Sanson Award Report, 50 Years Late: A life-changing month in Crete for £28.30
Laurence Gruer (Class of 1971)
On July 16, 1971, a few days after leaving Watson’s for the last time, Peter Unwin (Class of 1971) and I flew from London to Athens. Our return tickets, costing £44 each, were paid for by a Sanson Award for an adventure project. It had been given to enable us to spend four weeks in Crete “studying the effect of tourism on the indigenous population.”
Just turned 18, we were going to a country still ruled by a military dictatorship from which it would have been difficult to phone home if anything had gone wrong. We were entirely on our own, with complete freedom to decide what to do. It proved to be the most intense and exhilarating month of my life, a learning experience like no other.
Surprisingly, we were never asked to submit a report. However, I wrote a detailed journal and accounted for all our expenditure, accommodation and travel, recorded in three notebooks I have kept since then. I also took colour transparencies which have scarcely faded. Fifty years late, here is a flavour of what I saw, did and felt.
The trip in a nutshell
After two days in Athens, we took the overnight ferry to Iráklion, the capital of Crete. Our aim was to see as much of the island as possible and compare life in the coastal towns, where tourism was developing, with that of the countryside which we had read remained unspoilt and its inhabitants hospitable. In 1971, there were no package holidays to Crete. The number of tourists was growing but still small. Most were young people or culture vultures, there to travel around the island and see its many sights. We often bumped into the same people in different places. Americans, French and British predominated, with a smattering from other countries. With few exceptions, the people we met, whether locals or other tourists, were friendly and generous. Older people liked the fact we were British, because our forces had liberated Crete from the Nazis less than 30 years before.
Some English was quite often spoken in the coastal towns but rarely in the countryside. We got by with our phrase book, dictionary and improvised sign-language. By the end of our trip, we had learned a lot of Greek words and phrases, many of which I still remember.
The map shows where we spent each night. Table 1 shows we travelled 1093km (683 miles), two-thirds of which were by hitching lifts. Table 2 shows the huge variety of drivers and vehicles who picked us up. Because there was very little traffic, particularly in the interior, we often had to wait several hours for a lift, which we spent either by sitting under a tree or walking in the hot sun. Occasionally, we gave up and took the bus. Table 3 shows where we spent our nights. Half of them were on the beach. I paid £2.25 for eight nights in youth hostels and hotels in Crete. Table 4 shows my total expenditure in Greece. Including the overnight ferry trips to and from Iráklion, souvenirs and presents, I spent a scarcely believable £28.30. Compared to the UK, everything was extremely cheap.
We discovered it was possible to live and travel for almost nothing if we minimised our use of hotels and youth hostels; hitch-hiked and walked rather than used public transport; sought cheap restaurants or bought food from bakers and grocers; and only asked for free ice-cold water in cafes and bars (although we willingly accepted drinks if offered by others – which they often were!). As we had originally intended to stay mainly in youth hostels, we only had sheet sleeping bags. Fortunately, it was warm and dry enough to sleep out, although sometimes the nights were chilly enough for us to put on all our clothes, and our beds were often hard! The experience left me with many indelible memories. I came to realise that a simple life can be a happy one and that spontaneous generosity is a product of character not wealth.
Twenty highlights from my journal
Day 1 Sunday night in Iráklion
“Dirty Alley” is a short, narrow street filled with tavernas, all claiming to have been inspected by the Market Police. As we walked along, we were accosted by waiters eager for our attention. We reached the last establishment before succumbing and ordering chicken, spaghetti and mixed salad. We had enough to stuff ourselves for less than 45p and the quality of the food was excellent. Leaving the taverna, we rejoined the main streets to find them packed with Cretans out for their customary Sunday walk, the volta. All the women especially were in their best clothes, walking arm-in-arm. Iráklion suddenly had a new, noisy, chattering atmosphere. Even at 9.30pm, hundreds of children were out with their parents. A merry-go-round was in full swing. A little round roofed stage was full of dancing children playing with balloons.
Day 2 The Honorary Consul
After a short wait, we finally met Mr Kristou, the Honorary British Consul. He is a large greyish haired man, most certainly Greek, with an at least superficially kind voice. Putting our tickets into safekeeping, he took us to the Tourist Office where we found the Director was away in Chaniá but on his return “he would love to answer our questions”. Iráklion’s quiet exterior belies its administrative importance. Hundreds of little offices are tucked into cracked plaster apartments with secretaries sweating over heavy typewriters in crowded ground-level rooms.
