Crete: Overall Impressions

Looking back, I think the experience in Crete was generally positive. Sure, there were difficulties along the way, but never anything so drastic that it couldn’t be dealt with.

It’s very clear that the island…or the entire country rather…is relatively poor. General prices of things can’t necessarily be used as an index since they’re skewed due to the additional cost of bringing items from the mainland to the island. This was the first time since seeing a Mexican border town as a child that I felt like I wasn’t in a modern First World country.

A lot of the countries financial difficulties have been linked to corruption in the government. This becomes apparent when you look at the streets and roads of the island. Cracks and potholes and fading lines and crumbling asphalt are rampant throughout the island and the rare construction area (I only encountered two the whole time) aren’t very convincing and seem stalled likely from lack of funding.

Speaking of driving, it wasn’t surprising to see that the majority of the automobiles are late models. It was strangely amusing to drive along and see expansive show rooms of various car dealerships empty and abandoned as grass grew through the cracks in concrete and asphalt. As with many European countries with limited space, many people in cities, towns, and villages used motor scooters (and to a lesser extent, motorcycles) to get around. It wasn’t like the sea of pristine Vespas that one encounters in places like Paris or Rome, however. These scooters were all older model Japanese scooter from Kawasaki or Honda or Chinese knock-offs or some other off brand. Faded paint, rusted metal, and torn vinyl revealed the damage sun, rain, saltwater, and father time had left.

But the people of the island never seemed downtrodden  or defeated. In fact, these were some of the friendliest people I encountered. The first day, driving through some village in the middle of nowhere, a lady out walking along the road enthusiastically smiled and waved at someone she didn’t know driving a car she had never seen before.

And so the experience will fade into the mists of time and I’ll likely forget most of what I did and what I saw. But from time to time I’ll ask myself, “I wonder whatever happened to Canis,” and I’ll smile.

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Crete: Day 10

And then it was time to go home. The first stop was the service station near the apartment to fill up the rental car because bringing it back full is 99.99% of the time the best option. The station had not one, but four attendants waiting outside to fill up the car. I tried to fill the car up myself but the attendant wouldn’t back away and was unresponsive to either English or German. So I awkwardly stood outside for a moment while he filled the car before sitting back down and letting him finish the job.

At the airport I was honestly really worried about returning the car, especially after seeing the marks on the front bumper that were no doubt from the off road adventure a few days prior (and thus not covered by the insurance). Luckily, the desk agent was not overly concerned a bout the marks and I suspect the lax effort to pre-define any existing body damage helped a bit. She cleared the car for return and offered to drive us to the terminal.

Because the flight was operated by two different airlines (Olympic from Heraklion to Athens and Lufthansa from Athens to Frankfurt), my preferred option of online check in and digital boarding passes was not exactly available. The desk was understandably idle due to the season and waiting to check bags was not even a thing. Upon check in, the agent informed us that due to weather, we were being rebooked on an earlier flight to Athens to avoid expected delays. Again, timing circumstances meant there was no wait to pass through security and, in fact, the security personnel were pretty relaxed about the whole process (proof that “security theatre” is only in place for peace of mind and doesn’t actually improve measures behind the scenes). After takeoff, it was clear why the airline staff were concerned since pretty much from liftoff until about ten minutes before landing in Athens the plane flew through cloud cover with zero visibility and light turbulence.

The earlier departure meant more layover time in Athens and since it was around lunch time, the search began for a restaurant to sit down and eat at. Wandering about, it was peculiar that the only thing to be found was a small bistro/cafe offering sandwiches and pre-heated pizza slices. Surely the international airport of a country’s capital would have at least a McDonald’s somewhere, wouldn’t it? Nope. So pre-heated pizza slices were begrudgingly consumed and the long wait began for the final leg home.

Weather again caused a delay in the flight since the plane needed extra time for deicing before leaving Frankfurt to come to Athens. Once in the air though, the flight went relatively smoothly…until it didn’t. A small air pocket caused the plane to suddenly drop for maybe a second about halfway through the flight. It’s a perfectly normal phenomenon and I can’t count how many times I experienced something similar on countless flights around the world. For whatever reason though, this time was different and that one second of falling made my heart race and I honestly believed the plane would crash. After expressing my fears and laughing at my own irrational behavior, I was able to relax again and enjoy the rest of the flight.

