After 6 days of enjoying the beach at Drepano we needed to get going towards Thessaloniki. On Wednesday François needs his annual warranty inspection and the only place in Greece that can do is is about 400 miles from Drepano. After trying to find the best route and a place to stay about half way we landed on Ioannina. When I told my new Greek friend Nikos we were going to Ioanina he became very excited and over the next half hour I got 3 texts from him with places he recommended to see while we are here.
We made the decision to use the toll ways today. There is a parallel free route, but it would have taken more than twice as long, and involved a lot of mountain switchbacks, and small city driving. While it was expensive, we arrived in a little over 5 hours vs 12 hours and I had a nice stress free drive. But man was it expensive, in every other country François is classified as a car, in Greece we are classified as a delivery van and the tolls are twice as much as they would be for a car.
Ioannina is a mountain town so we have gone from sea level to about 1600 feet. The town and the campground are located on a very picturesque alpine lake. It is a very pretty setting. After we got checked in and settled we headed into town to do a bit of reconnaissance for tomorrows exploration of Niko’s must do list in Ioannina.
Ioannina is also a university town, and this is a long weekend in Greece, so when we got to the lake front in town it was swarming with college students and Greek families. All of the restaurants were full and there was a very vibrant vibe to the promenade along the lake. Also, in the entire hour we walked thru town the only language we heard was Greek, except of course when we spoke to each other.
After getting a feel for things we were a little hungry, but did not feel up to spending any more money. Instead we headed back to François where Ton whipped up a Thai/Italian fusion dish she called Larb spaghetti, it was delicious.
As we get older we are finding it easier to relax in one place for a few days in a row. Our plan last night was to pack up and move down the road a couple of hours to another campground which is a little closer to our destination on Monday. But when we woke up we decided we liked it here, the campground is clean, the internet is strong, and the neighbors are nice so we decided to stay one more day.
The rest of the day was spent drinking coffee, talking to our neighbors and having a couple of nice meals. We took a couple of short walks up and down the beach in between. Maybe we will be able to master slow travel in another couple of years.
This is the last day we can take it easy here. Tomorrow we will be moving down the road a couple of hours to another campground on the beach.
We had no plans for today. Frankly we are kind of marking time until we move towards Thessaloniki in northern Greece. The problem is the camping situation in Thessaloniki is kind of limited or we would probably already be going that way. Because of the limited camping options we have booked a hotel in the city center for two nights. But that is the future. What we thought was going to be a boring day hanging around, turned into a great time thanks to our neighbors Niko and Chrisi.
Without any plans for the day I was taking care of some chores around François as I was coming and going I said Kalemara to our new neighbors who are the only Greek campers in the campground. He responded Good Morning and then apologized for his English. We began a typical conversation about the weather, and eventually his girl friend and Ton joined in and before we new it we were all sitting around sharing coffee and chatting.
Niko is a Greek Coastguardsman from Thessaloniki who is currently stationed in Piraeus. He and his girlfriend Chrisi are avid campers and this place is one of their favorites. We began chatting about camping and I asked for some good places to go in Thessaloniki. Eventually, they said that we must join them for lunch as they were going to prepare fish and eggplant, we offered to bring wine. Their food was delicious especially Nikos special bread and we really enjoyed their company. Before we new it we realized it was 7pm, the day had blown buy. We truly enjoyed their company and what we thought was going to be a boring day turned into a wonderful one.
Today was a maintenance day. We are starting to think about leaving Greece. Though we have one more major stop we have to/want to make, our thoughts are turning to Bulgaria, so some of the morning was spent making plans for Bulgaria.
About mid-morning we decided to head out and take care of some errands. A trip to Lidl to stock up on Greek foods we want to take with us to Bulgaria was number one on the agenda. After that we stopped at a gas station where we filled François up with both diesel and LP gas. Hopefully, it will be enough LP to last the rest of the trip.
After dinner we took a short walk, but the wind was blowing and the temperature had fallen a bit so it was a quick one. While I haven’t mentioned it, the weather has been really good on this trip. Most days are sunny and in the 70’s. Hopefully, it will continue and I haven’t jinxed it!
Today we visited the town of Nafplio which is located a short bus ride from the campsite we are staying at. Nafplio like so many towns in this region has had many rulers during its history. Starting with the ancient Greeks it has subsequently been in the hands of the Romans, Byzantines, Franks (French), Venetians, Ottomans, Venetians (again), Ottomans (again), and was finally captured by the modern Greeks in 1822 and served as the capital of Greece until 1834 when the government was moved to Athens.
Despite its impressive history, the town did not make a great first impression on us. After we got off the bus we walked into the old town and wandered around for about an hour and while the streets were nicely paved with marble, on the whole it seemed just another nice port town with nothing striking.
As we rode in on the bus we saw the market was going on, so we set off to find it. The street markets are always a fun way for us to spend time, Ton is always up for an extended stroll thru the market.
