On the manicured corniche between Elounda
and Plaka – before the balconied hotels
that rise up the mountainside tier by
expensive tier – is the Turkish Governor’s house,
abandoned for nearly a century.
We venture up the steep, pitted drive
but sudden howling from unseen dogs
deters. On the opposite side of the bay,
where only widows on donkeys go,
the shore is festooned with plastic bags
shredded by the tides and bleached by the sun.
The foundations of the antique city
of Olous shimmer beneath the water.
The French dug a canal, near the salt pans
the Venetians laid out, between the bay
and Mirabello Gulf. The Canal Bar,
ruined now – the owner’s wife died, his daughters
left to work in gift shops in Heraklion –
was popular with tourists, mostly Brits.
Elounda is populous with ex-pats.
Imperial Airways’ Short Brothers’
flying boats, en route from Southampton
to erstwhile Bombay, would refuel nearby
and passengers overnight at an hotel
in the town – among them Churchill, Ghandi.
From our table at Plaka’s Giorgos
Taverna, we are fanned by zephyrus airs
and see the deep blue of the bay and the isle
of Spinalonga – first a Venetian
then Ottoman fortress, then lazaret
(in effect, a leper prison) and now
a heritage site. Inmates sometimes
would swim for freedom across the bay.
The Werhmacht was stationed here. For sport,
soldiers would shoot, night or day, at fugitives.
We are eating grilled kefalos – mullet –
with aubergine au gratin and frites,
and drinking bottles of Mythos beer.
The couple at the next table are French. They are
treating their Spinalonga guide to lunch.
He speaks English. They do not. They ask us
if we speak French. We reply haltingly.
The young waiter, who is Albanian,
steps forward, deferentially. He informs us,
modestly, in the relevant languages –
that he speaks some English, French and Greek.
Emboldened by our immediate respect,
he tells us he is a first class graduate
of the modern language faculty
of the University of Tirana.
‘Balkans is no good now!’ he exclaims.
So exiles become polyglots. A youngish
Israeli family – father, mother,
twin girls – arrive. We hear the children’s
bubbling Hebrew while they all study
the menu outside. As they enter,
the waiter greets them in English. They respond.