Cretan Journeys: Elixirs of life

It’s a short drive from Chania into the natural beauty of the Armenoi district in western Crete and a relief to be away from the kitsch of Chania’s old town, which in April attracts the first streams of tourist swarms. They mill through the alleyways, past the shops selling ‘Miss Kitty’ towels and the other globalised tat that blights today’s most popular tourist destinations.

They search for something picturesque, ancient, serene. Perhaps some feel they have found it here, but discerning travelers will find far more rewarding experiences to be had close by. Thirty minutes away, turning south off the national road to Rethymo at Megala Chorafia, you are thankfully, in another world.

The road to the village of Maheri weaves through groves of avocados, oranges and olives, as it rises into the foothills of the majestic White Mountains in the distance. A hairpin bend in at the end of small valley leads up to Maheri, and on the one road upon which the village sits, Roula Kastrinaki, creator of Kamares is outside to greet new arrivals.

Roula Kastrinaki, originally from Chania, began work on Kamares 20 years ago with her partner Costas whose family has lived in Maheri for generations. Their simple but elegant  terracotta stone houses comprise five apartments and three villas overlooking the serenely peaceful plain of Apokorona. In the distance the Ottoman castle of Koules looks out towards Souda Bay, swallows glide and swoop, darting into a nest in the kitchen on the ground floor, and below in the  gardens organic fruit and vegetables grow in profusion.

Last year Roula was persuaded to run as the Green party candidate in the local elections, but she points out that she has no major ambitions to be a politician, preferring the role of citizen campaigner for change. In November  she  will be involved in a new environmental project aimed at protecting the unique marine eco-system that exists south of Crete, in between the tiny islands of Gavdos and Gavdopoula – the southernmost isles of Europe.

A kindred spirit, Manolis Kindelis owns and manages a farm 3kms south west of Chania that his grandfather bought in the 1900s. Built more than 350 years ago, Metohi Kindelis is today a working organic fruit farm of 3.5 hectares. Manolis remembers visiting the farm as a child when it produced mandarins and olives.

Today the organic orchards grow strawberries, nectarines, apricots, pomegranates, oranges, and grapes, mostly for the Crete market. The large stone Venetian farmhouse, with an inner pebbled courtyard and dwellings where farm workers and their families once lived, has been converted into simple but superb accommodation.

Look out of the tall windows of the Kynthia guestroom to the courtyard below and it’s Tuscany that you see. Inside, high ceilings, period furniture, a fridge stacked with organic delicacies, and hidden in an antique Chinese armoire, a CD player with Manolis’ eclectic mix of jazz, classical and new age titles.

This is no formulaic five star experience. Here imagination and sensitivity ensure that the farmhouse remains true to its origins, while just the right creature comforts are on hand.

Perhaps the real magic of these special life-enriching places is that a kind of alchemy has taken place. The history of the simple village of Maheri, its traditions, its lore of the land, and its relationship to nature has been re-cast. No less so, at the Kindelis family’s ancient farm. Manolis Kindelis and Roula Kastrinaki share an understanding of life and nature. It’s a vision as rich and healthy as the elixir-like olive oil made at Kamares, and the succulent fruit of Metohi Kindelis.

Industrial light and magic – a profile of architectural photographer George Apostolidis

Industrial light and magic – a profile of architectural photographer George Apostolidis

Atrium, Mandarin Oriental Barcelona. Photograph: George Apostolidis.

George Apostolidis is just about to head to Bangkok when I catch up with the award-winning photographer at his home in the prosperous Melbourne suburb of Kew. A two-week shoot in Thailand will be followed by work in Paris and then Barcelona, all for the same client: Mandarin Oriental – the five-star luxury hotel group for whom Apostolidis has worked for over twenty years. He will spend three months away with his producer-stylist, who just happens to also be his wife Cathy.

The inconvenience of their extended trip is somewhat mitigated by the fact that they’ll be put up and pampered at Mandarin’s fabulously luxurious hotels at each location. “I never bother telling people the job is hard,” says Apostolidis, “because they’d never believe me, so I tell people it’s easy.” Is it? “No,” he says emphatically.

Apostolidis was born in 1956 in Laimos, a village cornered by Greece’s border with Albania and what is now the Former Yugolsavian Republic of Macedonia. “I’m a hundred per cent Greek,” exclaims Apostolidis with a chuckle: he laughs easily and often. With a reputation for professional integrity that matches his artistic prowess, Apostolidis exudes the quiet confidence of a man at the summit of success, but this naturally modest artist is anything but ostentatious.

He talks with a quiet passion about his family’s story. “My grandfather had a general store in Laimos which was doing very well until the Communists closed the borders. Then they lost eighty per cent of their trade. Those villages became ghost towns.”

Apostolidis describes his background as that of “a typical migrant family”. “My parents married in Greece and took an incredible gamble. Dad came to Australia in 1960. We came out in 1963,  joined the railways as a labourer, worked for two years, then bought a house in Carlton, and then brought the family over. Mum worked as a fabrics machinist. “The goal for my parents was for their sons to succeed. They worked day-in, day-out to finance our education.”

