Back of beyond – happily

There’s no easy road to Siteia, and that’s why it’s still such a lovely place to go. It’s not that far from Ierapetra, or Agios Nikolaos, but it feels like it’s much further than it is. You’ve basically got two choices of route, but only if you’re going there from Ierapetra. If you’re going from the north of the island, then you have just one choice, to take the coast road all around the southern perimeter of Mirabello Bay, through Ystro and Pachi Ammos, and then the road gets really twisty-turny for the last 40 km or so to Siteia. You’re constantly changing gear, going around tight bends. Straight sections of road are few and far between, making it a real bind if you’re stuck behind a large truck, which is a distinct possibility if you happen on be on your way there on the days when the Preveli is due to stop by at Siteia’s port.

Once you’re past Pachi Ammos you pass a series of villages, starting with Kavousi, through which the road still passes. Other villages along the route require a detour off of the main road if you want to investigate them, including Lastros, Mirsini, Mesa and Exo Mouliana, Chamaizi, Skopi and yet more besides. Although if you’re driving the route takes all of your concentration, the flip side is that the scenery is often quite breathtaking. At this time of the year, on parts of the route, which often winds through steep-sided valleys and then over passes between mountains, the roadside vegetation is spectacularly colourful. When we drove the road a couple of weeks ago, the broom was in full flower, and in places both sides of the road were an absolute riot of bright yellow. Not only that, but the scent gets into the car, even if you’re using the air-con, and it’s a sheer springtime delight. Of course, now we’re getting towards the back end of May, it’ll be fading fast, but the route is always a wonder to behold as, not only is the flora something to see, but you’ll also spot birds of prey soaring and swooping, often below the level of the road, including anything from falcons through buzzards and all the way up to the mighty Griffon Vulture.

Weirdly, as you catch your first distant view of Siteia, the road improves dramatically and begins, at least for the last few kilometres, to even resemble the newer parts of the very fast road between Ag Nik and Heraklion. As you approach the back of the town, there’s a left turn that takes you to the airport, but also runs on down to the entrance to the port at the northernmost tip of the town, which faces due east. If you find yourself passing the local branch of Lidl, then you’ve missed the left turn by a few hundred metres. It is signposted if you keep an eye out, both to the airport and to the sea port. Taking that road is a great idea because, if you’re either going to the port, or staying at the delightful, if very modest, little hotel that we’d booked ourselves into, the Nora, it’s the way to go, because the hotel is situated only a hundred metres or so past the port entrance. If you were heading for the port but missed that road, you’d be faced with the near impossible task of having to negotiate some seriously small streets in the town, which make it extra tricky getting around if you’re not from those parts, owing to a one-way system that was probably invented by the same mind that thought up the game “Mornington Crescent,” which is an essential part of any episode of the brilliant and very silly BBC Radio show “I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue.”

It would be so easy to start thinking, ‘Why don’t they build a better road to this delightful and unspoilt little seaside town?‘ Well, like I said, if you’re travelling there from Ierapetra, you have another choice of route, and that is the road that crosses the hinterland from Makrygialo, about 20km east of Ierapetra along the south coast. The bad news is, it’s just as twisty-turny as the road along the north coast from Pachi Ammos, even more so, in fact. The thing is, once you do the trip you soon realise that the expense required to build a modern highway all the way to Siteia would be way out of Greece’s affordable budget by several light years, and then some. Frankly, it’s a good thing too. The cost to the amazingly unspoilt environment that is eastern Lasithi would be horrendous, and the town of Siteia would soon be buried under the mass tourism that sadly now blights so many formerly tranquil beauty spots all across this country. Places that we’ve been to over the years, like much of Corfu, Santorini, Rhodes, Malia and Gouves, Rethymnon and Chania here on Crete – and I hesitate to mention those by name, but there you go, it’s how I see it, such places are now often’ rip-off city,’ or their beauty spots are so overrun by tourists and tourist paraphernalia that you hardly hear a Greek voice while you’re there. Wasn’t it Don Henley, in the lyrics to that brilliant song by the Eagles, “The Last Resort,” that sang, “They call it paradise, I don’t know why, you call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye“?

Sorry to get all philosophical on you, but there it is. Tourism is a two-edged sword that so often gets out of hand. Here are a few shots of Siteia Town. There will be more thoughts about Siteia in the next post too.

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Why don’t we Siteia for a while?

Over the years we’ve passed through Siteia (also spelt ‘Sitia’ in English) a few times, but never spent more than a couple of hours there. We flew into the airport at Siteia at least a decade ago, back when the terminal building resembled the one Bob Newhart describes in his very funny “Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm-door Company” routine. They’ve since built a very smart new terminal, with a view to increasing charter air traffic and developing tourism a little more in the area. It hasn’t happened. People have mixed feelings about this, because Siteia is truly a hidden gem that is still very essentially Greek. There are a couple of tour operators using some hotels there, none of which is too imposing on the landscape, and these are primarily French, but there has been no noticeable increase in the numbers of visitors. This means that the locals still have the place largely to themselves, although some would like to get in on the tourist action a little more, but it would surely change the nature of this delightful little waterfront town set around a cozy and very sheltered horseshoe bay.

We also flew into the airport not long after the new terminal was completed. It was a truly odd experience, because it’s all shiny and new, with really smart baggage carousels and clever electronic information displays everywhere. There are the expected swishing smoothly sliding automatic glass doors and shiny floors that you could almost eat your dinner off. But there are virtually no people.

