My interview with George Blytas, author of “The First Victory”.
I sat up in my tent, “What the–?”
Two minutes pass.
This time I unzipped the tent and stuck my head out the flaps to look around. Nothing.
Now I’m pulling on clothes and shoes and literally rolling out of the tent. I run through the rubble of the ancient ruin where I’d set up camp to peer down into the dazzling green-blue water of the Libyan Sea far below. Nothing. No, a small boat. A row boat. Hauling in the nets a tall, thin man who’s skin’s so dark from the sun you’d think him black. He’s one of the men I’d met when I entered the town’s one taverna last evening. Not that there are many locals. Not that you’d think of Loutro as a town. One taverna, two buildings–not much of a town…. It’s his brother, I think, who runs the taverna and–unlike this sun darkened man in the boat below–he has both hands.
My trip to Crete in 1978 was marked by many strange and wonderful events–starting with my arrival in Heraklion. The old ferry from Pireas shook so hard as it docked that my teeth rattled. The shaking and the noise along with the lack of sleep gave me the feeling incredible excitement–of great things about to happen. New adventures. New possibilities. I hadn’t expected this since I’d spent nearly two weeks in Greece and had already experienced quite a few adventures.
After a cup of coffee and a bit of breakfast in the square I headed down the side streets exploring. It didn’t take long to find my first adventure. In a small shop I found two icon painters busy at work. An old man with a long white beard and an equally long finger nail on his small finger that he used to steady his hand while painting and his young female apprentice. I spent an hour or so there watching them paint beautiful golden haloed saints. What I soon found out was that many of my adventures on Crete would be magical or spiritual in nature.
The next ten days or so were filled with a lot of tourist-y adventures. A few nights at a camp by the sea. Trips to Knossos, Phaistos, Gortyn, and the Arkadi Monastery. A few days exploring Chania. But nothing could prepare me for what I was about to do. Nothing.
Back then catching a bus to anywhere was an adventure in chaos. No signs, no tickets, no bus numbers. You’d ask others on the bus if this was the bus to blah blah and if you got a response it wasn’t necessarily an accurate one. Only a few days earlier while still on the Peloponnese I’d climbed on a bus and had been assured, repeatedly, that it was the bus to Athens only to find out, after 15 minutes on the road that the bus 150 yards behind us, the bus that was at that moment turning onto another road, was the bus I was supposed to be on. A mad dash with my 40+ pound pack across the no-man’s land between roads and a few well placed kicks on the side of the moving bus got me onboard the right one. So on this bright, warm morning I asked quite a few of the “touristy types” milling around the bus if this was the bus to Omalos. It was early so many, like me, were struggling as much with the hour as they were with the lack of directions. Finally we all boarded and were off–we hoped toward Omalos the place that marks the beginning of the Samaria Gorge. A place that’s been variously described as “Greece’s Grand Canyon” and “The longest gorge in all Europe”.
The bus, like nearly all the buses I traveled on at that time in Greece, was old and rickety–and driven by someone who, had it been today, might have been practicing for a Nascar event. My mantra whenever I rode the bus was: “The driver doesn’t want to die. The driver doesn’t want to die. The driver doesn’t want to die either.” And I truly wanted to believe it. It wound along the coastal road then turned inland and up. And up. And up. We went from sea level to nearly three quarters of a mile up in 23 very nerve wracking and mind-bogglingly twisty miles. It might have taken minutes or it might have taken hours–I don’t remember. It was hot down at sea level and now, high up on this plateau surrounded by still higher peaks, it is cold. The first thing every one did was go for warmer gear. Actually that’s the second thing. The first was to ask the person sitting next to you if we were “there”? As was typical, the driver had pulled to a stop, opened the door and jumped out–disappearing into a building farther up the road. He hadn’t said a word. After asking the question and being asked the question, everyone shrugged then went for their warmer gear.
