Crete – mountains, plants, wars and politics
We started out early to climb through the cool morning hours to the Kallergi Refuge but halfway up the sun caught us and gave us a hammering. Its fiery blast burned through our clothes like a blowtorch, sweat streaked our faces running into our eyes and dripping from the end of our noses and every breath was like sucking hot air through a blanket. There was no shade except for the occasional rocky outcrop so the best we could do was to keep on moving and plaster ourselves with enough zinc sunscreen that we looked like a couple of extras from the cult zombie movie, The Night of the Living Dead.
The mountains of Crete are an upland desert in the hotter months and while we carried 4 litres of bottled water it had to last the whole day so we limited ourselves to occasional sips. Even by this initial climb it had already lost its refreshing coolness, tasting as lifeless as luke-warm tea, so we were hoping for a top-up at the refuge. Many of these places have stone cisterns built into them for catching and storing rainwater and snow melt. The water from these is ravishingly ice-cold and a delicious pleasure to drink and maybe to steal a brief indulgence with a splash to the nape of the neck. In these extreme places life is reduced to a few simple pleasures.
The Kalergi refuge clings to the edge of a cliff, like an eagle’s eyrie, high above the Omolos Plain to the west and the spectacular Samaria Gorge to the east. As we approached it along a low ridge through high, jagged rocks I thought I heard music leaking out from under the door. Maybe the wind, I thought, or Sirens sweetly singing? In the White Mountains in Crete? I don't think so ... As we came closer the sounds began to coalesce and take shape ... twangy guitar, choppy, pounding riff and slightly nasal, high pitched whine, “you got your mother in a whirl cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl”. What’s going on? David Bowie, up here? We each gave the other a quizzical glance. At that moment a young blond man opened the door and stepped out. “Oh, hello, I thought I heard someone out here”, he said, “you have walked up from Omolos? But of course you have”, answering his own question. “You must be very hot and thirsty?” His gleaming, unruffled good looks in striking contrast to our dishevelled and faded appearance. “Come sit and rest. We have a range of refreshments. Maybe a beer, or a freshly squeezed orange juice?” What is this place, I thought, a refuge, or a night club?
“Are you running a business?”, I inquired jokingly. “Yes, we lead walking tours around the plateau and cater to trekkers staying here or passing through”, the buffed young man replied. So, orders taken, there Suzie and I sat, somewhat incredulous, on the rooftop of Crete, David Bowie ricocheted around us from the bright surfaces of stones and into the vast, blue, eternal sky. Mountains loomed, Melindaou towering up from the plateau behind us, its sun-bleached upper slopes the colour of freshly fallen snow and across the gorge, Gingilos glowered, its sheer, grey-black walls falling to impossible depths into the Samaria Gorge below.
We were sitting on the western edge of the White Mountains, or Lefka Ori, the largest mountain range in Crete, occupying much of the central west of the island. They are the dramatic feature of the region, strewn with sky-scraping summits and riven by gorges, the most famous being the Gorge of Samaria, the longest in all of Europe. This is wild and remote country and over the centuries it has proved an impenetrable bastion against invading forces, the local resistance using their intimate knowledge of hidden caves and secret gaps and valleys to outwit and outrun their opponents.
On the hillsides to the east of the refuge were scattered literally millions of Crocus sieberi ssp sieberi seed capsules distinct in their bone-white and violet livery. In shady places by rocky outcrops and bushes we caught the last bursts of colour from late bloomers, their flowers a delicate confection of white, frosted and stippled with intricate patterns of purple and mauve.
A decade before, after hitching a ride on the back of a beekeeper’s ute, I had walked the same hillside on a vast carpet of these flowers so closely packed together that it was impossible to avoid destroying half a dozen with each footfall. Mist swirled like dragon’s breath, and with each shaft of sunlight the ground lit up with a myriad of jewel-like goblets. I had walked in a hushed silence accompanied only by the background thrum of insects and every now and then a tiny zephyr of a wind would tear through the open-mouthed flowers sending them fluttering like thousands of beating butterfly wings.