Apostolidis says he was first fascinated with the photographic process as a child. “My aunt Anastasia gave me a camera when I was eleven years-old. I loved animals, and I remember the first thing I tried to photograph was a canary. It was a point and shoot camera in those days.” With the canary in the can, so to speak, Apostolidis’ passion for photography was sealed.

After leaving school, he completed a BA in Photography at Melbourne’s RMIT University, the period during which he met Cathy, who was studying ceramics. They’ve been married thirty years and have three twenty-something daughters: Anastasia – a jeweller, Christina – who works at Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography, and Alexandra – who is in her final year studying fashion design.

Soon after his own graduation in 1979, Apostolidis was working as an assistant for a leading Melbourne studio and won the Australian Institute of Photography’s award for Professional Photographer of the Year. It would be the first of many accolades:  from that point on he never looked back. Soon after setting up on his own business, big-budget clients, from luxury-end tourism to multinational mining corporations, lined up to hire him for the extraordinary images he could create.

Apostolidis describes commercial photography as the art of creating a mood, “reflecting a place where someone would yearn to be, creating drama.” He specialises in big projects. As corporate photographer for Mandarin Oriental, he spends up to six months of the year photographing the hotels’ remarkable properties in Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Is there a formula for working with a brand like Mandarin Oriental? “The formula is all about service and quality. There’s an ongoing brief to maintain the look that we have. Every property is different. Barcelona is contemporary: hard, modern. Patricia Urquiola did the interior design. Then you’ll go to an Asian property which will be very culturally distinct.”

For those interested in the technical side, Apostolidis uses a Nikon 35mm camera with 24 mega pixel image, and a medium-format Hasselblad that produces a whopping 40MB picture. Capturing the essence of natural and man-made environments is his forte. For ten years Apostolidis shot for Tourism Tasmania. He’s just back from Peru, where he photographed the operations of a massive zinc mine for global metals conglomerate Nyrstar. Epic industrial environments, luxurious locations and breathtaking landscapes are Apostolidis’ signature dishes. “I like vast spaces,” says Apostolidis, “I look at everything as a shape, whether it’s a drill, a diamond, the Taj Mahal or Ayers Rock.”

Bold compositions, dramatic lines and a painterly approach to using light, both natural and artificial, are the hallmarks of his art. “It’s all about lighting. You have to shoot at the right time of day. “First you find your location, an angle that you like, then you analyse how that angle is going to work in better light. Late afternoon is my favourite time for shooting exteriors – you can watch the light go down and make the picture, whereas at sunrise the light’s getting stronger.” For someone who grew up in the days of film, darkrooms and developing trays, George feels that digital technology has changed photography, and not for the better. “People aren’t lighting a subject to get the detail, because they know they can drag the detail out digitally. Too often today it’s just digital illustration.

“I don’t miss the chemicals, but I miss the slow process of developing something, just watching it form from nothing. In those days you had to construct in front of the camera, make it happen. You had to make sure it was pristine, from start to finish. “Something’s been lost in the craft. It’s like looking at beautiful old furniture that used to be made by hand, but now it’s made by robot. The robot makes great furniture, but it’s never as good as the handmade piece. Because it’s never a one off.”

After Bangkok, Barcelona and Paris, Apostolidis’ Frequent Flyer status isn’t in any danger of a downgrade: the calendar is as full as ever, with projects in Honduras, Chile, Canada and Macau to complete by year’s end. He and Cathy will squeeze in a holiday too, in the foothills of the Himalayas. “That’ll clear the head,” says Apostolidis.

A house in Athens

A house in Athens

The house Diligianis built. 19 Levidou, Kifisia.

An elegant long-handled knife sits under glass at the National Historical Museum, the old Greek Parliament in Stadiou Street, Athens. Beside it lies a leather bag with a monograph. It reads Diligiannis. This personal effect of a late-19th Century Greek politician Theodoros Diligiannis would have passing interest for most, myself included, but for the fact that the knife – which could so easily be an ornamental letter opener – was used to murder its owner.

Diligiannis, who was prime minister of Greece twice, was assassinated on the 13 June 1905 in revenge for reforms he had taken against gambling. His attacker, a professional punter, stabbed the politician as he was entering parliament.

The villa that Diligiannis built in the northern suburb of Kifisia, has for the last three years, been my home. The plaque beside the iron-gated entrance to the garden shows his dates – 1826 to 1905. It often causes passers-by to pause, perhaps to reflect on Diligiannis’ place in Greece’s political evolution.

At the time the house was built in 1850, the fashion for the Athenian establishment was to escape the stifling heat of summer in the metropolis, to Kifisia, fifteen kilometres to the north. Today’s owner of Diligiannis’ retreat is Lilaka Kritikos, the widow of an Azerbijani Greek businessman who made his fortune as a trader in Cameroon.

The house and the grounds in which it sits, were bought from the Diligiannis family by Kritikos in the 1970s. Lilaka lives in the apartment built by her husband beside the property. “It was a house  paysan for the summer – not a grand villa. It was a ruin when we bought it,” says Lilaka, who spends much of her time at a second home in Paris.