Looking out the window upon the final approach into Frankfurt, I was excited to see another flight making its approach at the same time.at The plane was actually quite far away, but it’s a fun experience to imagine the two planes racing each other to arrive their respective runways. It’s also possible that many portions of my imagination have been too heavily influenced by Calvin & Hobbes.

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Reaching the bus stop outside of the terminal, it was a bit peculiar not to see any buses. Sometimes my total ignorance surprises me. Checking my transit app for the next possible trip home, I was shocked to find out the buses weren’t running and only had a few minutes to reach the trains underground in order to get home. Along the way I found out the bus drivers were on strike. I’d like to say that had I been in Frankfurt, I would have known about the strike, but that’s not true since I don’t have a TV and don’t watch the news or listen to the radio and often have no clue what’s going on in the world around me. I should probably pay more attention to things like that.

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Crete: Day 9

Understandably, the Mediterranean island of Crete is ill equipped to deal with heavy snowfall along the coastal areas. So it was not entirely shocking that after setting out for the day’s hike the roads were still a bit sloppy in some spots.

Having again to choose between two prospective hikes, I opted for the one in the mountains rather than the one through a gorge for the simple reason that a hike through a gorge had already been done and I wanted to do something different. Turning off the highway, it should have been immediately clear that this was the wrong choice since a line of traffic cones said the road was closed. I stopped the car so the options could be assessed and saw one car come down off the mountain and another swerve around the cones to go up. So I figured it was worth exploring a bit further.

Climbing up the shady side of the mountain, the slush and snow had frozen into ice. Luckily it hadn’t covered the entire road, but it was enough to slow the pace down significantly. Of course it was a bit stressful as one misstep would send the tiny Peugeot careening off the side of the mountain to tumble and roll to a firey fate which would likely include death. I suspected, however, that once the car reached the plateau and the south facing areas of the mountains, the sunlight would keep the snow soft and wet and thus less slick than the ice in the shade. Slipping over the top of the precipice, my hunch was proven correct. The valley stretched before me was blinding to my eyes as the sunlight glared off the unsullied snowfall. The road was covered more thoroughly with snow, but it was wet and packy and the patches of black asphalt struggling to peak out worked hard to melt off the surrounding snow cover. So the decision was made to continue on and reassess again further along the way.

After a few moments, we arrived in the village of Mochos. There were a surprising amount of people meandering about in the village and the oncoming cars that I passed were way more than expected. Normally this wouldn’t have been a huge deal, except that the road that had already narrowed to pass through the village was even narrower due to the heavy accumulation of snow. Upon reaching the other side of the village, it was clear that the road wasn’t going to get any wider and passing more drivers proved increasingly challenging. Fearing one of the encounters would leave the brave little French automobile hung up in the deep snow, the first chance to turn around was taken and we slowly made our way back to the freeway.

It’s fascinating how drastically different the weather can be in such a relatively small area. Driving into the village of Kritsa to hike behind door number two in the Kritsa Gorge, there was not a single flake of snow on the ground and the surrounding area was cool and wet rather than cold and frosty. It actually turned out to be a cool hike through the gorge and was surprisingly difficult to navigate over and around some of the rock formations along the canyon floor.

The main highways had cleared themselves of snow during the relatively sunny day, so the return drive was a lot smoother and faster than earlier. After cleaning up and recharging for a bit, it was time to dine one last time. Choices were again limited due to many restaurants being closed for the off season so it felt like the best option was to simply peruse the ones that were open to see who had the most inviting atmosphere and, more importantly, who had moussaka  on the menu.

Stopping to peak at the Central Park restaurant just off Heraklion’s central square, the menu did in fact have what we were looking for. However, it also had pretty much everything from every corner of the world and seemed kind of like it was trying to hard to please everybody. The music was a bit loud and there didn’t seem to be an inside area to be seated in but rather the outdoor seating was enclosed by a plastic tent and portable propane heaters were placed in the dining area to keep the customers warm (which seems to be quite common on the island). One of the wait staff came out and began to explain the menu and what was available in that pushy hard sell that I find rather annoying. Normally I react negatively to such salesmanship and walk away, but I can also get flustered and take the offer just to get the person to leave me alone. This was one of those occasions. By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late as the waiter had seated us and prepared the table. Although the moussaka was adequate and the price was reasonable, it was obviously not the best dining experience to wrap up a trip with.

