A Cretan odyssey.

Dad was in, so was Mum.  I’ll come too, I agreed, after the email was sent to Dad’s sister Janet and her husband Lachie, along with another friend Dougie and his brother Norm, their wives Jule and Joy – they wanted to walk in the steps of their uncle Doug.  Jo and Paddy were on their way from Perth to a sixtieth in Rome – Crete wasn’t too far out of the way, Steena and James live in London, they also thought it was a good idea, as did cousin Sophie who would be in London at the time, and another dear friend of the family Julie, she was also in and then there was Russell, he’d be driving around Italy at the same time, he was keen too.

With a shared interest in botany, literature and history, suddenly we were a team of 16 on the island of Crete staying at the Hotel Doma.  Each morning we’d arrive one by one to the most heavenly of breakfast rooms with cedar chairs bound in raffia complimented by jars of homemade marmalade adorning each table laden with the whitest of linen cloths.

At Doma, if you’d slammed the loo door shut you’d almost expect to see graffiti reading ‘Truman was here’ or ‘Paddy L-F lives,’ or perhaps ‘Ernest H, ‘57’.

It’s just that type of place.

Each morning after breakfast, I’d take the last sips of my coffee down to the garden where I’d find Ioanna weeding pots of geraniums in her dressing gown.

As I wrote last week, the Doma Hotel was built in the late 19th century and overlooks the Bay of Chania.  The hotel started its life as the Austro Hungarian consulate before being purchased in 1933 by the grandmother of the present owners, Irene Valyrian and Ioanna Koutsoudaki.  In 1940, the British Consul took a shine to the property and persuaded the reluctant residents to move out, leaving most of the furniture behind.  The house was finally returned to its rightful owners in 1955, following the German occupation throughout the Battle of Crete in the 2nd World War.  To this day, Ioanna and her sister Irene run the hotel, both are well into their 80’s and it is hard to imagine them ever not being there.

Another final piece in the puzzle is Jim Carstairs, a second cousin of my grandmother (Dad and Janet’s mother), and great uncle to their cousin Sophie.  Jim died in Australia in 2007, but spent six months behind enemy lines in 1941, including four weeks at Patsos where at times he hid out in the same cave that was later occupied by famed English writer, Paddy Leigh Fermor and the kidnapped German General Kreipe, in 1944.  This tale has always rather fascinated me, but it wasn’t until we actually arrived and began our travels around the island, that I realised just how incredible the early 1940’s on Crete really were.

Jim wrote each and every detail of his endeavours on Crete in diaries, on slips of paper and also into the insides of cigarette packets, all of which were later built into the walls of a Cretan family home in fear that had they been found, they’d jeopardise the propaganda machine and overall efforts that are the reality of any war.

Historian Mike Sweet writes of Jim relating that, ‘after spending about four weeks at Patsos, by November he was told to move to a holding area close to the south coast. A key figure in arranging this was the famed resistance leader Kapetan Petrakogiorgis, based in the village of Magarikari, who controlled the area where the Amari Valley joins the Messara Plain.

It was this area that became the vital route, not only for Carstairs, but for scores of later evacuations and insertions of agents and supplies for the resistance, linking villages in the Amari with landing beaches on the coast.

In his diary, Carstairs relates details of how he conferred with the resistance leader, giving a unique insight into the workings of such relationships. This period was a fraught time for Carstairs, and his journal records how his leadership skills were sorely tested.

He faced enormous challenges. They began with leading more than 80 men safely from Patsos to Magarikari (a three-day trek), keeping them secure and fed when they arrived (for at least three weeks), and then making another, even more gruelling three-day trek to the coast.

The final leg involved crossing the Messara Plain, heavily-garrisoned by the Germans, and then up and over the towering Asteroussia mountains, to the isolated beach of Treis Ekklisies, 60km due south of Heraklion. This is where Carstairs’ Cretan odyssey reached its dramatic conclusion. In the dead of night on the 26/27 November, HMS Hedgehog embarked 90 passengers, almost all of which were the group Carstairs had led.

The nominal roll for the voyage to Alexandria identifies 28 Australians, 28 New Zealanders, 11 British, 11 Cypriot, four Greeks and eight others. One of the passengers was Evangelos Vandoulakis who Carstairs had smuggled on board’.

In Mike’s notes the part that struck me the most, was that it was Evangelos Vandoulakis who had cemented Jim’s war notes into the walls of his family home.

Shortly after the war Jim’s tattered notes were returned to him and following this, he typed a memoir of his incredible WW2 experience.  In 1991, Jim made the journey back to Crete where he rekindled friendships with the families and friends who had aided him in his Cretan exile.

Last Sunday, we ventured to Patsos and met the Harokopos family who are the second family in Jim’s story, and the same family who protected Paddy Leigh Fermor in his own Cretan odyssey.

George Harokopos was a school teacher in Patsos.  A proud man, and by no means wealthy, he owned a small house in the centre of town in the province of Rethymno.  When we arrived last week, his nephew, Vasillis led us straight to Jim and Paddy’s cave which has been widely documented in Paddy Leigh Fermor’s writing.  Later that evening George’s sister Maria (Vasillis’ mother) made us a delicious dinner to mirror what they fed Jim when he was hiding from the Germans in their attic just above the kitchen.  As the night drew to a close we enjoyed a highly necessary glass of raki straight from a 150 litre plastic barrel (no fine oak here) posititioned under that very attic. We made to toast to Jim before collapsing into beds decorated with a million stuffed teddy bears in two village homes, each belonging to Vasillis’ brother and cousin.

Even though George is no longer here, his sister and her son took us in for the night showing the same hospitality and kindness that both Jim and Paddy were recipients of over 70 years ago.

In the days leading into our pilgrimage in memory of Paddy and Jim, we also enjoyed meanders through Cretan gardens organised by my mother who has a Mediterranean thumb, after building her second garden in the harshest of climates on the south west coast of Australia.  These gardens and the people who have built them in earth so ancient, were a highlight as we took in sweeping views across land and sea brimming with history.

Our week on Crete was not an organised tour assembled by anyone in particular – rather a coming together of people with varying interests, brought together by friendships dating back many years.  As the youngest of the group, I have learned a lot from my Best Marigold Hotel experience and I will never forget the stifled laughter teamed with moments of sobriety and wisdom brought about by gruelling memories and the beauty found on an island that has survived the harshest of conditions in both a military and climatic sense.  The botany in Greece is beautiful, as are the people with so many stories to share.

I arrived with Mum and Dad, my aunt and uncle, and a handful of their very dear friends and I finish typing this on Corfu.  We have formed precious memories out of much laughter, lessons learned and overall the importance of camaraderie.

This is for Mum, Dad, Janet, Lachie, Julie, Soph, Dougie, Joy, Normie, Jule, Steena, James, Paddy, Jo and Russell.

For those in our convoy, I will say one last time – ‘where is Russell?’.

Pictured: the beautiful breakfast room at Hotel Doma.

3 thoughts on “A Cretan odyssey.

  1. The personal angle to the story with the retelling Cousin Jim’s war time experience is extraordinary. In a world tattered and torn, the kindness of strangers reminds us we are one…past, present and future.

  2. Pin this is a divine account of your Best Marigold experience in Crete with your team of assorted like-minded friends and family. Having travelled with you lot to France last year, I could hear the laughter and feel the wisdom and deep appreciation of what you were learning and seeing. All capped off by the beautiful Cretan gardens that Anna found for you to explore. The hospitality and warmth of your hosts was lovely to read about, echoing the kindness and courage shown by their forebears in the 1940s. What an odyssey – thanks for sharing! Lots love Margie xx

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