My school in Florence, Lorenzo de Medici, gives us a week off in mid-October for our fall break (take note American universities). So for my break, three of my friends and I decided to do eight days- five in Crete and then three in Istanbul.
Crete is an island of Greece, south of its mainland. There are different cities in Crete, we spent the first two nights in Chania and the next three nights in Heraklion (it was only supposed to be two, I’ll get back to that later).
In Chania, we stayed at Niriis Hotel. Our receptionist, and owner of the hotel, George, was a major help to us. The first night we arrived he laid out a map in front of us, showed us nearby restaurants, where to go in Chania, and how to get there. We would have been hopelessly lost without George.
For our first full day in Chania, we rented a car and drove two hours south to Elafonisi beach. I refused to drive (for everyone’s sake), but my friend Alyssa stepped up to the position. The drive itself was an experience; it was somewhat terrifying yet exhilarating. There are no real rules when driving in Greece, drivers go into the shoulder or onto the opposite lane in order to pass the car in front of them (we were the car being passed). We were able to see a lot more of Chania though than we expected because of the car ride. We drove through small villages and along the hills and were able to see great sights. We stopped twice along the way there, once at an outlook in mountains and the second at a monastery in a cave, which we were able to climb through.
The moment we arrived at Elafonisi beach my jaw dropped. The beach stretches out into the lagoon, which stretches even further. We were able to wade in the crystal blue water, the deepest it went was to our hips. Parts of the beach had light pink sand- there were signs that discouraged visitors from taking it.
It was windy there, but overall the sun was out and the weather held out for us, considering it was supposed to rain.
The next day, we walked around the town. It was small with shops lined up and down the streets- our favorite. It is also by a port, which was really nice. The water level was almost at the same level as the sidewalk.
After a couple of hours, we took a bus ride to Heraklion, where we stayed at the hotel Prince of Lilies.
For our first full day in Heraklion we went to the Palace of Knossos, an architectural site that everyone raves about. We, on the other hand, were a bit skeptical about it.
The Palace of Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete, it was the ceremonial and political center of the Minoan civilization. I always find ruins interesting, the fact that these pieces withstand centuries of life and contain so much history is impressive. The Palace is also very large and had multiple levels to explore.
But what confused us was how much they actually know (or don’t know) about it. The main archaeologist during the original excavation was Arthur Evans. I don’t know if it was just the translation, but the information plaques throughout the ruins kind of made us doubt Evans’ credibility. There were a lot of phrases such as, “According to Evans” or “Evans believed.” A lot even said that Evans originally thought something, but then someone else found out something else regarding the matter. There didn’t seem to be a lot of facts.
Regardless, we enjoyed walking around. And outside of the center there was a street with even more shops (yay)! We discovered that the Evil Eye is a popular symbol in the Mediterranean. It’s a symbol of good luck, it wards off the evil. They were everywhere we went, shops, taxi cabs, restaurants, etc. One of my friends has an obsession with them, so she was in her glory.
My favorite item that I bought from Knossos was a statue of Minerva with an owl on her shoulder. She is the goddess of wisdom. Minerva is also used by my sorority (shout out to KKG) as our symbolic goddess, so it is sentimental to me.
We were supposed to leave Heraklion the next day for Santorini. Santorini is the island that most people picture when they think of Greece; hills with small white houses and blue roofs. We were going to take a ferry there and then the day after, take a flight from Santorini to Istanbul. Greece had different plans for us.
When I went abroad, I knew that it was going to be different from the United States, especially New York. People in NY work constantly and businesses are always running. I don’t know if this is an indicator of the Greek spirit (or more so, the Greek economy), but they decided to cancel the ferry. Because of the little bit of rain they were having.
Yes, I understand it’s off season for them, but I don’t understand how they could completely cancel the mode of transportation. And there was no other possible way to get to Santorini. So, we had to book a whole new flight from Heraklion to Istanbul and we stayed at Heraklion an extra night.
As bummed as were, we tried to make the most of it. We explored the city of Heraklion and befriended a cab driver that told us everywhere to go and places with good food (stuffed burger with feta- best lunch ever). We went to a small archaeological museum and saw the Phaistos Disc in person. The Cretans are very proud of it, the disc is on all types of jewelry and pottery.
And, of course, we did more shopping. (The one guy on the trip with us LOVED it).
I really enjoyed Crete, every person we encountered was friendly. We also had amazing food there, cheesy bread became a staple item of each day there. It was clear how the economy was affecting everyone, though. They really struggle during the off season. The small villages were pretty desolate. In every store and restaurant we went to, the workers were appreciative of us being there. A major way the restaurants show their appreciation though is Raki.
For three nights in a row, when all we wanted was to get our check and go back to the hotel, our waitress would bring out some type of dessert, typically a fried dough with honey on it, and a bottle of Raki. Raki is an extremely strong liquor. The first night the Raki was in a water bottle, so we were very confused when the waitress was smiling and putting shot glasses in front of us. In order to mask the taste, we pour honey from our dessert into the liquor.
By the fourth night, when the hotel workers offered us some, we politely declined and ran away. No more Raki for us.
Side note, we also enjoyed all of the stray animals there. We ran into the middle of the street in order to save a confused kitten and befriended the many dogs near our hotels. Greek for stray dog is skilos- and that’s about the extent of my Greek speaking abilities, although I do know my letters thanks to sorority life.
Look for Fall Break, Part 2: Istanbul, coming soon!