Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Goodbye beautiful Greece

When we were leaving our little hotel the last morning, we paused on the way to the car to take one more sun-dappled selfie. We've never taken so many photos of ourselves together, and they were nearly all (at least the ones on Crete) in dappled light. It was a poignant and sad moment for me, and when I look at the photo I know that my heart was tugging and there were tears right underneath:

cars keys in my hand, arm around Marc's shoulders, melancholy under my smile
I really loved our vacation. Ever since we went to India, expecting to love it with all our hearts but instead hating most of the moments (except for Varanasi), when we approach a vacation I'm a little anxious. Will I love it, as I think I will? Will it be all I hope? Will I find that I actually love it even more, will I find a new place in the world to add to my growing list of favorites? Will I find yet another place that feels like home? Gosh I hope so, at least to some subset of those questions. I expected to love Greece because of my affinity for Homer, my connection to those old stories, my girlhood fascination with the ancient civilizations, my college study of the art . . . and yeah, the food. For the first few days I feel a kind of tentative watchfulness, which was extended on this trip since we started in Paris for a couple of days. I knew already that I love Paris, and was so excited to share it with Marc. But Greece? Would I love it too?

OH YES I love it. I love Greece so much. The people were almost all very warm and friendly and welcoming. Funny, often. Generous. Large in spirit. The food was mostly wonderful, though not as uniformly great as it seemed at first, but that's OK. When it was good it was spectacular. But it was the beauty of the place that shocked me, took me aback. It was so much more beautiful than I'd expected. Oh, I knew to expect beautiful sunsets on Santorini, that wasn't a surprise. And they were beautiful. I guess I had a very wrong idea about Crete. I'd thought it was mostly crumbly mountain and rock. I didn't realize it would be so green, I didn't realize that the mountains meant there would be deep gorges and valleys. I didn't realize that there would be such a wealth of flowers, that the homes would be draped and dripping in color and flowers, that there would be vast orange groves. I thought it was only in movies that I'd see so many sheep and goats, but it wasn't at all uncommon to hear a chorus of clanking bells in the air and we'd know that a flock of sheep or goats was nearby. I didn't know the air would smell so thick of oregano, thyme, rosemary. Just wild.

I didn't know the glory of the taverna, that every little village has at least one, sometimes more. I didn't know that old Greek men really do sit at the tavernas throughout the day, drinking coffee and talking. I didn't know that the old Greek women really do mostly wear black.

I didn't know that driving would be like being in a crazy video game, left right hairpin no road hairpin hairpin hairpin left right left left right hairpin no road coast coast first gear hairpin. I didn't know that, and it's one of my most fun memories.

Ordinarily we go to SEAsia, where it's quite cheap to visit, to eat magnificently, to stay. Greece certainly wasn't cheap. Their economy is in terrible trouble, and the prices were quite high. When we visited markets we were shocked by the prices; how do ordinary Greeks in villages afford to buy that food? And then too it's Europe, the euro, a regular tourist destination. All this together means we probably won't return to Greece; no matter how much we loved it -- and we did -- we love SEAsia more, it's more economical, and it's less touristy. There is only so much time, only so much money, and we're getting older, running out of travel time. It really made me ache to drive away, knowing I'd never come back. And it makes me ache now, writing this. My eyes are filled with tears, and I feel a deep sorrow never to see it again. I get Odysseus's longing.

We did eat some very good food -- Greek salads for lunch most days (with a Mythos beer for me) and lots of different stuff for dinner. Octopus, squid, lamb, souvlaki, chicken, cheese.

Created with flickr slideshow.

We saw a lot of beautiful doors in Crete:

Created with flickr slideshow.

We spent lots of hours in tavernas, and at the edge of rivers and seas, watching sunsets, driving around, and just being. Greece made all that so easy and inviting.

Created with flickr slideshow.

I don't mean to shortchange our couple of days in Paris, which were beautiful. We had the most perfect weather, and a wonderful time there. Athens was a great surprise to us both, as was Heraklion. But when I think of Greece, for me it will be Crete. We adored it all, and loved Santorini's just that I left a good-sized piece of my heart in Crete, and I won't get a chance to go back and retrieve it. But when I re-read The Odyssey, as I do pretty regularly, it will be alive in me in a whole new way. Usually I buy a pair of earrings in each place we visit, but this time I bought a Greek version of The Odyssey, written in ancient Greek. That was the best souvenir I could have, besides the beautiful memories and our photographs.

