Hiding from a hurricane in Rethymno

As we make our way east along the north shore of Crete, we had planned just a three-day stop in the small, pretty city of Rethymno. At first, the weather forecast of rain and thunderstorms for our entire visit was nothing more than a disappointment. “We’ll go out between downpours – how bad can it be?”

When we found out that a rare “medicane”(Mediterranean hurricane) had done significant damage to some of the northern mainland and a couple of the Ionian islands and was headed for Crete, we took notice. However, lucky us, Crete got a pass from the worst of the storm. Our first night in Rethymno was rainy but the rest of our stay has been ideal – big dramatic skies and cooler temperatures. We have had the chance to see everything we wanted to see in the area, although weather closed the local beaches.

Rethymno is a delightful, smaller version of Chania – charming old town, narrow alleyways, Venetian and Ottoman influences and the harbour and lighthouse as a focal point.

We lucked out with our Airbnb – a spacious one-bedroom apartment on the top floor, with a broad balcony that overlooked the rooftops.

The view from our balcony looking down to the street below. We heard muted music and people’s voices, but otherwise, it was very quiet. And so clean: this morning we woke up to the sound of a street cleaner who was slowly moving along the road, vacuuming up cigarette butts and bits of garbage.

It seems the common denominator in every village, town and city in Greece is a large and well-cared-for cat population. They are neither friendly nor skittish – they just exist as part of the landscape; something I find quite endearing.

Laneways are another enchanting feature of Rethymno; you can get turned around, but never totally lost. All roads lead to a central square or the harbour or the main shopping street, so the challenge is just deciding whether to turn left or right.

We had fun watching the little boy trying to figure out his bike and was doing just fine until his older brother came along to help.

A typical small cafe tucked into an alley.

I loved these plant hangers. I know they fall into the “harder-than-it-looks” category, but I would love to try nailing together a number of small, flat boards and construct one of these for our balcony back home.

You know when you have set certain expectations for a recommended tourist site? The Rimondi Fountain was described as being a dramatic stone fountain set in a square. Visitors were urged to drink the fresh spring water from the fountain “to ensure your return to Rethymno”.

Well, I must have had an image of something along the scale of the Trevi Fountain, so we actually walked right past this once before we asked for directions and made our way back.

Other confused tourists were also dutifully snapping photos, but it was an underwhelming site. Even worse, there was no tap for fresh spring water, which I hope does not jinx our chances of returning.

All other sites in Rethymno more than made up for this. Some, like this modest building, just told a simple story.
During the 17th century, this building was one of two public baths (or hamams) in Rethymno, built by the Turks. It was a functioning hamam until 1925, and then became a bakery for many years. It was extensively restored and from 2000 on, was designated a protected site and became a hamam again.

Turkish architecture features prominently in Rethymno. Unique features include upper storeys that project out over the street by perhaps an additional two to three feet and are embellished with heavy wood and latticework.

This is a common site in Reythmno – the juxtaposition of original buildings beside renovated ones. The newer builds are still faithful to the architectural features of the old – just with better windows and more secure railings.

Rethymno is filled with many notable mosques and churches. I apologize for the lack of proper identification of the church – I took so many photos, and now am completely confused. They are all a variation on a theme, though – solid, understated elegance.

Neratzes Mosque

This mosque fronts onto a square that is flanked on one side by a park and on the other side by this mural. We walked out of the square into a neighbourhood that was filled with graffiti – all of it in Greek, with the exception of the obligatory “Fuck the Police“, but the tone had changed. Far less Instagram-worthy, not intended for tourist eyes, it was a lot more reflective perhaps of the struggles many Greeks have lived with for years.

Food has played an important part in our stay in Reythmno. The day we arrived, we hit the streets around 3:30 or 4:00, and before long, it began to rain. We took refuge in this restaurant, and snug as could be, we sat under the awning and watched the world go by (run by?), as we enjoyed snacks and beer.
We enjoyed it so much, we returned again last night for dinner.

