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    • Travel can be fascinating, but to me, the best part about it is people. More specifically, the Last People: people whose way of life is disappearing as we speak. They are the last of their kind; their children will grow up to live differently, and their culture will fade from the face of the Earth together with them.

      The Last People are the living, vanishing history, and I wanted to record their stories while they are still around.

      I'd like to kick off the series by sharing a story about the last nomadic shepherds of Europe.

    • Running a wooden komboloi through his fingers, Pavlos Kriaras orders another round of tsikoudia, local Cretan moonshine, and offers a toast. Much like his friends in Anopoli, a tiny mountain village on the southern shore of Crete, Pavlos is a shepherd – one of the last true nomads in the Western world.  Together with his brother, Pavlos is doing what his father, grandfather, and great grandfathers before them have been doing for thousands of years: herd their sheep in the mountains, moving freely with their animals wherever the pastures are greener.

      But tonight, gathered in a small kafenio - a traditional shepherds’ coffee house sheltered against the foot of the mountain - Pavlos and his fellow shepherds are sharing food, wine, and gossip. It’s late October, and they have long come down from the summer grasslands in the mountains.

      Most traditional Cretan shepherds will spend two to three months following their animals in utter solitude, carrying a shepherd’s staff and usually, a rifle, sleeping under the stars and in traditional mitatos - small stone houses scattered across the hills.

      “The mountains season you”, - sighs Pavlos, and smiles.

    • In modern day Europe, free roaming shepherds are practically extinct. Due to industrialized farming and privatization of land, being a nomad is simply no longer an option in the West, and on mainland Europe, very few shepherds remain grazing their animals freely high up in the Carpathians and the Balkans.

      But in the Greek island of Crete, this thousand-year old tradition is still alive and flourishing.

      “My father took me to the mountains for the first time when I was barely six years old. When I turned twelve, he left me there to tend to the sheep alone. For the first few nights on my own, I was scared and I cried... But the mountains quickly mature you. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else”, - Pavlos says.

    • Manolis Nikolaudis, a fellow shepherd and bee-keeper, adds that this isn’t for everybody. “Not just anyone can be a shepherd: you must be a Cretan, and your father must be a Cretan – there are no courses or schools for shepherds. Your father or your uncle must teach you. It’s lonely, very lonely up there in the mountains. You’re on your feet all the time. You’re on your own all the time. If it isn’t your calling, it can become unbearable. But me, I only
      feel alive when I’m in the mountains. Only when you’re risking your life you
      can really, truly breathe freedom”.

    • Both Pavlos and Manolis wear black shirts – a sign of defiance in Crete – and carry loaded rifles.

      “It’s mostly for protection. I need a rifle for self-defense – and sometimes for dinner, too, as there’s some hunting in the mountains. When you’re on your own for months on end, you never know whom you might meet up there. Sometimes, there might be smugglers. Bad people. I wouldn’t feel safe without my gun. And yes, it’s illegal to carry a rifle in
      Greece. But this is Crete first, and Greece, second”, - declares Manolis.

    • Hunting rabbits and self-defense isn’t always the real reason, though. Despite a very modern face of Crete – a popular Mediterranean destination for holidays, beach parties and SPA retreats – the whole island is still tightly knit together by an intricate clan system. And clans don’t always get along: bullet-ridden signs, shady makeshift barricades on rarely used
      mountain tracks, and the notorious black shirts all bear witness to a tradition of bloody vendetta.

    • “It’s going away: there are less and less vendetta killings with every year. But the clan system is still something that people adhere to and respect. Just recently, Janis, a young man from the neighboring village had to quit his job and leave his wife and son in Athens to return to Crete, pick up his father’s rifle and leave for the mountains. His uncle was killed in a vendetta clash a few years ago, and Janis is now the last surviving male of his family. He never questioned it – he packed up his life in Athens and came back to Crete within a blink of an eye. He now herds sheep and makes cheese in the mountains, just like us”, - remarks Pavlos with a sigh.

