On a Hammam Experience and Taking the Long Way Home

Leaving Loutro, and with it the calming swim-eat-sleep-repeat experience was bittersweet, as the endings of most wonderful long-awaited trips are. We start to turn our heads toward home, even though our feet are still on foreign soil. It’s not all bad, knowing you are returning to the familiar, to the loved ones. Yet the lingering thought remains; will I ever be in this place again?

I can only say, I hope I do.

After a quick ferry ride, three of my friends and I took a hired car back to Chania. I had planned a Cretan cooking experience, but just as I was leaving to meet up with the driver, it was cancelled. Ah well. I was not unhappy at the prospect of a couple of days on my own back in Chania.

Here is the stunning room in the old town of Chania that I got to stay in. The Boutique Hotel de Doge is housed in a 15th century restored Venetian villa. Yeah. Here is the street it is on. No, really. There were a lot of stairs to get to this room too, and one more time, I didn’t mind a bit. I grabbed some street food for dinner at a place near the bus station, where they cook your food right there in front of you on the grill. This chicken sandwich was absolutely delicious.

I mentioned last week that I swam in the Aegean as well as in the Mediterranean on this trip. I accomplished that early the next morning, having sussed out the journey (maybe fifteen minutes of walking) from the hotel. The way carved its way past narrow streets, even more ruins, and some cool graffiti then onto sandy Nea Chora beach. There were only a few other early swimmers. I felt pretty comfortable just leaving my things on the shore and popping in for a mile or so. The water was a bit cooler than the other side, and there was more chop, but checking off a thing I’d wanted to do for a long time made it all a delight.

Afterwards, I treated myself to a fancy breakfast at the Venetian harbor. I ordered in Greek and for the first and only time I didn’t get corrected, and I got everything I’d asked for. Score! I did my shopping for gifts in the busy old section and explored a few more ruins. As always, there were cats everywhere. They own the place. In one store, I got into a lovely conversation in half-Greek, half-English, and got directions to the new Archaeological Museum of Crete. She said it was a beautiful walk, maybe a mile or so, and gave me the directions. In Greek. I know I’ve been harping on being able to speak a little bit… and read most of the signs. I am going to put a plug in for Duolingo, the free version for giving me this bit of courage. It took me nearly two years, and turns out my accent was atrocious, but it made a big difference to me, especially when I was on my own, that I could communicate and find my way. And that I got my 61-year-old brain to learn a few new things.

Then it was time for my Hammam experience, which is a Turkish steam/bath/massage. I had booked it on a bit of a whim, lured by the fact I’d never experienced one, and this particular place was located in the same bathhouse that’s been there since the town has been there, so you know 600 or so years. They gave me a big cotton towel and non-skid slippers, and throwaway undies to change into. I spent a half hour in the marble-encased steam room (they had cold water to drink). Then my person came and got me. The bathing/massage part took place on a marble slab. There were two of these slabs in the room. It was connected to the steam room as well, so everything happened in a sort of dream-like water vapor arena of swirling white and heat. The process made me feel like a queen, which I didn’t see coming. I’m not one to go for “pampering,” ever, but this felt different from merely being indulgent. I’d frankly expected having someone bathe me as awkward, and perhaps slightly icky. Instead, it gave me a sense of power. The environment made me feel connected through the ages to all of those who’d stepped foot in this ancient place. One olive oil soap-warm, silky water lathed over me-olive oil massage-hair wash later, I emerged as clean as I’ve ever been, and utterly relaxed. I’d do it again and recommend it to anyone.

My friends from the trip were staying at the same hotel as I was but leaving early the next day. We had a final delicious meal together, which sported the best stuffed spinach leaves I’ve ever eaten, as well as stuffed artichoke flowers. There are no pictures. I ate them all before I remembered to take any. We wandered a bit and found this store that was built over the top of a church. Those are the (empty!) burial chambers from the catacombs beneath the store. We took a bit of a stroll at night. One of my pals took the pic of Chania at night that heads up today’s blog. Those buildings on the left have stood there for over 800 years.

