Where there is a vision there is a way …
There are a few lucky people on this Earth who have had the grace and joy to be born somewhere wonderful. Where generations have passed down stories, traditions, and wholesome narratives from lives that are unspeakably unique. These were my thoughts as I entered the beautiful medieval village of Kamariotis, a mere 40 minutes drive from Heraklion. This is where I met Mrs. Georgia Papadaki, and took a piece of Crete into my heart in the foothills of the Psiloritis mountains. A hospitable, warm, kind, and proud woman who made sure that my visit became a real experience of discovering the culture and history of her place. She welcomed me into her home with all of the adrenaline and enthusiasm of a small tornado. Yelling a joyous ‘kalimera!’. I found myself whisked neatly into a waiting chair and a cup of hot coffee thrust into my grip.
Revealing Kamariotis wonders – Day 1
Soon after our little talk in regards to the purpose of my trip, she came up with the idea of meeting her best friend, Mrs. Aspasia Velivasaki! She was one of the 50 people staying in the village, and responsible for the renovation works on the local historical church of Agios Georgios in 2014. She had helped to collect and preserve many relics and icons from the Church of Agios Georgios and the surrounding area. Including the impressive stone – fountain that survives in the village square. All as part of a plan to preserve the area and curate a museum by the Conservators of Antiquities and Works of Art. By now I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many Cretan locals, but the energetic personality and larger-than-life temperament of those two friends, made me feel as though even I were a Cretan come to visit my long, lost relatives to hear their astounding tales.
By 10 am, they had frogmarched me to the sight of the church. The Church of Agios Georgios is like an ornament from the past, standing atop a settlement built on a large rock. Like a beacon of history at the heart of the small village. Mrs. Aspasia was energetically describing the tales of its past as we crossed the threshold into a small anteroom. At the top of the three-aisled basilica of the church, the arched ceiling brought me to immediate awe as I noticed the old frescoes. Longing to spark my excitement, she poured some water into the column next to her. And then the gleaming colors of the frescoes were revealed. Absolute beauty!
Each room was lit delicately by a large chandelier that filled the room with warm light. I regaled in her words as she brought history to life for me. Her bright, blue eyes twinkled as she passionately described the tales behind the relics in St George’s museum. Each one was collected by herself and the conservation team from around the sight. The artworks were displayed beautifully, and I was amazed by the sheer vibrancy in the majority of the paintings. Each one striking, as though they had only seen a fresh paintbrush the day before, despite aging back to the 13th and 14th centuries! I was quite sure that real gold is not as valuable as these hagiographies.
According to the local legends, the old church bell had once had a golden shot that when rung, gave off a formidable sound that echoed far and wide. It was heard as far as Chania – a full two hours away as the crow flies! When the Turks came to Crete in the 1600s, the townsfolk hid the bell (probably) under the rock where the church was later built on. No one ever saw it again.
Having shown my appreciation for the delights of Cretan nature, Mrs. Georgia proposed we take to the lowlands. To seek the old hiding spots in the oak forest of Kremastos. An area that takes up a large section of the base of Mount Sarakinos.The oak trees were simply huge, and incomparable. The dense area was beautiful, and ideal for families to dine in pure comfort in a recreational area set up with benches and barbecues. For tourists longing to enjoy picturesque summer days in an area with a unique ecosystem of flora and fauna.
In true Cretan style, we were prepared for a traditional lunch, and my warm hostesses cooked at no time! Local sfougato, Greek salad, fries deep fried in olive oil, dakos (rusk with tomato and anthotiro), and a yummy pasta salad with tasty legumes freshly cut from the farm of Mr. Yannis (Mrs. Georgia’s husband).
No need to mention that in the meantime, hospitable neighbors joined our little feast with lots of raki & cheerful stories!
There are beautiful places in this world that can never truly be experienced without having lived there. But I felt like I had my hostesses had a way of making me feel immersed in their lives as though I’d always been a part of it. I almost felt as though I’d walked these streets before, lived in one of the beautiful stone-built houses. Less than 50 people live in this quaint village, but each one loves their village more than any other and continues to keep its charms alive. I was pleased to hear that many of the former residents were returning to rebuild their old stone houses and keep the village alive! It was incredible to meet people who had lived in one of these places where time had been preserved. They had offered me a way through the looking glass and onto the other side. To witness a lifestyle I could taste once and only once, never to return.
As the evening drew on, more of Kamariotis’s charm in the evening sun and head out on a walk. A mere 2hr wander up a rural path from the center of Kamariotis leads you to a natural wonder – the Kourtsa Rock Formations in Chonos. I thought I had stumbled upon Mount Rushmore. Only in Crete, and much more beautiful than a selection of elderly men. The entire mountainside was carved into a selection of impressive shapes, as though a giant who was quite fond of sculpture had found his home here. In truth, the corrosion is caused by wind and rain that have been ripping at the fragments of limestone rock for generations. Nature’s paintbrush never ceases to impress me. I thought it a pity that I was traveling alone at this moment, the place would have been great for a game of hiding and seek! The karstic ground in this area makes the rock formations the largest and most majestic in Crete. Down in the village, the karstic soil is prone to sinkholes. This sounds scary, but it actually makes the plain super fertile and excellent for growing delicious organic produce.
