A short jaunt to Crete

On our way to and from the Athens airport both drivers had the same response about our trip to Crete:

“You’re only going/you only went for THREE days??”

I think, for context, it’s a little like if a European was getting picked up at JFK to finish their trip and the driver asked, “Where did you just come from?”

“California!”

“How long were you there?”

“Three days!”

You can’t visit all of California in 3 days. Crete isn’t as large as California but it probably sounds just a little ridiculous to say to a local “I know Crete” or anyplace when the duration of your trip was 3 nights.

Driving around Crete 3

Itinerary and thoughts on our short trip below:

Day 1 Arrival

Day 2 Heraklion and Knossos

Day 3 Phaistos and Chania 

Day 4 Return and mishaps

Day 1 in Crete:

July 1st. Arrived at the Heraklion airport around 9 pm. Rented car from airport. The engine had very little vroom vroom to speak of, so Cody had trouble getting it started. Car attendants dutifully and without visible derision drove us out of our parking spot.

Thus began what may have been our scariest moment to date: driving in Greece. We navigated out of the airport and turned onto the highway.

Things turned out ok; it’s not as crazy as we’d been warned, well, not yet.

We drove to our sweet little apartment rental located just off a main street filled with restaurants and shops in a quieter area of Heraklion. Our kind and quite pregnant Dutch hostess met us with her little daughter with the keys and a carton of lactose-free milk for James (THANK YOU kind hostess. You have no idea.)

Crete apartment

Bed time for all!

Day 2

We stuck around the Heraklion area resting up from the first half of our trip, but that didn’t mean we were slacking off! On the contrary:

a. Neighborhood exploration

We started early with a walk around the neighborhood and explored the aisles of a local grocery store. We filled our cart with yogurt, eggs, milk, fruit, and pasta, and made our way home as the sun started to climb and shine down HOT. A little bakery on the corner of our side street provided iced coffees (be prepared to answer “How?” as there are 6 different ways to get it) and delicious, sticky baklava. Heaven.

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b. Knossos Minoan Palce

After breakfast it was to Knossos to see where King Minos ruled and his famed Minotaur stalked. On the way, we snooped in the little tourist shops for a parasol to give James some extra sun protection. One of the workers dug out this little number:

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For four euros this flimsy, broken umbrella kept James partially shaded and Cody perpetually irritated under the hot Cretan sun. (We smashed said umbrella in the garbage across the street from the shop when we left, too meek to demand a refund but just passive aggressive enough to let them know we found their wares to be trash.)

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The archaeological site of Knossos is interesting to see but some of the romance is lost when you realize it’s basically the Disneyland of archaeological sites. See, the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans who found it back in 1900 made a lot of assumptions about what this room should be and what this room would look like, etc.

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“Throne” room

Twenty years into the excavation he began restoring much of the palace, i.e. built stuff wherever he thought made sense. So the buildings that you’re looking at are not actually ancient and also probably not accurate, though Evan’s choices do still have their supporters today.

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See the original of this fresco at the Heraklion museum.

I would recommend going to Knossos because it’s fascinating to be on the sprawling grounds that birthed the Minotaur maze myth and to see one man’s interpretation of the Greek ancient world. The reproductions may only be 100 years old, but hey, to Americans that’s quite something! And if you want a more in depth tour, there were guides standing around the entrance you can hire in English without booking beforehand. (With a finicky toddler we chose not to use a guide)

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c. Heraklion Archaeological Museum

After a brief lunch and naps back at the apartment, we drove into the town center  of Heraklion with it’s tightly packed streets, parked at a garage, and walked to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. This place could easily be my favorite archaeological museum of the trip because of the number and variety of artifacts belonging to the Minoan world housed there: coins, frescos, urns, tools, games, etc. unearthed from around Knossos, along with an interesting exhibit on the occupation of Crete by the Nazis during WW2. Here are some of my favorite pieces to get you excited about going yourself someday:

Alas, we could have stayed there all afternoon, but because we were in a museum James was back to his old shrieking habits and the docents, while kind, weren’t as effusive in their adoration as at previous museums. So we departed quicker than desired with our reckless little shrieker.

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Even the elevator offers you something.

On our way back to the parking garage on a touristy street (you can’t miss it coming from the museum) we stopped for a bite to eat. From there we also couldn’t help looking at some souvenir shops and an artisan’s studio. Say hello to this beautiful pitcher. The artisan (who has his wheel and clay right there in his shop) said it’s for “rakey.” I haven’t been able to find a translation to English of any possible spelling of that. Someone help me out? What is “rakey”?

pitcher
Beautiful teal blues and greens from this artisan.

