Trip Journal - Crete




Crete -- 27 September 1998

It was still dark out when we arrived in Iraklio and the port seemed very lonely. We stood under a streetlight trying to get our bearings from the Let's Go map. A taxi driver pulled up while I was alone with the book (Paul had walked out to the street to try and see where we were). He asked the usual, "Where do you want to go?" and I played dumb, telling him I didn't know. I was in no mood to be pressured by taxi drivers. He didn't leave though and when Paul came back, he said, "We want to rent a car." I was surprised because I had thought Paul would react the same way I had, but he trusts better than I do. We wanted to rent a car and drive to Rethymno and camp there. No problem, the taxi driver said. He knew a guy who rented cars very cheaply. He only dealt with Greeks. In fact, he didn't even speak English, so we were sure not to be charged the "tourist" price. I was skeptical, but we figured we could walk away if it were too expensive. As it turned out, the car rental place was probably less than a km away; you had to wonder what the guy was thinking being open at 6:30 in the morning. As it turned out, our taxi driver was very helpful and the car rental guy was extremely sweet. It's true he spoke no English. He spoke maybe 8 words of German. But he drove a hard bargain. We managed to talk him down a little, but not much. We got into our little white Fiat panda and took the old route West in the direction of Rethymno. There's a nice new highway called the National Road, but we were in no hurry and were willing to take the scenic route. It was a beautiful drive. The sun was just coming up over the mountains, which seem to rise right up out of the sea. At first, all the hills look alike, but then you begin to see subtle differences in shading and rock formation. I kept thinking how big God felt there on Crete. I can't explain it; it was so much of everything and it felt so big, even though it's only an island. You can see why Cretans are so proud of it. There's a ruggedness in the people there that I ca identify with. On the drive, we saw farmers in pickup trucks with huge moustaches and tall black leather boots. Herds of goats were around every bend placidly not caring that you might want to use their road. The lines painted on the roads to define lanes appear to be purely decorative; cars passed other vehicles on either side, whether or not there was oncoming traffic, a herd of goats on one side, or a blind curve fast approaching. There are rules, they're just not the ones that we're used to.

We finally arrived at Camping Elizabeth at 8:30 or so. It's situated about 3km East of Rethymno right on the beach. A sign at reception said they didn't open until 10:00 and that we could go along to the taverna to check in (reception also had a siesta from 12:00 to 5:00, and then stayed open until 8:30 or so). We drove around looking at the sites and liking what we saw. It felt very relaxed. The rows were divided by bamboo and all the sites were shaded by a strange kind of deciduous tree, kind of a fir with an olive body. We stopped at the taverna, which was quite charming and had outdoor but covered seating with a view of the beach. We were hungry and got some tea, coffee, and shortbread-like cookies from the woman behind the counter. She turned out to be the Elizabeth in the campground's name, and was really friendly and full of information. She had been born in Greece to (I believe) at least one American parent. She had gone to school in the States (Tufts in Maine) and taught in Iowa for a couple of years as well, but the rest of her time was spent overseas. She also spoke very good German. I was really warming up to the place. We found out later that four siblings own Camping Elizabeth. They're scattered across the States and Greece and come to Crete every summer to run the place, just because they love it. I heard that Elizabeth's father got the Army Corp. of Engineers to help him build the campground after WWII. Some colonel who owed him a favor or something. Whatever the story is, it's a great place. We had a little walk on the beach, then chose a site and set up the tent. Then we drove back to Iraklio. Even to us it seemed a little silly, but we realized that we really couldn't make any plans without first knowing when we were going to be able to get the ferry to Haifa, in Israel, our next stop. We took the New National Road this time though, and it didn't take that long at all. There's a street in Iraklio called 25th of August (no idea why) that's lined with travel agents. We checked with a few and found out that there was only one boat to Haifa per week and it left on Fridays. So we'd be staying an extra couple of days unless we could get a flight. But they turned out to be really prohibitively expensive. We attempted to find a car rental place that was mentioned in the Let's Go, just to see if we could get a better deal on a rental for the extra couple of days, but both offices seemed to have moved or closed. In hindsight, we worried an awful lot about getting the best deal. We spent way too much time on it, when we had so little to spend on Crete.

