12 September 2015

The sun sets on another
holiday in Greece

Sunset on the beach in Platanes last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

The sun is setting on another wonderful holiday in Crete. I have spent the past week in Rethymnon, based in Julia Apartments, in Platanes. This was once a small country village on the edges of Rethymnon, but it has grown in recent decades, acquiring all the facilities and amenities of a resort.

In previous years when I have been in Rethymnon, I have stayed in the heart of the old walled Venetian city, but I have been surprised by the benefits of staying in Platanes.

I had walks on the long sandy beach at sunset in the evenings, watching the sun set beyond the Fortezza in Rethymnon, which is 5 km to the west, or I have gone into Rethymnon for strolls around the harbour at sunset.

I have been into the sea at Pavlos beach, swimming each day under blue skies in the blue waters of the Mediterranean, which are still warm at this time of the year.

The gardens at Julia Apartments, with its tall trees and lush growth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

There has been time for reading on the beach, or on the balcony overlooking the gardens in Julia Apartments, with its tall trees and lush growth.

There have been walks in the countryside, climbs into the mountains to visit Venetian villages, and time for prayer too, visiting the Monastery of Arkadi, which is just 17 km from Platanes, visiting the Cathedral and the Church of the Four Martyrs in Rethymnon and visiting the old churches of Maroulas.

But it has also been deeply spiritual to see at first hand the work of the Voluntary Welfare Clinic Rethymno from a storefront crèche in Kastrinogiannaki Street, providing medical care and help for people who have no medical insurance, whether they are Greeks, refugees or migrants.

There have been breakfasts on the balcony, with fresh fruit – especially the figs – and bread bought in the local supermarkets and the bakery downstairs, there have been wonderful meals in the local restaurants and tavernas, there has been time to stop and sip Greek coffees and double espressos in the cafés, and there was a wonderful dinner with a friend who went out of her way, laden with presents, all the way from Iraklion, to join us for dinner in the gardens at Julia Apartments.

I even had my haircut in the local hairdressers next door.

Evening closes in on Platanes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Platanes took me by surprise. I had expected a more brazen sort of resort, but in many ways it still retains the feel of a local village, and I found traditional Greek hospitality and interest in the visitor is found unfeignedly everywhere I went.

The square in the centre of the village is more a junction than a traditional Greek village square, but on all sides there are cafés with people sitting out watching life passing by on what was once the main road along the northern coast of Crete.

I noticed no late-night seedy nightclubs – they may be here, but I never noticed them, and I was not out of place for my age or generation. This is not a “young and lively” holiday destination, at least at this time of the year.

There is a Lidl supermarket behind Julia Apartments, just after the road under the new highway that runs between Rethymnon and Iraklion. I wondered whether they run Greek weeks, as they do in Ireland. No, perhaps they run Irish weeks.

The bells on the church of Aghios Nektarios in Tsesmes this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

As I strolled further up the hill late this morning, I was soon in the neighbouring village of Tsesmes, which I had passed through yesterday on my way to the hill-top Venetian village of Maroulas. In Tsesmes, there are grapes on the vines, olives waiting to be harvested on the trees, and gardens filled with trees and flowers or even some goats.

Here there is a village square where life must gather at other times but a sleepy Saturday at mid-day. There are village tavernas and cafés, side streets that lead on into hidden houses, and a village church that I had failed to find last Sunday morning despite eager searching.

The side streets in Tsesmes lead into rustic scenes and memories of village life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

After an early afternoon coffee in Tsesmes, it was a few minutes back down to Platanes for a last walk on the beach, a late lunch in Vergina, and a farewell coffee at Julia Apartments.

I have never believed in the “trickle-down economy” that Thatcher and Reagan pretended would bring prosperity to everyone – after the rich got richer. But spending money locally, in locally-owned shops, supermarkets and businesses keeps money going around in this small Greek town at a time when Greek businesses are finding it difficult to keep going. And putting money into the economy means more local people are employed and more local produce is sold.

Figs on sale in a local supermarket in Platanes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I am told that the real blow to tourism in this part of Greece has come not from foreigners worried about the political climate in Greece but from many so Greeks not able to spend money on holidays this year. But foreign tourism boosts the balance of payments and contributes immensely to the Greek economy and to Greek employment figures.

Who knows what the future holds for Greece? It would have been difficult for most tourists to know that there is a crucial election here in just over a week’s time [20 September 2015], and it would have been impossible for them to know about the refugee crisis on other Greek islands, such as Lesvos, Kos and Rhodes.

Undoubtedly, there are difficult times ahead for everyone in Greece, no matter what results the election produces.

The bus is waiting outside to take me to Chania Airport and my Ryanair flight back to Dublin. But I hope to be back again next year.

Grapes on the vine between a taverna in Tsesmes and a house that is up for sale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

A journey in time to the Venetian
mountain-top village of Maroulas

Wandering through the narrow streets and alleyways of Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I spent Friday morning [11 September 2015] picking my way through the Venetian towers, renaissance ruins, narrow streets and alleys and the churches and chapels of the once-fortified hilltop town of Maroulas (Μαρουλάς).

