Greece 2024 Travelogue!

Herculean Beauty

My first taste of Crete was the rather run down Iraklio/Heraklion Airport as I waited at baggage claim to find out if my bag had successfully made the dash between the planes that I had. Much to my shock and delight it showed up rather quickly. Figures, I was planning to stay in one place for a few days so it could have caught up and nothing happens! I’m still paranoid after Madeira!

Life on the beach in Crete

The bus into the city proper was relatively painless as well though could have been better signposted. For some reason my google maps pointed me slightly wrong however and combined with the ‘help’ of a local I ended up getting off the bus about 2km short of where I actually needed to. Not the end of the world though as it was later in the evening at this point and I got to see the inner ‘Old City’ positively bustling with activity making me quite happy I’d booked a central hotel. The hotel itself was also not the best at directions having given me vague instructions better suited to arriving by car (figures my one hotel on Crete that had a parking lot would be for the stretch before I rented a car) and unfortunately on some of the maps all the back alleys of these old towns that date in some cases to the byzantine era kind of turn into a maze. Eventually I found the path! After passing what felt like all the cats in town staring me down I came to the Kipos Suites nestled at the end of an alley and looking like an island of modernity amongst the mix of crumbling post-war concrete and more ancient buildings in this section of old town.

My room was spacious (for Europe) and had a powerful shower that I immediately used to wash off the airport before hitting up the desk clerk for recommendations for a Cretan dinner. Unlike some of the clerks so far this trip this guy had strong opinions so I decided to check them out as they were all quite close. Actually all of Heraklion’s old quarter was super walkable and I checked out all the options before deciding on Xalali. This place had a fun looking family taverna atmosphere and I ended up sitting outside again as it was such a nice night. Dinner was a chicken with cretan cheese sauce which turned out to be a juicy chicken cutlet served with a sharp cheese and white wine sauce along with incredibly flavourful tomatoes and a side of actual bread an tzaziki (as well as olives completely wasted on me.) Unsurprisingly some of the neighbourhood felines found their way over to covet my dinner and it was a little like being back at home with certain dogs. As I quickly discovered was standard on Crete dinner ended with my waitress bringing me a small bottle of raki (local liquor like a less anis-y ouzo) for a shot and a small chocolate chip cake topped with a scoop of ice cream. The baffling thing to me is most of these places still have a dessert menu!

I decided to walk around a bit longer to work some of that off and discovered a plethora of churches in the old town, even by Greek standards. Nestled between the churches there was a warren of old streets, some pedestrianized, lots of late night food options of the meaty variety and a number of bakeries/patisseries open just as late (the hours on places here continue to baffle me.) Eventually though I succumbed to the allure of that comfy bed and headed back to watch a show and send some emails to discover that while the hotel was lovely it was definitely of the vintage of greek building where soundproofing isn’t really a thing. Less of a problem this night though again despite the hotel not being full as far as I could tell I’d been placed right near the main entrance and could hear the electric slide open a few times after I climbed into bed.

The next morning I woke fairly early and planned my trip out to the archaelogical site of the ruins of the palace at Knossos. This was so conveniently close to town that a city bus ran there and it conveniently embarked about a 3 minute walk from the hotel. Armed with a bacon, egg and cheese pastry for brunch I was on my way reasonably early as I wanted to hit the archaelogical museum back in town that has some of the finds from the site on the same day and I knew from experience at this point that winter hours would be stupidly short. I’d also decided that it was time to proactively find some laundry service before things reached critical mass in a less helpful place. The close place to the hotel was a bit more expensive than I’d hoped for wash and fold but I didn’t really want to waste any more time on it so I left it and hit the bus.

The site was very impressive but also a bit frustrating. I wasn’t about to hire a private guide for just me but the info on the signboards at the site seemed a bit selective. Thankfully my Lonely Planet (RIP 🙁 ) guidebook had a big section on the palace and I augmented it with some internet searching on breaks. The palace was at various points the capital of ancient Crete, particularly in the days when the Minoan civilization conquered a big chunk of the modern Greek area. Trade was quite wide and there were elements found here that hint at contact far and wide across the Med.