We stopped and had lunch at a really funky cafe in St. Titos Square with outdoor seating called the Ice Factory. Its name in Greek defied pronunciation: (this is roughly it, since I don't have Greek letters at my disposal) PAGOPOIEION. I mean, what do you do with all those vowels? The menu was creative if a little pricey. We had drinks (Fanta Lemon tastes the best in Greece of any countries I've had it in -- it has real pulp in it) and split a plate of tomato, spinach, feta dumplings that were terrific. They also brought out great bread and some sort of pita dip as an appetizer, so you could fill up on those. The highlight of the experience though, was a trip to the WC, which is really funky. A large tiled room has four doors off one side of it: two showers (don't know why) and two WCs, one for each gender. The big room has a huge, circular fountain with four spigots for sinks. On either side of the entrance to the main room, there is a little alcove with a built-in table, bench and mirror so you can powder your nose. It was fantastic.

We went back to Babas's car rental place and gave him 20,000 drachma for the extra two days. When we'd closed the deal the first time, Babas had offered us frappes (iced, very sweet coffee), but we had declined because we wanted to get on the road. This time, we accepted his offer (Paul had a Coke) and had a really wonderful experience despite the almost complete lack of common language. Which is surprising, because Babas had apparently been in the States as a "professor" at Harvard a long time ago. He had documents to prove it all stowed in a file on the shelf in his office. Well, they at least claimed that he was a graduate assistant of some sort. It was in 1969, and I got the impression that a friend of the family might have used the "position" as a way of getting Babas out of his military service for a while. The military had staged a coup two years earlier and used torture and arbitrary violence to get "support." It can't have been pleasant. But Babas was so proud of having been in the States as a professor. He must be a lonely man -- his wife died a few years ago -- because he'll bring out his file of newspaper clippings and photographs of his family at the slightest provocation. I don't know that his name was Babas; it may be that Babas means grandfather. It was all a little confusing. We do know his first name is Nikolas. But he kept hitting his chest and saying, "Ich (I) Babas." Last name? Grandfather? We don't know. He showed us pictures of his children and grandchildren and communicated how old they were by writing their birthdates on a piece of paper. It was one of the more genuine conversations we've had.

We left Babas and drove to Knossos, the ancient Minoan palace that was "restored" by Sir Arthur Evans in the early 1800s, sometimes incorrectly, but always impressively. Knossos is 5 km from Iraklio and if not for the palace, there would be nothing there. Now, of course, it's packed on all sides with souvenir stalls and cafes offering free parking. Naturally you get the hard sell to come in and eat when you try to leave your car. It's just another chance saying "no, thank you" to someone.

Cretans were once laughed at for claiming to have been descended from the Minoans, but it turned out to be true. The myth goes something like this:

Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa, who was the daughter of a Phoenician King. In order to seduce Europa (and I'm not making this up), Zeus turned himself into a playful bull. Europa, apparently suspecting nothing, jumped on the bull's back, whereupon Zeus leapt into the sea and carried Europa to Crete. Minos was their eldest son. Europa married the Cretan King, Asterios, and when he died, Minos became King and ruled from Knossos.

Minos married Pasiphae and they had four sons and four daughters. Minos wished to honor Poseidon and asked him to send a sacrifice worthy of the God. Poseidon sent a white bull from the sea, but Minos liked the bull so much that he kept it and sacrificed another one instead. Poseidon's revenge was to make Minos' wife, Pasiphae, lust after the white bull. I won't get into details but Daidalos created a model of a cow for the Queen to conceal herself in, and 9 months later, Pasiphae bore the Minotaur, half human, half bull. He was shut up in the Labyrinth, which traditionally has been likened to a maze, and was also built by Daidalos, the master engineer.