      “The black shirts we wear aren’t just a sign of defiance, it’s also a sign of mourning. It’s hard to find a family of mountain people who hadn’t lost a father, a brother or a son to a vendetta dispute. We never forget”.

    • Just as bloody clashes between opposing clans are an ever-rarer occurrence in Crete, the shepherds’ way of life itself is rapidly vanishing, too.

      The tradition of animal herding is becoming obsolete: there’s better money to be made opening a little beach resort or a hotel, and Greece’s inclusion into the European Union is making it harder for independent shepherds to survive.

      “Our cheeses used to be popular not just in Crete, but the whole of Greece, the whole of Europe, even. A lot of our cheese-making traditions are at least a thousand years old! But now that Greece is in the European Union, cheese-making is becoming more and more regulated. We used to make cheese in the mitatos, leaving it to mature between rocks and in cool caves, but now, we’re told it’s anti-sanitary. Anti-sanitary! They want us to buy these massive cheese maturing machines and refrigerators, but not only we can’t afford them, our recipes would have to change. The feed for sheep, goats and mules is more and more costly every year. Oh, Greece is killing us… The tradition of herding sheep will
      end with us. We’re the last generation of free shepherds in Crete, and that’s
      just how life is”, - Pavlos says quietly.

    • Pavlos knows that his children will most likely work in offices, not mountains.

      “We can’t make a living being shepherds anymore. I keep bees. Other shepherds rent their mules for tourist rides or covert their houses to small hostels just to make ends meet. Every spring, when the snow melts, we still take the sheep up into the mountains, but every spring, there are less and less of us meeting in the mitatos”, Manolis adds.

      Photos: @rtwPaul, Daphne Manoussaki

    • What a beautiful, interesting, and sad story. Thank you for telling it. You're a very talented writer. How did you come to learn about them? Did you meet them in your travels?

      All over the world, it seems, people are being left behind by the advance of cities and technology and culture. Those of us who live in cities with our smartphones say we would never go back, so it's interesting to read about people who would.

    • You are too kind!

      We were traveling Crete on a motorcycle and just kept seeing these men in the mountains. Sometimes they were old men, sitting and smoking pipes, sometimes younger ones just walking alongside their herds of sheep.

      I asked a friend, a Chania university professor Daphne Manoussaki, who these people were and she told me they were nomadic shepherds. In Crete, they are held in very high regard because they know the land so well and so intimately; one of the shepherds who is now 86 years old can still out-climb the young and fit members of the Heraklion Mountaineering Club. But they are mostly respected so much because of their guerrilla stance against the Nazis during WW2 - a lot of Cretan shepherds fought the invading Germans with whatever they had, including their staffs. As a result, a few villages were razed to the ground but the shepherds never surrendered. So in a way, it's like they represent the very soul of Crete.

      They also often rescue lost mountaineers, climbers and hikers as they are always there, in the mountains. "Anyone who is a friend of nature is our friend", - Manolis told me.

      No Cretan will tell you that he or she is Greek; they are always Cretan first, Greek second, and this spirit of defiance and independence is still very much alive there, especially among the nomad shepherds. Some of them still wear the black tasseled caps, called sariki, and each black spur represents a tear for the fallen Constantinople (they still refuse to call the city Istanbul). Others say that each sariki spur represents the years of the Otoman rule over Crete, or the tragedy of the Arkadi Monastery where the local abbot gathered the monks and the remaining civilians, some one thousand Cretans, in the gunpowder room and where they blew themselves up in the last desperate attempt to stop the invading Turks.

      It was Daphne who introduced us to Pavlos and the others, and translated all that happened that night in the little kafenio.

    • I had the privilege of spending some time in Israel several years ago and a little time with bedouins and their sheep there. I am always interested in the culture and the people when I travel. So I asked our guide to ask them if I could help them wash their sheep. They laughed but agreed. I had been so taken by the fact that the sheep were so tame while they were being washed. They really seemed to know the shepherds and even tolerated me as I waded into the stream and helped. I am afraid their lifestyle is probably also not going to last long.