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 Chania’s Old Town in Crete

I’ve found in chatting with people about my trip that not many folks have been to Crete. They’ve been to Greece, on the mainland in Athens or on other islands such as Santorini. The first thing to know about Crete is that it’s big. It has a wide variety of terrain, including huge mountains that cut through the middle of it. I’m not talking oh, lovely little rolling hills that are above sea level that one can scramble up. NO. The mountains on Crete are enormous rocky things and are so high they have snow on them for several months of the year. The only things that can scramble up them are the Kri Kri, the local little goats.

It also was an independent country for a long time, only formally joining the group of islands we call modern-day Greece 100 years ago. It played a huge role in WW2 that I’m mortified to admit I knew nothing about, and I’ll fill you in about that in another outing of this blog.

I’d always wanted to come to Crete because I read “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” when I was in fourth grade, and fell in love with Greek myths. When the chance arose to come to the place that ignited my storytelling fire, I was all in. So, as I unleash all these gorgeous pictures, please know that nothing, not one moment of the trip, was lost on me. I was grateful with nearly every step I took on its ancient roads and byways. (Except the fifteen minutes when we couldn’t get into our rental house, I’ll tell you about that in a later blog.)

For the week-long expedition that I planned that would occur before the swimtrek week of the trip, myself and three companions would spend two nights in Chania, two in Iraklion, one in Rethymno, and a final night on the south side of the island in Chora Sfakia before nabbing the ferry to take to our swim location.

I put us in the “old towns” of each of these. Now I know “old town” can be a relative term. I lived in Chicago’s “Old Town” for a while, it wasn’t very old. Here on Crete, it means a different thing. It means a spot that looked like a good place to put a town three thousand years ago, or, in the case of Chora Sfakia, 6.5 million years ago (not a typo.)

The streets in Chania’s old town are narrow and winding, and all paths, of course, lead to the stunning harbor. The Venetians placed the big blocks of stone that comprise most of the harbor area along with long walls to protect the city some 500+ years ago. After the Ottomans overran the place and destroyed a lot of it out of spite, the Egyptians rebuilt it. I discovered on this trip that the Venetians were busy builders, and that there are ruins all over the island. It makes sense, as Crete is smack in the middle of some excellent trade routes. The island is located in the shipping lanes between Africa, Egypt, both the middle east, the far east, and Europe, it was the place to hang your shingle if you were into goods and trading.

The old town got bombed heavily during WW2, which ended up unearthing some of the oldest living places ever found in the Mediterranean. Cities built upon cities. Silver lining, I suppose. These are tombs that were in an 800-year-old Christian church. Then the Ottomans came, turned it into a mosque and got rid of the bodies. Now it’s a shop in old town Chania. Above this floor in the domed ceiling hang some of the original chandeliers from the mosque.

It’s like stepping back in time as you stroll through the alleyways. No cars, just pedestrians. There are shops everywhere selling crafts and clothes, as well as restaurants with outdoor seating inviting you to come and have a nice, leisurely meal. Later you can have a gelato and watch the sun set or moon rise over the harbor. By the way, that’s raspberry and Nutella gelato in the picture. It was really good.

The food was uniformly amazing throughout the trip. In 16 days I did not have one bad or even sub-par meal. Most of the food is grown on Crete, so it’s fresh. Tomatoes and cucumbers taste the way I remember them tasting. The cheese is made fresh from the goats; the olives picked from the olive trees out back. The bread baked in the oven that morning. I must have had at least 9 Greek salads on this trip, and each one was slightly different in makeup. All were delicious.

No meal is rushed. You sit, you get beverages, bread and oil and olives. Pick what you want to eat. It eventually comes. You talk, you eat. They bring more beverages. Eventually they bring a little dessert and Raki, a local ouzo-type beverage made from grape seed pressings and shot glasses. That’s on the house. Then they might bring the bill at some point, after you ask for it. No pressure, just hospitality and a fantastic meal. Add in the sound of the ocean hitting the shore, balmy air, and you have a recipe for a perfect place to vacation.

I recommend walking the sea wall to the lighthouse and just losing yourself in the old town streets, you’re sure to see something that interests you. That with sampling different restaurants is good for at least two or three days. Side note. There are stray cats everywhere. People feed them. This was everywhere on the island. I saw no mice, rats, or squirrels, so seems it’s their way of taking care of the vermin problem.