Later, in retribution for the murder of his son, Androgeos, in Athens, Minos ordered that seven boys and seven girls be sent from Athens every year (some versions say every 7 years) to be fed to the minotaur. This went on until Theseus joined the third band of boys and girls to go. He had no intention of dying; he wanted to slay the minotaur. He seduced Ariande, Minos' daughter, who asked Daidalos to help her save Theseus from the minotaur. He showed Ariande how to get in and out of the labyrinth and Ariande also gave Theseus a ball of string, the end of which was tied to the entrance of the labyrinth, so Theseus would be able to get back out again. Theseus slew the minotaur, then led the thirteen others out of the labyrinth. He and the rest of the gang (with Ariande) sailed to Naxos on their way home to Athens. Theseus abandoned Ariande on Naxos while she was asleep on the beach, which makes me think that Theseus was just using her. However, Dionysus found Ariande, fell in love with her and married her, so all turned out well in the end.

Minos was furious though, especially with his chief engineer, Daidalos. And here's where the part of the story everyone knows comes in: in order to escape Minos' wrath, Daidalos made wings for himself and his son, Ikaros, out of feathers and wax. Ikaros flew too close to the sun, despite his father's warning, and the wax melted and he drowned in the sea, now called the Ikaros Sea.

Knossos was a pretty impressive palace for its time. It was built of stone but insulated between the rows of block with wood. This was so that the walls would be better able to withstand the many earthquakes that plagued the area. The first palace was actually destroyed by an earthquake around 1700 BCE. The second was partially destroyed in 1450 BCE and then totally destroyed 100 years later by a huge event, what the event was is still a mystery. The palace had running water and the Queen's bathroom had an actual flush toilet. The palace has impressive staircases, and warrens of storerooms and workshops below, which may be why a lot of people believe that Knossos was the site of the legendary labyrinth. The palace also has two "lustral basins", which sound and look pretty exotic, but which were probably used for ritual washings before craftsmen and servants entered the storage and work areas. No one knows though.

Very little is known about Minoan society. It is believed that during the early period it may have been a matriarchy. For a long time, it was thought that the Minoans were the only society in history to be non-warring, but graves have been found containing weapons, so there's some uncertainty about that.

We walked around the palace for quite a while, just looking around and being impressed. Afterward, we drove back into town and went to the Archaeological Museum. Just as in Athens, everything was still free because of Cultural Heritage Weekend. Despite the fact that many of the exhibits were on loan to the museum in Athens, the museum was still totally overwhelming. After a while, all of the clay pots looked the same. They've uncovered so much stuff. We ended up getting a book about Knossos, so we could digest all the information later in more manageable chunks.

We drove back to the campground and had a supper of PBJ sandwiches and apples. It was great. Paul had a nap and I went to the taverna to work on the journals. Later that evening, volunteers from the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece came to give a talk and slide show. Sea turtles come right up on the beach by the campground to lay their eggs. The volunteers watch the nests and keep records. They sometimes move nests if they are too close to bright lights or are in volleyball courts, et.c It's very important that the nests be a good way up the beach because the baby turtles need to walk a certain distance and break in their legs before they are able to swim. And nowadays it's hard to find a place that's far enough up on the beach but not brightly lit with street lamps. If it's too bright, the babies can't find the ocean. They look for the reflection of the water to locate it, and the lights confuse them. It was really interesting and we got a few stickers and pins to take to the Barth kids in Israel. we ended up talking to the volunteers for quite a while afterward. The presentation had been in German and they had said that the sea turtle's main diet consisted of "Quallen", which I'd never heard of. I went up afterward to ask. Turns out it's jellyfish.

Crete -- 28 September 1998

We were up at 8:00, and I did morning pages on the beach while Paul swam. It was a wonderful way to start the day. Then we walked up to the Taverna and had coffee, hard boiled eggs and the great powdered sugar shortbread cookies. Paul did some laundry (by hand) and I took a shower. The showers at the campground are great. They are really outdoors, kind of an afterthought on either side of the WCs. They are divided off by just a wall; anyone walking by can get a good look at you reaching for your towel if they want to. But this is Greece after all. People changed clothes, and got in and out of their bathing suits right out in the open. No big deal.

We had an ambitious schedule for ourselves while on Crete, and today we were supposed to go to Elafonissi Island off the extreme southwest corner of Crete. It's uninhabited and the water around it is so shallow that no boats go there, so you wade to it. It sounded pretty cool, but in the end, we decided that we really had some great beach right where we were, so why do all that driving? We never did make it to Elafonissi...

