Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Crete ~ Old Favorites and New Friends

We knew when we set out that a week-long trip to Crete, or Kriti, as it is known here, simply isn't long enough to see all that this, the largest of the Greek islands, has to offer. 

So our itinerary was based on  two criteria: revisit some of our favorite places and make the face-to-face acquaintance of several Facebook friends who live there.

Bound for Crete from our departure port Gythio 

The length of our stay in late June was determined by the once-a-week sailing schedule of the ferry we had taken from Gythio, in our Peloponnese region of Greece to this elongated island on the southern edge of the Aegean Sea. 

Our week-long itinerary took us to some of our favorite places

The Itinerary

We arrived in Crete's most western port city of Kissamos, in the wee small hour of the morning.  We then drove to nearby Chania, with its charming old town wrapped around its Venetian harbor. Then, after two nights, it was up and over the White Mountain range to the island's southern coast for another two nights in Chora Sfakia. While there, we did a day trip (by ferry) to Loutro . Then, retracing our route back over the mountains, we headed east to Plaka for another two nights. Our final night was spent in the port city of Kissamos. In this post I will take you as far as Loutro. . .

Driving in Crete is a different experience

As I last wrote, we traveled about the island in our car. One of the advantages of being expats and living in Greece is having your own car for road trips like this.  It didn't take long to be reminded of the quirky - but readily accepted --way people drive on this island. It is normal to pull off to the right side so that those behind you can pass even if there are oncoming cars.

Crete/Kriti, at 8,450 square kilometers/3,260 square miles, is so large that it can easily take five hours to drive from its western end to the eastern, a distance of some 340 kilometers.  


I was most excited about our stay in Chania because I have some very good friends there; friends who I had never met face-to-face.  And while I know many of you reading this have your qualms about Facebook, I can tell you that some of the friendships I have made through that social medium are among the many reasons that I sing its praises.  

One FB friend in Chania has been a friend so long that I don't even remember how we met in this on-line world. It was her family-owned hotel that had booked for our first two nights.

Fagotta bar old town Chania

Despoina's small five-studio hotel, Iason Studios, is located only footsteps from the harbor on a street that in the evening turned itself into a fairy-tale setting. And I knew she was a good friend when she told me that she didn't mind waiting until 1 a.m. for our arrival! Yikes! 

The balcony on our 'Lavender' studio

After Despoina got us settled in our studio and headed home for the night, we kicked off our holiday  with a glass of wine at the bar named Fagotto, Greek for the musical instrument, a bassoon. We sat at one of the half dozen tables set up on this narrow street. I didn't think our surroundings could get better until I opened the door and saw our bougainvillea-draped balcony in the morning sun. We couldn't have been in a better location. The suite, which came with kitchen, sitting area, and bedroom, was huge. And our hostess was a charming as I knew she would be! Luckily the Greek government removed the 'wear the mask outdoors' requirement the day we arrived so that she and I could pose for the photo below.

My friend Despoina outside her Iason Studios

The other friends I wanted to meet in Chania were the mother-daughter team who own and operate a jewelry store, Alexia Jewels. We also met on social media when I selected an anniversary necklace from a FB post of theirs last year. The ease of that transaction kicked off our friendship. Throughout the year we've messaged, just to stay in touch.  

I purposely did not post our travel destination on FB as I planned to wear my necklace into the store to see how long it took them to recognize me. I should have known. . .

Alexia and Eveline, friends at Alexia Jewels in Chania, Crete

I had barely gotten to the doorway and not yet entered when Eveline looked up and cried out, "Jackie!!! Is it really you? You came!!"  A warmer welcome I couldn't have received from friends I've known much longer. We pulled out seats and sat and visited as if we'd known each other for years.

South to Chora Sfakia 

Would Niki and her husband still run the small bakery in town?  Would Delfini's still be serving the Sfakian Meat Pie we still talk about seven years later? Would the village look and feel the same?

Sfakian Meat Pie Four cheeses and lamb - still being served!

One of our favorite places on earth is the southern coast of Crete, home to Chora Sfakia and Loutro, villages that we return to each time we are on the island. Not only did Niki and Markos still own the bakery, they have added a second one. Delfini's was still there, serving our favorite meat pie and our favorite waiter is still working there and brought that pie to our table!  

An old coffee shop with a new look in the village 

The village has definitely modernized its waterfront but all our favorites were still there. Many people  even looked the same as we remembered them. We were especially happy to see none of the businesses had fallen victim to the lengthy Covid lockdown we experienced in Greece.  