The market in Nafplio was a good one so we ended up buying some olives, apples, and cucumbers. We would have bought more, but that was all we felt we could carry around for the rest of the day.
While Ton was shopping I did some more research on the town. I saw a waterfront promenade that was supposed to give good views of the harbor, the fort and the old town and after we finished shopping I proposed we check it out. But, as we were heading there it started to rain so we dove into a coffee shop to wait out the shower.
We were on the verge of giving up and heading back to François for the day, when Ton said there was supposed to be a nice restaurant nearby. So we decided to delay our departure and have lunch instead.
As we were heading to the restaurant we came upon a road that really charmed us and ended up changing our impression of Nafplio from ho hum to really cool. The street was higher up on the hill and was a little narrower, but was full of interesting buildings that were well maintained and appealing.
As we were walking down this street we noticed a couple of large groups of high school students lingering at a spot in front of us. It turns out the spot is an important place in modern Greek history, where the first president of Greece was assassinated as he left church in 1832.
We enjoyed our lunch immensely and tried our a new drink. As we were walking thru the market we kept seeing a drink called Tsipouro on sale. In the market it was being sold in plastic bottles and was very inexpensive. At the restaurant we asked the waiter about it and he gave us the run down. It is an unaged, uncolored brandy. We asked if it was served before the meal or after, and he laughed and said it was for the entire meal. We tried a glass and debated its merits vs the Raki we were always given after our meals on Crete. I landed on Raki, and Ton leaned towards Tsipouro.
We ended the day by finally doing the waterfront walk that had been interrupted by the rain. In the end we were both grateful for the rain as it made us reconsider Nafplio and turned a not bad day into a very interesting and fun day.
Today was a beach bum day. After a relaxing morning we walked to the next town called Tolon which was supposed to have a beautiful beach.
The walk was a little further than we thought it would be but it was a pretty walk thru orange orchards. In this area they plant jasmine in the orchards to attract bees so the smells were wonderful as we walked.
We finally reached the town and while the beach was beautiful, and we think in the past it was probably magnificent, the design of the city really detracted from the beach front. They allowed buildings to be built right down to the edge of the beach, so frequently there was no where to walk on the beach because the buildings were in the way. One guide book said they ruined a good beach by taking a block from the center of Athens and plopping it down on the beach. A pretty good description.
Despite that we did find a nice tavern to take a break at and have a beer after our long walk. There was an island off shore that Ton claimed as hers, though it looks like it has a church and a giant Greek flag on it so we may find someone who may dispute her claim.
We spent about 45 minutes people watching and sipping our beers while enjoying the sun and the water. While the town wasn’t ideal, we made the best of it and 10 feet from the waters edge with an ice cold beer is never going to be a bad place to be.
After our beer we headed back to the campground for a quiet afternoon and another great meal prepared by Ton. Though we did not accomplish much today, just a day as beach bums we did put in about 8.5 miles in walking so we are enjoying a lazy evening relaxing by the beach.
We shifted down the coast about 90 km’s to an area with nice beaches and a couple of interesting towns. When we arrived at the campground they had a nice washing machine and the weather was good for drying clothes. Ton declared that today was laundry day and we spent the rest of the day washing clothes.
After dinner we went for a short walk along the beach and then spent a while talking to our neighbors who seem very interesting. In todays campground we are the only non-German speakers in the place. We notice that certain countries tend to dominate the camping culture in different places, in Greece it is the Germans.
Today was a day for tourism. We visited an engineering marvel, another ancient Greek site, and participated in one of our favorite activities in Europe-wine tasting.
The first stop of the day was the Corinth Canal. It is a project that has been envisioned by rulers of Greece back to the 7th century BC. The canal would save a 400 mile sea journey around the Peloponnesus peninsula. The canal is only 4 miles long. It was started several times in antiquity but always abandoned as too costly. It was finally completed in 1893, but at 80 feet wide it is too narrow for modern ships. It was built at sea level and has no locks unlike other modern canals. It is currently closed due to a land slide in 2020 and is not expected to be reopened until later in the summer. As you are driving you have to watch for it as the bridge across it is very short and if you are not paying attention you are across before you realize it. It does make for a cool picture though.
Our next stop was ancient Nemea. Nemea was a town that was on what was considered neutral ground between all of the city states of ancient Greece. Because of this it was the site of a stadium that pre-dates the site at Olympus as a place to hold the games that turned into the Olympics. The site we visited today was a spa that serviced the athletes of the games and the other visitors, it also had a hotel for attendees of the games. It was in effect a resort town for the ancient Greeks. It doesn’t hurt that the area around Nemea is also one of the finest wine producing areas in Greece which always attracts tourists even in ancient times!
Our last stop for the day was an excellent winery. There are many wineries in the area, but it is Sunday so the vast majority were closed. Ton was on line during our drive to Nemea and came up with a couple that looked like they were open on Sunday. The first one we went to which was quite large was closed. It is probably open on Sundays during peak season, but not now. Fortunately the second one on our list was open and we enjoyed a nice tasting. Our guide for the tasting was quirky as she spent a lot of time telling us about and highly recommending wine from other wineries Greece. When she got around to serving us the wines from the winery she worked at they were excellent and we ended up with a couple of bottles.
