I can pinpoint the moment my well considered plans for Crete evaporated; it was the wet, foggy morning on the drive to the Samaria Gorge when our bus backed down a precipitously edged hairpin curve to make room for a descending truck. While the bus stayed firmly on the road, my plans to rent a car flew off the cliff. But what’s a trip to Greece without a change in plans? As the experts will tell you, always have a plan B. (I don’t want to put anyone off renting a car in Crete. I saw scads of tourists successfully and fearlessly navigating the Cretan roads. But I was shell shocked by my first exposure to Greek driving, still jet-lagged, coming down with a cold, on my own without someone to reassuringly pat my knee, and afraid of heights with an itinerary that included several mountain roads. Unless 3 or more of these apply to you, you’ll do fine.)
Crete was the first leg of my Greek trip, the leg where I was on my own before being joined by my husband. My first stop was Chania, departure point for that plan-breaking trip to the Samaria Gorge. At first, I didn’t think Chania and I would be friends. Arriving early in May, I expected a sleepy town not yet in full tourist swing. My first thought as I wheeled my suitcase over the cobbled streets was “this is Atlantic City!” (Substitute cobbled streets and grilled octopus for the boardwalk and saltwater taffy.) While I’m sure things get much more hectic later in the season I was surprised to find such a hubbub by the harbour and so many tourists shops, granted mostly classy ones, lining those cobbled streets.
But once my sleep-deprived senses had calmed down a bit, Chania and I made nice. I learned the tourist hot spots to avoid and found quiet lanes and corners. My search for calm was helped by my cosy room at Pension Nora with a small writing corner and a window looking out to the sea. (You can reach the friendly folk at Pension Nora—who speak excellent English—at email@example.com.) Two favourite quiet haunts were the Archaeological Museum, located in a vaulted ceilinged old mansion with a blooming courtyard, and the lovingly restored Etz Hayyim Synagogue. Like me, you may find the friendliest cat in Greece there, curled up on a cushion in the sanctuary. She purred the moment I touched her.
In addition to being a fine city in its own right, Chania provided an excellent base for some carless day trips, having a very user friendly bus station. My first trip was to Vamos (thanks TravelerJan!), a small village with a local cooperative tourist initiative (http://www.vamossa.gr/) that offers cooking lessons, country walks, and the rental of restored Cretan stone houses. I spent over an hour just wandering the village lanes, accompanied by a friendly pooch, before stopping by the tourist agency where a woman at the desk kindly drew me a map for a walk to a nearby monastery. Unfortunately, I somehow missed a turn and never did find the monastery, but wound up on a lovely country path with the Lefka Ori looming in the background. (I fell in love with those rugged mountains.) On my way back to the village I ran headlong into a herd of sheep, the shepherd following, herding them with blasts from his green pickup.
My second trip was to the Samaria Gorge, the stone paths still slick from the morning rain. Still, I saw people making the descent in sandals and flipflops. (I also saw people exiting with scrapes and bandages.) Though it’s a long hike, distance wasn’t the challenge so much as the steep descent and sometimes unsure footing. You need good shoes with a good grip and, if like me you have weak knees, trekking poles or a strong branch. The air was fresh, the water clear, and the path led through pines and over streams to the stark walls of the iron gates. Throw in views of the coast from the ferry and the ascending bus ride over switchbacks overlooking the Libyan Sea, and I returned to Chania exhausted but renewed. While the gorge wasn’t crowded enough on May 8 to turn me off, I don’t think I’d want to make the trek much later in the season. The number of people was already borderline for me, but I prefer to walk in solitude.
