“The local people are fascinated—they see us as Martians,” says expat Gill Leonard.
She and her partner, Derek Pearce, gave up a champagne lifestyle as successful IT consultants and moved to the Greek island of Crete six years ago. And, they’ve found a quirky way of earning a living…which took the locals even more by surprise.
Gill explains, “We grow lavender here. It’s ideally suited to the climate—and it smells absolutely heavenly.”
Not that creating an organic lavender farm was high on Gill’s list of priorities when she arrived. For Derek too, 62, the major attraction was a laidback lifestyle: “People here let you be who you are and do what you like. They’re never happier than when they see you happy,” he says.
Gill, 54, was seduced by the chance to get back in touch with nature. “I knew nothing about gardening. Here, I enjoy getting my hands dirty.”
After first renting, the couple bought a house in 2006. It cost them $284,000 and has two spacious bedrooms, a large, open-plan kitchen-living room, two large terraces, and a sprawling four acres of land.
Seeking a use for that acreage, Gill was inspired to grow lavender, a crop native to the Mediterranean.
“I’ve found a niche here, which means I’m not treading on anyone’s toes. And as a lavender farmer sharing my experiences with local olive farmers, I’ve also found a unique way to engage and exchange with the local community,” she explains.
Last year they harvested 110 pounds of lavender to produce approximately half a gallon of lavender oil. This was used to produce a range of balms, salves, perfumes, and topical applications, which were snapped up by local shops and members of the expat community.
“We’re starting small but plan to plant more lavender and extend our range to other plants each year,” Gill explains.
The couple’s farm is in Apokoronas, a sub-region of the Chania Province. Watered by the Kiliaris River, this is one of the greenest regions of Crete and ideal for farming.
“We never go far from home during harvest time. But we do sometimes make a trip to Polychromata, our favorite taverna, where they offer a wide range of local cuisine, including one of the best horta (wild herbs) salads with garlic and tomatoes I’ve ever tasted,” says Derek.
Their house is a stone’s throw from Kournas, Crete’s only freshwater lake, and a short drive from the popular resort of Georgioupolis, with its long, sandy beaches and tavernas serving home-cooked food.
Affected by the current recession, property prices have fallen by as much as 30% over the past couple of years. But apart from that, Crete has remained relatively unaffected by the economic crisis rocking the rest of the country.
“Crete is a world away from all those problems, and it’s peaceful here,” says Derek. “It’s paradise on earth here—maybe that’s why our lavender grows so well,” Derek laughs.
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