When we were in the process of moving here from Rhodes we made use of the stately and now slightly ageing vehicle ferry that’s operated by the ANEK Line, called the Preveli. She’s had a few refits over the decades, but still does a sterling job of providing the only regular year-round service that uses the port at Siteia.

The above two photos were taken from the balcony of the room we stayed in at the modest, yet spotlessly clean and very welcoming Hotel Nora, situated right above the harbour, as you can see. Incidentally, here’s a useful tip: We found the hotel through an internet search for budget hotels and rooms in Siteia. Once we found the contact details, we decided not to book through the website we were looking at, which was an agency offering bookings for all sorts of accommodations in the town (and everywhere else for that matter). The mobile phone and landline numbers were available on the booking site, so I simply called the proprietor on his mobile phone and asked about room availability. His name is Nikos and he was congeniality personified. Now the prices on the booking website were okay, at the cheaper end of the market, but when I asked Niko about the possibility of us taking a room for seven days he quoted me an even lower price. He then agreed to email me a confirmation of our verbal booking. I emailed him back to ask if he needed a deposit, and his reply was, “Of course not. We look forward to seeing you both and we can sort all that out while you’re here.”

The location was just perfect, and it was a very pleasant ten minute walk from the hotel to the harbour where all the bars and restaurants are situated. Had the port been much busier, then maybe there would have been a slight issue with noise, but, since the Preveli only comes in four times a week, going either to Rhodes or coming from there through Halki, Karpathos, Kassos and then on to the Cyclades and eventually Piraeus, it was an event that was fun to observe from above.

When the better half and I go for a holiday, we don’t need beaches and sunbathing, because we can have that all year round at home. No, what we want is to be able to stroll to the water front in the morning, have a leisurely iced coffee amongst mainly local people, then eat a light lunch on the balcony of our room before taking a cup of Earl Grey and a digestive to bed. Then, in the evening, we set out at around 9.00pm, to miss the peak time for tourists to be out eating, have a good promenade along the beautiful sea front that Siteia can boast of, before selecting a taverna, or, as the Lasithi ‘largo’ would call it, a “rakadiko“, and sitting down to an excellent meal of traditional Greek cuisine.

You know, we didn’t touch the car for the entire seven days of our stay, it was bliss. I’ll continue with my assessment of Siteia in the next post. Hope you’ll come back for more.

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Spaniards in the works, and some culinary stuff

Sweeping up some leaves and lots of tiny blossoms from the olive trees in the lower garden yesterday, I was able to have a brief chat with Maria from across the lane. She’s the one who works at a hotel in Elounda, and she’d told me some weeks back that her job was in jeopardy owing to the hotel having been fully booked by a Russian tour operator, and hence that the hotel was due to go from completely full to entirely empty this very week. I asked her how it was looking as, ironically, all the talk is of it becoming a bumper, post-pandemic (in a manner of speaking, anyway) season this year.

“How are things at work, do you have any guests arriving now?” I asked her, after she’d mentioned that the hotel was in the process of doing its preparation for the first arrivals, which involves putting fresh linen on every bed in the complex, stocking up the restaurant kitchen and all the on-site shops and the various bars about the place. Of course, there’s a mammoth cleaning job involved too. Oh, and it takes several days for the swimming pools to be filled and made ready as well.

“It’s looking much better,” she replied, “we have a new contract with another tour operator.” Was that a British company, I asked her, to which she replied, much to my surprise, “No, they’re Spanish.” I’d worked for a decade on Rhodes as an excursion escort, and I’d had guests from the UK, Poland, Scandinavia (all of the countries), Italy, France, the Czech Republic, Israel, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, and, of course, Russia, but never from Spain. When you look at European geography it’s hardly surprising. I mean, for Spaniards to come to Greece they have to fly east three quarters of the way along the Mediterranean, and they then land in a country that has a very similar climate, flora and fauna. Yet it seems that the Spaniards have saved the day, at least for Maria’s hotel, and that can only be good news for a lot of employees there.

In the village this past few days we’ve been able to spend a little time with the neighbours again. It’s been a while. Last Friday was the 55th wedding anniversary of Giorgo and Angla’i’a, and so we bought them a nice flowering potted plant and I crept down to their front door at the crack of dawn to leave it outside with a note of congratulations. They’re very difficult to buy for, since there’s nothing they really want. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, in response to all the kindness they’ve shown us since we moved in (the mountain of vegetables, eggs etc. that we’ve received), when we’ve tried to suggest ways of repaying the kindness, Angla’i’a’s stock response is always, “We don’t want anything back from you, except your love.”

We hoped that the plant might go some way to showing a small expression of that love, and it appears to have worked. The only problem you have with these exceptionally humble, yet generous souls, is that when you give them something small, you can be dead sure that they’re going to want to reciprocate even further. We hadn’t bought the plant with that in mind at all, merely to add to their anniversary experience.

Anyway, it came as no surprise when my phone rang while we were sitting on our sun loungers enjoying our morning coffee a few hours after I’d left the plant outside their door. “Are you coming down for coffee then?” Asked our very persuasive neighbour. I explained that we were that very moment sipping coffee that we’d just made, and so we were compelled to promise to go down the very next day. We knew beyond a doubt that this would mean we’d be walking back up to the house laden with gifts given as a response to our present for them.