Day 3 Our first lift
At last, after some two hours, the most antiquated and battered old machine we had seen drew up. The moustachioed driver said he could take us 4km. To restore our confidence in hitching, we gratefully accepted. His lorry had a maximum velocity of 40kph but benefited from two horns which he used incessantly. He had lifted up the windscreen, so the trip was cool. He sang something like “She’s coming round the mountain” so it was funny as well. He dropped us off by a new bridge. We walked to a tall cypress tree in the middle of a vineyard where we ate the rather unripe grapes and, finally resigned to our fate, waited for the bus. We passed hives and banana trees, huge blooming sunflowers and sucking pigs being roasted at the roadside. Empty riverbeds wound their way to the sea. The white flat-roofed houses clung to the valley sides. Fully saddled donkeys lay sweating and fly-ridden under a bent tree.
Day 4 Arkadi Monastery
The bus drove into the monastery courtyard and we saw this eternal symbol of freedom and liberty, its battered brown coloured, uninspired facade stretching about 75 yards. Inside was the chapel with an intricately decorated facade including Corinthian columns, Byzantine scrolls and details of other influences. Yet the whole front was chipped and holed with bullets to give it the genuine air of a place that had seen much violence. In front of the monastery was a tiny chapel. Inside, there was only one piece of furniture – a glass case containing eight human skulls. In the middle of the room there was a wooden grid over a square hole. Looking down we could make out in the darkness a pile of hundreds of skulls, perhaps the victims of the Turkish siege of 1866.
Day 4 The Rethimnon wine festival
We set off for the wine festival - entrance fee 20 dr (28p). Once inside, free wine. Our first thoughts to sneak in without paying were soon dashed when confronted by the iron bars and barbed wire surrounding the municipal park and the large numbers of policemen clustered around the entrance. Eventually, and slightly unwillingly, we paid our money. Unfortunately, the only way we could drink the free wine was by buying a glass – cunning indeed! Some people had had the foresight to bring along water carriers to fill with wine. The whole place was disappointingly well below the picture painted by the official hand-out, but we soon soused our sorrows in wine. It was early in the morning when the wine festival finally dried up, having been more enjoyable than first expected. Gratefully we dug out our sandy beds on the beach and collapsed into Bacchanalian slumber.
Day 7 The Gorge of Samaria
Every step we took revealed a new and equally magnificent panorama. The contrast of the lush green trees clinging outrageously to the harsh bareness of the rock, the faint sighing of the trees, the sun flickering between the branches, all combined to create an experience of pure and indescribable beauty. Finally, we reached the valley floor. Looking upwards we could see pine trees growing almost parallel to the faces they grew from, their roots jammed into cracks and crevices. In front, the mountains, still shadowed, were dark and mystic, with buttresses of rock showing as darker, harder patches in a misty mysterious world...
One of the most stunning things is the variety of rock formations. Often it appeared in layers like an endless pile of sandwiches, sometimes stacked one on top of the other, sometimes on their sides, sometimes whorled like the patterns on a finger. You would turn a corner and there a man carved in rock would be staring down at you. Most looked like nothing except images from a dream world...
Then the cliffs began to rush towards each other until they were only four yards apart and there was room only for the river to pass. The wind coming down the gorge funnelled into the narrows and rushed through at gale force. These were the true Iron Gates of the Gorge...
In a few minutes, we had reached the hamlet of Aghia Roúmeli, a poor dejected village, half of whose houses were ruined, half inhabited but dilapidated. Incredibly, the Venetians had been here too and had constructed a small fortress on one of the last buttresses of rock. It stood, a ruined silhouette, memorial to an age when men thought nothing of whipping slaves up steep, treacherous paths, laden with rocks for the maintenance of power.
The Gorge is 18km long and we took about nine hours to walk through it.
Day 8 Next morning at the bar in Aghia Roúmeli
Chief of the show was Dimitris. He seemed a real live Cretan with sparkling eyes and a large stomach that hung over his waistband. He showered his goodwill over everyone, shaking hands, kissing, standing on toes as he danced, ecstatically playing his guitar. Another Cretan knew some Irish songs but as the morning progressed, he seemed to lose his knowledge of almost everything and meekly retired. The party continued until the barman decided it had better stop for the wellbeing of his premises. The participants dissipated to various parts of the areas to meditate or chew a pumpkin seed.
