Incredible Crete!

The Cretan spirit known as Raki

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Raki (also known as Tsikoudia) is a Cretan distilled spirit.  You will be offered it after meals by hospitable taverna patrons, often even for free, along with dessert!  What’s not to like?

The best raki, I’m told, is homemade. It’s brewed to be shared with friends and family in Crete.  Many families have their own still, or share a distillery with their (often large) extended families.  Raki is made in the autumn, once the grape harvest is done and vines have been pruned.

Some Raki makers will add wild herbs such as thyme or rosemary; others will sweeten the clear liquid with honey, making it a rich golden colour. This sweetened, very palatable blend of Raki and honey is known as “Rakomena”.
The locals claim that the spirit promotes a long and healthy life, and also aids digestion.  For these and I’m sure other many benefits, such as sheer merriment, an enhanced capability to befriend people, and to understand and speak Greek, raki is a ‘must try’ drink. Yammas!!

Contact Karma Travel if you would like to visit a distillery, or want tips on where to get the best raki in Crete!

Elafonisi Beach

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If you want more information and need to book transfers or accommodation, contact the experts at Karma Travel!

The Island of Crete, Greece – See for yourself, feel for yourself

Agiofarago

Agiofarago

In search of tranquility, I went to Agiofarago. This is in the Heraklion prefecture (southern coast of Crete), between the Odigitria Monastery and Kaloi Limenes. It was described to me as ‘a perfect place to go seeking solitude’. This is a secluded beach with emerald waters; the shore is covered by small pebbles, and the sea is ideal for snorkelling, which I love. The pristine beach of Agiofarago remains so because there is truly nothing here. Unlike the other beaches I went to, here there were no taverna, parasols, or loungers. There’s nowhere to buy food or water, so you have to carry along all the things you consider necessary. Some people camp here, and it would indeed be the only way to spend the night here, as there are no hotels nearby.

Following a footpath for about 30 minutes, I crossed the gorge towards the beach overlooking the Libyan sea. Hiking along the silent trail took me to the church of Agios Antonios. Its sanctum is inside a cavern. The church was built in the 14th century A.D, and it has been restored three times, but the figures of saints depicted on frescoes on the walls are nonetheless quite faded, destroyed by humidity.

A story goes that Agiofarago was visited by Saint Paul, the Apostle, in 62 BC, when his boat capsized near Kali Limenes. It is said that St Paul spent some time as an anchoret inside the caves scattered within the gorge. Since then, this became a holy place where hermits came to live in the caves, and there are records of this practice from the 7th century A.D; the first known hermit was Agios Kosmas. Agiofarago was ideal for meditation. It’s not hard to picture why: you really seem to leave the whole world and its noise behind!

According to the story I was told, the hermits gathered once a year inside a cavern close to Agios Antonios called “goumenospilios”. They sat around a table, and noted who was absent. Any absentees were considered dead! An oath of silence was imposed on the members of this ascetic community which remained unbreakable. Therefore, they sought solitude even to avoid contact with each other. The austerity of these hermits was extreme. Their life was frugal; in the first place, food was scarce, and only a well outside Agios Antonios provided them with water, as no other springs are found along Agiofarago.

It is said that hermits were seen here until the end of the 19th century. Some claim that they have come across silent monks, and I heard stories that invisible monks appear only to those whose faith in God is strong. You can come and find out for yourself!

I have to say I did not encounter any invisible monks. Perhaps my faith was not strong enough to attract them… Anyhow, I crossed the gorge and reached the beach. Here are absolutely amazing high rocks, ideal to take a dive into the clear waters of the Libyan Sea.

The seclusion of this beach is due to locals’ and tourists’ preference for easily accessible beaches. Since Agiofarago is not one of them, it remains ‘untouched’. It’s also a great place for practicing rappel. I saw several people practicing this on the cliffs as I crossed the gorge. I was really sorry I did not come prepared to join in!

If you want to organise your travel to this remote beach, contact Karma Travel.

Monasteries

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It was my last day in Chania, and a Saturday.   I had promised myself I would visit Moni Agias Triadas and Moni Gouvernetou, which are in the Akrotiri Peninsula, to the northeast of Chania.

I had foolishly forgotten my drivers’ license, so I could not rent a car.  I thought it was easy enough to follow the rough instructions on my Lonely Planet tourist guide and just get there.  So I went and took a bus.  Firstly, I made enquiries at the bus station, and the girl in the information booth sent me to buy a ticket towards the airport, which is south of the peninsula, and told me to get off the bus at a particular point, then take a taxi.  I bought the ticket.  When I was about to board the bus, I looked closely at my map and the guide, and realised that she had sent me to the opposite end of the peninsula, which would make the taxi fare quite costly.  I had to quickly exchange my bus ticket, and boarded a bus to Stavros.

