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  • Eddie Hewitt

Greece 3. A Tour of Crete

In the third and final part of my Greek trilogy, I’d like to bring you some reflections on life as a tourist in Crete, the geography, social customs, epicurean delights and other natural features including the wonders of the Aegean Sea.

As the largest island in Greece, Crete is far from the most charming, stylish, and exclusive of islands in the Aegean, but it has considerable popular appeal without losing its grandeur. So, not an idyllic paradise, but attractive and impressive in contrasting ways.

Let’s deal with one of the big contrasts first. I stayed in Anissaras, a small and peaceful resort, where the crickets are the liveliest and noisiest creatures you will come across. There were olive trees all around, with pomegranate, fig, and carob trees in the hotel grounds as well as tomato and chilli pepper plants. That's my kind of garden.

A pomegranate tree

Not far along the coast is Hersonnisos, a bustling town, and still quite pleasant. But, just a few miles further up the road, you find Malia, the monstrous setting for the Inbetweeners movie. The infamous water park is not far away. Fortunately, Anissaras feels like an oasis of calm in contrast to the commercial, pumping madness of this 18-30 underworld. I can’t imagine a greater contrast in holiday environments and cultures. In one venue, people are intent on getting away from it all, in the other, people are determined to trash themselves in pursuit of having it all, and having it all very large. Still, there seems to be a place for everyone on the island. Just choose wisely.

At this point I feel the need to tell you how truly wonderful Crete can be. The best way to do this seems to be to showcase the sea. The Aegean comes in so many shades of blue. From deep, inky blue out at sea to crystal clear with a hint of sapphire lapping up onto delightful beaches. If you’re fortunate to go way out west, you can enjoy tropical-like conditions at Elifonissi, with perfectly clear water and coral sands, but if you’re going to travel that far then you might as well go all the way to the Caribbean!

The deep blue wonders of the southern Aegean

For me, Chrissi Island was the place to go for the finest water and the best swimming. The boat trip from the mainland to the island was exhilarating. I wish I had space to include more pictures revealing the many other shades of blue.

Chrissi Island water

Moving on to food and drink. Forgive me, Greece, if a few stereotypes turn up here. Still, certain stereotypical dishes are classics. I had two moussaka lunches, one much finer than the other, several wonderful Greek salads with copious amounts of olives and feta cheese, and a huge piece of baklava which was excessively sweet and ridiculously self-indulgent. I managed to avoid vine leaves and tzatziki.

A classic dish. Nowadays they put potato in the recipe for tourists

Alas, fresh fish, which you might reasonably expect to find on a relatively small island, was rarely to be found on the menu. Lonely Planet advised me that fishing in Greek waters is banned in summertime. Another reason for despising the EU I suspect.

The best food is allegedly served by the villagers in the mountains, but on one occasion this was the scene of a dreadful meal comprising plates of almost bare chicken carcass with rice-shaped pasta and incredibly fatty shoulder of lamb served swimming in a very watery gravy.

Looking down across Lassithi plateau. There's good food somewhere in the distance.

I was also sorry I sampled souvlakis, which turned out to be an unwelcome package of rubbery kebab-style chicken (I’m not sure it was chicken, actually) stuffed in a pitta bread with a smearing of plain yoghurt, a mound of soggy chips, some sort of gravy (hence the sogginess) and a solitary tomato. A complete meal in some ways, but also a complete let down.

There were some genuine delights, though. A tour of the Lassithi plateau led to a sampling of Cretan specialities, including the finest olives in Europe. So fine, they told us, that the Cretans export their olives and olive oil to other southern European countries, including Italy, as well as to the rest of the world. The best Cretan olives are softer, a tad wrinkly, and less bitter than most olives. Sadly, the harvest will be a poor one this year due to lack of rain.

The finest olive trees in the world

One more food item. Before leaving for Crete I had been advised to try something that is best described as spinach pie: spanakopita. This proved to be surprisingly hard to find, but I tracked it down in a bakery in Heraklion and then again at the airport on the way home. Spanakopita is a flaky, vegetarian alternative to Jamaican patties, and hence a pleasing example of cross-island, cross-culture cuisine.

Simply a delight (and I don't normally like spinach)

Mixed experiences regarding the food, then. Drowning any culinary sorrows, I enjoyed several pints of Mythos, the wonderfully named Greek beer, before discovering that Mythos is actually part of the Carlsberg group, and hence Danish. On good advice, I then switched to Pils, ironically a German sounding name, but actually a satisfying and thirst-quenching, genuinely Greek owned and brewed beer.

A true Greek beer? It's a myth

For those who prefer a shot of something stronger, Raki is the answer. You might expect Ouzo to be the ubiquitous fortified wine throughout Greece, but in Crete they drink Raki. This was fortunate. I hate Ouzo, and any form of aniseed, with a Herculean passion. Raki can be served with pomegranate cordial or water. I had it neat. Not quite the firewater I had been promised, but it gave me just a bit of a kick.

All of this costs money, of course, and you don’t get many Euros to the pound these days. Staggeringly, at two currency exchanges in Luton Airport in mid-August, they wouldn’t even give you a whole Euro for a pound. That’s a terrible rate of exchange, and we all know whose fault that is.

In some places in Crete the prices seemed expensive, but who can blame traders for trying to make the most of tourist opportunities? They are merely trying to make a living. And in many other cases, the prices represented astonishing good value for money. This included the ceramics that dominated the gift shops everywhere.

Beautiful Cretan earthenware

Greek alabaster figures bring me great joy. I now have a Hercules in my private collection, to go along with Hera, Aphrodite, a sadly unnamed and barely-clad goddess and some ruined columns that look like an ancient cricket wicket. These souvenirs have come from Greek and Roman artisans over the years. There’s room for a few more.

Hera (left) and Aphrodite, in alabaster

A penultimate point. I need to bring in some literary culture here. Heraklion airport is also known as Kazantzakis International Airport. Named after the Greek literary giant Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba the Greek. This might sound like yet another stereotype creeping in, but the book is apparently a classic and it’s now high up on my wish list.

How many airports are named after authors?

A final tip, also relating to aviation. If you fly with Aegean Airlines, you’ll be in for a treat. Wonderful service and efficiency. Traditional free drinks and meals with the flight plan, and charming air hostesses with winning smiles and perfectly matching hairstyles. But, be advised that you have to fork out for your suitcases twice, out and back. Otherwise you’ll be landed with an extortionate fee when it comes to checking in to go home. Just paying.

The flight home. Arriving at Gatwick, but to me this was still Aegean blue

Ps - no plates were smashed in the writing of this review.

See Modern Day Olympic Challenges (Connected Cultures - Greece part 1)

See My Favourite Myths (Connected Cultures - Greece part 2)

© Eddie Hewitt 2016

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