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Crete: Day 8

I woke up to something I didn’t really expect, a snow white beach. A rare blizzard had moved through overnight and the sand and palm trees were freshly coated with snow. I would late find out that it was the first snow Rethymno had seen in forty years! However, although everything initially appeared crisp, the mixture of rain and snow had made the ground cover a wet and slushy mess.

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The car was packed and before heading to Heraklion for the remainder of the trip, it was off to Agiroupoli for a hike. The weather again turned to snow as heavy wet flakes hit the car’s windshield. Driving along the northern coast provided an excellent view of the peaceful snow giving way to the angry sea. The roads along the coast were naturally quite wet, but drive-able without much trouble.

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Turning off the main highway and starting to make the ascent to higher elevations was a different story. The roads narrowed and already light traffic thinned even more. Snow cover became thicker on the roads but luckily it remained mostly wet and not icy. Passing oncoming traffic was manageable as long as both drivers kept their lines straight and their speeds low. Upon reaching the village of Agiroupoli, though, the snow became heavier and it was difficult to navigate the narrow streets and stop to let the rare oncoming driver through. Stopping on the uphill grade once made things a little nervous as the brave little Peugeot spun its wheels in a feverish attempt to climb. But once I arrived at my destination at the village square, I knew it was literally all downhill from there.

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There was a short debate about whether to skip the hike and immediately begin the return journey as the snow was likely to continue accumulating in the meantime. It was decided, however, to make at least a truncated hike which would hopefully not last more than an hour. The path was obviously hard to find and follow under such a thick blanket of snow, but eventually it wound its way down through narrow village streets and along the rocky hillside under strained and bending olive and lemon branches to the Green Oasis. There was just enough time to snap a few photos of the precipitation juxtaposed against the lush green waterfall and appreciate nature’s beauty for a few minutes before turning around and climbing back up the hill. Looking out one last time from the hilltop at the valley below, it was a peculiar but stoic scene as low clouds gave way to heavy snow which landed all around in an attempt to erase the landscape behind a curtain of white.

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The drive back through the village was not as terrible as expected because during the hike a road grader had driven through the plow the way. Slowly sneaking the rest of the way back to the coast, the roads became less and less treacherous traveling closer to the sea. However, it was a false sense of security as eventually even the main freeway along the northern coast towards Heraklion became covered in snow, slush, and ice. It was helpful that traffic was minimal, but stressful none the less…especially since I am easily distracted and had to fight the urge to gawk at the sea and the storm she had brought to bear that day.

Before reaching Heraklion, the weather reverted to wet and rainy which made driving much easier. The apartment building was a bit suspect, but the apartment itself was quite cool. There was a pellet stove providing ample warmth but more importantly was the full supply of hot water.

After a short break to settle in and relax, it was out into the city for dinner. The restaurant promised traditional Cretan food. The service started off poorly as the staff was reluctant to open a table due to reservations, however, we assured them that we could definitely finish the dining experience in under 2 1/2 hours before the table was needed. The wait staff was slow and the menu lacked the expected Greek staples. I blame it on the weather…or the off season…or maybe they’re just a bunch of a$$holes, who knows?

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Crete: Day 7

It’s Christmas in Crete! Straddling the border between western and eastern Christianity, many of the people of Crete celebrate Orthodox Christmas in early January but the secular calendar marks the holiday in December. So that means while many places were closed on the 6th for Epiphany, it was business as usual on the 7th even though it was Christmas.

The day started with a drive from Rethymno to Douliana. It was a little difficult getting there because the village has about four different names depending on which language you use to say the name and then which you use to spell the name. It’s marginally confusing and I’m surprised that I didn’t encounter this sort of problem more often. (However, I guess it’s something quite common in some Belgian cities where street names change completely when going from one area to the next.)

After arriving in the village and setting out for the day’s light hike through the surrounding hills a friendly dog decided to join the trek. The village streets were empty and the town was quiet. Several guesses were made at the dog’s name but the mutt didn’t respond to any of them. In the end, it was determined to call our new treking companion “Canis” after the Greek-based Latin word for “dog”, obviously.

