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.”

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 Garlic Bread and Mixed Bags

My friend Jeanne made wonderful garlic bread. I first watched her make it on a shared vacation at her beach house by Los Osos on the mid-coast of California. The place is just as lovely as it sounds, with tide pools nearby to explore and the stretch of the Pacific Ocean just outside the front door. Jeanne was generous with everything, and her garlic bread was no exception. Lots of butter, garlic, and parmesan cheese creamed together and slathered on long loaves of crusty French baguettes cut in half and then into quarters. Grilled under the broiler until the cheese became browned and bubbly, and the aroma of garlic filled the beach house.

A happy memory. I’m delighted that I’ve lived a nice long time and collected lots of these. I hope to do so for another nice long stretch. The balance to lots of good memories made with friends is that sometimes they get effing cancer and die. They diagnosed Jeanne not much more than a year ago with skin cancer on her scalp that spread too far and too fast to her insides. She passed away a few days ago with her daughter, who is the same age as my boys, at her side holding her hand.

This past week also saw my high school swim coach who changed my life for the healthier and better pass. Now, I will say it is just like Coach Spahn to go to his heavenly reward during a master’s swim meet swimming a 1650 (that’s a mile, for you non-competitive swimmers out there, or 16 football fields and a bit for you visual learners). Active and vital is how I will always remember him, along with his brutal workouts and his insistence that I was a distance swimmer. I tried and tried to talk him out of that. Distance swimmers had even longer workouts than the rest of us did. I did not want to be team distance.

I’ve swum two 1650s this past week. Finishing Coach’s race for him. Negative split them too, which is proof that Bill was right about me being an effing distance swimmer. Negative splitting means I swam the second half faster than the first half.

So, I’ve been a little sad this week. Yet… I had fun too. And that is where the “mixed bag” section of this blog comes in. We had a Sunday brunch cooked by our son and his girlfriend (eggs and fruit and waffles!) and a trip to the fantastic Fort Worth Zoo. I fed a giraffe there. They are lovely creatures with a sort of doggy vibe to them up close. I petted its cheek. The giraffe didn’t seem to mind. There was also a baby elephant romping around, playing with a stick. I don’t even need to tell you how cute that was.

I won cookies in a contest and sold some of my books. I got a lot of writing done. My husband brought me flowers. I chatted with two long-time pals on the phone and got caught up. Got word that another one of my plays is going to be produced this year and that I get to work with wonderful friends in the process. Did a gig as a theatre critic for the first time in two years. It was nice to go out to the theatre again. Accompanied my dad to another doctor appointment. Went for a few long walks at the lake.

So, there was certainly a lot to be grateful for, and enjoy. A mixed bag.

This week, I expect to get more writing done and pick up directing “Wait Until Dark” at a local theatre. We were due to go up in early February, but Covid postponed us. I’m a lucky gal in that my entire cast and crew stayed committed. I’m looking forward to going back into it and creating a show that will scare the pants off people. I’ll take a meal to my folks, and have some more nice long talks with long-time friends. Might bake something.

I’ll send that recipe for garlic bread to Jeanne’s daughter. And swim another 1650 or two for Coach. Their presence blessed me. Sure is hard letting them go.