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Tripping in Crete
The Youthful Adventures of Matt Barrett

Matala, Crete

First Trip To Crete

Matt Barrett 1971By 1969 I was showing signs of wildness. One of the reasons for my father moving our family to Greece was to remove me from what he saw as a dangerous situation or what was labeled as the 'youth revolution of the late sixties'. He was quite disturbed to find that it had followed us to Greece and though he could not stem the tide of encroaching radicalism, drugs and sexual freedom, he could make subtle moves that might possibly sway me in a more conservative direction. Not that my father was conservative. He was in fact politically quite radical, believing in peace, brotherhood and freedom, all the things that most people were against in those days. But with me at the age where the peer pressure of drug experimentation might be too much for my small amount of common sense to overcome, my father put the wheels of his plan in motion.

My father taught at ACS: American Community Schools of Athens, the same overseas high school that I attended. Though convenient for rides to and from school, this had other drawbacks for a kid who was trying to make that break with his family. What kid wants his parents in school with him everyday? The fact that my mother occasionally came in as a substitute study hall teacher (she called it baby-sitting), made it doubly embarrassing. On the other hand all my friends loved my father's class and thought he was brilliant, so I did get some satisfaction from that. However his presence did not go unnoticed by me, and my ability to get into trouble did not go unnoticed by him.

There was a kid in my father's class named Greg Bishop. Tall, intelligent, clean cut and wearing glasses, he was just the type of friend my parents thought I should have, rather then the notorious Christ brothers and the dangerous Chuck Mahlan. In fact he looked much like my father looked when he was a high school student. The two of them conspired together to lure me to Germany for Easter vacation. Just me and my new pal Greg Bishop celebrating Germanic culture and our own emerging maturity. It sounded like a fine idea to me and I was open to new friends, even if his father was in the military. My mother, fearing some kind of a disaster, suggested that rather then go all the way to Germany, why not spend a week in Crete to see if we got along. As it turned out, it was a an excellent suggestion.

My father dropped us off at the ferry on a Friday night. Our plan was to go to Iraklion, see Knossos and then take it from there. But when we got to the ticket office the boat to Iraklion was sold out and we had to go to Chania instead. We sat on the deck talking about I don't remember what, until we ran out of things to say. We may have had a beer. I was not as wild as my father feared.

When we arrived in Souda bay, which is the port for Chania. Greg, who was more flexible and less rigid then I, wanted to change our plans and explore this part of the island since we were already here. I for some reason wanted to go to Iraklion like we had planned. "Then I guess this is where we split up" he said, and walked away. End of partnership.

I never even went into Chania. I got on the road and started hitching. It was my first real hitch-hiking experience and I met some real veterans of travel, with beards, long hair and walking sticks. We got rides in the backs of trucks and met other people doing the same. I was in Iraklion by mid afternoon. Now what?

Lost and frightened in a big city, by chance I walked past a hotel and saw some kids from my school who were on some kind of chaperoned field trip. I spent the afternoon with them, throwing cigarettes off the balcony to a crowd of Greek children who moments before had been playing soccer and were now scrambling to grab each one. As darkness approached my schoolmates had to go to dinner and once again I was left alone in a strange city so I walked to the harbor, got on a boat and returned to Athens. That was my first trip to Crete.

Second Trip To Crete

Knossos, CreteWere my parents surprised when I walked in the door that next morning. My father was very angry and yelled at me. I yelled back at him that he was not very adept at picking friends for me and he raised his fist to hit me. I sort of hit and pushed him and he fell back against the spice cabinet. He would have beat the shit out of me right there if my mother had not gotten between us. I ran to my room. In a few minutes my Dad came in and apologized and hugged me. He was crying. So was I. That night I was back on the boat to Crete. This time I got a ticket to Iraklion.

When I arrived I found the kids from my school again and we spent the next couple days throwing cigarettes off the balcony to the Cretan children. When enough time had passed I returned home, a victorious seasoned traveler. (photo of me and Steve Girardi in Knossos)

Third Trip To Crete

A year later we took one of our dreaded family trips. This time to Crete. I was the expert since I was going back for my third visit but I made it clear that I did not want to be with my parents, or my brothers and sister for that matter. I would stay with them until they got their sea legs as they say. Then they were on their own. After showing them the city, I waved good-bye to them and wandered off to find a hotel for myself. I quickly located one near the fresh market. I was given a room with no windows. It was triangular in shape with enough room for a bed and nothing else. I lay down and stared at the vent that led to an air-shaft. "This is hell", I thought to myself. I stood up, grabbed my knapsack and took the bus to Rethymnon, just in time to find my family on the waterfront and have dinner with them.

