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Camping in Matala, Crete

Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, and Joni Mitchell once lived in the caves of Matala, Crete. What is so special about the people and the nature in this area of Southern Crete, and why is it still a popular destination today for Cretan residents and visitors alike? 

 

We are thankful for the help of Donny Lee Duke, a past temporary resident of Matala and creator of Harm’s End Productions. Donny camped in Matala in the early 2000’s and shares the personal journey that brought him to Matala, as well as the Cretan hospitality which helped him get there. He also wrote a book, which can be found here.

Matala Beach Caves | Photo by Milada Vigerova
Matala Beach Caves | Photo by Milada Vigerova

Where is Matala? 

Matala is a small town on the southern coast of the island of Crete and is known specifically for the Matala Beach Festival. Visitors come from all over the world to listen to Matala Beach Festival’s music and to marvel at the beautiful sidewalk art. 

 

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Matala was a major pilgrimage site for peace lovers in Europe. They used to famously live in the caves and in the surrounding hillsides next to Matala Beach. The focus of the commune was the promotion of happiness, freedom, community, and love. 

 

The Matala Caves  

These caves were built by settlers in the Neolithic times and were used as Roman tombs back in the first century.  The most famous visitors who lived in Matala from abroad were Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, and Joni Mitchell. After a short stay, the cave’s residents were driven out of the fishing town of Matala by the junta in the 1960s. Nowadays, the caves are roped off. 

Why Did Donny Choose Crete? 

“There’s some magic here,” was Donny’s first comment. “That island has had a dramatic impact on my life. It really is where European civilization started I feel — it’s essential nature, where the Gods were born.” 

 

How Did Donny End Up in Matala?

“I arrived on Crete with no cash and was looking for free camping. I got to Crete from Athens. I had no money, no bank account, no assets and made my way by working any job I could get. I was hoping to winter on Crete and write, and Nikos Kazantzakis has been a big inspiration for me, especially his Report to Greco, and I had also spent time in the Holy Lands. I first went to his museum but was told they did not have a place for writers to stay yet.” 

Matala | Photo by Leonhard Niederwimmer
Matala

Mythical Greek Hospitality 

Donny’s sightseeing in Crete was enhanced by the generosity of the local Cretans.

 

“I was always fascinated by the story of the Minotaur, and so the next place I went to was the Palace of Knossos. It was closed. At dawn I awoke and prayed, hoping to gain entry to the palace. I got up, gathered my gear, and I went to the site and was let in for free. The man at the ticket counter said he liked my big smile.” 

 

It is not uncommon to hear stories of local Cretans showing hospitality to foreigners, especially if it is their first time on the island.  

Palace of Knossos

Getting to Matala

“After a long visit, I went to the highway, and a city bus stopped and the driver told me to get on, and I said I had no money, and he told me to get on anyway. We went in the direction of Heraklion. He dropped me off where I could get a ride to the visitor’s center.” 

 

“In a few minutes a man on a scooter stopped in front of me and asked, “Are you Irish? You look Irish.” I had long hair down past my shoulders and a long beard. I was 41. I told him no, and he said it didn’t matter because, being American, I probably had some Irish blood. I asked him about a place to camp, and he told me to go to Matala, up on the mountain.” 

 

“He told me about the hippie caves but said no one could camp there now, but on the mountain, on the way to Red Beach, it was possible to camp. Then he took me to the bus stand, gave me five euros for lunch, paid my bus fair, and said goodbye, and I was on my way to Matala, having never heard of the place before.” 

Matala | Photo by Leonhard Niederwimmer
Matala | Photo by Leonhard Niederwimmer

What it Was Like to Camp in Matala 

Donny describes his time camping in Matala, and the relationships he made with the locals. “I got a job as a handyman for a retired East German spy who lived in London for many years as a scientist. I spent my days writing at a bar, the first one you came to once you got off the beach, and I didn’t drink or buy anything, just sat there and wrote.” Donny was surprised that the locals would allow him to do so, without him offering money. 

Secluded Beach in Southern Crete
Secluded Beach in Southern Crete

Matala Today

Matala is now a quiet seaside town in southern Crete. It is no longer possible to live in the mountains or in the caves of Matala, and it resembles many of the other quaint Cretan villages in the area.  

 

Matala keeps a charm with its traditional tavernas and pristine beaches, some which have a blue flag distinction. It is the ideal place for sun tanning, relaxing and romantic evenings watching the sunset. The usually quiet town gets busy in the summer during the festival. The annual Matala Beach Festival will take place in July, 2024. 

 

The Matala Beach Festival 

The International Matala Beach Festival on Crete will happen this year from July 5-7 and will transport visitors back to the hippie era with music events, sports, and art activities for children. The festival will include people of all ages and will last for three days. 

Matala | Photo by Leonhard Niederwimmer

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