The house at 19 Levidou is near the swanky shops of central Kifisia, where the well-heeled sate their craving for expensive branded fashion accessories, seemingly immune to the deterioration of the economy. But business is down for the traders in Kifisia. Walk up Diligiannis’ street to the Kefalari Plateia, and you come to Trikoupi Street named after Diligiannis’ nemesis, the modernizer Charilaos Trikoupis.

The enmity between these two men, who vied for the leadership of the Nationalist Party, defined Greek politics in the late 19th Century. Living at this intersection of political history, one can’t help but reflect on today’s Greece, beset by its huge economic and social challenges, and with a political landscape as fractious and polarised as Diligiannis’ time.

As the second decade in the 21st Century gets underway, Greece is in limbo. For the first time in generations, young people face a future of fewer opportunities than their parents. Confidence in politicians has eroded completely, tarred by the irresponsible actions of past governments of all persuasions.

Deep resentment and loss-of-face is felt by Greeks at having had to go cap in hand to the European Union and IMF. Downtown, a world away from Kifisia, tensions are high.

A recent report by UNHCR has described Greece’s treatment of refugees as a humanitarian crisis. Vigilantes bully the immigrants that have nowhere else to go. A few days before Christmas at the church of Aghios Pandeleimonas near Exarchia, a classical music concert took place attended by the Greek President and Archbishop of Athens.

It was a brave, symbolic event, to encourage tolerance of immigrants and the issues they face. Outside and inside the church there were protesters urging against this call for toleration – many of the local resident protesters were infiltrated by extremist nationalist groups. Greece’s largest right-wing political organisation Xrysi Augi (Golden Dawn), with their Nazi salutes and rhetoric of intolerance, took close to twenty per cent in recent local elections.

The summer of 2010 was long in Greece. It seemed to last until year’s end, but as Christmas arrived, so did winter. With a sudden, chilling force, snow fell on the houses of Kifisia. These are times to wrap up warm, gather strength, and do what you can to prepare for better days.

The villa Diligiannis built was used to hide Jews during the Nazi occupation seventy years ago. Today, as racism stalks Athens streets, it is a time for courage and humanity; a time to denounce the fascists, to fortify a society under immense pressure, and to offer a safe-house to those  in need.

In the footsteps of my father

The daughters of the first Aboriginal man commissioned as an officer in the Australian army – Reg Saunders, at his WWII hideaway in Crete.

As the European winter stretches south, the winds across the Aegean pick up and flights into Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport in Heraklion may be cancelled. There’s no such misfortune for Glenda Humes on this bright, crisp Cretan morning. The eldest living daughter of Reg Saunders, the first indigenous man to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian Army, has arrived in Crete. Alongside her are her grandchildren: Breanna, aged nine, six-year-old Summer, and William, aged four. Glenda’s sisters Dorothy and Judith from Queensland are here too, with husbands Russell and Rod. The hire cars are loaded up and the Saunders family heads west along the highway that skirts the northern coast of the island.

The Psiloritis mountains of central Crete soar above us as waves roll in on the deserted beaches below, now empty of summer tourists. ”We planned this trip a year ago,” says Judith, ”after we’d heard that some of the villagers who looked after dad were still alive. It was a chance to see what he had seen, to get an understanding of what he went through.” As the journey begins, Glenda reflects on how she first got to know about the Cretan family that hid her father and what it will mean to meet them. ”It was when I read Harry Gordon’s biography, written in the 1960s. Dad didn’t talk about his wartime exploits much. Just to be able to look them in the eye and say thank you will be a wonderful thing.”

But first we will retrace Saunders’s steps on Crete to the beginning. We’re making for Souda Bay near Chania, where Glenda’s father arrived with thousands of other Anzac troops on April 27, 1941. Just two weeks before, Saunders’s 2/7th Battalion had gone ashore in Athens, as part of Operation Lustre, the dispatch of British, Australian and New Zealand troops from North Africa sent to defend mainland Greece against Nazi aggression. While the campaign was a noble cause, the plan was doomed from the outset. Overwhelmed by German air power, armaments and force of numbers, Greece was lost. The 2/7th got as far as Larissa on the central plain before evacuating from Kalamata on April 25. Their destination was Crete – to bolster the defence of the strategically vital island. Bloodied but unbowed, the Anzacs disembarked at Souda Bay to fight one last battle – the Battle of Crete.

Reg Saunders and fellow members of the Australian 2/7th Battalion.

We drive on towards Rethymno, past Stavromenos and Perivolia – names synonymous with the story and sacrifices of Australians who fought for Crete in the last 10 desperate days and nights of May 1941. Soon the Lefka Ori, the White Mountains of the western side of the island, appear and the vast natural harbour of Souda Bay reveals itself. It is here that Saunders’s story, like that of all the Anzacs who came to Crete, began. And it is here where many of those who fell, remain to this day. We arrive at the Souda Bay Allied War Cemetery just a few hundred metres from the harbour where the troops first arrived. Among the 1527 graves lie 197 of the 274 Australians killed in the Battle of Crete; 447 graves are those of New Zealanders.