This quiet, mountainside village in the olive groves above Platanes and Rethymon, is 10 km south-east of Rethymnon, at a height of 240 meters (800 feet). Although it is only 5 km from Platanes, it took half an hour to get there along the twisting, corkscrew road that winds its way up by the mountain valleys and gorges and through some of the oldest olive groves in Greece.

Perched on a lofty position facing down onto the sea, Maroulas is like a time capsule, with ancient tombstones dating back to antiquity, a Byzantine church, two Venetian towers, mediaeval and renaissance houses, old olive oil presses, narrow streets and alleyways, and a hidden church with a double nave that is partly built into a cave.

The Venetians built several tower houses throughout Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Although most of the buildings that attract visitors to Maroulas date back to the Venetian period, the discovery of arched burial chambers has led archaeologists to suggest that the area may have been inhabited since the Minoan period. Two cemeteries of the palatial period of Minoan period have been found in the area. The findings are on display in the Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon.

It is said the village was originally named Amygdalea and that at one point it was completely destroyed by a flood or an earthquake.

According to tradition, Maroulas takes its name from the shepherdess Maroula, a name derived from Maria. While she was grazing her sheep, she found a spring of cool drinking water. This natural spring water fountain at Vryssi was the main water source of the village, supplemented by rainwater collected in tanks. Although the water at the fountain is no longer drinkable, this is a quiet, shaded place to rest under a spreading plane tree.

The settlement was probably founded as a fortified town in the second Byzantine period, and continued to prosper after the Venetian invasions, when the houses in Maroulas became second homes in the cool mountains for the nobility of Rethymnon.

The Venetians built towers with battlements, tower houses and several mansions that display Venetian coats of arms on the arches and doors.

There are seven or eight churches scattered through Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

There are seven or eight churches scattered through the village and in the surrounding hillsides, and I visited at least four of them.

The main parish church was being repainted inside. The smaller church next door has Byzantine fragments. The tiny chapel in the centre of the village was locked and closed.

The interconnecting twin churches of Aghios Nikolaos and Aghios Antonios, with a mediaeval sarcophagus in the churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

A double nave church built into the rocky hillside that almost formed a cave was in fact two inter-connecting 14th century churches, one dedicated to Aghios Nikolaos (Saint Nicholas) and the other to Aghios Antonios (Saint Anthony), with a mediaeval sculpted sarcophagus in the churchyard.

At one time, there were three towers in Maroulas. The first was probably built in the Byzantine period but has since collapsed.

The second tower dates from the Venetian period, and stands by the cobbled street leading down to the fountain at Vryssi.

The tallest Venetian tower has become a symbol of Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The third tower is seen as the emblem of the village. This imposing tower was recently renovated. It is 14 metres high and has three floors. It was built sometime in the 15th and 16th centuries and served as an observation point and as well as the home of a Venetian noble.

Using fire and smoke, the watchmen on the tower could communicate with the fortress at the Fortezza in Rethymno. The tower had holes from which the guards could spill burning oil or tar on their enemies below.

Later Venetian buildings were inspired by the works of the Venetian engineer Francesco Barozzi. They date from ca 1577, and have become known for their aesthetic and artistic features.

After the Turkish invasion, Maroulas became the country seat of Turkish officials who valued its strategic position and wealthy soil.

During the Ottoman period, the main tower was used as an army base. Later, the Turks build using architectural elements from Anatolia such as chimneys, wells and hamams or fountains.

The main tower provides views across the countryside from Rethymnon to Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Metochi, a massive complex west of the settlement has traces of Renaissance and Islamic architecture, including a Turkish hamam or bath.

After the disastrous war between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, the main tower was used to house Greek refugees from Asia Minor.

In the inter-war years, the 17th century Despotiko or residence in the north-east of the tower became the summer residence of the Bishop of Rethymnon. However, the main tower was abandoned during World War II, and at the same time Metochi was partly destroyed during a Nazi bombardment in May 1941.

Maroulas suffered because of large migration in the 1980s, when young people left for the cities, leaving only the elderly behind.

New hope came when Maroulas was listed for its historical monuments and houses in 1985. The main tower was renovated and restored by the Municipality of Rethymnon in the mid-1990s, and in 1997 it was bought for the local community.

Further restoration work was carried out in 2007-2013 under an EU-funded scheme to restore specific buildings of historical interest in both Greece and Cyprus.

Maroulas is coming back to life with almost 200 residents today, and many of the old houses are being restored by families who have moved there to live permanently.

The village attracts many painters and photographers who find many themes here with the narrow alleys, old doors, door knobs and stone mosaics. Today, Maroulas is a maze of narrow streets and alleyways, with a few inviting tavernas and cafés. We lingered a little longer in the early afternoon sunshine in Milopetra Café, sipping a frappe and a double espresso.

On the way back down the winding twisting road to the coastline, we were pointed to an olive tree that is said to be over 200 years old. Our journey in time came to an end back in the busy resort town of Platanes.

An olive tree said to be over 200 years old in the olive groves below Maroulas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)