The site’s documentation hero worships the Brit who lead most of the early excavations but also doesn’t do the greatest job of mentioning how controversial some of his restoration work was. Like most of that era of Archaeologist he seems to have come to a conclusion of what he thought a site/subsite was and stuck to it. Some of the restoration as a result may bear little resemblance to reality. That said, most of the site is untouched and his finds revealed a lot of what we’ve come to know about the Minoans. It’s a fascinating place even taken with a grain of salt especially when you remember that this massive palace predates the parthenon by a millenium. Not going to lie, seeing all these places is making me want to play some Civilization on my computer when I get home.

Back in town I discovered happily that the bus pathed right by the Museum so I hopped off and inside. I was disappointed to discover they didn’t have an audio guide but there was an app with extra context though in this case the English commentary was actually great so I felt spoiled. This was another place with some great future pottery inspirations especially in some ancient ‘marine decorated’ pots. The museum was great but despite my reasonably early start I really only just had time for both before it was closing for the night and I headed back to my hotel on foot to have a bit of a rest/do some research for further planning. In practice this actually turned into a 90 minute nap.

Once I’d woken up, picked up the laundry and thrown on something less ‘backpacker’ looking I headed to a restaurant recommended by my guidebook, a culinary guide and a few random reviews and discovered an absolutely enchanting farm to table place nestled in between a couple alleys between a church and a park. It would have taken some work to discover it without a map. Their emphasis on farm to table is sincere to the point where they have their own farm that supplies all the ingredients for the restaurant for 3/4 of the year (the rest of the year they supplement with other local organic farms.) Every dish has the distance from the table the farthest ingredient has come from marked on the menu. They also offer a tasting menu of 10+ olive oils which I did not indulge in. It was called Peskesi.

I ordered a slow cooked lamb and yogurt dish with rice pilaf and when it came out it was not at all what I expected. Completely melt in your mouth lamb crusted with flavourful cheese over a layer of herbed yogurt as an island in a pool of some of the most amazing rice I’ve ever tasted, almost more like a very wet risotto. It was incredibly delicious and I didn’t make it through more than 2/3 of it. This time the complimentary Raki was also flavoured with rose, I’m not normally a huge fan of florals in drinks but something about the interaction of the rose and the anise made this really hit the spot (though I only had two shots unlike some at nearby tables.) The dessert was unusual as it was a semolina based pudding smeared in a thin layer on the plate then drizzled with honey, lemon, cinnamon and almonds. The texture was interesting, I’d described it as a sweet thicker cream of wheat. It was really quite good but again I was stuffed and didn’t come close to finishing my included portion. Overall an incredible meal and arguably in the top ten of my life… and ridiculously cheap for the quality. I paid under $25 CAD if I recall.

I was kind of surprised that the busker scene in Heraklion wasn’t livelier but I guess with it being low season and ‘cold’ there wasn’t the draw. I ended up sitting by a venetian fountain from 1629 and just people watching for an hour or so before taking a circuitous route back to the hotel and calling it a day. In truth, at least in old town, the bar scene in general seemed kind of meh at this time of year. I’m guessing it’s likely livelier somewhere closer to the university or whatnot. There were a few small lounges that were quite hopping but Greece is definitely an ‘eat late then party late’ place.

Originally I had planned to leave the next morning and rent a car to move on and explore more of Crete but I’d had the luck to connect with the only diving company planning to start for the year before I left and staying in town an extra night was going to get me a dive on the Saturday so I spent friday finding a local rental car provider who’d rent me a small automatic. Honestly I need to re-learn how to drive standard but I figured chaotic greek town then sharp mountain roads probably wasn’t the time to struggle through it. The rest of the day was exploring the town a bit more and having a bit more of a relaxing day. I hit the other big museum in town, explored the harbour fort and partook of a snack or two in sidewalk cafes.

The dive shop itself was again right on a bus route and we weren’t starting at the crack of dawn so I stumbled in at about ten and got kitted up. This was a bit eye opening given recent changes as well as the fact that we were running on different equipment than I was used to as well as it being an SSI shop when I’m a PADI trained diver. Phil at the shop was great though and I met the other two divers on the trip and we drove about 30 minutes away to a small cove nestled at the bottom of a steep switchback. Oddly despite having done I think almost 40 dives now this is only the second time I’ve done a shore dive after the time in Cuba. The water was cool but not crazy cold for a Manitoban. The young german woman who was my dive buddy generally dove in the baltic so she wasn’t cold either. Our dive lead on the other hand was wearing a dry suit for some unknowable reason. Coward!

