Wednesday, 27 August 2014

‘The wind was in from Africa’ as I sought
out the Mermaid Café and three beaches

The caves above the beach at Matala … used as a Roman cemetery 2,000 years ago, and home to a hippy colony half a century ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

To walk along one beach during a weekend back in Ireland is a pleasure I have come to enjoy over the years: it lifts my soul and helps to restore my feelings of good health despite the symptoms that are brought on by sarcoidosis and aggravated by the joint pains caused my B12 deficiency.

To walk along two beaches is an extra delight, lifting both my heart and my spirits.

But to walk on three beaches is a special pleasure indeed.

Yesterday [26 August 2014], I visited three beautiful beaches in southern Crete that I had never been to before.

In the past I have twice visited southern Crete: in the late 1980s, I stayed for a few days in Palaiochora, a small town in the south-west of the island, 77 km south of Chania, and in the 1990s, I briefly visited Ierapetra in south-east, south of Aghios Nikolaos – in the movie Zorba the Greek, the scene in which Anthony Quinn dances the Sirtaki on the beach was filmed on Ierapetra Beach.

So yesterday’s excursion was an opportunity to renew my acquaintances with the southern coast of Crete, and visit three new beaches.

The first stop on the journey was in the Kourtaliotiko Gorge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

After the bus climbed the hills above Rethymnon, we first stopped in the Kourtaliotiko Gorge (Κουρταλιώτικο Φαράγγι), one of the many gorges to be found throughout Crete. There is a point near the northern entrance to the gorge where some “claps” can be heard, like hands coming together. These “claps” or kourtala give the gorge its name, and are created by the sound of the wind being funnelled through the high caves of the gorge and breaking the sound barrier.

According to local legend, five springs made in the gorge by the imprint of the fingers of Saint Nicholas. Not to be confused with Saint Nicholas of Myra (or Santa Claus), this Saint Nicholas was an ascetic who was born in the nearby village Frati and lived on a rock many centuries ago. But he had no water and was about to leave the place, when the miracle is said to have taken place.

This saint is celebrated on 1 September and the local people call the spring evlogia kyriou or the Lord’s Blessing.

There is a small chapel near the spring in the gorge dedicated to Saint Nicholas, but instead we visited a tiny white-washed chapel built into the side of gorge and dedicated to Aghios Kyriakos (“Saint Sunday”).

Our next stop was at the Upper Monastery of Saint John in Preveli, where we received a warm welcome and a blessing from one of the monks. But visit to the monastery at Preveli is worth writing about separately later in the week.

The white beach at Damnoni sits in a long bay of beautiful turquoise water and is fringed with tamarisk trees (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

From the monastery we made our way down to the white beach at Damnoni, about 5 km east of Plakias. We had arrived on the southern coast of Crete, and were about 35 km south of Rethymnon.

The beach of coarse white sand that stretched in front of us sits in a long bay of beautiful turquoise water and is fringed with tamarisk trees. A white goose sat on the warm white sand at the west end of the beach, close to the small river that divides the beach.

Taking the “Ice Bucket” challenge in the cold waters at Preveli Beach

Here we boarded a small boat that took us past the smaller beaches of Amoudi and Schinaria and along the steep and rocky coast to the beach at Preveli. Although the beach is below the monastery, there is no road leading down to beach, and so most people arrive on the small ferries that ply between Plakias, Damnoni and Aghia Galini.

At Preveli Beach, the waters from the Kourtaliotiko Gorge tumble down to the sea in a river that forms a lagoon. Turning back towards the gorge, the river is surrounded by a forest of palm trees.

The Palm grove at Preveli has renewed itself after a disastrous fire four years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

We walked into the forest hoping to find a waterfall where I could take up the “Ice Bucket” challenge in aid of MND research. Instead, we were amazed by the way the palm trees have regenerated themselves in a natural process of healing following a disastrous fire four years ago, on 22 August 2010, when a large proportion of the Theophrastus palm trees was destroyed in a fire.

We could see for ourselves how both the oldest and youngest trees in the grove have naturally found new life.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Preveli was one of the beaches in Crete favoured by hippies. But today, with its lush palm grove and its lagoon Preveli feels more like a part of Africa than a long forgotten hippy colony.

Although we were on the shores of the Libyan Sea, the cold waters of the lagoon and the river make the sea water off the beach quite cool. It was a good place to accept the “Ice Bucket” challenge, and although the staff at the beach bar could not understand the concept, a bottle of cold water was a good substitute.

A flower power Volkswagen van … a relic from the hippy colony in Matala (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later, we caught the same boat back to Damnoni and then took the bus to Matala, which for my generation will always be associated with the former hippy colony and Carey, the 1971 hit from Joni Mitchell’s album Blue.

Carey who gave his name to the song was Cary ‘Carrot’ Raditz, who walked a silver cane and had bright red hair. Joni Mitchell met him in Matala in 1970:

The wind is in from Africa
Last night I couldn’t sleep
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here Carey
But it’s really not my home
My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet
And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne.

Oh Carey get out your cane
And I’ll put on some silver
Oh you’re a mean old Daddy
But I like you fine

Come on down to the Mermaid Café and I will
Buy you a bottle of wine
And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing
and smash our empty glasses down
Let’s have a round for these freaks and these soldiers
A round for these friends of mine
Let’s have another round for the bright red devil
Who keeps me in this tourist town.

Come on Carey get out your cane
I’ll put on some silver
Oh you’re a mean old Daddy
But I like you

Maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam
Maybe I’ll go to Rome
And rent me a grand piano
And put some flowers ’round my room
But let’s not talk about fare-thee-wells now
The night is a starry dome
And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the Matala Moon.

Come on Carey get out your cane
I’ll put on some silver
We’ll go to the Mermaid Café
Have fun tonight.

The wind is in from Africa
Last night I couldn’t sleep
Oh you know it sure is hard to leave here
But it’s really not my home.

Maybe it’s been too long a time
Since I was scramblin’ down in the street
Now they got me used to that clean white linen
And that fancy French cologne.

Oh Carey get out your cane
I'll put on my finest silver
We’ll go to the Mermaid Café
Have fun tonight
I said, Oh, you’re a mean old Daddy but I like you
But you’re out of sight.


The hippy colony was forced out of Matala by the colonels’ junta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The caves in the cliff above the beach at Matala are artificial and were created in the Neolithic Age. In the first and second centuries the caves were used as tombs, and the entrance to the caves is advertised as “Roman Cemetery.”

When the hippies moved into the caves in the 1960s, Matala was still a small fishing village. Joni Mitchell’s song is also a protest against the colonels’ regime, which was then in power in Greece. But the hippies were driven out by the military junta, and Matala is now a thriving tourist resort.

The Mermaid Café is now called the Kymata or Waves Restaurant. But there are still signs of the hippy colony after almost half a century ago, including an old, flower-painted Volkswagen van and a heavily carved olive tree. And the hippies would be happy that there is a protected nesting place for Sea Turtles.

By the time we left, we were singing Carey and heading on to visit the archaeological site at the Minoan palace in Phaestos, and to visit the small village of Spili, before returning late in the evening to Rethymnon.

A safe place for sea turtles on the beach at Matala (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)