Travel Journal – Greece (Crete)

categories: europe travel

Santorini to Heraklion, Crete – May 29

We were taking the fast catamaran to Crete. I was amazed how many people the ferry holds. I would guess around the same as 2-3 wide body jets. Joan and beth sat together and I ended up with a woman and two young ladies from Dallas. The woman, Helen, is a Greek American who now owns and runs a bed and breakfast in Chania. She also runs private tours for small numbers of people (think 2 or 3) all over Greece. She was traveling with her niece and a friend. We had a great chat and she invited us to look her up in Chania when we are there and she would show us the town. I was surprised that she only gives tours for Americans. She has found Americans to be easy to please which surprised me.

We had not been given good reports of Heraklion by a number of people, but after we checked into our hotel we wandered out to get some dinner. Much of the old town is a pedestrian area. The center square was particularly hopping with night life. There was a good band playing and lots of young people out in particular. I wish I could say as much for the band’s lead singer but she was painful to listen to. The city still has old walls and an old port dating from when Venice ruled here. I would say our impression of Heraklion was more positive than I expected.

When we got back to the hotel we watched some TV. We notice that Greek TV seems to have fewer commercial breaks but they seem to be much longer.

Heraklion to Rethymno – May 30

We got up earlier so that we would be ready to go when they dropped off our rental car at 8:30 AM as it seemed unlikely that they would find a space to park. So we had our breakfast at the hotel and were packed and in the lobby. The driver from Caravel did find a space in a semi-legal parking space and we did all the paperwork and then tried to load 3 suitcases in a very small car. We ended up with one in the backseat. Joan and Liz went and got a Starbucks fix (4 euros) from a Starbucks we had walked by the night before. We drove out of town to a gas station and to the ancient ruin of Knosos without incident.

As we got near to Knosos there were a number of men beckoning us into their free parking lot by their shop or tavern, but we kept on driving to the official (and also free) parking at the site.

The entrance fee was 12 euros for us and free for Liz since she is 18 or under. We opted to do a tour for an additional 20 euros (10 per adult). The tour guide was soliciting people for an English tour and we had to wait for her to get 10 adults. We were glad we had done the tour as it was the difference between “look there is a wall” and knowing that 4 different cities were built on this site. The Minoan is the oldest civilization in Europe. Twice this palace was destroyed in earthquakes caused by eruptions on near by Santorini. After the last time the Mycenaeans came in and took over Crete, driving the Minoans into the hills. Much of what is seen in Knosos is reconstruction by the English archeologist Arthur Evans and often is more a tribute to his imagination than to what we really know of the Minoans. Apparently a lot of people come looking for the legendary labyrinth of Knosos, but no such thing exists… sadly. This was the palace of the “double ax” used in Minoan ceremonies, the word for double ax came is the root of labyrinth.

We had some lunch across the street at one of the local cafes. Those cafes are more expensive but we were hungry. I picked up a hat since I have been getting sunburned on my face. Liz, my daughter, says it does complete my tourist look.

We drove around and around trying to get out of town to find the National highway. We would have been better suited to have driven all the way back to the harbor rather than follow the signs that directed us into alleys and then disappeared. We ended up getting out of town as much by dead reckoning and just following random cars as anything else (using the Dirk Gently, a Douglas Adam’s character’s, method).

There were a lot of hills on the beautiful highway from Heraklion to Rethymno. The little rental car we had did not pass many cars on the way but was passed by quite a few. The Crete style of driving means that cars will drive on teh shoulder to let people pass and that people will pass almost anywhere.

We found our hotel in Rethymno fairly easily although the parking on the street confused us as it was obvious that you needed some sort of ticket but it was not clear where to get one. The hotel desk clerk told us to get one from a local news stand. You buy one ticket per hour and then punch out the chads for the correct day, hour and minute. We laid an array of the cards on the dash of the car.

We wandered into the old town which is a wonderful place. It has numerous shops that the ladies enjoyed and picture taking opportunities everywhere for me. We wandered through the streets and alleys and down to the seaside. The city feels both a beach town as well as a historic town. A Venetian fortress looks down on the old town which we will see tomorrow.

We met Goran from Serbia who was one of the people who stand in front of the many restaurants and tries to bring people in (Kamaki – the one who speaks). We talked to him for a while about Crete. He and his wife, who is from the Netherlands, met in Crete. They lived in Netherlands, but that did not work for him, and Serbia, but that did not work for her, and have moved back to Crete.

We found a restaurant with brick oven pizza. Most of the restaurants have sea food and Greek dishes. As much as we like Greek food we do wonder, coming from a region with a great variety of food, why more people don’t differentiate their restaurant by opening a restaurant with a different menu. Some of the restaurants and bars along the sea side part of the old town have more of the look of a living room (including one called the Living Room) than a restaurant.

I checked the internet for email in the lobby of the hotel after we returned and downloaded more podcasts since I have run out.

Rethymno – May 31

We got up and had a very nice breakfast at the hotel. We checked the internet again to see what life is life in the real world.

We probably would not have stayed in Rethymno for an entire additional day if we did not have a hotel room for another night. As much as we love Rethymno, we have seen much of it already. We had yet to see the fortress and the beach so it promised to be a relaxed day.

We walked to the fortress first. It is quite a large fortress but there were no interpretive brochures or signs so if you have not seen something like this you might not know what you are looking at. It reminded me of El Morro in Puerto Rico so I am guessing it is late 1500s in construction until I learn otherwise. The walls are angled in a way that would indicate it was of post gunpowder construction. There was one bastion that had been turned into a theatre and the ladies hung out there while I looked around in more detail.