On the last bit of my vacation, I was on my own in Chania, with no real agenda. I walked over to the local beach and swam for a half hour in the clear waters of the Aegean Sea. Chatted in my bad Greek to shopkeepers, got corrected, and had the most wonderful time connecting with people. I wandered the extensive Byzantium Wall that surrounds the old city.

While buying a shirt for one of my sons, I got into a conversation with the owner. She told me that the Chania Archeological museum was walkable from where I was staying, and so I did that the next day. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful museum just outside the heart of the city. The path there lies along the ocean and is a delight. I’ll talk more about this museum in a later installment.

The final thing I will recommend doing in Chania is to go to Al Hammam. It’s an old Turkish bath in yet another restored Venetian home. I’d never done one before. You steam, and then a (woman in my case) bathes you with olive soap and oils, washes your hair, and gives you a back massage. It was an hour and twenty-five minutes from heaven. Being bathed and tended to was never on any list of mine, but I have to say, it is now.

Chania is magical. I hope you get to go there sometime. For reference, I stayed at the close-to-the-bus-station Alena apartments for two nights, and recommend it. Not fancy digs, but comfortable beds, a washing machine, and easy to get around from. Boutique Hotel Doge was fantastic, in the heart of the old town, a converted 14th century home. Lots of stairs, so not for anyone who needs an elevator. Lovely people run both places.

On Getting There and Finnair

Planes, ferries, buses, shuttles, and my own two feet got me first to Helsinki, and then to various locations on the Greek island of Crete during the past sixteen days. It was a hella good trip. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share the highlights of Chania, Heraklion, Rethymno, Sfakia Chora, and Loutro with you, along with some insights and tips. Of course you get to see photos too. It’s hard to take a bad picture in any of those places, and may I say, Android phones rock the photo scene.

In Dallas, we have two major airports. Love Field used to be a tiny regional airport. It’s famous for being the place where JFK landed on what would be one of his final days on this earth. It’s close to the center of the city, and has grown considerably over the past thirty years I’ve been flying in and out of it. Southwest Airlines has its hub there.

Pro Tip: If it’s raining monsoon-style as it can here in Texas, don’t park on the lower levels of the garage at Love. They are notorious for flooding. I picked up my husband during a recent downpour, and sure enough, the drains were merrily belching water up over a foot high, as if they were realizing their secret aspirations of becoming glorious fountains.

DFW is the other big airport, and it’s massive. Every time we go there, I marvel at the clever design of the place. Swooping curved exits take you to one of five terminals, or to the two major exits, north and south. While it can be intimidating the first few times you go to pick someone up or be dropped off, there’s lots of signage to get you back where you need to go. Okay, yes, you may go around a few times, but I stand firm in my opinion that the design is fantastic.

My husband and I are old pros at this airport now, thanks to the travelling ways of our kids and friends. Terminal D holds the international flights, and that’s where we headed for the first leg of my journey, an 11-hour overnight long haul via Finnair to Helsinki. As I like to do (my family teases me about this), I got there three hours early. I enjoy airports, sitting and watching all the people coming and going, and hate feeling rushed. I can tell you exactly where this predilection for arriving early came from too; my father’s love of being the last person to board, having the doors of an aircraft held for him. I have a vivid sense memory of running over those grey squares of airline carpeting to keep up with his long stride, my suitcase bumping my knees as we moved past dawdlers (this was before the genius person who put wheels on suitcases**), and the knot that formed in my gut as I contemplated being left behind, of being TOO LATE. Ugh. No, thank you. Here I am, enjoying the airport!

I am not getting paid to shill for Finnair, but can wholeheartedly recommend it for any long haul you want to take. I’d now pick it over any other airlines I’ve travelled as an economy-class traveler. My best long-distance trip ever remains the first-class journey to and from Buenos Aires that our oldest son scored for us when he worked for Delta, but as flying economy class goes, Finnair beats anything else by a mile. Or a kilometer.*

“Why?” you ask. Oh, please let me tell you. First, the flight attendants are all ruthlessly efficient with their taller-than-you stature, and stylish blue uniforms and gloves, yet remain charming. “Hei!” they cry in welcome, or “Moy moy!” I felt taken care of instantly.