Before our arrival, I had read about RakiBaRaki a number of times. It was fabulous – every dish an inventive variation on traditional Greek mezes. I ordered mussels in ouzo, and Stephen had a charcuterie board with pork belly, eggplant salad and a flavoured cream cheese. Heavenly food, and sadly, my photos did not turn out well, but this is the restaurant.

It is common in Greece to have Menus for 2, to allow diners to try a variety of dishes. We ordered the Mixed Mezes, which offered six dishes – tzatziki, green pepper stuffed with rice, eggplant with beef and cheese, chicken with lemon and wine, beef and onions and horta (wild greens). Delicious and impossible to finish. We can’t eat like this every day – all the walking we’re doing will not make a dent. Also it doesn’t stop there. Complimentary fruit, desserts and/or ouzo arrive on the table after every meal.

Coffee shops abound – everything from the tiny Greek coffee stands to the larger coffeehouses. Coffee fredo is big here – iced cappucinos that are a perfect excuse to grab a waterfront table and get out of the sun for a bit.

There are even Starbucks in Greece, but honestly why would you bother when you could check out this coffeehouse?

Remember worry beads? They are very likely making a comeback during these trying times, and there are at least a couple of tiny stores in Rethymno that specialize in them. Gorgeous beads made of polished wood or semi-precious stones or a tiny set of beads to attach to your key chain.

I could go on about the amazing shopping – the gorgeous linens, the colourful prints, the authentic artifacts, the polished olivewood, stunning leather bags, fabulous shoes and inventive jewellery. And that is just what you could pack in a suitcase. Therein lies the rub.

We are both travelling in our usual fashion – with carry-ons that are already filled to the brim. If I start buying things now, I have another month to schlep everything with me, so I am trying to resist and hoping that what we are finding here will also be available in other parts of Greece, closer to our departure time. Next time – I’m bringing a full-size rollie.

Rethymno’s waterfront is quite different from that of Chania, although it is Venetian in style.

The Egyptian lighthouse is part of the harbour, but does not enclose and protect it. The sea is wide open beyond that.

These intriguing concrete sculptures are part of the harbour. I couldn’t find any information about them, but I assume they are intentionally decorative as well as providing a significant barrier in rough weather.

The Fortezza, which holds a place of prominence on the hill overlooking the sea, was built in the 16th century by the Venetians to protect its citizens from Ottoman invasions. After the surrender to the Ottomans in 1646, it retained much of its character and the number of residents increased dramatically.

When the Germans occupied during World War II, it was used as a prison and dormitories. After the war, much of the Fortezza was demolished and since then there has been great effort to restore and maintain the remaining buildings.

We spent over an hour wandering the site, made all the more pleasurable due to the lack of crowds and the cooler temperatures.

We began by walking up one of the bastions to gain an overall view of the Fortezza, the city and the sea.

Once the Fortezza was seized by the Ottomans, they built this mosque. Today it is used for exhibitions and music events.

The incredible mosaic ceiling of the mosque.

The warehouse complex that consisted of three domed covered and two uncovered spaces for food and tanks.

The Twin Building that was used for storage and is now used as an exhibition venue.

St. Theodor Trichinas’ Temple

And so our short, but sweet time in Rethymno has come to an end. Tomorrow we hop on a bus to Heraklion, then grab a rental car for one week as we begin to explore the east side of Crete.

Getting lost in Chania

Well, not really lost – just momentarily misplaced. Chania (pronounced hon-ya) is all about discovering the alleyways and back lanes. Without our cellphone, we would have had a tough time finding our Airbnb, Xenon Apartments. We’re on the second floor, with the balcony.

We’re staying six nights in Chania, which is a beautiful, evocative small city on the north-western end of Crete. The Old Town is a series of laneways and narrow alleys that criss-cross up from the Venetian harbour and show a number of influences – Jewish, Turkish and Venetian – in the architecture.

Just around the corner from us is a building that was built in 1650 by Jews who were brought from Spain by Venetians during their occupation of Crete during the Middle Ages. It was originally a soap factory but is now a restaurant.

