A Trip to Crete: Strolling, Shopping, Sipping and Sunbathing

Given the tricky travel coordination and numerous options, it can be frustrating to decide where to go in Greece and how long to spend at each place.  Santoriniand Mykonoshave become popular tourist traps as of late, and going to the Parthenonand the Acropolis still draw large groups for good reason, but during peak season crowds can be overwhelming and the scorching temperatures unbearable. If you want to travel like a local while still getting a world-class vacation, head over to Crete, or Kriti.


I spent a few nights in the airport city of Heraklion en route to my grandfather’s birthplace of Rethymnon, which has transformed over the past fifty years from a sleepy fishing village into a bustling town of cafes, boutiques, and open-air beachside restaurants. Here I picked up some great ocean-inspired silver jewelry that featured semi-precious stones like blue opal and aquamarine. To snag some beautiful treasures of your own while in Heraklion, visit Oria JewelryonAugust Street.

I also got a chance to see the grave of the controversial writer and Kriti native Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957).An atheist and free thinker who lost the Nobel Prize for Literature to Albert Camus in 1957 by one vote, Kazantzakis wrote the novel Zorba the Greek in addition to many existential pieces. When he died the Orthodox Church did not allow him to be buried in a cemetery so his grave lies in an elevated public garden overlooking the city, allowing anyone to stop by anytime for a visit. His epitaph has somewhat of an infamous repute, and translated the inscription reads, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” The unassuming beauty of the garden’s flowers and trees, the view of the brick houses below, and viewing firsthand his gravestone all make this trip a special experience.

In RethymnonI’d walk around at night hit the beach during the day. Since Cretanshopkeepers close for a few hours each afternoon for siesta, they reopen in the early evening around five o’clock and stay open until at least nine or ten o’clock. I loved this philosophy as I didn’t have to choose between sacrificing my beach time in order to scoop up some local goods. I scored two necklaces during my stay from Athens Protasis onTerpsihoris Street, one made with freshwater pearls and the other made with lava rocks from the volcanoes on Santorini.If you fancy higher-end jewelry, be sure to visit Markantonis Jewelers on Tsouderon Street, a family-run, family-owned store that specializes in precious stones set in solid gold.

I ate nonstop on this trip, enjoying horiatiki (village) salads (chopped tomatoes and cucumbers topped with the freshest feta cheese I’ve ever tasted, red onion and oregano) and mounds of gyro meat (ground beef and lamb that is then roasted rotisserie-style and sliced off in strips from the rotating spit, making the meat crispy on the outside and tender at the center). Kriti also features a unique take on the horiatiki salad, the koukouvalia salad, identical except for the slice of hardened drakos bread at the bottom. Structuring the salad this way allows the drakos to absorb the moisture from the vegetables along with the vinaigrette dressing, making it softer as you get closer to it. After dinner or for a pit stop while shopping I’d duck into a café for a frappe (Nescafe instant coffee and blended with ice and milk). To order like a local, tell the server in Greek how you like it: sketo (plain, no sugar), metrio (medium, a little sugar), or glika (sweet, so saccharine it could cause a tooth or two to rot out). Staying at Brascos HotelinRethymnonguaranteed I had a warm and comfortable room to come home to each night and a buffet continental breakfast, included in my room rate, to look forward to each morning.

How to Get There:

If you like to map out your vacations with specifics, then book all your airfare in advance. Many travel agents based in America can help you with this, and you can often get a deal booking your transcontinental tickets in the same package as your internal island-to-island airfare. If you live in a metropolitan area, you may even be able to find an agent that exclusively deals with Greek tourism and travel; to help narrow down this search, look into Greek travel agents in Astoria, NYC and Greektown, Chicago. Metropolis Travel in Boston is another great resource.

If you have lots of time and little money, by all means take a boat.Departing from Athens, the ferry makes daily treks to to Xania in Kriti, about an hour bus ride west of Heraklion. About three times a week in the summer boats also leave Athens and arrive in Rethymnon. You can spend that time out on the boat deck working on your spent-my-vacation-island-hopping tan or catch up on some sleep by taking the ferry at night and booking a cabin. Boat schedules vary, but you can find the listings in the Athens News every Friday. Despite this departures can still be delayed, cancelled or rescheduled. In addition, ferry tickets to some of the more popular islands get sold out quickly, and it may take a day or more of waiting to catch the next ride.

March 16, 2011

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