by Peter Hughes, The Telegraph, February 15, 2018
The best restaurant table in the Mediterranean is number 18 at the Chiona taverna on Crete. Probably. My assertion is safe because to challenge it you need to have been there, and so few of you have. And that’s the point: the taverna is on the eastern edge of Crete which, for Mediterranean holidays, is virtually terra incognita.
The maps don’t quite say “here be dragons”, but they do show Chiona as being a little over 100 miles from Heraklion airport: it took me a good two and a half hours to drive.
When you factor in a near four-hour flight from London, you pretty much filter out families with young children, and anyone else for whom travelling is the downside of travel.
Having got there, what then? Well, there’s table 18 at the Chiona taverna for a start. It’s perched just above the sea, at the end of a little rock promontory beneath two tamarisk trees. Wavelets, clear as spring water, slosh among the rock pools at your feet. If the wind gets up, and the rocks get doused with spray, you move to the main restaurant above. If it’s calm, and a sunset torches the horizon, the sea smoulders red with reflections.
Setting apart, it’s the sort of taverna where the cutlery arrives in the bread basket, the wine in carafes, and if you ask what fish is on the menu they’ll say, “we’ll show you what we’ve got”, and take you to the fridge. This is authentic Greece – Greece as it used to be. That’s the secret of eastern Crete: it could be the Aegean 40 years ago.
I was there because four new villas have been built at the relatively deserted southern end of the mile-long Kouremenos beach. That’s a bit of an event in these parts, particularly as it’s unlikely that any more building will be allowed nearby. Development is tricky anyway because of the risk of disturbing any lurking archaeology, but since the villas were completed a year ago the immediate area has been declared a nature reserve and any further building is supposedly prohibited.
The nearest village, Palekastro, is just over a mile away and is as low-key as its surroundings. The “square”, where the main road splays either side of a restaurant, may lack the shape of a square but it has all the accoutrements – a church, four palm trees, a mini-market and nine cafes and restaurants. It’s where a fishmonger arrives in a pick-up truck, announces his arrival through a loudspeaker, and sells his fish from white polystyrene boxes. Round the corner there’s a patisserie selling homemade spinach and cheese pies – spanakopita and tiropitakia – and baklava pastries, sticky with honey and crunchy with pistachio nuts.
Palekastro has a small museum. It was set up 30 years ago, not with an endowment or major donation, but by local people finding things from their homes they no longer needed, like photographs, furniture and traditional costumes: possessions that now represent a past still within touching distance. One exhibit is a wooden board, the size of a small door, with spikes in it which a donkey dragged over grain to thresh it.
The next day I drove into the hills with captain Manolis Ailamakis. Just south of Palekastro, Manolis parked his 4x4 and led me up a short track. There, set into the ground, were the remains of a circular stone tank, about 5ft deep and 30ft in diameter. The sides were collapsing and the floor, which was originally paved, was overgrown with wiry mountain grass. “This is where we separated wheat,” he said.
He described the scene; how dozens of people would watch as the grain was tipped into the tank, and either a donkey or a cow would be harnessed to a board like the one in the museum. Manolis turned and pointed to a clutch of small white houses across a shallow valley. “Lagada,” he said. “The village where I was born.”
Manolis is in his early 50s. His father was a farmer but Manolis went to sea. Today he is master of a 310,000-ton supertanker, shipping crude oil to China from the west coast of Africa: hence “Captain Manolis”, his Louis de Bernieres-redolent moniker. His roots, though, remain close to Lagada and a land whose scenery and society owe more to the way they have adapted to nature than to accommodating tourists.
We drove through grizzled hills, desiccated by summer. Manolis remembers when the same hillsides were brassy with wheat fields and alive with birds; now they are blotched by dark green olive groves.