The next day, I woke early, packed, and left my bag at the hotel with a note that I’d be back for it. Then stepped out in faith for the museum. I loved the walk that took me to a whole new section of Chania, and eventually to the museum, which I had to myself, as I got there right when it opened. So many brand new, thoughtful exhibits. Do you remember I told you the enterprising Minoans repurposed their bathtubs to be their sarcophagus? Here is an example of that. And here is a bowl with one of the earliest examples of Linear A writing — so cool! I had a perfect museum brunch on the patio that overlooked the Aegean. Then I stepped over the museum cat who had been laying in the entrance when I walked in. She was still there in the same spot when I came back out three hours later. I walked back to the old town, had a lemon gelato, and decided 18,000 steps in one morning and afternoon were enough, and that as much as I loved it, it was time to say goodbye to Chania and Crete.

I collected my bag and caught the bus to the airport. I was way too early, but I had just… had enough, you know that feeling? I’d seen everything I wanted to see, and anything else seemed too much. So I killed 6 hours in Chania airport. Lucky for me I struck up a conversation with the woman running the ticket counter, as there was a bit of an issue with my ticket as I tried to board – I was flying into Helsinki for a connection, but it was technically on the next day, so didn’t have the connecting boarding pass.

That meant the screen flashed RED when I scanned my pass, and (since I can read Greek) I could see the screen said DO NOT ALLOW THIS PERSON TO BOARD THE AIRCRAFT. Behind me, the other people in line shifted and grumbled. The men guarding the gate put their hands on their guns and SCRUTINIZED me.

Here is where some travelling mercy kicked in. While my stress level at that moment shot up to 110%, I called on every ounce of self-possession I had. Instead of pouting, yelling, or posturing, I smiled nicely at the woman who’d I’d been in conversation with, and trusted she’d fix it.

She said “Och ochi,” and started typing furiously. That means “Oh no.” I continued to smile, stepping to the side so the grumbly passengers behind me could go around. Yes, part of me wanted to just push past her, dash onto the tarmac and up the stairs of the waiting plane. Instead, I trusted.

She fixed it. The screen went from red to its normal grey. “You’ll need to talk to a person before you get to the gate in Helsinki,” she told me. I thanked her profusely, and moved on, just as if my heart rate wasn’t the highest it had been in years.

The plane was full of very tall people, who all had puffy jackets with them. I had my window seat, per usual. The sun had gone down, so we flew over pitch black for the most part. Every once in a while there were cities, the golden and white lights looking like the lit veins and arteries of a living thing. Finally, we landed in Helsinki at 12.30 at night. It was just over freezing, and I understood why they all had those puffy jackets.

I only had my sweater and a scarf. That airport was cold, compared to the temps I’d gotten used to on Crete. I’d known this part was coming though. My twelve-hour layover in the Helsinki airport. I did my best to get comfortable. The whole place is like Ikea, all blonde wood and chrome, just with planes outside. Yes, they had Christmas trees up. Maybe it is Christmas there all the time. Finally, at 4am the coffee shops opened. At eight, I talked to a very stern gate agent about my ticket issue. She also typed for a very long time before she could hand me a boarding pass. I smiled nicely at her too. I got through the passport check with no issues, then it was time to go to the lounge I’d paid an upgrade to get.

It was a great decision. As nice as Helsinki airport is, it was nicer in the private lounge, where it’s quiet and there’s free food and coffee and a place to put your feet up. I dozed here until it was time for me to make the next long-haul, 14 hours to DFW.

I got lucky and had an empty seat in the middle, and a very nice flight companion. I had opted for the dairy-free meal, and it was delicious. I’d travel Finnair again anytime. Two movies, a lot of pages of a book read, and a short nap later, I landed. It took a long time to get through customs at DFW, as about five planes came in at the same time, but finally I got through. My wonderful husband was there to meet me. I think I finally got to bed about 38 hours after I’d last slept, but my heart and soul were full, my skin tan, my muscles exercised, and my mind brimming with more new stories to tell. I truly am a #luckygal.