We had booked a hotel that we'd not stayed in before and found it to be one of the most upscale places we have ever stayed in. A spacious room, huge bathroom and a terrace that could have accommodated many more than the two of us. From the terrace we could watch the ferry arrive from its run along the coast. 

Our upscale room in Chora Sfakia

For you hikers, this is the ferry that hundreds who hike the Samaria Gorge take from the end of the trail to meet buses parked in Chora Sfakia that will transport them back to their vehicles at the trailhead.  

Approaching Chora Sfakia by ferry

We took the Samaria, as the ferry is named, to Loutro the tiny village a bit further west for a morning of  walking along Memory Lane as we have spent two past Greek Easter's in this picturesque spot. (That blue link will take you to more tales and photos of Loutro.)  

Loutro in southern Crete is accessible only by water

With this stop we were half way through our week and I will pause the story there and take up with the rest of Crete next week.  Thank you for the time you've spent with us and welcome to our new subscribers and followers!!  We hope you'll return for the second half of our trip. Until then, stay safe.

Linking soon with:

Friday, July 16, 2021

Another Greek Ferry Tale ~ Destination Crete

The summer sun was uncompromising as we pulled into the line of vehicles waiting to enter the ferry. Often times -- especially on hot and humid afternoons like this -- we wonder why so many people flock to Greece in the summer as shoulder seasons - spring and fall - offer far kinder weather for travel. 

Perhaps, this year the visitors are like we are, making good on a promises made during COVID lockdown to travel again as soon as possible. . . no longer put off trips to some future date. 'Carpe Diem!' we think, even if the sun is baking our brains while we await boarding.

Bound for Crete

This trip in late June, our second 'ferry tale' since Greece reopened to travel in May, was to Crete, the largest and the most populated island in Greece. This ferry took us and our trusty Hi Ho Silver (our Toyota RAV) from Gythio, a town just an hour's drive southeast of us in the Peloponnese to Kissamos, the westernmost port in Crete. 

Our ferry route in red and orange

Often times ferry departure and arrival times are at odd times of the day, such as in the late afternoon and in the middle of the night, as was the case for this trip. Our projected midnight arrival time was actually delayed when one of the semi trucks got high centered on the loading ramp . . .thus we didn't get to our hotel in Chania until 1 a.m. That delayed arrival made us even happier in those wee small hours of the morning that we had brought our car and didn't need to search out a rental car lot along the dark perimeter of the ferry dock. 

Ready to drive a car onto a Greek ferry are you?

But taking a car on a Greek ferry is somewhat 'a trip' in itself - and certainly not for the faint-of-heart or timid driver.  It is especially hair-raising for Americans who are used to having space, lots of personal space. It just isn't that way in Europe. So I must tip my hat to The Scout, who had the duty of driving the car into the ferry.

Drivers wait for cars to move so they can get into their car

The cars are packed so tightly into the belly of the ship that passengers aren't allowed to stay in them when they are driven into the ferry. So The Scout drove the car in and I waited at the ferry entrance for him to emerge. (When we disembarked passengers were allowed to go to the car and wait and thus I was able to take these photos.)  This vessel had a gargantuan loft on which we were parked which required driving down a narrow and steep ramp, 'Tap your brakes! Tap your brakes! Tap your brakes,' the staff shouted as we began our descent.

Tap your brake! and down we went in a blur

Now before I prompt an onslaught of  'unsafe' and 'overloaded' comments, let me assure you that every ferry on which we've ever traveled in Greece with a car has looked this same way. The staff carefully load by vehicle size and destination as these ships often have buses and large semi-tractor trailer rigs filling the center sections. This ferry route operates once a week so they make use of every bit of space.

Inside look at Greek ferries

Our journey was scheduled to be 7.5 hours in length. We could have sat inside at tables in a cavernous restaurant or in airplane type seats in a small airconditioned television area. We, like many others, chose the view seats on the upper exterior deck. The ocean breeze lessened the heat and the canopy provided shade.  This vessel also came without internet so one entertained oneself by reading or sightseeing (or watching Greek television inside). 

Upper deck where every seat has a view. . .

While this was a modern ship, its engine did seem to have mechanical intestinal disturbances which resulted in oil and soot being belched from giant smokestacks making us very cautious in leaning on railings and moving around to different seats.

Soot and oil on passenger benches: don't wear white!

I know I've sung the praises of Greek ferry travel before, but I must again tell you that the Absolute. Best. Part. is:  arriving and departing islands that you might otherwise never have seen as you make your way to your destination.  

