Exploring the Hippie caves of Matala, Crete

I’ve always wanted to visit Matala, to explore the Hippie caves and get a sense of how these people lived, how they spent their days and nights under the starry Cretan sky. Maybe it was because I loved listening to Janis Joplin’s, Bob Dylan’s and Joan Maez’s voice echoing the stone walls or Joni Michell’s song “Carey” travelling down the deep blue Matala Sea.

“The night is a starry dome
And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock & roll
Beneath the Matala Moon”

 Before visiting Matala, I read a lot about Hippies in this fishing village of the 1960s and its caves. Once upon a time, during the Neolithic Age, the prehistoric inhabitants of the island sculpted the rocks of the area and later, during the Roman occupation, these rocks were used as graves.

The first people that went to Matala and stayed in these sculpted caves were “Beatnik”, in 1965. These bohemian hedonists, praised their independence from the conservative society, the American dream and the acquisition of material goods and experimented with sex and hallucinogenic substances. Two years later, Hippies arrived. They stayed in the caves as primitives.

During winter they wore lamb’s wool to protect themselves from low temperatures and during summer they were half-naked. Most of them were highly educated and had consciously chosen to refrain from consumer society. They chose to live with peace and meditation. They wanted to be one with Mother Nature, to become “Children of God”.

Inside these caves, a famous love story began, a story that would remain in rock history forever, as it stood in the tradition by an immortal «child». The song “Carey” written by Joni Mitchell about Carey, a Hippie who came from America to find the real meaning of life and to discover its truth.

“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”

We will drink in the health of nothing, says the verse, to this nothing that encloses the concept of absolute freedom, which would soon stop violently from the Greek military junta (1967-1974).

Matala became known in a somewhat peculiar way. The first person who revolted against the hippies was Michalis Vamvoukas, who despite his young age started sending letters to the Cretan newspaper “PATRIS” asking for the “vulgar” to be removed, but also to the Despot of the region, whom was convinced that Orthodoxy was at risk. Then, Metropolitan Timothy (later Archbishop of Crete) issued a circular against the hippies. The circular was also published by Athenian newspapers and made international headlines.

American Magazine “Life” sent a journalist to Matala and in July 1968, the magazine’s cover featured a young couple in the Matala Caves, with Thomas Thompson’s write up and the stunning pictures of Denis Cameron. Everyone was reading about Matala, the Land of the Hippies Promise!

In the summer of 1969, however, the Cretan newspaper “Mediterranean” described the hippies as “bummer”, “unbalanced” and “abnormal” and that they “want to create the third sex”. Following such publications, the Prosecutor of Heraklion Michalis Tsevas ordered a special investigation into Matala Caves. Police raids by day and night searched for orgies. Evidence of third-sex creation was not found, but cannabis was discovered and as a result, there were seventeen convictions in total.

Today, Matala caves have been fenced, protected by the Archaeological Service and are accessible to tourists (with a 3 euros ticket) but no one is allowed to live there or stay overnight. However, residents told me that there are a few more Hippies living in the caves in the surrounding mountains, continuing the bohemian way of life.