Monday, 8 February 2016

Running Up That Hill

Back in November, on our last day staying at Ierapetra with our good friends Tim and Sylvia, Sylvia was to run a half-marathon up in the hills above the village of Amiras, about twenty minutes west of Ierapetra. All through the week of our stay, Sylvia had been eating and drinking according to a strict dietary regime in preparation for the run, which was to be only 3km on tarmac and the rest on rough mountain terrain, much it very steep and some of it forested.

Runners were coming from all over Crete for the event, which was due to start mid-morning and finish around 1.00pm, when the runners would finally hit the tarmac for the last few kilometres downhill to the finish, which was situated at a wonderful beauty spot way up high in the mountains, with a breathtaking view of sweeping, rolling hillsides right down to the shimmering sea.

While Sylvia set off early, the rest of us, along with another couple, friends of our hosts, set off at around 12.30pm to arrive just in time for the big finish. Of course, when we got there we were told that the finish would be around 2.30pm owing to the fact that a coach-load of runners from Chania had been held up and was very late arriving, thus delaying the start of the run.

There was nothing for it but to retire to the Seli restaurant/bar that's perched on a very steep mountainside just fifty metres or so up the road from the finishing point.

View from the section of the café that's perched in the air above the view (see first photo)

View back down to the start/finish, which is actually the site of a poignant war memorial
It was in this restaurant that the post-run celebratory meal was to be held, in which all runners would be served up a bowl of goat-meat stew with bread and a free drink. Those of us 'hangers-on' could also eat if we knew who to talk to. Sylvia got us in. Problem was, as vegetarians there was no non-meat option. Anyway, I'll return to the post-run event in a mo. 

The weather was a little changeable. It didn't look like rain and the sun was popping in and out for much of the time, but when it was behind the clouds the temperature could best be described as 'bracing'. It was one of those days when you had to keep taking off and putting on your jacket. You know what I mean I'm sure.

As the time for the big finish approached and the first couple of runners made it home, we emerged from the warmth of the bar's glassed-in terrace and strolled back down the slope to catch Sylvia'a arrival. It was only then that we noticed that the hilltop was in fact a kind of memorial.  On September 14th, 1943, in reprisal for many Greeks from the surrounding villages having supported the Cretan resistance against the Nazi occupiers, the "Butcher of Crete" - Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller ordered the execution of over 500 local men on this very spot. It was accompanied by the burning of their villages and the destruction of their harvests. The memorial that now stands on the exact spot made a deep impression on me with its poignancy and stark beauty. In fact, the place is such a wonderful viewpoint that it was a grotesque and desperately sad feeling that crept over me as I regarded the stone figures and the inscriptions that now stand on such a naturally beautiful spot...

Maybe it's me, but I felt I could hear the gunshots as I stood here. At such a glorious viewpoint it seemed all the more heinous what went on here.

It was probably a good thing that I didn't have long to contemplate, because the runners soon began returning thick and fast and Sylvia was an early returnee, coming third in her class. There soon followed a round of photo-opportunities and presentations, during which the announcer made a mistake in naming the fourth girl in Sylvia's class as having come third. When the mistake was pointed out, rather than embarrass the other girl, our Sylvia insisted that she stay on the podium with her anyway. She's that kind of girl is Sylvia.

Apparently, this little fella always does the runs with his master. Quite a feat with such short legs, eh?

Once all the ceremony was finally done and dusted, everyone retired to the restaurant terrace for the post-run knees-up. The only problem now was, it was much later than had been originally intended and the weather was deteriorating, plunging the temperature from cool to kneecap-knocking level.

Before long we found ourselves amidst the horde of runners and a few other hangers-on and what perked us up no end was the sight of a dance floor and band equipment. This might just turn out to be the kind of afternoon my better half loves. Once we'd all got settled and the food was being handed around, we had to order our own from the restaurant, because, as I mentioned earlier, the runner's fare was goat soup and rice or nothing. There were, however a lot of bottles of what I thought was water all lined up on the counter and so I grabbed a couple of those, since by the time we'd got to this stage we were well parched. All that standing around while others ran up and down a mountain leaves you dry.

Some of the band tune up. Note, still sunny at this point.