This routing took us to the island of Kythira, two hours from Gythio, and then to Antikythera another two hours south.  No matter what the ferry or the island, there is an excitement about approaching land. Once docked, the mad dash and a scramble to load and unload passengers and vehicles always makes for great entertainment. And such was the case in this teeny tiny place. A virtual parade of construction vehicles rumbled off the ship here.

Approaching Potamos, the port in Antikythera 10 p.m.

This route let us see the port shrouded in darkness as well as the way the tiny little place looks in the blazing heat of day. Antikythera reportedly has a year-round population of about 45 and that number can swell to 500 in the summertime.  The island has a medical center, police station, small grocery stores and a helipad.

Approaching Potamos port in Antikythira island at 10 a.m.

Now the larger island of Kythira has perhaps one of the most desolate looking ports we've seen in Greece, but having spent a week here a couple years ago, let me assure you the place also offers charming villages sprinkled about its hillsides and beaches. For a look at Kythira, click this link.

Tourists wait for the ferry at Kythira port

A number of you've written, saying you hope to experience a Greek ferry trip one day. We encourage you to do just that but do keep in mind a few key points: first, weather can impact ferry schedules, up to and including, keeping the ferries from sailing, so make sure your schedule allows for possible delays.  Also check which days the days and how often the ferries sail to places you want to visit. You might be thinking two nights and the ferry may only come once a week. Check arrival and departure times as they could be 2 a.m. in the morning.

Ferries, still our favorite way to visit Greek islands, are conducive to 'slow travel' -- but that doesn't appeal to everyone so pack your patience or book a flight if you can't sit back and relax.

And they aren't the cheapest way to travel either. Our tickets, for a small SUV and two passengers traveling between Gythio and Kissamos cost 150 euros or $177US each way. (Now I have to admit it was great buying things like big jars of Cretan honey and simply putting them in the car, not worrying about fitting them into a suitcase!)

Destination Crete

Crete ahead!

We were gobsmacked to realize that it has been seven years since we spent time in Crete. How had we let that much time slip by without returning to the island where we had actually looked for real estate before settling in the Mani? 

Would Niki still have a bakery in Chora Sfakia on Crete's southern coast? Did they still make those Cretan meat pies at our favorite restaurant in the village? Would Elounda to the east be as charming as we remembered it?

I have Facebook friends on Crete who I've known for years now. It was time to meet as many of them face-to-face as I could. The ferry travels between Gythio and Crete every Wednesday. . .we had a week. in which to travel down Memory Lane. Hope you'll join us next time as we do just that!

Until then, thanks for your time and stay safe!

Linking up soon with:

Through My Lens
Travel Tuesday
Our World Tuesday
My Corner of the World Wednesday
Wordless Wednesday

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Our Greek Village ~ Summer Comes Softly

Summer has come softly to our Greek village this year.  

The heat is building slowly, not yet as intense as we know it will get.

Agios Nikolaos - our village

Uncut grass in the area's olive groves grows golden now, the hillsides so dry they are tinder for wildfires we hope won't happen.  

Summer day Agios Nikolaos

The cicadas, those miniature mariachis of gardens and groves, seemed to announce summer's arrival in late June, in a softer, more quiet manner than previous years.

Pantazi Beach between our home and Ag. Nik

Even tourism here has softened this summer.  With the lack of British tourists (Greece still remains on their amber list) traffic is lighter; the sunbeds are not full on the local beaches.  Again, we anticipate this will intensify - we hope so, for the sake of businesses - by late summer, but for now it adds to the soft ambiance of summer in Greece.

Soft Summer Days

Morning coffee - no 'road shows' today

Our days get underway early this time of year in an effort to beat the temperatures which are slowly climbing, now in the 90F's/30CC's. We are out watering the gardens and grove at our Stone House on the Hill before the sun rises too high in the sky. Meeting friends is done earlier in the morning and later in the evening on these soft summer days.

Soft summer days in Greece's rural Peloponnese encourage us to balance the chores and errands with rest time and play time.

Filling the water bottles a routine here

Errands -- grocery shopping, and garbage or water runs -- are done early in the day as well. As our longtime readers know, we take our garbage to community bins and refill water bottles at community fountains. One bit of news in our world is that we now have a  bona fide, volunteer-run recycling center, so it too has become an 'errand destination'.

Balancing those chores and play time, we take a break after our errands and indulge in 'having a coffee' in the village. Actually being able to sit at a table at a taverna or cafe is still pure delight after nearly a year of lockdown. 

Indulging in coffee breaks 

Coffee breaks here can by themselves fill up a morning or afternoon as you never know who you might see or what might happen in the course of sipping coffee in the village. We have our favorite coffee spots, all are clustered about our two intersections in town. You see, our village has only one main street that hugs the harbor and runs the length of the town. There is an intersection at each end of it and one stop sign that is often ignored. So coffee time at either end of town during the hectic days of summer usually guarantees a show. 