There are number of other crocus found in the high mountains of Greece and these were considered subspecies of Crocus sieberi ssp sieberi. However recent phylogenetic studies have turned these relationships on their head and identified them all as separate species. Forgive me if I am wrong but I had always thought that taxonomy was not only about description but also relatedness. Oh well! Let the gold rush take its course. Maybe a more dispassionate generation might come up with a better way to “stitch together” disparate lists of plants?
On that first trip snow had gathered in gullies and depressions. This was old snow and through the slush and slurry, and sickly yellow grass short spikes of soft blue blooms had speared up to open as bewitching little flat stars each with a broad white eye. These are the aptly named Glory of the Snow, or Chionodoxa cretica and one of two species endemic to Crete, the other, Chionodoxa nana, has sprays of pale, milky-white, more open-cupped flowers but I have never seen this one in the wild.
Chionodoxa is a small genus of dwarf winter/spring flowering bulbous plants. Along with the two aforementioned, another, C. lochiae, is native to Cyprus and there are another 3 or 4 species in western Turkey. They belong to the Hyacinthaceae family and are related to scillas and muscaris, and though uncommon in gardens, can be of considerable garden value and interest because of their very early flowering and intensely coloured blooms. Predominantly the flowers are a rich, gentian-blue, sometimes with a white eye, and selections of pink and also white have been made in commerce. The nomenclature for these things is hopelessly muddled and there are many hybrids but they’re all worthwhile growing.
Crete is not as well endowed with bulbous plants as the rest of Greece but it does have five species of tulips, four of which are endemic. The most widespread of these is the sweet little native, Tulipa cretica, commonly known as the Cretan Tulip. Its dainty little flowers can be white through to a deep pink with yellow pollen and its thready leaves are often twisted and held close to the ground. On that same visit I had found them in moist, gravelly soils amongst large boulders on higher ground. The flowers had finished but fat three chambered seed pods were beginning to form on short, stubby stems and were white and green and stippled with blackish-red. Here they were just below their altitudinal limit of 2000m and it was astonishing to recall that only a couple of weeks earlier we had found them on the Akrotiri Peninsula, almost at sea level, growing in an open field in terra rossa soil!
There is another little buried treasure growing up here with the eagles (or should that be angels?) but it flowers long before in the autumn. Throughout winter’s freezing blast it holds its seed capsule just below the ground for protection and during the increasingly warmer days of spring these push to the surface, split open, and seeds dispersed. By the time we arrived they were just begining to emerge, deep, dull-green hummocks poking up between twisted leathery leaves. This brave little plant is Colchicum cretense, one of the many small species found in Greece. It is very similar to C. pusillum and both are very common on the island but I struggle with the differences between them. The former is regarded as an alpine, principally occurring above 1000m and should have larger flowers and darker anthers. However populations of both species are extremely variable and at any altitude it’s possible to find plants matching both species. Oh that hoary old problem of defining a species raises its head again!
In the immediate aftermath of the loss of the Battle of Crete guerrilla fighters spirited over sixteen thousand allied troops through the rocks and wild flowers of these high mountain passes to evacuations points on the south coast. It must have been chaos and a brutal trek. On finally reaching their destination, one in every three was told there was no room left for him on the evacuating naval ships. He was told he had to stay behind to be captured.
Five thousand didn’t make it off the island, and of those left behind none was above the rank of lieutenant colonel. As one eyewitness put it, “as a damnable and disgraceful scramble for priority, a claim to a privilege of escape based on rank and seniority”. Evelyn Waugh wrote of it in, Officers and Gentlemen, but it seems not to have entered the official record.
The abandoned were rounded up and forcibly marched the fifty miles back over the mountains along what became known as the Via Dolorosa. Captured resistance fighters were summarily shot and entire villages were burnt to the ground. Apparently civilian resistance offended the Nazis’ sense of how war should be waged and their commander ordered reprisals to be carried out “with exemplary terror”.
In this high country landscape nothing of that brutal episode remains. It is as if all the evidence has been expunged from the landscape. The removal of bodies and bones would have been a priority before the vultures began to gather, and the rest, well ... left to the siftings and grindings of nature to dispose of.
