Literary Yard

Search for meaning

On the Trail of a Great Travel Writer and the Meaning of Bread

By: Simon Heathcote

Photo by Ronny Siegel on

We didn’t know what to do with the bread.

Small fluted loaves, granite hard and seemingly made to fit inside a fist. ‘We could always throw them from our balcony,’ I surmised, at once imagining missiles — perhaps inspired by the pack of fighter jets that flew daily overhead, presumably from the military base at Souda Bay.

It was bad news for any pending apocalypse, of course. How would we survive if even the consumption of bread was a problem? The answer would become apparent a few days into our trip.

Kalathas Bay is a small crescent feeding off a shallow sea in Cape Akrotiri — a fairly new town as far as Crete goes, its long thread winding, like the serpentine & sometimes treacherous coastal road, into pre-history.

Zeus was born here, legend goes & the skeletonic armature of the gods feels forever just beneath your feet. To the east, great grey slabs of goat-rock give rise to waving shadows as airliners come into Chania — if you lie on your back in the calming Aegean waters.

According to Odysseus, the king of the gods was not to be trusted: ‘Zeus sent…screaming winds and giant waves,’ he tells us from his own apocalyptic moment.

It is all too easy to imagine Kronos appearing out of the foam to devour his children, or sirens from The Odyssey arrivingnaked, & possibly tailed, on the lapping sand. The steady thrum of the waves outside our room, continuously folded & unfolded, catching us in their lunar wash.

Is there anything more soothing than the sound of the sea with its orchestral anodyne flood, which appears to work on the rhythm of one’s own blood? We are mostly water, after all.

‘In another two weeks, the snow will be gone,’ said our driver. It was the end of May and I was leaning from the window of the minibus, surprised by the white fringe of the mountains.

Our own smaller, knuckled ridge in the north east, provided inadequate shelter for the broiling & famous Stavros Beach where Anthony Quinn & Alan Bates performed the sirtaki dance in the 1964 film, Zorba The Greek.

Quinn had also played the pipe-smoking Cretan assassin in another well-known movie, The Guns of Navarone, ever ready to dispatch Gregory Peck’s team leader with his shepherd’s blade before their shared derring-do produced a softening of his stony heart and a final rapprochement.

Cretans are famous for blood feuds and vendettas. Thassos, our waiter, confirmed it as did a near fall-out with a taxi driver, the details of which I will spare you.

In the end, we took two trips to Chania with its impressive Venetian harbour and cultural potpourri leaking back through time, sheltering in one of the many back-to-back restaurants to sip iced lattes served by a young man from Cambridge, UK, with a forest of dense tattoos creeping up one arm.

The answer of what to do with our bag of stony bread lay just a few steps away in a wonderful but deserted bookstore, lovingly tending to some of the best travel books on the planet.

A youth, clearly an apprentice, hovered near the entrance, shuffling arrangements to provide him with something to do; the owner nested behind a derelict counter, Pince-nez hanging about his neck.

I tried to engage him in conversation, showing him my membership card of the travel writing guild back in Britain, but he didn’t seem to understand. I could see his psychic temperature was low and felt to pick him up a little:

‘You have a wonderful shop,’ I said, aware it was a starving orphan, even evacuated, but for me an oasis, calm & generous.

‘There is no other shop like this around.’ He finally came back at me, ‘but business is bad. We only open for six months…’ His voice trailed off, his head drooping towards his accounts once more.

If I had a set of bellows I would have pumped some air into him, but it was too great a task for a man on his holidays, perhaps any man.

We hovered for a time, scanning the books in English by travel writers who loved Greece, Crete in particular, notably Gerald Durrell & that other war hero, this time real, the Irishman Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Then we walked on towards the lighthouse, where a sweet-voiced boy was singing for small coin, the crowd thinning, before deciding to turn volte face back to the store.

I wanted a birthday card for Y, so gave her the slip & approached my dour colleague again, this time with Leigh Fermor’s Mani about the Peloponnese and a card with some attractive shiny bits embossed on the cover.

He was clearly pleased, insisting I have the card for free; when I demurred, he pressed on, a slight glimmer warming his eye. We parted on good terms and I would encourage anyone visiting Chania to drop in, if only to warm an old man’s heart, his & mine.

Back at Lena Beach Hotel, it didn’t take long before I was scaling Leigh Fermor’s dense & lofty prose towards the discovery of what to do with that blasted bread known, I discovered, as paximadia.

Here is what the author says on page 15: ‘These dark brown pumices of twice-baked bread — the staple fare of Greek shepherds and of the medieval Basilian hermits — can be kept for months. Hard as fossils, they are excellent; especially with garlic, when soaked to the right consistency.’

Shepherds, it seemed, tend to soak them in hillside streams & then wrap them in cloth to draw the water out before they descend into inedible sogginess. I don’t think we ever got the consistency right, but managed to enjoy them with some Kalamata olives & a little salt & oil.

In a film of Leigh Fermor’s escapades on Crete, played by the late British heartthrob Dirk Bogarde, you get to see why he was a hero to the Cretans, even joining the pantheon of cherished gods.

An Irish guardsman, Leigh Fermor took part in the Cretan resistance; disguised as a shepherd, he survived for two years in the mountains then led the party that in 1944 captured and evacuated the German commander, Major General Heinrich Kreipe, dressed as a German corporal halting the staff car, bundling the officer into the back.