We ended up having a fun and relaxing day of just being tourists.
Our overnight ferry ride was uneventful, except our room was really cold. About 1:30 I woke up and closed the AC vent in the room, and it slowly began to warm up. Ton was sleeping in her coat when I saw her in the morning. (Our room had bunk beds.) We escaped from Athens easily and arrived in our destination for the day in less than 2 hours.
Crete was a good deal of fun. We enjoyed visiting the island, and liked the food and the people there. The port cities are picturesque, and the mountains are rugged and beautiful. The people in the mountains are rough looking but very welcoming. We recommend Crete to anyone. We spent way above our budget per day, because shipping François there was expensive, and unlike most places we visit we ate out almost every day on Crete. But the food was wonderful.
Our destination for today was Corinth, which was an ancient Greek city, that was razed by the Romans. About 100 years later the Romans decided it was a good location for a city and rebuilt the town to their standards. So the ruins of Corinth you see today is primarily Roman not Greek.
After Ton and I settled in to the campsite, and ate breakfast we headed over to the Corinth site to take a look. After my attempt at amateur archeology yesterday, we went to a real archeological site today.
It is early in the tourist season in Greece, so the site was pretty quiet. There were three groups here when we arrived, two from the US and one from Chile. It turns out Corinth is a popular site with Christian groups as the Apostle Paul stayed here for about 2 years converting the Romans to Christianity. He wrote a lot of letters to the people of Corinth that are quoted in the New Testament. At one point one of the tour groups from the US broke into a religious song.
The ancient site is pretty extensive, and we found it more interesting the site at Knossos we visited a few days ago. There was no attempt to reconstruct anything. It was just presented as found, we enjoyed that.
The ruins had an excellent museum attached to it. The site was originally excavated by the American Archaeological Society of Greece and many of the statues and mosaics they discovered are on display in the museum.
The museum has been in existence since the 1930’s and was designed by an American architect from Chicago. It is famous for being the scene of a famous crime. In 1990 a gang of thieves broke in, bound the one security guard and stole over 230 pieces of ancient art as well as 1,000,000 drachmas of cash(sounds like a lot, but I don’t know what the exchange rate for the Greek Drachma was in 1990). The antiquities that were stolen were shipped to the US with the intention of selling them to private art collectors. The Greek police and the FBI worked together to identify the thieves and recovered all of the stolen goods which were returned to the museum in 2001.
One of the Greek workers in the museum took a liking to us, and went out of his way to show us a couple of his famous pieces. His English wasn’t great, but the pride he had in the museum was obvious.
After a nice afternoon in the museum we headed back to the campground just ahead of a rainstorm. While we were walking back Ton saw a very nice lemon tree full of lemons. She stopped to take a picture of it when the owner saw her, she laughed, walked over to the tree and took four or five lemons off the tree and handed them to us with a smile. Ton made a nice dinner that I enjoyed with fresh squeezed lemon, and we spent the evening listening to Kris Kristofferson and having a nice chat.
Today is our last day on Crete, but the ferry is not scheduled to leave until 9pm, so we had time on our hand. Ton tripped yesterday and turned her ankle a bit so she is on light duty today, so I am going to have to entertain myself by playing archaeologist at the old Airforce base near the campground.
Our campground is adjacent to what was Herlakion Airforce Base. The base was built in the early 60’s as a communication and monitoring base and was operated by the US Airforce until 1996. A portion of it was taken over by the Greek Army and Airforce, and a large part of it is abandoned but accessible by road.
I decided to take a walk thru the complex and see if I could identify what the purpose of the abandoned buildings were based on my experience in the military. My time in the military overlapped the existence of this base so the basic design of the buildings had a familiar feel as we were driving thru earlier.
Walking thru the ghost town of Heraklion Airforce Base was interesting and brought back memories for me of my military service in the 80’s and 90’s. A lot of the buildings looked identical to ones I used when I was stationed in Okinawa from 1979-81.
The buildings were still pretty sound on the outside though the bushes and trees were overgrown, and most had were thoroughly covered with graffiti.
It was a fun diversion for me, after looking at ancient sites, I made my own discovery of a modern site.
We headed down to the ferry dock about 6pm and arrived around 6:30. When we arrived things looked much calmer than before. All of the cars that arrived were being sent right on to the boat, so Ton and I were optimistic. There were three slightly over sized vans sitting to the side, and when we pulled up we were told to join them “for a few minutes.” We ended up sitting there for two and a half hours as everyone but us was sent aboard. Towards the end it got a little chaotic as the trucks really started to role in just before the scheduled departure time. We had resigned ourselves to being the last one on again, when out of the blue someone came up and hurried us on board to be placed between two refrigerator trucks. Our optimism was unwarranted as again we boarded after the scheduled departure time.
