Monday, October 5, 2009

Wind changed direction

I've said we were going to travel where the winds took us and so was the case with the weekend. The winds changed direction as I was writing the last blog entry. We'd had every intention of heading east along the south coast of Crete, but while I was writing downstairs, Joel chatted with our German neighbor upstairs who said we really shouldn't miss Loutro, just down the coast to the west.. So we flung things into our one suitcase (yes, one is now packed with our Paris clothes and is left in the rental car) and two Bagallini bags, and headed for the morning ferry.

The ferry, a small car ferry, makes three 20-minute runs a day between Hora Sfakia and Loutros. Loutros is a small harbor town -- smaller than Sfakia and accessible only by ferry or on foot (down a narrow path for an hour and a half) so we opted for the ferry. We'd decided that if we didn't like it, we would have lunch there and return on the 12:20 ferry. With the stormy weather Saturday morning, we rocked and rolled our way to Loutros, disembarked in one of the most charming harbor towns we've ever seen and soon were checked into a pensione at 35 euros a day that provided us a deck with front-on view of the harbor (not to mention ceiling fan, refridgerator, dishware and a hot water pot). Within an hour the town had worked its charms on us and we extended our stay until this morning. It was difficult to leave today, and we've vowed to return. For those reading this in the Pacific Northwest, Loutros is our new Stehekin - perhaps even better as it provides both the hills for hiking and a stunning seafront.

Picture a crescent shaped harbor, ringed with small restaurants and hotels and pedestrians, small boats dancing in the gentle wave action at the water's edge, the ferry docked for the night at the edge of the harbor and a full moon comes up illuminating the scene, like a postcard. . .that would be last night. This morning the sun rose over one of the distant peaks, looking ever so much like a volcano erupting a giant orange and yellow sphere. . .it really doesn't get any better we've concluded.

In addition to being one of the most picturesque harbors we've ever seen, there were incredible hikes to take up the hillsides around us that led to and through Venetian and Turkish ruins. Sunday morning we climbed to the remains of a Turkish fortress, hundreds of years old. The only sounds were the wind blowing through the olive trees, goat/sheep bells ringing, the birds chirping and the waves below. The morning sun heated the wild herbs so the scent of thyme, oregano, and sage wafted in the breeze.

We finally headed out this morning the direction we had planned to go on Saturday. We are now in a small studio apartment in a small beach front town called Kalamaki about six hours and 50 kilometers from Loutros. Distances aren't great here but the narrow, winding roads up over the mountains and through gorges makes for slower travel. Our apartment cost 27 euros and has a narrow view of the ocean. . .the ocean front units were all filled on this Monday night. We head out tomorrow as the explorations continue.

Friday, October 2, 2009

On the Road Again

We have so easily settled into this fishing villiage lifestyle that we think we had best move on or we will be tempted to ask about monthly winter rates . . .they actually close our hotel on Nov. 10th.

We did go looking for a real estate office yesterday (a tradition in our travels) and couldn't find any - another mark of an authentic place, not yet given over entirely to tourism.

So today we head north along the Libyan Sea coastal highway under a cloudy sky and rain falling. We have no destination in mind, will report in when we stop the next time. I mentioned driving in Crete and this photo probably says best what I was trying to describe. This is the way you move to the side allowing others to pass - works fine unless they are doing the same thing coming from the other direction!

Hora Sfakia - on the Libyan Sea

It seems longer ago than day before yesterday that we wound our way through the Lefka Ori mountain range to the southern side of Crete and ended up in this small town Hora Sfakia, also Sfakion (ho-ra sfah-kee-on) perhaps, because we've had an easy transition into the slow pace of this village as compared to the hustle of Hania.

This small town -- with a handful of lodging establishments; many atop street-level eateries-- is built on a small cove on the Libyan Sea. With a population today of some 350 residents, and despite its small size, it played a prominent role in the Cretan history as thousands of Allied troops were evacuated from the island fom this small port following the Battle of Crete. [Many weren't so lucky as we also visited the 1,500+ graves in the Allied War Cemetary on Souda Bay, near Hania before heading this direction. Many gravestones were marked without names, only an inspcription, "Known only to God."]

For centuries, we are told, the people here fished and tended sheep and lamb herds. The sheer height of the mountains and difficulty in getting over them meant that you pretty much were born and died here. Then tourism joined as one of the local industries as hikers made it a jumping off point for the breathtaking gorges that cut through the mountain ranges.

We've yet to meet another American with our fellow guests all being from Germany, England, Holland and other European locales. The ferry (the size of a small car ferry in Washington State) is pretty much the big excitement here three times a day. It travels between Loutros a smaller village west of us with no access other than ferry and also to Agios Roumeli where the hikers arrive from Samaria Gorge. They come here on the ferry and then catch large tourist buses taking them back to the northern side towns of Hania and Rethymno.
The afternoons are quiet; I am sitting alone in the Hotel Stavros lobby writing this entry. I overlook the cafe tables along the small narrow street (one of two in the harbor area) that passes the hotel. A cat walked past. An owner of the hotel sits at one of the tables, there is no reception desk. You simply look at the room, if you like it, you are handed the key (in exchange for your passport, that is). There are two cash machines in town; no one takes credit cards. There are a few cell phones in use, and of course there is wireless access.

We taken outings in our rental car in the mornings and afternoons are nap and play in the sea times. Then it is time to sip a Mythos beer on our deck watching the ferry arrive at 6:30 p.m. and the sun set at 7 p.m. Then it is off to dinner.

We've convinced ourselves that we must stay here a bit longer; the desire to get to Rhoades is fading. . .