The following day, we turned up at Angla’i’a’s door at around 11.00am and were instantly invited into her kitchen. The room is cavernous, and is the only room they have apart from their bedrooms. It contains their sofa, an ageing wooden-armed affair that’s fairly typical of Greek village home furniture, a dining table that’s permanently covered in an oil-cloth table covering that always has some culinary creation or other of Angla’i’a’s adorning it, not to mention some work in progress, that may be vegetables under preparation, or flour for pastry rolling and a host of other stuff beside. There’s also a large Tzaki, around which the couple sit on cold winter evenings. As you may recall, if you’ve read earlier posts on this blog, the house used to be a kafeneio, and, frankly it still is, only the guests don’t pay any more. Angla’i’a loves nothing more than to be busy baking, and fixing Greek coffees, while her kitchen table and easy chairs are occupied by a selection of villagers or relatives, often both, all putting the world to rights, while she chips in from the kitchen sink, stove, or worktop.

You can’t spend any time in that kitchen without receiving some advice about what you ought to cook, or eat, or drink that’s surely going to be good for you. I think I’ve also written here in the past about the artichokes that we’ve been given, a vegetable that, frankly, we could live without. It seems to us that there’s a huge amount of preparation, creating enough green waste to start a compost heap in itself, in order for very little return. Once we’d passed an enjoyable hour with her daughter, a second cousin who’d dropped in, hubby Giorgo and neighbour Manoli, we began the process of trying to take our leave. By the time we actually made it to a standing position, we already had several plastic bags bulging with Angla’i’a’s homemade koulourakia, some cheese pies, around a dozen freshly laid eggs and a few vegetables, plus we’d watched as our host had shown us how she makes her own lemon-squash drink, some of which she’d poured into large tumblers for us to sample, in not more than fifteen minutes.

On the worktop beside the kitchen door were a couple of artichoke heads. Maria, Angla’i’a’s daughter, asked if we liked them, to which we replied that we weren’t enamoured and could live without them, if it was all the same to her. “Ah, yes, but, there’s nothing better to eat with a little raki than artichoke hearts,” both women replied in unison. There was nothing for it but to wait a little longer while the two women set about showing us how they prepare raw artichoke hearts for consumption as a kind of ‘tapas’ along with a small glass of raki…

Above: All those outer leaves are surplus to requirements. Of course, when they’re a little more tender and less sharp at the tips, they can be used in a soup/stew dish, but these are for the compost heap, as it’s only the heart that’s going to be used for this culinary treat. Once the heart is exposed, as can be seen above, it’s sliced into smaller pieces, chucked on to a dish and then fresh lemon juice is squeezed over them. Add to that some olive oil and a good shake from the salt cellar. And that’s it, you get this (below) which we were well advised would be simply delicious when taken with a little raki, which Angla’i’a was very quick to pour for us…

I know, doesn’t look much does it? BTW, that bag of lemons was another part of the gift we wended our way home with after we’d scoffed that little lot of raw artichoke hearts and washed it down with some home made raki. I can’t say that either of us were blown away with the stuff on the plate, but I suppose it must have been fairly good for us. It wasn’t awful, let’s put it that way.

Changing the subject completely, there’s a fairly new quiz show running on Ant1 here in Greece, and it’s a revamp of the old Family Fortunes (I think in the US it was Family Feuds, but don’t quote me on that). It ran here on a different channel some years back as “Akou ti Eipan” [Hear/Listen to what they said] but is now called 5×5, based on the fact that two teams of five people battle it out to win some cash. The host is a zany guy called Markos Zepherli, and he’s very good. You can’t fail but be cheered up by him to be honest. He takes the Mick out of the contestants mercilessly, but they all seem to take it in good heart. Anyway, here’s a short video clip of a recent edition of the show, which ably demonstrates one of the reasons why we simply love living in Greece. See if you understand what I mean as you watch this and contemplate how it compares with the UK version…

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A cat, some scraps and some plants

Slowly the beach is coming to life for the season. The sun beds aren’t out yet, and the bloke who runs the Ammos Bar told us that the reason for this is because the Dimos has yet to grant this year’s licences. It seems that the date from which businesses are able to begin setting out their umbrellas is perpetually on the whim of the local Dimos. We used to find the same on Rhodes. Still, it’s still very nice to now be able to enjoy a Freddo espresso under the tamarisk trees again in warm sunshine, even if it is slightly diluted by another wave of African Sahara dust.

Mavkos the cat did a disappearing trick for a while over the Greek Easter weekend. Here in the village (and it’s a scenario reflected across most of Greece, I’d theorise), there is a colony of feral cats. Quite a few of the villagers (as I’ve said before, I’m sure) like them to be around, because they keep the rat population down. In fact, when we first moved into our house here there were a few rats about, but since we’ve adopted Mavkos, or rather, since he adopted us, we haven’t seen one. The villagers, though, wouldn’t dream of buying cat food, or anything as foolhardy as that, so they put their leftover scraps out for the cats to fight over. Both Evangelia, across the lane from us, and Sofia, a few metres further up, put out scraps on crumpled pieces of aluminium kitchen foil. Of course it’s a love-hate relationship. As often as Evangelia feeds a few felines, she’ll also be out there belting them across the back with her broom. Talk about mixed messages. A cat psychologist would have a lot of clients in our village; they all have issues, I’m sure.

