P.S.: Crete, I Love You!

Rethymno Crete lighthouse. IMAGE: MARIA A. KARAMITSOS

Last year we enjoyed our trip to Crete so much, we returned this year! Come along on our latest adventures on Greece’s largest island. (Pictures and video)

Returning to Crete

Last year, my family and I had a memorable stay in Chania. Though the desire to explore new places was strong, like a Siren, Crete called us back. There’s something unmistakable about this land, these people. Maybe it’s that it’s a bit different than the rest of Greece – there are unique customs, dances, history, and more. I believe there are two reasons. When I travel to a place, I try to connect with the history. I feel it. It draws me in. In Greece, there’s history at every step, and Crete is no exception. I ponder the brave souls who fought for the land, the ancients who paved the way. From the moment you see the dramatic, rugged landscape, you ponder how people survived in the mountains. You immediately see why Cretans fought so hard for this piece of Earth, from multiple invaders. You’re enchanted. And then you meet the Cretan people and their extraordinary hospitality. I’ve also made dear friends here, which makes that Siren call even more irresistible.

Heraklion, we’re back!

Just as last year, we came in on an early flight from Athens to Heraklion. We quickly retrieved our bags, got our rental car, and we were off. Inhale deep. We’re on Crete!

Once we had a few miles under our belts, we stopped at Gregory’s,  (16th km National Road Iraklio-Rethymno in Agia Pelagia) the popular Greek chain. There, you can grab a coffee, tyropita or other pita, a sweet, and more. This outpost boasted an amazing view. There was an area you could sit and see it unobstructed. You could even trek down some stairs and get close to the water.

Kalamakia Makaronia at Gregorys. IMAGE: MARIA A. KARAMITSOS

KALAMAKIA MAKARONIA

At Gregorys, I saw something I’d never seen before – and what a great idea – Makaroni Straws. You’re shaking your head now, saying, “Huh?” Melissa, a popular pasta brand, posted a tall jar with fat, long noodles that were hollow in the center. My pasta-loving kids thought this was the coolest and had to have one. “Kalamakia Makaronia help save the turtles!” my 10 year-old squealed with excitement. IMAGE: MARIA A. KARAMITSOS

My cousins on the mainland often tease me because I’m mesmerized by the mountains. Chicago is flat. The spectacular landscape is not only breathtaking; it holds tremendous history. It harbors the secrets of time forgotten. If the mountains could talk! I always say. The stories they could tell! I’m riveted by the beauty. My thoughts wandered to WWII history. Following the Nazi airborne invasion (Battle of Crete), guerillas hid in the mountains, defending their island. The rugged terrain proved a problem for the Nazis, who never anticipated a long stay in Crete. Not only were the mountains troublesome, but they never encountered people like the Cretans, who defended their land, their homes, and their families with farm implements and the like. They put up such a fight that Hitler’s Army was detained, thwarting his plans for a swift movement to Russia before winter. This action by the Cretans changed the course of the war, saving countless lives. Such valiant people. Bravery, strength, courage, and loyalty are in-bred. While I didn’t know the history until much later, when I was a child, my grandmother eluded to it. She said, “Befriend a Cretan and you have a friend for life. They’ll do anything for you, they’d even die for you.”

RELATED: REVIEW: ‘GUERRILLAS OF CRETE’ BY COLIN JANES

Hello, Rethymno!

This year, we stayed in Rethymno. Once again, with the family, we opted for an apartment rather than a hotel. The kids get their own bedroom, ensuring that we get some sleep. We always rent a place with a washing machine, which is a lifesaver when traveling with kids and for extended periods.

We drove to the port area, arriving at Eleftherios Venizelos Street. Named for Crete’s native son, a respected statesman who was elected Prime Minister of Greece eight times. Though he was born in Chania, he is revered throughout Crete. This scenic street along the harbor is filled with hotels, shops, restaurants, and more. It’s also the gateway to residential areas, as well as Rethymno’s storied Old Town. We stayed in a traditionally styled apartment overlooking the lighthouse. We climbed 55 stairs to get to our place, but its oversized terrace provided 24/7 access to a gorgeous view. We watched sunrises, saw ships coming into the harbor, and looked out over the bustling area. Our back terrace offered a shady spot to sip coffee in the mornings with a view to Old Town. This was my favorite apartment this trip. In the kitchen, our host left us some local honey and tsikoudia to sample. Here we made coffee and breakfast before heading out each day to explore.

