Spring Travels: Part I, Crete to Athens – Crete, Athens, Greece, Europe

I left Easter Sunday from the United States to arrive in Crete for the week of pageantry of the Orthodox Easter. As I was to spend five weeks in Greece, I had, before leaving, listened while in my car to CDs of Greek. The language seemed impossible at first, but when I got to the country, my hours of practicing basic phrases were immediately useful.

I stayed the first four days on the Akrotiri Peninsula in a family-run lodging where I was the only guest. The son who spoke basic English picked me up at the airport, but he lived in the next town. The onsite mangers were his parents who spoke only a few words of English. Each morning I studied the phrase and vocabulary book I had fortunately brought with me, and had a chance to practice right away. The mother drove me to her church for a very long Orthodox service, and another evening to two of the monasteries on the peninsula. Along the way, she taught me useful phrases like The goat eats which I’m sure will be a real conversation starter should I ever get back to Greece.

The journey to Crete was 19 hours. When I arrived at the Frankfurt airport, it was only 10:00 p.m. Oregon time, so the changing of planes to Athens, then waiting for the short flight to Hania was through the middle of the night – my body’s time – but through the day here. It was like living two days with no night in between. As we flew towards the landing in Crete, images of thin-waisted goddesses wrapped in snakes mixed with Alan Bates and years of anticipating my first visit.

I could walk to the village of Stavros (where the last scene of Zorba was filmed) to the only restaurant that was open this early in the season. It was fun to learn the foods from the one waiter who spoke English, and practice my Greek with the gracious madame/owner who greeted me each day. When I arrived the first day, I asked for chorta, the wild greens that are gathered each spring. The young girls by the counter looked baffled, but when I said it in a full sentence to the madame, she understood, and with laughter the girls explained to her what they thought I said (who knows what it was!).

I could have enjoyed many more days at Stavros, but moved into the town of Hania to experience Holy Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I jammed into the cathedral and walked in processions through the streets, stayed at an atmospheric guesthouse in the arches of a former monastery. The daughter there brought me a plate of traditional Easter sweets and savories with a red-dyed egg. At midnight on Saturday, bells began as did bands, people kissed one another and passed the light from their candles, which they then carried home through the streets of the town.

During this time, I was reading several books on the goddess. By chance on these days of Inanna's three-day descent to the underworld, it was a reminder that the ritual we observed this weekend goes far back before the time of Christ, through many lands and cultures. The choirs seemed to resonate to ancient Crete and beyond, lamenting and awaiting the goddess's return.

On Orthodox Easter Sunday, I rented a car and drove west of the city to Mistral in Maleme, where I had been invited to join a group for roasted lamb and other traditional foods. Renting the car was an adventure of its own because through the week of backroads, I would have to read signs written only in Greek. I had learned to identify capital letters for the streets in Hania, but the signs to small towns and villages were often in lower case which meant I had to get out my book to decipher if that was a turn I wanted. The car felt like a motorized tin can, but in villages with main streets the width of narrow alleys, I was glad for the small size.

The first night I drove to the west coast village of Falassarna, the next day down the coast, stopping for lunch at Sfinari, to Elafonisi where I waded across the shallow lagoon for a shockingly cold plunge in the sea. I continued on through scenic side roads of olive groves via Sarakina to Paleochora, the southeasternmost point of the European Union. Being on a peninsula jutting into the Sea of Libya, the wind howls all day, but the water is deep blue and gorgeous. I enjoyed not driving for a day as I explored the town and chose a silver bream to be grilled for me while looking out to the waves crashing on the rocky breakwater – one of the best meals and locations of the trip.

The following day I drove east to the White Mountains and the trailhead and overlook of the Samaria Gorge. I continued northward again past Hania to Kalives where I got a room looking right out to Souda Bay – ferries travelled to and fro between Souda, (the port for Hania) and Piraeus, (the port for Athens). I could also look across the bay to the Akrotiri Peninsula where I had arrived at the airport and started my journey in Crete. This Ditrapano Peninsula is very popular with expates, particularly British, there were many developments to house them.

The next day I drove south to the mountain village of Argyroupoli, where a Quebeçoise couple ran an avocado-oil business, and helped tourists in several languages. I found lodging with a widow who ran a small hotel overlooking the valley, with a restaurant on the terrace. I accompanied her to a tiny church the next morning for a service, and afterwards to friends of hers who insisted we come for coffee and a quince spoon-sweet. The day’s drive brought some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip with views of the Kotsifou and Kourtaliotiko Gorges. It also tested my reading of Greek road signs, as I made my way through villages and via Amari to Zaros.

With coffee the next morning, I was surrounded by the scent of orange blossoms on the patio of Hotel Idi. Reluctantly, I turned the car northwest for the last lap of this section of the journey. I took a side loop to visit Moni Arkadi, the monastery where Greeks blew themselves up rather than surrender to the Turks. Throughout my time in Crete, there were reminders of the atrocities of war, both with the Turks and with the Germans during World War II.

