Welcome back, everyone!
Today I’m taking you along for more of the exciting adventures in Crete, Greece. This time we are going inland and discover more villages, beautiful mountains, and places that are surrounded by history and mythology.
Aposelemis Dam & Sfendili Village
My journey started early in the morning, I left the small village of Piskopiano in a jeep and headed to the Lasithi Mountains. The sun was rising slowly showering the beautiful Cretian landscapes in a golden glow. Soon enough I reached my first stop off at the Aposelemis Dam.
Aposelemis Dam was built to serve as the largest supply of water in Crete, but it has a controversial past. Because in the dams designated space, nestled within the Lasithi mountains is a small village called Sfendili. Sfendili is a historical village – with first mentions of it dating back to the 16th century. Through hundreds of years, families passed on their homes there, from generation to generation. This tranquil village maintained a small number of inhabitants over the years, many of whom spent their entire lives there, never leaving to explore the neighboring areas of Crete.
The great need for water distribution across the North Crete meant that the inhabitants were asked to leave their homes since the village was in the designated path of the lake and the dam. The villagers protested and tried to overrule the decision, but ultimately settled for the compensation payment and left their homes forever, looking for new accommodation elsewhere. Apart from one elderly lady who with eager stubbornness decided to stay and live in the village as a sole occupant, which now in big part is submerged in water.
Many tourists visit this area due to the fascinating scenery, with the village being submerged in water, to then revealing itself on the drier days. Some people call it the ‘’Crete’s Atlantis’’. I was very fortunate to visit this village on one of the driest days- with almost the entire village showing!
Many of the old residents come back regularly to cover the village’s church and some of the houses in a fresh coat of paint. From the photos I’ve taken, you can see the few houses in white that then fade to granite ruins. That is the usual height of the water levels.
The sight of it was bittersweet, I thought about the pain of villagers who had the homes passed down for generations- having to leave them behind. But it was also heart-warming to see the effect the water has on this place. It’s been observed that nature flourished in this area- new plants started emerging and animals settled down close to the water source. When water is low many tourists visit the church of the village and the abandoned homes. That however is slowly changing, as the increasing flow of water from the mountains over the years, means the water level of the lake rises each year, submerging more and more of the village. For now, I was grateful to see the entirety of the village and the breath-taking mountain views around it. I understand why that elderly lady didn’t want to leave.
Lyttos Empire Ruins
After these wonderful sights, we drove off, passing Lyttos or as it was named previously –Lyctus. In mythology, it is said to be the place where Rhea was advised by her parents, to give birth to Zeus. For years, Lyktaeans were faced with wars, unrest, and destructions as various leaders were trying to take the city. One of them being between Knossos, who they were in constant war with. Spartans helped Lyktaeans to regain their city, just for it to be taken again. This ultimately resulted in the first Cretan War. Now, we can admire the remains of this empire, which to unknowing eye would just seem like a pile of rubble.
There’s a great Roman influence in Crete, as the Roman times began with Marcus Aurelius trying to invade the island from 71BC. After many years of trying, Quitus Cecilius Metellus eventually managed to conquer Crete. Therefore, there is a lot of roman structures and archaeological treasures that can be found around the island including many Roman aqueducts. For centuries, due to its strategic position in the Mediterranean Crete was sought after, to be invaded by various rulers and various countries. But Cretans always gave it their best fight to try and push off the opposition.
At the foothills of Mount Afentis lays Kastamonista- a humble village full of fascinating history and beautiful views. Kastamonista village lays close to a natural fortress of the Lassithi plateau which protects all of Eastern Crete.
When Germans were trying to invade Crete, to make it their soldier base, they sent planes with their best paratroopers, who would parachute onto the plateau in aims to kill villagers and conquer the area for their base. The village priest rang the ‘’emergency bell’’ at the church and as the villagers grabbed whatever they could to defend themselves, like pitchforks and axes- the priest rushed over to the nearby museum where they had a shotgun displayed. The plateau quickly turned into a battlefield, as the priest was shooting down soldiers’ mid-air and the villagers were taking care of the ones who managed to make it to the ground. They managed to kill about 80 soldiers.
