My Loutro by Julie Friedeberger

My Loutro

Julie FriedebergerHello. I’m Julie Friedeberger, and Yannis has kindly invited me to contribute occasionally to Explore Crete. I’m really glad to, because I’ ve loved Crete for almost 20 years, since my husband and I first discovered the Great Island in 1981.

We’ve travelled around quite a lot (until I got ‘stuck’ in Loutro!) but have only scratched the surface, so Crete always keeps pulling us back.

In 1984, on our way back to Sfakia from the Samaria Gorge, we had our first glimpse of Loutro from the deck of the “Sofia”, one of the little ferries that preceded the giants that now ply Crete’s southwest coast. I thought: I have to come back here one day.

It took eight years to get back, but we finally made it in 1992, and again in 1993. From that beginning, Loutro and the mountains and sea in that area have been very special to me. I am always happy when I’m there. There is a powerful energy everywhere in Crete, but it is particularly powerful there. As Marjeta says ‘it’s the place where one feels closer to God than anywhere else’.

So, when I was recovering from breast cancer surgery in the early spring of 1994, Loutro was where I wanted to be as soon as I was able to travel. On impulse I booked a flight and a week’s flower-walking holiday, and went. Being there, walking in the hills and swimming in the sea, was healing and energizing, and when I returned home to England I was ready to pick up the threads of my life again.

That week in Loutro was a turning point, and it played a vital part in my healing. Later, when I wrote a book about my experience of breast cancer, I included a passage about that trip and what it did for me. And when Yannis asked me to write something for Explore Crete, I immediately thought of this passage. I sent it to him, he liked it, and here it is. I hope you will like it.

The photographs are from that 1994 trip.

A Healing Place by Julie Friedeberger

At the beginning of March I felt the first urge to sniff the air outside my burrow and dip into the stream of life again. On impulse I decided to go to Loutro, in southwest Crete, for a week in early April. Klaus, my husband, and I had had two good holidays there; thinking about it, I longed to be there, to get up into the mountains and plunge into the sea.

Loutro in Crete

Through Freelance Holidays I had booked a flower-walking holiday led by Jeff Collman, a professional botanist. I had wanted to do some ‘serious’ walking in the mountains above Loutro since we first went there, but I wasn’t prepared to venture alone into those virtually uninhabited hills, where it’s so easy to lose yourself or break an ankle miles from anywhere. I had only done short forays of an hour or so out of the village; here was my chance to go further.

Loutro in Crete, White Mountains

“‘Walking with the Spring Flowers” sounds like a pleasant amble, but most of the walks were all-day expeditions that took us high into the steep, stony hills, and were a real test of stamina and fitness. I passed. Only four months after major surgery, I was up to it; the rucksack straps never even chafed my scar.

Loutro in Crete, flowers

The walks were terrific. The April sky was clear, the air pure and crisp, the flowers beautiful – fields-full and hillsides-full of deep, rich, brilliant poppies and anemones and others, both common and rare, whose names I never learned. Jeff was knowledgeable about them, and I enjoyed seeing them, but I was intoxicated with my real love, the wild, bare, majestic landscape of southern Crete, and after a brief inspection of what was going on at ground level I let my fellow-botanists get on with it while I looked up at the magnificent mountains.

I swam, too, whenever I got the chance, which was often several times a day: early in the morning before we set off, in the evening when we returned, and during the day whenever our route took us down to the sea. My father taught me to swim when I was five. I loved swimming then because he loved it, and I’ve loved it ever since. In fact, I love water – drinking it, bathing or showering in it, swimming in it, walking in the rain. Nothing wakes me up or cheers me up quicker than getting wet. Especially in the sea. That first moment of immersion is special, almost holy. After a swim in the sea I always feel refreshed, energized, revitalized. In southwest Crete the water is particularly clear and clean and lively, sparkling in the sun, reflecting every shade of blue from the sky. It’s full of life force, and being in it is cleansing, life-enhancing.

Loutro lies at the foot of Crete’s White Mountains, the Lefka Ori; the spring snow-melt flows into the Libyan sea and cold springs bubble up from the sea bed. The water is cold even in mid-June; at the beginning of April it was freezing. I got in quickly, submerged myself completely, and, as I’ve always done, pulled the straps of my swimming costume down to get as much of me as possible in contact with the water, baring my breasts – now my breast – to the sea. The cold salt water bathed my wound, flowed glacially over it, stimulating and cleansing and healing; within two minutes the icy cold was bearable and I would swim until it was time to get on with the walking.

