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 Heraklion and the Palace of Knossos

My trip to Crete was fantastic, and a highlight for me was finally getting to see the Palace of Knossos. I’ve wanted to see it since I was in Mrs. Sandberg’s 4th grade ALC class a looong time ago and did a semester about Greek Myths. Not only was I obsessed with Heinrich Schliemann and his discovery of the actual city of Troy, but I also studied Arthur Evans and his excavation at Knossos. I went so far as to do a to-scale model in sugar cubes of the palace itself. Here is a better version, a wooden one that is in the museum I’ll be telling you about.

In fact, the whole reason I opted to go on the SwimTrek trip to Crete was so I could visit a spot that had fascinated me for over fifty years. To follow are a lot of pictures and the verbatim journal entries I made for the day before our Knossos Tour, and the day of it. I was not disappointed. Read on for a slice of life on Crete, and a visit to a 3,500-year-old archeological site, with insights given by a truly gifted tour guide.

Weds. The Trip to Heraklion.

We were up pretty early to check out of our hotel in Chania. Got to bank at 8am to change a hundred into smaller bills so that the people we are trying to pay don’t sigh at us. This was an exercise in patience on our end, and extreme security on the bank’s side of things. You could only go into the bank one at a time, through double security. We then lined up politely and waited for the two people in front of us to do their transactions. One woman, hand to god, had at least ten money orders to wade through. Eventually we each got to change one 100-euro bill into small ones. They wouldn’t change any more than that. So, good to know, even the banks on Crete don’t care for big bills. Then on to a big, filtered coffee Americano (as opposed to the thick Greek coffee that you can practically stand a spoon up in) and a croissant at a shop. There are dozens of these little bakeries scattered throughout Chania. You could try a new one every day. Next to the bakery, there was a fresh fish shop, with mounds of freshly caught fish hanging out on large blocks of ice. The smell of the sea and salt was powerful as we walked by. The next store after that was a café that would cook any fish you just bought for you.

We got our bus tickets. At first the gal gave us the wrong time, but I managed to correct the issue in my terrible Greek, and she fixed it for us. It was a packed bus, and there was a bit of a fuss with an older woman who insisted I was in her seat, even though no one seems to pay attention to the seat numbers. I was getting steamed, but luckily my level-headed friend Barb was with me. She diffused the situation.

It was a 2.5-hour fascinating bus ride. Steep, sere mountains on one side, the Aegean Ocean on the other. The soil is light colored and crumbly, like California soil, but with hundreds and hundreds of olive trees. Arriving in the big city of Heraklion, we disembarked. The bus station is not far from where the cruise liners dock, so the place was packed with people. We had an uphill walk to our apartment, but we took it slowly.

The room wasn’t quite ready yet, so the guy sent his son around to take our bags up while we went and found where our friends were staying in a nearby hotel. Then we hunted down where we would find the number 2 bus tomorrow, the local line that will take us to the Palace. Then we got settled into our very nice rooms, and it was time for a wander.

We ambled down to the sea (as one does) and wound up at a fortress at the port that was built in the 1400s. Fantastic thing, a combination restoration and museum. Dives by Jacques Cousteau brought up all sorts of treasures from the Heraklion harbor nearby, lots of wrecks in this area. The fortress itself looked like something that “Gladiator” could have used as a set. The harbor itself is 4-5 times bigger than Chania’s. It was warm and humid, but the ocean breeze kept things pleasant. As in Chania, cats roam the streets freely. A few dogs here, as well.

We made our way back up to the old section of the city, and into a beautiful Orthodox church. It was stunning inside. A funeral was about to take place, so we didn’t linger long. The mourners were all wearing white, and there were white wreaths.

Dinner was fantastic. Bread and oil to start, of course, and then yet another superb Greek salad. This one had lots of olives in it. The restaurants all seem to bring a free dessert, and an ouzo-type drink called “Raki.” This one was a carob brownie with mango pudding, with a compote of apple and cinnamon on top. As seems to be the norm, dinner takes about two hours, and then you have a pleasant stroll back to your room.

I cannot believe that tomorrow I will be in the place I’ve dreamed of for so very long.

Thursday. The Palace and Archaeological Museum

Woke up to cool and rainy weather. I was so excited about this jaunt, I barely slept. Our place is in the middle of the city, opposite an all-night eatery. It was pretty noisy. We had a bit of a scare getting us all onto the number 2 bus in time to get us to our booked tour appointment, but we managed it. They require masks on the local buses still, but I didn’t mind. I loved watching out the window as we made our way through the outlaying neighborhoods and into the countryside where the Palace is located.

Heraklion is a big, bustling city, a sprawl. In a way, it reminded me of Washington, DC, the way each neighborhood has its own stores, but they repeat. The cheap transportation seems to be used by everyone. Our round-trip ticket was less than 2 euro.