αντίο, Greece. xo

our last days on Crete

I'm writing this post back in New York City, three days after getting home, so it's a ramble catch-up of the last few days we were in Crete. We were staying at a lovely little hotel comprising a series of cottages on the slopes of a mountain, a B&B kind of deal, in a pretty small village. Every morning we started with breakfast at the hotel, then we went on our driving mission for the day, and returned to the village for dinner. Zaros is centrally located -- both east/west and north/south -- so we were able to head north towards Heraklion to see the Palace at Knossos, and southwest toward the beaches and Phaestos to see King Minos's summer palace.

our little cottage -- Eleonas Cottages

the area around the 'hotel'

I like a mountain view

the hotel had a pool, but we never swam

really beautiful area

each fireplace had this kind of weathervane

boy do I miss the view. BOO. Miss it so much.
One of my favorite things about our vacations is breakfast. It's my favorite meal to eat out, anywhere any time, and since we usually stay in small little specialty hotels/B&Bs, their breakfasts are usually local and sumptuous. From the moment we thought about this trip, I'd been looking forward to daily breakfasts similar to the ones we had in Turkey, which featured Greek yogurt and honey, various olives and tomatoes and cucumbers, spears of feta sprinkled with herbs and pepper or marinated, and small pastries. I imagined I would gorge on Greek yogurt every single morning, mounds and mounds of it, without shame. Who cares, I won't see those people ever again and if they point and laugh at the giant scarfing bowl after bowl of yogurt, it won't bother me. What happened, though, was the opposite! Unlike all our other vacations, breakfast was not served by our hotels . . . or if it was, it was incredibly crappy. Sweaty thin slices of beady ham and blobby (and surely tasteless) cheese, plain sticks of feta, a basket of horrible looking croissants. In Paris we found a little cafe that served a beautiful brunch, of course, but the rest of our time in Greece I was out of breakfast luck. Until Chania and Zaros. At Chania, the two women running the B&B prepared these giant feasts that were a full day's eating, and only on the second day was yogurt even available (but I'm not complaining, those were magnificent breakfasts). In Zaros the possibilities were similar to those we got in Turkey, except the feta was just plain. Each morning I spooned an enormous mound of yogurt on a plate and draped it in honey, and picked a selection of small Greek pastries. Not a fan of dairy, Marc chose tomatoes and cucumbers and pastries. Cups of coffee and glasses of fresh orange juice. A gorgeous terrace surrounded by fuchsia boughs of bougainvillea and wild herb-scented air, filtered sunlight, just wonderful.

One day our trip was to Knossos, to see the remains of the famous Palace. I'd been dazzled by this place since I was a young girl, like so many reading kids. The minotaur in the labyrinth, Ariadne and her ball of yarn, Theseus . . . and then the frescoes uncovered by Sir Arthur Evans, dazzling images of beautiful dancing people, huge-chested bulls and men flipping over them, ooh la la. Since my book club had just read the story of the decoding of the Linear B script discovered on the tablets at Knossos, I felt perfectly ready to visit the site. I worried about Famous Ruins Overload (FRO), coming on the heels of our visit to the Acropolis in Athens and the ruins at Akrotiri, but it was fine. The site itself wasn't nearly as dazzling as I wondered about, and I don't think that's just due to FRO. The Acropolis is magnificent in scale and position, on the heights overlooking Athens. Akrotiri was interesting because it was enclosed by a really lovely building. Knossos was a site of partly restored ruins without the images of the frescoes that had been removed, and if I hadn't had such a full imagination and store of knowledge about it, I might not have been so impressed. (In other words, if I'd been Marc, who was a very good sport about it anyway.)

the paint colors are based on the frescoes, but who knows if those columns were really red!

Very fancy -- a NEOLITHIC palace, don't forget.
That's the palace behind me (or is it the King's quarters, can't remember). Anyway. Happy happy to be there.

isn't that just so happy-making and delightful?

