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Greece

CAPITAL: ATHENS
LANGUAGE: Greek
PEOPLE: Greek, Turkish, Macedonian, Albanian

Predominantly mountainous Greece is surrounded by the Aegean, Ionian and Cretan seas. It borders Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Bulgaria to the north, and Turkey to the east. Comprising mainland and some 2,000 islands, it is not surprising it has a strong seafaring tradition — plus some of the world's biggest shipping owners. Greece is rich in minerals including rare ones like chromium. The climate varies greatly with region. The northwest is alpine while parts of Crete border on subtropical. Water is a problem in some areas because many rivers have been diverted underground by earthquakes.

Greece lies at the juncture of Europe, Asia and Africa. It is heir to the heritages of ancient Greece, the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and nearly four centuries of Ottoman rule. Greece is the birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy, the Olympic Games, Western literature and historiography, political science, major scientific and mathematic principles, and Western drama, including both tragedy and comedy.


A street in the old town of Rethymnon, Crete

This article now includes an update

I just hate arriving in new places in the dark, especially new countries — new to me, that is. But this was the case when the plane finally touched down at Crete's Heraklion Airport in early May. It's one of those airports that take advantage of the sea as a safe approach and you just hope the pilot knows where the land and runway begin, otherwise you're in for an early dip.

After a prolonged wet spell in England I had high hopes of finding the sun in Crete, even though the season had barely kicked-off there. While I was away I missed a fine sunny spell in England, of course, while the weather in Crete was much the same as at home: nice, sunny, but not what you would call hot.

The darkness meant that there was little to be seen during the bus transfer to the hotel at Rethymnon on the north coast. Only in the morning could I appreciate how green the country was. The nearby brooding mountains to the left were invisible, as was the sea to the right. The first stops were at the luxury hotels to the east of our destination; glad I wasn't at one of these for, luxury apart, they are out in the sticks. I do believe you need to be somewhere when you're on vacation; the middle-of-nowhere is a great place to relax, but if you want to easily see new things and embrace a new culture, the middle-of-nowhere becomes the middle of knowwhere! There is an alternative airport at Chania that is equally well served, to the west of Rethymnon; the main difference one would notice on a transfer from there would be brooding mountains on the right and sea on the left. Either road trip suggests population on the island is hardly dense: except in its cities. Chania is another place you might wish to say, but personally I'd choose Rethymnon any time.

Our late arrival at the hotel was greeted by the tremendous booming of Greek music and dancing in the hotel lobby area, and being too late to eat an evening meal, peanuts and water from the bar were all H and I had to sustain ourselves with — although this didn't matter very much given the only things on our minds were to sink into oblivion on the admittedly comfortable bed. Even the elegance of Greek dance couldn't keep us from that for too long.

Breakfast was a pleasant surprise, with buffet options as good as you might expect anywhere outside England — you can't really beat a 'full-English', but this hotel came reasonably close with some of its options. We later discovered the food was consistently good, with a good choice of evening meal and everything cooked to perfection. So good, in fact, it was truly memorable.

Rethymnon beach, Crete - click to enlargeAfter that first breakfast we set out for a quick local reconnaissance mission to discover our immediate surroundings. Forgetting some item — I forget what — and having gone no further than ten metres from the hotel, we turned and retraced our steps. H immediately sprawled at the first hurdle — sorry, lobby step — and she fell heavily onto one knee. This made little impression on the marble, but considerable upon her knee. But she is well looked after in life so, after staggering into the lobby and sitting in the nearest seat, two German guests came right over and asked to look at it. Familiar or what? It turned out both of them — married — were physiotherapists, so they wiggled H's knee cap, squeezed, tut-tutted, peered. Titsa, the delightfully helpful hotel receptionist, joined them to aid translation, and we were given suitable instructions for the first hours in our new holiday location. This involved an enormous bag of ice from the bar and extra pillows upon which to prop her knee. Plus, I was instructed how to wobble her kneecap several times a day to stop it 'freezing'; I would have thought the ice made that a bit tricky.

While H rested, I later ventured out and down the slight hill to the promenade. Both left and right I saw only boring bars and hotels. Had we come to the best place? We picked it because it was apparently near to the old town, but would we ever get to see it? Disgruntled, I returned to the hotel, ice bags, and sorrow.

The physiotherapists magic worked quite quickly, however, and later that morning we were able to venture forth — although frequent rest-stops were specified and obeyed. Which was fine. We wanted a relaxing first day. And even with such a handicap, we made it to the old town of Rethymnon, and our spirits there were truly lifted. It is delightful. Like other islands in the Med, its strategic locations has led to a tumultuous history of invasion, and Rethymnon is no exception. Which, perhaps, also explains the multiplicity of names it and other places have around here.