I spent the rest of that trip humbly sitting in the back seat. I was still able to wander off and be on my own but had the option of returning to the security of my family.

Fourth Trip To Crete

Perhaps my most memorable was in the winter of 1974. I had just been expelled from Pierce College and I was traveling with my friends Kurt Nordeen and Dave Stewart. Kurt had moved to Athens from Ankara Turkey when his parents were transferred. Dave was a blonde Greek American who had been sent to Greece by his parents who wanted to keep him out of trouble. He had his own apartment and sold hashish to us. We hit it off and he came along.

I remember sitting on a grassy field under the enormous wall that circled the city, smoking hashish from a pipe that was disguised as a pencil. It was sunny and warm and that moment set the tone for the entire trip. We made our way to the town of Matala on the south coast, where we knew of the hippie caves that were cut into the rock on the far side of the beach. We spent several days living there and exploring. Some of the caves had skeletons, eternally sleeping in the beds cut out of the rock. One morning we were awakened by the sound of voices. We looked out of our cave to see the Greek police, led by a bunch of priests, evicting people from the caves. We didn't even wait to be asked and were out before they reached our level.

As luck would have it we found an open house in the grove of trees on the beach. The same day, the weather changed and it became chilly and rainy. There were quite a few foreigners living in Matala. There was a writer who had been there for a year, there was a guy named Jesus, who looked like the real Jesus, living in a cave on the other side of the village where we spent New Years Eve smoking hash, drinking retsina and tripping on LSD. There was a group of German hippies who had rented a house in the village who were selling hashish. We spent most of our time in a cafe on the beach. My friend Leigh had lent us his cassette player which we set up and that cafe became the center of the village.

One night during a party at the cafe I was walking through the town to go see the girls at the German hippie house. As I walked through the platia there was a big old white Mercedes parked there. When I walked past, one of the German guyswas in the front seat. "Go away," he said under his breath. "It's un-cool." As I walked back to the cafe I realized that his hands were cuffed together.

Something was up but we were not sure exactly what. We went back to our house and an hour later two of the German girls came by to borrow a screwdriver. They said there had been a bust in the village and their stuff was locked in the German hippie house. We never saw them or our screwdriver again.

The next morning we discovered what had happened at breakfast. The police had busted the Germans and found two kilos of hashish in the house. Being village policemen from Mires, they were not sure of procedure so they locked the hashish and the passports of their prisoners in the house. The girls, with the help of our screwdriver, had broken in, taken the hashish and the passports and disappeared. While we sat in one of the cafes drinking our coffee two young policemen came in. They spoke to us in Greek but we answered in English that we didn't speak Greek. They sat down and drank cognacs. One policeman's hand was shaking. It was clear that they had messed up and knew they were in big trouble. One by one foreigners were brought into the cafe. When there were too many of us we were taken to the platia and told to stand in a line while they took our passports. Kurt was pleased at this situation because of his red US Diplomatic Immunity passport. "Hey. You can't take that away from me." he protested to the cop, who paid him no heed. Kurt shrugged his shoulders and got back in line with the rest of us civilians. Two policemen came through the square with Jesus following them yelling "Give me back my passport!" He kept repeating this until finally they did, and everyone else's too. The cops huddled together and then got in their cars and drove away.

The next hour was like the Diaspora as everyone packed their stuff and waited in the square for the two o'clock bus. Even the writer who had been here so long was filling his VW camper with his books and papers, the peace of this tranquil village forever shattered. As the bus drove away from Matala, fully loaded with travelers and knapsacks we passed a convoy of police vehicles, including the old white Mercedes of the night before, headed back to Matala to continue our interrogation. I didn't feel like I had escaped until I was sitting on the ferry, watching Iraklion fade into the distance.

The bust made all the papers. Everyone got ten years. I still have the clippings.