Day 9 The Cinema at Paleochóra
At about 8.45pm we went to find the cinema. Attracted by music, we arrived at a kafenio whose wide doors had been opened, the inside cleared of seats and a box office set up. A projector stood at the door looking like something out of Cecil B DeMille’s attic. People brought their own seats and paid 7dr (10p) to get in. Those who didn’t want to pay could just stay at the door. The most astonishing thing was the excitement which the village showed for the event, even the old men and women chattering animatedly, jostling in the queue and shouting to their neighbours. By the time the owner had begun threading the immense real of film through the projector, the hall was absolutely crammed and outside a crowd of street urchins stood for free. Once the lights went off, the projector clattered into life like an old motor car, so loud that at the back one could hardly hear the soundtrack. It was in Greek, so we left after two minutes.
Day 10 A showroom in Kándanos
A large fruit eating session, then down to find a bed from Papa, the village priest. He was not at home, but the rest of his family came out and within seconds we were being offered rakí and sweet pastries. They said we should go to Kándanos where there was an hotel and a restaurant. Perhaps on reflection, our disillusionment at not being welcomed into a Cretan home was quite unwarranted since neither of us would have taken in a scruffy Greek had he come to our door with a hotel just down the road. Having read so much about Cretan hospitality we had come to these villages expecting to be taken in, which was a rather foolish and unthinking attitude to adopt. However, as we walked down the road, we were welcomed into a kafenio for a chat with an ouzo, pumpkin seeds and plums, and then tried to amuse a large crowd of natives. Further on, we were invited into another kafenio where we were given an orange squash and watched a game of backgammon. One of the men spoke French and through him we found we could sleep on some straw bales that were sitting in a half-completed showroom in the main street. Once we had eaten and finding nothing to do, we went to our showroom but were intercepted by the owner of the kafenio across the road. Looking like Laurel of Laurel and Hardy, he gave us pumpkin seeds and two glasses of ouzo. Saying goodnight, we went into the showroom, arranged our straw bales and went to sleep at 9.30pm. The generosity of the Cretans is something I have never experienced before and restores in me a faith in human nature and the knowledge that kindness to others is not always with self-interest in mind.
Day 11 A night with Ilyia and his wife
We walked down the hill a little whereupon we found ourselves being watched by a man and two women looking down on us from the leafy terrace of their house. We asked them if this was Kamisiana. They said yes, then asked us what nationality we were. They seemed delighted with our answer. Since they were so friendly, we went up to their terrace and with the help of our phrase book asked them if there was anywhere we could stay the night nearby, even if on the floor. Without a second’s hesitation, they said we could sleep on their terrace and eat with them as well! By this time, the elder of the two women had disappeared into the house to return with glasses of rakí and sugar pancakes. After some language difficulty, Ilyia, an elderly man with greying hair and a little moustache said he would like to take us out. Climbing on his donkey, he and his daughter, Hermione, led us down to the river then through the trees till we were standing by a wide, dark well. From it issued a pipe leading to a pump which Ilyia stroked proudly saying it was American. He pointed towards his small plantation of orange and lemon trees, among which grew grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers, maize, beans, cabbages, potatoes, peanuts and other unknown vegetables – a plant paradise! He started his engine and soon water was gushing beautifully into the channels to the orange trees. By moving the earth around with a primitive shovel he was able to direct water to each tree in turn. His daughter, after collecting a basket of vine leaves, gave us a cucumber each then helped her father irrigate the soil until the water ran so low that the live, throbbing snake shivered and died.
Back at the house, we were given huge bunches of grapes to pass the time while Ilyia’s wife prepared the evening meal. He fiddled about with an American transistor radio he was obviously proud of. In his simple home, it seemed the only real anachronism as his wife began cooking on an open fire in a fireplace made of limestone, as was her large rounded white oven and a big, deep, circular sink. The water draining from the sink washed over the cobbles of the terrace before disappearing into the dust of the lane. We talked slowly and confusedly, using our phrasebook and hands to increase our powers of communication.
