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Costis Fountoulakis started learning the art of saddling a horse near Georgis Tsachakis in Saint Galin, who had 5-6 employees back then. But during the German Occupation, when the Englishmen started bombing the Germans at the port, his mother was afraid that her boys would be killed and took them to Apodoulou village, in the inland of the region Amari, in order to save them. That is where saddler Nicholas Rizikianos had his shop, and Costis Fountoulakis immediately started to work there as an intern.
Plane tree wood
"There were three of us learning the art of making saddles under Rizikianos, one from Saint Paraskevi, one from Platanos and one from Kouroutes, but it wasn't for free. I finally ended up becoming his partner, buying half the shop". They used platanus (plane tree) wood cut a couple of days after the full moon of August and January. If the wood was cut during the days of the full moon, it got worms and eventually turned into dust. Apodoulou and Saint Paraskevi had no plane trees, so people had to buy this kind of wood from other villages such as Gerakari, Patso, Messonissa and Lampiota.
"There were no cars back then, so I used to pay the priest's father to carry the wood for me on his three donkeys. We used to cut the wood with a two handle saw. The wood was not very hard and was easily cut. Then we rasped it and frayed it with a slim glass plane which we used instead of sandpaper".
The leather that Costis used came from sheep or goats. The stirrup leathers, the girth and the martingale were, however, made of donkey leather or cowhide, taken only after the animal had passed. The inlay of the saddle, the part that touches the animal, was made of sheep's wool. The saddle was then stuffed with dried, fluffy grass that grew near rivers and swamps. The horn of the saddle was filled with bulrush.
"Saddle ornaments were not made by us, but by other artisans. We used to buy them and pin them with nails painted with silver colour, and we also sewed strips with black thread on the loops. We did other kinds of artistry as well because, in some villages, like Krya Vrysi, people were especially devoted to their animals and wanted to have beautiful saddles.
Once Costis had finished making a saddle, he had to deal with the problem of taking it to its new owner. "I loaded a mare with three saddles, two in its right and left sides and one in its croup. The roads were bad and I had to protect the saddles from being ripped off by the trees. It took a lot of hard work to make them; at least a week for each saddle. During the German Occupation when people had no money to pay me, they used to give me olive oil in exchange".
The saddler's art has been lost
There were times when Costis Fountoulakis had a lot of work, up to ten orders at a time. "Slow down, wait your turn", he used to say. Nowadays cars have replaced donkeys, making the art of saddling obselete. His tools are rusting and the words used to describe these tools and parts of saddles are spoken only by him and his co-workers.
The saddles he wasn't able to sell are also left to rot in warehouses and yards until someone decides to throw them in a fireplace on a cold winter's night. His descendants will someday be forced to throw them away in order to make room in the sheds.
If local authorities had a little imagination and the state's financial help, they could create small folklore museums in Amari's villages, which would be filled with traditional treasures. That way, the big hotel units of Rethymnon county and especially those ones in Saint Galini's village, would be able to offer tourists an interesting alternative and urge them to travel to visit the forgotten villages of the western side of Mount Ida, situated not far away from the beaches.
TEXT-PHOTOS: GEORGE ZAFEIROPOULOS