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Finding the trail head proved more difficult than expected, but eventually Canis led the way through and overgrown trail down the hill from the village. At the bottom of the hill, just before the trail opened up, was Ágios Ioánnis (St. John’s), a small chapel tucked in the crevice of the giant rocks that made up the hillside. A quick peek inside and then it was off through the olive trees with Canis leading the way.

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Canis was very energetic and seemed to be pleased that he was able to tag along. Not knowing anything about him, assumptions were made that he is only allowed out of the village when accompanied by people and makes a point to befriend visiting hikers so that he can run around the various fields and trails near Doulianna and the surrounding area. It was also amusing to encounter another person out walking the trails who bid us good day. I suspect he had little clue that I was from out of town since it appeared that I was simply out walking with my dog.

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Circling around to the north side of the hill, we encountered another cave chapel. I don’t recall the name and can’t find one for it online. This one was a bit more landscaped outside with steps and an arch in the yard and a few rows of chairs placed inside. After leaving it began to rain a bit, but luckily it was only sporadic and there was a great view of the White Mountains in the distance moving along the western face of the hill. Canis was often well ahead along the way and periodically he would stop and make sure he was still being followed. On some occasions he we take a wrong turn only to discover that his new friends had gone another direction and racing past to retake the lead.

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Eventually we arrived back in the village of Douliana. Canis trotted into the village and stopped to make sure he was being followed. He seemed a bit confused when nobody came along with him. So I called him back to the car to say goodbye. Starting the engine and turning around, I saw Canis mulling around outside. Opened the door and gave one last goodbye before leaving the village. In my rearview mirror, I could see Canis waiting at the edge of town and I strongly believe that if I had asked him to come along in the car he would have gladly jumped in the back seat. I hope he’s found some new friends to walk with.

Dining out in Rethymno was a bit amusing that evening. After searching for the first choice of restaurant and not initially finding it, it became clear that the very dark open space where the restaurant should have been was, in fact, the actual restaurant…closed for the season. The search then began for the second option which produced similar results. So it was on to door number three. This restaurant was open, but was quite empty and the waiter seemed a bit pushy when trying to convince potential diners to enter. The decision was made to try the fourth option and it turned out okay. Nothing great, but not a total loss either. In the end, it turned out to be a pretty unique Christmas in Crete.

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Crete: Day 6

The plan was hatched and it was time to make an escape. Once the bags were packed and the car was loaded, it was decided that an indirect route was best. The plan was to make a short detour to Triopetra before heading back north and spending two nights in the city of Rethymno. The weather was a bit drizzly, but it seemed like it would be okay to spend some time outside to combat the possibility of cabin fever setting in.

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Leaving Kerames, I drove in the opposite direction from previous excursions since GPS and Google Maps claimed this was the best/shortest way to reach Triopetra. The road was narrow and winding, but navigable and not really any worse than what I had already encountered elsewhere on the island. The funny thing about lines on a map though, is that they don’t always give you all the information you need.

After about 10 minutes on the asphalt, there was a lady walking her dog. I drove slowly past the pair only for the dog to begin barking and chasing after the car. Unbeknownst to me, the rambunctious beast was running right beside the passenger side door. Not being able to see the critter, but knowing it was somewhere nearby, I anxiously drove as straight as possible to avoid hitting it. Eventually the faithful guardian either tired out or was called back by their owner and I was able to focus again on the road ahead.

Looking back, I’ve come to the conclusion that the hound was not trying to chase the car, but rather warn me of what was in store. Shortly after passing the wandering pair, the asphalt gave way to gravel. Not a huge problem, I figured to was probably just a short stretch that would soon return to normal. After a few boulders and some sketching looking and unavoidable puddles, the “road” (I’m using that term as liberally as possible) did in fact change…for the worse. It felt very reminiscent of the backwoods trails I used to drive while hunting or stump jumping with an old friend in northern Wisconsin. Actually, I think it was very similar to those rock climbing Jeep videos.

Driving along those types of trails in a pickup truck is not really a huge thing. Driving along something like that in a subcompact car…a rented subcompact Peugeot 108 is a bit nerve-racking. Knowing that any damage to the undercarriage was not covered by the rental insurance if it happened off asphalt, I was anxious to avoid anything in my path, mortified whenever I hear something scrape along the bottom of the car, and desperate to get through this rough patch as soon as possible. After what seemed like 127 hours, it was clear that there was no turning back. Mostly because there wasn’t anywhere to turn the car around, but also because that meant driving through the same insane conditions again. And then, there was the slope.