Nearby is where Saunders’s battalion took up its first position. In what was recognised later as one of many flaws in the deployments made in preparation for the German invasion, the 2/7th, an expert infantry battalion, was positioned at Georgioupolis, near the eastern entrance to Souda Bay. Its task was to defend a section of the north coast from a seaborne attack that never came. When the elite German paratroops appeared in the skies on May 20, Saunders and his fellow Diggers were spectators. In the days that followed, the 2/7th was moved to support a belated and unsuccessful counter-attack, but it would only engage the enemy seven days later, at a location known to the troops as 42nd Street.

Late in the morning of May 27, 1941, the German 141st Mountain Regiment advanced unknowingly towards hundreds of New Zealand and Australian troops dug in. Official records have been unable to confirm whether it was the Diggers of the 2/7th or the 28 Maori Battalion who began the action, but one story – one image – would forever symbolise the events that took place here. A young Maori rose from his position as machinegun fire tore the silver-green leaves off the olive trees. Knees bent, with one hand on hip and a clip of ammunition in the other, the Maori began to lead the ”Ka Mate” haka. As his ancient war cry rang out, the New Zealanders and Australians charged with long-bayonets fixed. It was a brutal affair. The Anzacs had taken a pounding from the air for weeks. What followed was terrifying retribution. Taken by surprise, the elite Nazi troops fled in disarray, only to be pursued by the charging Anzacs. Saunders was with a patrol that made the initial contact with the enemy. Revealing his innate compassion, he would remember years later the remorse he felt on his first kill. ‘‘I lined him up and I killed him. When I got there I was terribly sorry about it. He was a blond, blue-eyed bloke. His eyes were still open. I rolled him over to have a look at him and I thought ‘Jesus, you’re about the same age as me.’ I wish I could say, ‘Come on old fellow, get up and let’s get on with the bloody game,’ you know … thinking football.”

Minutes later Saunders was part of the charge. ”We were bolting along screeching at the tops of our voices. It was crazy, crazy … the most thrilling few minutes of my life. We stopped being ordinary blokes and became bloodlusted creatures … obsessed with this mad race to slaughter with the bayonet.” At 42nd Street some 300 German troops were bayoneted, shot or bludgeoned to death in the olive groves to the west of the lane. The 2/7th’s casualties were 10 killed and 28 wounded; 14 of the Maoris were hit. This rout was one of the few occasions in the Battle of Crete when the Germans were forced into retreat.

The country lane that was 42nd Street is today known as Tsikalaria Street. It is an unremarkable road dissecting a nondescript industrial suburb on the outskirts of Chania. Most of the olive groves are long gone, but a few fields of ancient trees survive. Not even the most modest sign, let alone a memorial, has been erected to the victors or vanquished at 42nd Street. Glenda and the family wander through one of the few remaining groves on the east of the road. Judith’s husband bends down. In the soft red earth among the overgrown weeds, he has found something – a battered brass shell-casing from a bullet that has been fired. Has it lain here for 70 years? (On the family’s return to Australia, analysis by experts at the Australian War Memorial confirms the casing is from a .303-inch Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, standard issue for the Allied troops on Crete.)

The charge at 42nd Street bought precious time for the Allies as the endgame of the Battle of Crete played out. The same day, the evacuation began in earnest. The the 2/7th was deployed to form a rearguard to protect the thousands of Allied soldiers making their way across the mountains to the south coast. That afternoon we take the same route, passing through villages connected by lanes still barely wide enough for two cars, which lead to the town of Vrisses, the resting point for the troops before their arduous ascent of the White Mountains. Beyond the mountains lay salvation; evacuation from a fishing village called Hora Sfakia. We spend the night in Vamos, a hamlet of gently rolling hills in the Apokoronas district; the next day Glenda would once again pick up her father’s trail, to the south coast and the water’s edge, where he found the ships had departed, leaving him and his mates behind.

Over four successive nights from May 28, 11,000 British and Commonwealth troops were evacuated from Sfakia to Egypt. The 2/7th was the last to arrive on the final night of the evacuation. Its senior officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Theo Walker, was on the barge that was to ferry the last group of soldiers to the waiting destroyer. When Walker saw his men were unable to board, he stepped off. For Saunders, like the thousands of other soldiers abandoned at the water’s edge in Sfakia, there was a choice; surrender or head to the mountains.

Beside the waterfront tavernas at Sfakia, Glenda looks out across the bay her father saw, as he watched the last ship depart into the darkness. ”When he had a choice to surrender or go bush, that was a very easy decision for him to make,” says Glenda. ”He’d grown up in the bush and would have been able to read the signs, and he would have shared that knowledge.” The next day thousands did surrender. More than 12,000 Allied troops who fought the Battle of Crete became prisoners of war – 5000 of those were Anzacs. Saunders was not alone. Hundreds of Allied troops had avoided capture.