We also visited the only surviving synagogue, Etz Hayyim, which was re-built in the mid-90s. After Crete’s Jewish population was wiped out in 1944, the synagogue fell into disuse, but today is full restored and is open to all visitors. We were not allowed to take photos inside the synagogue, but this is a shot of the exterior grounds.

Other religious edifices are prominent, of course. The Mosque of Kioustsouk Hasan, which is now an exhibition hall, is a standout on the harbour.

The Agios Nikolaos cathedral is one of a number of Greek Orthodox churches in Chania.

It flanks the leafy Splantzia Square, where the Greek prerogative seems to have a foothold; men of all ages sit and gossip and drink coffee.

Chania has been a fantastic introduction to Crete – we are re-learning the art of slowing down, sipping our drinks and savouring our food.

While there is no denying the appeal of Greek food, after a while the palate is screaming for something a little lighter, a little cleaner, a little different. We discovered a fabulous vegan restaurant called Pulse, owned by an Irishwoman who has lived in Crete for 27 years and has successfully resisted the urge to eat lamb.

Last night’s dinner, overlooking the water: Stephen had a Superfood Salad

I had ravioli stuffed with polenta and garnished with fennel.

The Venetian harbour – ground zero for people-watching, eating, drinking and endless strolling. It is flanked by the Firka Fortress on one end:

…the Grand Arsenal at the other…

…and the Egyptian lighthouse that protects the harbour.

More harbour scenes – at dawn…

…and at dusk.

Although the marina was full of yachts, catamarans, luxury cruises and glass bottom boat rides, there was still room for the trusty Greek fishing boats.

So now that we’ve walked the promenade, let me take you through some of the alleyways. They are filled with cafes, tavernas, small inns, sweet little shops, and photogenic doorways and balconies.

and finally – this little fellow. He is a friend of our apartment’s proprietor, and his very proud young parents watched as we stopped to talk to him.

We had a bit of a setback in Chania – we had to cancel our plans to hike the Samaria Gorge. It is listed in all guidebooks as a “Must-do” – an all-day event that involves a very early bus ride to the trailhead, followed by a 16-km. hike through an outstanding canyon landscape, dropping from 1230 ft. elevation to the sea on the south shore of Crete. This was one of the things in Greece I was most looking forward to; I even bought new hiking shoes!

Two days ago, my back gave out on me; an episodic event that can be brought on by bending over to tie up my shoes, and results in a paralyzing vice grip on my lower back that is the mother of all muscle spasms. Every two or three years or so, I am in the grips of one of these hellish things; I think this one may have been brought on by the many hours on the plane, followed by my excitement and a failure to pace myself.

Luckily, I have found a therapeutic cream that has really helped, but certainly not enough to tackle a full-day hike. So very disappointing.

Stephen has been a trooper about it all – “in sickness and in health”, I guess. We could still do the beaches and Crete has bragging rights to a couple of beaches that consistently make it on the “World’s Top Beaches” lists. We chose to go to Elafonisi Beach – an exquisite beach on the south shore, about an hour and a half drive through the mountains.

We rented a little white Peugeot, and began the drive with a tiny bit of trepidation. The reputation of Greek drivers as impatient speed hounds aside, we also have a long history of getting tragically lost, so driving in foreign countries carries its very own adventures.

But not this time! Armed with our cellphone, and very comprehensive road signs, we soon found ourselves high up in the mountains.

The road conditions were terrific – mostly like the photo above, although with a bit more twist and turn.

And if you had a sudden irresistible urge to drink and drive, there were a number of raki shacks along the way.

And then, the reward.

Crystal clear water; warm enough but still refreshing, mountains as a backdrop and best of all – no crowds. Absolute swimming bliss. Elafonisi used to have pink sand, but apparently over the years so many people have taken home vials of sand as souvenirs that the true pink tone has changed and softened. An admonishing sign is posted – yet another thing of beauty on this earth we have failed to protect.