Today was another sea to mountains day. We gave our little Hyundai a good workout, even though we drove less than 100 miles altogether.
We began the day at the port of Agios Nikolaos which is another beautiful port town of which Crete has far more than its share. The most interesting thing about the harbor is Lake Voulismini which is an extension of the harbor connected to the ocean by a very narrow opening only about 15 feet wide.
The promenade besides being beautiful and full of restaurants had two very nice pieces of art connected to the history of Crete that Ton really liked, one is dedicated to the founding mother of the Minoan civilization Europa, and the other is Almatheas Horn, which comes from a story in Greek mythology with connections to Crete, that gave us the concept of the cornucopia, or horn of plenty.
We spent about an hour walking the waterfront and enjoying the views. Ton always provides me a list of points of interest for us to check out in towns that we visit. After visiting the two statues and the lake she said there was a square in town we should go see. When we got to the square it was very non-descript, but it was next to where we had parked the car, so we decided to head to the mountains.
Our first stop in the mountains was a pretty short drive to the mountains right above Agios Nikolaos to a town called Kristos. The tourist literature said it was a mountain town with many craft shops. When we arrived there was a parking lot at the bottom of town for visitors which was full of farm equipment being stored or abandoned, and there were no spaces available. After a few minutes of puzzling out what to do we decided to double park one of the pieces of farm equipment that looked like it hadn’t moved in months and head into town. Ton saw a church in the distance she wanted to check out, but truthfully I was not too motivated as it was going to be a good climb to get there so I did not bother looking at my map to find a route there, and took the attitude if we got there we got there. The town was ok, but it didn’t impress us, and we never got to the church.
The owner of the campground we are staying at really recommended the Lassithi Plateau as a place to visit, so we headed there next. We returned to the national highway and after following the coast for about 30 minutes we turned up into the mountains to Lassithi. The plateau is at an average elevation of 2470 feet and since we were at sea level when we began, we were going to give our little Hyundai a workout.
The rock that forms the floor of the plateau is impermeable, so the water table is extremely high and the valley floor tends to flood very easily. To manage the water in the past the people of the plateau used sail powered water pumps to move the water thru a canal system. At its peak there were over 10,000 of these pumps in use.
Right as we entered the plateau we saw a tavern and we stopped for lunch. It turns out today was the first day open since they closed for the winter. We were the only customers at the time, and the food was great.
It was a traditional tavern built of stone with wood stoves for heating. While we were waiting for our food, Ton had a great time exploring the nooks and crannies of the place looking at old pictures, and random stuff on display. She really enjoyed herself.
We drove around the plateau for a while after lunch enjoying the views and admiring the farms. The plateau was absolutely the high light of the day for us and was worth the winding drive up and down to get to it.
Today we visited two cities that are a study in contrasts. Rethymno is a hip coastal city full of restaurants, cute streets, and tourist shops and of course tourists. It is another beautiful coastal city with a Phoenician fishing port and a stunning waterfront. Anogeia is a rugged mountain town perched on the side of the highest mountain on Crete. It has a couple of shops and restaurants that could be best described as rustic, and very few tourists. It has a tragic history having been destroyed three times in the last 200 years, twice by the Ottomans, and once by the Germans. We thoroughly enjoyed both of them.
We had tried to stay at a campground in Rethymno after we left Chania a few days ago but we couldn’t get in so we had bypassed it. Last night we decided we would take our rental car back down the coast and give the center of town a look. The harbor looks like a smaller version of Chania and is pretty.
Rethymno shines in its old town right behind the port. It is a beautiful maze of small streets full of restaurants, shops and boutique hotels. It is a fun town to just wander around to see what is around the next bend in the street.
Rethymno for some reason was full of French tourists, it was by far the most common non-Greek language being spoken. In fact the town reminded me of some of the French ports we visited in Brittany and in the South of France.
We have been eating out much more on this trip than on any trip we have taken. Partly because we have really enjoyed the food on Crete, (except yesterday), and partly because the meals are relatively inexpensive. After our bad experience yesterday the restaurant in Rethymno more than made up with it with both interesting and excellent food. We really enjoyed our food today.
While we were eating Ton proposed a trip to a mountain village she had read about last night. Anogeia is famous in Crete for being a center of resistance to both the Ottomans when they occupied Crete, and the Germans who occupied it in WWII. It is located in the mountains and hard to approach, so they would give safe haven to fighters. It was such a center of resistance that the Turks, destroyed it twice and the Germans ordered the massacre of all of the men in the town, and the destruction of the town itself in 1944.
We visited the monument to the destruction of the town. The most chilling thing about it was a verbatim translation of the announcement by the Germans, matter of factly stating that they were going to destroy the town and execute all males found within 1km of the center of town, due to the town harboring guerillas and providing intelligence to the British.
As we were walking thru town Ton spotted a small shop making wool placemats and other wool items. She was peaking in the door, when a tiny Greek lady came into the store from the back and waived her in. At that point I knew we were buying something.
