We rented some form of Suzuki SUV for our 10 days in Crete because we needed something with a higher-than-usual carriage for driving on dirt roads. The Beast did most of that driving, which was often very terrifying. I did the rest, which wasn’t a walk in the park. Crete’s interior is filled with mountains, which means multiple switch backs. I’d like to think I became very good at shifting up and down these hairpin turns. There was one moment, however, when I may have gotten carried away. The Beast told me to veer to the left but instead I veered to the right and yelled “SIXTH GEAR, BABY!” just as I shifted into said gear and burned fucking rubber up the hill. Five minutes later, after I made a U-turn on the hill on a road as wide as a credit card, we had a good laugh about that.
And it’s also a really suitable motto for our three days and four nights in southern Heraklion, which is still fairly untouched by tourism. We really hit our groove, packing our days full of hikes, archaeological sites, caves, churches, and swims. From Chania we drove just over three hours to our the south of Heraklion. The drive alone, through endless olive groves on the slopes of Mount Ida, was breathtaking. We made one pit stop at Eleftherna, a Doric Greek site (900 B.C.) which made it practically new compared to all the Minoan ones (circa 2000-1500 B.C.) They’ve just built an incredible museum to house the archaeological finds. (Again, my favourite sort: only one hour to thoughtfully visit!) The real find here was a Geometric grave that sounds exactly as one described in The Iliad: the funeral pyre of Patrocles including Achilles’ HUMAN SACRIFICE of prisoners of war! Afterwards, we had lunch with a view of the ruins at “Snack Bar Tavern Anatoli”.
Where we stayed
We called the Thalori Mountain retreat home for four nights. I think it is the most beautiful place I’ve ever stayed. We could see the Libyan Sea from our room. One morning, we both woke up and rubbed our eyes like little children on Christmas morning: the sky was on fire as the sun rose. The wind howled every night. We saw more stars than I remember ever seeing before. Every rock looked like it was either from the moon or an ancient artifact, carved perhaps in Linear A. Indeed, nearby there was not only a Minoan cemetery but also a 6,000-year-old village. Thalori was the Beast’s idea. (He discovered it in a random Google search.) It may be the best suggestion he’s ever made. The retreat’s rooms are spread through out the village. It felt like you were walking through people’s backyards to get home. In fact, we probably were.
What we ate
Because it was a little nerve-wracking driving up and down the Asterousia mountain to get to Thalori, we mostly ate breakfast and dinner at the retreat. Luckily, the food was excellent and reasonably priced. There was a lot of lamb, goat, incredible salads, traditional Cretan pies stuffed with mountain herbs, and these stewed broad beans that I can’t stop thinking about. Also, the Beast ate a whole rabbit that was fried up like KFC. Breakfast was included with the room price, so we filled up on boiled eggs, warm bread, yogurt with fresh fruit and honey, a lot of coffee and the best orange juice I’ve ever had. We would need the energy because we maxed shit out. We also had a beautiful meal at the foot of the mountain in Loukia, at a family-run tavern called Vriskoumeno. I would like to get married here, have a big feast, and then we could all stay at Thalori together. The Beast would like to go back for the fried zucchini, which we had again at a little tavern in Sivas.
WHAT WE SAW
DAY 1: Hike to Cave of Agio Antouios + Cove Hunting + Monastery of Ag. Ioannis. There’s a 9 km dirt road from the retreat down to the water. Easy, right? Except it takes 30 minutes to drive because it’s not straight and there are no guard rails. The Beast did an incredible job while I just took pictures of the vista we’d see if we died rolling down the mountain. From the bottom, we started a 3.5 km hike to the cave of Agio Antouios. I still have no idea how these little monasteries were built in the middle of nowhere, let alone how the hermits/monks who inhabited them hundreds of years ago survived. On the way back, we found a beautiful spot, Agodica Beach I believe, for a swim. And before driving back up the terrifying dirt road, we stopped at Agios Ioannis, a small monastery with remarkable 12th century frescoes, that was surrounded by several hermit/monk caves.
DAY 2: Phaistos + Aghia Triada + Agio Giorgios +Museum of Cretan Ethnology + Matala: Phaistos was the seat of King Minos’ brother (Zeus and Europa were their parents.) Like most Minoan sites, it has Neolithic roots, as does the nearby villa of Aghia Triada, which was rich in Minoan finds–some of the best apparently, including the largest find of Linear A. Italian teams excavated them both. At Phaistos, they tore down the Hellenistic houses that were built overtop of the Minoan ruins, which is really mind-blowing when you think about it: those houses would’ve just been 2,30o years old, not, you know, 4,000-3,500 years old. At Aghia Triada, there were zero guards and zero signage. You just sort of wander about, which was kind of fantastic. (Apparently, a lot of important documents connected to this site were lost in the flood of Florence in 1966.) We saw plenty of storage areas with giant amphorae, and a room–similar to one at Knossos–with beautiful gypsum wall panels and what they think would’ve been a toilet. Situated within the ruins was the little church of Agios Giorgios, which was filled with frescoes from 1302. I’m telling you, these Cretan frescoes killed me with their inventiveness and vitality. Next up was the Museum of Cretan Ethnology, which was filled with artifacts illustrating Crete’s more recent way of life. We fell in love with the traditional woven textiles. We ended the day with a swim at Matala beach, which is lined with white cliffs dotted with spectacular rock-cut tombs dating from Roman times. Also, we finally had some gyros.
