TOURISM MEETS URBAN PLANNING: OUR LONG, HOT SUMMER IN CRETE
Way back in 2003, when a young Nelly was still making hits (Hot in Herre was barely a year old and slamming the speakers in the Hersonissos clubs), Bill and I spent a long summer on the island of Crete in Greece. We were there with faculty from our university (the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP program) as part of team to define, and provide solutions for, a fast-growing coastal municipality of 10,000 called Hersonissos.
Civilization on the island of Crete had prospered for thousands of years in a climate of blue skies, pristine beaches and time-honored olive groves. The traditional towns and villages had withstood centuries of colonialization and more recent changes in economic modes. When we arrived with the team of planners, the island was facing a new challenge – the onslaught of 10 million rowdy European tourists flocking to the Mediterranean coast for sun, sand and sex. Additional visitors would be flooding in during the upcoming Olympics to be held in Athens.
Though our team enjoyed some nights out, we were not there for the aforementioned “Three S’s”. We were in Hersonissos primarily to work and absorb culture. Honestly. We did plenty of both.
We began our trip in Athens, the second capitol city I had ever visited. We went straight to the top of Mt. Lycabettus on the first evening to get a 360 degree view of the white city.
After Athens, we traveled by overnight ferry to Crete and on to the town of Hersonissos, where we would spend the next two months working and exploring. We began by studying the changes in the physical layout of the region. We observed the changing landscape and cityscape and studied the effects of tourism on the traditional form and culture of the region. We mapped out two traditional villages: Gonies and Avdou. This involved painstaking measurement and field work in each of the villages’ streets and alleys. To learn about the changing culture of the villages, we had to interview the local residents and discuss how their ideal future village would look and function.
Our lifestyle was very communal, living together in a comfortable resort atop a hill overlooking the town and the blue sea.
But it wasn’t all work. Bill and I both love to sit down for long dinners, and our team was treated daily to Cretan village cuisine which we could not have imagined. Unlike the Greek food back in the US (some of which is excellent), the food on Crete was made with incredibly fresh vegetables and olive oil. It doesn’t seem possible that produce could get that much more fresh but it does. Particularly, we began learning about the process of growing olives in the ancient groves and pressing it into oil using traditional methods. We saw the extraction and decanting process, even though it was not harvest season. And of course, we consumed a hell of a lot of it. Before going to the “office” (an old Orthodox church) each morning, I’d quickly take a tall shot of olive oil to suffice as breakfast. One afternoon we decided to choose our favorite olive oil by lining up ten or so different oils (including some homemade by local friends) and having a blind taste test. Our friend Kostas’s hand-pressed oil was voted the winner.
On mornings when we were walking to the office at 8am, we would see drunken tourists stumbling to get home from the nightclubs and bars near the beachfront. Life would become surreal with so many responsibilities in the midst of one of Europe’s biggest parties.
However, we did find time on weekends to travel out of Hersonissos.
There was a spectacular weekend in Santorini, truly one of the most breathtaking places on Earth.
We went to the ancient town of Rythemno, which has a strong Islamic history and offers up interesting hodgepodge of built styles and icons.
When the two months were finished we presented our ideas to the municipal government with the hopes that they would be implemented quickly, in time for the 2004 Summer Olympics (for some aspects) or adopted with the intention of long-term results in absorbing tourism into a more traditional framework.
Looking back, it was a surreal summer that was sometimes difficult to enjoy, yet infinitely worthwhile and memorable. We completed some interesting work and were integrated into Mediterranean culture, if only for a summer. I can still taste Crete in feta, olive oil atop crisp bread and see it in salty, sandy sunsets that seem to go on forever.