Friday, October 16, 2015

Crete is Greece, right?

A little over a year ago I went to Crete. It was wonderful.
I didn't go alone, I was in love. I would take the same trip again in a New York minute.
In that last year I haven't written much and that is my fault. Also, during this trip to Greece I didn't take many photos and didn't mind one bit. We all make sacrifices for love.
I discovered a lot of interesting things on this trip. One of those things is the "all-inclusive holiday" that the British just can't seem to get enough of.
Most people who know me know that I am not particularly a fan of the English, I blame my Scottish heritage and my American revolutionary sensibilities and the fact that they whine about everything. I do have some British friends who I really like though. What the English do on their all-inclusive holidays makes them even more intolerable. These vacations are offered at amazing prices. Everything is included; airfare, hotel, transportation, three meals a day and for a little more an unlimited supply of alcohol. The English want to get their money's worth. This mentality causes them to wake up, eat breakfast and start drinking as soon as possible. They continue to drink well into the night. The only thing worse than an Englishman is a drunken Englishman. That being said, I don't want this to be overly negative because the trip was amazing. I will stop complaining about the English.
We (I will also not pretend for the rest of this entry that I was by myself because that isn't fair) booked one of these all-inclusive holidays and the price was impressive. We didn't spring for unlimited booze though.

Our hotel was basically designed specifically for romantic getaways and if anyone reading this is looking for ideas put the Elounda Blue Bay Hotel high up on your list. They don't allow guests under the age of 16 there so it was a bunch of adults having a great time in a secluded bay on Crete. Seriously, there aren't a lot of better things. For me staying on a sailboat in the bay would have been more perfect, but not everyone likes that kind of thing.

I have also heard that there is a sea urchin problem at Cretan beaches. I did even see a few signs on other parts of the island advertising particular resorts with beaches free of the spiky little bastards. The Elounda bay was completely devoid of these guys.

View of Elounda Bay in Crete Greece

Above is the view from our hotel. A panoramic view of course. As you can see the hotel rooms are a little more like bungalows and some of them even have private  swimming pools. The small island at the mouth of the bay on the left is man-made and at one time had a fort, built by the Ventians I think, to protect the bay from intruders. There are ferries going out to it all day long. Waking up to this view every morning was refreshing.

The hotel is near a town called Elounda. It's a relaxed little town right next to the water. I learned that Greeks, or Cretans, are very relaxed people. The village was hopping well into the night and everyone was out and about enjoying the evening. It didn't seem like people really started to go out and have a good time until 9 p.m.

Church in Elounda, Crete, Greece

We would walk to Elounda almost every night and just walk through the town. It was less than a mile from the hotel and made for a good evening stroll. Like I said people were always up and doing things and everyone seemed to be pretty happy. Also, they have grocery stores and whatnot, so if you require some provisions it's the closest place to go.

Fishermen at night in Elounda, Crete, Greece

Fishing appeared to still be a viable way for people to make a living and there were dozens of these cool-looking little fishing boats. They look much like the ones I saw in Bulgaria, just with a little better upkeep.

Boat in Elounda Bay, Crete, Greece

The water was very clear right up next to the shore and I was always amazed when we passed this little boat that appeared to be flying rather than floating. I looked like this during the day too, but we were always busy during the day, and I only took my camera with us to Elounda once and I had to take this photo even though it is really noisy.

We rented a car from some local place in Elounda and that was an interesting experience. We walked into town and went into a rental agency. It was about 8:30 at night, these places close at 10 p.m. which was strange. After telling the agent, who I think was about 16, we wanted a car and picking out a little economy number, Peugeot 106 I think, we gave the guy a 20 Euro cash deposit in exchange for a hand written receipt and left with the understanding that the car would be delivered to the hotel in two days.

Surprisingly, right on schedule, the car was delivered to the hotel as promised. I filled out a more official-looking form and the kid who rented us the car sped away on his scooter. Scooters are everywhere on Crete and people use them to travel long distances.

We drove to Heraklion and took a quick look around.

Fountain in Heraklion, Crete, Greece

It's pretty much what you would expect except more crowded. Buildings stacked right on top of each other and everyone cramming everything into every space possible. I guess when you live in a place for a few thousand years urban sprawl isn't really a thing.
There were ancient fountains, like you see above, and cafes everywhere. Each cafe had it's own table with two old Greek dudes hanging out and debating life or politics or cheese, I don't know it was all Greek to me.

This particular cafe had debating old guys and rosary old guy, pretty cool right? At least I think it is called a rosary, I'm also not particularly well versed in my Greek Orthodox traditions. So we had some real frappes and relaxed after a stressful drive into down. I'm told frappes are a Greek invention. They are good, but not like what you'll find at Starbucks.

Driving on Crete, and because I like to apply limited experience to an entire country Greece, can best be described as an adventure. The lane-marking lines and dashes are mostly a suggestion. Seriously, I saw people straddling lines for miles. It's perfectly fine to straddle the line and pass between cars next to each other in two lanes, just normal, it's how they roll. Driving on the shoulder, or as my mom always used to call it "the emergency lane" is completely normal, especially if you have an underpowered scooter or car. You might come around a corner and see that someone it 50-75% in your lane speeding and you just have to deal with it. And passing on the right, my second-biggest driving pet peeve, is a very common occurrence.