Most of the time the stuff that our neighbours put out for the cats does them no good at all. Cats, as any moggie lover will testify, will have a go at eating most things. The problem is, they’ll scoff down some leftover meat or fatty cooked dishes, only to bring it all back up a while later, because it didn’t agree with their digestive system. Our ‘puddy tat’ Mavkos gets good quality dry cat food, along with the occasional soft treat in the shape of a ‘salmon-stick,’ so he’s well catered for nutritionally. The Easter weekend, however, throws a bit of a spanner in the works cat-nutrition-wise.

The pall of barbecuing meat hangs all across the village on Easter Sunday, and it’s only to be expected that the following evening, or next morning, there will by a lot more leftovers sitting on village doorsteps than usual. Mavkos knows when he gets fed and is always sitting on one of our patio chairs well in time for his breakfast or lunch – usually. Following the Easter Barbecuing, though, we didn’t see him for 48 hours or so and, when he did turn up on Tuesday morning, he didn’t want his breakfast. Well, he did his usual meowing trick while I prepared it for him, but when I put the dish down he ate a couple of mouthfuls, then strolled off, lay down and went to sleep. When it came time for his lunch, there was a repeat performance. Of course we deduced what had happened. Just for a day or two he’d got himself in amongst the scrum of feral cats and gorged himself on all those leftover ribs and chops that the villagers had put out after their blowout. Cats are nothing if not disloyal when they want to be.

It didn’t take him long to get over his over-eating-induced torpor though, and by Wednesday he was once again scoffing his meals like butter wouldn’t melt. Still, it saved us a few coppers, eh?

Cupboard love was invented by a cat.

And now for a few photos of the flora around at the moment. If you live in the UK and watch Gardener’s World (BBC), you’ll have seen Monty Don talking about euphorbia this past couple of weeks. Here it grows wild, as some of these photos show…

Just one more: The shot below was taken in the town, because we loved all those poppies in that garden. Not sure if you can see them very well, but if you click for a larger view it may help…

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Stitched up

The photo above is just a few metres up the lane from our house. The ‘bouzi‘ is just about coming to its peak at this time of the year. We used to have a lot of it in our garden on Rhodes, but we gave up on it in the end. The latin name for it (God bless Google, eh?) is Mesembryanthemum, and that name applies to a huge variety of plants that provide ground cover, of course. We even had a type of Mesembryanthemum in our garden back in South Wales over 17 years ago, but it wasn’t anything like as impressive as this type you see everywhere in Greece. We gave up on it on Rhodes, because after a while it starts to change to a mass of dead, grey ugly shrivelled stuff and you have to clear it all away and re-start with new cuttings.You can see some of the evidence of the beginnings of this along the bottom of the plants shown in the photo.

This past week we were able to drop in (safely, of course) on someone we’d been meaning to visit for a while, but had held back owing to the inclement weather. If you’ve read my post entitled “Taking a Breath” from December 2020, you’ll have been introduced to our friend Thanasi, whose father died in his fifties. Well, Thanasi’s grandmother, that is, his father’s mum, is now around ninety and still living alone and looking after herself. In fact, Anthoula (that’s her name) can read average sized print without glasses, something about which I’m rather jealous, have to admit. We used to see her around the town very often, but owing to the pandemic she’s been confined to the house for a couple of years and, sadly, it’s aged her somewhat. She thrives on human contact and talking to others and she hates being shut up on her own like that.

So, with the warm, sunny days that have now finally arrived, we decided we could risk a visit without bringing a blast of cold and damp into her front room, and could keep our distance in order to observe the basic guidelines for keeping company safely. When she opened her front door, in a quiet residential street on the edge of town, her face lit up like a firework, she was that pleased to see us. She ushered us straight into her ‘lounge,’ which is about the size of a single bedroom in your average UK home these days. It has a metal door with half an inch of fresh air along the bottom, a solid polished concrete floor and electrical sockets hanging by their cables from nails driven into the plain, plastered walls. Very much your average ya ya’s house then. Oh, and of course there was a soba, a wood-burning stove that had produced a rather fetching (irony) grey-black patch all over the wall and ceiling both behind and above it from the soot and ash that build up during use over the winter months.

How had Anthoula been managing through all those winter months? Well, she reads a lot, but she also crochets industriously, creating doilies for every occasion and giving to them to all and sundry. If you know anything about Greek homes, especially those lived in by anyone over about fifty, you’ll know that crochet doilies are everywhere. They adorn the lids of hi-fi units, cover TVs, coffee tables and the backs of sofas, they sit on dining tables and bedside cabinets. They’re simply everywhere.

Now, whilst it would be extremely churlish to deny the skills involved in crocheting, that doesn’t mean that it has to be to everyone’s taste, right? So, if you are ever in the company of a Greek woman of the generation that lives and breathes crochet as a pastime, you’d better watch how much appreciation you show for their work. Give her even the slightest indication that you admire her productions, and you’ll be going home with a handmade doily (maybe several) that you really don’t want adorning your smart TV. It’s an amazing skill, yes, but not all that compatible with a minimalist, modern lounge of contemporary design. Anthoula handed me a new example of her work…

OK, anyone taking a close look at that piece in the photo above would have to admit that, since it’s entirely handmade, the patience and skill involved is remarkable. Making the mistake of oohing and aahing over its beauty, I should have known what she’d say.

