Sunday, September 18, 2011

Its all Greek to me

Friends, Grecians, Countrymen lend me your ears, for I have a tale to tell.
My vision of Greece was mainly concocted from films like Clash of the Titans, 300, Hercules, and of course, Jason and the Argonauts! Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Crete and saw no evidence of this fantastical notion.
Given that it's steeped in mythology I did expect to see more of this throughout the island - sadly the only place it was prevalent was in the souvenir shops. The unsuspecting traveller may well make this mistake. Today, Greece is famous for its landmark white buildings with blue domes but these images come almost entirely from Santorini, not Crete, which instead has its own unique charm - an island surrounded by the sea, with inviting beaches, quaint rural towns and villages, olive groves, vast mountains and gorges, what else do you need? So, onwards with our journey...

BALÍ

We left grey Gatwick and arrived in balmy Crete quite late, but on time. Emma (my flatmate) and I picked up the car from the airport and headed west - arriving in Balí at 1.30am yet we quickly got a room and then went out for a drink. I sampled my first Mythos, a Greek lager. It was quite surprising to see when we awoke in the morning that the sea was right opposite our window.

GEORGIOÚPOLI

Continuing our travels west we arrived at Georgioúpoli, which has the quaintest little white chapel - Agios Nikolaos, which sits at the end of a causeway. The chapel itself is not big enough for more than two people at one time but it's a great photo subject. After shooting the chapel from every conceivable angle we went to get lunch.
Later that night we walked along the beach to the town - a good hour's walk away. We had some great Greek food at a taverna in the main square and then maybe a tad too much to drink at another spot on the way back where they were serving cocktails for half price - we had a happy hour or two there, before making our way back along the beach in almost pitch blackness to what we thought was our hotel, only to discover we had walked 2km too far! How drunk were we?!

KALIVES

Next morning/afternoon when I awoke, I sought out coffee for our next leg of the journey then we headed north west to Kalives. We easily found a room, stocked up on supplies and went to see a wonder called Ó Koumos or Stone House. It a bizarre collection of buildings that have been fashioned and faced with small stones and pebbles. Not only that, it's also full of remarkable sculptures. It is the lifetime's work of one man. The site now however is a HUGE taverna, but it's still a great place to seek out - remember to take your camera too as everywhere you look there is something interesting to see.

The town is quaint and interesting with the church standing proud in the centre - here I got to test my camera's ability to shoot in really low light inside the darkened church, and it did me proud :)
I was finding it hard to sleep and kept waking up during the night - maybe it was the unfamiliar sounds or just the heat?!

The next day we headed out to Chania and we found the wonderful bustling indoor marketplace where items on sale ranged from souvenirs to pigs' heads. We then headed down to the harbour and walked along the wall to the huge lighthouse. After spending the rest of the afternoon with a late lunch and a wander through the meandering streets, we watched the sun set over the harbour and then moved on.

ELAFONÍSI

The drive south to Elafonísi was leisurely - not by choice but because the car in front was being driven at a snail's pace. With no room to overtake on the tight bends we just sat behind him and were united in berating his bad driving and ohhhing at the scenery. Once we did arrive at the beach, we found beautiful turquoise water and pink tinged sandy beaches - it looks like it used to be a wonderful hidden spot but now is a tourist trap with coachloads of people turning up around midday. It has little in the way of shade unless you hire a parasol and lounger - quite a booming trade I would imagine. Part of the beach in covered in black rocks and interesting vegetation, while the other part is soft windswept sand, I snapped away at things that caught my eye, while Emma chilled on the beach.

FALÁSARNA

We then had to drive north to reach Falásarna, which has a great viewpoint from where you can watch the sunset in a funky bar but not much else unless you go exploring the ancient part, which we did the following morning. The ruins are still being excavated and as you approach them you come to a HUGE stone throne - we stopped for some silly pictures, before continuing to the site. We looked around and tried to picture what it must have being like in its heyday. A huge chunk taken out of the top of a mountain got my attention and yet seemed to serve no purpose, why would they do that!?

PALAIÓCHORA

Time to head back down south to get to Palaióchora. We searched for a room but many places claimed to be full. I felt this to be a white lie - as it was still early on the weekend but as we were only staying for one night, I think they were holding out for someone taking the whole weekend, but eventually we found somewhere.

We were hoping to go on a dolphin-spotting boat trip, but sadly the boats only run on certain days (needless to say, this wasn't one of them) - although the signage at different shops would have you believe otherwise. So as this wasn't to be, we investigated the back streets and stumbled across a great little veggie restaurant called The Third Eye. It was very boho and the food was delicious (even without meat).