Boat in Heraklion Harbor, Crete, Greece

Heraklion also has an ancient harbor that is still in use today. You can walk along its walls and it's interesting to see how this old harbor was built and still functions. There are a few locals selling sponges and things for inflated prices. Near one end of the harbor there is also an old fortification of some sort. It's at the end of a jetty built to basically made to form one side of the harbor. The fort is being renovated but might provide and interesting tourist attraction when it's finished. The water in the harbor was not as clear as the water in Elounda, as you can see from the photo above.

From Heraklion we visited the ruins of Knossos. I honestly don't remember that much about it, because it's been over a year, but I really enjoyed seeing it all.

Knossos, Heraklion, Crete, Greece

The photo above might be the most recognizable feature of the city. It's the north entrance and has, of course, been restored.

Knossos, Heraklion, Crete, Greece

This is one of the roads that lead into the city. Of all the truly impressive archeological things to see at Knossos, I think I liked the road the best. Look at it, it's immaculate and very beautifully constructed. It might also be restored. Lot's of things at Knossos were. 

Knossos, Heraklion, Crete, Greece

I think this is some kind of  throne room or something. While it was very hot at Knossos these chambers were very cool and comfortable. For me it was interesting to see how some of the city had been restored and some of it had just been excavated and left alone.

Knossos, Heraklion, Crete, Greece

This storage silo area was also interesting for me. I don't know why. Maybe I like strange things, which I won't argue against. I just think it's very complicated to lower, and then retrieve those enormous grain pots from a hole in the ground. I understand in the climate it was most likely the only way to preserve the grain. They didn't remove the pots, called "pithoi" when they were full, they would just dip into them.

Knossos, Heraklion, Crete, Greece

Some of the pots were replicas. I don't remember very well, but I think the ones in the photo above are actually very-well preserved original pots. I can't be certain. I do know for a fact that some of the pithoi we saw were infact original.

After a few hours at Knossos we decided it was time to head back to Elounda. We were pretty far away at this point, but didn't foresee it taking too long. In reality it took a long time and I wouldn't have had it any other way. Being in love and cruising through the center of Crete on tiny romantic roads stopping on a whim to look at a monastery or church on a hill is one of the best ways to spend an afternoon that I can think of.

Not too far from Knossos there was an actual, real, unrestored ruin. We saw a tiny sign for it and went to check it out and have a picnic under a tree once we saw the view.

Panoramic view of mountains on Crete, Geece

The ruins were really just over-grown stone walls, much like what you would find in the American Southwest. The view was the most impressive part. There were olive and fruit orchards as far as the eve could see and a gentle hilltop breeze made the shade a comfortable and relaxing place to sit and just look at this view while we ate.

After lunch we continued though the interior of the island and I seriously can not tell you the exact route we took but we went though the Dikti Mountains and the views were also amazing. We also drove tough a funeral in a tiny village. It was a bit of an oops moment. Fortunately, we didn't add another body to the procession. The roads were so small though that I was just waiting to come around a corner and land in the middle of a heard of goats or something.

There were a few other places we wanted to try and see, but once we realized that we were so far off track that we were not going to get to them we just bombed around and enjoyed it.

Crete, Greece

We stopped in this little village for some more frappes. They were good and the cafe had a contingent of men heavily engaged in backgammon. Now of course I haven't been to Italy yet, but I really have to say when it comes to just chilling out the Cretans have some serious skills.

Crete, Greece

I took photos with my phone in all the little places where we stopped so I would have some geotags, but honestly I'm being lazy. From this village we ended up visiting a little church on one of the nearby mountain peaks.

Mountain top church Crete, Greece

Olive fields cover much of the mountains and we were on the island at the beginning of the harvest season. When it wasn't olives it was grapes. It was nice to see the grape boxes stacked at the end of endless rows of vines. I've harvested a few grapes, it's not easy work and I only tried it for like 30 minutes. Realistically, coming around a corner and hitting a sheep shouldn't have been my biggest fear. Meeting a truck full of grapes should have been, but we're still alive so everything worked out fine.

There were orthodox churches everywhere and most of them were in quite excellent shape. They all looked almost new or perfectly maintained. I think I know where all those EU loans are going. The one above was in a little village in a valley and the local population must have been pretty busy harvesting olives or something, because there was nobody out.

A monastery on Crete, Greece

This monastery looks brand new, doesn't it? It was perhaps so new there weren't even any monks yet. I am kidding of course. We didn't see anyone, but this is a very old monastery. I seriously think everyone was working on harvesting grapes, or chilling someplace cool but the temperature was much more comfortable high up in the mountains. At some points it was even a touch chilly. 

Above is the dinner bell for the monastery. It's the only thing there that you can easily see that says "old." That is one old piece of iron.

There you have it. I honestly think I will go back to Crete someday. I will spend a bit more time exploring the mountains and little villages or hamlets or whatever. The island really has everything I like, sea and mountains. I became very envious of a particular sailor who had anchored his boat maybe 150 yards from the shores of Elounda. The sea floor drops off steeply in the bay and you can cosy up to the shores easily even if your boat has a deep draft. I still have this dream in that whoever was on that sloop would wake up in the morning, eat breakfast toss his clothing for the day in a watertight bag and hop over the gunwales and swim into town.

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