Limani View Rethymno Crete. IMAGE: PETER KARAMITSOS
The view from our apartment. Here is Maria perched high above Eleftherios Venizelos Street,
overlooking the harbor in Rethymno, Crete.
IMAGE: PETER KARAMITSOS

Old Town Rethymno

This area is a treasure. Follow the picturesque alleyways to shop, dine, grab a coffee or ice cream, or just wander. You can feel the heartbeat of the city here. Beautiful bougainvillea in brilliant colors explode from buildings. There’s always something to see, whether shopping, people watching, or stumbling on a historic marker or statue. Find several churches – even a Catholic church. Each street offers something new. Meander through the streets and you’ll find where the locals converge. Those streets are often quieter than the touristy areas, but there, you get an authentic taste of native culture.

Get up early and take a walk along the harbor. I walked to the supermarket for breakfast items, peeked in local shops, and enjoyed some quiet moments. I love to explore. Rethymno is safe, inviting, and people are very friendly.

Fortezza

Fortezza, Old Town Rethymno. IMAGE: MARIA A. KARAMITSOS
Fortezza – Old Town Rethymno.
IMAGES: MARIA A. KARAMITSOS

Stroll some more and you’ll end up at Paleokastro, at the city’s citadel, Fortezza. Built by the Venetians in the 16th century, Paleokastro was the site of the ancient Rhithymna’s Acropolis. According to Wikipedia, between the 10th and 13th centuries, the Byzantines constructed a fortified settlement, called Castrum Rethemi, on the eastern portion of the hill. After Crete fell to the Venetians, the settlement became known as Castel Vecchio — old castle. Venetians built the harbor here, as they did in Chania and Heraklion. During the 1500s, the Venetians built a line of fortifications around the city. It wasn’t strong enough to withstand the mighty assault of the Ottomans, who captured and sacked the city in 1571. A new fortress was constructed by 1573. Following the Ottoman siege in 1646, the citadel was overcome. Until the Ottomans were defeated, they housed their local government there and converted the church into a mosque. The fort was in use until the early 20th century. Over the years, homes were built inside, but following WWII, as the city grew, they were demolished. The Fortezza is largely intact and you can go inside.

Mikrasiaton Square

The largest square in town is dedicated to the Greeks of Asia Minor who arrived in Rethymno after the population exchange of the early 20th century. It’s now a popular gathering place for families, since there’s much room for kids to run, bike, and play. It’s framed by several buildings from the Venetian and Ottoman eras, including Rethymno Folklore Museum, Agios Fragkiskos Church, the Neratze Mosque, and the House of Culture. You’ll find some interesting street art, too. The square isn’t well lit, don’t let that scare you.

Mikrasiaton Square, Old Town REthymno, Crete IMAGE: MARIA A KARAMITSOS

HONORING THE GREEKS OF ASIA MINOR

At the east end of the square, there is an imposing monument to Asia Minor Greeks, commemorating their contributions to the community. The statue includes blocks inscribed with the names of Greek cities in Asia Minor, whose sons and daughters migrated to Crete. IMAGE: MARIA A. KARAMITSOS

Rethymno Dining

One night while seeking a place for dinner, we found Sympligades (25 Vernadou St.). Turns out, according to Trip Advisor, it’s one of the best restaurants in Rethymno. We were drawn by the sign announcing live music. This cozy place was warm and welcoming. We took a seat outside near the door, thinking it might be too loud inside. We enjoyed our dinner, but couldn’t hear the band well, since the adjacent club’s music was blaring outside. We did go inside to enjoy it. Grab a table inside and be a part of the revelry.

A visit to Old Town isn’t complete without dining at Avli (Xanthoudidou 22 & Radamanthios). Dine in the courtyard of this rustic elegant spot for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Read more about Avli here.

Bougatsa in Old Town Rethymno, Crete. IMAGE: MARIA A KARAMITSOS

‘DEATH’ BY BOUGATSA

Cretan bougatsa is the stuff that dreams are made of. My husband took a walk one morning in Old Town and found a tiny bakery on Chairetis Street. The sign read, “Fournos/Bakery” and had no name, but it’s across from Jasmin Art (Chairetis 2). You know this place does a phenomenal job, when by 9 am almost everything is gone! Pete snapped up the last bougatsa, still warm from the oven. How he was able to save some for us, I don’t know. This bougatsa was heavenly! The silken custard wasn’t super sweet, had a delicate texture with complex flavors. It tasted of vanilla, but with something extra special inside — I can’t put my finger on it – maybe a liqueur? I could have eaten every last morsel, including the airy, flaky phyllo – all by myself. I didn’t want to stop eating it.  I’ll take the entire tapsi, (pan), please. 😉 IMAGE: MARIA A. KARAMITSOS