The bay we were diving in is apparently in the process of being turned into a marine reserve. I won’t pretend it was the most exciting dive I’ve ever done (first dive since Fiji was always likely to be a bit tamer) but it was an excellent time. Current/surge was relatively low, we had 15m visibility despite the cloud and managed to see some barracuda, a couple lionfish, some trumpetfish and a number of grouper. Only sadness was not seeing any octopus since Phil had said they saw them quite often but overall it wasn’t a bad dive.

Back on dry land I had a tipsy moment when I forgot to baby my legs a bit having forgotten that I have not used flippers for a while but then had a lovely chat with two other divers who were prepping to go out with a scooter. They were a couple (one German, one Belgian) who were living in Crete at the moment and sampling the dive sites around the island while things were quiet. We shared stories of our fave places elsewhere and I got a couple future targets to think about aiming for. Eventually we wished them well as they headed in and Phil had finally struggled out of his drysuit and we headed back to the shop. I’d stupidly let myself run out of small change for the bus and didn’t think a bus driver would take kindly to me trying to break a fifty so I walked a few blocks back towards town until I found a fruit market, bought a banana for some potassium and some dried pineapple for dessert then made it back to town to pick up my rental car.

I am mildly ashamed of the fact that I’m not confident driving a stick, to be honest that was for one marathon road trip 20+ years ago and nothing since so it’s not really surprising. Unfortunately it makes renting a car outside North America a bit harder/pricier. At the smaller local rental place I ended up using they really only had one option which was a micro Hyundai hatch that just barely fit my suitcase in the back and had an engine that sounded like it was going to die at some point. Still, I wanted to hit the roads of this beautiful island so I put-putted away, trusting my gps to get me outside of the old town at least and then at that point there’s really only the one main east-west highway on the island. I was heading for Chania, the ‘second city’ of the island which meant heading from the more central Heraklion to almost the west coast.

Quick side note here. Cretan drivers are absolutely mental. At almost no point of this section of highway are there two lanes in one direction. There are only small sections with a dashed central line and the road follows the coast for most of its length so there are a ton of blind corners. This does not stop people from passing. You’re expected to pull off half or fully onto the shoulder to let these nutbars by. Eventually I got used to it but yikes. Thankfully the road itself wasn’t in bad shape and the views were absolutely gorgeous. Crete is a stunning place and at times really reminds me of northern California, especially at this time of year where many sections are quite arid running down to wild looking coastline.

I arrived in Chania (Ha-nia) not long before sunset having not actually booked anywhere to stay yet. To be honest I’d been worried I’d be too tired after diving to make it past the halfway point but it hadn’t turned out to be an issue. As I reached the outskirts of the modern town I pulled into a closed business and started browsing for something that looked decent. I was comparing things on a map when someone knocked on the window and I nearly jumped out of my skin, immediately thinking the business owner was grumpy. It turned out to be an older British woman who asked me if I had any jumper cables. She and her Canadian partner had broken down nearby. Obviously I did not in my baby rental but I agreed to try giving her a boost if she bought some at a nearby garage. This being a typical greek road this involved me fighting across a street the wrong way and bumping up onto a curb to get mostly out of traffic. Sadly the boost was unsuccessful. At first I assumed it was just my baby battery not having the oomph to help their similarly sized car but it sounded in the end like it was some more major electrical fault. They thanked me profusely anyway and actually offered to let me stay in their guest room but informed me they were 30 minutes out of town back the other way. Had I had more time I might have taken them up on it but I definitely wanted to stay in Chania’s beautiful old town so I wished them well and booked myself in.

Venetian Old Town

Chania’s old town is dotted with buildings from the era when the Venetians owned the island. Narrow cobbled streets run into church plazas and then run down to the beautiful harbour. The fortifications remain on two sides helping make the district close to but not quite car-free. I was arriving on saturday night and things were already hopping in that area. I knew I was unlikely to get anything too close parking wise but it ended up being quite the ordeal. Unlike most places in Crete a lot of the street parking in that area was paid and when I finally found a spot I ran into issues getting their parking app to work. Ended up having to tether my laptop to get a confirmation email because the only credit card I could get to work would send my fraud alerts to an older email. (Side note to people who run so-called travel cards, maybe don’t have confirmations only be SMS-able when plenty of travel folks get travel SIMs while abroad?) Eventually I was set until midnight and parking was apparently free on sundays so I hoped things would be fine. That said I can’t fathom how terrible the parking must be in high season.

