The politicians were out in force on Oxi Day. A parade in quake stricken Arkalochori in the center of Heraklion Prefecture was the latest photo op here on Crete. It’s a good thing they showed up in one of Crete’s most famous towns. So many voters have friends, family, and/or homes there. Such places demand the full attention of political parties. But, just off camera there is big danger buried in the rubble beneath Arkalochori and other Crete villages, something that is lost in the political machinations the people of Crete see going on.
The Shocking Quake Aftermath
As uplifting as the festivities in famous Arkalochori were, down an ancient road, through a fertile river valley that leads north toward a ruined Minoan Palace, the tiny village of Houmeri could not see the flags waving. In this little hamlet the people who remain there amidst the rubble were not uplifted by the music, the marching, and the speeches. In Arkalochori, Kastelli, and Thrapsano citizens displayed their courage in the face of despair and quake destruction, the Oxi Day events were nice, uplifting, proper. But as I walked the narrow deserted streets of first Houmeri, and later Galatas, I could not help but ponder those peoples’ fates.
Arkalochori will be back, better than new, I have no doubt. We have many friends there, and with the help of their families, and money the politicians must funnel there, the suffering will not go on forever. Cretans are resilient, and with even a modicum of help, life will be back to normal pretty soon. And of course, the politicians will make the most of the situation, as always. But the ancient little places dotting this ancient landscape may suffer and just die. I was clued to this when a reporter from Athens called me to ask about getting to Arkalochori to report on quake damage there. After that call, a friend in one of the villages told me all the reporters just sped through Galatas, Houmeri, and even past the famous Agia Marina monastery, to get to where the prime minister and other officials were showing up.
Some days later, I was headed to Arkalochori to report, actually, when something told me to revisit the little villages I’d written about many times before (an eagle – don’t ask). The road to Houmeri, you see, was my first trail of breadcrumbs leading to a lost Minoan Palace I was keen to discover, years ago. What a tranquil, beautiful little valley it is, the old way of reaching Arkalochori from Heraklion. And Houmeri, which sits smack in the middle of it, is a place you’ll miss if you drive too fast. I almost drove past yesterday, until I caught sight of the tents and the ruined buildings. Shock registered. “It’s ruined,” I uttered out loud, several times. Instinctively, I glanced over my shoulder at the high cliff overlooking all the pediada, and wondered about Galatas village.
Are the Gods Angry Again?
Thousands of years ago, the same earthquake faults shook a monumental temple to the ground where the ruins of Galatas now sit. One can see the giant boulders that cascaded down the mountainside today, and imagine those people’s world coming to an end. And at Houmeri, the lovely little lives that decorated this hillside, lost everything they had. Wild roses, blooming flower pots, colorful decorations and fascinating little windy streets are in pieces there.
I stood for a few minutes to watch a lone villager doggedly working on the carnage that is now his front yard. The significance of his effort only hit me, when I saw no one else as I walked the lonely paths of the town. Instinct told me to go and speak with the villagers milling around a couple of tents that had been set up. But to be honest, I could not intrude on them. Photos and stories are great, but dignity is greater. I had to leave, I couldn’t take it. So, I pointed my car back up the road toward the cutoff to Galatas, which sits up on the hilltops overlooking the so-called Minoan Pediada.
Meanwhile, in Arkalochori the Mayor of Minoa Pediada, Manolis Fraggakis spoke, Crete’s Governor Stavros Arnaoutakis was on hand, as were opposing party figures like Heraklion MP Nikos Igoumenidis. The leadership could be heard chanting “Arkalochori will live!” Mostly because half the people of Heraklion have relatives there. What else would the vote getters of Crete be cheering?
Why, even Minister for Climate Crisis and Civil Protection, Christos Stylianidis, who was interviewed in Chania, took a moment to remind everyone he had visited Arkalochori not once, but twice since the devastating earthquakes. I know the reader will excuse me for being critical of Greeks with no formal public relations training. What a stupid comment. In this circus paid for with the pain of real villagers, even the clergy seemed brain muddled by the enormity of the situation. His Eminence, the Metropolitan Bishop of Arkalochori, Kastelli and Viannos was quoted talking about the need for Arkalochori to be back to normal because of the new airport? How could this be? I’ve met the bishop on several occasions, he’s a man of God. Surely airport projects and restoring villages are not so eminently connected?
Hope Shaken to Bits
There with me, in my car headed up the windy road to Galatas, where many of my friends lived before the earthquake, I was apprehensive as to what I would find on reaching the hilltop. The yellow markers on the road, which I assumed markey distances from the epicenter of the big quake, added a strange eeriness. And sure enough, the first stone house supported my fears. The old part of Galatas is no more. The most beautiful part of the village, the old part residents hoped would one day be restored, is mostly on the ground.
The newer buildings of the upper part are at least still standing, but I was told only three houses in the town are marked “green” for habitable. “What a shame,” I said over, and over, as I walked underneath the remaining bulging walls of houses that were once grand. Galatas, at least the old part, is too dangerous not to even walk through. A stone from the second floor almost cracked my head, as I tried to slide between the quake rubble on the narrow streets. What a shame, what a sad thing. Then I walked toward my friend’s taverna, already closed from the coronavirus situation.
On the way back toward the church I came cross to eldely ladies sitting on a front terrace marked with the big yellow “x” by engineers. They remembered me from past visits, and told me my friend Markos Ladomenos had moved out of the village since the quakes. The amazing traditional Cretan taverna To Mourelo, which was run by my friend Chef Grigoris Koudounas, was already closed on account of the coronavirus pandemic. But seeing the sign taken down and the cracks and the warning signs painted on it brought home the reality of Galatas, Houmeri, and a dozen villages like them.
Most of the people of these places were the elderly holdouts anyhow. This means their returning to the quaint lifestyle is pretty slim indeed. To Mourelo, you see, was really the only concern going in Galatas anyhow. Chances are, the death of this semi-famous place, spells the end for a town older than written history. So, Nikos Igoumenidis’ press release in my inbox might convey a sentiment Arkalochori residents can take heart from: “Today’s parade in Arkalochori sends a message of resistance, hope and optimism.”
But, in Houmeri, and ancient Galatas it seems there are few left clinging to such high hopes. My friend Grigoris is already in Kavala. Markos, I think, is somewhere here in Heraklion, and God only knows where the Colonel and my other friends there have gone. I will inquire shortly.
The point is, Crete cannot allow these villages to die. As crucial as it is to rebuild Arkalochori, it is as important to resituate and even fortify the people who held on to these traditional places so vehemently. What Galatas, Houmeri, and other Minoan Pediada small towns become, is a harbinger of what’s ahead for all of Crete and Greece. Once we allow the tiniest traditional place to disappear, the thing that makes this island so special will rapidly vanish. Politicians, as we all know, have one interest, and one interest only. That’s to position themselves to best be reelected. There is, after all, a bigger scheme of things.
The people of quake stricken Arkalochori, and other such places, must leverage the public eye not only for themselves, but for their neighbors, as well. For now, all I can wish for my friends in the shadow of that Minoan Palace is, a miracle or a billionaire benefactor. Because the officials will prioritize not based on utter need, but on the potential for staying in office. Trust me, if Heraklion or Malia were hit by a devastating quake, no village on this island would get a second nod. It’s time all the people and dreams were represented. Greece is, after all, supposed to be a democracy. One for all, and all for one! Oh wait, that’s the Three Musketeers.