DAY 3: Odighitria Monastery + Agiofarago Gorge + Gortyn: On our way to hike the Agiofarago Gorge–a short one, culminating in a swim–we happened upon a monastery, quite literally. We stopped for a pee, and then went to investigate this old stone tower. The Beast opened up a door and there was an entire community. There was a service in the church, which appeared to be women only. They sang beautifully. We bought some honey, tea, and salt, and continued on to the gorge, which was a sacred place for hermits who lived in, you guessed it, caves. As the gorge narrows to pretty much just a stream bed, there rises a domed church, Aghios Antonios, built in the 13th century–God only knows how. After our swim, which was restorative and magical and something I wish I could do every day until the day I die, we hiked back to the car and drove to Gortyn. This is mostly a Roman archaeological site, and it’s in complete disarray. It sort of sprawls across two sides of a little highway. We wandered around the entire thing all alone, just before the sun set. It used to be the most important city in Crete until earthquakes destroyed it. But an odeion (for public performances, like concerts and poetry readings) remains, as does a wall of blocks covered in a law code dating to about 500 B.C. and written in Dorian dialect. The entire 640 lines, save for two blocks that are in the Louvre, are still right there. We also saw the tree under which, legend has it, Zeus raped Europe (resulting in the birth to Minos and his siblings). Across the street, there were theatres, temples, and complexes that were just sort of lying there. It was so eery, especially walking over a mound of rubble and seeing a capital sticking out.
If you are at all interested in ancient civilizations, pick up the Blue Guide to Crete. We referenced it every morning while we drank our coffee before setting out for the day. Crete’s history is so rich. And I’m not just talking about the Minoans. Although that alone is enough to fill months of excursions. They had frescoed halls, indoor plumbing, gorgeous pottery and jewellery, which they traded with Egypt, Mesopotamia, Attica, and the Cyclades. Their Linear A–the first alphabet in Europe–is still not deciphered, but it lead to Linear B, which lead to ancient Greek. And then, it all went down in flames, literally. (Many used to think the volcanic eruption in Santorini created a tsunami that destroyed Minoan civilization but that doesn’t hold up anymore.) “The destruction of the New Palace Period (1700-1450 BC) bears the mark of the human agent,” the Blue Guide to Crete says. “Whether it was local or came from overseas (the Mycenaeans are the chief suspects) it is impossible at the moment to tell.”
But the Blue Guide lays out everything–Hellenisitc, Roman, Byzantine, Turkish, Venetian–and so clearly. Plus, we never would’ve gone to all those little frescoed churches if it weren’t for the book.
Also, don’t forget to do a “Minotaur photo shoot”–this is where you wear a raggedy ass pair of underwear to Crete and then rip them off and throw them out so you have one less thing to pack.
What we missed
The fucking Cave of Zeus, for one. There are supposedly two: one where he was born, and the other where he was hidden from pop, crazy, baby-eating Cronus, and raised. The drive looked a little treacherous and our nerves were shot. We also missed the classical archaeological site of Aptera, which is only 45 minutes away from Chania. And a day trip I’d planned, which involved driving to Choria Sfakia and leaving the car, taking a taxi to nearby Aradena to start a two-and-a-half hour hike in the Aradena Gorge and then a swim at the supposedly stunning Marmara Beach, followed by a one-hour hike to the charming Loutro Bay and then a ferry back to Choria Sfakia, was a bit much.
There’s always next time. I know we will be back. I feel like we could go every year and continue to discover secret emerald-and-turquoise-coloured coves, especially if we were on a boat, and wander through ruins that’ve barely made a guide book.
There was one night at Thalori when the Beast was snuggled up in bed and I finished my wine outside. I thought about Aunt Sandy, Russ, and Eric–loved ones who died this year–and I thought about my family, and my dearest friends, and how I wished they could’ve all been with me on the terrace right then, deep in the mountain, the wind whipping the air and the sea below, under the stars. I thought about how many countless others all over the world over thousands of years have been stirred up the same way with a little drink, under Cassiopeia. All those lives.
This is why, I suppose, I came to Crete; to settle my insides a little, so I could hear and see a little more clearly.