The lady was well under 5 ft, and told us she was 85 years old. She took Ton around the shop showing her different things for sale, and demonstrated how she produced the pieces on her loom. She insisted on negotiating and overcame the language barrier by writing her opening price on a piece of paper and then crossing it out, and handing it to me. I made a counter offer that she laughed heartily at and then made me a counteroffer which I accepted. It was fun and she was a character who we thoroughly enjoyed.
By now it was getting late and we had 30 km’s or so of narrow mountain roads to navigate back to François so we returned to Heraklion. While we were gone the wind had come up and the sea was getting rough. It is a big change from the calm conditions we have had since we got here.
Our Easter break ended today as we headed into the city to check out the city center in Heraklion and to visit the site of an ancient Minoan civilization palace called Knossos. We are about 20 km’s from the center of town and we plan on doing some more exploring of the surrounding area tomorrow and Thursday so we decided to rent a car. We are feeling a little disloyal to François, but Crete has already been a budget buster so we decided to treat ourselves to a car for the next three days as we need to cover a lot of distance.
Our first stop for the day was the port area as a lot of parking was available there. The port is more modern looking than Chania even though it also has a Venetian era fort and has been in use since around 1800 BC. The owner of the campground warned us that Heraklion is not charming like Chania, it is a working city, not a tourist city. He said it with pride.
After walking down the main pedestrian street in Heraklion, Ton saw an interesting ally with local products, so we turned down it. After walking the ally for about 20 minutes, she asked me to find the central market. I googled it and it said it was only a couple of hundred meters away. I assumed it was in front of us, as we had not passed a market yet so I led Ton further down the ally until we emerged in town, but no market, so I double checked and the confusion was that what we thought was an ally with local goods, was the market.
There was one more place we wanted to visit in town and that was the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. The museum was highly recommended for its extensive collection of Minoan civilization artifacts.
The museum was really excellent as most Greek museums have been. It has an extensive collection of Minoan artifacts dating from 1800 bc to 900 bc. It also has a small area dedicated to Greek and Roman artifacts. The museum consists of two floors and its collection is varied and well presented.
The other good thing about the museum besides its high quality was that today for some reason it was free of charge. In some countries in Europe one day a month is free for most museums, we are guessing that this was the reason, but we were happy to take advantage of it.
As the Minoan civilization declined the people on Crete took to burying and hiding artifacts in caves. As a result a lot of very intact and well preserved art, tools, and pottery have been discovered in the last 100 years and been moved to the museum for display.
The primary capitol of the Minoan era was close to Heraklion in a town called Knossos. Around 1880 the foundations of the palace of Knossos was found and excavated by a team led by an Englishman from Oxford. A whole wing of the museum was devoted to artifacts from Knossos.
Having thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in the museum we decided to head over to the site at Knossos for the rest of the day. We were a bit hungry but decided on a restaurant next to the palace.
We have not had a bad meal in Greece until today. We went with two simple dishes, one we had heard of, and the other was advertised as Cretan. The Cretan dish was vegetarian and was kind of bland, but it was also lukewarm which neither of us believed was how it was supposed to be served. The souvlaki was also uninspiring.
Once again we were pleasantly surprised to have the entrance fee waived. So two excellent museums for free today. The Knossos palace is mostly foundations and while there is a lot of speculation about the purposes of various rooms, it is still mostly speculation. The Minoans had a written language for most of their civilization but no one has been able to decipher it so there are large gaps in the knowledge of how things were organized in the palace.
The site is impressive and extensive, the palace was in existence from about 1300 BC to around 1100 BC when the Minoan civilization began to decline. The reconstructions are somewhat controversial, because they are based purely on speculation. Some argue that they should not have been attempted while others say that they helped bring funding to preserve the site and to continue to explore it.
After that we headed back to our campground and parked our little Hyundai next to François for the night.
Today will be a short one as we more or less just hung around the campground because it was a holiday in Greece. We spent the morning with some of our neighbors drinking coffee and exchanging yarns about traveling. The Dutch couple near us asked about our experience with the ferry coming over and when I replied chaos, he laughed and said exactly. Ton and I were wondering if our experience the other day was a one off, but according to the Dutch they experienced the exact same thing on a different ferry going to a different port so maybe it is just how the Greeks load ferries.
I went on a couple of walks just to stretch my legs, next to the campground is an old abandoned American Air Force Base that was in existence from the early 60’s to the late 90’s. The Greek military is using the housing complex as family housing, and the headquarters building is visible but not in use. American military architecture is easy to recognize and as soon as we drove by the housing I told Ton this was built by the US. The only other building I could make out was the pool which was quite immense, but is now abandoned. Apparently the land was recently purchased with plans to put in a 5 star hotel and casino complex sometime in the future. Later on Ton and I went on a walk along the beach.
Tomorrow we are renting a car and planning to head into Heraklion proper to check out the sites, so stay tuned for more action.
