Crete 2009: Overview

In the beginning...

Group on the march

Each of our trips has its genesis in some germ of an idea; has some setting or meaning which may not be Deep, yet seems an integral part of the record. We are growing weary of trips to the third world, fascinating as those trips have been; Europe and Canada will be our future destinations. We picked Greece this time because I'd never been (probably Spain next because Lyn hasn't been there). We actually ended up with Crete because our first two choices of trips were cancelled...but it turned out a fortuitous one.

The English Bits

Part of that longer story left us with a few days on each end of our holiday and so we arranged a few days with friends in England.

Five days in Northhampton and Yorkshire before Crete and a day in Canterbury and Folkestone after, were perfect bookends to a great holiday. Mind you, we owed those first days to the excellent hospitality of friends, who took us on three great walks to prepare us for our holiday in Crete.

CRETE

General Impressions

Within days of being here, we realize how relaxed we were compared with our recent trips to third world countries. Of course we loved those trips too but it was just great to be in a country where the hotel plumbing worked, where we could walk the streets without getting hassled, and not have to be hyper-conscious about our valuables. [More accurately, these are not problems with the third world generally but with the scum that we tourists attract, especially in large cities].

Crete is relatively unspoiled by tourism as yet. People were friendly towards us but clearly had their own independent lives: we did our thing, they did theirs.

No, it's not true that gigantic winds blew all the roofs off the buildings here. A large number of buildings sport apparently unfinished roofs because at one time you didn't have to pay taxes until the building was completed...so Cretans simply never finished their buildings. Apparently that loophole is now closed but its legacy is still with us.

Ramblers...

We're on a group walking holiday again—our 8th with Ramblers Holidays and it's time to say a word about this. Every year we resist the idea of yet another organized holiday as it lacks a sense of adventure and perhaps courage.

...and then we give in again to its allure. The trouble is that Ramblers provides a reliable and condensed form of exactly what we want: great walks, good food, decent hotels and fun groups. So we get more of what we want for half the hassle and stress we'd get if we did it on our own, and yet the cost is probably around the same. Later on, when we get more time away we'll roll our own holidays but with only two or three weeks vacation a year each day needs to count.

...and ramblers

There's 17 of us: two 80+ year-olds, a few in their 70's and the rest of us in our sixties (or so I'd guess: we don't know everyone's age). We've had mixed luck with groups in the past—never any real problems but one or two groups have been a better experience than the others. This was one of the good ones. Almost everyone seemed to get along well. Consider that we're together walking or at meals for about 10 hours a day, so conversation could get to be a strain without the blessing of kindred chatty souls to spend the time with.

Our group leader, Kath, has been coming here for 14 years, speaks Greek, and is apparently related to almost everyone we meet. Very helpful!

It was only thanks to Kath's excellent notes provided at the end of the trip that we were able to trace the place names and routes we had walked here and in Google Earth (see link below)

The Walking

Ramblers' holidays are difficulty rated, with an A for the last col on Everest down to an F for...well, staying in the hotel and watching it on TV.

We thought we'd signed up for a D+ walking holiday (which means up to about 16Km day and climbing perhaps 2000ft). But in the scramble of two cancellations we found we'd signed up for this "D/Sightseeing/Flowers". Uh,oh. Our last two D/SS holidays had been all bus rides and minimal walking; adding "Flowers" hinted at even less exercise.

But the hike is apparently not properly rated in the brochure: we hiked about 10-12Km every day (up/down 500/1000 ft). Perfect! We're not in as good shape as we have been in the past (not that we're any older) and have more aches and pains. Funnily enough, Lyn got blisters on this trip and she's never had that before. We're getting softer.

It is a "Flower" holiday and this gives rise to a bit of tension between the needs of the group. Everyone is interested in flowers but a few are really interested in flowers, if you get my drift: they even know the latin names for everything. For the first week, we find ourselves waiting a few minutes at every halt for these folks to catch up, as they're plunging off into nearby fields looking for rare orchids or anenomes, and falling to the ground to take photos or notes when they find something. The walkers get antsy but it is unreasonable: it is a flower holiday after all. By degrees it sorts itself out.

And actually the few birders in the group (lookers up instead of down) are often glad of the delay as something interesting seems to be drifting overhead or flickering nearby and it's nice to have the muffled muttering directed elsewhere some of the time!

See the hikes in Google Earth

Google Earth is a free download from Google that allows you to see the world from satellite pictures. It's better than it sounds. These must be the CIA pictures: the zoom is so good you can see cars parked in driveways. All our hiking routes, and the villages/towns we walked through, have been marked on the overhead view. Some need fine tuning but it's a fascinating collection of memories.
View Larger Map

To access this:

  • Download and install Google Earth if you haven't already;
  • Right-click the link and save it on your computer.
  • Click or double-click the saved file. Google Earth will open it.
  • You'll see a list of the hikes in the panel on the left of the screen. Click anyone of them.