The changes have come from the discovery of subterranean water. Plastic pipes, thick as pythons stretched beside the road, irrigate the olives with water pumped from bores almost 900ft deep. The east of Crete is different to the west. Around Palekastro there are no big resorts, massive developments, monster hotels or major tourist attractions. The chief attraction of this coast is that there are no attractions, at least none that would draw the incurious. The people of the east claim to be different.
“We are more warm and hospitable, less chauvinistic,” I was told. Or as captain Manolis puts it: “Here we look you in the eye. In the west they always look you in the pocket.”
It was Manolis who built the villas at Kouremenos beach, and impressive they are too. Cuboid in shape, stone-clad and named after four of the muses, they are built in a staggered line at right angles to the sea. Urania is the one closest to the beach, a couple of hundred yards from the water’s edge, and consequently the most expensive. The villas are essentially identical: one-bedroomed, air-conditioned, and with spacious dining-cum-sitting areas. They are exceptionally well kitted-out with life-enhancing hardware like dishwashers, TVs and DVD players.
Enclosed in their own gated compound, each has a good-sized terrace with a 30ft swimming pool, outdoor dining area, sun beds, brick barbecues and gardens. The gardens were still immature when I was there but are big enough to assure privacy. There are some thoughtful touches: a fresh water shower at the gate leading from the beach, cool-bags for picnics and shaded car parking.
Five minutes’ walk away is an excellent taverna which will also deliver hot meals. All in all they demonstrate a canny understanding of the kind of couples who are going to stay and their level of expectation.
For them the beach is probably not the biggest selling point. Which is just as well, unless they wind surf.
Kouremenos is renowned for its wind. Most days the north-westerly meltemi funnels into the bay to the exhilaration of two wind surf centres and the aggravation of bathers whose legs are peppered with gritty sand. The beach opposite the villas, though, is uncrowded, safe and scenic. It ends in the sheer cliffs of a great heap of a hill called Kastri. Villa dwellers are likely to be as interested in excursions away from Palekastro as immersion in the Med. There is much to see.
The Toplou monastery is one of the oldest, largest and richest on Crete. It is also one of the most belligerent. The name comes from the Turkish word for cannonball, which is thought to relate to a gun mounted on the monastery when the Venetians fortified it in the 16th century. In the Second World War resistance fighters used the monastery to hide a radio transmitter. Its discovery cost the abbot his life. Today, along with displays of ancient books and icons, one room is devoted to WW2 relics, including a radio set and a Sten gun.
In the Bronze Age, east Crete was a portal for the Minoans to North Africa and Arabia.
At Zakros there are the extensive ruins of a Minoan palace. Behind the site is a ravine named the “Gorge of the Dead”, so called because of the number of Minoan tombs found there. The walking trail through it is a climax to the Imax-scale landscapes around it.
There are less well-preserved remains of one of the largest cities of Minoan Crete at Palekastro. Roussolakkos was inhabited between about 2500 and 1200BC and was later venerated as the birthplace of Dikteon, the Cretan god of wine.
If the buildings at Zakros resemble a city cut off at the knees, only the ankles remain of Roussolakkos. Its most fabulous treasure, the Palekastro Kouros, is in the archaeological museum in Sitia, 10 miles away.
It’s the statue of a young man carved from hippopotamus ivory that still bears flecks of the gold that once dressed it. It’s only 19in tall, slightly charred and is missing its midriff. Yet the wonder of being within inches of so exquisite a figure made by human hand some 3,500 years ago crashes the imagination.
Roussolakkos was also famous for the sophistication of its drains. Which is ironic when four millennia later, in new buildings like captain Manolis’s villas, you still can’t flush paper down the loo. But then that’s Greek authenticity.
How to get there
Peter Hughes was a guest of Simpson Travel (0208 108 4775, simpsontravel.com). Depending on the villa, seven nights of self-catering at Muses Beach Villas cost from £800 to £925 per person in late October with two sharing. The price includes car hire and return flights from Gatwick. Fares from regional airports will vary. The season runs from May 1 to Oct 23.