All I have to do is close my eyes and I'm there again. Back in the little town I first happened upon almost 40 years ago.
In my mind's eye, this town is always the same: it's early on a sunlit, blue-skied morning and I'm standing near the quayside where the boat from Agia Roumeli pulls in every evening. I lift my head and look across to where the craggy mountains stretch skywards towards the blue.
Shading my eyes against the morning sun, I stand there motionless for a few moments, gazing into the distance across the Libyan Sea. It's a vista that never changes, its beauty never failing to overwhelm me.
From there, I head off for breakfast, meandering in the direction of the narrow street that leads through the old part of the town. Here, many of the once run-down and dilapidated houses have been given a new lease of life in recent times - a lick of paint, or new windows, perhaps.
But peep inside some of the spruced-up doors that lie ajar in the mornings and you'll notice that some of them are just as they always were, with one room serving as living room and bedroom alike.
Less than a five-minute stroll, and I'm walking into the Almyrida café. "Kalimera!" shouts Stelios from behind the counter where he is on cooking duty while Katarina, his German wife of many years, takes breakfast orders on the sun-blasted patio outside. "Tomato omelette?" Stelios asks before I even take a seat. Talk about being predictable!
Later, after a leisurely hour's reading, and with breakfast done and dusted, I exit the Almyrida and turn left, walking away from the old town and towards the barren headland that sweeps around this peninsula. Eventually I come full circle, first stopping to take in the view of the town's stunning, kilometre-long sandy beach, and then continuing to walk on through the town itself until I arrive back where I started.
It's a wonderful walk, and one that I take in reality every single morning when I am in Paleochora.
Yes, that's where I am - imaginatively, for now.
Less than 2,000 people live in this small, end-of-the-line, coastal town in south-west Crete. It's a place where everybody knows everybody else; a town that hasn't changed significantly since I first arrived here, stepping off the evening bus from Chania, back in 1983.
It has remained a touchstone for me ever since. A place of sanctuary. Somewhere I have associated with happiness and peace, down the decades.
And It's a place I think of now, in times of pandemic, with anxiety and uncertainty washing over the world.
My first trip alone was a disaster...
My husband Gerry died in the summer of 2015. Even though we hadn't been there very often as a couple, it was to Paleochora that I went in search of solace.
I still don't really understand why.
Something to do, perhaps, with the memory of being happy there in my 20s and 30s, when my son was small, and before I had even met Gerry. Something about trying to block out the pain of the present and immerse myself in the past.
Towards the end of July, a month after I became a widow, I arrived late one might into the little town that I had always loved so well. It was a disaster.
Alone there for the first time ever and overwhelmed with grief, I simply couldn't handle it. Every day seemed like an eternity. I couldn't concentrate to read. I couldn't sleep. I felt like a spare part when eating out by myself, and so I stopped. I lived on bread and tomatoes and I rarely left my room. Originally booked for a week from Wednesday to Wednesday, by the Friday morning I had booked a flight back on the Monday. Paleochora wasn't working.
And then, in his own way, my dear father came to my rescue when his own health deteriorated. I found myself on an even earlier flight, arriving home on the Saturday night, just hours ahead of his death.
In 2016 I tried again. I walked and walked around the town, out to the headland and out along the road towards Koundoura. I buried my nose in a book while eating out alone every night. The beauty of the place wasn't lost on me but I was still struggling. Would I ever feel the same again, I wondered, about this magical town?
The following year I visited twice. Once in May and again in September. And then, in 2018, I went back yet again.
My days started to fall into a kind of a routine: walking; breakfast; walking, coffee and a book; walking; back to my room to sit in the sun and read some more; a bit of an afternoon snooze; more reading; a tea-time swim…
I was going through the motions, and enjoying it. But peace still eluded me.
I'd sit outside Yanni's bar on the 'main' street every evening, watching the local children play with the visiting kids, just as my own son had done in the early 1990s. Just like then, the street is closed off to traffic every night, making it a safe environment for children and promenading adults alike. Cafe-bar seats spill out across the new-found evening space and a sense of community dominates the atmosphere.
So I'd sit there, at Yanni's, and I'd sip my ridiculously cheap glass of wine and talk a little to Yanni's daughter, Joanna, who now runs the bar for her elderly father. And I'd read my book if I got a seat where the light permitted. And I might have another glass of wine. And then I'd go back to my room. And the next day I'd go through the same motions all over again.