Traditions and customs

One night, we attended a wedding at Four Martyrs Church (Tesseris Martyres) in the center of Rethymno. The church is named for Angelis, Manolis, Georgios, and Nikolaos, who were martyred in 1824 when the Ottomans learned the four had faked conversion to Islam and were secretly practicing their Orthodox religion. The reception took place at Ktima Pavlaki (Nikiforos Fokas 741, Atsipopoulo), which provided a magnificent backdrop for the celebration. The seaside outdoor venue was not only dazzling, but they did a phenomenal job catering to 1300 guests. The food was delicious and plentiful. If you’re looking for a place in the area to host an event, this is it. Check their Facebook page or Instagram feed to see photos from their extraordinary events. This traditional wedding included timeless Cretan customs, many of which I witnessed for the first time.

Another night, we drove to Chania for a baptism, at Agios Apostolis Church (Palaia Ethniki Odos Kissamou 142, Galatas). The tiny, scenic chapel boasts a glorious seaside view overlooking popular coves. The celebration took place at Cabana Mare Beach Resort (Agia Marina). This outdoor venue had tables set up poolside. What a fantastic night we had here, celebrating an adorable little boy and his family. The food was delicious, the setting fun, and a good time was had by all.

Note: Cretan celebrations involve more food than you can possibly imagine, as well as endless tsikoudia. Cretans have a great zest for life and truly know how to party. Go rested, bring your appetite, and be ready to party all night.

Chilling history

When you’re in this area, visit Arkadi Monastery. Back in 2016, on the 150th anniversary of the Holocaust of Arkadi, we shared the chilling details. That morning, I read the story to my 12 and 10-year-old kids. Once there, they didn’t seem to mind the heat and hungered to explore. Begin at the stone wall in the parking lot with statues of Abbot Gabriel Marinakis, and other brave souls who figured prominently in the events. The history is heavy and palpable. My 10-year-old was the first to discover the Bullet Tree, a stump of a tree that still has bullets lodged in it. The girls didn’t want to leave, wishing to explore the grounds further. There’s a museum, with various artifacts including cannonballs fired into the courtyard. Find an icon gallery, as well as a room with portraits of Cretan patriots.

Arkadi Monastery, Crete. IMAGE: MARIA A. KARAMITSOS
Arkadi Monastery, Crete.
IMAGE: MARIA A. KARAMITSOS

Preveli Monastery built in the Middle Ages, on the south coast of Crete in the Rethymno regional unit, is another must-see. After a long drive and day at the beach, our kids were exhausted. We didn’t visit or stay long in the area, but I wanted them to see the monument. See stunning statues on a bluff overlooking the Libyan Sea, of a bishop and a soldier holding weapons. The monument is to dedicated to peace and remembrance of the people’s courage during the Battle of Crete, when bishops and priests fought alongside families and Allied soldiers against the Nazis. It’s a haunting reminder of those historic events. I hear the beach at Preveli is lovely. Check out the palm grove, too.

Rugged landscape

This incredible landscape is punctuated by canyons and gorges. Adventurous types can hike the gorges, and even climb Mount Psiloritis, also known as Mount Ida, the highest peak on the island. According to myth, Zeus was reared in its largest cave, called Idaion Andron. My daughters were not up for thrill-seeking, but we drove through the impressive Kotsifou Canyon on the way to beaches on the southern coast. There are places alongside the road to stop and take photos.

Kotsifou-Canyon-Crete_Maria-A-Karamitsos
Kotsifou Canyon – Crete.
IMAGE: MARIA A KARAMITSOS

Beaches

One day, we traveled to Plakias Beach, on the southern coast. Enjoy the scenic drive to this spot. We arrived in the afternoon and found few people there, perhaps because the waves were high. Intimidated, our girls opted to play in the sand. We got snacks at the local fourno (bakery), and just relaxed and read.

Another day, on suggestion, we drove to Rodakino, where there are three beaches in a row – Korakas, Polyrizos, and Peristeres. There weren’t any open umbrellas at Korakas, so we went to Polyrizos. This beach was quiet, relaxing, and wonderful. The chairs were free, and the beach was sandy. Even the sea floor was all sand! My kids loved it, proclaiming it the “Beach of the Year”. We seemed to float in the crystal clear, shallow waters of the Libyan Sea with greater ease. This was a great way to cap our last day in Rethymno.

olyrizos-Beach-Rodakino-Crete_Maria-A-Karamitsos
Polyrizos Beach in Rodakino, Crete. IMAGE: MARIA A. KARAMITSOS

There’s still so much yet to see in this area, and we’ll be back!

