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.”

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.