When I planned this trip, most of what I knew about Crete came from ancient Greek mythology. I knew Theseus and the Minotaur and little else. I always heard it referred to as Crete and nothing else. However, like nearly every place that I visited on this trip, there were numerous things to be discovered.
Not long after it dawned on me that there was more than one place on this rather huge island, we began to prioritize just where we, in fact, did want to go. Heraklion is one of, if not the largest city on the island and the main port so we entered there. We arrived early evening and after a short walk, found the bus to our hotel. It was a rather long ride. Heraklion reminds me a lot of Panama City Beach, Florida. It’s a busy, touristy beach town, yet retains a small feel to it. We got off the bus one stop too soon and had to walk. Katrina asked if we should eat before or after we dropped our stuff at the hotel. Although we were both quite hungry, I said that we should drop our things first…..”unless we find a shisha place.” No sooner were the words out of my mouth, then my eyes fell on a shisha bar right across the street. Despite this coincidence, to Katrina’s (and my own) chagrin, I still suggested that we drop our things and come back. Which we did, rather quickly. After shisha and food, we walked the main strip of town and returned to the hotel.
The next day, we set out for Knossos. This is the city where the story of Theseus takes place. We bought a special bus ticket that took us straight to the site and would give us a ride back for 5 euros. The site itself is interesting. It mixes old structures with reconstructions. I guess most archaeological sites do that, even the Athens Acropolis, but the signs here make that very clear. There is nothing here that stands out like the Parthenon, (a few paintings maybe), but like all these places, for me the best thing about it is simply being there. Based on fact or completely made up, this is the city in which one of the most popular (and a personal favorite) myths takes place. After touring the site, we visited the shops right outside. Realizing I needed a refresher and a reference, I bought a small book on Greek mythology. There was nothing in this book that can’t be googled, but I found it helpful as a refresher and for organizing the remainder of my trip when Katrina left.
We took the bus into the main part of the city and walked around there for a while. The Venetian Fort near the port was a pleasant walk. We found a nice seafood restaurant, which is where we were first introduced to Raki. Raki is local liquor. Places in Crete bring it out at the end of your meal for free. It is clear and we thought it was water, until we smelled it. I think we got 2 ½ shots out of the small bottle that the waiter brought to us. Pretty good stuff. We walked back towards the hotel through the main square area. Finding another shisha place, we of course had to stop. We were exhausted when we returned. It was a long, hot day.
The next day we took a bus to Chania. This city was recommended to us by a waiter in Athens. Heraklion is in the middle of the island. Chania is the largest city on the western side of the island. We stayed in a studio apartment just outside the city proper. We rented a car for what would be the first time this trip. The landlord’s son was quite helpful in both getting us a vehicle and giving us tips about where to go and how to get around. He named two beaches. Seitan Limania was fairly close, but you could only drive so far, then you had to hike down to it. We decided that this one was close enough to check out that afternoon. I got into the car and this is where I realized that the car was a manual. I can drive a manual without problem, but neither the car guy or the landlord warned us of this. Good thing that I mostly drove manual cars at home. It had been a while and this one obviously had an older transmission. There are many hills in this area so I was immediately thrown back into the worst manual transmission experience. We reached the parking area to hike down to the Seitan Limania (an extremely steep incline) and made our trek down to the beach. It was absolutely beautiful. Again, another beach that words do not really do justice for. The sun was beginning to go down and we wanted to go into town to eat and too much of a good thing is bad, so we cut our stay short, climbed the trail, and with a little prayer, go the car back up the hill. Parking in Chania is, let’s just say, a complicated situation, but after additional prayer we found another parking space a short walk from the strip of restaurants along the harbor. We split a seafood platter which included a brief debate about the proper way to eat sardines and octopus tentacles.
The next day we were off to Falasarna Beach. We spent most of the day here, even stopping at a restaurant on the way out and taking in another sunset. Again, I don’t know if I have ever seen a bad sunset, but something about these islands makes them even better. We went back into town to find a shisha place along the water. Mission accomplished.
Back to Heraklion
The next morning, we found the bus station and were back on our way to Heraklion, this time a different studio apartment and closer to the central part of town. At some point, I found a reference to the Church of St. Titus. I remembered that Titus, who has a book of the Bible named for him and was a disciple of Paul, was the bishop of Crete. The church was not the original church, but they claim his skull is housed there. You cannot see the skull, but you can go in and look at the box. This was Katrina’s last night in Greece so we ate, we drank, we sample Ouzo, which is the other local Greek liquor. All in all, a good end to the trip. That night we sat on the rooftop, which the apartment opened to and felt an earthquake tremor, my first ever (sort of, apparently, I slept through one when I went to Los Angeles in college). A great way to cap off two weeks of adventure.
