I used to hang out at an open-air bar in downtown Athens. In 1976 the place was a travelers’ gathering point, a spot where people would gather in the warm summer evenings to swap tales tall and short about life on the road. One fine ouzo-soaked night I had the great good fortune to meet a couple from Quebec. Steve was from Sherbrooke, next door to Lennoxville where I grew up, and Renée came from Princeville, a town I’d never visited.
We celebrated our luck in meeting each other for a few nights, visited sites around Athens together, and then decided to make for the island of Crete and the village of Matala. This was supposed to be a great hippie hang-out, and Joni Mitchell had even written a song about life there, Carey.
1) Steve and I at the Parthenon. Photo by Renée
I had never heard of Matala and imagined the town to be an unspoiled and remote mecca. Of course I was a few years too late and our small party of adventurers was probably the eight millionth to arrive there in search of paradise. But still, the town and its environs held a number of charms.
First, however, we had to get there. From Athens we hopped a commuter train to the port city of Piraeus, where we boarded a decrepit old tramp ferry for the overnight sea journey to Crete. The boat was a rust bucket in the classic sense of the expression. We booked passage on deck and as such we sat with innumerable Greeks and other tourists for the ride.
During the night we sailed into a massive gale. Waves of twenty-five feet and higher crashed into the bow of the ship, which shook with each collision and threatened to break apart. Most of the passengers became terminally seasick and the interior of the vessel was awash in vomit. I remember stepping outside to get some fresh air and watching as the great combers sloshed over the railing. Unbroken seas flowed from forward to aft. A seaman noticed me clinging for dear life and told me to get back inside. I took his advice and returned to the safer if smellier indoors.
But the old tub made it through the night and we docked the next morning in Heraklion, Crete’s biggest city and chief port.
2) Coming into Heraklion: photo by Ken Herring
We elected to forgo its pleasures and found to the south of the island. Soon we were in Matala.
The village had an enviable perch in a small bay, framed by cliffs that were honeycombed with ancient caves. In more pristine times hippies had made these caves into semi-permanent homes, and we heard rumors that Joni Mitchell had carved her name in one of them, but we never did locate that particular place. After checking a few of the grottos and being repelled by the odors of far too many transient occupants we decided to camp on the beach.
3) Our campsite
Matala’s setting was worth the trouble we underwent to get there. The village dangled above a gorgeous beach and its main attractions seemed to be ocean-view bars and cafés. Every alcoholic misfit in Western Europe had made it a life goal to spend time here; thirsty tourists and hippies dominated the scene.
Sunsets were a treat. So was the ouzo.
4) Sunrise at Matala beach
One one occasion, while nursing a beer or five on the beach, I was startled to see the wake of a large marine animal following the shoreline. Whatever the critter was, it must have been twenty feet or so long. But the wildlife didn’t prevent us from swimming. Here the Mediterranean was pristine, warm, and clear. Another day when the surf was high I dove in and swam through the shorebreak, only to discover that the current would not allow me to return to shore. Fighting the urge to panic, I waited and surfed in a huge wave that deposited me like a sack of potatoes in the sand.
Although the beach in town required modest attire, nude beaches in the hinterlands abounded and we used to hike to remote coves and bays to frolic au naturel with the various friends we made. Nights were spent quaffing huge amounts of alcohol in the bars.
4) Renée with bar owner – plenty of scratchy rock n roll
But all good things sooner or later run their course and I finally realized that in order to preserve my liver for future good times I would have to leave. Three weeks passed in a blur and then it was back to Athens, this time in a more seaworthy vessel. I soon left Europe behind altogether and traveled to the East.
POST SCRIPT: Eight months later I returned to Athens from Egypt. My first thought was to find the street bar where the trip first began. But in the late winter season a cold rain washed the paving stones where once tables and chairs had covered the plaza. Of travelers and revelry there was no sign. It was as if my time in Greece had been a flash and a dream. I wondered if my memories were real and if still the wind was in from Africa.
Photos by Steve Routhier unless noted