Crete: Last Day

The weather was a little better when I woke this morning – but only relatively. The wind was still strong; the possibility of more rain threatened. I tried a new bar in the village for coffee and pondered what to do. My initial idea was just to take things slowly and quietly, thinking of the long trip home tomorrow. But that did seem boring. I changed my mind. One of the things I had wanted to do was drive to the Lasithi Plateau with its promise of apple and pear orchards, almond trees and, of course, the ubiquitous olive tree, as well as stunning views. It is also the place to see Cretan windmills. The Venetians , who ruled Crete for a time, built 20,000 metal windmills with white canvas sails in the 17th century. Only 5,000 remain today but the sight must still be glorious.

Checking a map, the plateau isn’t the easiest place to get to. I consulted Lonely Planet Crete for advice and saw I needed to head back towards Heraklion and turn off to Neapoli. It was going to be a bit of a drive but I felt like doing something and making the most of my last day. I missed my turning for Neopoli. Greek road signs are not always easily understood and sometimes a turning has no advance warning – it’s Go Now. And too late, you’ve gone past it. Another problem is that while lots of signs have the English alphabet as well as the Greek, all too often just the Greek appears. Some of the places near to me I’ve learnt to recognise but sometimes I’m taken unawares. Like recognising the road to Neopoli. It was quite some way before I could turn back.

Neapoli itself was full of coaches and tourists. Fortunately a large blue road sign pointed the way to the Lasithi Plateau. I followed it. Ah, this is easy now, I thought. Can’t be too far to go (well, it didn’t look far on the map). Never ever ‘count your chickens’ … I should know this by now.

If this was the main route to the plateau it was no main road. It narrowed and climbed; then started winding dramatically. As I got higher, I could appreciate the views were stunning indeed, but my concentration was focused on the narrow mountainous road and hoping nothing large was coming towards me. After quite a time, I came to a monastery and parking area. I stopped to take a look at the view and check my map.

It’s not a very good map. Just a basic one that came with the hire car. Despite the name on the sign, I couldn’t work out where I was. But I couldn’t have gone wrong because there’d been no choice of where to go. Just up. I decided to just enjoy the view. It was pretty amazing, in spite of the clouds.

I took a quick look at the monastery. A monk was welcoming a handful of visitors.

But I didn’t want to hang around there. It was late morning by now and I wanted to get moving again. The road continued to climb; several times I had to go down to 2nd gear to negotiate a sharp, tight and very steep bend. Fortunately I’ve done a lot of driving of this kind. I’ve driven over many a pass, so I wasn’t too bothered about this. What started to concern me was I had no idea how far I still had to go. I’d looked at a few names on the map at the monastery before I set off again but I didn’t seem to be passing through much at all; nothing with a name. I wound up and then down and then up again. I met the occasional other car but the road was pretty empty. I saw a big sign heralding a cafe and shop coming up. Joyous. A place to park too. I carried my map up long steep steps. The guy in the shop didn’t speak English but understood I wanted to be shown where I was on the map. Amygdali, he said, almost triumphantly. Maybe it was pride. I meanwhile was almost in shock as I looked to where he pointed. Had I really only come that far? I’d made hardly any distance at all. It was disheartening. I needed to think. Coffee? I asked. Yes, he said, Nescafé? Cappuccino? Cappuccino, I said, but I think he meant a ‘Nescafé instant cappuccino’. This, however, was not a time for coffee snobbery. Not even from The Single Gourmet Traveller.

The view however was amazing. Truly wonderful. If I went no further it had been worth the trip to see all this. But should I go on or turn back. There was rain too now as well as the winds. As if in answer perhaps, the wind got up dramatically, throwing plastic chairs across the terrace. Was this a message from Anemi, Greek god of winds? Well, maybe it was just common sense hitting in. It seemed a bit foolish to continue when there was still so far to go and the weather was worsening. The little Kia and I would turn back.

There were still magnificent views to enjoy and I stopped occasionally when there was somewhere to pull in. For much of the time I was surrounded by olive groves. I’d always thought you didn’t need to water them, but Manolis explained that they had to be watered every day and one can see intricate forms of water spraying hoses running through the groves. Olive oil is big business nowadays. But then really it has always been so. The Minoans were the first to become wealthy from it and Crete remains one of the most important olive growing areas in the world, with 60% of its cultivated land being given over to olive trees. The olive tree is an important symbol in both diet and religion. It’s a symbol of peace, wisdom and victory.

Olive oil’s health-giving benefits go back to the time of Hippocrates, who mentions 60 ailments that can be treated with it. Today we know it is full of antioxidants and healthy fats as well as being – in its best, unadulterated extra virgin form – one of the best alkaline-forming foods. Health aside, a good extra virgin olive oil just tastes fantastic! And Crete has some of the very best. Back at the apartment I made myself a Greek salad for lunch, pouring over a good amount of the local olive oil I bought.

Following the Cretan way of having fresh fruit at the end of a meal, I prepared some, though added yogurt and local honey too.

My good intentions of being healthy took a nosedive later. Manolis came round with his wife Eleni. Eleni had baked chocolate cake and they wanted to give me some.

It looks and smells wonderful. But I couldn’t possibly eat two pieces before I leave in the morning, I said. Manolis insisted on leaving it all. Maybe I’d like chocolate cake for breakfast. We chatted a while and then they left. So now for a quiet afternoon, a walk along the coast and a plan to eat my last holiday meal tonight at the brilliant little taverna below, Meraki. I’m going to have a selection of my favourite meze, I think.

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A lifelong lover of good food and travel; writer and book editor

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