One of the confusing things about life abroad is this matter of different names. It is bad enough on maps. I mean, even in England, London is 'London', so why do the French need to call it 'Londres'? It sure makes road signs more complicated if different nations insist on calling the same places by different names, and this comes to a head in Greece. For example, Rethymnon is also called — and variously signed — Rethymnon, Pebymno and Peoymnoy (where the latter is a reasonable approximation, given I can't find the correct symbol for the third letter). All very well, but confusing when taking local buses, as we were to do. You had a ticket, but was it to the right place? The city I mentioned before, Heraklion, is also called Iraklion, and to the west you have Chiania or Hania (or Xania on the bus ticket). See the problem for nervous travellers? I never did get to pronounce the name of the place we were staying with any confidence. Rethymnon. You try saying it without sounding as if you've got a lisp, had eight beers, or been given a frozen jaw by the dentist! No matter, I digress... as usual. Let's get back to Rethymnon.

What I call in my quaint English way 'the promenade' (or 'prom') stretches from distant hotels right to the old town, a long parade of lurking hotels at the rear of mainly bars, restaurants, gift shops and mini-markets. Just about every restaurant and bar has its own cheerful waiter out front trying to tempt you in to sample its delights. Given there are enough of these along the prom and in the old town to allow you to dine or drink at a different one every day for several years, and often outside, I guess you could call this café-culture. But although you are constantly assailed by these quick-talking people when you pass their establishments, they are humorous and mostly extremely polite, up for banter, and they are happy with excuses, unlike shop owners in certain other nameless countries... like Tunisia. Top tip: be polite to them and they will almost certainly smile and be polite back. One even thanked me for my smile! How nice is that? Sit at a café table with a drink and watch them all in action. Admire their skills at ascertaining the nationality of passers-by as they switch effortlessly, and with good humour, between English, French, German, whatever.

Boy with accordion in CreteThere were few beggars to be seen in Rethymnon — the most predominant being young boys trying to coax music out of mini red accordions. Mostly they produce random notes, but the occasional snatch of rhythm might coax some small change out of you but... beware. I passed one by at night without rewarding his musical talent and he muttered to our passing backs, farted, then laughed hilariously at this superior skill. (It was not the boy shown... I think, but they all look alike. A year later I found this particular boy could now play a recognisable tune — and sing along to it. Well done, son. You're now worth a euro or two.) I am still a bit indecisive about whether one should support this kind of begging in any case, given these kids are around until after dark, earning their crust. What kind of parents allow this? Should it be rewarded? But then, of course, this is basically a safe (hence Catholic) country, and with family life to be structured around a siesta and evening opening hours, it is usual for children to be with, or near to, their parents place of work for the evening. So children are playing in the dark with balls, on bikes, and doing things that kids in many other countries could only dream of doing at that time of night. Safety was a blessing, though, and I have to say we always felt particularly safe in Rethymnon at any hour. In fact, it's just the way life used to be back home 30 years ago. Do you remember the days when you didn't have to lock your bike and could leave your front door unlocked?

A square in Rethymnon, Crete - click to enlargeRethymnon is in three distinct sections: the old town by the harbour, the new strip of hotels and bars that lead up to this along the coast, and the newer buildings that lie behind all this with their more modern shops, apartment buildings - and the general stuff no appertaining to tourists. The church seen in this picture is in a pleasant central square that adjoins the old town; just walk down the street left of this picture to find yourself right amongst its winding alleys. It is difficult to get your bearings in the winding alleys of the old town, but rather than bother trying to follow a map, I found it easier to just wander. After a while familiarity helps and instinct takes over. Hopefully. In any case, the old town is not so big that you can get lost for more than five to ten minutes; either the castle, the newer part of town, or the harbour itself will locate you again. Just wander... and enjoy. Of course, finding somewhere again can be more difficult!