After moving through the mountains in the weeks that followed the Allied capitulation, Saunders arrived at a village called Labini in the hills south of Rethymno. Of all the hideouts during his time on the run, it was at Labini that he stayed the longest, protected by a woman and her children. Twenty years later he would describe this remarkable matriarch. ”Vasiliki Zacharakis was the bravest woman I’ve ever seen … classical features and magnificent flashing eyes. She walked straight as a gun barrel and had courage to match. Never saw a woman with so much ruddy strength.”

It takes two hours to drive east along the south coast from Sfakia to Labini. Vasiliki passed away in 1992 but her children, Areti and her elder brother Yiannis, still live in the village. Both formed a close friendship with Saunders and have fond memories of the young Australian soldier they knew as Rengis.

A profound appreciation of the kindness and bravery shown by Vasiliki and her children stayed with Saunders for the rest of his life. ‘Their courage and generosity never ceased to amaze me. It went beyond being helpful to another human being. Sometimes I used to ask why they were doing it, and the answer boiled down to two reasons: they hated the Germans intensely, and as the Germans looted towns and wiped out whole villages this hatred became more intense. Second, they seemed terribly impressed by the fact that we had come so far to fight a war which concerned them more than our own people.”

Areti and Yiannis are now in their 80s. Areti keeps a simple home in the village; her brother is a shepherd. The reunion of the Saunders and Zacharakis families is to take place at Labini’s plateia, the small town square beside the Byzantine church of Panagia. It is the same square where Saunders, hiding in a tree, had witnessed the execution by a German firing squad of two Greeks who had helped the Allies. The people of Crete paid a dreadful price for their resistance. German records put the number of Cretans executed as 3474. A further 1000 civilians were killed in massacres in 1944. The true figures are certainly higher.

When Glenda and the family arrive at the square, Areti and Yiannis, along with their middle-aged children and teenage grandchildren, as well as a throng of other villagers, are already there. Glenda walks purposefully towards Areti with moist eyes. Words are unnecessary. Glenda and Areti embrace. Past and present bleed into one – a quiet, profound expression of thanks across generations, for sacrifice, courage and a kinship born in the storm of war. Saunders and Vasiliki’s daughters walk hand in hand as the celebration moves to Areti’s ancient two-room house in the labyrinthine alleyways that make up Labini. Raki, the fiery Cretan alcoholic spirit is offered. Glasses are charged and held high to exclamations of ”Eviva!”.

As the party continues, through the interpreter, Glenda discovers more about her father’s time in the village. ”We used to take him food and blankets, anything he needed,” says Areti. ”We taught him Greek. He was like a brother to us.” As the details of the relationship between Saunders and the Zacharakis family in 1941 are revealed inside the house, outside, 12-year-old Danae Perdikakis, Areti’s English-speaking granddaughter, is deep in conversation with Breanna. Danae is keen to know more about the life of a young Gunditjmara girl in Perth. ”Do you use Skype?” she asks.

A few kilometres away, on a hillside north of the village, is the church of Agios Ioannis Theologos where Breanna’s great-grandfather was hidden just outside Labini, in a ruined village called Lofia that was destroyed in Ottoman times. Still accessible only by foot, it was here the Zacharakis family would tend their flocks in the summer. Yiannis leads the way to the isolated church that Saunders shared with two other Diggers – George Burgess of the 2/3rd Battalion and Les ”Dodger” Vincent of the 2/1st, along with a New Zealander, Arthur Lambert of NZ 18th Battalion. The tiny chapel altar still holds the icons that looked down on the soldiers as they slept. Yiannis would bring them food each day prepared by his mother. Today his son Stratos has brought a Cretan picnic – loukoumades, the sweet Greek biscuits, and more raki. In the bright sunshine glasses are raised and more ”Evivas!” exclaimed. Glenda looks at the old bell in the belfry above with a glint in her eye. ”Let me ring that bell,” she says excitedly. ”This is the Saunders saying we’re in town!” The rich round tones ring out across the valley; the sound of a precious reconnection made across continents, cultures and time itself.

Vasiliki Zacharakis’ last resting place is in Labini’s small cemetery. Glenda and the family have arranged to meet Areti at the graveside. As they approach, Vasiliki’s daughter is standing beside her mother’s grave, hands clasped. She is talking loudly in Greek, addressing the grave. ”Siko mama – wake up mother. Rengis’s children are here. Why do you sleep? Siko mama – mother get up. They have brought you flowers.” There’s a shocking intensity to Areti’s invocation – a traditional Cretan way of expressing grief. Glenda consoles her and explains that they have come to thank her mother for what she did for Reg and the other soldiers. Glenda places a sprig of wattle beside the headstone and explains its symbolism. In Greek Orthodox tradition, Dorothy and Judith pass a casket of smoking incense in the sign of the cross above the wide family grave. Tears are shed and wiped. The last ritual of the stay at Labini is complete.

Within weeks of the fall of Crete, the British Special Operations Executive was tasked with assisting the Cretan resistance and organising the evacuation of the hundreds of soldiers who were hiding on the island. Saunders covered a large part of western and central Crete while on the run. The bush skills he had learned in the stringybark country of western Victoria served him well. Away from Labini he was constantly on the move, usually with others in small groups. They would split up and re-form, depending on where one or another felt the best chance of protection and escape lay. Saunders travelled much of the time with Burgess, Lambert and Vincent.