Today is Easter in Greece. It turns out it is possibly the most important holiday in Greece and is kind of a combination of 4th of July and Thanksgiving. Families get together for a large meal and to celebrate being a family.
We woke up to the smell of multiple barbecues going throughout the campground. We walked around for a while and there were no less than 6 whole sheep on spits, plus various other barbecue meats going at different grills.
We had been invited by the campground owners Dmitri and Christina to join them for their dinner. We sat down with a diverse group of campers from Ireland, Scotland, England, France, the Netherlands, Greece and of course the US and Thailand. We were served an incredible meal that lasted over 4 hours and included multiple courses of food and three different barbecued meats. The wine and beer flowed freely and everyone had a wonderful time.
The Greek Easter eggs are red, and the tradition is that in a large group a red stone is snuck in to the group as it will crack all of the other eggs without breaking. I’m not sure what the person with the red stone gets, but the youngest person at the table got the stone and was very pleased to have been the winner.
Our plan for today was to move about 70 km’s down the coast to a town called Rethymno. It is another port town with a heavy Venetian influence. We need some where to settle in for the next couple of days as both Sunday and Monday are holidays in Greece and very little is open. The campground in Rethymno had good reviews so we thought it would be a good place to chill for a couple of days.
Everything was going to plan, we got off the highway and Greta told us to turn down a single track dirt road, which I had looked at in Google maps the night before so I was not worried. The problem began when we got to the end of the dirt road it was gated and locked. We backed down the dirt road back to the highway, made a tight 5 point turn and then tried to find another way in. Greta was unable to find another way in and kept insisting that we go back to the dirt road. In Gretas defense the sign for the campground was at the head of the dirt road, so it may actually have been the only way in.
We have become flexible travelers in our time here, and it helps that we have our hotel room attached to our transportation. So we decided to skip Rethymno and head to our next planned stop of Heraklion. It was another 90 km’s down the road but we arrived before 1pm.
The campground is run by a family and when we checked in we were promptly invited to join them for an Easter meal tomorrow. We were a little hesitant, but later we ran into an Irish couple who come here every Easter and they said we would be fools to miss it, so our Easter Sunday plans are made.
In the afternoon the Easter Bunny made an appearance much to the delight of all of the kids staying here. The Greek kids were really excited with the bunny and the egg hunt as it is not normally part of the Easter tradition here in Greece so they got to experience an Easter egg hunt for the first time.
So it looks like we were lucky that the road to the campground in Reythymno was blocked after all.
Today we wanted to cover a lot of ground and check out some of the more famous beaches in Western Crete. One was on the South shore of the island, one was near the Northwest end of the island and the last one was pretty close to us. We also planned a trip to a microbrewery as we figured we would need some sustenance after all of the beaches.
We did laundry last night, being American we usually try to pick a place with both a washer and a dryer. This campground didn’t have a dryer, and their washer was dicey looking. We talked to the son of the owner, and he said it worked, but we would be the first customers to use it this year. As we were speaking an Austrian woman came up and asked about the washer also, but decided to let us go first to see if our clothes survived the ordeal. The bottom line is they did, though the spin cycle was the loudest noise I have ever heard a washing machine make. But because we were the first customers of the year, they did not charge us the €5 they usually charge for washes. The Austrian came over and inspected our clothes before deciding to get a load done also. We left François surrounded by our clothes when we departed.
Because our plans included a lot of mountain driving on what was described as extremely twisty and narrow roads we decided to give François a break and rented a car. I was hoping for something small, but we ended up with a Peugeot 301 which is a midsize car about the size of a Camry.
Our first stop of the day was Elafonisi Beach which is famous for its pink sands and remoteness on the south coast of the island. When I programmed Greta with the coordinates for the beach she said it 70 kilometers (about 45 miles), but it would take 1 hour and 50 minutes. She was right. Crete has a very mountainous spine, in fact the mountains right behind Chania are still snow covered. The North side of the island has a small coastal plane, and is where almost all of the population lives. The mountains go right to the sea in several places on the south coast. The south coast is so rugged that there is no road that goes all the way aound the island.
For about the first half of the trip I thought François could handle this road, but as we got closer to the top I was very glad that we were in a car. The drive was almost fun in the much lighter and responsive Peugeot, though there were a couple of tight passes in some of villages.
Elafonisi beach was beautiful. The beach surrounds a shallow lagoon. There are two sections of the beach the first is accessible from the shore. The other part requires a short wade through calf deep water to get to it. Most people take off their shoes, and role up their pants and head over.
We walked around the beach and watched the beginning kite boarders try to control their kites, and mostly fail in the high winds. We also looked for pink sand but except for a very small section at the waters edge failed to find any.
It was time to head to Balos Beach. The drive back over the mountains was just as fun as the drive in, it was the same road. Going back we saw a lot of goats and sheep. Ton is a sucker for critters so we had to stop and get some pictures.