The old town is built on the site of ancient Rithymna of Mycenean times and became a city during the Venetian occupation after a period of relative obscurity when it was regarded as little more than a village. The Venetians needed a port for their shipping and it came in handy for that after their conquest in 1204. They built to the rules of Venetian architecture. They also needed an administrative centre, so Rethymnon became the third biggest city in Crete and an important cultural centre. It was destroyed in 1567 when Algerian pirates conquered, robbed and burned it. The Turks took over in 1646. During the period of Ottoman rule, Rethymnon fell into decline as did the other towns in Crete. During the difficult years of its struggle for independence many of its freedom fighters were executed. In 1897 the Russian army took Rethymnon and held it until 1909. In 1913 it became part of Greece, together with the rest of Crete. Not surprisingly, its architecture reflect this eclectic mix, and Venetian style is overlayed with the Turkish fetish for wooden paneling with upper-floors overhanging the lower floor (see the first picture in this article). The Venetian Fortress (fortezza) on the point, dating from the 16th century, is built of the site of the paleio kastro or old castle; archaeological excavations have found coins from the early Minoan period on this site. For an entrance fee you can go inside, marvel at its huge size, its two little churches and the Ibrahim Han Mosque; it's golden dome can be seen from the town and looks rather like a low moon hanging over the fort in the evening.

Street cafe in Rethymnon, Crete - click to enlargeThe principal delight of the old town is wandering through its quirky little streets, visiting different cafés, enjoying the atmosphere and the natural slow pace of life. A typical morning scene is a collection of older men at café tables, putting the world to rights — or the town, at least. Not that much seems to be wrong with it, of course. I will definitely be back for more, especially at night, when alleyways become long restaurants and wine can be cheaper than water.

Rimondi Fountain iin Rethymnon - click to enlargeThe Venetian Rimondi Fountain, re-built in 1623, is in a picturesque corner among the bars and cafés in little Platanos Square. It has offered fresh water to passers-by for centuries. It features lion heads and four columns with Corinthian capitals at the top. It is said that if you drink its waters you will have a long life. Speaking of which, personally I found the hotel water as fine to drink as you might anywhere. It was a pleasant change from heaving bottled water around.

Rethymnon harbour - click to enlargeThe nearby old harbour is a delight, although every time you wend your way through, entrapped between the outdoor tables of its café-bars, you will be assailed by the waiters offering you often welcome and tempting respite. It's something well worth doing, at least once — even if the location has an inevitable small effect on price. Not ready yet? Then just tell the waiters you've already eaten and will be back later; they will be overjoyed at the prospect. And who knows, maybe you will be back there. The old town is a magnet.

Being part of Greece, you cannot get far away from Greek legend and myth. Zeus has his thunderbolt, Poseidon his trident, Athena her spear, Apollo his golden arrows, Hermes his caduceus (insignia), Dionysus 2 his thyrsus (flower cluster), Heracles his club, and Priapus his penis - a pole of enormous fertility. And guess which one of these symbols is displayed so obviously in many of the gifts. So if you are buying a present for Grandma, be sure you take a good look at that wooden bottle opener or she may die of shock when she opens it. The children here must be pretty broad-minded.

There are many trips you can take from the town, and places to visit include hiking through the Samaria Gorge — one of Europe's longest gorges, cutting through the White Mountains, an 8km walk through the Imbros Gorge, the Samaria Gorge, the Palace of Knossos if you like Greek myth and legend, or perhaps a visit to the capital of Crete, Heraklion.

Cretan countryside near Loutra - click to enlargeSome of the lesser and more laid-back trips involve little yellow or red land trains. You can book these at various agents in the town and you will be picked up outside most principal hotels and either taken to the train or the train stops for you. H and I did two of these.

Firstly we went to Loutra, a medieval village a few kilometres out of town. The trip passes through placid Cretan countryside of green and ancient olive groves and villages where, you are frequently told, "The people live mainly off the land." That much is patently obvious. Most grow olives, some grow vines, and here and there ancient carob trees provide pseudo-chocolate lovers with a chewy alternative to my preferred treat: it lasts longer in the mouth... but do you really want it to? Personally I'd stick to quick-melting chocolate any time.

Country church in Crete - click to enlargeThe Loutra trip includes a few stops that allow you to stretch your limbs, including a walk to an ancient little village church slowly being restored, an old olive oil mill, a monastery, and a 'free lunch' of very hard bread lubricated with olive oil, tomatoes, olives, and watered down by your choice of drinks, including a 'free' ouzo; and if you've become dozy by the heat, trust me, ouzo will most certainly wake you up. Ouzo is an anise-flavored liqueur that is widely consumed throughout Greece. It is similar to French pastis, Italian sambuca, Macedonian mastika or Turkish raki, but a little sweeter and smoother. It can be drunk neat or mixed with water. Be warned — or advised — that mixing ouzo with cola destroys the most significant characteristic of the liquorice-like taste of ouzo. You really need to try it neat though: it will put hair on your chest. (Sorry, ladies.)

