Mediterranean Jaunt – Part II: Crete

Friday 24 May: Roger

We departed the Elysium hotel at 0645 for the 90-plus minute journey on the well travelled A3 to the Larnaka airport. After dropping off the rental car we headed through immigration and security before boarding our 1.55 hr flight to Athens. The crew on Aegean air have nice uniforms and are well presented and helpful. A short stopover in Athens and we boarded an A320 200 for Crete. These planes are a bit like the Boeing Max and have been extended to take up to 200 plus people. Unlike Boeing none have fallen out of the sky yet.

Landing at Heraklion airport we picked up a rental car from Alamo. It is an Opel, so bad to drive it only equals a Citroen . GM really lost the plot on this one.

We set off around the coast for what was a slow 2-hour drive, but with some nice scenery to be observed along the way. After battling a few one-way streets we found the Chainia Flair Hotel, parking outside on a one way street – the wrong way with Sylvia pointing out this is one way street and me “I am only going one way”. The hotel staff were not in the least concerned, “don’t  worry we will sort the car”. Google maps had let us down again.

After checking in with a glass of bubbles we headed up to the room and then to dinner. The menu was, to say the least, outstanding finished off by the dessert course that included an ‘apple pie’ in the shape of a green apple.

 

The restaurant had a great view to the west so as we dined the sun set, leaving an orange glow over the peninsula to our east.

 

Saturday 25 May: Sylvia

We were met at 8:30 this morning, (after a lovely breakfast in the downstairs restaurant) by our guide and driver for the day, Apostolis. We had arranged to spend the day with him learning more about the Battle of Crete. Roger is always interested in military history and the uncle of my step-Mum was killed here, so I had a real interest in coming to learn more and to pay my respects, to him and to all the soldiers who served, and who lost their lives here.

On May 20, 1941 Nazi Germany launched an airborne invasion of Crete. Allied forces, including many New Zealanders attempted to defend the island, well-supported by the local Cretans, much to the surprise of the Germans, who were expecting the Cretans to welcome them. About 10,000 airborne troops landed on Crete that day – many were killed before they even landed. Despite fierce resistance by 27 May the Allies were ordered to retreat. About 4,500 Germans and 1751 Allied troops, including 671 New Zealanders, were killed in the battle, and about 12,000 Commonwealth troops were taken prisoner.

Our first stop was the Tavronitis Bridge, very close to the Maleme airport and Hill 107, where a lot of the action happened on the first day. Apostolis had many photos from the battle and encouraged us to stand in the exact spots depicted in the photos. The bridge carries many battle scars. A German bunker was later built at the end of the bridge.

We stopped briefly at the RAF memorial, very close to the airport. Like all the other memorials we visited today there were wreaths laid and preparations being made for commemorative services in the next day or two.

Our next stop was the German war cemetery and museum. I was really impressed by the care taken with the language used to express what happened. “The war of aggression of National Socialist Germany led to a multitude of unprecedented crimes against the civilian population in Crete. In addition to ordinary soldiers, war criminals are also buried on his war gravesite…” “…the Maleme War Cemetery is a place of grieving for all victims of war and violence on the island. It is a call to peace, and a place of reflection and contemplation.”  “There can be no generalised attributions of blame: Most who fought did so in the belief that they were doing their National duty. Many were culpable. Others had no choice. A few resisted.”

The cemetery itself was well-tended and very peaceful with views out across the Maleme airfield. Row upon row of gravestones, each marking the burial plot for 2-4 soldiers are laid out on the hillside.

Just outside the cemetery stand groves of olive trees, all planted in neat rows. We had seen many of these from the car yesterday. Some even have a form of irrigation with hoses strung between the trees.

Next we visited the Museum of World War II in Platanias. This museum is in a shelter that was built by forced labour for the Germans shortly after the war began. It is a 200m long tunnel with ten booths, a shelter entrance and two exits. It was used as an ammunition store and also connected to a watch tower at the top of the hill. Today it houses many relics and mementos from the war. I had a good chat with the man who runs the museum. I had read the book Ned and Katina, by Patricia Grace, in advance of visiting Crete. It was recommended to me by one of Ned’s relatives and tells the story of his time in Crete as part of the 28th Maori battalion. He missed the evacuation and ended up hiding out in Crete, supported by many of the locals for several years before his eventual capture. During that time he met, and fell in love with Katina, a local Cretan woman. After the war, he was given special dispensation to marry her and they returned to live in NZ. It is a great read! Ned, and in general the New Zealanders were very well regarded by the Cretans. The gentleman I was speaking with had met recently with one of Ned and Katina’s sons and was extremely moved. A Vickers 3.7 inch anti-aircraft gun stands just outside the museum.

Our next stop was the memorial at Galatas. The 28th Maori Battalion were in and around Platanias and Galatas on May 23rd, the day my step-Mum’s uncle was killed. We also stopped at the 42nd Street memorial, the site of some heroic actions by the Allied forces, delaying the German advance to enable the evacuation to take place.

Our last stop for the tour was the Allied War Cemetery in Souda. This is a beautiful cemetery right next to the beach. The graves are beautifully laid out and marked. Many, many headstones mark the remains of unknown soldiers, some where even the country represented is unknown. I left a poppy on one of the unknown New Zealand soldier’s graves in special remembrance of Richard Teri Kaipara Mason. It was a privilege to be able to represent his family and do something small to honour him and the sacrifice he made.

Our tour over, Apostolis dropped us in the centre of Chania. We took his advice and found a great restaurant on one of the back streets, where we enjoyed a late lunch before wandering down to the harbour and back to the hotel for the evening.