The next day, I picked up another car that I had reserved. A few days before, I received a message from a friend of mine, that he and his wife were also visiting Crete. So, I dropped Katrina at the airport and was off to Elounda, which is more on the Eastern portion of the island. This was a well-timed visit. It gave me the opportunity to visit that side of the island, which I had been trying to decide where to go, and it served to cushion the transition from traveling with another person to traveling completely alone. It was a pleasant drive to Elounda. My friends, Rex and Alexa, were staying at, how do I say this, I very luxurious hotel, a huge step up from the hostel/cheap hotel/studio, life. After catching up on the old days, we got lunch in the hotel restaurant, then took the boat taxi out to Spinalonga Island, an abandoned island not far from the beach. There were ruins from the Venetian period here and at one point the entire island served as a leper colony. We returned to the hotel for a bit, went into town for a bite, then called it a night. We caught the breakfast buffet the next morning, which was a special affair. There was a variety of food and people. You could have Champaign if you were so inclined (yeah, that kind of place.) After the breakfast show, we talked about the old days a little more, then I was off again, back across the island and back to Chania. I arrived that evening and settled into my hotel. A big step down from the resort, but cozy.
The next morning, I caught the bus to Samaria Gorge. Samaria Gorge is a national park/land reserve. I mostly knew it from mythology. Somewhere around that area is where Zeus’ mother hid him from his father Chronos so that he would not be eaten. (Google it if you’re scratching you head.) It was fairly early (for me at least). It was hazy and even misty that morning. I didn’t mind, because the temperature was cool, but I did expect to get rained on. The hike is 13K, which is not so bad, but for the first portion I spent a good deal of time watching my feet to make sure I did not step wrong and twist and ankle or go sliding down the mountain. The trail is pretty obvious to follow and gets easier as you get farther along. There is a variety of landforms to see as you descend and a few old settlements. There are some Neolithic remains and places where rebels hid while Crete/Greece fought the Ottomans. You, more or less, follow the stream through the gorge and on to the sea. On reaching the sea, I was beyond exhausted and the fog and coolness from the morning was long gone. I had to wait for the ferry so I chugged some water and found a nice cool bar. The ferry took us back to where we could catch the bus back to Chania. That night I researched ferries to Rhodes. There was one leaving around noon the next day. I decided to take a risk and not book a ticket. Getting there that early would mean two early mornings in a row, driving back to Heraklion, returning the car, then getting to the port in time. I set my alarm, but went to bed not sure what I would do when I heard it go off. I did manage to get up and get on the road. The port was a short walk from the car place. I made it to the ticket office, bought my ticket and only had a short wait for the overnight ferry. My plan was to go to Patmos from there, the ferry for which left later the following afternoon. I did not realize that Samaria Gorge would be the first in a string of early mornings/no sleep followed by long days of walking, but I didn’t come to Greece to sleep or sit in a hotel room did I?
Yes, almost as readily accessible as Athens and not bad. I forget the names of the places (I have to do better.) The first was mine and Katrina’s first night in Heraklion. It was more of a bar that happened to have food and shisha. The flavor was OK. Several places here (as in the U.S.) offer shisha as more of a novelty thing to do. The staff (mostly young women) do not really know how to act when connoisseurs such as Katrina and myself show up. The atmosphere was also merely OK. They were trying too hard to be hip in my opinion. Another bar, in the square also offered shisha. Again, not bad, maybe even better than the first, but not the best I’ve had, even in Greece. The third place was in Chania. Another bar, I like the atmosphere here much better, but was exhausted that day. Again, flavor was decent, but not the best. I could say this for nearly every place I’ve gone on this trek. The resort in Elounda also had shisha, but, according to Rex (who now that I think about it, was my original shisha buddy when we both lived in Al Ain), it cost 60 euro. Considering I could pay 4-6 euro in other places and even less when I return to UAE, I was able to pass it up.
Except for the occasional confusion over directions while driving (and perhaps the earthquake) I loved nearly every minute of this portion of the trip. I believe I could say that about the whole journey, but in many ways Crete was a microcosm of all of Greece. There are historical/biblical places, beautiful beaches, plenty of restaurants/cafes/nightlife things to do with places like Samaria Gorge thrown into the mix. Its history is both unique and representative of the wider nation. I do not know if that can be said of many other places in the world.