I was able to reproduce these routes only thanks to Kath's excellent notes. Thanks Kath!

(click this to clear it)

Kastelli/Kissamos

Our first week and 6 hikes are in the small ville of Kastelli/Kissamos, just (40 miles) up the road from Chania. We were in a good, modern hotel with a swimming pool, which they filled after our first few days—chiefly so that the swallows winging across the nearby garden lots, could dip past and skim for a drink. Location was convenient: we could walk to the several restaurants that provided our dining fare each evening; there were good produce stores nearby where Lyn (she insists) could buy the groceries for our lunches; and an internet cafe where I blogged most evenings.

Our street is rife with commerce but the parallel one, five minutes walk away, is more upscale, and the waterfront seems geared to a tourism that we can't see, as we seemed to be the only ones around yet

Chania

Chania Harbour

In Chania we had a hotel in the old town. This is quaint area within the old city walls, and close to the waterfront. Again, we were no more than 5 minutes walk from all the restaurants and shops we needed. Slight downside here was that the narrow cobbled streets outside the hotel acted like a soundbox and at 2am the occasional passing party of British yobbos sounded as though they were walking through our room. The hotel, also made of stone, was no help. On the first two nights, a couple on the first floor had shouting matches at midnite and later in the week another couple with two terrible 4 year olds and a baby arrived. After a while we got used to it. But there were times when we hankered for a bit more quiet at night.

We were in the tourist area of Chania so we were hassled and charged slightly more than in Kastelli. But all of these amounted to mild and occasional grumbles rather than any serious interruption to a relatively blissful existence.

The Season

We had one Easter in England and now had a second in Greece: Eastern Orthodox Easter comes a week later. Easter is as important to Greeks as Christmas is to merchants in North America. And more formal. Greeks fast during this week, increasing the depth of their fast by a specific food type every day: beans the first day; fish the second...perhaps finally coffee and cigarettes. Letting off thunderous firecrackers seems to provide some sort of relief but by the end of the week everyone is starving so Sunday is a time of feasting, Easter Sunday is the night where each church congregation walks a decorated coffin in a ceremonial path around town, joining up for a final service. We ran across one of these processions on our way back from dinner and it really is quite a sight, the ancient and modern—teenagers carrying a lighted candle in one hand and talking on a cellphone with the other.

Geography

Hills and peaks

Cruising into Chania in the plane, we could see the snow-capped peaks of the White Mountains to the East. Peaks here and in the two other major range further East still reach almost 8,000 feet. But even the 2,000 foot climbs the road takes along parts of the coast are enough to make a bus ride interesting. For the most part we'll be walking on hills of less than 1,000 feet with only one last climb from 3500' to 5000'. But this still means up and down a-plenty and great views as a standard.

The island is only about 40km x 250km (8,000km2), about 1/4 the size of Vancouver Island (1/15th the size of England in round numbers).(

Agriculture

Olive groves at 1000ft Olives. Everywhere. Groves going down to the sea and up into the mountains. Viewed in Google Earth (or maps) the hills of Crete appear patchworked: olive groves. Groves have to be watered, and water is supplied in an extensive networks of pipes that erupt from scattered complicated looking metering stems giving off sinuous shoots that disappear off among the trees. Nets cover the ground beneath the trees, to collect any fallen olives; any competing weed or underbrush is plowed under.

Oranges near AgyaBut here and there is other produce such as orchards of oranges and avocados; in the towns, herbs and other daily produce are grown in allotments and gardens; the woods are also a source of plants and flowers that the locals also gather and these would sometimes appear on our plates in the evening.

And for the corpse and cheese eaters: chickens can be seen and heard everywhere; goats roam hither and yon; there's the occasional herd of sheep—mostly on the roads; did we see cows? I can't remember.

Flowers

Flowers

This is the season for wildflowers after all, and there is an abundance. We walk in color for two weeks but unfortunately not all of it comes out in photos —blues becomes particularly subdued. There are the usual and expected— daisies, poppies, cornflowers—in carpets; but there are unusual variations even in these: pink dandelions and strange tulips. There's plenty of herb— fennel; and reports of rarer and local items: several varieties of bee orchids, man orchids, anenomes, a large bush of fennel, wild tulips, crocuses, Irises (ooh, ahh!) and even a couple of Mandrake roots.

Feathered folk

It proved important to keep a sharp eye out. Sure, nine of ten birds overhead were Common Buzzards but the occasional one turned out to be a Griffon Vulture or Booted Eagle; same for small birds: mostly House Sparrows but surprise! there's an Italian Sparrow or Windchat Shrike. We saw over 80 species.

