Encountering leper colony, donkey saddles, natural beauty

Tourist group aims to make Crete a new travel destination for Israelis.

Greek islands 311 (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Greek islands 311
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
CRETE – A mere one-hour flight from Ben-Gurion Airport can transport an entire family to an island of lush greenery, replete with resort hotels sporting private infinity pools, all-inclusive Greek buffets, and activities for all ages, many nestled on sandy coves with sapphire waves lapping the shores.
Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, carries the Greek flag but is entirely its own culture. It was home to one of the most ancient European civilizations, the Minoans, and their historic palace can still be explored in the city of Knossos.
After shifting hands – from the Romans, to the Byzantines, to the Venetians, to the Ottomans, to independence, to unity with Greece – residents of Crete developed resentment for their past conquerors, particularly the Turks, whom they say still occupy Greek land.
“Istanbul used to be our place – Constantinople. They took it from us,” George Siligardakis, a tour guide from Mega Travel Selections, tells The Jerusalem Post. “But we will take it back.”
Still, Siligardakis – whose name actually hails from Turkish (“akis” means “small” in the language) – notes that the Church of Crete still belongs to the Church of Istanbul.
Amid Israel’s own tensions with the Turkish government, tourism company Kavei Hofsha is attempting to steer Israeli tourism from Turkey to the islands of Greece, according to a spokeswoman from the group.
One of the most picturesque places to visit in Crete is an offshore isle where every local would have feared being sent a mere 100 years ago – Spinalonga.
A ferry ride from the city of Elounda takes visitors to the beautiful island, which for the first half of the 20th century was a full-service, all-inclusive leper colony – with a mayor, school, hospital, three Greek Orthodox churches and cafes. The main church, a tour guide explains, is the small, incense-filled Saint Palemion, the saint to whom most sick Cretans still pray to this day.
With no spring water on the island, a Venetian system collected rainwater for the residents’ consumption, but due to a gradual population boom, additional sources had to be built on the other side of the island, the guide explains.
The Spinalonga lepers weren’t totally secluded from the Cretan population proper, as many residents of the village of Plaka, on the Cretan mainland 900 meters away, came to work there during the day – but were duly disinfected before they went home.
Meanwhile, babies born to leper parents on the island were immediately taken from the mother and father and shipped straight to Crete as orphans, as leprosy is not transferred through a mother’s blood, according to the guide.
Today, much of the old infrastructure remains intact, and visitors can explore this separate but flourishing lifestyle to which so many people were once condemned.
Of course, when visiting any Greek historical sites with a tour guide, it is crucial to make sure the guide is officially recognized by the Cretan government – otherwise the tour is considered illegal.
After spending time at Spinalonga, visitors can easily take an additional ferry ride to the island of Kolokitha, where the beach is calm and a traditional Greek barbecue lunch is available. A hike up the shore-side hill leads to a basically uninhabited area, aside from a tiny church that was built after the Ottoman period. During that time, Cretan Christians buried many of their valuable religious items where the church now stands, according to Israeli tour guide Ariel Rosenberger, who also works for Mega Travel Selections.
“After the Turks went away, they took it out of there and built a church where the holy stuff was buried,” Rosenberger says during a hike up the hill.
Quite close to the Elounda ferry port is the 75,000-resident harbor city of Agios Nikoloaos, which provides a charming European setting with a “bottomless” lake (in reality, the lake is 84 m. deep, according to Rosenberger) and a beautiful stairway- climb leading to a view of the Mirabello Bay.
Alongside the city’s lake are also a multitude of fish restaurants, where waiters will literally attempt to pull you in to enjoy their cuisine, a la Little Italy – and if they recognize you as Israeli, they’ll add a “sababa” to the brief conversation that follows.
Traditional local fare can be explored in the tourist village of Kato Karouzanos, the Williamsburg, Virginia, of Crete – complete with dinner, dance performances and demonstrations of how the quintessential Cretan – and Greek – alcohol, Ouzo, is made from grapes.
A model home from between 50 and 100 years ago, laden with colorful uniforms, hand-woven rugs and simple wooden furniture, is open to the public.
“We can say my grandmother’s house was like this,” says Dina Tsagaraki, an administrator of the venue, who notes that while this area is for tourists, the real village actually still exists down the hill and is inhabited by about 10-20 elderly residents.
“They don’t want to move – but summertime their children come to visit,” she adds.
The mock village also contains a shed of rustic metal field tools, a wine cellar and a row of painstakingly carved donkey saddles.
“Until last year, there was an old man who made these saddles – he was the last one who made these in Crete,” Tsagaraki says.
For some remnants of Jewish culture, the city of Chania does have a shul, but locals say the only ones who attend services there are Cretan Christians, who want to maintain the history that accompanies the 400-year-old Etz Hayyim Synagogue. For Shabbat hospitality, the nearest Lubavitch visitor center is the Chabad of Athens.
Among the many resort hotels viewed by this writer during the visit to the island, the most romantic place for couples is undoubtedly the Sea Side Resort & Spa in the capital city of Heraklion. It features modern hotel rooms with private pools, the Kulkinarium Restaurant, and a gorgeous view of a sandy bay. About onethird of the hotel’s guests are French, but Israeli groups often come for four-day extended weekends, according to guest relations manager Nikolas Koulouras.
For families, the most impressive locale is the Aquila Rithymna Beach in Rethymno – a huge hotel of 561 rooms, with four swimming pools and two “mini clubs” for children only, as hotel representative Stavros Antonakos points out. The hotel is so child-friendly that for six nights a week, children ages six through 12 can actually stay overnight in one of the clubs, where they have individual beds and activities planned just for them.
During his own time in Crete so far, Rosenberger says he has especially enjoyed the nature, history and presence of hope that echoes throughout the island – sentiments and landscapes that he feels would actually make Israelis appreciate their own country more due to the similarities.
“What people might find desirable in this island is the happy population and nice people, similar to what we have in Israel – to see nature and then to realize on the way back that Israel is actually a good place,” he says.
The author was a guest of the Kavei Hofsha tourism company.