My travel philosophy of showing up without a plan or map backfired when I flew into the wrong town in Crete. I had expected to land in the capital where my couchsurf host was waiting in Heraklion, but instead I landed in Chania (150km west of Heraklion) on Easter Sunday. I was doubly confused since Easter had been a few weeks before in the rest of Europe, but the Julian calendar makes Greece’s Orthodox easter a little later. So, I was in a strange but beautiful town, with most of the city shut down and many people out of town. I strolled the Venetian harbour, with a handful of other sunkissed tourists, and only figured out the holiday was happening after passing a dozen lamb roasts – after days of fasting from meat, they put an entire lamb on a stick and rotate it over a barell sized bbq, yielding enough meat to feed an army.
I took one of the only buses going to Heraklion that afternoon and sat in the bus station there waiting for my host, who was actually standing 50m away from me. The pitfall of couchsurfing is that you never really recognize people from their pictures, so after standing beside eachother for 10 mins, it was only after I called him and his phone rang that we figured eachother out. Yannis was probably the best host I could have imagined, a local born and raised Cretan who thought it was only normal to give me his bed and take the couch, make his best friend show me around while he worked, and introduce me to his extended family for easter Monday brunch. We drove out to his parents village Zaros where 20 or 25 of his family members stuffed me with lamb and goat meat smothered in lemon and salt, and poured me full of home made wine and raki, the local alcohol which makes even Brennivin look good. We feasted all day long, only to reach dessert and coffee time, and I paid the next day for my food coma.
The day before there had been a tragic accident in the village, so Yannis explained that the meal had been quite tame and ended early. He also acknowledged how great it was that I had been the comic relief of his family, which I had noticed and laughed anyway at all the jokes I didnt actually understand. But the next day the joke was on me, as a wave of either the stomach flu or unweathered food poisoning paralyzed me for 24 hours. Yannis catered on me hand and foot, skipping lessons to forcefeed me soup for lunch, and thankfully it passed by the following day.
When Yannis arrived home every evening from physics tutoring, we drove around on his motorcycle to the ports, the beaches, look out points and the famous Knossos archeological site. Knossos is one of the largest Bronze age cities discovered, and perhaps the oldest European city ever found. It is the site of a Minoan civilization palace, supposed location of the infamous Labyrinth and half-man-half-bull minotaur, that has been inhabited since Neolithic times (7000BC).
With Yannis’ help, I learned to read Greek on my first day, which proved really helpful for understanding all sorts of signage. However, being able to read Greek didnt help me understand what I was saying, and it just seemed to confuse Greek people that I spoke only some words in Greek but didnt understand a word they said. He taught me to count to ten and all the important phrases I needed to know, including the “christos anesti” greeting I had to give to each and every one of his family members for easter. We roadtripped south to the hippy town of Matala, and along all the country roads was the appetizing smell of olives in the air. Little church shrines lined the road, where a life lost in a car accident would get a miniature church built for them instead of just a temporary cross or bouqet of flowers. We ran into a herd of mounted stallions on the way to Zaros, who were meant to escort the relocation of a sacred item from one church to another. I went with his bestfriend to the north coast of Crete to visit his summer house and aunties vacation apartments, and visited another friend of his working at a movie theatre for popcorn and raki shots behind the counter.
It was only 5 days I spent in Crete, with one bed ridden day, but I felt like I had been there weeks with an old friend. I atleast knew I could have stayed weeks more, but Santorini started calling and I finally, regretfully, had to leave Yannis’ clutches of hospitality.
To the revolutionary leader and writer Yannis Makriyannis , klephts and armatoloi—being the only available major military force on the side of the Greeks—played such a crucial role in the Greek revolution that he referred to them as the “yeast of liberty”.