The humble farmers and local villagers who had no experience in fighting won this first battle against the best- German soldiers, which angered Hitler greatly. In another month, Crete joined the allied troops from Great Britain, Greece, Australia, and New Zealand to fight off the next attack. This time Hitler sent more of his best soldiers and after 8 days of continuous fighting, the allies have retreated and Crete fell to the German Nazis.
Due to the villagers not having many resources and materials, they would often re-purpose whatever they could find after the war. That’s why in many remote villages you can find remnants of the war in the most casual places. You can imagine my amazement to see the missile and bomb shells re-used as flower pots, scattered around this village. If that isn’t badass, then I don’t know what is.
Burial Traditions in Crete
What I noticed while walking in the village was also a cemetery, which had unusually raised graves. That’s when I found out that due to the shortage of graves in Crete- by law the cemetery usually offers a grave for a rental of 3 to 5 years. After that, the bodies are exhumed (sometimes not fully decomposed), and the bones are then placed into a container (usually the size of a shoebox) so that the family can transport the body to a family grave or so it can be stored in a communal ossuary. Cremation became legal in Crete only recently, but there aren’t any crematoriums there as of yet. I can’t imagine the pain the relatives must feel, seeing their dead relatives’ bodies exhumed. With the priest blessing the dug up bones, it must feel like a second funeral. If the relatives don’t show up for exhumation or stop their grave-payments, the bodies are exhumed and then placed in a mass grave … and even those are starting to fill up. While traveling through small villages, I saw several elderly women dressed in black from head to toe, their heads covered with black scarves or veils. I found out that after death, it is traditional that female close relatives in mourning dress in black for a minimum of 40 days. If it’s a mother that lost her child, or a wife who lost her husband they may mourn and dress in black all their life. For men, it is traditional not to shave for at least 40 days after close relatives’ death and they may wear a black armband.
Village Exploring, Raki & Olive Oil
With that let’s talk about something lighter, the wonderful atmosphere I felt all around me while walking the streets of Kastamonista. It was refreshing to break away from tourist-saturated areas and see some raw snippets of the life of villagers. A woman carrying a bucket full of freshly picked vegetables. A local man reading a newspaper on the nearby bench. A sweet dog, basking in the morning sun on the doorstep. A very humble yet incredibly beautiful place. And it felt so peaceful there.
I headed over to the small little local man’s business where I tried some of his homemade raki and some homemade olive oil on bread. The Polish blood in me, you bet I downed this shot of raki in a split second, to later learn that I was meant to drink it in small sips. Oops.
I loved the organic taste of the olive oil, but what I loved more is the humble decorations surrounding me. A hand-knitted blanket from this man’s mother. The little photos and family memorabilia on shelves. Very simple, yet full of personality.
Into the Mountains
With that, it was time to move on into the mountains. We drove onto the windy roads passing rocky landscapes, the sharp turns over the cliffs gave another thrill to this adventure. From the distance, I saw some vultures circling over a cliff drop. Perhaps it was an animal that stepped over the edge, or perhaps it was a carcass dumped there by local farmers.
In the mountains, I feel most at home. And this was no different. My energy levels shot up as we were driving, going higher and higher up. I was surrounded by the stunning beauty of nature. Herbs were scattered everywhere so I stopped briefly to pick up some of them, including thyme. It was already dry, matured in sun, the aroma so strong and ready for use.
As we started approaching the next destination, I came across goats, just eating some greenery in the mountains. Some were blocking our path, stubborn, waiting for a payment of a fee in the form of food- for safe passage. Luckily our guide has brought some snacks, to buy them off. We continued our thrilling journey amongst the mountains, but the rest of it, you’ll see in another blog post (it gets even better).
Please join me for the continuation of the trip in the next few days.
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See you again,