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 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!

On Spanakopita and Booking a Flight to Greece

I must be one of those zany optimists. I’ve forged ahead with plans to travel overseas this year. It’s a bit of a crap shoot, but I can’t bring myself to lie low and not give it a go. I have hope!

Whenever I hear someone say, “Well, I don’t want to get my hopes up…” I want to ask them, why not? Why not get your hopes up, and move in the general direction of happiness? My friend Sally challenged me years ago when I said that very phrase. She asked me, “Would you rather keep your hopes in the gutter? Where they belong?” I’ve thought differently about not keeping my hopes up ever since. That Sally, she’s good at asking the tough questions. I love having her as a friend.

And… I found a really great deal on a Finnair flight. Round trip to Crete for about $600. Yes, I’ll have a killer layover in Helsinki for twelve hours coming back, but I can manage. I’ve had a SwimTrek trip on the books to Crete for a couple of years now, and I’m marching on with the hope and expectation that it is happening in 2022. A week of swims in the Mediterranean Sea with some of my wonderful swim friends and a room with a view.

If I squint really hard, I’ll be able to see Africa from the tiny coastal village of Loutro, where we are staying. Not really, but it’s out there. And another almost-week of exploring Chania and Heraklion and the ruins of the Palace of Knossos and a swim or two in the Sea of Crete. Here is their website, they do swims all over the world, and I’ve found them easy to work with. https://www.swimtrek.com

After a bit of a break during Christmas, I’m back to learning Greek using Duolingo. It’s challenging, but fun, and I gotta figure it’s just as good as sudoku for keeping my aging brain making new synapses with the added benefit of not having to do math. My aim is to be able to read signs and menus, and perhaps have a bit of a chat with a stranger or two over coffee or gyros. I do love a chat.

In celebration of finding a great flight and taking one step closer to making my since-fourth-grade dream of treading the stones of Knossos where Ariadne spun her web and the Minotaur roared, I made Spanakopita this weekend. We’ve found a great middle eastern grocery here in Dallas, and it makes for a fun road trip getting the supplies. There are two groceries, actually, if you want to check them out. Sara’s Bakery and the brand-new Jasmine next door. https://http://sarasmarketbakery.com/

This recipe is from www.themediterraneandish.com She has great additional instructions, especially for properly thawing your frozen phyllo dough. You’ll want to buy your dough frozen, trust me. No one in their right mind would try to make phyllo from scratch. Most of us simply do not have the counter space or patience for it. I’d looked at several recipes, and my addition to this one is to use a bunch of freshly chopped dill weed rather than 2T of dried dill.

You do you on that one. This was easy, made enough to feed six hungry people, and was tasty. Or gnostimo, as we say in Greek!

Spanakopita Filling:

16 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed

2 bunches Italian parsley, chopped

1 bunch of fresh dill, chopped

1 large yellow onion, chopped fine

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 T olive oil

4 eggs

10.5 oz good feta, crumbled

Freshly ground pepper.

Mix all of that together, and set to the side. Then open up your phyllo, and have slightly damp dish towels to keep it from drying out as you do this next step. It helps if you are in a Zen frame of mind, or listening to a good book on tape for this next bit.

You need about a cup of olive oil and a pastry brush. Brush bottom and sides of a 9×13 baking dish with olive oil.

Put down two of the phyllo sheets, letting them overlap and go up the sides of the dish a bit. Yes, they might tear. No big. Brush them with the olive oil (remain Zen, you’ll get the hang of it). Then lay down two more, brush with olive oil.

Do that with 2/3 of your phyllo sheets. This took me about fifteen minutes. Preheat your oven to 325, rack in the middle. Spread your mix onto the sheets.

Put down two phyllo sheets, brush with olive oil, and do that until you run out of sheets.

Fold over the edges and brush top with olive oil. Splash a few drops of water on the top. Score squares through just the few top layers. It makes cutting much easier later, and cooks better.

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Bake for an hour, until it’s all brown and crispy and melty cheesy. We had ours with delicious creamy tzatziki on the side. Opah!