It was late afternoon till I arrive at Rethymno. I agreed to three night's lodging in a tiny room with kitchen and bath; it felt like an experience of living in a small RV or trailer – everything needed in a compact space. But the price was good, right in the center of town, and it allowed me to prepare some simple meals in addition to eating at restaurants. I had two full days to explore the Venetian influence of the waterfront (as in Hania), archeological museum (as I had been in Hania, amazed to see cups with handles from 3,000 years ago.), the Fortress, and down streets that could have been in Siena, or even Salamanca.

I woke the roosters the third morning as I walked the deserted streets of Rethymnon to the bus for Iraklion, driving along spectacular views of the sea marred by increasing development. I had to board a high-speed catamaran as the ferry was not running; in two claustrophic hours we were in Santorini, where I walked along the crater rim from Fira to Firostefani. The next morning I took the bus to Oia and walked around the village before another bus back to Fira. I changed my hotel to a better location in the center of town and I celebrated with a late lunch at a restaurant overlooking the caldera. The blinding light of yesterday was today softened by clouds, and made gazing out to sea a more pleasant experience.

The following day I hiked along the crater from Fira past the village of Imerovigli to Skaros Point and stretches of wildflowers, burros and vistas. And in the evening, of course, I did the obligatory sunset watch.

A Blue Star ferry took me the next day to the island of Naxos. After the commercialism and touts of Rethymnon, Hania and Fira, Naxos was a breath of fresh air. I chose to spend eight days there. I caught up in my diary and Greek vocabulary, walked the waterfront in a cold, gusty wind. I met three Taiwanese girls I had traveled with on the ferry to Santorini. A passerby took a photo of us so I could visit Taiwan again. After two days in Naxos, I rented a car to explore the island. I drove along the beaches, inland to the Dimiti Temple, one of the highlights of Naxos. It is impressive from a distance. Walking up the smooth stone path to the marble columns, one can imagine the centuries of participants celebrating the Ancient Mysteries there.

At Halki I tasted kitron liquor made from the leaves of kitron, only available on the island of Naxos. The day was waning as I arrived in Apiranthos where young people were on cell phones and old men were talking to each other. One of the cell phone persons called around for accommodations, I was taken up a hill away from the village to a small complex of rooms looking out to the valley and a Venetian tower on the hillside. It was peaceful with only the sounds of grazing sheep munching a few feet away. We had agreed on breakfast included, but the next morning, it was obvious the owner was new to figuring out what constitutes a breakfast. He served me an excellent cup of coffee, though, and gingerbread biscuits with a hunk of cheese. I set out past emery mines to Flerio to see the Kouros, reminding me of the lying Buddhas of India and Thailand.

I headed for the beaches – lovely Kastraki, then Plaka where I had a brief sunning and chilly dip. I spent the night at a lodging of a wild-looking woman and her daughter who gave me a good price for a room, then charged me a lot for dinner. But it was a good dinner. The setting by the Aegean, watching the sunset, was wonderful.

The next day I checked into the friendly family-run Grotta Hotel with the luxury of a jacuzzi. The breakfast room looked toward the Portara, from 522 BC, the doorway to an ancient Temple to Apollo, never built, but the massive portal is a symbol of Naxos.

I explored parts of the Kastro, toward the castle and other winding streets of the town. Wildflowers and cultivated amaryllis, roses and lilies are profuse here. I went on to Paros, my last island on this trip. Unlike the catamarans, I could stand or sit on any of the several decks and feel the elements. I drove to Lefkes with its views over the valley of central Paros, and on to busy Naousa where I found a hotel on a rocky arm of land poking into the sea.

On the return drive to Parikia, I stayed at the Aegean Villa, co-owned by a professor of business interested in cross-cultural issues in the hospitality industry. We discussed how his Russian and Albanian staff did not get along; he did not mention the one Bulgarian, or that probably the Greeks did not get on with any of them. Everywhere I went in Greece, no matter what the problem, the accused cause was the Albanians.

I went by ferry to Athens a day early in order to visit the Archeological Museum. Because of the Eurovision contest, I had to stay in Pireaus. Walking around the dock, I felt like a Lilliputian looking at the massive ferries swallowing Mack trucks and other semis, one stacked with concrete blocks. It's amazing the size of vehicles and weight that can be loaded onto these lifelines for the islands.

The Archeological Museum was a wonder. I spent six hours there with the progression of sculptural styles, the Cycladic pieces and the marvel of the Akrotiri/Thira room. In the evening I watched the changing of the very-disciplined guard, walked around Kolonaki and Syntagma Square.

The following day I would make the transition from five weeks of independent travel to a tour with forty people. See the next installment for Athens to Zagreb.

See BootsnAll's Greece Travel Guide.

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