Balos Beach is located on the Northwest end of the island and was about 65 km’s from Elafonisi Beach. The drive was about one and a half hours, the highlight was squeezing thru a passage in the village of Balos which was about 6 inches wider than the Peugeot. This passage was a two way street by the way. No pictures as Ton was holding her breath both ways.
We ended up missing Balos Beach. When I signed the rental agreement the only caution I got from the agent was that my insurance was not valid on dirt or gravel roads, so please do not drive on them. When we were 8km’s from Balos Beach the road turned into gravel. I pulled over and broke the news to Ton. Where the gravel road began was quite pretty in itself so Ton shrugged and got out and took a bunch of pictures. While she was doing that about 10 cars went by either going or coming on the gravel road and they were all obviously rentals. I was tempted to go on down the road, but in the end we didnt.
By now we were ready for a meal as it was about 2:30 so we headed to Charma Brewery. We had sampled their lager in a couple of restaurants in Chania and really liked it. When we got there it was a modern brewery in a very small village in the foothills of the mountains.
We are finally learning about Greek food. This time instead of ordering a salad and individual meals, we only ordered one meal and split it. It was still a lot of food because in this care the salad was immense. We sampled five beers before ordering one each. They were all very good and representative of the style. The food also was delicious, and we fell in love with the cheese on our salad called Myzithra which is a white cheese that the Cretans use in place of feta. We will definitely be buying some before we leave Crete.
We both like the movie Zorba the Greek. There is a famous scene where Zorba played by Anthony Quinn tries to teach Alan Bates to dance like a Greek. The beach that the scene takes place on is near Chania so we ended our day by heading there. The beach is not that spectacular by Cretan standards, but it is important to tourism in Greece. Zorba the Greek is often credited with putting Greece on the map for American tourists, and it is still very much on the map today as most of the voices we heard at Zorbas Beach were American.
Today is good Friday for the Greek Orthodox Church. They are on a different calender than the western Christian churches so this year their Easter is one week later than ours. As I have been typing this I have been listening to the good Friday mass at a church near our campground.
We returned to Chania today to explore more of this beautiful city. Ton mentioned that it was pretty, but the Mediterranean Sea is blessed with many pretty port cities. But for me Chania has a special place in my heart.
We began by visiting the Synagogue in the old Venetian part of town. We were very lucky because we happened to stumble in to a talk by a visiting Greek Jewish graduate student who was speaking on the Greek Jewish experience. We learned a lot and he was an interesting speaker and quite a character too. At one point there were 12,000 Jews on Crete under the Ottoman Empire, but after the Greeks took over the number had dwindled down to about 250, almost all of whom lived in the Jewish quarter in Chania. Unfortunately for them the Germans occupied Crete during WWII and in 1944 they rounded them all up one night and put them on a ship to the mainland. As the ship was transiting to the mainland it was sunk by a British submarine that did not know what the ship was transporting. The interior of the synagogue was gutted by the Germans and for many years it lay more or less abandoned. At one time it was used as a chicken coop. In 1999 it was restored as a synagogue, though the local Jewish population is quite small and mostly made up of expats from other countries who came to Crete for various reasons. At the end of the talk the young man told us he really needed a cigarette and a coffee now as he had a raging hangover, which was quite amusing and honest.
Ton wanted to get some photos of places she shot yesterday but was not happy with. We ambled around the waterfront for an hour and a half or so people watching and taking photos here and there.
Ton was really fascinated with how clear and green the water was. She kept stoping and taking another picture of the water because she loved the turquoise color of it.
We had picked out a restaurant we wanted to try today, but were tempted by a couple of other restaurants. But after some discussion we decided to go to the one we had selected last night. This one featured food cooked in clay pots. Once again Greek food was delicious. The only problem with Greek food is it is generally quite hardy, and the portions are enormous. The problem for us is that as we look at the menu we see several things we want to try and order too much. Our breakfast this morning consisted of nothing but leftovers from our various meals over the last few days.
We tried to make up for the overeating by walking to the town and back the last two days. Hopefully the 7 miles we walked on the roundtrip off set some of the calories from our big lunches.
After all of the drama of getting on the ship yesterday, leaving today was a piece of cake. After a good nights sleep in our luxury room we woke up and headed down to François. As soon as we sat down in him someone from the ship pointed down the ramp and we were off, the first ones off the ferry.
A short 20 minute drive later we arrived at the only campground in Chania, a little nervous that we may have trouble getting in so early. It turns out it was no problem at all as they only have about 5 customers. They were happy to see us.
We settled in and then headed down the coast to walk to Chania. Chania is an ancient city originally founded by the Minoans. The Minoans were a big thing from 1450 to 1100 BC. Since then it has been at various times Greek, Roman,Egyptian (Mark Anthony gave the island as a gift to Cleopatra), Byzantine, Arab, Byzantine again, Venetian, and finally Greek again. Actually that lineage is true for the whole island of Crete.