Without knowing the region, traveling by bus becomes a bit of an adventure, as stops are not necessarily called by the driver, and at bus stops, there are no signs to tell you the name of the place.  I was following my map carefully and looking for any signs we passed on the road, as I was not going all the way to Stavros, but getting off two villages before.  I did manage to get off at Horafakia, and called a taxi to take me from there to Moni Agias Triadas.

The monastery of the Holy Trinity is proudly active and still plays a part in the local economy. Monks own a vast amount of land, and they produce olive oil, wine and other products.  You can visit the gardens, a chapel, and an exhibition of Byzantine icons and religious paraphernalia.  The paintings were particularly beautiful.

From there, my book said you could walk about four kilometres to Moni Gouvernetou.  I am a keen walker, and thought of this as a short ‘pilgrimage’ of sorts, so I set off walking.   About one kilometre down the road, an Ucranian couple stopped their car and generously offered me a ride to the monastery, which I accepted.   I am glad I did, as little did I know, a few hundred metres down the road, it narrowed to the point that two lanes became one tightly winding road, which could have been dangerous to walk on, particularly if cars were coming from up the hill at some speed and would not necessarily see you!

We got to the monastery at about 4.20 PM, and the gate was open, but the actual monastery was closed. It would reopen at 5.00 PM.  We could go in and take a walk in the premises, though.  These, I have to say, are spectacular.  The monastery is the guardian of a vast amount of land that includes mountains and valleys rolling towards the sea.  They have some olive groves and vineyards, but the valley, importantly, is home to another monastery which is located closer to the coast, and is where St John the Hermit used to live in a cave at the bottom of a rock staircase.  You can walk down a beautiful rock path towards it, and visit a few caves where his disciples dwelled, which hold small chapels.  Again, the hills are covered in aromatic herbs, so you walk amidst the smell of thyme, sage, oregano, and olive trees.  The natural beauty of the place is breathtaking.  It inspires awe and gives you a feeling of tranquility.

I walked down, then up the path, and returned to the monastery, where you are welcome to visit a patio and a small church in the middle of it. By the time I walked in, it was time for vespers.  It was beautiful.  Chants and sweet incense wrapped around me and engulfed me.  I stayed there quite a while to meditate and pray.

When I got out, I figured I would just call the same taxi company that brought me to Moni Agias Triadas and ask them to pick me up at Moni Gouvernetou to take me to Chania.  By then, I already knew that I had missed the afternoon bus from Stavros to Chania; I was conscious of the need to find my way back.  However, I had not considered the possibility of being unable to call the taxi in the first place.  My mobile had no signal!

Luckily, a French couple walked out of the monastery and made their way towards a car.  I explained my problem, and they kindly agreed to take me down to the first village.  I was really very grateful.   From where they stopped, I called a taxi and finally got back to Chania.

The adventure was worth it.  The monasteries were beautiful and I enjoyed the journey.  However, if you are considering a visit to these wonderful places, I suggest you save yourself some trouble and plan your own transportation ahead.  Contact Karma Travel and get a great deal in car rental, transfers or a guided visit!

Chania

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What a lovely place is Chania (which can easily become Xania, Hania or Kania, depending on who you talk to)!  I spent a couple of days here, and when the time came to say goodbye, I was pondering whether I should phone home and ask someone to have my stuff forwarded so I could just relocate.

Wishful thinking aside, Chania is a jewel of a small city in the north western part of Crete.  Its strategic location (and presumably the resources around the area and the sheer beauty of the region) made it a coveted possession.  For a long stretch of time, it was Chania, not Heraklion, that was the capital of Crete. Having been the seat of power, the many invasions, conquests, sieges, stalemates, and waves of migrants left their mark on the city.  The seafront and the old town bear the mark of the Venetians, who built palazzos, fortresses and a pretty lighthouse, which are still standing in defiance of Time and the many successive overtakings of the island.  There are also a mosque and a couple of minarets to bear witness of Ottoman and Turkish rule.  Archaeological excavations in the middle of the old town remind us that the city was the seat of ancient Kydonia (Greek for quince) far back in Minoan times.  In the Archaeological Museum, you will also learn that the area has been inhabited since the Neolithic era, and you will see artifacts that tell the colourful story of a city that has metamorphosed constantly throughout its history, counterpoints and staccattos marked every time that cultures clashed violently in a struggle to seize or guard it.

