Retracing old steps!
For the final part of our Cretan adventure I wanted to return to Elounda, where I lived 42 years ago and hadn’t returned since. As ever, it’s always with some trepidation one returns to a much-loved place. Inevitably, it will never be the same.
In the late ‘70s Elounda was a small, undiscovered, fishing village, still a world away from its nearby up-and-coming neighbour, Aghios Nikolaos (Ag Nick) with its Venetian architecture and picturesque harbour. Plaka, 4 kilometres north of Elounda, the embarkation point for the infamous leper colony on the island of Spinalonga, had only a handful of houses, a jetty and one small taverna. In 1971 the Elounda Beach Hotel opened just outside Elounda (I babysit there for English guests to make some cash!) to become the first 5-star hotel in Crete and, the rest as they say, is history. This area of Crete now has a substantial number of 5-star hotels, villas, some high-end shops and is very much an established upmarket destination. Unsurprisingly, I found the amount of development jaw-dropping.
Elounda still has a lot of charm, though, and I can see why people happily return year after year. Wander away from the main square and the small streets of houses, though somewhat upgraded, are little changed and still home to the locals. After a few attempts I even managed to find the house where I lived – a first floor apartment with views down to the square and sea beyond. Then owned by a lovely elderly couple, Manoussos and Georgia, they were incredibly hospitable and taught me the essentials of village life. Memorably, how to swing the bucket down the well to knock the flies off the top of the water and incredibly important as the mains water frequently dried up. Manoussos also took us fishing and, as the last ferryman whose job it had been to ferry both lepers and supplies to Spinalonga, gave us personal tours of the island, which at that time was deserted, unrestored and little visited by tourists.
The ancient city of Olous, one of 100 cities mentioned by Homer, guarded the harbour of modern day Elounda. An important city in the ancient world, at some point it sank into the sea and on calm days, especially if snorkeling, the ruins are still visible. During the Venetian occupation of Crete salt works and the Spinalonga Fortress were built, now regarded as one of the most important sea fortresses in the Mediterranean. During the Turkish invasion of Crete it took 60 years to capture Spinalonga due to its amazing defences and design. The last Turkish inhabitants left in 1903 and the Greek government designated the island a leper colony, housing around 400 residents, until abandoned in 1957. In 2005 Victoria Hislop published her best-selling novel ‘The Island’ (recommended) based on a true story of a Spinalonga resident. In 2010 the book was televised for Greek TV. Inevitably, this generated much interest in both Spinalonga and the area. Today, thousands of people visit the island every day – how lucky was I to see it all those years ago and to hear stories first-hand from the man who knew so much about it. I would still recommend a visit, as it is fascinating – but get there early to avoid the crowds!
But I digress from the trip! We spent our last four nights on Crete in a detached villa in between Elounda and Ag. Nick. Built on an extremely steep hillside, Maris Villas is a small complex of three detached, spacious, villas each sleeping up to 6 with their own swimming pool and sea views across the bay towards the Elounda Beach Hotel and Spinalonga.
The sun shone. At last a spot of sunbathing and relaxation around the pool. We also traced my old haunts in the village; walked the isthmus famous for its windmills and saw ruins of ancient Olous; ate in the square around the large harbour now filled with restaurants and shops, (the only recognizable landmark for me was the church and bell tower); visited Plaka for a slap-up lunch at a fish restaurant now patronized by international celebrities – previously the only taverna in the hamlet where the owner cooked us chip omlettes! We visited Ag. Nick, now a large, chic, town, with its many restaurants, bars and shop and had a delicious, inexpensive, meal around the lake at Karnagi, which was packed with locals.
In spite of considerable development in the intervening years, much of which has been extremely well done, this area has lost none of its charm. I loved it.
With increasing Covid cases in the UK and the possibility of flight cancellations, we decided it was time to book flights to London. With no direct flights this late in the season we had to return via Athens so took the opportunity to spend two nights there. Time for yet another trip down memory lane to Koukaki, the area I used to live and work in all those years ago. Centrally located, Koukaki rises up Philopappou Hill opposite the Acropolis and Herodes Atticus Theatre, has the best view of the Parthenon, and it’s free!
The area is a great location for visitors due to its close proximity to everything. Shops were open, cafes and restaurants take-away only but, sadly, museums, galleries and everything else closed. It was also necessary to wear a mask outdoors at all times. We stayed in a fabulous apartment only 8 minutes walk from the Acropolis Museum and Plaka district and walked everywhere through fairly empty streets. Lovely to be back in Athens, though disappointing not to visit the new Acropolis Museum and Contemporary Art Museum, also close-by. The weather, warm and sunny, made for a very enjoyable end to our trip.
Although you can’t expect wall-to-wall sunshine in late October/early November 2020 has been a bit of an unusual year all round, and we were particularly unlucky with the weather. With much of Europe back in lockdown, it was definitely time to go home. Importantly, we’d also run out of Yorkshire Tea.
We left Athens in lockdown and arrived into Heathrow on the first day of the second UK lockdown, so didn’t quite manage the entire trip without restrictions. However, we returned much refreshed, ready to face whatever is thrown at us and, now with much incredulous appreciation and thanks, wait patiently for the vaccine. In the meantime I will make the most of lockdown to research our next holiday. Perhaps back to Crete to explore the other half of the island. One-way ticket, naturally.
Elounda peninsula – Maris Villas, 4 nights, €125pn
Athens – Koukaki, One-bed apartment, 2 nights, €82pn
Athens Airport private transfers – reliable and very comfortable
Yannis Koukariotis – [email protected]