On African Swells and a Week of Mediterranean Swims

Crete is an island nation to the south of mainland Greece. It is quite a large island, much bigger than I originally thought. On the north side of the island is the Aegean Sea, while the south is the Mediterranean. Both are warm and lovely seas to swim in. I’ll tell you about my swim in the Aegean next week. During the week of swims, we all stayed in a little village called Loutro, that is only accessible by ferry or walking. I loved the hotel, Loutro on the Hill. This is the view down to the hotel patio from my room.

As a lifelong swimmer, I’ve spent a fair amount of time swimming in open water, particularly when we lived in Southern California. That water was cold, but it was fun once you got used to it. When we moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee, I did lake swims in some of the prettiest lakes I’ve ever seen. That water was also cold, but fun when you got used to it. Since living in Texas, I’ve not swum in open water. There are big alligators in the water here, not to mention water moccasins, a nasty, vicious sort of snake. It’s the one creature that truly terrifies me.

So, I trained for this trip by doing lots of laps in indoor pools. I was mostly confident that I’d be able to swim 2-4 miles a day. My friends who’d been on these trips before assured me that no one cares if you decide you’ve had enough and want to get back on the boat. As the swim trek guide said, “this isn’t boot camp.” The guides did a great job of finding water that was smooth, too. One day we had some pretty good rolling waves that I found rather fun, as I like waves. We were told they were swells that had come from Africa. It felt quite exotic, but then I realized Africa wasn’t all that far. This sunrise took my breath away.

It was heaven swimming for six days in a row. Salt water makes you buoyant, so I’d find myself going at an easy pace, stretching out my stroke while looking at fish and other things in crystal clear, warm water. I didn’t get any pictures of the fish, as my camera isn’t waterproof, sadly. There were large schools of small black fish and medium-size silver ones, and pretty blue ones. I even saw a large lionfish, and of course, lots of sea urchins. The sea floor is interesting too, moving from a jagged floor to smoothed stone. There were also sandy channels in spots where fresh, cold water pours down from the steep mountains. At one point, we needed to swim quite far out because the sea got a bit rough. We were swimming above a cliff-like drop off perhaps two hundred yards off the coast, and suddenly I was looking down into the deep, mysterious blue, the water so clear I could have been seeing nearly a half-mile down with no obstruction.

The picture heading up this blog is of my group of “pink hats” in front of a cool sea cave we’d explored. These caves are all over and range from small and dark to ones like that one in the “Goonies,” where you could hide an entire pirate ship. We floated on our backs, our limbs spread like stars, looking at the ceiling high above us. I cemented the moment in my brain as one of those peak moments you’re glad you had when you’re on your deathbed. I had a lot of those on this trip. Then we swam out. The light blue of the water coming out of the dim light of the cave was a color I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, a clear turquoise that sparkled white and green on the wavelets.

Being on the ocean for 6-8 hours a day, either on the boat, or in the water was utterly relaxing. The only drawback was that I definitely felt like I was still on the boat with its rocking motion any time I was in a small, enclosed space, like my bathroom. That lingered for several days. And my shoulders had that good ache you get when you’ve really used your muscles. I got super tan during this week of being on the water, too. I know I shouldn’t be happy about that, but my old school is showing. I loved getting bronzed. This snap is of me and Barbara, my lovely friend who told me about the trip in the first place.

The days were broken in half with lovely lunches in little towns along the coast, and dinners back at Loutro. Here are most of my pals at dinner on the balcony of our hotel. I don’t think I could ever tire of fresh bread dipped in olive oil, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, perfectly cured olives, and the goat cheese that is unique to this island. It’s creamy, more like chevre than feta, with a sweet tang. There were hikes, too, through steep ravines that slice through layers of golden stone, or along the coast. Sage is everywhere, scenting the air.

Early one morning, I did a solo hike to the incredible Venetian ruin that sat atop the hill behind our hotel. It had been calling to me ever since I saw the castle tower from our boat on the first day. It was a spiritual experience for me, that hike, seeing this ancient place, completely alone. There was no path, per se. It was quite the scramble in parts, and my knees complained about the extra bending, but it was worth every bit of it. The age of the place hit home to me when I saw this ancient tree growing right out of one of the remaining castle walls. There was an entire town there once. I was reminded of Tolkien’s words. I believe Gimli says this inside the mines of Moria: “High they builded us, deep they delved us, but they are gone, they are gone.”

