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 Heraklion and the Palace of Knossos

My trip to Crete was fantastic, and a highlight for me was finally getting to see the Palace of Knossos. I’ve wanted to see it since I was in Mrs. Sandberg’s 4th grade ALC class a looong time ago and did a semester about Greek Myths. Not only was I obsessed with Heinrich Schliemann and his discovery of the actual city of Troy, but I also studied Arthur Evans and his excavation at Knossos. I went so far as to do a to-scale model in sugar cubes of the palace itself. Here is a better version, a wooden one that is in the museum I’ll be telling you about.

In fact, the whole reason I opted to go on the SwimTrek trip to Crete was so I could visit a spot that had fascinated me for over fifty years. To follow are a lot of pictures and the verbatim journal entries I made for the day before our Knossos Tour, and the day of it. I was not disappointed. Read on for a slice of life on Crete, and a visit to a 3,500-year-old archeological site, with insights given by a truly gifted tour guide.

Weds. The Trip to Heraklion.

We were up pretty early to check out of our hotel in Chania. Got to bank at 8am to change a hundred into smaller bills so that the people we are trying to pay don’t sigh at us. This was an exercise in patience on our end, and extreme security on the bank’s side of things. You could only go into the bank one at a time, through double security. We then lined up politely and waited for the two people in front of us to do their transactions. One woman, hand to god, had at least ten money orders to wade through. Eventually we each got to change one 100-euro bill into small ones. They wouldn’t change any more than that. So, good to know, even the banks on Crete don’t care for big bills. Then on to a big, filtered coffee Americano (as opposed to the thick Greek coffee that you can practically stand a spoon up in) and a croissant at a shop. There are dozens of these little bakeries scattered throughout Chania. You could try a new one every day. Next to the bakery, there was a fresh fish shop, with mounds of freshly caught fish hanging out on large blocks of ice. The smell of the sea and salt was powerful as we walked by. The next store after that was a café that would cook any fish you just bought for you.

We got our bus tickets. At first the gal gave us the wrong time, but I managed to correct the issue in my terrible Greek, and she fixed it for us. It was a packed bus, and there was a bit of a fuss with an older woman who insisted I was in her seat, even though no one seems to pay attention to the seat numbers. I was getting steamed, but luckily my level-headed friend Barb was with me. She diffused the situation.

It was a 2.5-hour fascinating bus ride. Steep, sere mountains on one side, the Aegean Ocean on the other. The soil is light colored and crumbly, like California soil, but with hundreds and hundreds of olive trees. Arriving in the big city of Heraklion, we disembarked. The bus station is not far from where the cruise liners dock, so the place was packed with people. We had an uphill walk to our apartment, but we took it slowly.

The room wasn’t quite ready yet, so the guy sent his son around to take our bags up while we went and found where our friends were staying in a nearby hotel. Then we hunted down where we would find the number 2 bus tomorrow, the local line that will take us to the Palace. Then we got settled into our very nice rooms, and it was time for a wander.

We ambled down to the sea (as one does) and wound up at a fortress at the port that was built in the 1400s. Fantastic thing, a combination restoration and museum. Dives by Jacques Cousteau brought up all sorts of treasures from the Heraklion harbor nearby, lots of wrecks in this area. The fortress itself looked like something that “Gladiator” could have used as a set. The harbor itself is 4-5 times bigger than Chania’s. It was warm and humid, but the ocean breeze kept things pleasant. As in Chania, cats roam the streets freely. A few dogs here, as well.

We made our way back up to the old section of the city, and into a beautiful Orthodox church. It was stunning inside. A funeral was about to take place, so we didn’t linger long. The mourners were all wearing white, and there were white wreaths.

Dinner was fantastic. Bread and oil to start, of course, and then yet another superb Greek salad. This one had lots of olives in it. The restaurants all seem to bring a free dessert, and an ouzo-type drink called “Raki.” This one was a carob brownie with mango pudding, with a compote of apple and cinnamon on top. As seems to be the norm, dinner takes about two hours, and then you have a pleasant stroll back to your room.

I cannot believe that tomorrow I will be in the place I’ve dreamed of for so very long.

Thursday. The Palace and Archaeological Museum

Woke up to cool and rainy weather. I was so excited about this jaunt, I barely slept. Our place is in the middle of the city, opposite an all-night eatery. It was pretty noisy. We had a bit of a scare getting us all onto the number 2 bus in time to get us to our booked tour appointment, but we managed it. They require masks on the local buses still, but I didn’t mind. I loved watching out the window as we made our way through the outlaying neighborhoods and into the countryside where the Palace is located.

Heraklion is a big, bustling city, a sprawl. In a way, it reminded me of Washington, DC, the way each neighborhood has its own stores, but they repeat. The cheap transportation seems to be used by everyone. Our round-trip ticket was less than 2 euro.