OK, so THAT is the King's quarters. Without a doubt.

that's a dancing bull, a recreation of one of the frescoes that were removed to Athens for safekeeping

the throne room in the palace. LOVE the murals

giant jars -- pithoi is the word for them

goodhearted Marc taking lots of pictures for me

another recreation of the frescoes they discovered. what magnificent rooms!

stylized horns; they did love the bull. Strangely, Marc and I didn't see a single bull anywhere,
nor a cow of any kind. I guess there used to be lots of bulls and cows on Crete....

more pithoi, really beautiful

fresco recreation, so organic and beautiful
ladies with dark hair and streaks of color (pearls in their case, dye in mine!)

Another day we drove to Matala, one of Crete's well-known beaches that saw its heyday pass in the late 1960s. It was far too windy and cold even to consider walking in the surf, but oh my it was gorgeous. The water looked like perfect stripes of different blues. Overlooking the beach was a cliff filled with caves that had originally been used as a Roman cemetery. Apparently in the 1960s, the caves were overtaken by hippies who lived in them until they were all banished. Now, for a fee, you can climb stairs to the caves. We stood on the windy ground and shot photographs from a distance.

it is gorgeous, like a postcard!

caves / burial grounds / hippie headquarter

we stopped at the weekly market in Mires just to see what was what -- Manolis described it as a great market

a bit of fresh fish, even though Mires is far inland

your one-stop rabbit headquarters! live ones in front, dead/skinned/ready to cook in the case on the left!

I'd been wondering where all the old black-robed ladies got their black clothing. Here! The Black Outfit Booth!
On the way back, we stopped in Phaestos to see those ruins, but decided to stand on the overlook and just take some photos from there. I think we were both kind of on FRO. I know I was, and I'm into that kind of thing!

a nice place for a summer palace, if you ask me

silos or wells to the right -- some kind of circular structure. storage, maybe.

click to enlarge, to read about the site at Phaestos

On the way there, a huge flock of sheep suddenly came around the bend. I stopped the car and we gaped,
grinning. A young man and a young boy were walking with them, and they seemed amused
by our wonder. Just another day with the sheep for them.

These guys bringing up the rear were hopping and bounding. I love this picture, no feet are touching the ground!
Near our hotel, walking distance, was a beautiful little lake filled with trout, at the foot of a gorge. We went to the little lake very early one evening, after dinner, just when the sun was starting to hit the tops of trees. It was utterly beautiful. We returned the next night to eat at the restaurant on the lake and were the only customers. Manolis, the owner of our sweet little hotel, talked to Marc about the dreadful Greek economy and how he is not going to be able to keep his hotel open during the winter because he can't afford it, given the smaller number of tourists, so the empty restaurant felt like a sad omen. We were the only guests and since someone was painting all the tables and chairs, it didn't seem like they were expecting the tables to be used the rest of the evening.


empty tables, lakeside

oh -- this is the ROAD driving out of our hotel. I always had a moment of
wondering if I'd somehow gotten off track or something.

the really beautiful trout-filled lake

When it was time to leave, Sunday morning, I anticipated a difficult day for a whole bunch of reasons but I had no real idea of what would come. We got our breakfast, one last Greek yogurt mound for the road, and made our way to Heraklion. We'd had such trouble getting the car and anticipated that we might have similar trouble returning it, but that part was a piece of cake. Once we got inside the airport, though, OH. MY. GOD. I've been in every kind of airport you can imagine, in lots and lots of big and small, industrialized and not countries. The Heraklion airport is the worst I've ever tried to navigate. When we walked through the doors the entire space was packed with people and it wasn't at all clear where we had to go. I stayed with the luggage and Marc went to scout it out and we had to drag our suitcases through that densely crowded room (with absolutely no empty space, each step was a fight) into another densely crowded room and conflicting information from everyone about where to go next. We finally got checked in and received our boarding passes and found the gate, which was another terrible zoo. Packed room, few chairs, standing crowds, lots and lots of German being spoken all around us -- made sense, we were flying on Air Berlin -- and little to no information. That whole scene was a nightmare for me. It was like we'd been sitting in a beautiful room, at a table filled with pleasure, and when the last dish was served it was a little bowl of shit, but we had to eat it to leave the table. UGH.