Tomorrow we head east for a few days in the small town of Rethymno. We’ll be in Crete for over two weeks, maybe longer. See you again in a few days.

We’re in Greece!

We have been desperate to hit the road again, but it was not an easy decision to travel internationally during Covid. Canada still has non-essential travel advisories in place, which means if things flare up and borders close, we are on our own. Travelling by plane carries an element of risk, as does staying in hotels and Airbnbs. We are decidedly in the higher-risk age group. And yet…

Greece has maintained very low Covid numbers and when cases started to climb recently, officials clamped down immediately with curfews and hefty fines and jail time for egregious offenders. The government has put strict protocols in place in all public spaces, and will cover costs if tourists should become ill. With tourism down by 70%, this is a small window for travelling in Greece without being besieged by hordes of other tourists. Social distancing is actually possible. So is getting a table at a restaurant.

Once we discovered that a company called MediPac offers travel insurance that covers Covid, we were in. We flew quite seamlessly with Air Canada from Nanaimo/Vancouver/Toronto/Athens. If only flying was always this pleasant. No crush of cranky economy passengers waiting to board. No middle seat companions on any of the flights and since the Toronto-Athens flight was just one-third full, we each grabbed a full row to stretch out and sleep.

Upon arrival in Athens, we zipped through customs in minutes and walked through this empty airport to catch the metro to downtown.

Travelling by metro was also easy, although with reduced seating, we stood for the 45-minute ride. Seats are cordoned off for distancing and everyone wears masks. I’ve never thought of Greeks as being particularly compliant people, but boy, there is no fooling around here. Mask-wearing is non-negotiable and is required in all public indoor spaces – period.

We are in Greece for six weeks; beginning our trip with a few days in Athens, then flying to Crete for 18 or 19 days. We’re playing it a little by ear from there – planning to visit Santorini, then back up to the mainland to drive around the mountain villages and seaside towns, with a brief stop in Hydra before heading home again.

It feels wonderfully normal to be travelling again, although we have noticed two distinct differences from past trips. Fellow tourists are almost overwhelmingly a) European and b) young. So far we have not fallen into an easy banter with anyone except for bored waiters. Tourists are keeping to themselves.

Athens is much nicer than we had imagined – cleaner, quieter, less chaotic and very walkable. However, with the exception of a very few parks, there is a noticeable dearth of green space.

We’re staying at an Airbnb in the Plaka neighbourhood, which is a charming older area close to the Acropolis, with twisty narrow lanes, bougainvilleas and tons of cafes and tavernas.

Our first night in town, we were feeling spacey from 24 hours of travel and grabbed the first tourist-y restaurant we saw, lured in with the promise of “drinks on the house.” Most restaurants will give you something complimentary – ouzo, dessert, fresh fruit – which I find touching and remarkable in cash-strapped, tourist-hungry Greece.

We kept it simple with a Greek salad and souvlaki and for a tourist restaurant the food was surprisingly good. It was lovely to sit outside and let it wash over us that we were in Greece.

We were fading fast and when we asked for the check, our waiter appeared instead with two more drinks. “On the house!,” he announced to my rather ungracious, “oh no“. ( We did manage to finish them.)

We discovered that central Athens is compact, made up of several fascinating neighbourhoods and is extremely walkable. This sweet little part of town, called Anafiotika, is just up the road from our place.

It is a cluster of about 40 whitewashed homes that lie right in the shadow of the Acropolis. It is just beautiful and unlike the rest of Athens – more reminiscent of buildings found on the islands. Although it is touted as a tourist attraction, I felt a bit uneasy walking through such a small, intimate neighbourhood. These are people’s homes and we were walking within inches of their open windows.

We spent the day exploring and enjoying the many contrasts of Athens. It is a city steeped in history, but also shaped by modern influences.

Greece is famous for its many stray cats – this little one lives around the corner from us, and is obviously well-fed.

The Monastiraki Flea Market is what I wish I could find back home. Every conceivable treasure, piece of junk or genuine antique can be found here, although many vendors appear to have lost their mojo.

