Thursday, 20 September 2018

Cruising around Crete

So, earlier this year, I had the not unenviable task of going on a Greek adventure for our wedding anniversary. Amazingly, considering all my many European adventures I had never ventured to Greece before.  So, the big question was, 'Where do we visit? This was Springtime and I had visions of white buildings with blue shutters and glorious blossoms. We did, though, also want heat and to find somewhere away from the major tourist areas. Following a process of elimination, we quickly settled on Crete. Not only is this the largest of the Greek Islands it is also the most Southern (any further and you reach Northern Africa!) so we were almost guaranteed lovely weather.     

After a champagne soaked flight (mostly for me ... hubby was designated driver!) we touched down in Heraklion. We had booked a car (pretty much essential for getting around) and drove to our destination of Rethymno, one of the largest towns on the island. We stayed in a delightfully pretty boutique style hotel in the hills which we had arranged through 'booking.com' (yes, I know, I'm addicted to the website) at Calergi Residence. As it turned out, I had made an absolutely fabulous choice, if I do say so myself.  On arrival, we were rewarded with a delicious and mercifully refreshing, cold Greek beer (Mythos is king). We pinched ourselves as it was hard to believe that only a few short hours ago we were leaving chilly Manchester and were now dipping our toes in the hotel’s plunge pool whilst watching the Cretan sun disappear beyond the mountains. Our apartment was comfy and super cute with a large double bed with luxurious bedding and an unbelievable shower room. Luckily, we had a balcony and as it was upstairs/downstairs it really had a sense of space. Breakfast was served at a reasonable hour, which meant we could enjoy a leisurely lie- in and treats included freshly baked pastries, hams, cheeses and the best local yoghurt and honey. This really set us you up for a day of exploring Greek churches, Venetian harbours, outstanding beaches or just having a lazy day by the pool with a good book.  

Location wise, this was fabulous ... away from the hustle and bustle of the town but with facilities on the doorstep; a supermarket for cheap local plonk, a great cocktail bar playing international sports, several gyros places and a pizza joint. But the best place was a local restaurant, just a stone’s throw from the property which came highly recommended. I don’t even think it had a name but there was no way you could fail to recognise it due to its red neon lights glowing garishly from inside.  Interestingly, there is no menu  ...  whatever is fresh that day is brought to your table and only stops coming when you finally say, 'no'. The food was not only a revelation but unbelievably cheap. Homemade Cretan cheese drizzled with local pressed olive oil and smashed sweet tomatoes, large and tangy Greek salads, these green, spiral vegetable things (no idea what they were ... never seen them before, straight out of the owners garden) simply blanched then spritzed with lemons and the piece da la resistance, the fresh lamb, served with just a hint of garlic and rosemary which did not distract from the succulent sweet taste. The owner also made his own wine, drank in mini tumblers, a dry white but with a punchy apricot after taste which balanced perfectly with all our dishes, naturally served in a carafe. Typical of the area, a complementary half bottle of Ouzo was also placed on our table at the end of the meal ... it seemed churlish not to partake! All of this,  plus several other tasty little 'amuse bouches', came to the grand sum of 28 euros. I would walk back on broken glass for some more of that night’s food.  

I’m digressing again! Damm food! Rethmyno is an interesting town with its own mini Venetian harbour that’s been left to slightly crumble. I like it like that, elegantly wasted and faded but still breathtakingly beautiful. There is also a cool fortress/castle overlooking the city, which is great for getting that all-important view. It is also a mixture of old and new with lots of modern type bars and restaurants which cater to tourists and the local university population. If you want to island hop around Greece, you can also take a ferry to Santorini from here or just a day trip, which is a much much cheaper alternative. Alongside the harbour there are bars and restaurants and palm trees galore and this side of the city was very tourist friendly with greeters outside cheerfully touting for custom. The prices, of course, reflect this but just venture inside the city walls and you will discover a different world entirely. The old town had my jaw dropping and I was mesmerised by its natural beauty, with every side street a new and exciting experience with pretty pastel shades and quirky independent shops selling various trinkets and accessories. One such street had waves of rose petals landing on the pavement and were photographic gold as they lingered mid-air, drifting in the breeze. Getting lost in these streets was a dream, every new corner was a delight and we joyfully had a delightful lunch in a locally run family taverna that grilled the freshest of fish. We sat and admired the elegance of the crumbled buildings, wondering if the plants and various greenery growing up the walls was the only thing holding them together.  

