After Athens, we spent 10 days on the island of Crete–the birthplace of Europe’s first civilization. Everyone knows of Knossos, the legendary home of King Minos and the labyrinth that Sir Arthur Evans discovered. We visited the site last year. This year, however, we explored other fine Minoan sites where one can wander without ropes. Also, if I could go back to grad school, I would study Cretan Byzantine frescoes. There are about 800 frescoed churches on the island, most of which are unlocked and off the beaten track. They are also terribly preserved. Still, I was blown away by their imaginative, fresh style. Some dated to the 10th century and showed a level of artistry that, in my mind, rivalled the frescoes of Giotto–the 14th century Italian painter who I was taught set the Proto Renaissance bar.
But let’s get down to brass tacks. We spent six days in the region of Chania (western Crete) and four in southern Heraklion (eastern Crete).
This post, Part II, will tackle Chania in two subsections: The old town, and our time at our airbnb in Rokka, a tiny hilltop town from which we made many extraordinary excursions. (Read Part III here.)
SUBSECTION A: OLD CHANIA
Where we stayed
The Alcanea Boutique Hotel, which was a perfect location for exploring the historical centre on foot. Our room had a terrace with a view of the Venetian lighthouse in the harbour and Eleni (Helen) was such a wonderful, gracious host to us. Breakfast, which we ate every morning at the hotel’s cafe while we planned our days, was included.
Where we ate
We had our second-best meal of the entire trip at Tamam, a very popular restaurant that’s situated in what was once a Turkish bath. The grilled octopus on puréed fava beans is a dish I have not stopped thinking about. The Beast had roasted goat and potatoes and I had lamb stew in a red wine and tomato sauce.
What we saw
The Archaeological Museum in Chania is my favourite kind: a small collection that can be seen in an hour! There were beautiful floor mosaics and many Minoan artifacts (some of their pottery looked like it was made yesterday.)
We also visited the Maritime Museum, which was right beside our hotel. It felt like Wes Anderson was the curator. More importantly, I’m really into sea shit and this place made me so happy: there were fantastic diagrams showing the evolution of sea travel–from the Minoans to the present day. There was an actual man building to-scale reproductions of ships (It takes him and his colleague five years to make two of them.) It also helpfully laid out the periods of foreign occupations of Crete, starting with the Romans in 146 B.C., followed by Byzantine rule, then the Arab Occupation until 961 A.D., the second Byzantine period until 1204, the Venetian period until 1669, the Turkish occupation until 1898, and then Greek. Cretans rebelled at every turn. In 1913, Crete officially entered the folds of the Kingdom of Greece. And then between 1941-45, Crete was occupied by Germany. (Hitler thought of the island as a great home base for Mediterranean attacks against the British.) Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders fought beside Cretans. Some Cretans joke that there’s now a second period of German occupation in the way of tourists. I’d reckon 90 per cent of the tourists come from Germany. Oh, we also saw a marvellous Cretan wedding dress made during the war from the silk cords of a German parachute.
We also made an excursion to the Akrotiri Penisnsula where we made the one-hour hike to see the ruins of the Katholiko monastery, which may be the oldest on Crete. On the way is the cave of Panaghia Arkoudiotissa, which used to be a cult centre of Artemis and later, the Virgin. But let me tell you: Katholiko was a magical and awe-inspiring (in the true sense of that word) place. There were other tourists who made the hike but it felt like we were wandering the abandoned ruins (they moved the monastery further inland in the 15th century on account of pirate attacks) by ourselves. The best part is that if you hike another 15 minutes or so, there is a little cove where you can go for a swim.
If you find yourself in this part of Crete, you must do the hike to Katholiko and have the swim. It may have been my favourite swim of the whole trip. Word to the wise, before you start the hike, there is a sign from the monks that says you should not swim. But we, and a few others, were very respectful and come on, how could you not ?
SUBSECTION B: ROKKA and the province of Chania
About a 15-minute drive off of Crete’s main highway, through olive groves perched on hills, we found our airbnb home in the tiny town of Rokka. It would be the perfect spot for daily excursions. I didn’t remember the listing mentioning anything about the nearby ruins–literally, in the backyard, along with many goats–or the entrance to the Rokka gorge, in the front. What sold me was the sprawling terrace from which we star-gazed and sipped tsikoudia at night and read and sipped coffee, with a chorus of roosters, dogs and goat bells, in the morning.
What we ate
We had a great meal at “Fish Tavern 1960” in Kissamos right on the water, quite literally. And we returned to the wonderful (and again, deserted) taverna at the far western end of Falassarna Beach. And another in a family-run taverna in Kotsiana, two villages away from Rokka, called Kafeneio Mezedopoleio Eilikrineia. But the best meal–and I’m talking about the entire trip–was when our Airbnb host invited us for dinner with his family, most of whom didn’t speak any English, on our last night in Crete. His mother, Constantina, made what is usually prepared for a traditional Cretan wedding: boiled chicken, rice made with chicken broth and staka, which is a Cretan sour butter (or maybe something that lies between yoghurt and cheese?) made from goat’s milk, roasted lamb, the best potatoes I’ve ever had, salads, olives, traditional Cretan pastries stuffed with herbs and cheese, wine, and sweets. It was a beautiful evening, with a lot of hand gestures while we talked about our respective nations’ economies and leaders, and family. Our host’s home had apartments added on for brothers, sisters, and grandmothers. They all lived together. Their neighbours also came. Fourteen-year-old Katerina, who helped translate, stole our hearts.