A passage from the Rig Veda (an ancient Sanskrit text) came into my thoughts often as I swam.

“In the midst of the Waters is moving the Lord, surveying men’s truth and men’s lies. How sweet are the Waters, crystal clear and cleansing! Now may these great divine Waters quicken me!”

Loutro in Crete

The last time I was here’ I thought, nine months ago, I still had two breasts. Now, as I swim, I can see only one. I still slip my straps off as soon as I’m in the water. The view is different now. One breast hangs down, as I look down: the left side is flat, no breast there. It feels strange. In fact, to be here, so different, so soon after I was last here, throws everything into sharp relief. Of course, the tumour was there last June, unknown to me.

When I got home, I wrote in my journal: ‘the week in Crete has made me feel ‘normal’ again. I’ve forgotten about cancer. Being one-breasted has been all right. It was a good week for me in every way. It was good to push myself physically. It was good to be in a group of strangers and cope with being single-breasted. It was good to travel on my own, with no anxiety. It was good to be welcomed in Loutro by Rob and Bob and Alison and Maria and the others – it was like coming home.’

hiking at Loutro in Crete

Duncan, one of my yoga students, said, just after I got home from hospital, ‘Do what gives you joy.’ Crete, being in Crete, gives me joy. Swimming at Loutro, Marmara, Sweetwater, gives me joy. ‘Walking’ in the mountains gives me joy. Teaching gives me joy. Going for a walk in the park with Klaus gives me joy.

And Peter, a member of our walking group, said: “Never postpone happiness”.

On our second walk, high up on the Anopolis plateau, Esje noticed a tree, stopped, and exclaimed to her husband, ‘Peter – are there really buds on that tree?’ Its trunk was dead and gone, no wood, only a big swirl of grey bark left. Most of its branches were dead. But everywhere there were buds, about to burst into flower. What an effort, what an achievement, what faith. However ravaged the body, we can still put forth buds, we go on flowering.

One of my favourite swimming places in Crete is Marmara Beach, a tiny pebble cove a couple of miles west of Loutro, with water even clearer and livelier. Marmara means ‘marble’: all the surrounding rocks are white marble, and there is a series of marble caves along the coast next to the beach. Most of them have only one entrance, but I had discovered two summers before that there was one I could swim into through one opening, turn a narrow corner where the sea swirled against the rocks, and swim out through another opening.

Loutro in Crete, wild flowers

It was dark inside, and somewhat scary, but exhilarating, and since that first cave swim it had had a deep significance for me – it was a metaphor for going through things and coming out on the other side. On our first day we ended up at Marmara late in the afternoon and I swam into my cave. Now my metaphor held a new meaning.

Another entry from my journal: “Going to Loutro was the best thing I could have done. Apart from being a lovely holiday it showed me that I am well, that I am fit, that I can cope. I’ve never felt that I’ve been doing battle with cancer. I’ve lived with it and let it teach me. I’ve gone through it. And here I am, out the other side of the cave. There may be a long way to swim yet, but this I’ve done: I’ve swum into the cave, into the darkness, turned the corner, and swum out the other side, into the light.

And the tree, the blighted trunk with buds that Esje saw. The other metaphor of the week. How we go on, with faith, with confidence, doing what it is in our nature to do, doing what we were put here to do: creating, expanding, living, and we go on doing it until we die, however ravaged the body.

The week was a watershed. It marked the end of my recovery, and what I’d thought of as my ‘retreat’, which had lasted four months, while I tried to come to terms with all the realities of cancer, and the beginning of my return to life and work. I had decided to return to teaching after Easter; returning from Loutro, I knew I was ready”.

It was during that week, six years ago, that I decided that I would spend as much time in that part of Crete as I possibly could. I have been back many times, twice and sometimes three times a year, to walk in those hills, and swim, and just sit and look about me. It’s always wonderful, always restorative and rejuvenating. It really is a place of healing. But then – so is the whole of the great island of Crete, and I hope to visit it many more times. Crete is….home.

My book is called “A Visible Wound: A Healing Journey through Breast Cancer“, and it was published by Element Books in 1996. It’s largely about how I got through that experience with the help of yoga, which I have practised and taught for many years. I now teach yoga to people with cancer, and help to train teachers who are interested in working in this area.

By Julie Friedeberger, [email protected]


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