This is the sun coming up that morning, as I stood on ruins that were over 500 years old. I felt embraced by time, sorrow, joy, and gratitude all at once. I hope you get moments like this in your life, too.

On Boats, Swimming the Mediterranean, and Finding Peace

I love being on boats. Big boats, little boats, kayaks. Taking the 20-minute ferry ride from Chora Sfakia to the tiny Crete village of Loutro wasn’t nearly long enough on a boat for me. Luckily, I was about to spend a week swimming in the crystal-clear waters on the south side of Crete and getting lots of speed boat rides, too.

This was the second week of my 16-day journey to Crete, and the start of SwimTrek, a company that takes people on swim tours all over the world, making nearly all my decisions for me. I gotta say, having a whole week when my most pressing question was what to eat for dinner was fantastic. Here is their website: https://www.swimtrek.com

And here is where you can see our group featured for their brochure: https://fb.watch/gxgNCAKxGp/

Yes, I plan to do more trips with them. I’m looking at the Red Sea one, and the Komodo Dragon one with my younger son, or maybe Scotland, swimming in the lochs off of Skye. Not doing one for a couple of years, but hey, this trip was three years in the planning.

Our SwimTrek hotel was called “Loutro on the Hill” for a reason. There were fifty steps to climb to get to my charming single room with a comfortable double bed, private bath and private balcony overlooking the ocean. If you’ve ever watched “Mama Mia,” it’s steps like those. Totally worth every bend of the knee, with only light cursing after a long day of swimming and exploring. I’d stay there again in a heartbeat. Here’s the view from my balcony:

This is the hotel from the E4 track that I explored. It’s the one furthest to the left… on the hill. There are shrines like this dotted all over the place. The goats range freely on the mountainsides. They wear little bells, so you get the auditory illusion you might be in Switzerland… but you’re looking at that blue, blue water, and sere landscape. The mash-up worked much better than you’d think, a surprising but ultimately delightful combo like pineapple on pizza, or the movie “Sharknado.”

The first night we had orientation and started to get to know each other. Eight of us were from Dallas, another woman from Poland, five from Britain, and a man from Germany. We had a lovely feast put on by the hotel after we did a quick swim.

Each morning the hotel would give us breakfast, then we’d meet down at the main boat. Our SwimTrek guides, John, and Mike, had our swim plan set out for us based on tides and wind. Then off we went in a speed boat, Captain Kostas at the helm, slowly at first in the harbor, and then full throttle, cutting a white swath through the ocean to our destination along the coastline.

Swimmers were divided into three swim speeds, and we had different color swim caps that matched the group. I was in the “fast” group, and we got pink swim caps. They’d drop the slower swimmers in first, the motor a bit further, drop the medium group in, and then motor a bit further and drop us in.

The swims would be about an hour and a half, going maybe 2 miles or so for us fast people, and then to lunch. A second, shorter swim followed a leisurely lunch at a taverna. Then motoring back to get a shower and dinner. Every single meal was delicious. After strolling back to the hotel, up the stairs and into the room. I was in bed every night by nine, the door cracked to look out at the stars, and to hear the sound of the ocean just below. I’d journal, read a bit, and drop off by ten, and SLEEP FOR A FULL EIGHT HOURS. Hands up those of you that would pay ANY AMOUNT to have that happen for a week.

Yeah, you could say it was perfect.

I’ll regale you with tales of our swims next week, including exploring sea caves both large and small, seeing fish, and exploring incredible ravines.  I also scrambled around an awesome ruin of a Venetian castle right behind our hotel. Here’s a preview of that.

I want to get to what I promised you last week. The two historical things that happened at the little port of Chora Sfakia. If the only thing that happened on the entire trip was that I discovered these two things, it would have been worth the trip to me. Ready?