WHAT WE SAW
DAY 1: Rokka Gorge, Archaeological Museum of Kissamos, Falassarnia archaeological site and beach: We hadn’t planned on entering this gorge until we saw a sign that said “GORGE ENTRANCE” and we were like “Uh, yeah.” We didn’t do the entire thing because apparently the most beautiful stuff was the kilometre stretch closest to us. Plus we were becoming experts now and if there is no swim at the end of a gorge/hike, then what is the point? From there, we drove into Kissamos to visit the charming archaeological museum where we saw more Minoan artifacts, late Roman mosaics, and some really astonishing copies of Hellenistic marbles. Then we made the short drive to Falassarna, which was one of the most important city states in Hellenistic Crete thanks to its harbour, although it’d been occupied since Minoan times. It was reduced to rubble when the Romans attacked in 69 BC. The site, like so many we visited, was free to wander about with little-to-no signage. This exploration style grew on us because it required us to fill in the blanks, so to speak. One never felt overwhelmed with information. Instead, our heads explored just as much as our feet. Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves–as we did most days–with a swim. Falassarna has one of the prettiest beaches on Crete. We found a smaller beach, literally called “Small Beach” where for a few euros we settled into chairs. A small British boy who was yelling at his mother while he jumped off a rock to take his photo was a real treat, mostly because it wasn’t someone yelling in German. I am still perplexed about yelling on beaches. What is there to talk about at such great volume? When the mother told the boy to cool his jets, he said: “BUT YOU TOLD ME TO MAKE THE MOST OF MY TIME HERE!”
DAY 2: Sanctuary of Diktynna, Menies Beach, and three little churches: This was a drive that we started last year but we had to turn back because our rental car was so shitty. This year, we made it to the Sanctuary of Diktynna, which in Roman times was the most prestigious on the island. It was a pretty scary drive along a dirt road–where flashes of the ancient Roman road sometimes appeared. We were white-knuckled once we reached the ruins. Unfortunately, not much remains of the temple, made from white and blue marble around the reign of Hadrian, that was perched high up above the sea. Diktynna might have evolved from the Minoan mother goddess. She morphed into a local version of Artemis, goddess of nature and fucking awesomeness, essentially. She was venerated elsewhere in mainland Greece but this temple was considered the most important. The Germans excavated it during WWII but it had already been pretty badly looted. They did, however, find a marble head of Hadrian, which is now in Chania’s archaeological museum. I walked around in a daze, but seeing the Beast almost toe-to-toe with some wild donkey woke me up. That donkey was grunting at him. I grabbed a stick to protect him. Luckily the donkey sauntered away and we continued connecting with the goddess, imagining how incredible that temple, shining in the sunlight high above the sea, must’ve been. Then we had a swim at Menies beach below. There were two other couples there. When they left, we took off our bathing suits and swam. The feeling of the sun on my skin as we dried off on the pebbles is one I will not forget anytime soon. We also visited three churches on the way home: Panaghia, in the woods just outside Spilia, with 14th century frescoes (we had trouble finding it but a man trimming olive tree branches who looked just like Heracles, helped direct us), Aghios Stephanos with 10th century frescoes of faces that’ve stayed with me, and the Archangel Michael church on the way to Episicopi. My god! It was closed but it may have been one of the earliest churches on Crete! It was built overtop of some Roman ruins from the looks of it. Inside, we could see evidence of a the 6th century mosaic floor, and ancient Doric capitals were just sort of strewn about in the yard.
DAY 3: Elafonisi Beach and some churches and that damn cave.
Next to Balos Beach, which we visited last year, Elafonisi is Crete’s most popular. I can’t imagine how busy it must be in July and August. It was relatively quiet when we visited but still, it felt crowded. I suppose we’d been spoiled with a our secret and magical and naked cove swims, so this just felt, well, loud and crowded. Moving on, before our swim, we made several pit stops at churches and caves. Our guide book would say, “The key to church X is in a house nearby.” Some times we found the key, other times we did not. The Aghia Sophia cave, occupied since Neolithic times, had incredible stalagmites inside. All the signs along the road said “FREE” but when you climbed the 277 steps there was a woman, who looked like a witch, charging everyone two euros. “But all dee signs said free,” German tourists, who’d left their wallets in the car, pleaded. “Two euros,” the witch said. There were a million pigeons in the cave so I just took photos of the Beast. There were two churches in Kefali and two more in the village of Vathi. But we only retrieved the key for one–Aghios Giorgios–at a bar in town.
Create and download offline Google maps before this trip, or any trip. It is the most amazing thing in the world. Basically, you select part of a map area, save it,and then you can access it without using any data or wifi! This is how we got around Crete: one person driving, and the other navigating. Google maps only messed up once, during our drive to the Sanctuary of Diktynna.
Also, don’t forget to do a goddess photo shoot in among the ruins, just as the sun rises above the mountain tops. And don’t forget to forget to wear underwear.