Intersection entertainment in the village

You might even call it a theatre of the absurd as tourists behind the wheels of rental cars vie for the right of way with delivery vans, construction trucks, a tractor and boat, pedestrians and a stray cat or two.

Now before you start rolling your eyes at the thought of watching an intersection for entertainment, let me tell you it is one of the things that make village life special. Most of the cafes are along the main street so traffic does play a role in the eating and drinking experience - sometimes you are moving your chair so that a passing bus doesn't hit you. 

Dodging the bus is part of village dining experience

With these soft summer days, though, we find the daytime rhythms to be relaxed and the routines to be reminiscent of the pre-covid days. The usual summer crush hasn't yet happened. 

Why just the other day while sipping an Americano and cappuccino, The Scout and I saw Papas Paniotis, our local priest, who waved to us as he passed us in his distinctive pickup truck. Then Ilias, one of the village's three special brothers, greeted us with his customary grunt and hand wave as he loped past our table delivering a grocery order to the taverna where we sipped. George, our rather new village mailman, was the next to come past, nodding but probably still not sure of our names. We had a big wave from Stuart, a British expat friend who cares for a number of stray cats in the village went past on his morning feeding route. All are very routine and all make for magic moments.

Captain Antonis 

On another morning we'd exchanged greetings with Captain Antonis, who is again running his fishing boat tours this year. (It was such fun last year, we plan to take the cruise again this summer). Then we stopped to chat with Sofia, who manages our seasonal clothing store. She and I are FB friends so we had to catch up on the details of recent FB posts.  

'I should write about this on the blog,' I said to The Scout. 'We travel places in Greece and I write about those places and people. But I should be writing about our village life here as well. Some people travel great distances to have only a couple of vacation weeks here and it is our world every day.'

Our Greek Village

Summer scenes in our village

So for those new to our blog, we live just outside a fishing village called Agios Nikolaos (Saint Nickolas). Like many places in Greece, it has two names. It is also known as Selinitsa. We are located  on the western coast of the 'middle finger' of the Peloponnese, an area called The Mani.

Our Kalamata olive oil - 2020 harvest

The year-round population is a few hundred and it balloons during the warm weather months as part-time expats and tourists return each year. The local industry is divided between fishing, tourism and olive growing and oil production - we are the heart of Kalamata olive country. 

It was definitely a sleepy feeling village when we first 'discovered' it some eight years ago. Greece and its citizens back then were still struggling to emerge from their economic disaster. It has been during these morning coffees that we've really paid attention to the changes that have taken place here since we arrived. In recent months we've watched workers turn an empty waterfront business space into the new home of  Rodi's a pasta/pizza restaurant. Rodi's has been a longtime favorite, operating in neighboring village Stoupa. Now we have our own Rodi's in 'Ag. Nik' as we call our village. 

It has been good seeing all of the dozen bars and restaurants along our main street reopening after the covid lockdown and welcoming guests again. 

Hades, our go-to 'Cheers'  has undergone an extensive remodeling and upgrading project and will soon be having a grand reopening celebration. Pantazi Beach Cafe has also had a facelift for this season. Gregg's Plateia, the family-owned cafe that has us among its faithful fans has a new paint job that gives new life to this village favorite.

Selinitsa Residences overlook the harbor

A new tourist accommodation has opened, Selinitsa Residences, right in the heart of town, offering posh, modern rooms in a completely rehabilitated heritage building. Another building next door is being rehabilitated reportedly for the same purpose. Just outside of town, our old friend George, who operates Ilias and Asteria,  has added an ultramodern high rise to his accommodations. Those returning guests (and others lucky enough to get a reservation) will be able to choose from his traditional waterfront apartments or his new studios just across the street. We've toured them and they are spectacular, as in 'move over Mykonos' spectacular!

Everyday scenes in our Greek village

Often times as I sip one of those coffees in the village I think about the time not so long ago that I wouldn't have imagined us living in a Greek village.

Nowadays, while sipping coffee, I can't imagine us not living in a Greek village, specifically, 'our' Greek village. . .especially on these soft summer days.

Sunset Pantazi Beach

We thank you again for the time you've spent with us today and hope to see you back again. Welcome to our new subscribers. . .we look forward to your comments and emails.

Linking sometime soon with:

Through My Lens
Travel Tuesday
Our World Tuesday
My Corner of the World Wednesday
Wordless Wednesday


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