You stroll along the cobblestone narrow streets of the old town, with bouganvilleas and vines overhanging wrought iron balconies and palm trees shading the far edges along the ruins of an ancient Venetian fortress.  You sip an orange granita whilst sitting on a bench by the seafront, overlooking the lighthouse and the mosque, or you browse trendy or crafty shops set in reconstructed Venetian palazzos in lively Splantzia, which is peppered with nice cafés where you can stop the world spinning by ordering an iced coffee and sitting down to peoplewatch.

The Agora central market is a pleasure to navigate, with the feel and bustle of a bazaar and plenty of delicacies to tempt you.  In the old town, even touristy shops are a pleasure to browse.

I had a couple of wonderful dinners at To Adespoto, a cozy al fresco restaurant set in what once was a Venetian palazzo on Sifaka Str.  Live music and fabulous food and wine made the evenings a pleasure. Whilst on holiday, I don’t often return to the same place for a meal, as I like to try different things. However, the food and the ambiance of this Taverna made me return, and quite happily!

After dinner, I once wandered into a music shop in the old town, and the friendly owner gave me a comprehensive briefing on Cretan music.  I was looking for a song they had played at the Taverna, which I quite liked.  Not speaking Greek proved a bit of a complication, however. All I could make of the song I was after was a woman’s name: ‘Αικατερίνη’.  I had even made up a story about the lyrics in my mind -surely, this Ekaterini was a heartbreaker…   My appreciation must have been fairly off, as the music expert could not quite place the song as per my description.  After a long and pleasant chat, I left with a CD in my hands.  I cannot stop listening to it!  The holiday glow returns whenever I play it. Give it a go and ‘see’ for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKBDCiuZczk.  The artists are Stelios Petrakis and Bijan Chemirani.  The album is ‘Kismet’.

If you want advise on transfers or accommodation in lovely Xania, ask Karma Travel!

History and music

Glyka Nera, near Sfakia

Beach Glika Nera,near Sfakia

After following the E4 path from Loutro,  I ended up in Glyka Nera Beach (Sweet Water beach). The seascape in this secluded beach is absolutely gorgeous, but there is yet another remarkable detail about this beach, which is also the reason for its name:  there is a fresh water gurgling spring just by the sea!

This beach is not busy at all. I was coming from the beaches in Chora Sfakion and Loutro, which had a fair share of tourists. Having been in other places with massive beach resorts, I really feel I need to clarify that I was pleasantly surprised to discover that at the height of summer, Cretan beaches I visited were busy, but by no means teeming with people. This said, I was looking for solitude, which I was very pleased to find at the pebbly shore in Glyka Nera.

The beach was not deserted, though.  There were quite convenient parasols and loungers for rent, and a simple Taverna, where  you can buy a delicious Greek salad, sandwiches or snacks.

If you wanted to get to this beach without walking the E4 path along the cliff, I recommend contacting Karma Travel for advise. I am told that you can reach it by boat, too.

Sfakia

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Loutro, kri kri, mountain goat

I spent half a day in Chora Sfakion, and used the time to visit nearby Loutro as well.

The seascapes in this area are stunning. I used to say that my favourite colours were blue and turquoise, but I don’t think I had an idea of the intensity of the hues these colours could have until I was in Crete last week.  What an amazing feast for the eyes, just to look at the Mediterranean glistening in the sunlight!

I had wanted to go to Loutro lured by the promise of Roman ruins and the opportunity to hike for a short distance towards another nearby beach.  I took a ferry from Chora Sfakion and as soon as I descended in Loutro, I walked up a hill.  The signposting, again, was missing, so I was not sure whether I was again looking for the E4 in the right place.  I suppose it becomes a matter of trusting your instinct, given that there will not be a sign, plaque, or arrow to direct you.  There were, indeed, some ruins, both of what seemed a Roman settlement and a Venetian fortress.  I took plenty of pictures.  There were also kri kri (wild goats) and these were so relaxed in my company, that they even posed for pictures!

I then spent about two hours swimming in the sea before taking the ferry back to Chora Sfakion.  Chora Sfakion (Sfakia) is a seaside resort, and has lovely tavernas by the seafront.  I had drinks by the beach in a taverna a little up the hill.  The owner was chatty and very hospitable.  I tried a local speciality, a ‘Sfakian pitta’ which is a pancake filled with soft white cheese and served with honey.  Simple and brilliant!

If you want to organise your travel to this area, ask Karma Travel for advise and buy a tour from them!  It will make your life easier 🙂

Imbros Gorge

Imbros Gorge, Sfakia, Crete, Greece

I am a keen walker, and had heard of beautiful gorges which extend across the middle of Crete.  I wanted to see for myself, so I went to Imbros, a small village, and started on an 8Km walk through the gorge which ends at another small village called Komitades.

