The geocoordinates were wrong, but it was alight. If not for a mistake by previous adventurers searching for the oldest olive trees on Earth, we’d have missed another unforgettable middle of marvelous nowhere Crete experience. The Monumental Olive Tree of Paliama indeed has magic.
We were lost in that magical way of exploration that always leads to the unexpected. We’d spent the morning in search of another ancient tree in the middle of nowhere Crete island and almost dreaded what backroad hazards awaited under the hot afternoon sun. Suddenly, Mihaela tapped my arm nervously, and I swerved the car over to a man and a teenage boy waiting tables at a tiny cafe at the edge of Moroni Village. “Signomi,” I said, gesturing to the surprised man talking with an elderly gentleman at a curbside table.
“We are looking for the giant olive tree,” registered absolute zero on the man’s rugged face, but his teenage son (Adonis) knew what we were after. He translates to his father, who immediately walked off. “My father says you should follow him; the road is not good,” the boy said with a crooked smile. Mihaela tugged hard at my sleeve, saying, “Oh my God, here we go!”
It will be helpful for the reader to understand since living here on Crete these last four years, there’s this constant. The loving pride in the bosom of every villager here, their perfect way of treating strangers, is an unfathomable legend newcomers are always astonished by. So, when the Toyota 4×4 pickup pulled out in front of us, we both knew this day would be etched into our Crete picturebook. Back in the saddle after months of pandemic lockdown, we both reveled in the excitement of following another Cretan wildman down backroads meant for donkeys and mountain goats. But, when Kostas turned off the “main” road onto a dry riverbed, I feared a bit for our Ford Ka’s oil pan and stopped abruptly to stare out at a marvelous nowhere in the middle of a billion olive trees.
Our guide motioned for me to park our car, and we climbed in with him for the last leg of our quest to find a tree listed in most guidebooks as if it were in the middle of civilization. Some head bumps and butt bruises later, and we jumped out into an olive grove a thousand years older the Rome. “Wow!’ does not begin to describe this ancient and spiritual place, let alone the look of love and pride in Kostas’ eyes. In this lonely spot overlooking a ruined monastery and a deserted town, a gift from God stands vidual over eternal Keftiu.
For half an hour, the three of us played around the old tree, like we were children once again. Mihaela got lost in the branches, nooks, and crannies of the trees. I could not tear my eyes away from the landscape. And Kostas hovered between the two of us, emanating a pure and joyful glow of pride and sharing. I cannot begin to describe the scene and the feeling of this place lost in time. I can tell you that Facebook and Instagram haven’t the slightest clue of what sharing is really about. You must go and play beneath this magnificent tree. That’s all I can tell you.
As we tore ourselves from the little grove, I could not help but wonder how many long-gone souls had ever climbed in the gigantic tree’s branches? Something made me want to stay. Such places have this effect, but my sadness was short-lived. Our guide had more surprises in store. We left the top of the hill and sped Acropolis Rally style down a winding “road” into an Eden-like gorge. And after some more head and butt bumps, at the bottom of the gorge stood a wonderful church surrounded by the ruined spires of an ancient monastery.
The pride in Kostas’ eyes lit the place like a second sun as we climbed out to snap photos and to taste the holy waters of the nearby spring. So, this was the Church of Agios Haralampos & Panagia ( or St. Charalampus & Mother Mary)? Kostas just called it the Church of the Virgin Mary. Here, the settlement of Paliama was founded back in 1583 by Venetians. The church is all that remains now. It’s cool down by the ancient river. And the oak, olive, and cypress trees create an excellent canopy that’s an idyllic picnic spot. I meant to ask Kostas if camping is allowed but missed the chance.
Anyway, we retraced our tracks and returned to Moroni and Kostas’ little cafe for refreshments. Adonis had been left in charge serving the older men of the village who spend their days playing backgammon nearby, and he was happy at our return. Kostas set about cutting up fresh fruits and pouring raki, which he later refused any payment for. The genuine hospitality of the Cretans is spellbinding. Even after having lived here for years, I am always astonished by how the villagers see the world. And as I type this, I wonder how many more pickup truck Crete adventures we’ll have? Funny, it always seems to happen when we least expect it and when we feel lost. When you come, and I know you will, we’ll take you to meet Kostas.
Finally, the coordinates given by the fantastic folks at the Association of Cretan Olive Municipalities (ACOM) are 550 meters off, which in Crete adventure terms is a galaxy away from the actual location. To find the tree, drive about 35 kilometers along the Phaistos Highway (97) south from Heraklion. Take the exit to Moroni, then take the third street to the right, and find the Kalypso cafe on your left. The olive tree and the gorge are about 2 kilometers north, but unless you are driving a 4×4 or pickup, you’d best ask Kostas for help. Unless your name is either Stanley or Livingston, you’ll never find the tree.