Crete Trip Report May 2013
Our trip to Crete started out very auspiciously. In Rome we were scheduled to fly Croatian Airlines with a 4 hour layover before getting us to Athens in the early evening. Croatian was having a strike that day so we got bumped to Aegean and flew business class direct to Athens. That gave us a free day to wander around the Plaka before our 9 o’clock flight to Chania.
Car Story We were making our third rental from Athenscars Crete however this was the first time that we tried to pay with our new chip card. Their card reader could not process the payment because there was no way to input the PIN. Since it was getting late they just took our credit card number and said they would process it the next day. So we took the car and drove to Chania. This is typical of Greece. Everyone is laid back and eventually the process will get things straitened out. More on this story later.
Chania We arrived at our hotel by midnight and went to the harbor looking for a late dinner. We walked to the waterfront toward the Venetian armories and sat at a nice looking taverna. The waitress came to our table and greeted us with “you are not Greek. Tourists don’t normally come to this side of the harbor at this late hour.” That gave us an opportunity for some banter. Ah yes we are back in Greece.
Gramvoussa/Balos Excursion When we were in Sorrento we had met a lady from Vancouver and it turned out that our itineraries were almost identical. She too travelled to Rome and then on to Crete. We met her the next day and took the excursion boat to Gramvoussa and Balos. This is something we had planned to do on our last trip but a torrential rain storm ended that idea. This time it was a lovely sunny day. Highlights were the hike up the mountain to visit the fortress at Gramvoussa. The view from there was great; it really is a good place for a fortress. I cannot believe the number of people who did that hike wearing flip flops and one lady walking with bare feet while holding a pair of high heels in her hand. That however didn’t stop any of these people passing me on the trail. Oh well somebody has to be last. By the time we got to the top I couldn’t help but think some enterprising Greek with a donkey could make a fortune if he set up a beer and ice cream stand at the fortress gate.
After a couple of hours and some time on the beach we sailed on to Balos. It is a large shallow lagoon with good swimming. The ferry just sailed right up to the rocky shore dropped anchor, down came the front ramp onto the rocks and we walked off the ship for two hours of sunbathing. You simply have to admire the skills of the Greek sailors.
Chania continues to just ooze charm with the Venetian harbor and all the rickety looking waterfront buildings. I just love wandering the back alleys, getting lost and discovering hidden gems. The city walls by Talos square seem to have been recently restored and make a good impression on arrival.
Chania is one city where we always go to the waterfront at sunset, order an ouzo and take time to watch the people go by and reflect on the past. There have been so many people, over hundreds of years, who have lived their lives here and had experienced sunsets just like this one.
Drive to Omalos Plateau Because I have a very brittle knee we cannot even think about taking the Samaria Gorge walk but we decided we wanted to at least experience the trip up to Omalos plateau. I had no idea how far up that is or how long it takes to drive there. Those bus drivers taking all those tourists to the Gorge have to have nerves of steel. We passed little villages and found a taverna perched on the side of the mountain. For once we didn’t rush to our end destination so stopped for a Nescafe frappe. There were just the two of us at a table sitting on the edge of the hill. We took in the view and the only sound on the breeze was from birds and insects. This was a near perfect moment.
When we got to the entrance to the Gorge I was able to confirm with certainty that I am not ever going to be able to do that hike.
Pension Nora I simply have to mention our hotel. We have always stayed at Natalie’s rooms in a small alley just off Theotokopoulu Street but this year she had a long term guest in our room so she moved us over to Pension Nora in the next alley. We had understood that Nora consisted of several nice rooms but we were delighted to find that Natalie had put us in a tiny Cretan house next door. The house was two floors with a kitchen eating and sitting area. The kitchen is fully equipped with a full size refrigerator, stove with oven, a clothes washer and even spices and sugar. The bedroom was upstairs with a balcony large enough to sit out and look down the alley. We really did not expect anything as nice at this on a tourist class budget.