Setting off into the narrow old lanes with my suitcase clattering away I noticed again the winter deadness. This was saturday night, some of the main thoroughfares were hopping and a few restaurants were packed but almost every hotel I passed looked shut completely. When I found my hotel it looked SLIGHTLY more alive but was locked and no one was visible inside. I rang the bell at the Vilelmine and got a long wait followed by a confused sounding mess of greek. Tentatively I said “checking in?” wondering if I’d somehow buzzed an apartment. A lady walking past took pity on me and spoke to the person on the intercom and translated. I’m guessing that was maybe a family member of the owner because when he showed up 5 minutes later he spoke quite good english and apologized that he’d missed the booking notice on his phone. He chatted with me a bit about the town and told me that Chania’s old town was so beautiful because it was one of the few places the Germans hadn’t wrecked in WW2 as it was their last refuge/where they ended up surrendering. Makes sense but would have been a bit awkward to know that when my german dive buddy was extolling the beauty of the place a few hours prior.

I was clearly the only person in this hotel as when he came in the door he flipped on a bunch of breakers saying “I guess you’d like the hot water.” I was only half paying attention though as the building was gorgeous. It was a narrow Venetian townhouse that had been subdivided into quite large suites and had gorgeous art on the walls and a spiraling staircase leading upwards. My host showed me up to one of them and I found a massive bedroom, a tiny couch area with coffee and a minifridge and a balcony that overhung the church square. He had definitely not been wrong about wanting the hot water though as since I’d already checked out before diving I’d had to drive a couple hours still salty from the dive (ick.)

Showered and mildly more presentable I spent the rest of the night wandering the town. It was an odd mix. While many many hotels and restaurants were closed, others were completely packed. When facing the harbour itself it was as if everything on the west side was shut down. Yet at the same time there were floods of people around and a much younger skewing crowd than I’d seen in many of the towns since Athens. This made more sense later when I found out that there was both a NATO naval base and a large university near town. This also explained the larger number of young American voices I heard in the babble. I eventually ended up at a fish restaurant recommended by my host which ended up being a bit of a dud. Nothing terrible just underwhelming, but rescued by a small cone of citrus sorbet on the way back up the road. By this point the dive fatigue had indeed arrived and I decided to head back and get some sleep.

I’d forgotten the next morning was sunday. A cacophony of bells reminded me at around 7. I had been planning to get an early-ish start but my room being essentially right at the height of the belfry made damned sure I wasn’t sleeping any longer, especially when they went off again 15 minutes later. By the time I’d had another shower and gotten mostly ready to go I was able to sit out on the mini balcony with a glass of water and see parishioners going in and out and the orthodox chants of the service filled the chilly morning air. One of the church staff was outside setting up a buffet of food was no doubt going to be spending the next hour defending it from cats. I couldn’t help but laugh as one man came into the square with his two dogs, one leashed, one wandering off leash behind him… he eventually stopped mid-square, tied the two dogs together and left them waiting quite patiently tied to one another as he went into church for a blessing and returned about five minutes later.

Church theatre aside it was time to get moving. I’d decided to visit a famous beach at the southwest corner of the island and was mildly nervous if my wussy little car would make it or not. One guide I’d read said the last bit of the road wasn’t in great shape, the other said no issues. My rental company had warned me I wasn’t covered for gravel road recovery but in the end I decided to try and I’m glad I did. It was definitely the most european of european roads though, as once I got off the highway the secondary road kept going through cliff-side villages as we climbed a mountain pass. Cars would be jammed willy nilly, roads would barely be wide enough for one car much less the tour buses I knew must come this way in high season. I firmly got out of the way of the speed demons this time but overall it was mostly just fun at this time of year. My only regret was the lack of places at times to stop and check out the view properly.

Eventually the road opened up to a view of a gorgeous aqua sea and the road spilled out onto a somehow even more rugged coastline. I was all set to say this is now the closest I’ve been to Africa before I remembered that I’ve been to Gibraltar… whoops. The beach itself is famous for pink ‘sand’ which is actually crushed shells floating over the sand. Due to tides/wind I wasn’t there at peak beauty by the sounds of it but it was still gorgeous. Apparently the ‘island’ offshore is often connected by a spit of the pinkish sand but on the day of my visit the lagoon had completely separated it. The lagoon was totally wadeable though and at spots was only ankle deep, at first I just waded out a bit but eventually decided to go all the way across to explore the spit of an island jutting out in the bay. As I was putting my shoes away (I’d worn a bathing suit though had not been sure if I’d swim or not) a couple started walking back from the island with their two dogs who made it clear the depth never got above waist high.