Fifth Trip To Crete

In 1977 I had taken a freighter from New Haven Connecticut to Genoa Italy with my friend Neil. His girlfriend Lue, who was actually more my friend than he was, owned the ship, so passage was free. I spent two weeks writing a manifesto of my relationship with a girl named Robin who had just dumped me and moved back with her boyfriend. The first ten days of the trip was through stormy weather and was very exciting. The first mate had bought a Ford Pinto to bring back to Greece. It was tied to the deck but after the first storm was destroyed when it broke free and was bounced around the deck until the captain made him go out there by himself and tie it down. He was knocked down several times and nearly washed overboard but eventually was able to secure it. When he came back he had a huge gash in his head that had to be stitched up. When we reached the Mediterranean the sea was calm enough so they lifted the car with the ship's crane and dumped it overboard. Somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean sea is a Ford Pinto.

The ships crew was mostly Greek as were the officers. Some of the officers had their wives with them which I did not realize until I passed one in the hall one night after we had been at sea for a week. I thought I was dreaming.

The trip was long and boring. The ship had a VCR with three national geographic videos. The primary form of entertainment, besides meals was solitaire. It was not uncommon for one crew member playing solitaire to have ten others looking over his shoulder cheering him on. For that reason I seldom played.

After 10 days of storms we approached Gibraltar and the sea became calm and the weather clear. As we got closer to the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea we could see ships converging on it from all directions, after not seeing one ship the entire trip. In front of each ship, including ours, were schools of dolphins who appeared to be leading us through the straits of Gibraltar.

When we eventually arrived in Genoa we were ready to get off. Unfortunately there was no room for us in the harbor so we stood in the bay until the next day when we were finally allowed to enter in the late afternoon. When we finally docked we were not permitted to leave the ship until after we had gone through customs inspection. The problem was that Italy was playing Holland in the World Cup Soccer and the officials were all watching the game. We spent another night on the ship, tied to a scrap metal dock. They came the next morning along with a gang of little old Greek women who met every Greek ship that came to port, selling the sailors Greek necessities and sewing their torn clothes.

After several trains through Italy and a ferry to Patras from Brindisi, we arrived in Athens. Neil to the warm body of his beautiful girlfriend and me to another summer in Greece. I decided to go to Crete. It was early in the season and would not be too crowded. I took the ferry to Chania and then a bus to Omolos. From there I hiked own the Sammarian Gorge. It was really my first hiking trip and I really enjoyed it. The beginning of the Gorge is high in the mountains and I walked down to the path that runs next to a fast flowing stream that flows to the sea. It's a 15 kilometer walk and in some places the walls of the gorge are just a few meters apart. Three quarters of the way down is the abandoned village of Sammaria.

The Gorge ends at the village of Agia Roumeli where you can take a boat to Chora Sfakion or Paliochora. Some people actually come on the boat and walk up the gorge. I decided to stay in Agia Roumeli. I made a little camp next to the stream and for the next few days I lived in paradise. I bought a speargun from another traveler and speared my first fish, a kefalo who had come to feed on the fresh water that came down the gorge and whatever edible matter it carried with it. I made a fire and cooked it on the beach. I wondered about Agia Roumeli. Why was it that everyone was in such a hurry to get on the boat. Most people stayed long enough for a late lunch or a beer. Those of us who stayed felt like we were being rewarded for our desire to enjoy our present surroundings rather then push on to the next attraction.

But for or five days in a remote village like Agia Roumeli is long enough, especially after watching one beautiful tourist girl after another come down the gorge and get on the boat, leaving me and the old men from the village behind. Finally I took the plunge myself and boarded the small boat to Chora Sfakion. I didn't stay there long. I don't know why. Maybe it was too cafe oriented or maybe I was anxious to return to the familiar confines of Matala. I began hitching and was picked up by a professor from Germany. We stopped in Spili, a mountain village that had a fantastic fountain in the town square with a row of lion heads spitting out water from a spring. We then drove to Agia Galini. The town was full of Germans and I found a place on the beach where people were camped out, even though they said camping was forbidden. I woke up at sunrise because I felt something crawling on me. There were hundreds of little mice jumping all over everybody. I packed my sleeping bag and walked up to the main road and began hitching again. I looked back at the beach and realized that the police were there, rousing everyone from their sleeping bags. I had left just in time.

