Heraklion: our last port in Crete

Heraklion has a few things to recommend it – some fabulous restaurants, terrific shopping and the extraordinary Heraklion Archaeological Museum. It is also a short drive to traditional mountain towns, wineries and a number of important archaeological sites.

Crete’s largest city is an industrial and economic centre and a transportation hub. Direct flights from other parts of Europe arrive here and ferries leave the port to a number of islands.

Heraklion is neither beautiful nor is it homely – it is a city built to serve its residents and move tourists around efficiently. The stone walkway out to the beautifully restored Koules Fortress protects the harbour and provides a perfect evening stroll.

View of the city

Perfect place for quiet contemplation

Maybe a less perfect spot to fish? The buckets did not appear to fill up, but perhaps that is not even the point.

This is the closest we have come to a sunset in Greece. Everywhere we have been so far, the sun has sunk slowly over the mountains. Santorini will be a different story – their sunsets sliding into the sea are famous.

Our friend Linda jokingly asked about the beer-strewn beaches and the marauding gangs of thugs in Greece; she couldn’t believe it is as beautiful as we have portrayed it.

And yes, Greece is that beautiful, but of course I have curated the photos.
Most of our experiences have been really wonderful and most of what we have seen has been memorable. Greece is touted as being a very safe country and we have felt entirely at ease the entire trip.

But…Heraklion has felt a bit different. As soon as we arrived in town we began to search for our apartment. Laden down with bags and following our GPS instructions, we noticed a jittery young man watching us closely. He approached a couple of people who brushed him off, and then he disappeared.

On the same street, we saw this young man, a motionless and pious statue. We saw him again a day later; it was as though he hadn’t moved.

Begging on the streets is common – we have been approached by a number of women with children, and more disturbingly, by young children alone.

These three young boys are a fixture. They approach diners, usually without success and play accordian and sing. Little Greek Oliver Twists.

And then there is this poor fellow, having a nap by the Lion’s Square Fountain.

So there you have it, Linda – veering off slightly from the sunny skies and balmy beaches. I’m curious that we did not experience evidence of homelessness or poverty or begging before this, especially not in Athens.

Our new home in Heraklion is a modern, well-furnished apartment located right in the heart of things, but very quiet at night.
This is our view:

Some street scenes close to us. A pedestrian shopping street.

Tiny alleyways

Typical street with parked cars on both sides and traffic moving through with inches to spare.

Stately banks and municipal buildings

Church of St. Titus

The coffee scene in Greece is a pleasure. We stopped here for lunch and these gentlemen were sitting behind us, nicely dressed and not short on conversation. The man in the blue suit got up to leave first; his suit impeccably pressed and his shoes well-shined. Showing up every day – words to live by.

We have eaten very well in Heraklion. We treated ourselves to a nice meal at Peskesi, which is a well-regarded farm-to-table restaurant that highlights Cretan products. We enjoyed a bottle of good local red wine and shared salad, a long-simmered chicken with olives and a dish of snails cooked with tomato and zucchini, which are a Cretan speciality. Service was fabulous and they in turn treated us to raki and a dessert of halvah with shaved almonds and honey. How I wish I had photos to show you, but the colour contrasts weren’t sharp enough (shades of brown and green).

Another restaurant, o Mago, was half the price and just as delicious. Aromatic salad of local herbs and risotto with araki pork and sundried tomatoes. Again, no photos, except for one of the outside tables.

I am including this photo because I find this trend delightfully quirky. Greek women are very body conscious; tops are cropped, dresses cling and pants hug the hips. While there are no shortage of heels and wedge sandals, a common sight is to see a woman with a tiny mini-dress and shoes just like this pair. Sneakers with big thick soles – with the right attitude they look sexy.

Random street art

And now – on to the big stuff – where it all began.

The Heraklion Archaeological Museum is the world’s largest and most significant collection of artifacts from Minoan civilization. It is a modern 1930s building that houses artifacts from Neolithic to Roman times; many of them salvaged from the Knossos Palace, just south of the city.

The museum is stunningly laid out and well interpreted. We spent three hours there, and here are just a few of the highlights:

Kamares Ware – a luxury product of the Minoan export trade – 1900-1700 BC

Exquisite Minoan craftsmanship. Stone bull’s head enhanced with seashell, rock crystal and red jasper. Used to pour libations. 1600-1450 BC

Burial urn. The dead were likely trussed in a fetal position to fit into these large urns. 1700-1450 BC

Fresco depicting Bull-leaping. This was a spectacle in which young athletes of both genders made a dangerous leap over the horns and back of a charging bull. Contests were usually held in large stadiums.