Another little train trip was to the Monastery of Arkadi. This trip faltered early at one of its staging posts when it was discovered some people were on the wrong train and others didn't have tickets. Cretans are not great at checking paperwork, and this took three inspections of everybody's tickets — which were finally confiscated — before we could resume slow motion. But everyone was reasonably laid-back — if you so interpret a loud but humorous chant in German from the back carriage. Because this trip goes farther, and the train just as slow, the only stop-overs, apart from the destination, is the 'free lunch' stop. After stiffly getting off the train, walk to see inside the tower of the outside wall, for therein a shock awaits: a cupboard-full of skeletons, a brutal reminder of the troubles times Crete has seen. This is no Turkish delight...

Monastery of ArkadiThe nave is situated in the central courtyard around which the monks' cells and outbuildings were built. The Monastery of Arkadi remains a great symbol of self-sacrifice and freedom for, during the revolution of 1866-1869, the besieged inhabitants sacrificed themselves rather than surrender to the invading Turks. The brave hand of Kostis Giampoudakis from the village of Adele did not hesitate to set fire to the ammunition chamber where the besieged were gathered, thereby blowing them all up. The sacred banner of the revolution and other relics including monastery utensils, gold embroidered vestments and weapons are on display in the monastery museum.

There is a good and efficient bus service on Crete, and you can do worse than use it to visit nearby towns, wherever you stay. I hear they even put extra busses on if the occasion demands so, apart from the fact they can be a bit relaxed about timetables, and sometimes start a few minutes before the appointed hour to add interest and allow for delays, travel is reasonably comfortable. In Rethymnon there is also a hotels bus that goes from the bus station to local areas.

The path through the Mili Gorge, CreteWhen we returned to Crete a year later, with fond memories of the little trains, we took the trip to Mili Gorge — which we were lucky enough to hike from the top, at Chromonastiri , to the bottom, at Missiria. Our group wended its way through some really beautiful and lush greenery that provided really welcome shade from a fierce sun, constantly criss-crossing the stream. The walk — all single-file and tricky in places — passes the ruins of the ancient houses, two surviving churches, and the remains of some 30 water mills and what used to be the village on Mili. If you keep your eyes open during the walk you will see sections of the stone watercourse that took the water from mill to mill.

Tax collector's house in Mili Gorge, Crete - click to enlargeMili was where they ground flour for Rethymnon. When you experience the remoteness of these mills, accessible only by narrow path, the millers' reliance on donkey transport, it makes you wonder at living in such isolation. In the centre of this picture is the ruin of a tax collector's house on one of the sharper descents (a good example of where the 'click to enlarge' feature is useful). In those days there was no way to get past with flour without paying the tax! This picture was taken from near one of the little isolated churches.

The walk took around a couple of hours, but it is easier than the more arduous Imbros and Samaria Gorges where you have to contend with walking across boulders and rough stones. Do not underestimate Mili, though. It may not be a walk in the park, but our trip — all of whom survived by helping each other — included a delightful gentleman of 87 years sporting a heavy back-pack; I know it was heavy because I found myself supporting it from the rear at time to help him survive some of the inclines. Despite falling backwards at least three times (but not while I was supporting it, I hasten to add), all of which was done with extremem grace. Now judge for yourself whether you are up to this. The old man had had three previous heart-attacks and was stone deaf, dependent upon lip-reading. The guide did not realise this at the outset, but she did insist of carrying his pack after his third fall - but he was resolute all the while he could manage and preferred not to take a helping hand unless there was no option. He only looked about 75. A resolute, proud, but exceedingly nice gentleman - one of life's risk takers, on vacation on his own after his wife died some nine years previously. Give him credit for guts.

Plakias in Crete - click to enlargeOn our first visit to Crete, H and I used the bus to travel to Plakias on the south coast. Why? Because it guaranteed us a trip through the White Mountains and had more busses than some of the other potential destinations offered from the bus station at Rethymnon. And yes, it was worth it for the bus trip alone. Plakias is a quiet, laid-back kind of place comprising little more than a few hotels and bars, a harbour and a beach. Without worrying about getting to the bus station too early in the morning or catching the last bus back, the timetable gave us around 3 hours there — which was adequate; after walkabouts, we spent most of that time in a beachside bar with a glorious view. In fact it's that one right there in the picture, near the middle and behind a palm tree. A great place to chill! (And it gave shelter from a devastating sea breeze.)