My next stop was supposed to be the Amari Valley, but I had to abandon that along with my plans to rent a car. I settled instead on Anopoli, a small village above Chora Sfakion. At Chora Sfakion I transferred from a standard KTEL bus to small mini-van with four local women dressed in black. I was not reassured when the woman on my left crossed herself three times as we drove off. But once again the KTEL driver manoeuvred the roads expertly, and I arrived safely in Anopoli. Anopoli would be few people’s cup of tea. Aside from a bakery and a handful of tavernas and rooms to rent, there are no tourist facilities. There is little to do but walk and watch. But the walks are magnificent and the watching unfolds the rhythm of village life. I woke to a chorus of roosters and fell asleep to guard dogs’ barking echoing off the hills. Everywhere I walked I heard the tinkling of bells, sometimes far off, sometimes by the side of the road, sometimes accompanied by distant bleating. I tasted paxamadia still warm from its second baking and watched the baker make his daily rounds in his van, the local women lining up at the panel doors to pick their bread from baskets. I walked past houses with goat skins stretched across fencing to dry and one old man sitting on a stone by the side of the road singing.
What made all this comfortable for me was my stay at O Platanos (http://www.west-crete.com/platanos/), a small simple hotel above a taverna in the main square. The owner, Eva Kopasis, speaks excellent English and was able to offer advice on walks in the area. And frankly, in such a traditional setting, as a woman travelling alone, I valued her female presence. The only time I felt uncomfortable as a woman alone was as in the taverna on Saturday night. I was having a fairly late dinner and the place was filling up with local men, many in traditional dress. I didn’t feel threatened in anyway, just as if I were invading their male sanctuary. I finished eating, and five minutes later in my room could hear them singing. The next evening, I saw the same men in their high black boots, staffs leaning on the tables, playing cards.
On top of running a basic, but fine hotel, Eva is also an excellent country cook. One day, when I ordered the eggplant pie, she invited me behind the counter to point out which piece I wanted, one from the center or the edge. I stayed longer than originally planned in Anopoli when the ferry to Sougia was cancelled due to rough weather, and seriously considered remaining for the rest of my time in Crete. But I knew I would kick myself if I made it out of Crete without seeing at least one major Minoan site, so it was off to Heraklion and Knossos and Festos, both easily reached by bus.
Heraklion is a grittier city than Chania (at least the old part of Chania), but is not without its assets. I visited Kazantzakis’ tomb, the fortress, and the small museum annex still operating while the bulk of the Archaological Museum is being renovated. Though the collection is small, each piece is a treasure, and I highly recommend a visit. I enjoyed hanging out in El Greco Park watching the local children play and the dogs dig themselves cool dirt beds in the shade. But the main reason for my visit was the Minoan palaces of Knossos, Festos, and Agia Triada. I had debated whether to bother with Knossos, relented, and knowing what I now know could have done without the experience. It was very crowded—someone mentioned 6,000 people—and I had trouble separating Minos’ achievements from Evan’s imagination. Festos, on the other hand, did not disappoint.
The trip began with a lovely two hour bus ride through lush valleys and small villages. Early on, an old woman sat down next to me. I greeted her with “kalimera,” she stroked my shoulder and said something in Greek. “Then Milao Ellinika” (I don't speak Greek)were my next words. She nodded and pointed out the names of the villages we passed through, crossing herself three times each time we passed a church and gently correctly my pronunciation. We parted ways when I boarded the mini-van for Festos. (The transfer was very clearly announced by the driver. This is an easy trip to make on your own.)
My hotelier was rather contemptuous when I said I wanted to visit Festos. “Festos,” he spat, “all you’ll see is rocks.” But what rocks and what a setting! Ringed by mountains and not an imaginative reconstruction in sight, it was my sort of site. After wandering among the rocks at Festos I set out on the 3 km trek to examine the rocks at Agia Triada. The walk, flanked by olive groves, was lovely, but I was glad to accept a ride back from a generous German family. I’m not sure I’d want to make the 6 km total trip in high summer. You couldn’t count on it, but I’d guess chances are fairly high you could hitch a ride at least part of the way. My nerves were jangled after Knossos, but on the bus back from Festos and Agia Triada, my skin blended effortlessly with the air.
That was me and Crete. Thanks to all the great TA contributors who helped me make my plans, both A and B!