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Crete : It is a land of open doorways that invite passers-by to enjoy the smell of baking bread, eavesdrop on a musician's lesson or watch print shop workers set type by hand.

May 15, 1988|DOUGLAS BARTHOLOMEW | Bartholomew is a free-lance writer living in Berkeley .

AYIOS NIKOLAOS, Crete — Only two buses a day go to the mountain-ringed Lasithi plain, which schoolboys and girls know as the "birthplace of Zeus."

Like a hole in a giant doughnut of alpine mountains, the 6-by-4-mile plain is Crete's most fertile land. In the spring this sprawling valley, flat as a billiards table and just as green, floods with the waters of melting snow from the high country.

Afterward, in the late summer and fall, 10,000 windmills begin spinning almost magically, which adds to the valley's enchanting feel. White canvas sails help pump water from mountain streams to irrigate the grapes, apples and olives that are the bounty of eastern Crete.

We took Crete's main highway west from Ayios Nikolaos to the foothills of the Dhikti Mountains to begin a slow, snakelike ascent to one of only two passes affording entrance to this great plain. Along the way we crossed colorful alpine meadows and skirted snow-laden gorges before descending to the plateau.

After a brief excursion across the plain we arrived at the village of Psychro at the foot of Mt. Dhikti. The bus then climbed a few hundred feet before wheezing to a stop in a gravel lot.

From that point, travelers can either hire a guide with a donkey for a few hundred drachmas or hike to the Dhiktaion Cave and Zeus' legendary home. Feeling energized by the crisp, wildflower-scented mountain air, I chose to hike.

The trek to the cave is a quarter-mile of steep, rocky terrain that would make even Crete's elusive wild goat, the agrimi , gasp for breath. During my frequent stops to rest, I was rewarded with glorious vistas: the patchwork-quilt splendor of the great Lasithi flatland lay in stark contrast to the 8,500-foot snowy peaks of the Dhikti Mountains. One of three great ranges on Crete, the Dhiktis resemble California's Sierra Nevada in their rugged shapes and rocky barrenness at higher elevations.

Near the mouth of the Dhiktaion Cave a little fellow who spoke only Greek sold candles for the equivalent of 80 cents apiece. Fortunately, I had come prepared, bringing along a flashlight.

The cave was discovered in 1881 by residents who were later joined by British archeologists. They found hundreds of votive offerings, some of which are displayed in the Heraklion Museum in the Cretan capital.

The descent into the cave is precipitous and often slippery. It is best undertaken by those with strong legs, sturdy shoes and a flashlight. As my eyes became accustomed to the subterranean darkness, I realized that scores of firefly-like lights deep within the cave were candles held aloft by visitors far below us.

Deep inside the mammoth fissure it is easy to sense how a people could believe that Zeus, their most powerful god, was brought up here. Great chambers soar to heights of 30 feet or more. Stalactites swell to a girth of several feet, hanging suspended from vault-like reaches decorated with unearthly pinks, yellows and ambers.

Unlike the visitor caves elsewhere, Dhiktaion Cave is without electrical lighting. A flashlight is a must for anyone who wishes to observe its beauty. Candles are all but useless in the black depths of the Dhiktaion hole.

Outside once again, the great green-carpeted Lasithi plain lay before me. You could imagine how its patterned symmetry easily could have been devised by a Zeus. With a couple of hours to spare, I hiked down the mountain to the tiny village of Psychro.

Under sunny-blue skies I passed fields of poppies and daisies, rows of beans and groves of olive trees, farmers tending their fields, windmills awaiting use in a dryer season and occasional tavernas.

Entering the village of Plati I saw a cat lazing in the sun while a little girl played with a brightly colored doll, her mother busy with weaving. A postman was stopping to chat with residents along his route.

Every door and window offered sights and smells to engage one's curiosity. Crete, it seems, is a land of open doorways that invite the passer-by to sniff bread in the baking, eavesdrop on a young musician's lesson or observe workmen in a print shop set type by hand, as they've done here for almost 500 years.

This is a land where the traveler encounters unexpected joys. As I rounded a turn in the road in Plati I met an old man coming from the other direction. We spoke in French, our common tongue.

His name was Zachariah, and at 78 he continued to work as a potato farmer. "But no work can be as good as relaxing on a day like today," Zachariah said, his eyes twinkling with the spark of a man who simply enjoys life. He cut a Zorba-like figure, with his dark green army jacket, thick black sweater, sea captain's hat, black pants and black boots, with a flower stuck behind an ear.

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