Find more info on Cretan beaches here.

Chania

Chania could very well be my favorite place on Earth. Last year, we told you about our unforgettable visit. I wish we had more time there. We’d stayed in Nea Chora previously, but decided to try another neighborhood. We stayed at Trianon Luxury Apartments (Ir. Politechniou 43), not far from the Historical Archives of Crete. We arrived on an early flight from Athens, too soon to check in. The office suggested we enjoy some lunch at Mom’s (Ir. Polytechneio 41), a cute and contemporary spot, where we were treated to some complementary Samos wine. After a much-needed nap, it was time to head out.

Old Town/Venetian Harbor Chania, Crete _ MARIA A KARAMITSOS

OLD/VENETIAN HARBOR – CHANIA

It was a short walk to Old Town and the Venetian Harbor. I must admit, as soon as we stepped into the narrow alleyways, tears welled in my eyes. I thought, we’d come two years in a row—my husband would surely want to explore a different island next time. When would we come back? I fought the tears as we bought last-minute gifts and took photos at the limani. I looked around, growing sadder still. How had this place, where I have no ancestral connection, charmed me so? I felt like I couldn’t leave, like my feet were growing roots into the ground. This was MY place. How could I not return soon? IMAGES: MARIA A KARAMITSOS

HIGH 5

It was a beautiful sunset in the harbor. We ambled around the fortress, down into the streets of Nea Chora, a well-worn path from last year. It was time to meet our dear friends Anna Maria Kambourakis and Vasilis Kokologiannakis of Chania Wine Tours and Gabi Ancarola (also a contributing writer to WindyCity Greek). We met at a fabulous new restaurant called The Five (Akti Papanikoli 15, Nea Chora), owned by Greek-Canadian Kleopatra Bright. We sampled one of each of the delectable meze, and of course, some fantastic wine. Kleopatra is a certified sommelier. She, Anna Maria and Vasili, chose three amazing wines. We enjoyed catching up with our friends, while our kids played together. Kleopatra is a delight. She moved to Crete permanently from her native Montreal five years ago. The young entrepreneur put her heart and soul into this place, and it shows. The menu boasts her whimsical artwork, too. Tell her we sent you! It was a terrific way to end our time in Greece. IMAGES: MARIA A KARAMITSOS

Get to Crete!

I could no longer hold back the tears. Oh, amazing Crete! What have you done to me? I cried myself to sleep. The next morning, as we boarded the plane at Chania Airport, the sun was rising on a new day. I took one last look around. Why did we have to leave? Goodbye, Chania. Goodbye, Crete. I’ll count the days until I can walk on your soil and breathe your air once again.

If you’ve never been to Crete, move it to the top of your list. This incredible, enchanted place will have you returning again and again. There’s so much more to see and do – and we have yet to explore east side of the island! Ayios Nikolaos, Sitia, Spinalonga, Elounda… I guess we’ll just have to return many more times.

Traditional Cretan Dancing in Rethymno, Crete
VIDEO: MARIA A. KARAMITSOS

My husband loves Crete too, but he asked, just what was it about Chania that had me in tears? Was it the place, the energy, or the fact that we’d made friends there? All that – and more. I’ve always known my family to be from the Peloponnese, but recently I’ve learned that on my mother’s side, some originally came from Evia and Constantinople. So, who knows… somewhere, I must be Cretan. I enjoyed Rethymno more this year than the very first time. I said it before and I’ll say it again, Chania calls to me. My heart, mind, and soul are alive there. I love my village and I feel my roots there, but Chania may just be my heart’s home. Go see for yourself.

Explore. Wander. Travel through small villages. Meet the people. Leave the tourist areas and experience local culture and life. Take early morning walks. Even if you can only go for a few days, go. You will fall in love with the island. And you, too, will hear the Siren calling you back.


Read more:

 EXPERIENCE THE HEART OF CRETE WITH CHANIA WINE TOURS 
YOU’LL FALL IN LOVE WITH CRETE, TOO!
TRAVELING WITH KIDS? CHOOSE FAMILY-FRIENDLY CRETE!
COMMEMORATING THE BATTLE OF CRETE
REMEMBERING THE HOLOCAUST OF ARKADI

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