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dancing with Zorba

Anyone who has traveled knows those days that have proven so stressful that you wonder why you put yourself through it. And they also know the sheer joy of those travel experiences that can be termed 'magical'. Today we danced with Zorba in a manner of speaking in what might be the best outing of our trip so far. Earlier posts on this blog noted Stavros, the beach where "Zorba the Greek" was filmed as a possible novel destination. We almost skipped it in lieu of returning to the heart of Hania for our last day; are we glad we didn't.

Stavros Beach, where Zorba did his famous 'sirtaki' dance is on a beautiful cove at the base of a rocky mountain (it is this mountain in the film that Zorba's ill-fated logging plan failed). There were few beach chairs set up and a single concession on the beach - in fact there isn't much in Stavros (a plus!) other than a few restaurants and beach homes.

We dined at a restaurant, Mama's Place, across from the beach that had been operating since 1951. The cast and crew had dined at the Vasiliki family restaurant while filming and being unable to pronounce her first name had simply called her 'mama' and the rest is history. Petros Vasiliki was 16 at the time the movie was filmed and today he is a white-haired 61-year-old who runs the restaurant and tells tales about the days of Stavros in 1964 when the film put the place on the map.

The food was excellent, the setting perfect and our visit with Petros, one of those experiences that make travel worthwhile.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Goat bells, olive groves and gorges

Our first week is coming far too quickly to an end. We've taken the advice of Andres, our co-manager/host at Lefka Apartments and taken the off-the-beaten-path roads to places where the tourist buses don't, actually couldn't go, because of the narrow roads and hairpin turns along the way. Think Hart's Pass in Mazama or the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Our little Renault, a car the size of Herbie my VW, is about as big as one would want to be in on the single lane roads that lead through a gorge darkened by the cliff overhangs to heights that are so dizzying that you really don't want to look down from the guard-rail-less road carved out of the rocky hillside to the drop below. The island's Samaria Gorge is popular with hikers and a well-known tourist destination, but our travels through Therisso Gorge only a few kilomters from Chania was pretty spectacular. The roadwayloops its way up hillsides in hairpin turns so sharp that you breath a sigh of relief to have successfully navigated them.

The rocky hillsides are covered with vast amounts of olive groves and goat herds -- many herds chose to lay in the roadway or at its side; it wasn't unusual to make a hairpin turn and find ourselves looking eye to eye with one or two goats. The silence of the hills was broken only by the sound of their hollow tinkling goat bells.

Celebrating International Tourism Day - Sept. 27th

Don't think we realized there was such a celebration until we experienced it first-hand on Sunday during our visit to Rethymno, a port city with a strong Venetian influence, about 45 minutes from our Venetian Chania. We'd heard talk at our pool bar about the celebration but hadn't paid much attention to it.

We stumbled across the Rethymno Tourism headquarters about 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning and found they had set up cocktail tables outside their building decked out with white table cloths and at one end of their courtyard they served tea and cookies and on the other end poured glasses of wine and appetizers. Inside tables were set up like a cruise ship buffet -- including the carved watermelons -- and all of which were Cretan specialities.

Another table offered brochures and information about the prefecture (county) of Rethymno. Staff members assured me this was an annual celebration and one it appears taken quite seriously. Back 'home' in Hania, we didn't get a chance to visit the tourism center, but noted two huge fireworks displays over the bay at nightfall.

Speaking of tourism, the Europeans are not paying heed to 'staycations' like Americans. This northwestern end of Crete is full of tourists, they are filling restaurants, spilling out on to the streets -- a fellow guest at Lefka Apts. tells us there are 15 flights a day from Norway to Crete. . . .tourism seems alive and well here - no wonder such spectacular celebrations.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Cats of Greece

A photo is worth a thousand words, right? So, need I say more? The cats of Greece are known throughout the world . . . calendars feature them, books, tourist items galore. Lefka Apartments has a set of two white/red kitties that are the official cats, but then we have the one pictured here. She just showed up last spring we are told. And she is fed along with the official cats but is still considered the outcast.

We were greeted by this little creature and have now given in to her persistent charms, a tuna can food dish is now a part of our deck and yogurt, tuna, leftovers (and Greek cookies) are all favorites of our new friend. She isn't allowed inside so makes it a point of jumping on my lap while sitting on the deck -- she's an intelligent little beast; she knows an easy mark when she sees one

Easy Jet ~ Easy Coffee

Several of you expressed some concern over our flying Easy Jet to Crete. . .was it safe? What kind of aircraft, had we flown it before? Answers: yes, we have flown it before and would do it again in an instant. Speaking of instant, that is my lead in to Starbucks. . .

Easy Jet with its cheapy flights to detinations throughout Europe was proudly announcing Starbucks was being served on board. It was: in instant packets. You could choose medium bodied and receive a tube of Columbian instant or strong and get the Italian instant and a cup of hot water. The cost 3E per cup. Starbucks hot chocolate - another powdered packet was 3E per cup and Tazo tea 2.50E.

We tried to buy instant packets at the Starbuck's in Chania, but the clerk said it hadn't yet arrived. . .he had only been shown packets by folks stopping by hoping to replenish their stock as we had been (we bought ours at Houghton in Kirkland).

As for Easy Jet, our aircraft was an Airbus - modern and comfortable.

On a final Easy Jet note, those of you who followed the packing know that we opted for the Rick Steves' travel plan: take carryon liquids, lighten the load, bring the bag with you no need to check it. . .it worked well on British Air but Easy Jet has a one bag limit carry-on and that bag could be a purse. . .so 16 pounds (about $25) each carryon bag later, our suitcases were checked. . .and I carried on the tiny liquids in a plastic bag in my purse; Joel carried the Netbook. The good news though is I get to buy all sorts of olive oil beauty items from hair masques to foot creams and for a fraction of the price I would pay back home!


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