Day 3

This was our longest day on the road, and we got to see a lot of gorgeous Cretan country side over four hours of driving. A little preview:

Crete driving

a. Phaistos Minoan Palace

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View before entering the site

We got an early start and drove the hour and 15 minutes from Heraklion to the ruins of Phaistos. The littler brother of Minos, King Rhadamanthys didn’t have as big of a palace to work with, but his ancient site has still fared well in the modern world. From what I gathered here and out of guide books, the Italian school of archaeology were perhaps a little more scientific in their methods for excavating than Sir Evans at Knossos. What we are left with is a gorgeous example of ruins being unearthed and coexisting softly in nature.

view from site of countryside

There are stairs both to enter and to navigate the site, but there were also enough flat courts and promenades inside the space to make it worth taking James in the stroller under that hot, hot sun.

stairs
These stairs off the west court, however, were not worth taking the stroller down.
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The West Court of the Old Palace

Bonus: If old churches interest you, there’s a monastery about a 100 meters down the road from the parking lot to the archaeological site. It’s the Church of Agios Georgios Phalandras and is a quick building to walk around. Gotta love the mix of more recent history with the ancient stuff, two or three or several timelines co-mingling.

Church
Hiding in some shade.

b. Vori

I talked Cody into taking a small detour to the little village of Vori to go to their Museum of Cretan Ethnology and a cool drink from a cafe. We parked outside this church and walked to the little museum a couple short bends in the road away.

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‘Lil car had just enough room for the stroller in the back
Museum
Through the arch into the little museum, open only after April

The museum itself is small, with an upstairs and a downstairs, and was only a couple euros each for admission. Inside you’ll find more recent artifacts of Cretan history, including interesting day-to-day items. This is the museum to visit for an understanding of how locals made their lives in more recent history.

texties
Examples of traditional textiles

c. Chania/Xania

As we left Vori and started on the hour and a half drive across the island, the road curved and took us up through little villages and around dry mountains, the blue coast flickering at us occasionally on the horizon. I could almost imagine Hercules climbing up these dusty rocks on his last challenge. It’s been a fun activity on this Greek trip to try to transpose the images of the myths I grew up reading onto real landscapes.

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Late that afternoon, we made it to Chania, a pretty little coastal town where we walked in the hot sun,

murse
carrying a giant baby murse,

along the water at the Venetian harbor,

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and ate a giant meal. James was well loved at our waterfront restaurant, with the waiter offering to adopt him from us at the beginning.

waterside restaurant

James the ham
Little ham.

But towards the end James started to have a little melt down, so we exited before our complimentary desserts were brought out. Wahwah.

Cody walking

Afterwards, we had a (at times) nailbiting drive back to Heraklion with the fellow motorists. Yes, it’s all fine and good to get over onto the shoulder when someone is passing you, but when you need to pass someone because you’ve got 10 cars lined up behind you intending to do the same thing, it’d be nice to have a car with a little more vroom vroom for taking these hills.

passing in Crete_LI
Caution: passing happens even over a solid line and before a sharp turn.

Oh, and by the end of the drive, James, who had thus far been enchanted by the CD of Greek dance music we bought in Delphi, became inconsolable with all the car time and we had to keep up a rousing chorus of “Rubber Ducky” for the last half hour home.

Gellato for dinner.

Day 4

Our flight wasn’t until 2 pm, which normally would be enough time to go to another site before getting to the airport. Traveling with a kid, though, has taught me that packing for them, cleaning up the apartment for them, and making sure they’re clothed, fed, and rested will eat up a lot more time than you had planned.

So that morning we had just enough time for pastries and iced coffee again, then a trip down to the nearest Vodafone store where I got a new sim card to replace my data-less one. (Turns out, buying data in Greece is cheap!) Then, it was time to leave for the airport and return the car.

Mishaps: left the baby’s food bag in the fridge and left getting gas to the last second before leaving. This meant turning around and waiting for our hostess to finish her shower so we could be let back into the apartment to get the precious consumables. This also meant arriving late to the car rental drop off, which in turn, once through security led to almost boarded the wrong plane in our haste. But after that, we were home free to Athens.

Only regrets: We didn’t make it to the cave where Zeus was supposedly born and we didn’t go to the beach. That’s right, we didn’t dip one toe in the ocean while in Greece. What a shame. And there were times we really, really wished for that.

Other considerations: we may have saved ourselves some driving if we had flown out of the other airport in Chania. Keep this in mind for your future planning.

The basic details:

Mode To and from Overnights Accommodation
Air Athens Airport to Heraklion Airport Heraklion (3) Apartment in Heraklion

Driving around Crete 1

3 Comments

  1. You packed a lot into just a few days! My guess is that ‘rakey’ is the anise-flavored liquor that sometimes is called raki or raku, depending on where you are. Greeks and Turks both drink it (even though they claim they have nothing in common with each other, my impression is that they eat mostly the same foods…).

    Like

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