They moved on foot, mostly at night. They crossed and recrossed the mountains, lived in caves, scaled the desolate high passes; avoiding roads, they traversed the flat fertile plains taking shelter where they could. Shepherds would bring warnings of German patrols, news of a safe house in the next village, and occasionally, knowledge of gatherings of troops waiting above a beach, where in the dead of night an evacuation was due. Together they came close to getting away in January 1942, but the operation was cancelled because of rough seas. Soon after, Arthur Lambert was captured. Saunders finally left Crete four months later. From official records of operations in May 1942, the location for the evacuation that took Saunders off Crete, along with Burgess and Vincent and at least 30 other men, was due south of Heraklion, below the village of Krotos.

It is still a wild isolated place, accessible even today only with difficulty. We arrive at the beach late in the afternoon. The sun, low on the horizon, casts a rich yellow light and long shadows as the children play by the water’s edge. Their great-grandfather’s Cretan odyssey ended here. ”We’ve come full circle,” says Glenda quietly, looking out to sea. ”I was always close to my father, but I feel closer to him now than I’ve been for a very long time.” Summer and William throw stones into the waves that curl and break at their feet.

Breanna peers out to the horizon, protecting her eyes against the setting sun. ”I’ve seen my grandchildren grow on this trip,” says Glenda. ”To them, before we came here, my dad was just a picture on the wall, a painting in the War Memorial.” Coaxed into sharing the emotions experienced, Glenda brings to mind the ringing of the church bell. ”I wanted to ring that bell to let him know we’re here,” she says defiantly. ”I wanted him to know that his children and grandchildren are here, and we’ll yell it out to the hills and valleys of Labini. And we did.” Dorothy says she has felt joy and sorrow on this trip. ”What this journey has shown me, is that in times of need, ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”

Already Glenda is thinking about the next chapter in the story. ”Our granddaughters have connected and that’s really important. We know each other now and we won’t let go of that. I always knew they were kind people. But you don’t really know that stuff until you come here and you see it and you’re part of it. They just enfold you in their arms and keep you close. We’re coming back,” she says emphatically.

The connection created in wartime between Vassaliki Zacharakis, her children and Reg Saunders has lasted nearly seventy years. As the events of what occurred at Labini those years ago near the end of living memory, in 2010 their children have woven new strands to that eternal bond. Vasiliki and Reg are gone but their legacy remains, forever a reaffirmation of the power of unyielding courage and kinship.

A world apart – Gavdos, Europe’s most southerly point

There’s usually no shortage of takers for the journey from Chora Sfakion to the tiny island of Gavdos, nearly fifty kilometres off the coast of Crete.

With less than fifty permanent residents and encompassing only thirty-six square kilometres, Gavdos achieved an almost mythic status in recent years as the last ‘undiscovered’ island retreat in Greece, largely untouched by mass tourism. The Samaria and Daskalogiannis ferries have plied this route for the past eight years and have been Gavdos’ lifeline, bringing business and economic growth to one of Greece’s most isolated communities. But not this summer.

Just as the tourist season began, the implementation by the Greek government of European Union directive 9818 for marine transport safety, meant that the only two ferries capable of carrying hundreds of visitors at a time, were at a stroke, prevented from operating the route.

The EU’s directive came into force on July 2 and has remained in place ever since, despite a loophole in the legislation which would have allowed the government, if it had wished, to exclude Gavdos, albeit temporarily, because of its special circumstances. The government feared one rule for Gavdos and another for other islands might set a difficult precedent. Overnight tourist visitors to Gavdos dropped by eighty per cent from the same time last year, with the small boat from Palaiochora being the only means for foot passengers to make the voyage. In short, the 2010 tourist season in Gavdos has been a disaster.

“Visitors to my accommodation have dropped by fifty per cent” says George Papadakis, owner of the Princess Apartments in the island’s tiny capital of Kastri. “The mayor of Gavdos went to Athens to ask the government to do something but nothing happened “ explains Papadakis. “I’m very disappointed. People ask me if they can come in the wintertime and I have to say – I just don’t know.”

Ioannis Braoudakis, Executive Director of ANENDYK Marine – the ferry operator, says that the company has done its utmost to remedy the situation, but that responsibility for a solution has to be shared with the government.  “The directive allowed exclusions, but the government didn’t want to do this. We could have avoided the whole situation.”

At the core of a future solution is ANENDYK’s offer to transfer a larger ferry in its fleet to operate the route, but that can only happen if and when the government undertakes work to deepen the entrances to the harbours at Karave, the port of Gavdos and Sfakia, allowing the larger ship to dock. “It’s not a big deal of money to complete the work,” says Braoudakis.

“100,000 Euros would do it. We’re now trying to convince the government and the local authority to make this decision quickly, but..” he adds ominously “you know how bureaucracy works in Greece.”

With ANENDYK committed to providing a new ferry for the Gavdos-Sfakia route, the onus is now squarely on the government to ensure that both ports in question are up to the job. The ferry problem is just the latest challenge facing Gavdos.

