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 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.”