But the memory of war has not been so easily exorcised from the minds of the Cretans particularly in those towns that felt its full force. And it was during the Kosovo War that I saw this first hand and felt the peoples’ extreme dislike of the outsider as invader.
Greek politics is jumble of contradictory opinions, ethnic and tribal allegiances at the best of times but during that war it reached its apogee. As a member of NATO Greece was obliged to permit other member states, more particularly the United States, to use of its airbases to bomb Serbia to stop the “ethnic cleansing” of Albanians in Kosovo. Greece itself gave no support to its allies and continued normal relations with Serbia. A Greek first division team even played a football friendly match in the Serbian capital of Belgrade to “show solidarity”. Church leaders, professional organizations and trade unions organized transport of food and medicine from Athens to Belgrade. Many Greeks strongly objected to the bombings and there were daily protests in all the major cites.
It was a dilemma for the Greek government, a NATO member and on the other hand a sovereign state trying to manage anger and unrest in the general population arising because of the traditional and historical ties between these two Orthodox Christian countries.
Bizarrely some politicians shamelessly “milked” this situation to increase their own populist support with empty, emotive attacks on the United States, which did nothing except further inflame an already tense situation. And it was into this that I stumbled whilst in Heraklion, the capital of Crete.
I had only been in Greece a couple of days and while I was aware what was going on in Kosovo I was naive to Greece’s role in it. The war, as far as I was concerned, was a million miles away.
Out on an early evening stroll I was drawn to a noisy crowd gathered in one of the city squares. As I joined them I could see the focus was on large, fleshy-faced man on a podium out at the front haranguing the mob. I couldn’t understand a word but his shrill voice and eye-popping delivery left no doubt it was unadulterated vitriol.
Then I got a clue. Behind the podium was a large placard depicting a map of the Balkans on which a slithery dragon-like effigy of Bill Clinton (then President of the USA) was being skewered with a lance by the bellicose guy on the podium riding a white charger. So mesmerized was I by this performance and the ridiculous notion of him as a proxy Saint George defending the realm by slaying Satan USA that I had failed to notice an increase in agitated voices and the uneasy shifting of the crowd around me.
Then suddenly there was an abrupt tap on my shoulder and someone saying, “You must leave. It is not safe for you here”. Before I could face my informant his voice rang out again, “Please! Go!” I made it out of there but not before being jostled and sworn at. Even out on the street cars slowed so their occupants could sling abuse. Badly shaken I made straight for my hotel and shut the door.
A week later found me in the mountain village of Anogeia on the foothills of Mt Idi. This is one of the places that suffered atrociously at the hands of the Nazis and it has a reputation for tough, independent, some would say lawless men known generally as the “Black Shirts”. While there is plenty of machismo here things are usually respectful, and I had almost forgotten the incident from the previous week, so I strode confidently out for an evening meal.
But it wasn’t to be. At every place I stopped I was either politely ignored or told that service was finished despite seeing locals arrive after me. Even the lovely old kafenaion, where in past I had been welcomed, turned its back on me so there was nothing left to do but buy a packet of crisps and retreat to my pension.
The following morning bought further dismay. My hire car, which had been parked on the road overnight, had been vandalized. Deep scratches had been gouged, full length, along each of its sides, the windscreen wipers were bent, and a number of large boulders placed underneath the chassis.
It was with considerable anger and bewilderment that I marched into the local police station later on that morning to report what had happened. I was to be even more bewildered by the officer on duty’s response. “You will have to go to Rethymno to report this”, he said, his eyes narrowing. “Rethymno is 50 kilometres away and my car was damaged here. I have to file a report here to show to the hire care company”, I bellowed at him. But I should’ve saved my breath for he took not the slightest bit of notice and went on shuffling papers at his desk.
Exasperated I retreated outside and phoned the car hire company to explain what had happened. Luckily I got the guy who rented me the car and who turned out to be the manager. After a brief exchange and assurances from me that I had hit no one he confided, “this sort of thing never happens here but some colleagues did say that the trouble in Kosovo could be a problem”. The war .... suddenly the penny dropped ... everyone thinks I’m a bloody American!