Wearing the general’s braided cap, he then negotiated 22 German stop points, presumably utilizing his impeccable language skills.

Both book and film of Ill Met By Moonlight capture the moment, which forever chiseled some say the world’s greatest travel writer into the Cretan heart. The two men met after the war and cameras recorded a respectful relationship; Leigh Fermor, a natural academic & linguist, translating fluidly between English, Greek & German, I understand.

Our final trip to Chania was to meet our lawyer & his wife, Staszek & Iwona, also friends, who appeared on Crete synchronously for a tour.

In an upstairs restaurant, we dined on white fish, rice & spinach, as they bravely practiced their English, before going our separate ways into the night.


It would be fair to say I had two companions in Crete: Y, my partner, and Mani, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s brilliant exposition of a particularly complex & fierce Greek culture, the southernmost finger of old Europe, where he saw out his final days as an old man. And so, I wandered in & out of time & culture, straddling worlds both ancient & cruelly modern, wondering why the Paximadia, simple bread, kept installing itself in my awareness.

I struggled through idioms. Bread is the staff of life kept coming up and with it in slow meditation, real world concerns about food shortages, Dutch farmers being driven off their land, the very roots of life under threat. Men of honour seemed thin on the ground and I suspect I was cleaving to Leigh Fermor as I am pretty sure he was one.

Food lit up our time in Crete as much as a molten sun & the daily swims to a small islet a couple of hundred yards from Kalathas, a delicate nipple amid a pulsing aureole challenged only by the brouhaha of the occasional motorbike or the passing megaphone of what I chose to assume was some local politician bidding to be mayor. We joshed about the curiously interchangeable calamari and kalimera — in saying good morning we might easily wind up with battered sea food, happily of course.

We met Will on the hotel terrace, Chinese-born & the second young man we bumped into from Cambridge, where he had been living since he was ten. He seemed lost, in search of himself, his mother keen for him to find ‘a nice girl’. As so often, I found myself in therapy mode; another busman’s holiday:

‘You have to think about things elementally,’ I said. ‘If you are full of fire and always coming up with bright initiatives & you have a partner who pours cold water on them, you have to take notice of that.’ He was curious but not present, lost in his own fantasies, so we invited him for lunch and took the bus to Stavros Beach to hunt down the French-Algerian chef we had heard about and The Sunset Cafe with its galette of fresh mushrooms & spinach, grilled octopus, turmeric-yellow shrimp risotto, fresh gambale in garlic lemon sauce. And, of course, bread, which may be the staff of life but, I remembered, the cause of most of our relatively few ‘domestics’.

Clearly — and neither of us wanted to admit it — I am allergic to bread & bloat as soon as I touch it; my partner, on the other hand, worships regularly at its altar (the bread bin by the fridge) & will not be giving it up any time soon; although that choice may soon be taken out of her hands.

We left the throng of tourists and followed the signs to the cafe & a sudden apparition that looked like we had landed in Jamaica: abundant fronds from tamaris trees, an old caravan serving as cookhouse & the dark wood restaurant-bar resembling nothing less than some piratical hang-out, whooping it up after a successful raid. I introduced myself to Malika, who had landed here on a whim in 1995 & done battle with local bureaucrats for years, finally earning their respect. It was the perennial fight between freedom-loving, rebellious Uranus & doughty Saturn, ever dependent on structure & form.

When she began planting trees, they accused her of soiling the environment. They may have seen a hippie, what they got was a fighter prepared for the long game: ‘Food is medicine,’ she said, ‘the intestine is the second brain. Why should we eat junk?’ We ordered the local sugar-free cola & started fomenting rebellion.

‘I grew up in a restaurant. It is in my DNA. My faith is to work with quality local ingredients, follow the seasons and do what others don’t know.’ One of her two daughters was cleaning tables in the background, her husband someplace else; a young Greek grill chef serving — or at least I assumed it was the same ‘Greek boy’ she told me she had taught to grill.

We sat on the balcony looking out to sea, Will gazing into the middle distance. But as we looked up, he was choking down a huge prawn — antennae, legs, guts, shell — as if he was an anaconda, indiscriminate and oblivious. I wondered what Leigh Fermor, who walked across Europe to Istanbul as a teenager, relying on letters of introduction & often adopted by local aristocracy, would have made of it. He arrived on January 1, 1935 before setting out again; I soon realised I was in a nostalgic grasp for certainty on an increasingly bizarre & nonsensical planet.

Bread suddenly seemed both safe & essential. That night, I picked up Mani again, leafing back to page 15, Leigh Fermor writes: ‘While we leant back smoking against boulders, he scrupulously collected what remained of the paximadia, kissed it, and knotted it into a cloth. There is a superstitious veto against throwing away all but the smallest crumbs of bread and the kiss is a thanksgiving and a memento of the Last Supper.’

How had I missed this?! I needed ritual, I needed ceremony. Perhaps, even a flock of sheep. It’s a fantasy, of course, a pleasant one & one, if the EU gets its way, may soon be outside the law.


  1. I am so looking forward to visiting crete later this year, and love the descriptions of both the island and the bread.. I am a lover of bread myself, sadly it does not love me.
    Thank you for this lovely piece.

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