Fifteen years ago the island became the focal point of a confrontation between Greece and Turkey, when Turkey suggested Gavdos’ sovereignty was in question. Immediately the Greek government began implementing a €1.5 million plan for Gavdos’ development and further infrastructural improvement was financed by the European Union. It was Homer who described Gavdos as ‘a world apart’. Twenty seven centuries later it’s still a very apt description.

Beyond the Beach: Poros revealed

The Villa Galini, Poros: holiday home to Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller and Marc Chagall.

There’s a moment as a passenger on a small ferry in Greece, when just as you leave the quay, the world begins to gently move around you. For a second or two you are the still centre of the earth itself. As we glide away from Galatas for the five-minute journey to Poros, the cooling sea breeze in the narrow strait blows away any fatigue you may have from the drive down. You begin to feel your bio-rhythms slowing, your heart lifting. Moving sedately towards the terracotta-roofed dwellings of Poros town that tumble down the hill below the clock tower, you know the holiday has really begun.

Kostas, the owner of Psarotaverna Kathestos is at the plateia waiting to greet us with a smile and a moped. He zooms off. We follow. After a short drive along the seafront he motions for us to park, and soon we were ascending by foot the steps that lead to the Limeri House, our accommodation for the weekend. It’s a hike to reach but great for the cardiovascular system if yours can take it, and the return on your physical investment is well worth the effort.

The newest holiday property developed by Austrian architect Marie-Luise Andoniadou, who fell in love with the island ten years ago, the cosy and luxurious Limeri House sits high above the eastern end of Poros town, with a truly glorious view down to the harbour, across the strait to Galatas and the Anderes mountain range. After a leisurely dip in the cool welcoming pool, and having torn ourselves away from that same view from the deep end, it’s time to explore.

The journey to the lower part of the town can be taken at a less severe angle, taking you through a maze of narrow lanes and stepped pathways. As you near the commercial centre, small shops and tavernas begin to appear more frequently. Once near the water, idling the day away in the cheerful cafes and tavernas that line the waterfront, or heading off for a beach are not unpleasant options, but if you are in search of history and culture, Poros has both in spades.

Cross the bridge which divides the small volcanic island of Sferia from the larger forested island of Kalavria, then take a left along the road that winds westward along the seafront towards Russian Bay. Soon a beautiful red-ochre neo-classical villa with green wooden shutters, and elegant stone-columned balconies appears on higher ground to the right. Hiding behind the coniferous trees and overgrown shrubbery is the Villa Galini. Built in 1894, the villa exudes the elegance of a bygone era, and has a rich and important artistic heritage. Those who stayed here, before and after World War II include George Seferis, who wrote about the villa in 1946 in his poem ‘A house by the sea’.

“Houses frown or smile or even grow stubborn with those who stayed behind, and those who went away…now that the world has become an endless hotel”.

Other literary luminaries who spent time here include Kosmas Politis who wrote his first novel ‘The Lemon Grove’ on Poros in 1930. Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller looked out from its terrace. Marc Chagall painted beneath its eaves. The villa is now, as then, privately owned. Sturdy chains and padlocks on the gates confirm there is no public access currently to this precious setting that inspired those artists.

Follow the road past the Villa Galini for 3 kms and you come to Russian Bay. This site was given to Russia by Greece’s first President, Ioannis Kapodistrias, in gratitude for Russia’s assistance in the Greek War of Independence. In 1828 Poros was the location of a meeting of the great powers, when Kapodistrias met ambassadors of England, France and Russia to define the borders of the modern Greek state following the defeat of the Turks.

Largely built by convict labour in 1834, the Russian Bay station remained a Russian base and trading post until its ignominious end in 1917. Crews of the two ships on station mutinied against their officers in support of the Bolshevik Revolution and decided to return to Russia. Before getting underway, they discharged their guns on their previous refuge. The station remains in ruins to this day.

For the earliest traces of human civilisation on Poros, you must retrace your steps, and head up a few kilometres to the high north-east of Kalavria, to the flattened ruins which are all that remain of the Temple of Poseidon, where the orator Demosthenes took refuge in 322 bc having been pursued by the King of Macedonia. Though there is little to see of the ancient temple that dates possibly from before the 6th century BC, (most of the stones were removed in 1760 to build a monastery in Hydra which is now the town hall, it’s a beautiful place with a haunting serenity. Swedish archaeologists began working on the site in 1894 and research on the site continues today.

Back in Poros town,the sleepy, unassuming archeological museum holds a collection of fascinating findings from the temple site, Ancient Troezina (Trizina) and many other nearby sites.

At Limeri House the sun has set. My four year-old son looks west from our balcony above the harbour, across the twinkling lights of Poros town, to the boats scurrying to and fro in the strait below, and Galatas in the distance. “It looks like Christmas” says Alexander quietly, enchanted by the surrounding panorama. Poros has unique gifts and precious heirlooms for all to share. For those looking for a tranquil escape with a cultural edge, look no further.

Searching for nomads: Bruce Chatwin and Greece

The Exohorio chapel in Mani, Greece, where Bruce Chatwin’s ashes were scattered.

