An almost spiritual memory keeps flooding back from when we went exploring up in the higher pastures above Hora Sfakion. Overlooking the Mediterranean facing Africa we encountered a lone shepherd in traditional costume tending his sheep.
Lacking a common language, squatting on rocks, and sharing his food, we spent an afternoon achieving a profound empathy in what seemed a near biblical experience.
In an ultimate act of unimaginable generosity the shepherd gave Thomas his trusty crook - a twisted olive root with a rich patina from years of use.
We descended the mountain transformed. ‘Could that have been Jesus?’ we asked.
Heading east sloshing seawater over the goat in the dehydrating sun, dropping off the animal to an unknown fate in a tiny bay, we eventually put ashore at unassuming Hóra Sfakíon, famous for the evacuation of British/ANZAC troops in WW2 after an heroic retreat from overwhelming German force. Bombed flat and rebuilt it had the only road back to civilisation.
Given our affinity for pumping stations we purloined the flat roof of another for the most remarkable night yet; a Greek version of the Aurora Borealis, a quite extraordinary twinkling firmament, luminescent against the black universe on a moonless night
We returned to the taverna for breakfast after climbing to a semi-ruined Byzantine Church from where St Paul brought Christianity to Greece and admired the imposing remains of the Turkish Fort that commanded the Gorge.
The only way out apart from a 10 hour hike was by boat which we fixed over breakfast coffee and yoghurt.
After a bracing swim in the crystal blue Libyan sea we piled aboard an open fishing boat that smelt of sardines, two locals, the owner and a goat that lay bound hand and foot in the well of the craft under our feet.
With evening approaching it was only a short walk now to a basic taverna - we couldn’t have passed by if we wanted to as the formidable proprietor with an arresting moustache, dressed in typical black, baggy breaches, waistcoat and headgear, blocked our passage, directing us like a traffic policeman onto his terrace. No regrets as we devoured the goat stew and Greek salad rounding off with more obligatory Metaxas.
There was no formal accommodation in those days so it was a night on the beach from which King George embarked into exile in Egypt when fleeing the Nazis in 1941.
Following hours of mounting claustrophobia with the walls of the river bed progressively narrowing to a vertiginous height, we reached the ‘gate’, a preposterously narrow crevice between towering cliffs. It’s truly stunning, makes one feel incredibly small and insignificant.
We instinctively felt the weight of the rock faces pressing on either side as we squeezed metaphorically through the fissure less than a few paces wide.
Fatigued and hungry we spread out on rocks for a toasted Papastratos staring skywards marvelling at the amazing aerial display by eagles and vultures which had provided an escort soaring above us all day long.
That man’s pride in his culture, environment and way of life left a deep impression. Inwardly envious, there was no going back, already committed to a higher trajectory in my life. However it was encounters like this that fundamentally shaped my thinking about people in later life.
Our fellow traveler was poor in material things but vitally rich in his freedom and humanity.
Today I grieve silently for the Greeks when I recall their fierce independence. The crushing economic repression currently imposed by the EU, led by Germany no less, is a harsh irony, a cruel affront to their society.
Stepping over the edge of the abyss down the steep trail we entered a secret world of ghost villages, haunting forests, and shimmering rocks and water. There were no tourists, just a few gnarled countrymen leading donkeys carrying supplies for Agios Romeli. We sat with one fellow traveler by a rickety bridge over a sparkling watercourse sharing retsina and our papastratos - two contrasting worlds apart merged in mutual discovery.
We were at the best universities lapping up knowledge in privileged surroundings - he on the other hand had nothing really except his donkey and the awesome magnificence of his natural surroundings.
Thomas struck up a conversation and before too long a tray of Metaxas appeared courtesy of the legendary hospitality.
‘Ya-mas’ rang out to the clinking of glasses. Further Metaxas reciprocated, more clinking and the slippery slope beckoned. It was not the best preparation for the 13km descent down the rocky gorge so we accepted an offer to sleep on the roof of the pumping station, a panoply of stars above our fuzzy heads recovering for the arduous trek ahead.
Next morning we trudged to the rim of the Gorge peering down 1250 meters towards the coast, our eventual destination.
We waved goodbye to Manolis before thumbing a lift in the back of an empty truck whose sole purpose was to lug rocks down from a quarry to the plain below. Dumped in the last village before the road ran out we stopped in the square for a coffee that cost less than the smallest coin of the realm.
The men sat in the shade of the olive tree standing outside the kafeneío, shuffling backgammon sipping ouzo or sludgy black coffee.
The ever present papás in his black kalimavkion chimneypot hat and sinister robes hovered around angling for a drink.
Above all the revelatory meeting was an overwhelming catharsis for Thomas who like many post-war German youths had nagging doubts about their fathers’ activities in Nazi occupied Europe. An unfathomable burden had been lifted from his conscience - we could see it clearly radiating in his face and demeanour.
The next day Manolis drove us to the haul road that led up to the Lefka Ori mountains and the Samaria Gorge.
In those days the Gorge was a barely discovered natural wonder stumbled upon from conversations in Chania, inciting a curiosity that drew us inexorably up into Crete’s imperious mountains.