“Glad you like it. It just needs an iron. I’ll do that and then it’s yours, with much love from me.” Anthoula said, with great generosity and enthusiasm. Oh well, at least the chances of her actually paying our house a visit are very remote. We already have something similar that was given to us by Angla’i’a, here in the village, and we have to keep that in a handy drawer, just in case she drops in some time. Call me a hypocrite, but I’d rather be one of those than really upset such women by not having their gift on display should they ever cast their eye around our lounge. Why needlessly cause offence, eh?

On the other hand, a gift we truly do appreciate was the one Anthoula gave us as we got up to leave. Leaving the home of a Greek ya ya is a long, drawn-out affair. First, as you express the view that you have to ‘get on,’ that you have some shopping to do, or an appointment to go to, the immediate response is always, “Kathiste ligo akoma,” ‘Stay a while longer.’ Sometimes it’s just politeness, but when it’s a ya ya living alone it’s pretty genuine, she doesn’t want you to go, simple as that. So, if you actually do have a schedule to keep to, you have to factor in the time it’ll take you to get from the initial “We must be going” to actually walking off down the road with a cheery wave, and build that into the time that you first express the view that it’s high time you left. Fortunately for us, although our next stop was to be the supermarket, the rest of the day was our own. So, when she got up, with some difficulty, from her armchair to see us off, having reluctantly accepted that we did indeed intend to take our leave, she bade us come through to the garden first, where we were pleasantly surprised to see a number of mature lemon and mousmoulia trees, all laden with ripe fruit.

Now, ninety-year-old Anthoula isn’t as agile as she used to be. She can’t reach the higher branches of the trees to pick the fruit that’s up there. Fetching a couple of plastic shopping bags for us, she bade us get picking ourselves. Whilst I did so, she disappeared around the corner of the house and reappeared holding a long rod of iron, with the top bent much like a old fashioned shepherd’s crook. “Ela Gianni,” she said, shoving the rod up through the branches of one of the lemon trees, hooking it deftly around one that held a goodly number of plump, ripe lemons, and pulling it down with all her might, so that the fruit in question was easily grab-able for her. She then did this a few more times, holding the branch down with the rod and bidding me pick the fruit. By the time we had a plastic bag half-full with both lemons and loquats (which we don’t much like, but the doily principle also applies in this instance too) we attempted to suggest that this would be more than enough for us.

She wasn’t having any of it; by the time we actually did make it into the street, she’d added another bag to both of the ones we already had (double layer for strength you understand, owing to the fact that the initial ones were stretching to breaking point by now) and we set off with my arms almost coming out of the sockets with the weight of fruit in those bags.

Every time you pay such a visit, it pays dividends, and I don’t mean by that what you come away with. What I mean is the life-enriching experience of the whole thing, plus the joy you get from seeing the delight on the face of your host at the fact that you bothered.

And so to just a couple of photos. It was our wedding anniversary last week, and I have to say that the number of years we’ve now been wed is such that, when you factor in the age that my wife likes to admit she’s reached, you arrive at the conclusion that we got married some years before she was born. Anyway, we went to Heraklion for a day out. The place was heaving, but I just wanted to mention the place we ate lunch, because it’s wick-ed. it’s called ‘Ligo krasi, ligo Thalassa, (A little wine, a little sea) and it’s positioned right at the bottom of 25th August Street, the pedestrianised road that leads up into the town from the roundabout at the corner of the fishing harbour. The menu is brilliant, and it comes in an NCR format, and the idea is, you tick the boxes alongside the dishes and drinks that you want to order. It’s so simple, yet brilliant. The staff then simply take your marked-up menu and give the top copy to the kitchen, and then return in a while with your meal. The place was buzzing with Greeks and a few tourists. We ate a fabulous vegan meal (even though it’s primarily a fish restaurant), along with a good quality Retsina, for less than €30…

When we asked for the bill, they brought us a ridiculous array of freebies, including a massive dish of Loukoumades topped with a ball of vanilla ice cream, some freshly made Halva, some petrified lemon peels in honey, plus a whole apple and an orange. Oh, and a small bottle of very smooth raki too. I could hardly walk back to the car.

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Carnage on the concrete, and other more aesthetically pleasing scenes

There are some truly gorgeous sights around the streets in the town right now. The tree above is one of them, but all is not well. The Dimos has expressed its desire to spruce up some of the streets around the area to the west of the main town, in order to make them less drab, but included in their plans is the intention to remove a hundred or more trees that currently adorn the pavements along the streets in question, including this one. It is true that some of these trees have become quite large and their roots have lifted the paving slabs around their bases, and if you were a parent trying to walk a buggy, or someone who has to use a mobility scooter or wheelchair, you’d struggle to get more than a few metres before you’d have to negotiate the parked vehicles and go out into the road to get past them. There has, nevertheless, been an outcry from some about the wanton destruction of these beautiful living things that have been bringing pleasure to the eye, and refuge for the birds, for many years.