I took Tamino to the taverna and plugged him in. Four guys who'd also been sitting there came to check him out That's how we met the four self-professed bachelors: Chris, the barber from the U.K.; Martin, a systems administrator in Germany; Mark, a biology student and budding film producer also from Germany; and Marko, an accountant and cycler adventurer from Holland. They'd all come to Crete separately (Chris for the eighth time!) and met up at Camping Elizabeth. It's that kind of place, very friendly. Martin and Chris invited us to go trekking through the Samaria Gorge with all of them the next day. We ended up spending a lot of time with the four of them, quite enjoyably.

There were lots of interesting people at Camping Elizabeth. Andreas is a New Zealander who lives in a cave in a nearby gorge. At first I envisioned it as a dark, grungy place, but it turns out it's a conversion cave, with concrete floors and real furniture. Andreas is a bit jaded; no matter what kind of travel you do, it's not good enough. He doesn't want to tell you what to do, although he can't help himself, but he would never go to Israel. Travelling a year is just not long enough. And so many countries? On and on and on. I finally told him that I was on to him, that no matter what we did, he'd never be satisfied, and walked away. I may have caught the slightest trace of chagrin in him the next time I saw him, but possibly not.

I also talked with Irene, who works in the taverna. She'd lived in New Jersey ten years ago. She's Greek, but not from Crete, although she loves it here. She thinks Cretans are a different breed, wonderful people.

Much later than we had planned (we'd been talking to the guys) we finally went to the beach for a swim and to tan. chris had lent me his Greek phrasebook, but I confess I didn't learn much. It was too nice out.

Later, we all sat around in the taverna and drank beer. Paul and I ran out to get some food for the trek and then we all went out to dinner at a little out of the way no name place.

Crete -- 29 September 1998

The alarm went off at 5:45, which may as well have been the middle of the night. We had to be out on the main road by 6:15 to catch our bus to the Samaria Gorge. Martin, who was staying in a bungalow and had electricity, made coffee for all of us first. It wasn't even light when we headed out. On the way, Martin ran into some exposed rebar and cut up his leg. It was so dark, we never even saw it. Dr. Chris wrapped it up for him on the bus, and it looked quite impressive when he was finished.

we picked up people at every little hotel and pension anywhere near Rethymno. The bus was full. We were going to have to hang out with a lot of people in order to commune with nature. Our guide's name was Lazarus. He spoke decent English and German and the entire trip proceeded to give us dire warnings about how tough the trek was interspersed with a little bit of information about the Gorge in both languages. By the end of bus ride, we had all his admonitions memorized and repeated them to each other on the trek. Poor Lazarus, it's a good thing he didn't actually go down with us. He might not have liked us making so much fun of him. Pregnant women, diabetics, and people with heart problems were warned not to go. People who had bad shoes, although he himself was wearing only tennis shoes, shouldn't go. (Lazarus had done this trek 330 times before, he knew every stone in the trail and didn't need to wear good shoes.) Please, please, please be careful of the first 6 km, which are all downhill and very steep. Take your time, but don't linger or you won't make it down in time. On and on and on.

Now for the information part: The Samaria Gorge is the longest gorge in Europe. It runs through Lefka Ori, the White Mountains, which are 2453 M high, and 3 M short of being the highest mountains on Crete. Our trek was 16 km long and we'd end up on the shore of the Libyan Sea, on the South Coast of Crete.

When we arrived at the top of the Gorge, which was crammed full of busses just like ours, Lazarus cautioned us to please, please, please hurry back ot the bus on the way back so we could be the first bus to leave, which would save us a half hour on the drive. He bought our tickets, handed out stickers for us to wear on our backs (so he could spot us as he came down the trail) and then sent us on our way. He then probably smoked countless numbers of cigarettes at the top for four hours or so, then sprinted like a kri-kri (a wild, elusive Cretan mountain goat that lives only in the Gorge) down the 16 km in his battered Nikes.