We arrived just on time and had a happy greeting from the tour company guide. She hustled us along, as several cruise lines were coming in right behind us. I was glad I had read about the tours, and that the mornings were the best, least crowded time to go.

Our group was comprised of ourselves, and another ten people. The tour provided earpieces, so you could easily hear the guide for the whole hour and a half. The guide was a middle-aged woman, full of life, vitality, and who spoke excellent English. She provided umbrellas for those of us who didn’t have them. She kept us moving ahead of the large crowds that were starting to pour in. We were in the front of the lines into the throne room. I had to stand back for a moment, as I was quite overcome with it all. Here was the place I had seen images of for so long, and suddenly I was standing in the middle of it. I got really misty, and was struck again at how lucky I am to be able to do a trip like this. Also, got a good snap in front of the re-painted bull section. I am telling you, not ten minutes later, both of these spots were overrun with long lines of people.

Our guide was so informative. She explained that while the archeologist Evans did a good job for the time and dodged a lot of paperwork by simply funding the dig himself, he still made a lot of assumptions that have later proved to be way off base. The main bit is that this was not a palace, there are no kitchens, no one actually lived here—instead, it was a place people went to work, the center of Minoan commerce and trade, as well as religion for all of Crete.

Only 2% of the site has been excavated. The archeologists suspect there are huge sections under the surrounding mountains. After all, this was the center of commerce for the known world for thousands of years. In the middle of the trading routes between Asia, Africa, and Europe, Knossos thrived under the leadership of “King” Minos, who was actually a queen. The “os” ending gives it away, a neuter verb. Minos simply means ruler, and all indications are that this was a woman-run society. They ran the business and religion end of things, hiring Mycenaean mercenaries to fight their battles for them.

The site is located far away from the harbor, so any attackers had to march uphill to get to it. There are still remnants of that road. The shape and structure of the road reminded me of the one that led to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan that the Maya constructed. There is a rapidly running stream that flows behind the structure, and the temple users used that as well for transportation. They had bathtubs and flushing toilets and advanced sewage and drainage systems. The ruins are extensive. Here are my wonderful travel companions and I in part of it.

Here is where you find the rite of passage all young men (and perhaps women too) did, in the open courtyard in Knossos. They would run at a horned bull and then leap over it by grasping the horns and doing an acrobatic flip. The bull was the main sign of worship, since the constellation Taurus was predominant in the sky then… when Jesus was walking the earth, it was Pisces, which is why the fish represents Christians. Perhaps this is where the saying “take the bull by the horns” came from? Later, we would see the famous fresco of a man jumping over the bull in this ritual. We know the jumper is a man, as they are depicted in red pigment. Women are depicted in white pigment.

Interesting fact about the bathtubs of the rich—they were repurposed upon the death of the owner as their sarcophagus.

The huge jars that were found in large, connected chambers were still in place in some areas of the site. They built them from the ground up, using coils of clay. The decorations on the outside were for measurement purposes. They were good record keepers. Examples of both Linear A and Linear B—the first written languages of mankind — were found here.

There are these markings on the walls, that back in the day, guided you to where you wanted to go. The trident was for trade, the double-headed axe, or Labros was for worship. I found several of these on my own after they were pointed out to me. I traced my fingers along those lines, and imagined myself back in time, a visitor to the Palace of Knossos.

The tour ended at the place where they would do theatrical shows, and I had to smile as we walked the ancient stones just as so many have done before us. The downfall of Knossos was in the form of earthquakes (there are still a lot of them, there are few buildings in the city that are above 3 stories) and fire. Eventually, the priestesses and people of the Minoan civilization gave Knossos up as a bad deal, and let the Mycenaeans have it. After over 3,000 years of rule, it fell to ruin less than 200 years later, and was slowly buried by soil and time.

After an easy bus trip back into the city, we had a coffee and slice of delicious cheese pie. Barb and I headed back to our rooms to do a quick batch of laundry and hung it out to dry. Then on to the Archaeological Museum that was just around the corner from our place (why I picked it). It’s a wowza museum, but it was packed with people. The findings from the palace are there. I saw the snake dancer, of whom I’ve written a short story, and the bull fresco, and so much beautiful jewelry. Their art was stunning.

Later in the day, we had the most marvelous Italian dinner, perhaps the best meal of the trip. Freshly made pasta with a basil and pine nut pesto, crunchy loaves of bread, and sweet olive oil. Dessert was once more “on the house” and featured a sort of chocolate pudding with a cherry jam on top of it.

We wandered back to our rooms through the old town, both bellies and minds full. And I… with a long-held dream fulfilled.