For some reason I didn’t want to rush into this experience, so I went into the building the driver had gone into–the only building in the area–figuring it had to be a place to find food, snacks and a bathroom. I was right. So I got a cup of steaming hot, fresh yarrow tea, a package of strawberry creme cookies and made my way out to a table on the rooftop deck where I took in the view. I’m not sure if it was the cold at that elevation or if it was seeing the the nearby peaks but a chill ran through me. I sensed the next ten miles from here to Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea were going to be special. Little did I know how special the next week would be.
I’m going to skip over the next two days–my journey through the gorge and then the six mile hike along the coast to the small village of Louto. These days were part spiritual odyssey and part “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. It wasn’t a white rabbit with a watch but a wild haired and equally wild eyed, barefoot German kid dressed only in tattered shorts who I saw running through the Gorge. That evening found me illegally camped in the gorge. I’d hidden off-trail as the guards chased the last of the hikers out. This was too special. I didn’t want it to end. I wasn’t so sure about my decision when in the deep, blackness of the night a strange and unexplainable “singing” echoed off the canyon walls that loomed over my tent. How different it was the next night when I fell asleep listening to a small number of fishermen chatting with one another in the darkness as they sat in their boats near the tiny stone building where I’d set up my tent. The building, I later found out, was a chapel built on the spot where Saint Paul was supposed to have first set foot on the island. The next morning I woke to find a man with a rifle slung over his shoulder standing 20 feet from my tent, trying to see into it with high-powered binoculars. Those are all stories for another time. Another posting.
This dark brother, Yianni, burned brown by years spent in the sun, reached into the sea with his one hand and hauled out a net filled with fish just as he, as a boy, had stuck his hand into a small opening years before to pull out one of the many sticks of dynamite that had been hidden around Crete when the Germans invaded back in May of 1941. The same dynamite that he reached for one day and had his hand blown off. The same dynamite he used every morning to “fish” for our dinner.
Later that morning I found out it was all part of the ritual that filled the time we spent in Loutro.
I’ve read recently that Loutro still doesn’t have a road going into it. I’m glad. Back then you either hiked in, like I did, or you took one of the boats that stopped there once or twice a week. Now, I hear, there’s a ferry that comes every 20 minutes. Too bad. And a big tourist hotel. Even worse.
Thirty years ago electricity was generated for two or three hours every evening. Just long enough so we could sit at the long tables and eat the fish Yianni had caught that morning. The fish we had to go down to the taverna in the morning and pick out. All part of the ritual. The evening portion of it would start when we heard the generator rumble to life. Lights would be coming on. Fish would be cooked and brought to the long table and the drinking and eating would start. Our numbers would change with each cycle. Some travelers would leave, headed to new destinations and adventures and new travelers would join us. Our number always somewhere between 10 and 15. We were like the sea that we sat by–always changing yet always the same.
It was a magical time and place. I’ve been back to Crete a few times since then but I’ve never hiked down the gorge or taken one of the shiny new ferries to Loutro. I don’t think I could handle it. Some things are better left in the past.
The past was very much on my mind back in March as I prepared for my conversation with George Blytas the author of the marvelous book, The First Victory: Greece in the Second World War. Memories of my first trip to Greece in 1978 came flooding back because even 30 years after the war had ended, I still saw the effects of it on the land and on the people. Things like Yianni’s missing hand and like the older men I met while hiking through the gorge. Men–warriors–dressed in traditional garb who upon seeing my blond hair and blue eyes must have mistaken me for a German. I felt their anger.
The same anger I felt when I visited the memorial at Kalavryta. The tiny village on the Peloponnese known for the Agia Lavra Monastery where in 1821 the War of Independence started. Known for great skiing and for being the place where all the men, aged 12 and up were massacred by the Germans in December 1943. Some things cannot be forgotten.
Be sure to check out the link to the website for The First Victory and George Blytas. His introduction that covers the 30 year period before WWII is one of the best and most concise introductions to the war that I’ve ever read.