I visited Chania once in 1982 when I was in the Marines. After finishing our time in Beirut as “peace keepers”, we were flying to Naples on a Navy plane when the pilot declared it was broken and we needed to land on Crete. We ended up going out for dinner in a beautiful little port town and I always remembered it as one of the most memorable meals in my life for a lot of reasons. I suspected it was Chania, but until today I was not sure. When I saw the waterfront I knew right away it was here and I could almost pick out the restaurant we ate at.
We walked around Chania for a few hours and Ton took a lot of pictures, but when we returned to François she didn’t want to send any of them to me as she wasn’t satisfied with the light or something. I negotiated to get one picture of the town, and she promised me lots of pictures tomorrow.
There are good days and bad days when traveling. Today was a mix of both but mostly bad. The day began for me when at about 5am I woke up and suddenly decided to check our tickets to Crete. Something was bothering me and when I double checked I realized that I had been focusing on the arrival date which was today, the problem was the ferry was overnight and had left last night. To paraphrase the great philosopher John Wayne, “Travel is hard, but it is harder when you are stupid.” Feeling really stupid I fired off an email to the agent that had booked our ticket hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.
After exchanging several emails with the agent the worst came true, we were out the fare for the missed ferry. To make matters worst we would also be out the fare for the unused return tickets as they were non-refundable. So after looking at our options we decided to bite the bullet and buy tickets for tonight.
We spent the rest of the morning organizing ourselves for our first drive of the trip. I was not looking forward to driving to the port as it entailed crossing Athens. Our ferry did not depart until 10 pm but I wanted to get going in the early afternoon. Ton was worried that if we got there too early the port would turn us away. She had nothing to be worried about it turns out.
The drive across Athens turned out to be very smooth and we arrived at the port in about an hour. The only adventure came when the gate that our ferry was supposed to board from was closed and I did not realize it until we were sitting in front of it. I had to make a creative turn to get out and then wander thru a neighborhood for a few minutes before I found a gate that worked.
The port of Piraeus is the largest ferry port in Europe. Ferries to all of the different Greek islands run from there as well as sea going ferries to Italy and Turkey. It is really quite immense. What it is also is very loosely organized, bordering on chaotic. The first hint is there is no security to check you in at the gate, having worked in ports in the US in the past they are heavily guarded and entrance and movement inside is highly regulated, not so much here.
Once we were inside I saw a ticket kiosk for the company of our ferry and swung in there to see where I should go. The lady scanned my phone printed us out our boarding passes, one for Ton, François, and me and then told me that our ship would begin boarding in a few hours. I asked her where we should stage François and she said any where we wanted, just watch for the boat and get on when we see it.
After we found a comfortable spot we decided to head into town for dinner before boarding. Ton had read about this hole in the wall place near the port that had good food so we decided to check it out. The food was very good and the owner was a character. We ordered a beer to split with our dinner, but he came over and asked us how we liked the food and gave us another beer “on him”. A bunch of his friends came in and he joined them in a boisterous conversation punctuated with frequent toasts of a drink consisting of Vodka and Lemon soda. When I went to pay he grabbed me by the arm and with a wink pulled me out of Tons site and gave me a shot of the Vodka and Lemon soda to toast. But while we were having our illicit toast, his wife was telling Ton what we were up to and they were both laughing at us for thinking we could pull something over on them!
We returned to François and started looking for our ferry. After a while I noticed a bunch of vehicles lining up next to about where I though the boat was going to come in so I wandered over there and asked a Greek Coastguardsman if this was for Chania. He said yes and asked me where my car was, I pointed to François and he said bring it here and pointed to a spot in the do not park here area right next to the boat ramp.
When the ferry first arrived around 6:30 pm we figured we would have a lot of time to enjoy our “luxury room” before the scheduled 10 pm sailing. We were wrong.
The next 3.5 hours were spent with a front row seat on one of the most chaotic boarding operations I have seen. It began when we realized all of the semi-trucks we saw without trailers were there to go on board and haul unattached trailers off the boat. As the trucks were going on and off they would occasionally let 15 or 20 cars go on which turned in to a grand prix style race to be one of the privileged cars, while the crew and the coast guard tried in vain to maintain order. Occasionally someone would emerge from their car and get in a shouting match with the crew and the coastguard, that usually resulted in the irate person getting a head start on the other cars during the next boarding- car sprint. As this motorized chaos was going on the pedestrian passengers were intermingled with the vehicles and using the same ramp as the semi’s to get on board. It was really something else, and even though we were the first car in line the crew was adamant that we were not to get into the sprint to board, which just meant we were an obstacle that had to be negotiated during the sprint often with just millimeters to spare. Finally at 10:15 one of the crew pointed at us and told us to back onto the boat. It turns out that we were going to be the first vehicle off in the morning. As we were gathering our things, the Captain of the ferry came up to me and said that he really needed us here as soon as they docked as the ship couldn’t be off loaded without us moving first.
Our luxury cabin was really very nice, and we finally settled into it about 11pm with a short nights sleep to look forward to. To summarize anything to do with ferries bad, anything to do with Greece good.