Just around the corner from the dusty old relics of the flea market came high fashion.

A Gaga-worthy gown for the alternative bride.

The neighbourhood of Psirri is known for its lively atmosphere and sense of style. We stopped for lunch at a cafe which had hung laundry across the street as a design feature.

Our lunch was made all the more memorable by Stephen’s gusher of a nosebleed, which is off-putting at the best of times, but particularly troublesome during Covid. Stephen is prone to nosebleeds in altitude and extremely dry air, and we think that all the plane travel with a mask on, combined with a sudden drop into 30+degree heat, may have brought it on.

Our server handled us with great tact and empathy, providing yards of paper towels.

If you look carefully at the photo below you’ll see my friend, clutching an ice pack.

We came upon this crazy sight – a “Mary Poppins” tea party/fantasyland cafe embellished with an eye-watering amount of fringe, flowers, and froth.

Athens has a significant street art scene, and although we did not make it to the more bohemian neighbourhoods, we still stumbled upon some notable examples.

An upscale shop sold curated pieces – tea towels, mugs, T-shirts – with quotes from famous Greek philosophers. I’m not sure that I agree with any of them, especially Socrates. “I know nothing?” What a distressing realization to come to – surely a few things have stuck by now? Still, they bear discussion, and beat the heck out of talking about Trump.

A typical example of the little architectural surprises that lie tucked away down side alleys.

Our friend Joe has a keen appreciation for ancient Greek history, and he advised us to brush us a bit before our trip, as it would be otherwise overwhelming. – very good advice indeed. I am woefully ill-educated about Greek history and mythology, and so will not attempt to give you any background on ancient Greece. There is such depth of info available elsewhere – I’m bringing you our experiences and observations.

Obviously the Acropolis and numerous other sites in Athens are the whole point – they hold a command post from many vantage points in the city and inform the tenor of the town. It is decidedly a cool thing to walk in modern-day Athens with the juxtaposition of the Hadrian’s Arch against a flow of cars and motorbikes.

This morning we sat in a shady cafe with our iced coffees and looked out over the Roman Agora. The metro tracks run right in front.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus, tucked in from a major thoroughfare.

Yesterday we devoted to the Acropolis Museum in the morning and the Acropolis in the afternoon. The museum is sensational – filled with hundreds of statues, many of them almost intact, and thousands of pieces saved from the excavation at the Acropolis. The exterior is all the more remarkable because it had been fully excavated, and then it was decided to situate the new museum on top of the site. Giant round concrete pillars were carefully placed and the excavation site was then filled in with gravel and sand to protect it while the building of the museum took place.

We took our time trekking up to the Acropolis; even at 5:00 p.m., it was still hot and sunny. We passed the Theatre of Dionysus on the way up and had the good fortune to listen to an orchestra warming up. We’re not sure if there was a performance later – it seems unlikely, although there would be lots of room to distance theatre-goers.

On the last leg of our trip up the hill, we followed behind a gregarious and chatty Frenchwoman, who carried on a steady commentary.
As we reached the summit, she announced, “Et voila!”

The Parthenon is the focal point of the Acropolis, and it is in a steady state of restoration, which distracts but does not take away from its grandeur.

Lesser sites include the Temple of Athena Nike:

The 360 degree views from the Acropolis are stunning and the Parthenon is such an iconic image; it would be impossible to come to Athens and miss seeing them.

But both Stephen and I came away feeling a little underwhelmed; we were more taken by the juxtaposition of ancient ruins like the Agora while wandering around the city than by the Acropolis itself.

I have to confess that I have a very short attention span for tramping around ruins in scorching sun, or for admiring ancient exhibits in a museum. I stare and stare at crumbling rock or pottery shards and I just cannot conjure up images of life thousands of years ago.

Tomorrow we fly to Crete for at least a couple of weeks and we are so looking forward to experiencing that side of Greece – the mountain villages, hiking trails through gorges, the olive groves and the amazing beaches.