the house down with her rendition of Édith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.” Sung perfectly! I’ll remember her long after I’ve forgotten the painful effort of “Dancing Queen.”

The staff at the hotel have been remarkably pleasant and helpful. I can’t remember ever being around a group of people so intent on making the lives of others as comfortable and easy as possible. And they do it with such grace. It is so remarkable that Stanley and I did some research. It seems the people of Crete take hospitality very seriously and even consider it a matter of morality. The staff of this resort simply take it to a very high level. 

There’s something else I like about this resort. They are very interested in the environment and it’s more action than just thoughts and prayers. Everything is served on or in glass or porcelain. There are no paper plates, plastic water bottles, or styrofoam anything. The toilet paper and trash bags are bamboo. Maids use cloths - no paper towels. No straws in anything. Rooftops are covered in solar panels. The place is kept immaculately clean inside and out. All the glass bottles are recycled by a company in Chania. I asked the owner of the resort about all of this. He told me it was his personal commitment to make the resort as sustainable as possible. He doesn’t know what happens to the glass once it leaves the resort, but his only concern at this time is that it doesn’t end in a land fill. As he said, “We have to start somewhere.”

Now, a dash of bleaker reality. We have had wind. Strong wind. It has come from the north, up over the mountains and down to the ocean in great gusts. It doesn’t last long, but when it comes, it makes being outside unpleasant. It hasn’t bothered us very much because we’ve had plenty of reading and writing to entertain us, but for those who came for the whole resort experience, it’s been a downer.  But, like my rain soaked suitcases when we landed in Italy, you can’t count anything the weather department dishes out as a disappointment. For the most part, the weather has been wonderful, but perhaps a little cooler than we had expected. 

And now you know how we managed to spend two weeks on the south side of Crete. We leave Sfakia with happy memories and a clear intention of returning - as often and as soon as possible.  Perhaps one day we will be able to say the same thing a gentleman told me yesterday, “I’ve been coming here for years. I’m family now.”

Thursday, May 25, 2023

A Small History of Sfakia

Piecing together the history of Sfakia is not an easy task. Even the name is confusing. Sfakia is the area, Hora Sfakion is the town. However, most tourists, myself included, call the town Sfakia. 

In the town of Hora Sfakion, behind a grove of pine trees is an old ruined fortification part Venetian, part Turkish, and part craggy rock. 

There is no clear reference to the area in written history before the 16th century. The first official recording of the fortifications was made June 21, 1526.

The people of Sfakia have always been fiercely independent. The Venetians who were busy for hundreds of years building fortifications along the Cretan coast found its most challenging opponents in Sfakia. Of the 11 castles they built along the coast, Frangokastello, a few kilometers to the east of Hora Sfakion, is the least ancient. Surely the site was used as a fortification long before the Venetians arrived, but no one really knows what history lies beneath the stones they laid. 

As a result of the war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire Crete fell under the rule of the Turks in 1669. This lasted until 1897 when the Ottoman Empire fell apart.

As the Ottomans moved out in the late 1800s, the island was divided into four parts. Sfakia was in the part controlled by Italy. I could find no account of their influence in the region. 

Crete did not become part of Greece until 1913. The photo above was taken in 1914 when the Hora Sfakion fortifications we’re still recognizable. 

Sfakia is famous as one of the centers of the resistance against the occupying forces of both the Venetians and the Turks. The impenetrable White Mountains to the north combined with the rocky beaches on the south helped the locals fight off all invaders. It is interesting to note that the Sfakia region is considered one of the few places in all of Greece never fully occupied by foreign powers. 

I am writing this as Hora Sfakion quietly celebrates Ohi Day. On October 28, 1940 the Italian government presented an ultimatum to the Greeks, demanding that Axis forces be allowed to enter and occupy Greece. According to legend, the reply was a simple Ohi - No! Greeks aren't easily intimidated and Sfakians don't give up easily.

After the Battle of Crete during World War II, Sfakians helped thousands of New Zealand and Australian soldiers evacuate the island. In spite of great reprisals, the Sfakians continued in their rebellion against the Germans during the four years of their occupation.

A monument at the new harbor honors the great effort to evacuate the Allied forces when defeat was inevitable. 

Another monument below the old castle honors the 26 men from Hora Sfakia and neighboring villages who were executed by the Nazis for aiding Allied troops.

Sfakians are still considered somewhat beyond the reach of the lawmakers and tax collectors of Athens with vendettas over stolen sheep and women's honor still fought late into the 20th century. 

Stealing and banditry had been considered a way of life in the mountains, even appearing in a Creation myth, which made God Himself a Sfakiot, as recounted by Adam Hopkins:

...with an account of all the gifts God had given to other parts of Crete - olives to Ierapetra, Ayios Vasilios and Selinou; wine to Malevisi and Kissamou; cherries to Mylapotamos and Amari. But when God got to Sfakia only rocks were left. So the Sfakiots appeared before Him armed to the teeth. "And us Lord, how are we going to live on these rocks?" and the Almighty, looking at them with sympathy, replied in their own dialect (naturally): "Haven't you got a scrap of brains in your head? Don't you see that the lowlanders are cultivating all these riches for you?"

In spite of their warlike nature, Sfakians are also famous for their hospitality and generosity towards guests. During and after WWII, the town was never completely abandoned, but the population moved away from the coast into the hills.  Gradually, the town fell into ruin. With the improvement and paving of the road from Chania to Hora Sfakia in the 1980's, more and more tourists discovered the town. Residents returned to the coast, restored many of the buildings and put up new construction. It was an easy transition for many Sfakians to turn from traditional labor to tourism. 

We have certainly enjoyed our share of Sfakian hospitality! 

The photos below are of the old fortifications as the look today.

The old fortification contained a cistern. I'm not sure how just how this played out, but under this slab of concrete is a water storage system. An excellent example of repurposing.

And views from the top

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Spring Wildflowers of Crete

 There may be a few duplicates (computer user error) but better to have two pictures than none. Enjoy!