A Travellerspoint blog

December 2015

Elafonisi, Balos, and the Mountain Villages of Crete

From Chania, we drove to Elafonisi through the mountain villages of the Enneachora, including Vlatos, Elos, and Kefali. Most of the tavernas and small hotels were closed, and many of the smaller villages seemed almost deserted. At first, the mountain Gods smiled upon us with good weather, and we stopped for a walk in the countryside outside of Topolia. It was a bucolic and tranquil scene as we wandered down the dirt track toward the river.

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Olive grove
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At one point we had some company.

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And the Spring flowers were starting to pop.

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We then went to see the cave church of Agia Sofia, high on the hillside above Koutsamatados Ravine.

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Further on, in Elos, we stopped for lunch at a simple restaurant run by a mother and daughter. They served up a very tasty boureki, a zucchini and potato, and cheese dish that we had eaten at Chicken Ltd., but in a different form. By then the weather had deteriorated, as it so often does in the mountains, and it was cold enough for them to make a fire for us.

From there we made our way to Elafonisi. None of the distances are very far in Crete, or Creta as they spell it, and even though the roads are narrow and full of curves, it doesn't take long to get from place to place. In Elafonisi, the sun was out, and it was warm enough to lie on the beach. Surprisingly, there were some other travelers sunning themselves as we did for an hour or two.

Elafonisi is famous for its shallow turquoise colored lagoon, where there is a small island connected to the mainland by a sandbar.

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There were also some striking volcanic rocks on the beach
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We found a small hotel and spent the night. When the sun went down it got quite chilly, and as with so many places in Crete and southern Italy, they are not really set up for cold weather. We asked for extra blankets, but could have used even more than they gave us. The next day was overcast and windy and seemed to promise rain, so we decided not to spend another day at beach. Instead we went back into the mountains, but this time took a different route, along the western coast to Kissamos. The weather improved somewhat, and the views along the route were stunning, as the road weaved in and out over high cliffs close to the sea.

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Kissamos, a small provincial and rather nondescript town, was big enough to have a few hotels that were open, and we found a place to stay. After a disappointing lunch, one of our only poor meals in Crete, we went off to see the Balos Penninsula, as suggested by our host at the hotel. Although Balos was mentioned in our guidebook, it was downplayed compared to Elafonisi. When we got to the beginning of the peninsula, the track narrowed, became rocky, and it was no longer paved. Given the balding tires we had on our rental car, we decided not to chance it, and started walking.
The main part of the peninsula is uninhabited, and has been set aside as a national park. It has rocky peaks, scrubby trees, and volcanic rocks jutting into a turquoise and deep blue sea. There is another peninsula on the other side, which frames the wide bay of Kissamos, and it is easy to see why the Minoans created an ancient port on this site because it is protected on three sides.

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After 20 minutes of walking, and noticing a number of cars coming back from the point, a young Italian couple stopped us and asked us how far to the end. We didn't know, but they stopped another car, and were told 1/2 an hour. Realizing that we would never make it by walking, I asked them if they would mind taking us. No problem. They were a delightful couple living in Milan, though originally from Calabria. Francesca is a high school teacher and Carlo a chemical engineer. It actually took more than 1/2 hour to drive out to the end, and then it was another steep 1/2 hour walk down to the beach. But what a spot. The trail led down the rocky, windswept scrub, much like the English moors. There were expansive views over the sea, and a rocky island attached to the mainland with a sandbar. Scattered about were other small islands, also with cliffs and scrub which seemed plunked down at random.

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Our Italian friends took this shot of the happy couple on Balos beach
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As the clouds moved back in, they scraped the top of the highest mountain on the peninsula, and then were blown out to sea. The sun went lower on the horizon, and backlit the clouds, creating shadows over the silver and cobalt water, as the waves washed onto the sandy shore. Goats scampered about on the nearby rocks, and aside from an uninhabited shack on the beach, it was a totally wild place.

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It felt like the end of the world.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:30 Archived in Greece Tagged landscapes beaches sky photography Comments (4)

Chania, Crete

An hour from Rethymno, Chania is Crete's second largest city and certainly more beautiful than Heraklion. There is an old Venetian port with a lighthouse and ancient walls, as well as an even older part of the city with narrow alleys, and stone and cement houses, a few of which have a second floor of wood in the old Turkish style.

Lighthouse and outer wall, built in 1538 to fortify the city
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The port area is a busy place with restaurants, many now just opening for the season, cafes, bars, and tourists from various parts of Europe. The weather has improved significantly, and for the most part, the days have been bright and warm, though often with a stiff breeze over the water.

Ancient mosque no longer in use by the waterfront
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Old buildings and the port chock full of boats
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The high snow covered mountains are visible over the ancient walls, and provide a stunning backdrop to this lively place.

