Wednesday, 25 June 2014

A Walton family holiday

ONLY on a quirky holiday to Crete could you find yourself sat under trees by a fountain chatting with two elderly sisters who turn out to be direct descendants of Buffalo Bill Cody!

But that’s what happened when I took my family on a fortnight’s holiday to the resort of Stalis as part of celebrations for my 60th birthday.

The sisters, Stalis regulars, proudly detailed their family connection to the famous Wild West legend over a beer or three at the lovely Amazones apartments where we stayed.

It was not the first offbeat moment we had starting with our arrival which saw us battle our way down to a local taverna in winds gusting to more than 50mph. Our meal was a bit surreal as we tried to time conversation between the whap-bang noises of canvas walls being sucked in and out by the gale.

Fortunately it was the worst weather we saw and long sunny days soon followed exploring the coast, mountains and plateau area near our resort.

There were the delights of rock cisterns, a 2,000-year-old tree and a church with a bell made from the recycled nose cone of a German bomb at Krasi or quaint churches, a ruined olive oil factory and top quality crafts at Mohos.

Both were reached using a contraption very similar to Weymouth’s seafront land train dubbed the Happy Train by its Cretan operators. Locals call it the Wally Wagon!

We tried to have one day doing something and one day relaxing, so other busy trips spaced out between siesta days included a stroll round the ruined Minoan palace at Malia, a fascinating tour of the open air museum at Lychnosta and a brilliant nine-hour jeep safari.

This last took us literally not just off the beaten track but off any kind of track at all as we followed breathtaking mountain path routes to see everything from Griffin vultures to ruined windmills and from ancient cave systems to a valley of goats.

Other days involved bus trips west to the neighbouring resort of Hersonisos or east to the chic resort of Agios Nikolaos with its central lake surrounded by restaurants.

And then there were the nights which provided superb meal after superb meal, all washed down with icy draughts of beer or devastating shots of Raki, a fiery spirit described by one jaundiced member of our party as being made from toe-nail clippings. You certainly didn’t get it on your clothes!

Appetites honed by fresh air and miles of walking were sated by mouth-watering lamb dishes such as kleftico or the stunning creation involved with a special mountain pork dish based on herbs with thick slices of potato packed in around it, the whole dish being gently cooked for four hours until it just melted in the mouth.

There were Greek salads with sharp feta cheese, famous traditional dishes such as moussaka, treats such as Greek yoghurt with rich thyme honey, grilled octopus, regional delicacies such as rabbit stew or an incredible array of fish dishes from red snapper and swordfish to Dorado, sardines and bass. The choice was endless.

One riotous Greek night at our favourite taverna, Hellas, saw all of us tuck in to mountain pork washed down on a wave of Raki to fuel a furious dance up and down the street led by the owner and backed by a top class bazouki player. And the reward for taking part? Everyone got a banana!

Shining throughout our holiday was the wonderful Greek hospitality I have come to treasure. If you dropped in at a restaurant to book a table for that night then there was no: “Thank you sir and we look forward to seeing you tonight.”

Instead you were warmly greeted, taken in and sat down for a chat while staff hurried to bring you chilled cherries and a glass of raki or fresh juice. By the time everyone had checked on each other’s health, commented on how hot it was and talked about what we’d all been doing then booking the table became almost incidental to relaxing among friends. I actually had to delay one booking while the chef brought out that night’s planned signature dish and asked me if I felt it needed a little more salt!

I took more than 500 photographs, bought everything from honey to tableware and from olive oil to a large ceramic lantern, made new acquaintances and was joyfully welcomed back to Stalis by old friends.

Five out of our seven-strong party had never been to Crete before. All of us vowed to come back again and toasted that sentiment in 25-year-old wine given us as a gift by our favourite taverna owner.

Everyone has holiday memories and this break to celebrate a landmark in my life gave me some wonderful sunny snapshots to fondly look back on when the rain is running down our windows and winter is snapping at our heels.


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