Good Vibrations: Exploring Matala’s Hippie Heritage
It was the summer of 1969 when the Canadian folk singer Joni Mitchell came to a sleepy fishing village known as Matala on Crete’s south coast. For Joni, making a nomadic home in the ancient caves carved into the sandstone cliff above Matala’s beach would inspire her to write one of her most legendary songs – Carey, featured on her best-selling 1971 album Blue.
During the 1960s a community of backpacking hippies had settled in Matala bringing their alternative vision of life to this remote corner of Crete. In those days most locals had never seen a tourist before let alone independent travellers, and it was here that Joni immortalised the idyllic 1960s hippie scene against the backdrop of life on a Cretan shore.
The caves – that survive today – had originally housed lepers in Stone Age times and during the Roman occupation of Crete they had been used as burial crypts. When the hippies arrived searching for peace and enlightenment, the caves were the ideal location to set up home. Years later Joni Mitchell remembered Matala as a tiny village with two grocery shops, two kafenio, a bakery where the owner made fresh yogurt and bread, and a general store that had the only telephone in town.
Comfort in the caves was limited. When the hippies first began using them, some dug out more rooms into the mountainside, but sleeping there was a challenge. No inflatable air beds in those days! More often than not beach pebbles placed on the stone slabs covered with beach grass were the only materials available.
One of the most famous lines of the song Carey (dedicated to her then boyfriend Cary ‘Carrot’ Raditz – the mis-spelling was Joni’s) mentions the Mermaid Cafe, which was a real cafe where they met, and became the hippies’ favourite. Owned by a local Stelios Xagorarakis, Stelios was forced to close the business soon after Joni Mitchell’s visit and ended up living in California.
Matala is located 68km southwest of Heraklion at the exit of a small valley which forms an enclosed bay with nice view to the Paximadia islands. The drive south from Rethymno via Spili, Agia Galini and Tymbaki takes around 90 minutes.
Today in season the main beach below the caves can get very busy. Well organised with sunbeds and umbrellas, toilets, showers and lifeguard, much of the beach is dotted with tamarisk trees offering shade. To escape the crowds and get a real taste of the boho pioneers who came here in the 1960s, better follow the signs to Red Beach, a 30-minute scramble over the rocks. A beach for free spirits, nudist bathing is also allowed here.
Top bites and bars
Scala Fish Taverna (28920 45489)
To the east of the main beach, the modern Scala is reported to be Matala’s best eaterie. This family-run taverna has been serving up fresh fish and seafood since the 80s. Great views of the caves is an added bonus. Reservations usually recommended in season.
George’s Yard (694 887 8600)
A popular favourite away from the more touristy tavernas. Excellent traditional Cretan and Greek fare at good prices. Plenty of vegetarian and vegan options too.
Lions (28920 45759)
Overlooking the beach Lions is a great and friendly place for a winding down on its breezy terrace. Better than average basic traditional Greek dishes
The Minoan site of Kommos is 3km north of Matala with a wide sandy beach. Accessing the site is restricted but it’s possible to see the ancient town’s streets and houses from nearby. One of the finest beaches in Crete the northern two-thirds is naturist.
Head north along the beach to the nearby village of Kalamaki where there are a number of tavernas. On the way, check out Karibu – a small oasis behind the beach. At this beach taverna in the shadow of tamarisk trees you can find delicious salads, souvlakis, cold beer, drinks and the mojitos are recommended. Bunga Bunga with its Carribean feel on Kommos Beach serves tasty organic dishes.
Featured image montage top left of frame shows Joni Mitchell and Cary Raditz
By Joni Mitchell
The wind is in from Africa
Last night I couldn’t sleep
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here Carey
But it’s really not my home
My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet
And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne
Oh Carey get out your cane
And I’ll put on some silver
Oh you’re a mean old daddy, but I like you fine
Come on down to the Mermaid Cafe and I will buy you a bottle of wine
And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down
Let’s have a round for these freaks and these soldiers
A round for these friends of mine
Let’s have another round for the bright red devil
Who keeps me in this tourist town…
Feature photo: Wikimedia Commons/Höhlenblick (https://www.flickr.com/photos/villagehero/)