Very recently the town’s central square was given a facelift, and the work took well over a year. Before it got under way, the square too was adorned with some very mature trees that gave much needed shade during the summer months. The downside of those trees was, however, that they too had made the paving slabs around them very unsafe, due to the roots having lifted them. When the trees in the square were removed there was great consternation and many objections were raised, but they were removed anyway. Now the work has been completed, there are lots of newer, much younger trees that have been planted in their stead, and the whole place looks pretty smart, if lacking in greenery and shade to the extent that it had those things before. It’ll take a few years for the new trees to really make their presence noticed, sadly. What price progress, eh?

Before I post some other recent photos, here’s a grisly one with a positive story behind it. What do you make of this then? –

Hope that hasn’t put you off your Greek salad. It’s what’s left of a pretty big locust that was hanging around our upper garden the other day. I was out there pottering around, cleaning a brush that I’d been using to stain the fence, when I heard this flippety-flappety sound that those locusts make when they fly. This one must have been easily as big a a man’s thumb and it made the unfortunate mistake of alighting on the concrete of the driveway just outside the side of the house. It was the area where Mavkos the cat was sprawled out in the sun while he kept me company as I mooched around with my secateurs. You know the way that cats luxuriate in their leisure time, when they’ll roll on their backs and stretch out their front and back legs as far as they can with the intention of getting you to give them a tickle. Well, Mavkos was in full stretch when this locust landed not three feet away from him. Within a millisecond he was in pouncing mode, ears pointing forward and eyes as wide as saucers. He stared at this new visitor, and then, as it took off and flew just a metre or two towards a few potted cacti that we have on some low shelves on the outside wall, Mavkos made his move.

Now, it may be true that we don’t get these locusts in Biblical numbers, but it’s also true that they can chomp away at your plants pretty vigorously. It’s for this reason that my dear wife will always belt it with anything she has to hand if she spots one. This time the cat did her work for her. Even before the poor unfortunate insect had landed, Mavkos was on it, and had it in his mouth. Look, I’m not generally your queasy type, but I have to say it didn’t make for enjoyable observing, even though I was basically glad for the cat’s preventative measure when it came to leaf destruction. Locust extremities protruding from the corners of his mouth, he slunk off to a shady corner and then proceeded to play with the thing. He’d chomp it a little, then drop it and go down on his haunches to watch it struggle for a while. Just when I thought that he’d only play with it, rather than actually eat it, he did the latter, and although I found it grizzly, a strange fascination kept me watching until all that was left was what you see above.

I didn’t have the stomach to remove the remains until they’d dried out a few hours later.

Moving swiftly on then…

Above: This time of the year the scenery around here (and that goes for much of Crete, of course) is amazing. It’s bright, sunny and warm around the coastal areas, but look up and you see the still snowcapped peaks above you. Awe-inspiring.

Above: Coffee at the sea front Aperitton bar last week. The tourists are beginning to turn up now. Although not evident from the above shot, holidaymakers were strolling along the front in shorts and strappy tops, while the locals sat around in jeans, boots and jumpers. After all, it was only about 21ºC, which I suppose is positively tropical if you’ve just got off a plane from Helsinki…

Above: A Mousmoulia tree [Kumquat in English] in a suburban street.

Above: This, in case you don’t recognise it, is a bottle brush plant, not often seen as a tree, is it?

Above: Another reward for walking the residential streets around the periphery of the town is that you come across displays like this one, where the householder is not at all put off by a lack of garden space, but, having only a small veranda, they’ve simply commandeered a part of the pavement to put on this beautiful display.

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Manolis and mizithropites…

The weather lately has been just wonderful, and all the more appreciated after this past winter, which has finally taken its cold and its rains and fled the scene. Everything looks so much better in bright sunshine, and the colour in the countryside is simply dazzling (see some photos further down below). What’s also been lovely is the fact that we were at last able to take a walk around the village on Saturday morning, and we ended up at Angla’i’a’s place, sipping ellinikos and chomping on a delicious homemade cake that her granddaughter Angla’i’a had brought with her when she came over from Heraklion to spend a few days with her family here in the village.

The place was awash with villagers and relatives, some sitting outside and some inside, where we were invited to sit, where a small table and two chairs were hurriedly set out for us to place ourselves at. Angla’ia‘s granddaughter has been married for a few years and she had her little four-year old daughter and her four-month old baby with her. We asked her name, although we ought to have realised what it would be, since she’s Angla’i’a‘s granddaughter. The old ‘name your first girl after her ya ya, and name the first grandson after his pappou‘ tradition is alive and well. Various men came and went, most of whom were called Manoli. Angla’ia‘s brother is a Manolis, and so – obviously – is his grandson. I became totally confused in the end as various family members all tried to explain who was who’s cousin, aunt, uncle or grandparent. Most of those present had already had Covid, and it almost seemed to me that it’s going to have hit every man-jack of us before it’s through.

The two Angla’ias were busy making a huge batch of mizithropites [Called in Crete Kalitsounia. Here’s a recipe. Here’s a Wiki article too], which were being laid out individually on circular pieces of cooking paper (what we used to call greaseproof paper when I was a lad). The younger Angla’i’a was then taking the oven-ready pitas over to a large sofa, which had a car blanket stretched across its length. Much to my bemusement and surprise, she would lift a corner of the blanket as she got to the sofa, a couple of mizithropites in hand, and carefully place them in their cooking paper ‘sandwiches’ under the blanket, where I glimpsed an already huge number of the things that had already been laid there. On the kitchen table, her ya ya was rolling our pastry, using a large mug as a cutter to make the circular pieces of raw pastry, and then the younger woman would spoon some of the cheese on to the middle of them, before folding the pastry over the cheese.