We arrived just on time and had a happy greeting from the tour company guide. She hustled us along, as several cruise lines were coming in right behind us. I was glad I had read about the tours, and that the mornings were the best, least crowded time to go.

Our group was comprised of ourselves, and another ten people. The tour provided earpieces, so you could easily hear the guide for the whole hour and a half. The guide was a middle-aged woman, full of life, vitality, and who spoke excellent English. She provided umbrellas for those of us who didn’t have them. She kept us moving ahead of the large crowds that were starting to pour in. We were in the front of the lines into the throne room. I had to stand back for a moment, as I was quite overcome with it all. Here was the place I had seen images of for so long, and suddenly I was standing in the middle of it. I got really misty, and was struck again at how lucky I am to be able to do a trip like this. Also, got a good snap in front of the re-painted bull section. I am telling you, not ten minutes later, both of these spots were overrun with long lines of people.

Our guide was so informative. She explained that while the archeologist Evans did a good job for the time and dodged a lot of paperwork by simply funding the dig himself, he still made a lot of assumptions that have later proved to be way off base. The main bit is that this was not a palace, there are no kitchens, no one actually lived here—instead, it was a place people went to work, the center of Minoan commerce and trade, as well as religion for all of Crete.

Only 2% of the site has been excavated. The archeologists suspect there are huge sections under the surrounding mountains. After all, this was the center of commerce for the known world for thousands of years. In the middle of the trading routes between Asia, Africa, and Europe, Knossos thrived under the leadership of “King” Minos, who was actually a queen. The “os” ending gives it away, a neuter verb. Minos simply means ruler, and all indications are that this was a woman-run society. They ran the business and religion end of things, hiring Mycenaean mercenaries to fight their battles for them.

The site is located far away from the harbor, so any attackers had to march uphill to get to it. There are still remnants of that road. The shape and structure of the road reminded me of the one that led to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan that the Maya constructed. There is a rapidly running stream that flows behind the structure, and the temple users used that as well for transportation. They had bathtubs and flushing toilets and advanced sewage and drainage systems. The ruins are extensive. Here are my wonderful travel companions and I in part of it.

Here is where you find the rite of passage all young men (and perhaps women too) did, in the open courtyard in Knossos. They would run at a horned bull and then leap over it by grasping the horns and doing an acrobatic flip. The bull was the main sign of worship, since the constellation Taurus was predominant in the sky then… when Jesus was walking the earth, it was Pisces, which is why the fish represents Christians. Perhaps this is where the saying “take the bull by the horns” came from? Later, we would see the famous fresco of a man jumping over the bull in this ritual. We know the jumper is a man, as they are depicted in red pigment. Women are depicted in white pigment.

Interesting fact about the bathtubs of the rich—they were repurposed upon the death of the owner as their sarcophagus.

The huge jars that were found in large, connected chambers were still in place in some areas of the site. They built them from the ground up, using coils of clay. The decorations on the outside were for measurement purposes. They were good record keepers. Examples of both Linear A and Linear B—the first written languages of mankind — were found here.

There are these markings on the walls, that back in the day, guided you to where you wanted to go. The trident was for trade, the double-headed axe, or Labros was for worship. I found several of these on my own after they were pointed out to me. I traced my fingers along those lines, and imagined myself back in time, a visitor to the Palace of Knossos.

The tour ended at the place where they would do theatrical shows, and I had to smile as we walked the ancient stones just as so many have done before us. The downfall of Knossos was in the form of earthquakes (there are still a lot of them, there are few buildings in the city that are above 3 stories) and fire. Eventually, the priestesses and people of the Minoan civilization gave Knossos up as a bad deal, and let the Mycenaeans have it. After over 3,000 years of rule, it fell to ruin less than 200 years later, and was slowly buried by soil and time.

After an easy bus trip back into the city, we had a coffee and slice of delicious cheese pie. Barb and I headed back to our rooms to do a quick batch of laundry and hung it out to dry. Then on to the Archaeological Museum that was just around the corner from our place (why I picked it). It’s a wowza museum, but it was packed with people. The findings from the palace are there. I saw the snake dancer, of whom I’ve written a short story, and the bull fresco, and so much beautiful jewelry. Their art was stunning.

Later in the day, we had the most marvelous Italian dinner, perhaps the best meal of the trip. Freshly made pasta with a basil and pine nut pesto, crunchy loaves of bread, and sweet olive oil. Dessert was once more “on the house” and featured a sort of chocolate pudding with a cherry jam on top of it.

We wandered back to our rooms through the old town, both bellies and minds full. And I… with a long-held dream fulfilled.