My seat was broad enough for my behind, with room to spare, and there was enough leg room for me to easily cross my legs or stretch them out completely under the seat in front of me. A lovely pillow and blanket were placed on each seat, and every seat has a built-in screen where you can see flight details or watch movies. They also provided good earbuds and a bottle of water. The jet I flew on was a 3-3-3 seat configuration. While I was lucky enough to have a vacant middle seat both coming and going, I wouldn’t have felt cramped if it had been filled. My second legs on Finnair from Helsinki to Chania were completely full, four-hour regional flights in a slightly older plane, but there was still plenty of seat and leg room. Being a planner, I really liked the moving timeline that showed exactly when we were going to be fed, and when we could expect to land that appeared on the screens.

I ordered special lactose-free meals, and got two excellent hot ones in flight, along with my choice of water or blueberry juice, coffee, or tea. The blueberry juice was great. All of my Finnair flights were on time or early to their destinations, even with a gate change on the first leg.

As we descended, I noticed that the fall had begun in Finland. Plenty of golds and reds were sprinkled in the thick forests we flew over. Helsinki airport is exactly how you’d imagine it to be. Lots of blonde wood, clean lines, and chrome. Think Ikea with planes, and you have it exactly. We deplaned and walked a good distance to the passport check. I was surprised that we were going through it here, and not Greece. The men at passport control were pretty thorough with the questioning, but polite about it. I got to thinking that Helsinki is only about two hundred and fifty miles away from St. Petersburg as I waited for my next plane and was surprised there were no obvious armed guards anywhere. It’s a great airport, which I would be very glad of on my return journey when I spent 12 hours there. I enjoyed wandering around on my current 3-hour layover. Trying to read Finnish is a treat. I had an excellent baguette with salmon and a coffee before my next flight. It was fun paying for them in Euros. I did my first exchange to get small bills in exchange for bigger ones, which was to become a theme for the next two weeks.

PRO TIP: No one in Greece likes big bills like 100s and 50s. They even sigh a bit over a 20. The good news for you, Dear Traveller, is that’s because nothing costs much in Greece. So when you get your money changed, get as many Euros in 5s and 10s as the bank will put up with getting for you.

The second flight loaded promptly and efficiently, and I had very nice seat-mates who’d brought along sandwiches made with dark rye bread and pickles. They changed seats with me so I could sit at the window. After a beautiful long-ish flight over lots of mountains and green countryside, we hit the coastline of Greece just as the sun set, turning the sea to molten gold.

Landing in Chania, we deplaned down the old-fashioned stairs on both ends of the plane, and then got on a bus that drove us the short distance to the terminal. And then I just… walked out of the airport with my carryon bags. No checks of anything, and sadly, no Greek stamp for my passport. Look up the Schengen Agreement as to why this is so. It’s a pretty cool policy of the EU.

The airport isn’t very big. I asked where the bus station was in Greek and received the first of many frowns, and a correction of my pronunciation before being given directions. This was consistent throughout my stay. Either I am rotten at actually speaking Greek, or Crete has their own dialect of it that doesn’t match Duolingo. Nonetheless, I found the little kiosk, paid the man the 2.30 in euros for the bus ride to Chania town, about a 25-minute trip. The sun had set completely, and I felt utter peace as I breathed in the night air and saw a different version of stars in the velvet black sky. It was warm, but not uncomfortably so, and the sea breeze eddied around the dozen or so people waiting.

A big, white motorcoach with tinted windows came, and we loaded bags underneath and then climbed aboard. As I was to learn, they have got the bus and ferry thing down to a science on Crete, and we left exactly on time. The buses are very comfortable to ride, and many have Greek music playing over the loudspeaker.

I will say this: I am glad I am not a bus driver on Crete. The roads become increasingly narrow as one gets to the center of the town, and it would appear that motorcycles don’t need to stop for anyone or anything. Pedestrians also tend to have an outrageous amount of trust that the bus will stop for them.

My only concern about the entire trip to Crete was finding my hotel after reaching the bus station in the middle of Chania town. This is even though I had picked it for its near proximity, and had stared at city maps before going. I was getting there alone at night, after travelling for nearly 20 hours straight.

I needn’t have worried. My swim friends, Barbara, Phyllis, and Dianne were there to greet me. How lovely of them. Turns out I picked well, the walk was less than a football field to the hotel, my wheeled suitcase** trundling along on the rough sidewalks made of stone and cobbles to the front entrance of the Alena hotel, our home for the next two nights in beautiful, ancient, surprising Chania.