 

Sunday 26 May 2024: Roger

We woke to a rainy day and a Greek war ship cruising past the town.

After a late breakfast we headed west about 40kms along the main road then turned south into the hills following roughly the route the Commonwealth forces took to the south side of the island to be evacuated to Egypt. Of the 32,000 fighting here only 18,600 were evacuated, the rest remained on the island many as POWs.

After heading up some switchback roads we crossed over a pass and headed down into a valley and the town of Askyfou where a rather unique museum is located. We were greeted by the grand daughter of the founder. The great grand father fought the Germans as a Cretan partisan during the occupation; his son, at 10 years old, started the collection by digging stuff up that was left behind; his son now runs the museum,  and guided us with total passion. In spite of of him not speaking English we got the gist of what he was saying. From the 88mm gun barrel of a German tank, the prop of a Stuka to a dentists toolset, this place has it all and was well worth the visit.

We decided to push on south to the coast, the road heading down a rugged valley with the steep Imbros gorge the troops evacuated through on our left. We stopped at the Panorama Cafe, which, at about 700m, along with a display of rusty Enfield rifles, had a great view into the gorge. The owner told us how he had collected these and other memorabilia in the gorge when still a child.

We continued down a steep switchback road to the coast. Interestingly every road sign had bullet holes in it, ranging from .22 caliber, shot gun slugs, pellets and large caliber rifle rounds. Gun ownership is very high here and military service is compulsory. As our guide said yesterday “Greece is not surrounded by nice neighbours”.

We headed west along the coast to the nice little village of Sfakion, with lots of restaurants and a ferry terminal. Deciding to find a different way home we then headed east along the coast to Patsianos, where we followed a narrow sealed road heading up the hill in the direction we wanted to go. It was quite narrow in places and a bit of concentration was required when meeting oncoming cars, particularly on corners, of which there were many. The road climbed 700m over a horizontal distance of 1800m.

It turned out to be a really interesting drive giving us a good appreciation of the landscape that hid many of the left behind kiwi soldiers, some for the duration of the war.

On arrival back at the hotel we headed down to the beachfront for a meal and to observe the goings on of the many people lying on the many beach chairs.

In the early evening we drove out to to the Maleme Military Airport where the Red Arrows were supposed to be putting on a demo as part of the 83rd Crete invasion anniversary. A crowd of over a thousand had gathered around the Memorial and some old fighter jets on display. After many speeches from the local military commander to the local council rep an F16 arrived and put on a demo including steep climbs, loops, barrel roles, upside-down flying, counter- missile flare drops, and  finishing off with a slow fly past, before putting the pedal to the metal and disappearing.

 

Monday 28 May: Sylvia

A typical travel day today… lots of hurry up and wait. We left the hotel in Chania at 07:30 for the ~2 hour drive to Heraklion airport. The drive was easy, along the main highway of Crete – mostly single lane. The drivers here tend to pull well to the left if they are slow and people will pass even on double lines. It didn’t take Roger long to get the hang of Cretan driving! The road follows the coast on one side and gorges come down from the mountains on the other so it is reasonably picturesque.

Heraklion airport is one of the, if not the, most chaotic places I have ever flown in or out of. After a short delay we took off for the short ~35 min flight to Athens. I am impressed that Aegean Air manages to serve a light meal and hot drinks on such a short flight.

More chaos and a short wait at Athens before we boarded the next ~2:15 flight to Bologna. I am extremely glad that we forked out for business class seats for all these short flights as we had decided to travel with carry on luggage only and they were assiduously weighing the luggage of everyone in economy. Phew!

We were very happy to get an Audi A3 as our rental vehicle in Bologna after having a very unstable Opel Cross lander with very bad suspension in Crete. After dealing with the expected Italian ‘efficiency’ and rental paperwork we headed west on a large multi-lane highway, through a fairly flat agricultural area. Based on the number of trucks on the roads this must be one of the main routes for transporting goods through Italy. Eventually we turned south and continued on a much quieter highway still with agricultural land on either side but now with mountains in the distance. We wound our way through the mountains and eventually arrived in the delightful town of Manarola.

We have a lovely room here at La Torretta, with a fantastic view over the town from the terrace. It was nearly 8pm by the time we arrived – we just had time to wander down the hill and back, and for Roger to enjoy a cigar and a glass of wine on the terrace before retiring for the night. Looking forward to exploring tomorrow.

7 thoughts on “Mediterranean Jaunt – Part II: Crete

  1. Stan Schwalger says:

    moving kiwi history of our boy in Crete; we are forever grateful

  2. Melissa says:

    Trust that you both are keeping well. Thank you for bringing me to Crete through your sharing of your interesting trip experiences and spectacular pictures. Love it!

  3. Jo-Anne Hitchcock says:

    Manarola! We stayed there 10 years ago and had the best seafood meal.
    Crete sounds fascinating

  4. Manolis Manioudakis says:

    Was really nice to meet both of you….
    Our pleasure to have guests like you in our hotel!
    All the best & safe travels !!

  5. Lou says:

    Thanks for a very moving and personal account of such an interesting part of Greece.

    Must remember that line “I am only going one way…”

  6. Trevor says:

    Thanks for sharing your tour and have a great birthday Roger

  7. Rosie says:

    Thank you again you two for such a full story and photos of Crete. We don’t feel quite so bad about missing out on going there last year when we were in Greece. We really appreciate your tribute to Richard Mason. It has given Lardy some kind of closure for his family and she will remember your kindness for ever. Xxx
    Amazing culinary offerings – not sure what you were eating but it was beautifully presented. The apple pie was impressive.

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