Picture taken from outer wall.
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People continue to be friendly, and the food is nothing short of fantastic. After just a few days, some of the shop and restaurant owners are already recognizing us and saying Yasou, hello, or Calamara, good day, not squid, although we had some delicious stuffed squid the other day. The restaurant where we had it is owned or managed by someone who looks like a cross between Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. He stood out in front, trying to drum up business, as do so many of the restauranteurs, and he made a big deal over us when we told him we were from New York. It didn't take long before he belted out New York, New York, and then I Left My Heart in San Francisco. Of course we had to eat there after that, and were glad we did, returning a couple of times for more seafood. On the waterfront, where Tony Bennett's place is located, there are number of excellent fish places, especially as you walk further down into the inner harbor area. Every one of them gives you raki and desert, free of charge, and meals are a very leisurely affair.

Looking up at waterfront promenade outside Tony Bennett's restaurant
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Most days we have spent walking and looking at the old walls and alleys, and often just sitting and reading by the waterfront. We found some Minoan ruins, some of which are 5000 years old, and we learned that parts of Chania have some of the oldest Minoan sites in Crete.

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In our meanderings, we also discovered a very local place in a non-touristy part of town, with the unlikely name, in English at least, of Chicken LTD. Great veggie options, salad, and boureki, Greek pie, which is not a dessert, but a full meal somewhat like chicken pot pie, only better, with veggies and cheese. Unlike most of the waterfront places, there were few foreigners eating here, perhaps because of the location and the prices, cheap.

Olive oil container at Chicken Ltd.
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It's all Greek to me on the chalkboard menu at Chicken Ltd.
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Our restaurant meals have also been supplemented by Michaelis, who runs our tiny three room guest house. He brings us something homemade and organic every day.

All of the Greek street and city names that have been translated into English letters are still impossible to pronounce, and there seems to be no consistent spelling. Most have at least 10 or 15 letters. Even Chania, relatively easy to say, can be spelled without the C , ie, Canea, Hania, etc.

One of the main shopping streets with an impossibly long name
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It was with some trepidation that we decided to rent a car once again, as this will give us the opportunity to travel up to to a few of the smaller villages in the hills, and we will keep it for our time in Paleochora, as we have a week there. Perhaps the GPS will be more effective here than in Italy. Vamos a ver.

We continue to be impressed with good spirits of the local people, who are always eager to communicate, and luckily for us, many speak English well. Yes there are some beggars on the streets, but not that many considering the economic situation. Folks have told us that Crete is doing better than other places in Greece, particularly Athens, perhaps because it has a strong agricultural base and tourism remains fairly robust. Some of the younger ones have relocated here because there are more jobs.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:51 Archived in Greece Tagged buildings food photography cities_postcards Comments (1)

Rethymno, Crete

A mid sized university town, Rethymno has an old section of narrows alleys and old houses, in various states of repair and disrepair.

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We met a man in this tiny Greek church in the walls of the old city, and talked philosophy. He said he had been coming to this charming place since he was a boy.

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Inside the church
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The Fortezza, a Venetian Fort, parts of which date back to the 1200's, sits high on a hill overlooking the town, harbor, and the sea. It was built to protect the occupants from Barbarosa and other pirates.

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We spent several hours in the warm sun of the afternoon on the grounds around the Fortezza.

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Looking out at the sea from Fortezza grounds
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By contrast, the modern city spreads out along the beach beyond the harbor, and has a number of hotels and cafes, many of which were closed at this time of year.

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As we noticed in Heraklion, the Greeks seems to have a schedule which approximates that of the Spaniards and the Argentinians. That is, a late and big lunch between 2-4 PM, when all the stores close. Often, it seems they close between 1 PM until almost 5, but possibly because this is the off-season. Things don't get started until at least 9 or 10 PM, with dinner and music, and it is not until 11or 12, when things really get hopping.

Tonight we had dinner at Vasilli's, a tiny old place at the base of the Fortezza.

Looking up at wall around Fortezza from sea road. Vasilli"s was on the other side
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We happened there yesterday afternoon when they were closed, and promised the owner we would be back the next night. He and his daughter Eleni gave us a big hug after with chatted with them, and so we were bound to return. Vasilli is a big mustachioed man, more or less our age, who used to run a restaurant close to the port, and more recently has opened this place, where mezes and tapas, are the specialities. He is a larger than life character, more or less as I imagine Zorba the Greek, which I am now re-reading after many years. Zorba it turns out, was from Crete, as was his creator Kazantzakis.

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Of course at 7:20, the place was empty, but he started a fire in the tiny and smokey wood stove so that we would be comfortable. We ordered a bunch of small mezes, including his special salad, fava beans, Greek meatballs, etc., more than enough food. Around 8, a group of six friends came in, and there were smiles all around when they saw us. One of the women, Despina, came over to our table to talk. She is a young, pretty woman in her late 20's, who is a psychologist at the local hospital where she works with schizophrenic patients. Her parents are divorced, and so she is more or less on her own, and wants to complete her education in Integrative psychology. We both felt an instant connection to her, and she to us. Unfortunately her present job lasts only another two months, and like so many young people in Greece, she has no money to pursue further education, even though she is desperate to do so.