An Exciting Road Trip from Kamariotis to the outskirts of Psiloritis – Day 2
Staying in Kamariotis had once again sparked my lust for life and my need for adventure. As an expat in Greece, I had slowly begun to make it my home and fall into the trap of monotony. But, when you live in such a gorgeous and diverse place, there is no time for the same views, the same meals, and heck, one should never wear the same pair of high heels twice. (Unless you’re like me, and have worn nothing but hiking boots and sandals for the last few years of wanderlusting around the continent.)
Mrs. Aspasia had gifted me an old map that covered the entire area in intricate detail. I’d decided to extend my time exploring, and make my way back to Heraklion slowly to take in the sights. It reminded me once again of the infinite amounts of joy that come from meeting local people, learning about local life, and doing local things. I’d seen things I never would have seen had I not met the right people and let myself become fully immersed in the culture of Greece. I’d put a little black dot on each of my points of interest, and noticed that the path curled outward like the Fibonacci golden triangle. Surely, it was fate that I take this perfect path.
Chainospilios Cave – A cave of wonders
The next morning, I was up with the sun at 7 am. Excited to start my day. My first whistle-stop was barely a stone’s throw away from the village, and I almost drove right past in my excitement to explore. Chainospilios cave is a marvel, and part of its underground river system is still active. It is best known for its use in the war when it was used by a rebel chieftain known as the Terminator of the Turks! The Turks tried to smoke the rebels out, but the cave played its part in history well and kept them safe. Chainospilios cave must have been pretty dark and eerie back in the day. Today, it helped to cool down my skin from the warm outdoor sun. I was also delighted to witness a few bats peacefully sleeping among the stalactites as I wound my way through the narrow tunnels. The locals here call this cave ‘The Labyrinth‘ due to the many tunnels and rivulets created by the underground river. Thankfully, unlike a real labyrinth, everything is marked out well and I never felt the fear of being lost and stuck inside a dark and gloomy cave for the rest of time.
The Nida Plateau – A spectacular mountain view
At 1:30 I arrived for lunch at one of my favorite places to view the Psiloritis mountain range – the Nida Plateau. A flatland in the center of Psiloritis that rises to over 1,400 m and encapsulates the most divine and peaceful view. Here, it was just me, the crisp air, a bunch of sheep, and a selection of homemade cheese pastries that Mrs. Aspasia had packed up for me along with the map. The highest peak here is Timios Stavros. A pleasant 5 -7 return hike that’s fantastic in spring and summer as the wildflowers spring to life all around you. Find out more about my Psiloritis adventure in this article.
Zominthos – Archeological site of the Minoans
Having spent a lot of time in caves for the day, I decided to take more time exploring above ground and set off for the famed archeological site of Zominthos. The site was discovered in 1982, having been around since the 17th century, sites like this always astound me in the quality of workmanship that enabled whole settlements to survive to this day. Despite being ravaged by fires and earthquakes that would ground many modern builds. this one has one of the largest standing central buildings. It makes it the largest Minoan country house to be discovered in Crete. I wandered the ruins freely, delighting in the bright afternoon sun that made wandering the walls of my second labyrinth-like experience of the day much warmer than the cave.
Anogeia – Crete’s most charming mountain village
My last stop for the day was the quaint Anogeia mountain village. Anogeia village is one of my favorites when it comes to Crete’s small villages. The mountain backdrops along with the historical character that the little village has managed to hold on to for years remains. I headed to the central square of St George, and from there, all I had to do was follow my nose. Today, the scent of Antikristo (lamb grilled on a traditional barbecue) was punctuating through the fresh mountain air, and it called directly to my stomach. Food is always surprising me here. Each day I feel like I have eaten the best dish of my life, and tonight’s lamb was no exception. Thanks to the mountainous surroundings, the land here creates life in abundance. The fresh vegetables, fruits, greens, herbs, aromatic plants, and excellent olive oil make the local dishes in the villages worth the journey alone.
If the crisp mountain air and a belly full of fantastic meat weren’t enough to make me feel drowsy, the glasses of exquisite wine I had sunk were. Plus, I’d stayed in this village once before, and knew I could wake up to the freshest mizithra cheese and honey breakfast with coffee. These days, I needed a little more convincing than that, and I decided to stay in Anogeia. Another night full of delights wouldn’t hurt. I could never tire of exploring this incredible land and learning about the history under my feet. My adventures in Kamariotis village had only solidified my passion even further. There was always so much more to see, so much more to learn!
This was evident during my trip the next day. There were treasures to find in between the small picturesque villages of Mylopotamos and the 16th-century monasteries …Who could resist that? More on my wondrous experience in the next article.