May 21, 2006

Old Places

Chania was redeemed for us the other night when, wandering the back streets of the Venetian port and getting disgusted by all the tourist restaurants fronted by touts entreating you to come in and try the moussaka (which is apparently made by a hidden factory somewhere -- it's the same in every restaurant), we came upon a little cafe/ouzeri, the Ouzeri To Montato, which was completely devoid of customers. At the two-table outdor terrance, an old (maybe 60) woman in black sat patiently talking to a friend. We inspected the posted menu, which had some interesting small dishes on it, and passed by once, on the theory you shouldn't eat in a restaurant where no one else wants to. Then, on a second pass, feeling we couldn't tolerate any of the other choices, we hesitantly walked in. It was like being in a grandmother's dining room, except it had six small wooden tables instead of one, covered with blue and white checked tablecloths. At the back, the open kitchen looked absolutely like a home kitchen, with a sink, a stove, a fridge, and aluminum pots and pans spread out all over. There was no sign of any cooking being done. The woman was talking on the phone, fast and loud, and for five minutes she didn't stop to welcome us. But when she did, she was quietly friendly and spoke a few words of English to my few of Greek. We ate Cretan food -- a lamb and cheese pie, some boiled wild greens -- different and nice. Then somehow we got into a discussion with her -- I guess we were asking about the Cretan folk music a sign for which was posted on the wall -- "Very Inexpensive" -- and her husband came out, a hearty iron-haired man, and told us in words and gestures about his son, a fine musician, who tours the States playing that kind of music for Greek immigrants (his group is called Omonia). We told him where we were from; we showed pictures of our kids; we drew maps on napkins; he brought us free raki (a Turkish liqueur, like ouzo) and a glass for himself -- the wife looked on merrily; we toasted one another; he took down his lute from the wall and began playing in a halting, erring style; he asked our professions and then asked me what Greek writers I liked (Kazantzakis -- not really, but that old self-glorifying windbag was Cretan so I threw in his name -- and Homer and Plato etc.) and he drew circles on the tablecloth to indicate some Platonic mystical system he believed in. Then his daughter, in her twenties, passed by in the street and was called in to translate -- she spoke good English as a result of a commercial course - amd shrugged off his mystical beliefs, but we all talked more and had raki-filled fun. It was the archetypal travel experience that everyone wants to stumble into, and we had. At the end I made a patronizing mistake with the bill: I vastly overtipped, mistaking a European 1 in the total for an American 7, and they protested but I thought I had only tipped 10% instead of 50%, so we left in ignorance of having insulted them, until I figured it out later, on the hotel terrace overlooking the harbor lights. Must every human encounter contain its portion of painful misunderstanding?

Next morning we woke at 5:30 to get a bus to Samaria Gorge, the longest gorge in Europe: a 16km (10 mile) walk, on a rough, often steep path, the entire way over stony dirt, with a 1,250m. descent from mountains to coast, much of it down a zigzag log-risered makeshift staircase at the beginning. Ate our own homemade trail mix on the way, and drank the water from the many springs coming out of the mountainside and the cold stream running through the middle (both the guidebook and the long-haired trilingual German guide, who does this trip day after day, assured us the water was perfectly safe). A fast shallow stony stream, the water clear enough to have made Hemingway put the shotgun away. The high gorge (up to 300 m.) narrowing till they were only 3m wide at one point, the Iron Gates, where the wind blew constantly and a swarm of flies gusted all around, loving their little niche. The rock strata so folded by earthquake activity, they were vertical. Small olive trees and bonsai oaks and lots of wildflowers (wild mountain thyme, smelling like a recipe) growing in the cracks. A beautiful black-crimson whorled candlestick of a flower called dragon's aroma, fecal-smelling, that fed on flies attracted by its scent.

Six hours from the start (including about an hour's rest), we swam in the Libyan Sea and ate gyros at one of those restaurants where the owner grabs you as you read the menu on the stand; then a ferry to the bus for a long hairpin ride through the mountains back to Chania. Rockslides in the two-narow-laned road; a village party set up on the road itself, with tables and people milling and eating and habving to nudge each other aside for our bus; when two buses met face to face, or a bus and a cement mixer, their passage was something to behold.

Back home to search through unknown dark mazelike steets for a guidebook restaurant in a ruined Venetian house -- the restaurant itself turned out to be a ruin, completely demolished though the guidebook was copyright 2006 -- and then another serendipitous eating place in the warren of apartment buldings, an upscale Middle Eastern place thronged with Britishers and Greeks.

It was midnight and we limped back to the hotel. My feet aren't sore this morning: ibuprofen, organic Cretan beer, more raki, and stretching helped, I think -- but the guide had said that the real soreness would come after 48 hours. At which time we'll be driving through the mountains searching for some other beach.