Car story part two. It was time to head on to Plakias but just as we were about to leave we received a call at our hotel from Athens Cars telling us that they could not get our payment approved and we needed to come to their office. They asked us to go to their office in Aggia Maria but failed to give us the address and didn’t mention that the office was actually a satellite office and had a different Company name. We stopped at 3 car rental companies asking for directions. One of the agencies finally called Athenscars to get the directions. Then he said to us” I don’t know why you are trying so hard to pay this bill. It’s their problem and they should be coming to you.” I include this experience not as not as a complaint but rather an amusing story of how stuff can happen when you are travelling and to warn people with chip cards that sometimes that new technology doesn’t always work.
Plakias and the Libyan Sea coast. Now much later than we had intended we arrived in Plakias. Plakias honestly does not have the charm of a typical Greek village. I think it probably grew up to provide service to tourists who wanted to enjoy its marvelous beach and the Libyan sea. It does that job admirably. Unfortunately for us this May there were fairly high winds and there were waves on the beach so we had to find other more sheltered locations. First we found Souda beach only a couple of kilometers up the road. It has a lovely taverna so we spent a couple of hours here sunning and having lunch. Then I decided I wanted to check out Prevalli beach to see if the palm forest had recovered from the fire a few years ago. On our last trip we walked down the cliff from the parking lot but I saw a medieval bridge and taverna with a sign pointing down a gravel road to Prevalli. We decided to see if we could get there by driving. The road just kept going up and winding around high hills and all the while getting rougher and narrower. We finally passed two Landrovers giving safari tours. It was about that time that I realized we probably were a little out of our comfort zone but I couldn’t turn back. After 5 kilometers we found a nice little taverna and about 10 rental cars. Apparently we are not the only crazy tourists. From there it is a scenic and short hike over the headland to Prevalli beach. I am happy to report the palm forest is nicely recovered and Prevalli was well sheltered from the wind.
The next day we drove along the coast road to Chora Sfakion passing seascapes, mountain villages and Frangokasteli. Just for fun we drove up the switchback road to the head of the Imbros Gorge where I took pictures so I could pretend we walked that one. Of course all we could do was drive back down and then visited Spili. It has a lovely central square with shops and the famous spring fed Lion fountains. We also walked over to the cathedral before returning to Plakias.
Remarkably the lady from Vancouver who we met in Sorrento and Chania also ended up in Plakias and we met her for dinner that night. Over a glass of wine she asked us a question that made us sit back and think. She asked “you have been to Crete several times why do you keep returning?”
From our first visit to Greece in 1996 we experienced an emotional connection to it that has resulted in 10 return trips since then. Some places, like Naxos, Crete and the Peloponnese, we return to repeatedly and are planning the next visit on the flight home. Others we are satisfied with after one visit. We love the sun, sea, food, architecture and history. But what keeps us coming back are the people. We have come to understand that culture is not the sum total of the physical things but the virtues of the people who have created these things through centuries of living through highs and low, joys and sorrows. As a people they decided what is most important to live their lives by, spiritually and socially.
We have experienced in Greek society a hospitality that is genuine and honest. Our waiter, hotelier, taxi driver, airline attendant and grocer all look us right in the eye and give us their undivided attention when they talk to us. We feel valued as individuals, not just for the tourist dollar we bring. Sure there are cultural hiccoughs sometimes but as North Americans travelling in Greece we are learning to adjust to their way of thinking. We put more value on our new relationship with our host than whether we immediately get the air conditioning working and the extra pillow we asked for. Eventually the A/C and the pillow have always gotten sorted out in the process.
We have made friends of Greek people, sending wedding presents and baby gifts. We have been invited to their homes for raki, homemade chesse, ouzo and squid, with the kids and grandparents all gathered around the outdoor table. This is the highest honor and it is shared seriously with open hearts.
So why Naxos, Crete and the Peloponnese in particular? These places do not depend on tourism as their primary source of commerce. For the most part the local people run the tavernas and hotels so they are representing their home. These places are large, diverse and provide an endless array of places to go and things to explore. Ten years to Naxos and we still haven’t tramped all the hiking trails or seen all the beaches. In Crete over three visits we have just barely begun to explore just the tiniest bit of the Southwest area.
Here are the images of Chania and Southwest Crete just updated with new photos from our recent trip.
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Crete Trip Report May 2013