Before long, the larger group had bought us extra wine and insisted we join them and share their bottles of raki, an offer we couldn't refuse. We laughed and talked, despite their generally poor English and our non-existent Greek. Much wine and raki was consumed, and I felt a strong connection to these, and other Greek people, who seem so very warm and generous. We also spent time talking to Eleni, who at 22, is quite sophisticated and aware of what is happening, not only in Greece, but in other places. Thanks to her father's hard work, and her own, she has been fortunate to spend time in Istanbul. This is interesting, when you consider the antipathy between the Greeks and the Turks, which she clearly doesn't feel.

Harbor at sunset
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I was thankful that we had spent a few days in Rethymno, despite some chilly weather. It is occasions like the dinner at Vasilli's that I most look forward to in my travels. Thank you Vasilli, for giving me this opportunity, and I hope to spend another night or two at your restaurant.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:43 Archived in Greece Tagged people photography cities_postcards Comments (2)

Heraklion, Crete

We seem to have a serendipitous knack for arriving in places during times of celebration. Heraklion, the largest city in Crete is very lively today, as this is their Independence Day, when the Greeks defeated the Turks some 200 years ago. Despite the less than ideal weather, everyone is eating and drinking outside, and very friendly. The owner of a restaurant saw us glancing at the food, and offered us a taste of charcoal broiled octopus, and some of the local hooch, raki.

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We stopped to hear some music being played by some young people in a small piazza. It was all acoustic, with several lute like instruments, and mandolins, or similar sounding, and a small drum. Another young man, Migueles, told us that they were playing to raise money for a friend who needed an expensive surgery for an aneurism. We made a small donation, and then continued to talk with him. He helps to run an adventure travel agency in Crete, which takes tourists on hikes and sea kayaking around the island. He also has a brother who lives in Denver, and has been to the US on a couple of occasions to visit and travel.

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The next day, also cloudy, windy and rainy, although the worst of it held off until we completed our visit to 2000 BC Knossos. The Capital of Minoan culture, which predates the Greeks by a 1000 years or so, was home to more then 100,000 people, and the residence of King Minos. Knossos is also said to be home to the Minotaur, who was locked in a labyrinth until he was slain by Theseus. On arriving, we met a young Indian couple from Mumbai, although they have lived in Cambridge, near Boston for the last 8 years. And of course, the conversation first revolved around the snow in Boston this past winter, as well as our visit to south India last year.

Many parts of the ruins were reconstructed by Evans in the late 19th century, but it is still difficult to get a sense of the grandeur of the place as much of it is incomplete.

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There are some frescoes, also reconstructed from small pieces found on location, and these help to show how advanced Minoan culture was at that time.

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We continue to find the Cretans a very friendly bunch. For example, we stopped in a small cafe for cappuccino, and they gave us a big plate of cookies, no charge, to go along with it. Faces light up when we attempt to say hello and thank you in a botched form of Greek, and all of the staff in our hotel, as in Victoria Inn in Athens, are helpful and engaging.

Although we have only spent a few days in Greece, it is easy to see that they are much less concerned with appearance than the Italians. As in Italy, most stores close in mid-day for several hours, which is when the biggest meal is consumed.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:41 Archived in Greece Tagged buildings tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (3)

Athens, Greece

In Athens we stayed outside the downtown area in a small hotel, close the the business school of the University. However it was a short subway ride away from Monasteraki and the old city. The modern city has been built around the Acropolis hill and the Agora, the center of the city during Greek and Roman tImes. With the economic crisis of the past several years Athens has clearly come upon hard times. There is graffiti everywhere and many buildings in disrepair. Some students at the University told us the unemployment rate for young people is more than 60%. All of this makes Athens rather a depressing place, especially in some locations. The only major site worth seeing is the Acropolis and the area immediately around it. We had heard this from friends who had been there a few years earlier, but it was our feeling as well. On the other hand, the food was decent and the baked goods excellent. One bakery near our hotel had a round thing made with fila dough and something like Romano cheese. It looked suspiciously like a bagel, only it tasted better. I had one nearly every day we were were in town. What will happen now with Greece and the euro seems to be anyone's guess. The few people we have talked to seem to be all over the map as to what should happen. Whatever it is, I fear Greece and especially Athens will remain in the economic doldrums for quite some time.

Our first stop was Syntagma Square to see the government buildings and the changing of the guard.

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The National Archeological Museum was well worth a visit.

Death mask of Agamemnon
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But not surprisingly, it was the Parthenon, now under reconstruction, that we found most interesting. What I didn't know was that the city was sacked by the Persians in 480AD and the Acropolis destroyed. So this is clearly not the first time it is being reconstructed.

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View from the top of Parthenon hill
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Outdoor theater on Parthenon hill
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The Agora, the area around the base of the Parthenon, which has several old buildings and ruins, also provides a look into ancient Greek culture.

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Looking up at Parthenon Hill from the Agora
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After walking around the extensive grounds of the Agora, we had built up a powerful thirst, and stopped to sample the ouzo at this factory in the old city.

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Posted by jonshapiro 13:39 Archived in Greece Tagged buildings tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (2)

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