Our group must have really frustrated him, because we spent the first half hour of our allotted six hours taking pictures of the whole group with each person's camera. We then proceeded to stop every 50 feet or so, and Chris, Martin and especially Mark snapped photos of everything from really creative angles. Martin and Marko ran out of film before we were halfway. We had a really funny misunderstanding with a couple who were photographing each other. Chris wanted to offer to photograph the two of them together and asked Martin to translate, but he misunderstood what Chris had asked him to do or the couple misunderstood or something. They thought we wanted a photo with them, and we were another ten minutes re-explaining that we just wanted to help them have a photo of themselves with both of them in it. It was hysterical. The trek was really pretty easy; downhill for the first 6 km or so, then pretty flat the rest of the way. We stopped for lunch in a "village", which was really just three houses, one of which the Gorge doctor lives in. Refreshingly, there were no food, drink or souvenir stalls, just a lot of skittish goats (not kri-kris) and other walkers all eating what they'd brought with them. Mark and Martin hadn't brought anything with them. The night before we'd asked if they needed anything, and Martin had said, "I have all I need," which we took to mean that he didn't need anything for the next day. They intended in actuality to not bring any food at all. They did manage, Mark especially,to wolf down a few cheese, tomato and pepper sandwiches however. We also had apples, ham for Chris and chocolate. Martin's leg was stressing him a little and he was wearing bad sneakers, the only ones he'd brought with him. He'd been misled by a friend who'd already done the hike. It's flat but you still walk on a lot of stones in 16 km. He also had no socks and was developing a decent set of blisters. But we were a little over halfway at that point and there was nothing for him to do but press on. The rest of the walk was dry and everything got covered in lime dust. It was slippery in spots but quite easy. It's really something to come through the narrow gap toward the end at about 20 feet wide with striated and shifted rock towering 300 ft. above on each side. We met up with Lazarus when we only had 1 km of the Gorge left. We were at the last reststop (they have about 15 watering holes along the way) eating chocolate and Paul was trying to make friends with the donkeys, but they distinctly disinterested. One tried to bite him. But who can blame them? They stand around all day with wooden-slat saddles on their backs. When they are needed, it's because someone has broken his or her leg and must be rushed to emergency aid.

The military guards checked our tickets again on the way out of the Gorge and then we all walked by the concession stands with their postcards and orange juice. After that, we had to walk 3 km down past an abandoned village to the Libyan Sea, at the town of Agia Roumeli. We were to meet the rest of the group at a certain cafe at 5:30, where Lazarus promised us that the beer would taste wonderful after the long hike. But first we had to have a swim in the Libyan Sea. The beach was black and the sand coarse and gritty. There was no place to change so in true Greek fashion, we just suited up on the beach. The water felt terrific. We were all covered with sweat and lime dust. The waves took it all away. The surf was surprisingly strong. Chris and Martin didn't go in. Chris doesn't like to swim and had sliced his foot on the beach. Perhaps Martin didn't go in because he couldn't stand to be parted so long with his newly-acquired "I Survived the Samaria Gorge" t-shirt. Later we had beers and snacks (pink cod roe!) at the cafe. We then took a boat to Chora Sfakio, with a stop in Loutro, a village that can only be reached by boat. We all lined up behind Lazarus to get off the boat and we sprinted behind him to the bus. The last two people got on and we roared off in the coveted first place. Lazarus made a big deal about it, and we all clapped for ourselves, feeling proud and silly at the same time. We got home around 9:00 and went straight to bed. Paul and I were the only two who weren't sore the next day and I must admit I was proud of that.