The bird that laughed when I lost my hat!Prior to two visits to this bar, I took this picture of a bird something like a goose on the harbourside. It had two legs in actuality. Here it is stretching lazily, as befits the local pace. I don't know what kind of bird it really was but it was big, and I didn't like its attitude. If you can identify it I'll have a word with it next time. Immediately after taking this picture the wind whipped off my favourite baseball cap and tossed it carelessly into the sea, tantalisingly near the harbour wall. There I watched it try to drift through a channel beneath the harbour, then out it came again, tempting me to leap onto a rock in the hope of reaching it; but it was not to be, and wet shoes were all I achieved — to the great amusement of the bird which cackled with laughter. It was the bird's fault I lost my hat, for the wind caught me totally unawares while I watched it stretch. My very favourite hat. Gone! Forever!

The valley at Askifou in Crete - click to enlargeOn our return trip to Crete, we took the 'Little South Roundtrip' by coach. This took us across the White Mountains again by another more easterly route via the valley of Askifou. This little valley is lush green all the year through, a place to grow olives, listen out for goat and sheep bells in the distance.

Hora Sfakion in Crete - click to enlargeAfter then passing alongside the rim of the Imbros Gorge, we shortly stopped at the tiny (but cute) fishing village of Hora Sfakion, before taking the coastal road once again to Plakius. Darn it, I saw the same bird there that laughed when I lost my hat! Fortunately it was not so breezy this time, so I had the last laugh.

Another adventurous bus trip from Rethymnon was to a more famous destination on the north coast: Chania (Hania, Xania — historically, called Kythonia). Remember that thing about confusion with place names? Well, the bus says it goes from Pebymno to Xania. The history of this place is so complex an article could be written about this alone. Suffice it to say that Kythonia became Chania somewhere early along the line of its progression from the 1st millennium BC, the 1st Byzantine Period (3-823), the Arabian occupation (823-961), the Byzantine Period (961-1204), the Venetian Occupation (1204-1645), and the Turkish Occupation (1645-1898). Complicated enough for you? To say the place has some history is an understatement.

Chania harbourside in Crete - click to enlargeLike Rethymnon, it has an old town by the coast and a more modern town higher up the hill (where the bus terminates). We walked downhill from the bus station through a wide street with a central garden populated by some rather dodgy, swarthy-looking and severely under-employed Greek men until we reached the safer feel of the old town — where the Venetian influence is so obvious in its architecture. Another windy day, but no worries — I was only wearing an old spare baseball hat. It could go visiting if it wanted.

Street in Chania, Crete - click to enlargeThe best bit was strolling through the narrow alleys of the old town just behind the part of the harbour shown above. It was truly picturesque and the camera kept clicking — always with a portrait aspect ratio due to the narrow streets. And don't worry if you wanted a room to rent: there were signs offering this everywhere you looked. (It was in May, by the way.) Which picture to choose? With early bougainvillea dripping from balconies, to name but one horticultural embelishment to interesting archtecture, there was a picture to be taken in all directions. Looks quiet in the street? Don't you believe it. The nearby square was heaving with people, and the waiters were heaving trays of Sunday lunches above their heads. Yes, Sunday. Local families had come from church and descended on the cafés for a long drink, chat and eat.

We sat with them and watched the local buzz. The men seemed to make a big thing of flicking strings of large black beads to and fro. It was a big thing. At first I thought they were rosaries, although, if so, they seemed to be treating them with considerable disrespect. Then I realised they didn't have any divisions. Subsequent research suggested they were Greek worry beads. As if these men had anything to worry about when they were in their big family groups, men and women separately, the women chewing the fat like their husbands. Worry? On the other hand... They constantly flicked and tossed them around. Yes, I think they were Greek worry beads. Apparently they are called Komboloi and are an ancient remedy for stress and bad habits: like stopping smoking, dieting, etc. Boy, now I look back at what I took to be a calm and laid-back scene at a harbourside bar and I realise it was a hotbed of stress and worry. Greeks, eh?

Buzz is what the entire holiday gave us, to be honest. Crete is a lovely island, most of the people are lovely, and so was the food. In May the weather can be unpredictable, and the green scenery comes at some cost; but the days were like an English summer day for us (good ones), and the pace was just right — extremely laid-back. The sea was cool enough to keep most people out of it — although the morning we left it had clearly improved. Typical. Anyway, whatever the weather, so long as it is mainly fine, I can thoroughly recommend Crete! And 'Rethminon'. There, I can say it now. (I think.)

End of this segment!

Why not watch the 5 minute video about Rethymnon below, or learn more about Crete from the recommended websites?

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Istockphoto © : Rethymnon harbour: Paul Cowan
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