Bruce Chatwin was at the height of his fame when The Songlines topped the UK bestseller list in 1987. Two years later, at the age of 48 Chatwin died; one of the first prominent victims of HIV AIDS. Much has been written about the writer since his death; many have been drawn to the man because of what he was, his personality, his looks, his relationships, not just what he wrote. The Chatwin cult peaked more than a dozen years ago when Nicholas Shakespeare published his definitive biography to widespread critical acclaim.

In  Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, Shakespeare and Chatwin’s widow Elizabeth have compiled a voluminous collection of the writer’s personal correspondence from as far back as a child at his English boarding school, almost to his deathbed. Though the peak of Chatwin’s celebrity status has passed, (and with the moleskin notebook that Chawin inadvertently reinvented as a fashion accessory available at stationery stores in every corner of the world), Under the Sun arrives on the bookshelves to nudge our elbows, to ask who exactly was Bruce Chatwin, and how the man and the myth might be separated by re-assessing the messages he left along his meandering trail.

Chatwin’s fixation with exploring nomadic behaviour, and his own acutely felt restlessness, resulted in a visit to Australia in 1983. Whilst his brief stay in the Australian central desert informed his research for The Songlines, his thoughts were not to crystallise until a trip to Greece later the same year. In a letter to his wife written from Patmos, Chatwin declared “…at last! I’ve found the right formula for the book: It’s to be called simply, OF THE NOMADS – A discourse. Needless to say the models for such an enterprise are Plato’s Symposium and the Apology. But so what. I’ve never seen anything like it in modern literature, a complete hybrid between fiction and philosophy: so here goes.” Aswell as Patmos, it was in the Mani (where he would visit his mentor Patrick Leigh Fermor) where Chatwin would often feel at his most productive. “I’ve gone to ground in Greece for the winter” he told a friend from Kardamili in January 1984 “…work at least six hours a day…and am pressing forward rather than procrastinating.”

A year later, whilst still working on The Songlines,  the most remarkable connection Chatwin made with Greece came about when he journied to Mount Athos, the self-governed peninsular of northern Greece and the holiest seat of Greek Orthodoxy. Robert Byron, the writer most revered by Chatwin, had written of Mount Athos “To anyone who has sojourned beneath the Holy Mountain there cannot but have come an intensification of his impulse to indefinable, unanalysable emotion.”

Chatwin would rise before dawn each morning at the  Chilandari monastery to be enthralled by the kyrie eleison – the ancient mesmeric prayers incanted by the Orthodox priests. It was while walking one afternoon to the Stavronikita monastery that he saw a black metal cross on a ledge of white rock facing the sea. ‘There must be a god’ he scribbled in his notebook after another entry which begins to makes sense of Chatwin’s frantic restlessness. ‘The search for nomads is a quest for god’’.

The voyage that Chatwin began at Mount Athos evolved into a strong desire to be received into the Orthodox Church as he confronted his own death. But his journey into Orthodoxy was one of his unfinished voyages. Chatwin died in Nice on January 19th 1989. His memorial service took place on Valentines Day a month later, in London’s Greek Orthodox church of St Sophia. Attended by friends and family, and some of the UK’s leading writers, Martin Amis said that Chatwin had played a last joke on his friends, subjecting them to “a religion that no one he knew,  could understand or respond to”. Salman Rushdie also was at St Sophia that day. A few hours later he would learn of the fatwa calling for his assassination.

Chatwin had never been overtly religious until he faced his own imminent mortality.  “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time’ he once noted. With regular trips to Greece in the 1980s one might draw the conclusion that he had an abiding love of the country, but in typical contradictory Chatwin style, there’s evidence he was  ambivalent about contemporary Greece. He allegedly told a friend once just before his visit to Mount Athos “I don’t know about Greeks – and I have very, very little interest in Greece, and that only during the month of February.”

Chatwin’s pull towards Greece was ultimately spiritual and it is of course Greece that provides the final immortal chapter to Chatwin’s story, for it was here that his wife and Patrick Leigh Fermor scattered his ashes. The location they chose was one of his favourites – a small Byzantine church called Aghios Nicholaos in the old town of Exohorio above Kardamili in the Mani. Chatwin had been a prodigous walker and he had often trekked in the area. Aghios Nicholaos is in a sublime position sitting on a bluff of high ground in the lush valley which spreads down from Exohorio.

Today it is still possible to discover the tiny chapel as Chatwin did. The sign to the Chora is easy to miss, but take the road which descends with the contours of the valley and Aghios Nikolaos peaks out above the tiered olive groves. A narrow unsigned track leads down, through the shimmering silver-leafed olive trees before the tiny church comes into full view. Five ancient stone steps lead up to the tiny west facing entrance to the chapel. The wooden door is locked these days; the steps provide the only place to sit. Laid out before you is an enchanting, timeless view across the Gulf of Messinia. Its appeal to Chatwin is easy to understand. This tranquil, serene and spiritual place is the perfect place to rest.

‘Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin’ ed Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare, pub Jonathan Cape, pp 554