Every time we ask what kind of cheese is being used, the answer comes back, ‘Mizithra.’ Seems to me that there must be ten varieties of the stuff, since we’ve seen the wet version, the version that’s like a mottled “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” mountain, only small enough to fit on to a saucer, and a few more besides – or so I thought. We asked the two Angla’i’as, both of whom said that there are only two kinds of Mizithra, the savoury and the sweet. This, as it happens, was the sweet kind. I’m still fairly sure there are more versions of each, but I wasn’t about to argue, and anyway, my mouth was full of homemade cake most of the time.

What was truly heartwarming was the fact that this occasion felt much like the way things used to be before the dreaded pandemic came along to spoil things. Everyone was in ebullient mood and the sun was shining outside. It was hard to wrench ourselves away, but when we eventually did so, it wasn’t before Angla’i’a senior had placed a large empty yogurt carton full of fresh eggs in front of us to take home. To have a bit of a laugh, Yvonne tried to hand the eggs back to our host and get her to pass the eggs to her by hand, rather than put them down for us to pick up, but the older woman resisted resolutely, although with a huge grin on her face as she did so. No offence taken at our little jibe about that weird superstition then. If that little reference to the peculiar egg-passing tradition puzzles you, take a read of this post, where I mention how we first discovered it.

I’d better get on and post some photos then. Before I do, the one at the top of this post was taken just a few days ago at Ierapetra fishing harbour. It was during that walk that I also took the next couple of shots…

Above & below: We took lunch at the excellent To Konaki taverna, where our table was graced with a lovely spray of Gerberas to brighten the place up. Sure succeeded, don’t you think?

Below: Back at the fishing harbour, I was intrigued to know what this sadly rusting contraption was once used for. It’s bolted to the harbour wall. I posted it on a local Facebook page and soon received an explanation. It’s an ice-crusher. Fishermen would come in with their catches and need to store them in ice. They’d buy the ice in huge blocks, then feed them into this ‘ice-mangle”. As you turn that handle, rotating iron teeth inside the hopper bite into the ice and break it into pieces, which are then packed around the fish while it’s transported to market.

Below: Some countryside shots from yesterday afternoon’s walk…

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Shorts on, throat sore.

Well, we finally got in a 10k walk this past few days. That would have been a regular occurrence during a normal winter, but this year? First time, and it’s the beginning of April. On our way to go up the mountain that’s visible from our veranda, the one that sits between us and Ierapetra, we pass this lovely old bridge (see above), which used to carry the only road from the town up to the village and on to Meseleri, before the newer, more motor-vehicle-friendly one was built a couple of decades ago.

People in the village here are still only generally on “Hello, how are you” terms following the coming of Covid to Makrylia. OK, so the latest strain isn’t as virulent as previous ones but there are quite a few, and most of these are older than us, who’ve resisted getting vaccinated, and thus there is a certain paranoia about inviting someone to sit and take an Elliniko with one that’s quite out of keeping with the normal ways of social interaction here. So we haven’t been able to have much of a comfy neighbourly chat of late, which is sad. Otherwise, especially down in the town, life seems very much as normal, as long as one remembers to don one’s mask before nipping inside to go to the loo while having a coffee out somewhere. Plus, if you’re going food-shopping, you have to either wear one of the better quality masks, or wear two of the regular surgical ones before they’ll let you into a supermarket.

Apart from those beautiful wild irises that I wrote about in the previous post, there has also been another upside to the wet, cold winter that we’ve just endured. There are several pretty good TV channels local to Crete, and on one of them the other day someone who evidently knows about such things announced that all of Crete’s reservoirs were full-to-overflowing and that, even if we didn’t get any rain for the next three years, we’d have enough water on the island. Good eh?

As I so often say at this time of the year too, spring has arrived just as if someone had thrown a switch. This past week has been glorious and, today, someone posted a report on Facebook that parts of Lasithi have seen in excess of 30ºC already. We’ve seen nothing like that here, but we did have 24ºC in the shade on the veranda this morning, and while we were supping our coffees out on the sun-terrace (and me in my shorts and all) we decided that it would very soon be time to get the sail from the cupboard and stretch it out in order to give us some shade. We actually found it almost too hot to be in the sun.

The only bugbear this past week, and after the kind of winter we’ve just had we ought to have expected something like this, has been the dreaded ‘Αφρικανική σκόνη‘ – African dust from the Sahara. We get it in waves every spring, but usually only for a couple or three days at a time. Today, as I type this (although the sky’s a little clearer than it has been), we’re into our tenth day, and the forecasts suggest that it’ll be the day after tomorrow before it clears, when the winds swing around to the prevailing northerly direction again, at last. To be honest, there are times when you don’t notice it all that much, unless you run your finger along any outdoor surface, when you’ll see an accumulation of yellow dust and a long finger-mark on the surface in question. But it’s there, making the sky paler than it ought to be when there are no clouds, and getting into your nose and lungs. In fact, it can give you a sore throat and runny nose, so much so that I went and bought a lateral flow Covid test in our favourite pharmacy for the first time ever and did it in the bathroom last night. I tested negative by the way.