After all the chilling and wandering around I was seeking some real adventure, something like The Samaria Gorge, which is the largest Gorge in Crete at 16km in length and walking it takes around 7 hours to complete. However, given our time constraints, we paid our €2 entrance fee and tackled the second largest - the Imbros Gorge. This gorge is 8km long, at its narrowest point is 2m wide and the rock walls reach up 300m. It took us about 2.5 hours to complete - an easy enough walk with some really impressive WOW moments, very Indiana Jones feeling. The gorge is famous for the 1200 Sfarkian rebels who took full advantage of its rugged terrain to successfully hold off invading Turkish forces. Once we got to the end we shared a taxi back to the top with a Czech couple, one of whom pointed out it could have been done in 2 hours - without a camera - very true.

SPÍLI

Bearing east we set off for Spíli, a gorgeous mountain village with cobbled streets and rustic houses. Its square has an interesting water feature, a fountain with 19 lion heads spurting fresh cold water into it, from which locals (and tourists) fill their water bottles. We found a nice little hotel run by, and called, Heracles.
Heracles is a genuinely sweet man who offered us his expertise of the local area and pointed out landmarks. Not much happens in the evenings, so after an evening meal in a vine-covered taverna, we crashed in the silence of the mountains. Next morning, after a hearty breakfast of Heracles' home made produce - a selection of jams, honey and bread, we followed his advice to do one 'small' hike, which turned out to be quite the challenge but we managed it, only arriving back to check out slightly later than promised. He'd also recommended another local attraction called the St. Antonio Ravine. This ravine is 5km long, but takes about 2 hours to traverse, due to hard terrain, rope bridges and ladders (he didnt mention this part).

At the start of the ravine is the very old St. Antonio cave church. Now let me paint a clear picture - at this point we had ONLY intended to stop off for 10 minutes, we had no water and thus far had followed a very easy well-worn pathway. We now had a choice - turn back or follow the new path - which split into two. A sign in Greek said, something!? So Emma decided we take the path she didn't know the word for - this was to be our undoing. The pathway quickly started to dissolve and the rocks became bigger, but we pressed on. Then came the ropes and still we pressed on. The cobbled-together ladders were an interesting addition and really should have warned us of what lay ahead. The boulders got even larger, the ladders steeper, the rope handrails keeping us from falling off the sides as we crossed chasms more frayed, the gorge deeper and darker but YET we pressed on - foolishly, in retrospect. We eventually got to the end and, scrambled up a hillside, and found a road that (after walking it in blazing sunshine for 15 minutes) turned out to lead literally nowhere, we had to face the painful truth - the only way back was to do the ravine again in reverse! I must admit I was impressed as Emma became quite the intrepid explorer on a par with Lara Croft. Although at one point I thought I may have to leave her behind and seek help, she pushed on, not complaining once. We tried to keep our spirits up and whenever possible soaked our heads in pools of water.

Once we did finally make it out of the gorge, we advised several people who were heading in that the map saying exit led nowhere. We then hit the on-site taverna and downed a well-deserved Coke, a litre of water and a beer each in record time!

ÁGIOS NIKÓLAOS

With only two days left we continued east to the other side of the island and Ágios Nikólaos. We arrived in time for a very late dinner and a final sleep, then we picked up our final souvenirs and checked out the place in daylight. It's OK, but it's a very rich touristy kind of place, with fur shops and jewellers lining the streets. It was funny to watch the waiters spring to life as a cruise-ship of American tourists arrived.

Before heading to the airport, we spent the rest of our last day at Elounda. While there, an off-the-cuff comment led to a conversation which highlighted the economic struggle facing the Greeks. After finishing our meal, I asked the seemingly jovial taverna owner how business had been. He revealed that in the past two years he has had to raise his prices by 250% and yet he takes home five times less due to rising costs, taxes etc. I saw him shed a tear as he donned his large sunglasses and waved goodbye, walking back into his taverna which may well not be there in 2012. I couldn't help feeling for him.

Also something worth seeing (if you have time, sadly we didn't) is SPINALONGA. This is an island that was used from 1903 to 1957 as a Leper Colony.

In General

The beer, Mythos, was very nice, cold, and slipped down all too easily. The food was simple but rich and I made sure I tried many new interesting dishes such as; Tzatziki, Briam, Moussaka, Souvlaki, Stifado, Yemista, Gigantes, Dolmades, Horiatiki, Spanakopita, Saganaki.

Even though we were there towards the end of the season, I still found it too hot to sleep and Emma frequently awoke in the middle of the night to find me by the open fridge trying to cool down.
Mosquitoes were rife and I awoke every morning with more new bites to add to my growing (and itching) collection.

If I had to fault the Cretans on anything it would be their signage. We frequently found ourselves missing turns as the road sign was either not in place, hidden by trees, shot, graffitied over or right on the turn as you passed it.

But I must admit Crete has plenty to offer the traveller and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. A special thanks to Emma for driving (nearly constantly) and having me accompany her and share the adventure together. Please take the time to enjoy the slideshow of our trip :)

 
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