I was surprised when I returned to Matala. The road that approached the village was lined with tour buses. The were many new cafes and restaurants and lots of tourists. There was graffiti on all the walls and on the dock in big letters it read "George the Famous fishermen says I live for Today for Tomorrow I may die." The village was full of Zorbaisms from this guy George. I happened to be reading Zorba the Greek so meeting him was quite appropriate. The tourists girls loved him and thought he was the real thing. He seemed to like me. He ordered eel and told the girls they were snakes, eating them by the handful and winking slyly at me.

One day I decided to go fishing with George the Famous Fisherman. I was with an English guy who could not swim. George had a little row boat with an outboard motor. We sailed around the peninsula to a place they called Red beach, where George turned off the motor. I expected him to pull out the nets but instead he reaches into a bag and pulls out a stick of dynamite. The English guy turned white. "He's got a bag of dynamite. He's going to blow us all up." he said to me as George the Fisherman fiddled with the fuse, a cigarette dangling precariously from his lips. It was a ridiculous situation to be in. We were half a mile from shore in a boat that could not have been more then ten feet long, with a fisherman who thought he was Zorba the Greek whose motto was "Live for today for tomorrow we die", sitting on several pounds of TNT. Clearly there was something wrong with this picture and the stick of dynamite as George looked closer at it, the tip of his cigarette centimeters away. By now we had drifted from the spot George had wanted to drop his dynamite so he tried to start the engine again but it wouldn't catch.

"Engine kaput" he told us and with mighty strokes began to row towards Red Beach. As we approached the shore the waves began breaking over the back of the boat and George began to panic.

"Out! Out! Boat Kaput!" He yelled and practically threw us overboard. I didn't need an invitation and leaped in. The English guy was crying that he could not swim but when he saw me standing he jumped in too. George the Famous Fisherman turned the boat around and began rowing. We stood on the beach and watched him until he rounded the peninsula and was out of sight. Then we looked at each other as if to ask "Did that really happen?"

George had soured on me, I could tell. I was not so wild about him either. The real Zorba would never have used dynamite. I was sitting in the grove of trees by the beach reading the book that George the Fisherman had based his life upon and my eyes fastened on a piece of paper. I gazed at it curiously for five minutes before I summoned up my energy enough to finally reach over and look at it. It was a postcard of Kazantzakis grave. "An omen". I thought.

Kazantzakis GraveThat day I sat on the beach. It was Sunday and there were crowds of people. The waves were quite big. I noticed a commotion to my right. A boy was missing. They found him and dragged him to shore and began giving him mouth to mouth resuscitation. I watched when they finally gave up and as they shook their heads in resignation, his brother began beating the sand with his fists. His father was a priest and as they led him past me he was crying "My son. My son." Tears flowed from his eyes. I knew I would never forget this scene. I left Matala the next day. In Iraklion I found Kazantzakis grave. I felt like a Muslim pilgrim going to Mecca. It was a large wooden cross on the wall that surrounded the city. I could see the harbor in the distance. I read his epitaph: I HOPE FOR NOTHING. I BELIEVE IN NOTHING. I AM FREE. I read his words again and again. I identified strongly with the first two lines. I had no hopes. I had no beliefs. But unlike Kazantzakis I did not feel free. I felt lost.  

Sixth Trip to Crete

This trip began in the remote village of Vathy in Sifnos where Andrea and I had rented a room in the monastery on the beach. The price was about $10 a night and even though the bathroom was a good 100 meter walk to an outhouse, it was well worth the money. My brother James was arriving from America and he was going to make the trip to Crete with us. I took the afternoon boat to the port of Kamares and met his ferry at midnight. Then I borrowed a jeep from my friend Stavros and we drove on the uncompleted road back to the village. The next morning while Andrea and I packed to leave, we left Amarandi with James on the beach. Amarandi screamed for an hour straight and that set the tone for her relationship with James for the rest of the trip. James never got over it.

