Monday, October 12, 2009

From ruins to raki

We are finding that from ruins to raki, some of our travel 'bests' are free.

The photo I included with this post was taken in Kissamos, a port town in the northwest of Crete, where we had stopped for afternoon coffee. These types of excavations have become 'typical' street scenes in our travels. Many have posted explanations and others leave it all to your imagination. The Kissamos archeological museum is filled with pottery, statues and incredible mosiacs that took us back centuries. There was no entry fee.

Similar excations are found throughout Hania, which got its start as a Minoan city of Kydonia in 1450BC! Its old harbor reflects the buildings of its Venetian occupation in the 13th Century and to the east of the harbor the old Turkish Quarter of Korum Kapi provided winding walkways and interesting sites.

On the south coast we visited Frangokastello, a remarkably well-preserved Venetian fortress, built in the 14th century to protect from pirate attacks. You visit there free of charge; no staff, no guards, no bag checks. It overlooks a beautiful white sand beach that draws busloads of tourists to it and the beach chairs nearby.

Raki, is a clear distilled liquor of this country. It is served in miniature pitchers and drunk from thimble-sized glasses after meals. Usually it is served with some Cretan specialty like honey cake - as a thank you from the restaurant to you for having eaten there.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Flavors of Greece

I've written about yogurt and honey so it is time to add a bit more about Greek food. It has been fantastic! We are eating ripe, red, juicy tomatoes and crisp cucumbers in the Greek salads, each served with a wedge of feta cheese on top. I've given in to my love of moussaka and am making the most of it at every opportunity. Joel has taken a fancy to the slow roasted chicken that comes swimming in a broth of olive oil and lemon juice. And of course, we haven't been able to pass up the pita gyros - so large they make a meal. I'll let the photos tell the story here.
And in keeping with my food-focused travel writing, check out the article appearing in the Thursday, Oct. 8th Seattle Times, about our tasting trips in Washington State this summer (

Kalespera from Elounda

It is afternoon in Elounda (e-loon-da) on the north coast of Crete and it is in the 90's today. We finished our travels along Crete's southern coast yesterday morning and a quick 39 kilometer drive later we were back on the north coast. My last message to many of you was that we planned to head for the hills. . .of course, the winds changed direction again right after I wrote that and we continued our drive along the south coast stopping in charming seaside villages, walking spectacular lengths of sandy beaches and watching waves crash against sheer rock cliffs in other places. The scenery is so everchanging and startling that our vocabulary of late has been,"Oh Wow!" or "Look!" and our heads swiveling like periscopes.

What is amazing to us is that we have both a sea and mountain view no matter where we have been on this island. And the views just never stop.

We planned a an overnight stay in Elounda and have again fallen to a place's charms and have extended for at least three nights, perhaps more and will do day trips from here for a few days anyway.

Taking the recommendation of Lonely Planets guidebook we stopped at Corali Studios ( and lucked out with a no-show guest having left a beautiful waterfront studio for us to rent - again at a mere 40E per night. We have a view of Spinalonga Island - one of my 'novel' destinations, the bay and down the coastline.

A beautiful pool area is behind our complex and it is time to head there. . .more on Spinalonga later.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Honey and yogurt

We can't get enough of the two. If you've never tried Greek yogurt think of eating cream cheese and you've got an idea of the consistency. Then add to it a smokey, thick amber honey, seasoned with the wild thyme flowers that bloom here twice a year. We purchased our honey from the lady who owns the bakery in Hora Sfakia -- her husband, the baker, is also the one who bottles the honey twice a year. We've saved an enormous amount by having breakfast in each morning and also by having our own honey and yogurt creations.

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.


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