Crete -- 30 September 1998

Paul seemed a little grouchy when we got up in the morning. I got up to take a shower, and as I was coming out, I saw him heading to the beach. If I hadn't seen him, I'd have had no idea where he was. That was my first clue that something was up, but I wasn't about to ask. I figured he'd either tell me about it or work it out on his own. Of course, I know by now that he wants me to ask, but it's hard. It always feels like I have to be the one who does the pointing out that there's a problem. After a breakfast of the usual we went to reception to see if we could use Elizabeth's fax line to check the email. I tried to call Mike and Janice in Israel but didn't get them. In the meantime, Paul couldn't get the fax line to work either but Elizabeth called her cousin Stan and asked if we could use his dialup. No problem. He told us to come on over. Stan and Alexandra are Greek Americans and have retired in Greece for now. They have a beautiful house and an old WWII bunker in the garden. They lived in a little cottage until they got the house built and that's where Stan brought us. I played with the two little kittens (saved from the trash by Elizabeth) while Paul and Stan talked shop. stan just got into computers a year and a half ago but he's very knowledgeable. Elizabeth says that he spends 18+ hours a day with his. It's his passion. The actual dialup was quick. Then Stan made us coffee. Then Alexandra came home and made us lunch (zucchini feta pie, apple pie and ice cream) and we had more coffee. Then they called their travel agent (and several others) for us and arranged our tickets to Haifa for us so we wouldn't have to go all the way back to Iraklio. In between, they told us great stories, vying all the time for the right to be the one to be telling them. They were wonderful. We finally left 3 1/2 hours after we had arrived. We wanted to sail (Paul's been wanting to for months) and went to talk to the rental place, but the waves were too choppy and so they weren't renting. We went to lie out on the beach instead. About an hour later, Paul abruptly got up and said that he was going to the taverna. He didn't ask me if I wanted to come, he just left. Now I really wasn't about to ask what was wrong. So I stayed on the beach until it started to cool off.

When I got to the taverna, Paul and the rest of the guys were all drinking beer so there was no way to talk to Paul about what was wrong. We all went to dinner at the "Minigrill Sofia Souflaki House Hospitality," which won the contest hands down for the noisiest place I've ever eaten. The tables were set right next to the main road and in Greece, honking is an incessant and necessary part of driving. Paul had a souflaki pita and I had dolmadakia (little dolmades), and of course, we had tons of tzatziki as well. It was great inexpensive eating.

We headed back to the campground -- the group was intending to have another round of beers although I wasn't interested -- where the taverna was already closed. I was secretly glad. We said goodnight to the group and Paul and I were finally able to talk about what was bothering him. He was having a feeling; we all do. I was glad we got to talk it out.

Crete -- 1 October 1998

We got up and had showers and then went to sleep again. Talk about slugs. When we finally roused ourselves, I sat on the veranda of the taverna and Paul went into Rethymno to pick up our ferry tickets, which we'd completely forgotten to pick up the night before. (The travel agent opened after 6:00 until about 10:00 and had a long siesta during the day like most other businesses.) I hung out with the guys for a while and then went out to the beach to write in the journal.

When Paul got back, we paid Elizabeth for our lodging (because we were leaving very early the next morning), called the Barths to warn them of our impending arrival, then got directions from Elizabeth to a really cool beach she'd recommended.

We drove to the beach, which was in the South on the Libyan Sea. The area was called Three Rocks, and was aptly named, because there were three huge giants standing up in the sea near a cool cave where Elizabeth and her siblings used to go when they were kids. It was a pretty secluded beach and most people were topless. We baked for a few hours; it was really hot. Paul went for a walk down the beach and came back with the news that the other end was nude, and that there was a small, secluded cove, although it had been in use when he discovered it. He was all for packing up the stuff and moving to the nude section and was really disappointed when I said I'd had enough sun. We went to a little taverna and had Fanta Lemons (two in very quick succession) and I started to feel a little better. It was already 5:00 (we'd been on the beach for hours) so we headed home.

It was our last night at Camping Elizabeth and the guys wanted to go to dinner, which was nice. Chris wanted to walk around in town, which is apparently a Greek national pastime just before dinner, but I was beat and voted to stay close to home. A guy named Niko was offering BBQ at the taverna, which was about my speed. Hi grilled all sorts of things: octopus, fish, meat, chicken, etc., and served it with fries and salad. Hera, the camp dog, a very sweet but slightly ditzy canine, made out very well on the bones. None of us could resist her eyes. (The campground also housed a black and white cat named Batman Bob. His face marking looked just like Batman's mask.) Before dinner, Chris brought out a bottle of retsina for us all to share. It was lovely; I'd never had it before. It's white wine with pine resin in it. After that I stuck to Coke, though. I'd finally had enough alcohol.

Stan came by and we tried to buy him a drink, but he refused, saying that he was only staying a couple of minutes. But he, Paul, and Martin talked computers for over an hour.

Everyone got kind of quiet at about 11:30. I guess we were all tired. We had the biggest, most flattering goodbyes of our trip from the Four bachelors. I think maybe they liked us. We certainly had a good time with them.