Rough Guide didn’t make Matala sound too appealing, and in Internet searches it was variously described as paradise or hell on earth, so we were in two minds about visiting the famous hippy village. But at just over an hour from the island’s capital, it didn’t seem like a big deal to check it out, and we decided we’d go back to Iraklio to sleep if it turned out to be disappointing.
We came prepared for a litter-strewn beach, packed with an incongruous mix of hippies and coach tours, as well as for the possibility that it would be a sad ghost town, since it was so late in the season.
We were very pleasantly surprised. There were disappointingly few hippies, selling some handicrafts at the edge of the beach, but the coach tours had mercifully finished for the season. Otherwise, the village was lightly inhabited, with maybe half the bars and tavernas still open, and a handful of healthy-looking tourists here and there, mostly dressed in walking gear. “It’s not low season, it’s no season,” a barman told us cheerfully later that evening, while making us pretty good negronis at a candlelit bar.
The beach itself was very pretty – a perfect, crescent-moon-shaped cove, with the famous hippy caves running along the west side. I gazed at the caves in awe. This is where Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan and many other hippies lived in a 1960s psychedelic love-in. Joni Mitchell even wrote a song about it! Before that, the caves were Roman tombs, and even earlier, the harbour had been the port for the Minoan town of Phaestos, and the spot where Zeus, in the form of a bull, swam ashore with Europa.
Immediately, we decided to stay the night. ‘Hotel Street’ was nothing like the tacky tourist pit we’d feared, but a pretty tree and flower-lined street, full of attractive pensions and apartments. We stayed at the comfortable, spotlessly clean Sunshine Matala. The tavernas were also a surprise. On a recommendation from the hotel owner, we ate at the initially touristy-looking Petra & Votsalo, but the €3.50 house wine was possibly the best we’d tasted in our entire six week trip – rich and velvety and full of flavor – and the chicken souvlaki marinated in mountain herbs and fried mushrooms finished with raki and honey were similarly delicious, and cooked with care.
Afterwards, we went and looked at the caves, stunningly illuminated, lending them a warm orange glow. Sadly, the ‘Matala moon’ of Joni Mitchell’s song was absent that night, but we brought ouzo and toasted crazier times, while singing Big Yellow Taxi, because we didn’t know the words to the actual song. Although, some of the lyrics could have fit Matala too.
I’d love to go back someday, maybe in June or September, outside of the high-season chaos, and experience a little of the ‘Today is life and tomorrow never comes’ Matala vibe.