As the sun rolled away, they brought out oil lamps, so their terrace was lit by a flickering yellow light. At last, we were called for dinner and sitting in their small unpretentious dining room we made our way through meat, potatoes, fish, salad, wine, bread and grapes – a meal enough for any man. By this time, we were feeling the fatigue of a long day. With one of us still expecting to sleep on the floor, they brought an old bed onto the terrace and placed it next to the one that was already there. Sleep.
Day 12 Breakfast at Ilyia’s, lunch with the deaf man
We awoke to the sound of Ilyia’s wife and daughter moving about the terrace. It was 5.30am. Before we arose, Hermione had left to catch the bus to Chaniá. Well rested, we washed in the limestone sink. By the time we were dressed, they had brought out a cup of Greek coffee and dried bread. We sat enjoying the tremendous atmosphere of warmth and kindness created by these people, and the morning freshness as the sunlight slowly slipped down into the valley. Once the sun had reached the terrace, we took a photograph of Ilyia’s wife tending her fire. Then they brought breakfast proper – tomatoes, olives, cheese, wine and bread – a magnificent morning feast we only just managed to finish. Once breakfast was cleared, we exchanged addresses with an excited Ilyia, finding difficulty in deciphering his Greek script, and promised to send him our photographs. Each of us posed with the overjoyed couple in turn. When we said we had to go, Ilyia’s wife went into the house and returned with a beautiful white bowl. She explained it was made from a flat piece of crocheted string soaked in sugar solution then moulded and dried over an upturned enamel bowl. Realising that only one might cause a dispute, she brought out an even more beautiful bowl tied with a blue bow. After much searching, they found a plastic bag to put them in. They told us how fragile they were and that putting water on them would be fatal. With this last magnificent expression of their incredible kindness, supplemented by peanuts and bread to help us on our way, we waved goodbye and left, dazed by the hospitality they had shown us.
About a mile down the road, a man on a donkey appeared and soon we were engaged in animated conversation. He seemed to have difficulty in understanding but explained he had lost his hearing during the war and could only understand by lip-reading. A plump woman carrying two melons appeared, so we photographed them together, as excited as two children offered a lollypop.
The man seemed anxious to take us to his house to eat and drink. Not being ones to miss an opportunity, we agreed, and he strapped our rucksack to his donkey. He took us first to see his sheep and indicated he was going to kill one soon; then his vineyard where he gave us each a bunch of grapes to munch on the way to his house. There we were introduced to his wife and mother and quickly served with rakí, sugar pancakes and almonds. His wife had started peeling a huge bowl of potatoes which seemed far too many for a small family such as theirs. It was then we learnt they were inviting us to lunch and the ram he had said he was going to kill was for us! As we had to get to Chaniá in time to repair my rucksack, we had to refuse, and finally agreed to a light salad, prepared in half-an-hour. At 10.45 am we sat down to eat. A huge plateful of delicious spinach and potatoes was followed tasty little fish, cucumber and tomato salad, augmented by olives, cottage cheese, hard cheese, gherkins and bread, washed down with a 1958 vintage wine. Never before have I eaten so much before 11.30 am. Filled to the point of collapse, we staggered out, thanking the man and his wife as warmly as we could for their generosity. Not content to let us find our own way to the coast, he led us down the road for about two miles before finally allowing us to proceed by ourselves.
Day 14 The downside of tourism
Aghia Galini is a small town filled with rent rooms and small hotels to cater for the large tourist population. Many of the shop signs are in English. Although not expressly built for the tourist, it seems to have been adapted for a summer influx. For this reason, I don’t like it. Although its appearance may have changed little, the attitudes of the inhabitants most surely have. Their friendliness is not spontaneous, but more an artificial façade to cover their simple attempts to exploit the tourist. The café owner will fill your water carrier with a certain unwillingness; notices are up saying sleeping on the beach is forbidden; the prices in the restaurants are higher; the immediate response to “Kalimera” (Good morning) comes with a little hesitation now.
Since we had to camp on a field, the dew penetrated our sheets and thus wetly awoke me in the middle of the night. Another disadvantage of sleeping there was it allowed certain blood-sucking insects into my bag. This resulted in my upper body being covered with about 100 bites. We eventually found and executed two insects filled to bursting point with blood.