Yesterday we took our Freddo espressos at the Tortuga coffee bar on the sea front. It’s the latest in our quest to visit every coffee bar in the entire town, which is a project that will take us a couple more years yet, I suspect. Yvonne (Maria) usually remarks, every time we go for coffee, that it really is a mystery just how many coffee shops there and and how on earth they can all survive. I suppose it’s testimony to the strength of the coffee culture here, right? Of course, too, when we visit one for the first time, we tend to go back now and then, thus adding to the return-visit coffee bar list and thus also making the chances of us ever getting around all of them even less likely before we cop for it, unless Armageddon comes first that is.

It turned out that the young chap who served us is also the owner of the Tortuga, and he’s also a John, or Giannis. When he asked us where we lived he exclaimed with some delight at our reply that his brother-in-law’s dad has the kafeneio there in the village. Gianni’s wife’s brother is Manolis, whose dad is Heraklis, with whom we’ve supped many a Greek coffee this past year or so. In fact, as we talked, Giannis pointed us at another table, where Manolis was sitting, along with his wife and three-year-old son, who’s also (as any self-respecting Grecophile will already have guessed) called Heraklis, after his pappou, of course. No sooner had we all waved at each other than Giannis told us that Manolis would be standing us our coffees, which elicited a frantic gesture or two of gratitude and delight from us two, as you can imagine.

With some degree of humour, we remarked that we never seem to be able to actually buy our own coffees when anywhere near Heraklis or his family. We’ve yet to visit the village kafeneio and actually pay for our own coffees, having had them gifted to us by Heraklis himself, our near-ninety-year-old neighbour Manoli, the mysterious Nikos who predicted the bad winter that subsequently arrived when we supped with him last October, and now Herakli’s son Manoli here in the Tortuga on the sea front in Ierapetra. Not bad, eh?

And so to a few photos…

Above: Nearing the peak of the mountain that I referred to in the first paragraph, we finally came across an orchid. We don’t seem to have seen many this year.

Above: Take a good long look at the wonderfully green olive groves, because from here on they’ll be getting progressively yellower as the summer draws on. It’s so sad that most tourists never get to see them like this. The asphodel is still resplendent too, isn’t it?

Above: Mavkos is delighted with his parasol, even though it does appear to be inside-out (the dish isn’t ours, BTW!).

Above: Growing wild just down the lane from the village, I really ought to know what this is, but can I remember?

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Warming up

Last night, the first evening after the clocks went forward, there was a little knot of people sitting outside of Evangelia’s house, in the narrow alley just across from our lower garden. They sat there putting the world to rights until it got quite dark. To have done that just one week ago, they’d probably have got hypothermia. Now, however, spring is at last in the air, and it feels very good. Every Greek we know says it was the worst winter in living memory. Yvonne-Maria and I have just been through our seventeenth winter here in the southern Aegean and we can’t remember a winter like it. A few days ago, we were excited, while watching Sakis the weatherman, to see this chart…

Just look at all those lovely little sun symbols, eh? Plus, since Friday the temperatures have been much more acceptable, leading us to wear only t-shirts (on top, that is!) while working in the garden. Phew, it’s been a long time coming. We went for a long overdue early evening walk on Sunday evening too, and took some photos of the scenery and wild flowers. I’ve already posted quite a few of those photos on the Facebook page, and the rest are posted down below. The birdsong was all around us and I could make out, among others, the sound of Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Great Tits, various warblers, plus a few birds of prey further up in the sky. At this time of the year the smells and feel of the air and surroundings can be uncannily similar to parts of the UK, if only for a couple of weeks. I could close my eyes to the sound of those birds, all of which are also native to Britain, and imagine I was walking the lanes around our last UK house, which was nestled not far from the coast in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales.

Also a delight were the wild flowers. I don’t think we’ve ever seen as many wild irises as there are in the area around the village here this spring. It may have been an unusually wet and cold winter, but it seems that such weather is perfect for making the wild irises prosper, and boy are they putting on a show right now…

There was a little vetch in evidence too, as you’ll have seen above. One thing we haven’t yet spotted is orchids, which we do see around here usually. The yellow flowers (photo below), like giant buttercups, are also a delight. We’re still not sure what they are, since anemones aren’t usually that colour and this is a little late for them anyway. I’m leaning toward them being some kind of poppy, and I’m hoping that someone either here or on Facebook will enlighten me. In case you don’t know about it, there’s a lovely Facebook page called Flowers of Crete, and I posted some photos on there to see if any experts out there can help.

Here are a couple more from Sunday’s evening walk, and you can see the village and our house in these two…

Broad beans. They’re ready for harvesting too.

Last Saturday we had a coffee (first Freddo espresso in a while) in town and a walk around the fishing harbour. That’s when I took the shot of the lovely hull at the top of this post. Here are some others from that walk…

Above: It’s encouraging to see the taverna tables and chairs being put out for the first time. Brings on that anticipation for the summer months to come, doesn’t it?

Above: It’s amazing how many old cottages still survive among the spread of the new town in Ierapetra. Finally, here are a few from last Saturday morning’s stroll around the village…

Everything looks better with a blue sky as a backdrop, doesn’t it.
Even a tatty old plastic drum looks lovely with a spray of spring Freesias.
That’s some kennel he has there, eh?

Yes, things are warming up, even though the old African dust is about too, but we’re not complaining. It’s been a long time since we were painting an outside wall and felt too hot in the sun…

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