The next day we grabbed a bus out to Knossos Palace, which is about 20 minutes south of the city. It is a beautiful setting, surrounded by mountains and olive groves. We spent a fascinating couple of hours wandering the site.

Knossos has a rather troubled history as the first palace was destroyed by an earthquake in 1700 BC and then rebuilt and partially destroyed again between 1500 and 1450 BC. It finally burned down 50 years after that.

Earliest traces of inhabitation go back to 7000-3000 BC. It shows an advanced level of technology attained by the Minoans through the structural and architectural features.

Original excavation began in 1878 by Cretan archaeologist Minos Kalokerinos, and continued between 1900 to 1930 by British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who uncovered the entire Palace. As you will see from the photos, many of the frescos have been vibrantly painted and restored to look new, which caused some considerable controversy at the time.

Everything we read about Knossos Palace urged us to arrive precisely at 8:00 am or else arrive the last two hours of the day. Any other time would result in a crush of tourists, long line-ups and sweltering heat.

Because of Covid, we hedged our bets and arrived around 10:00 am. No lineups and no crowds at first, and then the tour buses arrived. Still, it wasn’t bad – it was possible to dodge the groups, keep our distance and enjoy the sites.
None of the groups appeared to be bothered with distancing among themselves, particularly this group.

We met up with them about 15 minutes later. We were taking refuge in the shade at the site of the Theatral Area.

They arrived and made a beeline for us, rightfully wanting to share a bit of shade but literally crowding in beside us, with inches to spare on either side. We made a bit of a huffy show about getting up to leave, but it had no effect.

Since that was our only negative experience with crowds, it is hardly worth mentioning, other than to note that everyone, even tour companies, have a different idea of social distancing.

We arrived in Greece with a pitiable amount of knowledge about Greek history and Greek mythology and we are learning as we go. This much we know is true: we must return to continue our education.

Now, we are off to Santorini tomorrow morning for five days. Prepare for a long posting!

The road less travelled – exploring Crete’s east coast

We are just finishing seven glorious days at Anemone Apartments, about 85 km. west of Crete’s most easterly point. This is our holiday-within-a-holiday; a full week to set up camp and relax. As our host Nikos advised us, “you must stay still in Greece and just enjoy.” Stellar advice when you have the luxury of time and have stumbled upon this heavenly place.

This is the view from our deck. That little blue car is our super-cheap rental car. Steve discovered an offer we couldn’t refuse – 56 Euros ($90) for one week. We asked for a Fiat Panda, but got a rather lived-in Suzuki, complete with a hole in the rear bumper and multiple dents. However, it is mechanically sound and practically drives on fumes, so we’re happy.

Our place is centrally located to most of Crete’s eastern and southeastern attractions, and best of all, is a 15-minute walk to Voulisma Beach – golden sand and crystal water.

Our apartment is so charming – spread out over two floors, with kitchen, living room, 2 bedrooms and bathroom and three decks. It is decorated in an old-fashioned Cretan style – paned windows that open up to the fresh air, and embroidered wall hangings on the white plastered walls. But this is where we spend our time:

Sunrise from our bedroom balcony:

During these less-travelled times, we are paying just $52 a night for our apartment, which is about 20% less than normal and that has been typical for all of our accommodation so far.

Stephen keeps track of our expenses, in order that we might stick to our budget and continue along in this lifestyle! As many of you have (discreetly) inquired about how we afford this, Stephen will prepare a cost breakdown that we’ll share once our trip is over.

There is a large rocky outcropping right in front of our place, that is filled with olive trees and sandy roads. We went exploring and discovered a tiny little beach; one of hundreds just like it on Crete – calm, protected and utterly private.

Olive trees – I idly wondered how many olive trees there are in Greece. Millions? Tens of millions?

Greek olive oil is one of my favourite things – you could almost drink it. Clean, sightly grassy, so pure and fresh. I am definitely switching to a Mediterranean diet once we are home again.

If I wasn’t already laden down like a pack mule with my overstuffed backpack, I would be bringing back olive oil, leather sandals, textiles…

The trees are such a characteristic of Crete – everywhere we go the air is fragrant with the scents of thyme, oregano, lavender and cypress.When I think of Crete I think of a landscape of short, gnarly branches, piles of boulders, sunbleached paths and the sea.

