A look into the hippie caves of Matala that Joni Mitchell called home


There is a fishing village on the island of Crete, Greece dotted with manmade caves carved into the sandstone cliff. The village is known as Matala and, in the 1960s and ’70s, it was a community for backpacking hippies, one of whom was Joni Mitchell.

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It was here, according to Messy Nessy Chic, that Mitchell immortalized the ideal hippie scene with her critically acclaimed 1971 album, Blue, surrounded by an unspoiled beach, a beautiful bay and azure blue waters—the feeling of freedom in its purest form.

No one is sure when the caves were made, but they may have been used as Roman tombs. According to Explore Crete, besides the tombs, some of the caves contain carved beds, windows and porches, revealing that they were used as homes likely very long ago, then again in the ’60s with the arrival of the “flower children.”

“At Matala they found the place where they could express themselves, enjoy free love and create,” writes Explore Crete.

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According to an interview with Joni Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal, there were no homes in Matala—but they had two grocery stores, a bakery with fresh yogurt and bread, two cafes, a few rental huts, and a general store with the only phone in town.

Mitchell spent many years living in the caves, a place she wound up finding after a devastating breakup from her songwriter boyfriend, Graham Nash. After the breakup, Mitchell took off on a trip to Greece with her friend Penelope. People there would call out to her, “Sheepy, sheepy, Matala, Matala,” which meant “Hippie, hippie, go to Matala in Crete. That’s where your kind are.”

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Matala is also where Mitchell met Cary Raditz, the inspiration for her hit song “Carey.” In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, she said of their romance: “I enjoyed Cary’s company and his audacity. He had steely cold blue eyes and a menacing grin, and he was a bit of a scoundrel. We were constantly in each other’s company and spent our days talking, taking long walks, going swimming, cooking and doing the laundry. We just lived.”

Unfortunately Cretans, who lived in a remote corner of the island, had yet to ever see a tourist before—never mind the hippies with their progressive lifestyle. Over time the local reaction, which was spurred and organized by the church, drove most of them out. In the 1980s, the state decided to guard the ecosystems of Vai and Preveli, declaring them protected areas and forcing the remaining hippies out.

Today, the caves can still be visited, but no one can spend the night in them. While the nomadic hippie culture of Matala is nearly gone, there are still hints to its past. A few people in the area have tried to continue carrying out the liberating lifestyle, and of course, Mitchell’s “Carey” will always serve as a reminder of this period of freedom. As she sings, “The night is a starry dome. And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock and roll, beneath the Matala Moon.”

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