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I eventually arrived at an uphill slope riddled with large rocks and marred by draining ditches. I made an attempt to climb the hill, but the car simply didn’t have the clearance to reach the top. I assessed the situation and quickly came to the conclusion that I was f%&ked (I tend to be a bit emotional at times). There was no way that little car would make it to the top and turning around meant, again, driving back over an hour through extreme terrain. I walked to the top of the hill and was further frustrated by the sight of a much easier gravel road at the top. I also saw two pickup trucks parked just off the two trails and a house overlooking a small village nearby. The question was either to attempt to find a way through the unnavigable path alone or ask for help from whoever was in the house.

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I cautiously approached the open door, called out “hello”, and knocked on the beam supporting the roof. A scruffy heavy set man emerged from the entrance. I timidly asked if he could speak English to which he gave the standard reply of, “a little.” Google Translate helped me relay the message of “car, stuck, help,” and he invited my traveling companion and myself inside. I honestly don’t remember his name, so I’ll call him Iolaus, but I do recall that his friend’s name was Michael. It was actually Michael’s house we were invited into…if you can call it a house. The old shack had obviously been around for a while. Iolaus invited us to sit on a ratty old couch as he and Michael grilled what looked like fish on an open fire in the corner of the room. Michael spoke only Greek but was pleased to show us that his actual house was just behind the ratty old shack we were sitting in. The pair showed their hospitality by offering bread and meat. Through trial and error…and eventual taste…it was revealed that the meat was actually pork. The pair continually insisted that I eat more and more and Michael even poured glasses of homemade wine for everyone in attendance (luckily I was able to politely decline). Of course the toast was not “Opa!” (that’s more of a celebratory “hooray!”) but rather “segeia”. In this case it’s a colloquial Cretan equivalent to, “to health!”

While I eventually became a bit impatient waiting for the grill party to finish before we set out to rescue the stranded Frenchman, I am amazed at the hospitality Iolaus and Michael provided to two complete strangers. In a world increasingly strangled by fear and suspicion of outsiders and people we don’t know, it’s a testament to the perserverence on human kindness. I wonder if it’s a throwback to ancient times in Greece. In the old legends, people were expected to invite strangers into their homes. You were never certain if the visitor was one of the gods in disguise and you certainly didn’t want to invoke the ire of the gods so you let everyone in, just in case. It’s the complete opposite of whispers you hear today about shutting everyone out, just in case.

After a healthy portion of grilled pork, toast, and olive oil, the fire was stoked for the evening and we set out to retrieve the car. The initial plan was to use Michael’s winch and pull the car up the hill. However, upon closer inspection, it was evident that winching the car up the hill may not work for the same reasons that driving the short stretch was difficult (namely dragging the bottom of car along the gravel and rocks). Luckily, the two knew of another trail that connected with the asphalt a few hundred meters back the same way I had come from. Michael took the wheel of the Peugeot and drove nonchalantly over the rugged trail until we reached the pavement.

We quickly celebrated our victory and I gave a congratulatory bro-hug to my Greek heroes. I received a business card from Iolaus…although it’s all Greek and I can’t read it…and we all went our separate ways. I drove straight on to Rethymno and arrived in the evening, settling in well after dark.

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Crete: Day 5

Bad weather, a national holiday, and lingering illness meant another late start today. In the afternoon a decision had to be made between attempting a relatively short hike that was a bit farther away or a longer hike that was a bit closer. Thinking that the closer hike could be reserved for later, I opted with the farther hike. The weather called for steady rain and it seemed like although it would be wet, it would be bearable. So umbrellas and rain pants were packed along and the day’s journey began.

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After driving about an hour through increasingly heavy rain and less and less visibility, it was clear that hiking was not going to be an option. The car was turned around before reaching the destination and headed back to Kerames. Another long prep time for a somewhat less enjoyable bath also planted the seed of the thought that maybe it was best to say goodbye to the secluded village a little earlier than planned.

As the sun set on the village of Kerames, the search began for somewhere within more manageable driving to hiking trails and, more importantly, somewhere with a steady supply of hot water.

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