We stopped for a crepe break from Crepa Land as they were just opening and then walked over to the beach to the right of the marina which looked great. You can rent an umbrella and two chaises for 9 euros. We returned to the hotel for a nap for Liz, a brief one for me and some time with Joan wrestling with the hotel computer to try and print something from an email.

We changed into our suits and returned to the beach. Along the way we bought a beach towel since we had not brought any (4 euros). Somehow when Joan went into the first store to by a towel she came out with Nutella. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

The beach was very nice. It might be my favorite beach in Europe that I have seen. It is a nice sandy beach with warm water. It has very little in the way of waves so it is more of a swimming beach as body surfing would not work. It is a shallow beach so we saw a number of kids. I would guess about one in ten women were topless without regard to age or body type. We had run into our friend Goran again who suggested going further down from the marina where it would be better. We ended up getting 3 chaises and an umbrella for 7 euros. I am guessing that we may have paid less because it was later in the day.

After the beach we cleaned up, checked the Internet again and then returned to the old town for a traditional Greek dinner at one of the restaurants we had seen grilling over a wood fire.

I moved the car from where I had parked it blocks away in a free area to next to the hotel as parking is not enforced on Sundays. I looked some more for s hotel for our last night in London before going to bed.

Rethymno to Chania – June 1

We had breakfast at the hotel again, checked email, finished booking a hotel for London and then called Helen Swanston who I had met on the ferry to Heraklion. She and her family were planning an outing into the mountains to eat at a great Greek restaurant at one of the highest villages. She invited us along and gave us directions to get to her place outside Chania (well to get close to her house as the directions ended with “you are close, pull over and call from there”).

We drove to Chania without incident which is always a relief given the style of driving on Crete where cars will pass you anywhere and you had to drive as far right in the lane as you can both to let people pass and as a survival mechanism against people passing coming the other way. I did not get through on my U.S. iPhone but called Helen from my new UK cell phone and she came and got us. Her bed and breakfast is lovely with great view of the water from the hills on the Akrotiri peninsula. If we did not already have pre-paid reservations we would have gladly stayed there.

Helen drove Joan, Liz and I in one car and her friend Joy followed with Helen’s mother, niece Sarah, and Sarah’s friend Elena. We wound up and up into the white mountains south of Chania. I could have driven the road but was glad to not have to attempt it in a little standard rental car. I was also glad to be able to look at the beautiful scenery. We drove passed orchards of orange trees (most of them are exported to germany) and olives. The hills were also decorated with the pink flowers from Oleander bushes that grow wild. At the highest point of the road in the little town of Zorva. In Zorva we stopped at the Taverna Amelia where Helen had made reservations.

The restaurant is surprisingly large considering that (at least until some new construction finishes) there are maybe 5 houses in Zorva. The restaurant can hold many more as it is popular with the locals for celebrations like baptisms and naming days. We heard stories of baptism parties with 100 people or weddings with 1000 guests. We had a number of appetizers like a sort of zucchini and potatoes au gratin, bread, a greek salad, a cooked butter (more like cheese). The main dinner was boiled lamb and a rice that is traditionally served at weddings. The name of the rice caused some amusement because it translates into English with a name which I will describe as copulating rice. The term Helen used was of more Anglo-Saxon origin and earned her a slap from her friend Joy. We ate from two thirty to five o’clock in a very leisurely European manor.

We drove down the hills through one of the ravines, past more memorials to people who had missed the turns on the windy road with more goats than guard rails.

Helen then also took us to the British war memorial to those who died in the Battle of Crete in 1941 before guiding us back into town directly to our hotel. What a wonderful gift to have such hospitality. There are benefits to talking to your seat mates.

Our hotel in Chania (Hotel Akati) was at 1866 square which is very conveniently located just south of the old town. I was given instructions to drive the wrong way down a one way street to get to the back of the building and down the steep driveway into their parking garage. The staff was very friendly and the room was nice, although we did note with some apprehension that they were doing construction next door.

We walked into the old town and down to the old Venetian harbor. Many of the shops were closed on a Sunday night. We decided to forgo dinner and picked up some Greek cheese dip (we have to find a recipe for this!) and crackers to go with the fresh apricots that Helen had sent with us.

Chania – June 2

We had breakfast at the hotel, checked our email and then went out to explore Chania. This was our last real day of vacation but we are getting ready to go home. We strolled and shopped our way at a leisurely pace. Rethymno may be somewhat more photogenic… or maybe it is just time to go home.

After a light lunch and a rest at the hotel we headed to the beach late in the afternoon. We went to the beach to the West of the old town. It seemed that most of the people at the beach were locals. It was a smaller beach than at Rethymno but also a beautiful sandy, shallow beach. The water was either a little warmer or a little colder depending on which of us you ask. We rented 3 chaises and an umbrella for 7.5 euros and stayed until afternoon changed to evening. A number of men at a restaurant across the street serenaded us with what we assume to be Greek folk songs.

We had a typical Greek dinner in the old town. It seems like you can pick a restaurant completely at random and get a good meal. A Gyro or Souvlaki, a Greek salad and wine cost us around 12 euros. We only needed two of these to feed the 3 of us.

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

4 Responses to “Travel Journal – Greece (Crete)”



Great post!I hope you had great time.And yeah all the commercial breaks are longer comparing with UK



Really detailed post!
Also, Samaria Gorge is a very impressive excursion and the subsequent boat trip to Hora Sfakion in Chania…the next time!



This is the Helen that Chris Christensen refers to in his article. Thank you for the accolades. I totally forgot about our meeting on the boat from Santorini to Crete. A friend who recf tly visited here, saw this and sent it to me. Its been many years since Chris wrote the blog. Crete is still a great place to visit. Come to Swansnest!

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