No go on, admit it, you would think that was water, wouldn't you?
Reaching my seat and once more precariously lowering my "padded area" into my seat whilst trying not to nudge anyone else's elbow as they vigorously spooned the goat soup into their mouths, I cracked the top of one of the two bottles I'd procured from the worktop and took a long deep guzzle. 

Aaaaaaaargh!! What I thought was water was actually Raki. RAKI! I mean, just what a runner needs after running 20k right? Have you ever sipped this stuff, leave along gulped down an eggcup-ful? I was stressed. I've always wondered how those folk who eat fire feel when they're doing their thing.

So, by the time just about every one of the probably 300 souls including runners, marshalls, para-medics and hangers on like us had all got ourselves fed and seated, the band and dancers started up. For the first fifteen minutes or so everything looked promising and my better half was already up on her feet and clapping near the edge of the dance floor, itching for her chance to have a go. Mind you, as experts will know, Cretan dances are subtly different from the rest of Greece, so it would have been interesting seeing just how well she'd have been able to integrate. She never got a chance anyway.

As I mentioned earlier, the whole event was really late getting started owing to the coach-load of runners from Chania arriving late, so this post-run shindig was also getting started much later than planned. They'd really spent some time getting the band and dancers organised and set up and for the first few numbers they did well, got the usual whistles and cheers from the assembled throng and held out the hope that the whole affair could turn into a really good knees-up. The only trouble was, most of the terrace only had a kind of pergola-type roof over it. The only area which was truly weather proof was the dance floor area. Pretty soon the clouds gathered, darkened and the rain began to fall, thus producing a mass exodus from the place to the gathered throng of vehicles parked all along the road outside.

By the time the band and dancers were on their fourth or fifth number, they were entertaining a couple of dozen, and even that number was dwindling. So, what had held the potential to be a really good craic, ended up a damp squib.

Never mind, at least I was able to snap these photos below before we too, after deciding that running the risk of hypothermia wasn't all that much fun, headed for the exit and the band began packing up. In fact, for the last half an hour or so that we braved it out, primarily to finish the food we'd ordered, we were vigorously taking slugs from the numerous part-finished raki bottles that were liberally scattered about the place, loads of them in fact lining the now abandoned trestle table-tops. It was a surefire way of battling the cold. As we finally too gave up any idea of seeing it through to the end, we rose and made our way to the exit, my friend Tim grabbing as many of the Raki bottles as he could to accompany us on our drive home. By the time we reached his car he had plastic bottles tumbling this way and that from his pockets and folded arms, but he sure wasn't going to see any more of that stuff wasted than was absolutely necessary. Apparently, he actually likes it. No accounting for taste is there?

So, here are the few shots I got of the band and dancers while things were still looking likely...

Notice - not a Bouzouki in sight. This is Crete!

You can see my dearly beloved on the left in this one, clapping her encouragement from the sidelines.

All in all then, not a complete failure. Sylvia had come third in the half-marathon, we'd seen a pretty good, if somewhat shortened, exhibition of Cretan dance and music and Tim had a year's supply of Raki to be going on with.

To be honest though, the lasting mental picture I carry of that most beautiful of locations, is that of those stone figures depicting those poor locals who were gunned down in 1943. 


  1. Fabulous post! If it wasn't the Chania coach that made the event start late it would have been something else, theme the rules in Crete. Still laughing at your bottle of 'water', the only thing worse than that is when you're served a raki and they pick up the water instead. I know that memorial and it stirred similar emotions. X

  2. Hope you managed to catch 'Greece with Simon Reeve' BBC 2 aired on Sunday, it was excellent viewing.

  3. Congratulations to your friend in the marathon. Re. the memorial, every time we travel down from Chania to the south of the island ,through the mountains, along the route of "The Cretan Runner"(what a wonderful book) who helped to save so many lives during the war, i always think about how brave and dedicated these men were. I don't know if you got as far south as Preveli, but there is a majestic monastery there which served as a hideout for the English airmen and a very impressive Monument to the fallen heroes? well worth the long walk!!!
    Phew, feeling quite emotional now, think i'll have a raki with my porridge oats!!!! Best regards

    1. Raki with porridge? Don't tell any Scottish persons!! Wrong kind of spirit!!