I was up early in Chora Sfakia the day we were to take the ferry to Loutro, just as dawn broke. Lucky for me, one of the coffee shops was open, so I got my coffee and a bit of breakfast. The grey air of early morning bloomed into pink, and then gold, the sea turned from deep blue to turquoise with little curls of white sea foam. The sky rose from nearly white at the ocean’s horizon to become vivid blue in the upper dome, each layer a dissolving band of color.

Here is an excerpt from my journal as I watched the sun come up: “I marvel at the deep peace that sinks in from my extremities as I listen to the ocean after sleeping deeply. The peace filters in and reaches a core that doesn’t often experience it. It is a sense of completeness, of being enough. Perhaps this is what people seek when they go looking for themselves. The ability to sit alone at breakfast and know that in that moment, they are enough.”

After the wonderful early breakfast with only a few enterprising bees and my sleepy waiter for company, I went for a walk. There is the ruin of a castle overlooking the bay, so I headed that way. I found this plaque on the way. You can read it if you want.

It’s a testimony to the astonishing heroism of the people of Crete during WWII, when Hitler figured out that if he took over the airports at Chania, Reythmno, and Heraklion, he’d have a fantastic spot to attack both Africa and Europe from with his heavy bombers. This was called the Battle of Crete in May of 1941, and I am horrified I’d never heard of it. Massive battles with terrible casualties were fought to keep the Germans from getting those airfields. Greek, British, New Zealand, and Australian troops successfully drove the Germans back at two of them. Only Chania fell to the Germans, so the 16,000 troops there had to make an escape through the steep mountain pass (the very one our bus took), fighting the whole way. Villagers helped by ambushing the pursuing Germans, even though retribution was brutal. The troops made their way to this little shoreline. Over 4 successive nights at 3am, warships arrived and managed to evacuate 11,000 of the hungry, exhausted men, ferrying them to Alexandria. The rest were captured or killed, as were many of the villagers, and the Monks who’d hidden them by day.

Aside from the tenacity, heroism, and gutsiness of this action, I was hit by something else. If Hitler had succeeded, the possibility is real that I might never have been born. My mother lived through the Blitz, you see, and may not have if it had been more intense. And Hitler was right, Crete would have been a fantastic staging place from which to rain hell down on London…  those brave people in 1941 may have turned the tide of the war.

The second discovery about this little strip of land* came later, on my last day before leaving Crete. I went to a wonderful museum (will share it with you in a future post) about Crete history. And there on the wall was a photo of the oldest known footprints of man. 6.05 million years old. The man had been walking next to a pygmy elephant, whose footprints were also captured by the mud turned to stone. Obviously, there’s no way of knowing if this was at the same time, but of course my imagination goes there, that the mini elephant was his pet. And along what shore, you might ask, was this person and his mini elephant walking when their footsteps became immortalized?

At Chora Sfakia.

Mind. Blown.

*truly, both Chora Sfakia and Loutro are TINY. In the winters, only 5 people live in Loutro.

On Two Utterly Charming Beach Towns on Crete

I suppose I could have titled this one, “On Rethymno and Chora Sfakia,” but 99% of you have never heard of those places, unless you live on Crete, of course. I certainly hadn’t before I started planning this trip.

I kind of hope it stays that way, because I want to go back to both and stay longer next time, and I liked that they were basically “local” vacation spots. They still had loads of fab places to eat and stunning little beaches, and things to see, but they were in no way overrun. In fact, in Rethymno was where I used my Greek the most.

One is on the North side of the island, has an old town and an absolutely stunning 500-year-old fortress that spins up images of Knights and Ladies fair, and towns being sacked. The other is on the South side of the island, and is the jumping off point for the ferry that took me and my companions on to our SwimTrek location, which incidentally can ONLY be reached by ferry or walking, Loutro. More on Loutro next week.

We took a packed bus from Heraklion* about an hour to the west to reach Rethymno. The bus station stands on what would be prime real estate in the States, right on a massive curve of the bay. I’m glad the people there just found it to be a convenient location to put the bus.

I chose our hotel for its proximity to the bus station (half a mile) and to the Old Town (right in the middle of it) and the ancient Fortezza (literally built into the side of the fortress). Yes, you read that last bit correctly. Our tiny little house was built into part of the bottom portion of a castle. Really, how many places can you find something like that? It stands on what used to be the main road up to the fortress, about 100 yards uphill.

