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.

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.