Many large birds of prey overhead, although some in our groups wondered why a couple of sheep carcasses we saw were relatively untouched. Little twitty things in the undergrowth. These smaller fry made themselves plenty scarce and Barry and I had our doubts about Cath's claim that the locals don't shoot small birds. The dirt roads we walked were littered with collections of used shotgun catridges. Possible explanations: there's some large, hardy large local varmint that stands still while you pump 10 shells into it; or possibly groups of bored farmers with guns and a couple of bottles of wine to finish simply aim at anything that moves. Small birds were all too shy.

Tethered Folk

goatsNo wonder there's no crime in Crete: barking dogs were everywhere. Sure that frothing, werewolf-like creature lunging repeatedly at you as you pass a farmyard is tethered...by a frayed rope attached to a rusted peg banged loosely into the ground. Goats were as frequent but at least they were at the other end of the hostility spectrum.

Language

Interestingly almost all signs (restaurant menu items, etc) have a second translation in English. It is a relief to have this so universally but it isn't clear why (aside from one restaurant that added a third column in German) there's no acknowledgement of other European languages? And there since there is little sign of American tourists we must assume that the Greeks feel a special kinship with the UK (WW2? Prince Philip?). Is English now the accepted international language in Europe? Is that de Gaulle turning in his grave?

Churches and ruins

Giant enters church Our walking took us past, among other things, a series of remarkable tiny churches. These were often away from the nearest village or town. Inside, in a room barely enough for a dozen people to squeeze in there might be an altar and even a picture or signs at least of some now faded ancient mural.

ruinsRuins a-plenty, as you might expect: here an acropolis, there an ampitheatre, left lying around for two or three millenia. A bit careless really.

Buses and Driving

Relatively cheap, frequent, ubiquitous and easy to travel on. The EU no doubt funded the gleaming fleet of modern, working (safety belts even!) buses that hammer around the island. Good thing too! The thought of navigating those steep climbs and mountain turns in some old jalopy is not restful.

Drivers apparently own or lease their buses and are allocated routes (it seemed) on a dynamic basis. You don't take the No. 10 bus to Heraklion: there's an announcement 5 minutes before the bus is due to leave that passengers for Heraklion should look for bus 46. Possibly this encourages a less carefree driving style than would likely otherwise be common. But it has anomalies: we have reported elsewhere that one 'owner', in defiance of the law, had removed all the non-smoking signs on 'his' bus and chain-smoked the whole route

Checking tickets is left to a member of what is possibly another freelance profession: the conductor. Or members: on the bus to Heraklion the conductor we started out with got off the bus in the middle of nowhere and was replaced, a couple of stops later, by someone else.

Both public and private buses—and indeed all traffic—drives in a manner which is either reckless or highly skilled, depending on your point of view. Buses hammer through towns and villages. Darwin could likely have saved himself a long journey had he noticed how remarkably nimble the surviving children and dogs are here. Buses navigated narrow streets at a speed that had us all gasping. Indeed it seemed as though only our collective inhalation saved the harvesting of wing mirrors of the cars parked on either side of the street.

The following illustrates both Greek character and traffic: in the middle of the chaotic rush hour, a man had apparently left his Jeep in the middle of a main thoroughfare to purchase something (perhaps cigarettes) in a nearby store, leading to a traffic backup of severeal blocks. Everyone just waited until he came back out a few minutes later, and everything continued as usual.

Food and Drink

Geez the food was good. Being a large group at a low point of the tourist season no doubt carried its special benefits and downsides. Our meals followed something of a standard form—appetizers, a main course courses, followed by a dessert. Many of these were yer recognizable Greek staples. But this unremarkable format nonetheless produced a steady stream of remarkable variations—a lot of it vegetarian. There were a couple of forgettable dishes but they were few and far between.

Yet another refreshment stop Raki was the most commonly proferred drink: it seemed to come gratis at the end of every meal and varied in both potency and flavor in each restaurant...perhaps depending on what the brewmaster had handy. We were offered a local specialty wine on our first evening out—a local red that turned out to be more like a Madeira or Malmsey: interesting but likely an acquired taste. No local beer though.

It's actually a wonder we all had appetites in the evening as we seemed to be moving from one taverna to the next throughout the day and snacking at each. The favourite "refreshment" was yoghurt and honey—both likely homegrown within 10m.

Nescafe seem to own the franchise on coffee in Europe, and darn but if we didn't get used to it! It's what you get if you order coffee without asking for "Americano"—if they serve it.

Summing Up

One of our best holidays. Crete didn't compete with the 'awesome' elements of Peru or Egypt but had what we wanted this time around: the relaxation ingredients of very pleasant walking among flowers and great views, with good food and good company to round it out.