I think I mentioned a few entries ago that I literally only lost my temper one time the entire 16 days I was gone, which is definitely a record for me. It happened when we couldn’t get the key to turn in the lock of our little house. I know some of my frustration lay in the fact that I really needed to pee. After several text exchanges with the host, who I have to say was responsive in that medium, I was at my wit’s end. He knew of no reason the key wouldn’t turn. I had visions of the key breaking off in the lock and creating even more drama.

In the end, it was my lovely friend Barb who came once again to the rescue. She managed to brute force the key in the lock and get the door open for us. I never touched the door again for the duration of the stay. Barb had the door magic, and I wasn’t going to mess with it.

We had a walk up by the Fortress, and then down to the sea. Then a delightful late lunch at a tiny little 5-table restaurant. One more time I tried speaking in Greek to order. I was corrected, as usual, but the woman serving us couldn’t have been kinder or more attentive. I loved my giant gyros meal in the old house where the family has lived generationally.

Barb and I walked the twisty streets of the old town and had a gelato and then turned in for the night. Our other roommate, Dianne, who has never met a stranger, took herself across the little street to where local musicians were playing, and said it was one of the best nights of the trip for her.

In the morning, we all did separate things. I climbed back up to the fortress, had a cup of coffee while I waited for the Fortezza to open up. Eventually, it did, and the woman in charge waved me on, and said I could pay later on my way out. Yes, I paid on the way out. .

I had the place to MYSELF for over an hour and a half, just wandering the ruins, making up stories in my head. I love a good ruin, and this was one of the most evocative places I’ve ever been. Here are some of the spectacular photos I got. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Then we were back to the bus early, so that we could get a seat, as we had learned the buses could get packed. We were headed back up to Chania, and then onto another bus to take us over the incredibly steep mountains, crossing the island width-wise, and then dropping to Chora Sfakia. We had time between the two to pop into a little grocery store and stock up on bottled water and snacks at a grocery store we’d discovered in our first two days of the trip. There is something so life-affirming in re-visiting a place and knowing where things are. It makes you feel safe, and a little bit that you are a local.

The journey started flat, and we passed a lot of agriculture that thrives in the middle of Crete. The island is pretty much self-contained in terms of producing the food it eats. That also tells you why everything tastes so good. Then the bus started to climb. And climb. And climb. If you’ve driven in mountains, you know switchbacks are an ever-present part of navigating them. The two-hour bus ride had more switchbacks than I’ve ever experienced at one time in my life. The trip confirmed to me that I never want to be a bus driver on Crete. I knew there were mountains in Crete, but had no idea how magnificent they were, rivaling the Rockies in many places. It was just stunning, and I understood at a deep level why this is the place where Greek myth says the mighty Zeus was born.

Finally, thankfully, we arrived in the little seaport of Chora Sfakia, which at first glance, is just the bus stop, a charming collection of rooms and hotels perched on the steep slope rising up from the ocean, a strip of restaurants, and the harbor where the ferries comes in. There is no need for a stoplight, or indeed a stop sign, the place is so small.

But… I was to learn this port was much, much more than those obvious things. Next week, I’ll tell you about the two extraordinary historical things that happened in this little place. They will blow you away.

I checked in at a restaurant, whose owners owned the tiny, perfect little room I was going to stay in by myself overnight. It was just steps from the beach, where I got my first swim in the crystal clear, warm waters of the Mediterranean ocean. There were a few cold spots in the water. I would later learn the cold spots signal that fresh water flowing down from the towering mountains above ends up there. Also, a few fish and spiny urchins. Yet another fantastic meal, this one seafood pasta, lingering at the ocean’s edge in a delightful, open-air terraced dining room. There is something so soothing about a leisurely, beautifully prepared meal with friends, the stars shining in a black sky above, the whisper of the ocean below. The susurrus of the waves caressing the rocky shore said to me… be at peace, stay.

*For full story read last week’s entry, “On Heraklion and the Palace of Knossos.”