If you want to stay close to Rethymnon but want a quieter break, head on a few miles down the coast to Georgioupolis. There you will find enough facilities to not get hungry or bored and the crystal-clear waters lap at your feet as you can dine, overlooking the ocean. Maybe take the rocky causeway to one of the most photographed churches in Crete, Agios Nikolaos. It’s a heavenly little resort and on this particular day we had the beach virtually all to ourselves. It was truly magical experience, sipping ice-cold mythos (I simply love it when they freeze the glasses) and eating the finest of Cretan food.  

The icing on the cake for our week’s jolly was to another of Crete’s larger towns, Chania (pronounced without the C). This place just blew my already blown mind. It had a mixture of all the European places I’ve loved or wish to visit but yet still utterly unique and charming. You just can’t quite put your finger on it. As you enter the harbour your senses are assaulted and you think, 'Have I been here before'? Venice maybe? St Tropez? Similarities perhaps but still undeniably and delightfully Greek. The buildings along the harbour are of a natural golden tan, which makes the colours of the shutters give off such a vibrant and exotic hue... not entirely dissimilar to a scene from a spaghetti western. This is the Greece I wanted and needed! Boats drift in and out, bringing the freshest catches of the day. People line the streets and sit underneath canopies and dine at tables bedecked with those cliché blue and white cheesecloth table placements, drinking from carafes of local vino. This town is not pastel and washed out; it's every neon-bright shade imaginable ..... turquoise, emerald green, high intensity yellow and blood-curdling red. The old town here was repeatedly another photograph, another memory, another taste.  I mopped up the most delicious lamb cutlets (drizzled in the sweetest Cretan honey) with locally chargrilled bread, matched with bone-dry white wine which was produced just a few miles away. Heaven is a place on earth. To come back to Crete and not visit Chania would be a crime. I urge you all to visit, it really is a jewel in the Mediterranean.  

                                                 
                                                                                  Those Greek Blossoms



          Taverna Style Dining in Rethymno 


                                                                               Calergi Residence



                                                                                 The local place! 



                      Georgioupolis! See the Church along the causeway



                                                                                         Chania! 


                                                                                Plakias



                                                                           Rethymno Old Town 



Only a few more miles further, on the West Coast of Crete, are two of the finest beaches in not only Greece but the world; these being Elafonisi and Balos ... we chose the latter. This is where your car will prove invaluable, if not an absolute necessity. To get to Balos you have a half hour drive up a steep, mountain dirt road with no safety barriers and Greek drivers hurtling past with no sense of valuing human life, in a typically macho way. But trust me on this one, should your life be spared, the fear will have subsided, you’ll forget how long it took to get there, how tired your legs are from the earlier walking, as you park up and make your way over the scorched scrubland to see the lagoon below. It’s something you aren’t quite prepared for!  It is just a ‘wow’ moment!. You will have earned the view and you need to simply drink it all in. A patch of milky white sand, surrounded by jewel sparkled waters will leave you stunned with its natural and awe-inspiring beauty. Nothing I have ever seen compared to this glorious vista. Arrive at Golden hour for an even more spectacular view.  

There are, indeed, so many different beach resorts to try in Crete. One day, we headed south, straight down the middle of the island to a resort called Plakias, which is surrounded by lush green mountains and the Libyan Sea. Getting to this town requires an epic drive through a gorge, churches seemingly carved into the rock face and lush green valleys below. I wasn’t quite prepared for how mountainous the island of Crete was but it only adds to its mystery and beauty and I can imagine it would provide an amazing holiday for ramblers and hikers.  

Plakias has a young and hippy vibe, the hostel here is famous for being the most southern in Europe, so the town has a unique boho atmosphere. There are cute beach front restaurants and a stretch of golden sand that’s perfect for sunbathing and even in early April the waters were still warm enough for a swim. I heard they have an International Tourist Day in September, where there are free buffets and traditional dancing and the fun doesn’t stop till the early hours.  

                                                                           
                                                                       Beach to ourselves at Georgioupolis 


                                                                     Up the hill to Balos 


                                                                                 Chania harbour


                                                                                          Outside our Apartment 



                                                                         Rethymnon Beachfront




                                                                                Cafe Viva Rethymnon 










                                                                             Chania harbour....again! 








                                                                                     BALOS!












Crete is a large island and I found our exploration of the south and western sides of the island to be almost other worldly. I have yet to explore the eastern side of Crete, where famous resorts such as Elounda and Agios Nikolaos look just as picture perfect. It would be hard to visit Crete again and not visit Chania though. Have you visited Crete or the Eastern side? What were your thoughts? Any must do’s?  
One thing I would go back for……the food. It’s always got to be the food. 

We flew to Crete with Thomas Cook flights for both of us plus luggage were around £400
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