It was surreal sitting as a victor on the quayside with two sons of the conquering Krauts and Manolis, the vanquished Greek.
Manolis and Carsten had trodden a fine line during the conflict - they both held a strong belief in humanity and the healing power of communication over agression. I fully accepted by the end of the evening that Thomas’ father had done his utmost to help the local population short of being court-martialled. Manolis meanwhile had aided the resistance without being a member as such, favouring the role of conciliator in countering the indiscriminate savagery of the times.
We were immediately impressed. Manilos was clearly a much respected personality in the town judging by the copious handshakes from fellow diners and glances of recognition. He was in fact a local councillor, it later transpired, who had his community’s interests at heart, patently not perceived as an arch Nazi collaborator.
He wrapped his arms round Thomas as if embracing a long lost son. He talked frankly and emotionally about his complicated relationship with Carsten, Thomas’s father, and the colossal tensions in those times. Never before had I experienced firsthand how a nation must feel to be so brutally invaded.
We rented a big room on the waterfront and Thomas disappeared to track down Manolis Pattakos his father’s acquaintance.
Was this wise? Fraternisation with the enemy carried the risk of death in the war. It seemed distinctly unhealthy to hobnob with a possible collaborator in a town that had suffered so much in the occupation.
Still Manolis had survived and Thomas on returning announced he had arranged dinner at a taverna on the quay that evening.
Manolis stood out from the crowd, a large upright man, neatly dressed in a dark suit, inquisitive blue eyes and a thick Cretan moustache...
Zorba the Greek, the film based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, starring Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates dancing the sirtaki had initiated my infatuation with Greece and it had been filmed on the Akrotiri peninsula just outside Chania. Too convenient to miss we found our way to Zorba’s house on the bay, bought some beers, cooked kebabs on a driftwood fire and danced and danced until sunset.
I’ve ignored Zorba’s famous warning against marriage:
‘I’m a man so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe’.
Allegra’s my inalienable Aphrodite - house, children yes but never the full catastrophe.
Two cute Swedish backpackers turned up seeking a place for the night so we got digging, extending our excavation to accommodate them in our pit. All six of us slept like a can of sardines, lid peeled back. The pheromone levels were so high lying there between Allegra and Astrid that I remember having to cool off in the sea before getting in the right frame of mind for sleep.
Wrenched away from this Elysium, a veritable paradise of the gods, we took a bus to Chania 110 miles west to track down a wartime Greek friend of Thomas’s father..
On landing in Heraklion we turned left towards Malia, then a beautiful deserted beach with only a shack like bar-restaurant, juke box, dirt cheap food and drink, hosted by Kosta the ebullient owner.
We staked out our encampment 100 yards up the beach, dug out a hollow with a makeshift canvas awning to afford protection against the blazing sun.
We spent a week there swimming in the perfect turquoise sea, hanging around the juke box boogying to bouzouki, drinking retsina and Fix the improbably named local beer. Each night was strictly sirtaki night down at the Malia Golden Fleece.
We had intended to visit the Acropolis and other sights but our newfound German friends were bound for Crete in Thomas’s father’s footsteps and invited us along. Unlike the father we’d land peacefully by sea rather than parachuting over Chania from a Junkers 52 in a hail of bullets.
That is the joy of hitchhiking - just blowing with the wind - no deadlines, no pressure, one day of freedom at a time.
So on docking in Piraeus the Anglo-German party of four transferred to another Hellenic Lines overnight ferry to Crete, the island of Knossos, Zorba and the Samaria Gorge.
Thomas spoke fluent Greek and English, becoming in effect our personal translator, breaking down the gargantuan language barrier with these fascinating people. How anyone can speak German and Greek, both impenetrable to me, let alone English is beyond belief.
Despite the awesome beauty of the country and its culture, thanks to Thomas and face to face contact, my memories of Greece are topped by the proud, hospitable people, clearly descended from a superior culture inspite some tarnishing aspects of modern life. There were so many exceptional acts of kindness to recount by Cretans often without two Drachmas to rub together.
The voices belonged to Thomas and Kai who were soon to become our new travelling companions.
Thomas was a dashing student from Munich University and Kai his trusty foil.
Thomas had been schooled privately in Athens ostensibly to make amends for his father’s wartime activities in Crete as an officer in the Wehrmacht. The father seems genuinely to have had a Damascene moment in Crete, overwhelmed by the wrong being inflicted on those innocent people. In atonement, to salve his troubled conscience, he moved to Athens after the war, became a journalist and educated his son in the Greek tradition.
After a balmy night with Allegra on the upper deck zipped together, and the Bari nightmare behind us, we stirred to a warming sun over the Ionian Sea, edging gingerly through the Corinth Canal, its massive walls dwarfing our vessel on its path to Athens.
Simultaneously the shapeless forms sheltering under the adjoining lifeboat also stirred, to grunting in an unmistakable German dialect:
‘Gott in himmel!’ Ich habe einen groser Kater’.
Unknowingly we had been cohabiting all night with the hun as we steamed across the Aegean Sea to the land of the Minotaur in the steps of the Argonauts.