But we got home, obviously, through Dusseldorf and JFK and customs/immigration and parking and finding a parking spot, lots of hours there to here. I'll say more and wind it up in the final post on this blog, trying to draw some conclusions. Boy do I miss Greece.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Chania and mountain roads

It's so funny, the question of connectivity on vacation. I remember once sitting in an upstairs open-air lounge overlooking the South China Sea in a small little village in Vietnam being fully online -- and fast, too. I remember sitting in a cafe in a little village at the base of Macchu Picchu, looking out the window at a giant statue of an Incan warrior and listening to pulsing house music and being on superfast internet. A little place we regularly go to in the lower Catskills? No internet connection available. And here in Greece--EUROPE--inconsistent access to the internet. It's been a few days since I was able to post, so this will be a picture-heavy catchup.

In the last post we were in Rethymno, always referred to as one of Crete's most picturesque cities. It is, I suppose; the harbor is pretty, the Venetian stuff left hanging around is pretty, but it's a packed-in tight tourist center. Stall after shop after cafe after store packed with tourists, and selling touristy souvenirs. This continues to be disorienting to us because we rarely go places like this. We're usually the only people around who look like us. In Rethymno, we very much enjoyed the beautiful place we stayed, and we enjoyed driving around in the countryside south of Rethymno, but the city itself not so much.

here's our little Crete car -- we rarely saw other drivers so it was easy to stop whenever we wanted

Crete is all mountains and valleys

in the countryside, the roads are lined with these gorgeous yellow-flowering plants

for some silly reason, Greek highway graffiti cracks me up.

the little homes in the villages often look like this -- draped and dripping in bright flowers

We stopped at the Arkadi monastery, an important site in Greek history.
Rather than surrender to the Turks, the Greeks blew up their ammunition stores
killing everyone in the village, themselves AND the Turks. Only one young girl survived.
These are some of the skulls of Cretan people (pronounced kreh-ten, not KREE-ten)
in an ossuary on the monastery grounds. Greek visitors came into the room
bowing in reverence, crossing themselves three times. You don't really mess
with Cretans in time of war. They are TOUGH people. Look up the history
of German invasion on Crete in WWII.
Driving on the mountain roads is lots of fun -- I'm doing all the driving for a number of reasons and I keep thinking about being in a video game. I think my biceps are getting stronger and my hands are getting calloused; left right left right hard hairpin to the left hard hairpin to the right OH NO there is no guardrail OH NO the mountain has slid onto the dirt road and there's just a bit of road left on the edge hard hairpin to the right left right left right left right hard hairOH NO no road.....  It's loads of fun, especially since we almost never encounter other drivers, but it does require a lot of attention and focus which makes it tiring after hours of driving. And it takes hours of driving, because the roads are all like this.

Driving from place to place often takes us down what are surely just alleys that will surely lead into someone's garage or workshop, but's just the road through the village. The paved road will end and we're suddenly on a little dusty unpaved path going up or down the mountains, and we'll think we got off track somewhere, surely we're not meant to be driving here, and eventually the paved road reappears. It's the most fun driving I think I've ever done.

When we left Rethymnon, we took the long, scenic route to Chania which is also described as one of the most picturesque cities in Crete. And it is -- and it's another harbor town with Venetian ruins, remnants of WWII bombings, and tourists. It was less packed-in than Rethymno so I liked it more, and again we adored the place we stayed -- an old Venetian-era home restored to a small hotel (three rooms) but we mainly spent our time there driving in the countryside. Mama Nena, the hotel, was just like a home, and the breakfast spread was so huge it kept us full all day. That didn't stop us from visiting little tavernas in the mountains for lunch, of course. I'm going to have to get on a hard diet when we get back.

the red building is our hotel, and we have the only balcony overlooking the harbor

such a nice place to sit in the mornings and evenings

OH we stopped at this one taverna, no idea where, but it was amazing. The smell of lamb roasting on the fire
drew us in. There were waterfalls all around where we were sitting, and the woman who served us
filled the water picture from a spout sticking out of the mountain wall behind us.
Marc got roasted lamb and I had my daily Greek salad. It's ALWAYS good. Always.

