The Changing Face of Crete

By Fryer, Paul | Contemporary Review, August 1997 | Go to article overview

The Changing Face of Crete

Fryer, Paul, Contemporary Review

The thousands of British tourists revisiting Crete this month will see many changes since earlier trips. Crete has changed over the last twenty or so years; as places and people must. Some of that change has been for the good, much for the bad, but all has been virtually. unavoidable. It is easy to see how much, just by looking at a map: what were once cartographic dots are now squares, or maybe the black spread of linear developments.

Adventure holidays for the independent traveller have evolved into heavily packaged tours, pensions into hotels, tavernas into cosmopolitan restaurants. Crete has willingly invited in the twentieth century, for better or for worse.

The north-eastern seaboard bears the loudest testimony to that change. The coastal highway passes through Iraklion, onto Hersonisos and Malia, through to Ayios Nikolaos, finally ending at Sitia; the only other larger population centre to the east of the island is Ierapetra, on the south coast. For twenty years, this route, through to Ierapetra, has been a focus for my travels.

Now a virtual non-stop ribbon development of hotels stretches along this highway. Long gone are the self-contained fishing villages like Koko Hania, or the small towns like Malia. Whitewashed concrete rules as settlements merge into each other, trailing the road, in particular, to Ayios Nikolaos.

Most journeys now begin with an airport. Iraklion, the major town on the island, used to have sole custody of this responsibility, but now a competitor has been established to the west of the island, serving Chania in particular.

Iraklion remains largely as it was twenty years ago, a strangely schizophrenic city. It appears impermeable to serious amendment, because only the individual can truly be changed. Iraklion metamorphoses as the years go by, never really changing, just conceding a little to every economic whim and fancy. It is not a tourist centre as such, not an industrial base, not a proper capital; rather, an unfinished bit of all three.

The harbour, overlooked by its Turkish fort, is beautiful, yachts and tankers and trawlers combined. Its culture stretches to an archaeological museum which is airlessly, claustrophobically breath-taking. Enormous, its very size swamps many of its exhibits, leaving it a strangely unsatisfactory experience. Apart from the bull's head libation vessels, the acrobat sculpture and the serpent goddess, few artefacts survive as definitive art, rather as archaeological tributes to restoration not creation.

At night, Iraklion becomes a different place; neon lit, the aimless bustle of daytime replaced by a new, more vibrant life. Around here was Dirty Alley, a row of tavernas down a narrow back street near the market, originally fashionable for its very dirtiness, its 'authenticity'. The tables on the street are covered with easy-wipe checked tablecloths, each telling a story of the people it had known. It was for anyone who had heard of Montmartre and the Plaka; it offered bohemian vices at an easy price. Today, the area around Platia Venizelou is still full of tourist bars and restaurants, but without that same sense of an idiosyncratic place. Now they could be anywhere, rather than not being in Montmartre.

A few miles south of the city lies Knossos, once home of the royal and ancient Minoan civilisation, now home to many badly burnt necks. The palace is undoubtedly amazing, imposingly indigestible just in the one trip. When I visited in the 1970s, I arrived on free entry day, my companions saving 50 drachmas each in the process; then a mere student, I only saved five.

Whilst Evans' reconstruction may be unchanging except for the increasing patter of feet, the economic status of the drachma has a more fluid life of its own. Now there will be no change outside of 1000 drachma for ordinary citizens to enter; even students have to pay half that.

Knossos must have been once so full of life that it is shameful to see it now completely devoid of it. …

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