The walk is not difficult at all, and I would say it is not strenuous either.  The terrain is not difficult: you march along a beautiful path with breathtaking scenery.  Holding your breath would be a pity, though, as the gorge is lined with bushes of aromatic wild herbs such as sage, thyme and oregano, pine and cypress, and the scent is a delight.

When you reach the end, it is a 5Km ride (or walk, if you still have the energy and will) to go to Chora Sfakion.

There are organised tours to visit this region.  Consult with Karma Travel to find out the best option to suit your plan.

Paleochora

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I spent the fourth day in Paleochora.  This is a beach resort town which, according to the Lonely Planet travel guide, was ‘discovered by hippies’.  It does have a hippie vibe to it, and is very laid back.  There is a huge and apparently quite organised camping site towards the west of the town.

My initial plan was to walk along the E4 European Walking Path, but several things defeated my original intention.  Firstly, although I had read a travel guide and bought a map, I was not sure I had actually found the correct walking path. There was no signposting,  however intently I looked.  I found a path which wound uphill by the seaside and followed the rugged coastline.  I was not alone: I found what had been described as ‘the elusive kri kri’ (wild mountain goats).  These little goats were not elusive at all; they were quite happily trotting down towards the beach, and not in the least bit startled to see people.

The intense heat and the fact that I was not sure whether I had found the correct walking path, the E4, made me reconsider.  I ended up swimming in the sea for the whole afternoon.  There were parasols and loungers for rent, and a kantina with very friendly patrons who could sell you snacks, beverages or a salad or a sandwich, so I had a brilliant time there.

In the end, I found out that the path I followed had been the correct one, so I could have gone on walking to find an archaeological site and other beautiful beaches.  I was not too bothered by the fact that I did not continue walking towards the ancient ruins.  I had a perfect afternoon and then enjoyed the walk back to Paleochora, which has very nice places to have a drink and have a supper of Mezedes.

To get to Paleochora, book your transfers and accommodation through Karma Travel.

Rethymnon

 

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I moved on to Rethymnon on day number 3.  Rethymnon is a small city with a very picturesque old town and beach resorts extending towards the outskirts.  I took a stroll around the postcard-perfect streets in the old town whilst enjoying a rich and creamy frozen yoghurt.   Then, I went to the Venetian fortress overlooking the city, and visited the huge site, which encompasses an open-air theatre, a mosque, and a couple of small churches, all overlooking the sea with stunning views.

Following that, I went to the beach, and in the late afternoon I had a lovely meal by the seaside.  My hotel for the night, Casa Vitae, was fabulous.  They received me with a shot of Raki and were incredibly friendly.  The room was comfortable and spacious, and I particularly appreciated the massive bathtub built into what was a chimney.  A cool bath to end a long hot day was an absolute joy!

To book transportation and accommodation, rely on the advise of Karma Travel.

Back in Heraklion

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Back from my quick hop to the mainland, I used a morning to visit the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, which has quite a few things of interest.  The exhibits take you back eight thousand years, with objects dating back to 6000 BC.  I was particularly interested in the Phaistos Disk, a clay disk with spiralling inscriptions that resemble hieroglyphs.  The meaning of this ancient text has not been deciphered yet.  There were also samples of Linear A and B inscriptions; of these two ancient forms of writing, Linear B has been partially deciphered because it’s identified with an early form of the Greek language called Mycenaean.  Linear A, on the other hand, pertains to a language that’s lost, so its meaning is uncertain.  Beyond these very interesting artifacts, there were a few sculptures that took my breath away. One of them was a ‘bull rider’ -the sculpture of a male figure that seems to graciously dive on air, whilst grasping the bull’s horns.

Photography was not permitted, so I could not take pictures.  The above is a view of Heraklion.

If you would like to book a guided tour of this wonderful city, including the Archaeological Museum, contact Karma Travel!  Their expert staff can also find you brilliant accommodation and organise your transfers.

Athens

Parthenon, Athens

I thought I couldn’t go to Greece and not visit Athens.  My main interest was in seeing Crete, so this was just a quick hop to see the Parthenon.  You can take the ferry back and forth from Heraklion, and even travel by night, so it is quite convenient.

In Athens, beyond the new museum and the Parthenon, I enjoyed people watching from a café on the way up to the Parthenon.   The world seems to slow down when you are sipping coffee on ice,  for some reason.  I sat down with a magazine to hand and just let time pass whilst my attention idled between the magazine and strangers strolling up the hill.

The visit to the Parthenon would not be meaningful at all without a guide.  In my experience, you need an expert’s briefing to make sense of the torn down monuments. The signage is not very informative on its own, and it takes much background information to fully appreciate the site.  If you are visiting, do think of booking a guided visit.  Ask Karma Travel for advise about guided tours and to book your travel to Athens if you’re interested in hopping to the continent.

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