The island was gorgeous, small coves everywhere with picturesque rocks and slowly rolling waves coming in off a barrier reef. The ocean pools reflecting with sheens of emerald and indigo. I read later that after increasing crowds for a number of years they have been cracking down and are trying to return more of the area to nature/keep permanent fixtures at a greater distance so hopefully the main shoreline will eventually be just as great. I gather the main beach is basically a giant expanse of deck chairs and umbrellas come July and August. On this particular ‘winter’ day I only saw about 15 people total all day. I spent a couple hours in a few of the coves, did a bit of snorkeling and just generally relaxed and enjoyed the view. I’d definitely love to come back some day and snorkel when it was a bit warmer but it was still absolutely worth the trip.

Back in Chania I found a spot in an entirely free lot that I found mention of online (mostly so I wouldn’t have to log on and pay for a couple hours at 7am the following morning) then tried to have a look around some shops. This was definitely not a sunday shopping town though, especially at low season so in the end I just did a lap of the harbour, took some photos then went back to to my room for a bit of a nap and sitting on my balcony for a while writing some of this travelogue. Dinner was much better that night as I indulged in some saganaki and souvlaki in one of the narrow alley eateries before curling up with a book until bed.

I lingered for a bit monday morning wanting to check out some of the stores and hoping they’d actually open at the time google listings said they would, thankfully a few of them did and I made a couple of small purchases for folks back home. I had one more full day with the car and decided to race to the other end of the island just to have seen a bit of each side. Now that I was more used to the roads this went fairly smoothly, especially since the highway east of Heraklion is markedly better and even has some passing lane areas. A few hours later I ended up in Agios Nikaulaus (St. Nicholas) a town on the edge of yet another gorgeous bay full of glassy turquoise waves. Other than beaches the draw here in prime season is an offshore island that was a leper colony until the 70s.

On the plus side street parking was free here, on the negative my hotel had neglected to inform me that their street in the warren was under construction and thus their instructions on getting to the front door were useless. In the end I parked on the waterfront and dragged my bag around the breakwater until I found a way to climb up to the hotel where I found no host just my name and a key. This was the first serious dud of a hotel for the trip as the beds were hard, the toilet needed to be fought with to not run after a flush and the construction the next morning started back up early. Things seemed almost Santorini dead in this town and other than a lovely beach I visited 20km away there wasn’t much of excitement happening (but it would probably be hopping in summer.)

My flight back to Athens wasn’t until fairly late the next day so I dragged out the car adventures as long as possible and instead of cutting straight back to Heraklion I drove down to the south coast and back across the mountains of the spine of Crete. Tons of lovely views but I found myself baffled by a couple of the towns on the coast where absolutely gorgeous oceanfront property was being used for businesses you’d never expect like auto wreckers etc. Also I got a delicious feta croissant. The southeast of the island was absolutely covered in greenhouses… like acres and acres of them. I’m curious as to what they grow in them that’s such a big crop. As I crossed over the middle I ended up driving through olive groves and vineyards, two of the products of the island I’d already sampled quite a lot of. Unfortunately my car also started beeping at random a few times with no accompanying warning lights. I got out and checked tire pressure etc but everything seemed to be running just as well as before even though that wasn’t great. In the end it went away after a restart for a while and then stopped happening completely after another 45 minutes so I rolled the dice and kept driving.

Of course… after having no rain to speak of… once I’d dropped the car off that afternoon and had fully 5 hours to kill before my flight there were a number of short downpours. Eventually I gave in, stopped running to hide under canopies in between stretches reading on a park bench with my suitcase and found a burger joint, ordered some food and loitered my heart out until it was time to hop the airport bus. Actually to be honest I probably would have left it another hour at least but I was starting to get the stinkeye at the cafe and figured I might as well. Low season was in evidence at the airport too however as very little was open and large stretches of the airport had temporarily been barricaded until business improved.

Overall Crete was a blast and I’d come back in a heartbeat (though at a warmer time of year to check out more dive sites, do more swimming, see a different side of the island. I’d honestly love to be back with someone else as well, if only to get to order more of some of those menus to share at dinner.