Agios Nikolaos is a small city about 10 km. from here. It is similar to other Cretan cities, with streets that rise up from the harbour, filled with cafes and shops and many churches. We found it less interesting that Chania or Rethymno, but worth a few hours of browsing.

The city centers around Lake Voulismeni, which feeds out to the sea. It provides a lovely backdrop for a stroll around the shops and restaurants that ring the lake.

One of a number of small lanes lead to the lake.

Agios Nikolaos is built on seven hills, which means your hamstrings will get a good workout if you are here for any length of time. A number of staircases are painted with murals.

Crete is so mountainous that it is inevitable that you will find yourself on switchbacks just getting to the next village. The roads are well-paved and well-engineered and at least on the east side of Crete, much less-travelled.

Far fewer tourists make it to the east side of Crete, even in normal times, so it is possible to navigate steep mountain roads comfortably.

We drove to Kritsa, one of Crete’s oldest and most photogenic villages, cantilevered off the steep mountain slopes. The area produces award-winning olive oil and specializes in women’s crafts. There is a women’s collective and many of the shops are filled with their textiles and embroidered goods.

A statue immortalizes the beauty and patience of the women’s work.

and the real thing:

Some street scenes:

From Kritsa, we drove to the Lasithi Plateau, an elevated plain in the mountains, in search of the iconic stone windmills.

The drive was simply breathtaking; our goal was to reach the Lasithi Plateau after driving a 23-km. loop through 18 traditional villages. We throughly enjoyed the drive and the villages, but when we arrived at our destination (GPS), we were completely confused. No signage, and the road we were encouraged to turn down became a rocky, rutted narrow path. We turned around and decided that, having seen a number of windmills already, we could call it a day.

But not before we stopped at this crazy place for lunch.

Mariana and Onasis an otherworldly oasis just off a series of switchback roads, and utterly festooned with vegetables. Pumpkins, gourds, squash, clusters of tomatoes hung by the hundreds from clotheslines. Stephen managed to whack his head on a pumpkin while attempting to enter the restaurant.

We enjoyed a beautiful lunch – everything grown from their garden and enhanced with local olive oil.

Fresh tomatoes, zucchini stuffed with rice and topped with local yogurt and little cheese pies.

Then we met the owner Onasis, with an uncomfortable-looking Stephen in his clutches.

He told us he smokes five packages every two days and proudly declared he is 75 years old. (No argument from us.) He asked Stephen his age and challenged him to run 100 yards (“If you win, I will give your wife 200 euros.”)
The challenge had no legs, so we all kept our dignity, but left with a good story and a bag full of his apples and tomatoes.

Then there are the goats. They are a fixture on Crete and although I tell myself I like goats, I am not 100% comfortable around them. When we stopped to take a photo of this fellow, he perked right up and began to head toward me with a resolute trot. Would he head-butt me? Bite me? I lost my nerve at the last minute and jumped back into the car.

Another goat encounter a few days later also ended with some nerves. We were driving through a small herd of goats, and this one was close to my side of the car. It is probably safe to say these characters get handouts from the tourists and he seemed so tame, but once he started snapping his teeth at me, we moved on.

And Greek beaches! If there is a bad one, we haven’t been there yet – they are uniformly crystal clear and utterly turquoise.

This beach at Mirtos on the south coast on the Libyan Sea was practically empty.

The beach at Vai is so distinctive as it is located at the far eastern reach of Crete and is surrounded by a huge palm forest. Vai, which is a local word for the branch of the palm tree, is part of the UNESCO geopark in that area and the palm grove is unique to Vai.

Beaches in Crete are quite democratic. If you choose, you can rent two sunbeds and an umbrella for 10 Euros, or at certain beaches, you can take the VIP package for 15 Euros (as shown in the top photo) – 2 sunbeds of higher quality, on the first line of the beach, with a lockable cabinet for your valuables. You can also bring your own towel and umbrella and stake out a spot anywhere – for free!

On the way to Vai beach, we stopped at the Holy Monastery of Toplou, one of the most important monasteries on Crete. Currently a sanctuary and a place to provide solace and direction, the monasteries operated as bastions of resistance during the 200-year Ottoman regime and during the Nazi occupation of WWII.

The monastery and surrounding gardens and grounds were beautifully preserved and maintained.

Tomorrow we arrive in Heraklion for four days – still lots to explore before we leave Crete.

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.