Day 16 The Palace of Knossos
Perhaps the most impressive and certainly most fascinating part of the palace is the Domestic Quarters. You enter this by going down five flights of stairs, a magnificent achievement in themselves, passing rooms with fine reproduction frescoes looking onto the lightwell formed by the stairs. At the bottom are the king’s quarters with the remains of a throne and a lavatory, with the characteristic double-axe mason marks on the walls. From this room, dark passageways lead to the queen’s rooms complete with a bath and a lavatory flush system that actually worked. Beneath the floor, the drains spread out in a complicated system. It was only once you had seen the whole palace that its immensity struck you. Realising that two or three storeys would have towered over most of the present walls, it was indeed a palace fit for a king and its design even now seems vibrant and modern.
Day 16 Interview with the Tourist Association Chief
Back in Iráklion, we entrusted our souvenirs and tickets with Mr Kristou, the Consul, and then interviewed the chief of the Greek Tourist Association in Crete. He discussed the new attraction Crete has for tourists and declared adamantly that the expansion of the tourist industry would in no way alter the Cretan character whose strength is its strength. He went on to give various figures relating to the increase in the numbers of tourists coming to Crete, new hotels being built, and people involved in the Cretan tourist industry. Despite the often stereotyped answers he gave, the interview was a success and at least gave an idea of the Crete the tourist industry would like to present.
Day 18 The Lassíthi Plain
At the top, the road passes through a saddle, whereupon one meets the strange site of a long row of ruined stone windmills stretching up both sides of the saddle. The wind here was so strong as to make it almost impossible to stand. On one side, a majestic view of the valley we had just climbed from; on the other, the Lassíthi Plain, a wide, perfectly flat plateau suspended between the mountains and dotted with the whirling white sails of thousands of windmills. Once onto the plain, the road kept close to the mountains, going through the villages built on its circumference to avoid the floods of winter when the water can lie up to one metre deep. It is harvest time at the moment and the grain fields are filled with large piles of cut wheat and corn awaiting threshing.
Scattered over the plain are the threshing areas. These are circular flat pieces of ground about 15 yards in diameter with stones defining their edges. On his area, the farmer spreads out some of his cut wheat. He has two oxen harnessed to a flat-bottomed sledge on which is tied a small seat. Sitting on the seat, the farmer drives his oxen round and round thus squashing out the grain from the chaff and straw. Eventually, the area is ready to be winnowed. The farmer’s wife has a large flat-bladed wooden fork. With this, she scoops up some of the straw-grain mixture and throws it into the air. The wind carries away the lighter straw and chaff onto a pile whilst the grain falls to the ground ready to be put into sacks. The whole process is a mediaeval anachronism, its basic form unaltered for thousands of years.
Day 18 The Birth-cave of Zeus
With everyone reaching the first stage, we were each given a candle and continued down, barely able to see ahead in the flickering light of nine candles. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the pool at the bottom! When we had all reached the pool, the guide nimbly jumped from stalagmite to stalagmite until he had reached the centre of the cavern. He unrolled a newspaper, put a match to it and held it flaming above his head so the whole cavern was brilliantly illuminated with its twisted rocks, stalactites and stalagmites. It is easy to understand why the legend of the birth-cave of Zeus arose. The cave is deep, dark, cold and damp. It is mysterious with its huge stalagmites, covered in slimy bacterial growth and running lime, its narrow galleries and an unexpected pool. It is eerie when the vapour of your breath rises so slowly into the mouth of the cave.
Day 20 The Role of Women in Crete
Kostas’ wife is a woman of few privileges, yolked to the home and resignedly bitter about it. She seemed uninterested in us and bad-tempered towards everyone. As we left for the kafenio she was giving her son’s hair a good old scrub, shouting at him and generally looking rather sour. Women in Crete have a life that revolves around the home with all its primitivities and boredoms, whereas the men while away their time over drinks and coffee in the kafenio. The traditional black dress of the Cretan woman seems to symbolise her shackled plight. Her lot is often not a happy one. As we passed along the road, we could hear a mournful religious chant being sung in a village chapel in praise of the Transfiguration, a wonderful full voice carrying far and wide through the early morning air.