Paleochora kept drawing me back.
A café where contentment came calling...
Don't give up, this tiny town seemed to be telling me. I didn't. Last September I went for almost two weeks.
I stayed where I always stay - in a studio in the lovely garden of the Lissos Studios, owned by Manolis Sfinarolakis and his French wife, Mylene.
The same Manolis who, as a 21-year-old, met me that night in 1983 when I stepped off the bus, enquiring if I wanted a room for the night. The same Manoilis who lived, even back then, with his mother and father in the Lissos - the family home with some additional rooms.
The same Manolis, indeed, who adored my son as a youngster, who called him 'superboy', and who was beside himself with excitement when my son returned to Paleochora with his girlfriend a couple of years ago, to stay in the Lissos some 23 years after his last visit there.
And the same Manolis who sent me an email just two weeks ago, amidst the Covid-19 crisis, asking how things were here in Ireland in these difficult days.
"We are in a bad dream here too in Greece and Kríti," he wrote, before enquiring about my own well-being and sending, in his own inimitable way, "a warm hug to you, your family, your son, all Ireland and all the world".
What he doesn't know - but what I will tell him when I return - is that his beloved home town of Paleochora is the place that has given me back my sense of self. The place that has taught me how to cope when travelling alone, with no one or nothing else to draw on nowadays but my own resources. Which is something that has really stood to me in these coronavirus days.
Last September's visit was when, finally, everything fell into place for me there. I can even remember the moment when the realisation dawned. Sitting on the comfy sofa outside the Votsalo café one morning, sipping a coffee, reading my book, and looking out over the town's other beach - the pebble one - I suddenly felt something that had eluded me for my four years of widowhood. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. And then I realised that while it wasn't exactly happiness, it was certainly contentment.
Yes, I felt content. I felt relaxed. I felt that I was in the right place. I felt that I could stay there forever.
Even on my own.
The routine helps - the walking, the reading, the coffee in Voltsalo every morning, the teatime swim, etc - just as routine is helping me now, home alone in lockdown.
On that morning last year when contentment came calling, I left the café to stroll a couple of hundred yards up the road. Coming to a gateway on the left, I pushed open the squeaky gate and walked in. There were flowers everywhere, their bright, jewel-like colours jumping out from a backdrop of white marble. A tiny church stood off to my right, plain and unshowy and therefore appropriate for its location. I was in its graveyard, a beautiful spot in Paleochora that I always used to visit in days long gone.
In recent times, it was somewhere I simply couldn't go. Now here I was. The almost-midday sun was blasting down as I wandered around this small cemetery where, for as far as the eye can see, the marble tombstones are punctuated with images of the faces of the dead.
Remembering that Manolis's parents' grave was near the boundary wall in the shadow of an overhanging tree, I wandered in that direction. And there they were, smiling out at me. I moved away from the Sfinarolakis grave, making my way slowly and stopping to read ages and names, and recognising, to my surprise, quite a few of the dead.
The elderly priest who, back in the 1980s, used to promenade along the main street every evening, his flowing robes only matched by the length of his grey beard; the tall but stooped man who once owned a café on the corner of the road that leads to the sandy beach and whose only ever breakfast offering seemed to be boiled eggs; the man who used to collect the parcels from the Chania bus and drag them around on his little trolley, delivering them to the appropriate shops in the town…
And as I wandered there that morning I felt a sense of belonging. Like a homecoming.
And I felt such gratitude to Paleochora for how it has enhanced my life. Whoever would have thought that a little Greek town that I stumbled upon four decades ago, a place that few people have ever heard of, would become such a comfort to me. And that it would give me back my confidence, my sense of self, and prove to me that, no matter how dark the night, the sun will always rise again.
The Island by Victoria Hislop is a fictional tale of love, loss, and family secrets. All set against the backdrop of the real Spinalonga island, a former Cretan leper colony.
Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis is the original Zorba - before the film. You can see 'Zorba's mountain' near Chania, and visit the author's grave in Heraklion.
The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis is a factual tale of Cretan resistance to the Nazi occupation that reads like a 'boy's own' adventure. Translated by Patrick Leigh Fermor - who fought alongside Psychoundakis.
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