For Khaled Al-Afrangi, bringing pupils from his Palestine Equestrian Club to Europe for the first time is super important. His initiative is also essential where Crete island’s efforts to extend the touristic season are concerned. But tourism strategies have very little to do with this entrepreneur’s initiative.
Last week I spent some time with Khaled at the Riding Academy of Crete in Karteros. Of course, I was curious how Palestine Riding Club decided on Crete as a first-ever Europe destination. I must say, I was surprised when the club’s director told me he discovered Marianna Grammatikaki’s equestrian academy via social media. He tells us he was impressed by Grammatikaki’s students and her reputation. But that’s not all he is looking for.
“We’re looking for a home away from home,” he tells me. “I want to show my students experiences, places, and people they can take with them throughout life,” to paraphrase him. This statement made me curious, especially since I had not previously considered equestrian sport a conduit between nations and cultures. Why I did not, I am not quite sure. I do know it’s an honor for Crete to be, once again, the doorstep of European culture. I won’t delve into archaeology and Minoan/Keftiu connections to the near east, but Palestinians returning to Crete is a fascinating story.
Anyhow, my curiosity led me to search for Khaled’s website or social media presence to find out more. When I scanned the Facebook page, I quickly realized a parallel between what he is trying to achieve outside the tiny Palestinian village of Qalandiya and Grammatikaki’s efforts at Karteros Beach here on Crete.
Both of these people are teachers at heart, and horse lovers, of course. Both equestrians are interested in higher-level competition. They’re also focused on equestrian sport as an aid for the disabled and so-called Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT).
For my part, I’ve been reporting on Gramatikaki’s proteges Michalis Kalarakis and Dimitra Eleni Pantechaki, qualifying for the 2022 FEI World Equestrian Games for some days now. Two Greek riders competing in Para-dressage at that level for the first time is a big deal for Greeks.
Grammatikaki (at left), who is hosting the Palestine Equestrian Club all this week, is on a mission to help establish a Greek team in the discipline and to expand the possibilities for others who would benefit from so-called “horse therapy.” Now, this fortuitous linkup with amazing athletes from Palestine… Well, it seems like the timing is just right.
Crete’s Governor Stavros Arnautaki just approved funding for transforming the abandoned ski lodge on Mt. Psiloritis into a retreat and information hub for nature enthusiasts. Greece’s Deputy Ministry of Sports, Lefteris Avgenakis, has been instrumental in creating the Karteros Beach Sports Complex not far from the riding academy, where the world just competed in beach handball.
Also, Greece’s Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias told MEGA TV back in May:
“Our aim is to extend the tourism model in all destinations, we wish to have tourists, something that is translated into income for the middle-class Greek family, until November and December.”
So far, Kikilias’ efforts have succeeded with the second half of 2022 numbers, as reported by The National Herald. And this is without the potential of equestrian events, therapy programs, trail and beach rides, and packages aimed at luring horse people to Crete and other destinations. But, if I may be so bold, this is the potential I see. And I believe Grammatikaki envisions this too.
So far, no well-functioning network extends past local groups, especially here on Crete. Nevertheless, there are equestrian and other riding possibilities all over Crete, and many have yet to be exploited. I know of stables high up in the Asterousia biosphere, experiences made for riders for therapy or adventure. Grammatikaki leads excursions in rugged Karteros Canyon if I am not mistaken.
There are many possibilities like Lassithi Plateau, the Anapodaris River, Chania adventures in the far west, and limitless possibilities in Crete wild east. What a group of talented kids from Palestine is enjoying this week is something many, many more people can benefit from. And that’s what I call a win-win for riders and Crete island.