We spent the night in Kamares at the Stavros hotel and the next afternoon caught the ferry SIFNOS EXPRESS. This was the route that started in Pireaus and went to Sifnos, Milos, Folegandros, Sikinos, Ios, Santorini, Sitia,(Crete), Kassos, Karpathos, Simi, Rhodes and then back. This was my kind of ferry ride. Lots of stops. Different ports to see and not very crowded. It was a very windy day and docking was difficult in many of the harbors, but there were few people on the boat which is usually the case with this route and it was a very pleasant boat-ride. We passed the village of Plaka in Milos with it's houses built right on the rocky shore. We passed the wreck of the Agios Yiorgos, the ferry that used to service Sifnos, now a rusted hulk on a small island near Kimilos. We sailed into the incredible harbor of Santorini, a giant crater of a volcano that when it blew up, destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete, so they say. We finally arrived in Sitia Crete at four in the morning. Andrea's sister Pam was working on an archeological did in the town of Palekastro and had sent a taxi to pick us up. We fell into bed around five.

Palekastro was an interesting place. It was on the very easternmost tip of Crete and was relatively untouristed, but we could see that the town was in preparation for their inevitable arrival. From the ruins of old stone houses rose cement apartment buildings with signs that said ROOMS FOR RENT. We were staying in a two story apartment with a restaurant downstairs where many people from the archeological did ate their dinners. The raki flowed quite freely at night and so did the wine. There was also a small cafe where we would meet some of our archeologist friends at sunset for raki. For those who don't know what raki is, it's the ouzo of Crete. It is un-flavored and taste pretty much like moonshine which is what it is. There are no official raki companies. It is moonshine and is virtually unavailable throughout most of Greece. In Crete it is a way of life. I personally prefer ouzo, but Andrea and my brother James loved raki and it became one of the staples of their diets.

The archeologists were excavating an ancient city at the other end of the olive grove from the village, near the beach. Andrea's ex-boyfriend Stewart was on the dig and also several other people that we knew. As usual our days revolved around meals, but I spent almost every afternoon spearfishing along the coast on the days when the water was calm enough to do so. There seemed to be this wind that never let up and at night it would blow like a hurricane. The house we lived in was like a series of wind tunnels, each opening making it's own distinct sound. Sleeping was difficult. If we tried to keep the wind out by shutting doors and windows, it became unbearably hot. Yet the noise was deafening. We asked how often it blows like this. "Always" we were told. We realize that if we had to live here we would go mad and we came to the conclusion that many of the people who did live there were. It was like the wind made the buildings sound alive, screaming, whistling, banging, clanging. But on the other hand out laundry dried very quickly.

It was not always like that though. There were days when the wind let up and then we would beg for it to return. It was just too hot. There were three restaurants on the beach, all of them inexpensive and pretty good. One of them was the former customs house from during the Turkish occupation. The beach was nice, un-crowded and also had some shade trees. A few miles down the road was the beach of Vai with Greece's only palm forest. The beach area was very nice for a public beach with pavilions, restaurants and umbrellas and beachchairs to rent. There was also a giant pelican that would wander around bothering people. I saw him jump on a woman's back while she was sunbathing and I thought she was going to have to be rushed to the hospital to be sedated. The beach had an amusement park atmosphere with tourist shops in the parking lot and a booth selling grilled corn.

On a long mountain, that towered above Palekastro was a line of modern windmills, built with EEC money to one day provide power to all of Eastern Crete. The amazing thing was that no matter how windy it was, only one of the giant sails on the windmills was ever turning. We asked many people but nobody could give us more information then to tell us that the windmills did not work. On the way to Sitia, directly across the bay from the city is perhaps the strangest beach in all of Greece. As we approached it one evening I was amazed at the sight of the suns rays reflecting on millions of pieces of colored plastic. Apparently the currents are such that any plastic that is thrown into the sea winds up on this little beach. We asked a taxi-driver about it and he told us how the boyscouts had spent days cleaning it and left it immaculate. Two weeks later it was again covered in plastic. The funny thing was they were building a fantastic resort right next to the plastic beach. The artist's rendition showed hotels, apartments, bungalows, manicured lawns and a beautiful beach with people swimming and water-skiing. How any speed boats could get within half a mile of the plastic choked bay was a mystery to me but the taxi driver assured me that scientists were working on the problem. They were considering putting a giant net across the bay that would keep the plastic out but I could not help imagining the calamity as the net finally broke from the strain of holding back tons of plastic bags, bottles, containers and whatever else was thrown into the sea. It seemed to me that not only would they need a net but also a small army of people in boats and scuba equipment working 24 hours a day to keep the plastic out, not to mention the beach patrol for any plastic that would be blown over the net by the constantly gusting winds. It seemed to me this Cretan paradise had some serious problems. Sadly the taxi-driver was mistaken about the uniqueness of the spot. On the road to Iraklion we saw another beach that was almost as bad.