I love this landscape, it takes my breath away.

and I always love coming upon windmills, like wackadoo giants waving their arms at me

We ate dinner at this charming little restaurant in Chania, Terpiti, and had the best appetizer I've ever had.
Bougiourdi, a small dish of feta and fresh tomatoes and chili peppers in olive oil, baked until it's bubbly. YUM.

no idea which taverna, which lunch -- could be any of them. Greek salad, a basket of bread,
a Mythos or Alpha beer for me.

we stopped all along the way, and whenever we saw a walking path if we thought it looked promising
we'd just park where we could and walk as long as we could. Never saw another person.

but we saw and heard lots of goats and sheep, and on rare occasion a shepherd standing nearby.

this dessert was fantastic, but how bad could fried puffs of bread drizzled in honey be, anyway?!

so Greece. Blue skies, white churches, the Greek flag.

outside of Chania there are miles of orange groves. Miles and miles of them. Little old women all dressed in black
sitting next to roadside stands selling big bags of oranges, or glasses of fresh orange juice.
But at 2 euros/glass of juice, it was never a bargain.

the lighthouse in the Chania harbor

ah, here's that lamb roasting over the fire, at that taverna! Blogger's not good or easy at picture uploading.

oh, hello mountain goats trying to cross the road.

this dude walked around Chania holding a little sign that said FOTO.
I felt very sad to leave Chania; I'd lost one whole day in Rethymno to a bitter cruel headache and perhaps that influenced my feeling about it, but I much preferred Chania to Rethymno. When we left the hotel, the owner Matina and her assistant Diana hugged us and kissed us, and stood at the door waving goodbye. They'd told us it was a house, to feel at home, and it felt like leaving home as we walked away with our suitcases.

From Chania we drove through the mountains again to Zaros, a small village on the slopes of Crete's highest mountain, and an ancient (and current) source of great spring water for Crete. Unusually, the skies were cloudy and in fact in the evening there were long rolling thunderstorms. As we were leaving Chania, Matina said no, it wouldn't rain, there would just be dust from Africa (just south of Crete is Libya). But it did rain, and a beautiful long quenching rain, too. I'm glad it didn't rain while we were driving on the little mountain roads.

we stopped at this gorgeous little taverna in Spili for lunch. The food was very good, the place was
gorgeous, but YIKES the two women who worked there were scary! One was just an old scowling angry-
seeming woman, and the other younger woman looked like she'd just as soon break your arm. But
isn't it a beautiful place?

I wish I'd taken pictures of these from the start; every little bit, along the roads, are these little
church structures. They each look different, but there's always a cross on top and stuff inside.
I'm not sure of their use or purpose, but they are everywhere.

uncharacteristic (for this time of year) cloudy skies

enlarge this -- that's a gorge-type gap. Crete is well-known for it's beautiful gorges; it seems to be
one of the main tourist draws of Crete, hiking the gorges.

here's another style; this one just seemed to be a model of a church.

we're staying at Eleonas Cottages in Zaros, and the grounds are thick with
fruiting trees, herbs, and flowers.

we walk through this to get to breakfast

this makes me LAUGH -- the 'gym.' In Crete you work out underneath olive trees.

a beautiful setting for breakfast

Greek yogurt and honey. It's like eating the richest ice cream. I could eat it every day for the
rest of my life.

not a fan of yogurt, Marc selected the other traditional breakfast foods

such gorgeous flowers everywhere
We're about to head to the Palace at Knossos, and I expect to be so happy I lose my mind. My book club just read a book about the decoding of the Linear B script, and I've always daydreamed about seeing Knossos. I'm sure there will be a little roadside taverna and a Greek salad for lunch in there somewhere.

Boy. Come to Crete. It's such a beautiful place. I'm so happy we've come here, and I've loved every single minute of it (except for the headache day). It's a strange vacation for us, and crazy expensive compared to our usual destinations -- I doubt we'll ever come back, so I'm soaking up every second with a big smile.