Day 25 Hors d’œuvres in Vai
It is a custom in Greece to serve a small plate of some sort of hors d’œuvres, savoury or the like with one’s drink. The specialty here seemed to be snails. We were expertly instructed in the technique of removing the organism from its shell. This first involves bending back a prong of a fork to facilitate entry and extraction. One then hits the top of the snail with the fork to make a hole in the shell. Inserting the prong into the hole, the fork is twisted in such a direction as to push the head of the snail out of its shell doorway. The prong is now used to pull the morsel from its house and direct it towards one’s mouth. This delicacy preceded a large number of other titbits: chips, melon, olives, corn-on-the cob, cheese and dried peas, each accompanying another round of ouzo.
Day 26 Women milling and the treatment of animals
Passing a dark door, Pete saw four women clustered round a millstone grinding grain. They seemed pleased to see him and invited us in to watch their work. The millstone consists of two circular stones about 18 inches in diameter. The bottom one is complete whilst the top has a three-inch hole in its centre and a handle embedded near its edge. The grain is poured into the hole and the stone turned, grinding the grain until it is forced to the edge and falls out as flour. The grain is milled a handful at a time, a process so slow it must take weeks of continual work in hundreds of houses before the harvest has been reduced to flour. To see the women gathered round the stone, some turning the wheel, while others watch and chat with sewing on their laps is to return to the middle-ages.
One of the women left and returned with some grapes for us in one hand and a live sparrow in the other. Tearing a long strip of cotton from a rag, she tied one end to the poor bird’s leg and gave the other to her little son who watched it hop pathetically along the floor. Once the boy let it go, it flew to the ceiling with the rag strip trailing behind until it was caught and pulled down. It is strange that such warm people show so little concern for animals. We have seen more of this: donkeys viciously whipped over the head for misbehaving or left in the fields with their heavy wooden saddle strapped to their backs; goats left until their distended udders almost touched the ground; and cats roaming the streets so thin they seemed to be nothing but skin and bone.
Day 28 A clandestine raid on the Venetian Fort in Iráklion
At present this massive structure is closed to the public for restoration. We discovered a grille covering a small opening in the wall at ground level was ajar. We slipped through and down a narrow passage littered with human excrement until we came to the inner side of the wall. Part of the door had been broken off leaving a hole which we crawled through. Immediately ahead, a staircase turned up and out of sight into the light, taking us into the main courtyard. At the far end, a small, thin tower was built into the battlements. After a climb up the narrow cracked spiral staircase, we reached its top giving a fine view of the old Venetian harbour where the fishing boats rot and beyond that the main steamer port. We took care to let no more than our heads rise above the parapet lest the authorities should perceive our clandestine exploration. We patrolled the battlements as the Venetian guards would have done, but scanning the horizon not for pirates but police. Having examined every nook, we took the cobbled cannon ramp back down into the bowels of the fort. There in the dim light there are myriad rooms, some huge arched halls, bare and cold, smaller chambers where officers might have slept and the long refectory where soldiers would have celebrated the defeat of a Turkish raider. That these dank chambers were illuminated with only a dim brown light, that dangerous holes had been dug in the floor, around which we had to grope before deciding how large they were, only enhanced a tremendous feeling of adventure – exploring a place no-one is meant to see. When we had seen every room, we crawled back out the way we had come into the warm sunlight of the pier. Crete could still surprise us even when our trip was almost done.
Laurence attended Hamilton College, NY, USA, in 1971-72 before studying medicine at Edinburgh University. After 2 years working in Lyon, France, he specialised in Public Health from 1985, initially working in Glasgow and focusing on HIV/AIDS and drug misuse, being awarded the OBE for services to public health in 2001. He was Director of Public Health Science at NHS Health Scotland 2002-12, majoring on tobacco, alcohol misuse and obesity. He is now Honorary Professor of Public Health at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, the founder director of a small charity working in northern Ghana and the Secretary of the Global Society on Migration, Ethnicity, Race and Health.
Peter rose through the ranks of the Civil Service to become Director General at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Communities and Local Government. He worked across a wide range of policy areas, including the natural environment, climate change, agriculture, local government and planning. He became a Companion of the Order of Bath (CB) in 2011 for services to the environment. After leaving the Civil Service in 2015, he spent four years as Chief Executive of the Whitehall & Industry Group, an independent charity promoting leadership development and understanding between government, industry and the not-for-profit sector.