After a week I was going through auto-withdrawal so we rented a car. We took a trip to a small beach called Itanos where there was a hermit that Pam was friends with who had a small hut and a little table and grill on the beach where he entertained friends and strangers, serving them grilled fish and raki. When we arrived he was happy to see us. I was a able to spear a few fish to add to what he had and we spent the afternoon talking about life in America and Greek politics. The day before, former Prime Minister Mitsotakis had spent the day with the hermit, like us, eating grilled fish and drinking raki.

South of Palekastro, at the end of a deep gorge was the fishing village of Kato Zakro. Dorian had told me it was the most remote village in Greece. When we arrived it was apparent that it had been discovered, but only slightly. The way it was situated on this remote beach at the bottom of a range of mountains was spectacular. The landscape on the road from upper Zakro was like another planet, a barren, arid world of rock and sea.

Beyond Kato Zakro the pavement ended and we wandered the dirt roads through a part of Crete that has yet to see any development near the town of Xerokampos. Less mountainous and very green, the beaches were so remote and deserted that I actually convinced Andrea to swim nude with me, while Pam sat in the car reading, watching over a sleeping Amarandi.

From Sitia to Agia Nikolaos the road winds and climbs with views out the window of the bus that are magnificent, though half the people aboard were carsick after the first twenty minutes. Agia Nikolaos was so packed with tourists that our bus could barely get through. The driver announced a twenty minute stop but after five minutes he left, leaving half our passengers behind. From here on it was fancy hotels, tourist villages, rooms to rent and English Spoken here, all the way to Iraklion. The town of Malia was a disaster, every piece of land had a hotel on it and the village itself looked like the coast of Florida. The tourists were all of the British Package tour variety who wanted nothing more the sun, a beach, a bed and booze all within crawling distance. I sat next to a woman from Scotland on the bus and asked her how she liked the country. "Oh. Not very much." she told me. "Besides the sun what does Greece have to offer? Nothing really." But she admitted it was her fourth trip to Malia.

Iraklion was chaos. It looked just the way I remembered it except it was overrun with tourists. We were able to leave our bags at the bus station which was conveniently located down by the port and we wandered around the city. Unable to find a nice working class restaurant we did find a Metropol cafeteria where they made good cappuccino. We knew we were just killing time until our ferry left for Pireaus and walked through the back streets which were dotted with cafes and bars. Iraklion looked like a happening city. I would have liked to spend a few days there, if I was still single.

Dino's Last Trip To Crete

Dean NicholsA few years ago I got a phone call from my best friend Dino who was in the states for a couple weeks and was planning to come visit me. He was calling to say that he would not have the time to come down. He was going to visit a couple ex-girlfriends who he had un-resolved issues with that he wanted to take care of. He told me he knew I would understand and that we would see each other again. He was very excited about his life. He had recently inherited a large sum of money and valuable property from his grandfather and he had big plans. He had found a woman he really liked and he was going to Crete in the spring for a few weeks, to wander around the countryside. I told him that I understood and that I would see him in Greece.

Dino went to Crete and planned on hiking down the Sammarian Gorge, but when they got to the entrance it was closed because of the spring rains. They decided to climb a nearby mountain instead. Dino was lagging behind. He was in his element, surrounded by the beauty of spring in the mountains of Crete. Then he died. Just like that. His last words were "Oh Wow!" and then he was gone.

Dino had suffered a massive heart attack. He was 35 years old. He was everybody's favorite person and the most alive person I had ever known. His death did not make sense to me unless I took the view that he had come to achieve his goals and then took his leave, while we all remained and wondered what happened and why.

So my most profound memory of Crete was a journey that I did not even make, though in my mind I can see it quite clearly and even feel what my friend Dino was feeling as he breathed in the beauty of his surroundings and then breathed his last.  

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