*mathing the conversion of mile to kilometer while travelling in Europe was a bit tricky for me. I was just grateful that the Euro was almost exactly equal to a dollar when I did this trip.

**did the person who invented these get a medal? They should have.

On Preparing to Travel

At long last, a postponed trip to Greece is here. The last throes of planning, list-making, and researching are done. I have tickets for everything I need to have tickets for. I’ve made a copy of my passport, left itineraries for my loved ones, just in case. I even got travel insurance.

I’m travelling to a brand-new place for me, Greece, specifically the island of Crete. I’ll be doing some touristy, sight-seeing things like taking a Cretan cooking class and going to visit the Palace of Knossos, and visiting a Hammam. I’m also (this will sound antithetical) gearing myself up to slow way down. I’ll be turning off my social media, disengaging from my life here in the States. I’m genuinely sorry I will miss a couple of weeks of celebrating your birthdays on Facebook.

I’m a fairly relaxed traveler these days. While I like to do a lot of advance planning (as in, I started using Duolingo to learn Greek a couple of years ago, and I love staring at maps and bus schedules), over the years my desire for a don’t-miss-anything trip has vanished. I’m looking forward to simply wandering the streets of the ancient cities of Chania, Rethymno, and Heraklion. To staying in a stone house built into the side of a fortress and a 15th century Venetian palazzo turned into a hotel.

Old places resonate with me. There’s something about touching stones laid by people hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years ago. Seeing art created by artisans long turned to dust, but what they made, how they saw the world, is still here. It makes me misty. I’m looking forward to wandering twisty streets that evolved from animal trails, poking my head into odd shops, having a beverage in a tiny tavern, or trying a new dish.

The other non-touristy part of this trip will be ultra-active. My friends and I are travelling to the south of the island, to a tiny village called Loutro. It’s only accessible via ferry or walking. No cars. Cash only, too, no ATMs. Side note: I got my Euros, which are different colors and sizes for different denominations. I wish American money was like this.

During the second week, my friends and I will join with some other folks to do a SwimTrek trip. We’ll be swimming in the Mediterranean sea daily, around 2-4 miles a day. There will be boats if we get tired, or just don’t feel like swimming further, so still a vacation, not an Olympic event. There will be villages to explore, castles to climb to, and walks along the coast. The village we are staying in is right on the E4, the long hiking route that traverses Europe. It’s also near where Paul washed ashore in the 1st century as he travelled the known world spreading the gospel. We’ll be swimming off of that beach.

It will be quiet. I will be in my own little room overlooking the sea. There will be coffee, and I will keep a travel journal. This is my idea of heaven.

To prep for the trip, I’ve been swimming, of course. I am a pretty strong swimmer, kind of metronomic as in once I start up, I just sort of… keep going at a measured pace. It’s a different kind of swimming in the ocean. You’re more buoyant, which is nice, but no walls to turn off of, no convenient straight line to follow beneath you. Waves and sea creatures will keep it interesting. I haven’t been able to practice those things. No open water swimming here in Texas that I’ve taken advantage of… there are alligators in all the lakes here, and ehhh… I’d frankly rather swim with sharks, not that there are very many of those where we will be.

I’ve also been walking and laying out, so I have a nice base tan. I know, I’m so old school about that. At least I wasn’t laying out with baby oil, a foil reflector, and my Tab cola sitting next to me. I’ll use reef-safe sunscreen during the swims, and wear a hat, I promise.

As always, I am waiting until the last few hours to pack. I’ve made a list though. I’m going carry-on, and if anything is forgotten, you can just pop into one of those shops and purchase it. My kindle is loaded up, although I am giving hard consideration to toting a hefty paperback (IQ84) as well, just in case it craps out. My sons have assured me I can just use my phone, no real need to get a Greek sim card, and instructed me where to turn roaming on and off so I don’t get a surprise bill later.

I’ve also pre-loaded next week’s blog, in keeping with my promise of writing one a week for at least a year, and I got out a short story to a dark mermaid anthology I’m hoping to be part of. Book 5 of the Darkwood series is still in progress. I’d wanted to have the first draft done before leaving, but didn’t quite make it. It will still be done before the end of the year, I promise.

For now, Kalispera!