Today was going to be an action packed day as we were picking up our rental car, and making a number of pit stops en route to our final destination of Chania Town. We got up early to make the most out of the daylight hours we had available, and had quite a bit of driving to do before our final destination. The breakfast buffet at this hotel was quite impressive – they had a spread of all sorts of salads, meats, fruits, and also introduced us to a local specialty, dakos. Here, we could make our own version – essentially Greek bruschetta – where we took a piece of rusk (crunchy bread) and drizzled some olive oil on top, added crushed tomatoes, oregano, and myzithra cheese, and then doused more olive oil on top (they say not to be shy here!). Yum! We would soon find out that the food on Crete is quite different from the rest of Greece – it is much heartier fare, with more Middle Eastern and Turkish influences and ingredients. Some people we met along the way say that the food is the best in Crete and we would tend to agree! (although really, the food is phenomenal EVERYWHERE in Greece)
Once we picked up our rental, which was actually delivered to our door (how’s that for service?), we ventured off to our first stop, the Palace of Knossos. That was the one reason I wanted to stop in Heraklion, as the nearby Knossos is one of the top sites to visit on the island. As one of the first known cities in all of Europe, Knossos was inhabited by the Minoan civilization as early as 7000BC, through 1375BC when it was destroyed. It was later found in ruins, and restoration was led by historian Arthur Evans, whose interpretations of the site and purpose were loose at best.
I have fond memories growing up, listening to my Dad recount stories of Greek mythology, and my Dad falling asleep to his own bedtime stories before we could. This was the first place we visited where some of these beloved myths took place, and Crete was known for the story of where the Minotaur roamed. According to some stories I pieced together, King Minos ruled the Minoan people, and the half bull half man Minotaur was his son, born out of an affair his wife had with a bull. Out of embarrassment, Minos banished the Minotaur to Crete, where he would be held captive among the corridors and chambers of the labyrinth at Knossos. When one of Minos’ sons was killed in Athens, he declared war against Athens and instructed their king, Aegean, to sacrifice 14 men and women every year to feed the Minotaur. Aegean’s son, Theseus, was one of the men sent in sacrifice. When he arrived, Minos’ daughter Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and offered to help him escape the labyrinth using a ball of thread to retrace his steps so he could eventually slay the Minotaur and find his way out. If successful, he was instructed to fly the white sails on the way back. Unfortunately, this detail was lost upon Theseus so, devastated, his father King Aegean threw himself into the sea, thus why today it is named in his memory as the Aegean Sea. Of course, Theseus was fine, but I guess that wasn’t the point.
After a morning at Knossos, we hit the road yet again towards Chania, but with plans to stop at the town of Rethymno (sometimes referred to as Rethymnon) along the way. The drive was absolutely stunning – surrounded by mountains and farmland, with endless beaches to our right. As the third largest population on the island of Crete, Rethymno was a gem of a city, built in the old Venetian and Turkish styles along the coast with a fortress, minaret, and harbor front. We found a super charming restaurant called Lemonokipos, which had a delightful garden patio under lemon and pomegranate trees (it has to be noted, however, that the only not delightful thing was the locusts, who chirped nonstop in the trees). Not only was the setting picture perfect, but the food was incredible – we shared a number of local recommendations, including smoked pork, tzatziki, stuffed grape leaves, and saganaki (fried cheese coated in black sesame seeds). Even the homemade bread was delicious, served with a soft Cretan cheese that tasted like butter. We saw the waitstaff clearing the patio in preparation for an upcoming storm and we thought – this is Greece, no way it will rain. Next we knew, the skies opened up to a downpour! It was so hot that the rain was welcomed, especially since it was a short passing shower. We took that opportunity to wander down the old cobblestone streets and duck in and out of some of the shops to check out their wares. In the process, we found a ceramics shop that sold alphabet charms, so we created some personalized necklaces to take home to our nieces.
After the rain subsided, we wandered around a bit longer to explore the ancient Minaret and Venetian fortress. Since we wanted to get to Chania before it got dark, we didn’t end up having enough time to go inside the fortress but did get to see the awesome view on the way up. It was about a 45 minute drive to Chania, which unfortunately took a bit longer once we were in town because of all the confusing one way streets and lack of parking options. We opted to stay in Old Town Chania, which was yet another super quaint pedestrian-only neighborhood, so we had to park about 5 minutes away, in first come first served street parking, NYC-style.
Our hotel, Fatma Boutique Hotel, was situated in a perfect location, a quick walk through the bougainvillea and jasmine lined cobblestone alleyways of Chania Town. Our street was particularly charming, with our hotel overlooking a popular taverna with outdoor dining and live music downstairs. The people at the hotel hooked us up with not just an awesome room with a balcony overlooking the street, but a small bottle of raki and a bottle of local white wine, which we enjoyed on the balcony while watching the live music downstairs.
On the recommendation of our hotel reception – who by the way was extremely helpful with providing a handful of recommendations and answering my ridiculous questions about where to find Greek donuts – we decided to try out a place called To XANI for dinner. Just a block away from us, To XANI was very much like many restaurants in town that were set up in old roofless Venetian ruins which was super neat. The unique thing about To XANI was that they featured a unique style of cooking in ceramic pots over an open fire, so both Doug and I tried this out in our chicken stifado (stew) and lamb dishes. They also had a really cool band that I think was singing in Hebrew, and they had both their biggest fans there dancing some jigs as well as tourists getting up there to try their hand.
We walked around a bit more to explore the old Venetian harbor and get some ice cream – there were about 5 stores right there, so we knew what our dessert plan would be for the next 3 nights here. Right by the old mosque, we saw a bar called Saloon that of course Doug insisted on trying…the least authentic looking bar in Greece. It was a bizarre spot, set inside a cave with American music set to Greek music videos, and a clubby atmosphere. We stopped long enough to drink a giant Alpha beer each, then walked back to pass out.