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Fishing for Fun: Heraklion’s Fish Spa

Those who know me best know that I am unable to resist a kitschy tourist trap when I see one. I can’t help it: the minute I know it’s there, all of my mature appreciation of art and culture flies right out the window, and all of my thoughts are consumed by an almost primal desire to do something dumb for the sake of the doing it. I can’t even claim that it’s done ironically: I genuinely enjoy exploring tourist traps. I love finding joy in roadside attractions, in things that may be more expensive than they’re worth but are nevertheless enjoyable, in things that, while on the surface a dedicated traveler may consider a waste of time, I consider an experience. I’m reclaiming my joie de vivre one wacky, weird thing at a time.

Which is how I came to be a patron of the Doctor Fish spa.

How could something so…relatively…cute be so flesh-hungry?

It is, as the name suggests, a fish spa. I had never heard of such a thing before, and had never even seen one in America, (although some people have informed me that they do indeed exist). The premise is this: the unsuspecting tourist, lured into the spa by the employees looking for anyone who’ll bite, is asked to first rinse their feet off in a sort of shower. Once they’ve rolled up their pants and handed over their sneakers, the tourist awkwardly climbs up onto a padded bench and unceremoniously dips their legs into tank containing twenty or so relatively small fish. For the next fifteen minutes, your legs are suspended in water, as these fish nibble the dead skin away. After your time is up, you awkwardly waddle back to the shower, wash your feet, and go about your day. The end result is supposed to be that, now all the dead skin on your calves and feet has been eaten, your skin has been exfoliated and is silky smooth. Bizarre? Yes. Hygienic? Possibly. The jury is still out. Just weird enough for me to want to try it? Of course.

To some, a nightmare. To me, an adventure. But also a bit of a nightmare.

For months, I had seen the store, as I had to walk past the place in order to get to Heraklion’s pier. I would walk down the main thoroughfare, glancing at it wistfully. Every time I asked my family if they’d like to try it out, they looked at me as if I had asked if they had wanted to try some sweet bread. It wasn’t easy, as I walked up and down this street often, buying souvenirs for friends. Each time I passed by the fish spa, the employees working the crowd would lock eyes with me. They knew. They could see it in my eyes that I wanted to enter, and they used that to their advantage. But alas, I couldn’t cave to my desire to stick my feet in a bucket of fish. I had places to go, people to see. The fish spa…would wait.

And then the end of my Summer arrived, and I found myself full of the usual bout of end-of-vacation blues. I didn’t want to leave the crystal-clear Cretan waters, the sunshine, and the like. I didn’t want to give up gyros and freshly cooked lamb. I was in a slump, and only one thing could lift my spirits: a final high note, one last ride, one final experience that would be the cherry on top to my Summer. The fish spa’s hour had come. That afternoon, my family and I headed to the fish spa, not quite sure what we were in for, but aware enough that we were going to have…a time.

Let me start by saying, don’t wear a dress to the fish spa. Climbing awkwardly up a bench that’s just a little too high for you, only for you to need to scoot down the bench to your allotted tank, makes a dress a hindrance. Secondly, definitely go with other people. Bring friends, family, distant cousins, acquaintances you made on your cruise, your yiayia, what have you. It is so much more fun going with people than by yourself. Not only does it distract you a little from the agonizing tickling sensation around your feet, it is the highest form of entertainment. I have three or four videos stored forever in my phone, which I watch sometimes when I’m feeling down, of my mother on the verge of screaming as the fish tickle her relentlessly. My brother mocks her mercilessly, bragging about how the fish’s tickling hasn’t troubled him in the slightest, while my sister and I have cast aside decorum and burst into uproarious laughter. Two random strangers in the video stare at us like we have grown three heads. It’s one of my favorites.

Pictured: my friends and family suffering at the behest of my whimsy

I was aware the feeling would not be…comfortable, but I wasn’t prepared for how strange it would feel. The farther up your leg the fish latch onto, the easier it is. They’re tolerable, those fish, the chill dudes of the tank. I liked them. They didn’t activate my fight or flight response. The fish that latched on to the top or sides of my actual feet were on thin ice. There was definitely a strong sense of discomfort produced by their presence, but those weren’t the ones that sent me into peels of tickle-induced laughter. That honor went to the little bastards who targeted my toes. If you’ve ever wanted to know just how strong your stoic endurance can last, buy yourself a fifteen-minute session at a fish spa, and see how long you can keep a straight face. Extra points if you can keep yourself from squirming. I think the hardest part of the whole thing was forcing my legs to stay still, instead of kicking them about like instinct demanded. But I survived, as did my poor mother, who vowed to never visit a fish spa again.

I’m suffering, but I’m also living my best life

I didn’t stick around for a manicure, which was one of the many other spa services Doctor Fish offered, but the next Summer I visited Crete, I went back to the spa twice. What can I say? There’s a satisfying kind of schadenfreude that comes from bringing your friends to a torturous fifteen minutes at the fish spa.

Oh, and my skin? Perfectly exfoliated. Beauty isn’t pain…it’s a swarm of tickling fish.

 

By Katarina Kapetanakis 

There’s Usually Money in The Banana Stand: The Hidden Gem Near Vai Beach

I am not a person who usually craves bananas. Maybe I just tend to contain the recommended daily dose of potassium naturally, and have never needed to seek it out from an outside source. Or maybe I just don’t crave bananas. That’s not that weird. I enjoy a good banana milkshake every now and then, and those little fruit-shaped candies that come from vending machines that are shaped (but most certainly do not taste) like bananas are fine, and banana bread is great! But I don’t seek out bananas like I do other fruits, and I’m perfectly okay with that. This is just how my life is, I assumed. Some people are banana people, and some just aren’t. I fell into that latter category for no other reason than it just happened to be how life was.

My cousin said it was because I’d never had a decent banana.

“You have never tried bananas like the ones near Vai.”

“The beach?”

“Yes. There is a man who has a fruit stand, right before the turn to go to the beach. He sells the most delicious bananas in the world.”

“Those must be some bananas.”

“You have to taste it to believe it,” he said. “He always sells out early.”

“So, you’re saying that there’s always money in the banana stand?”

My cousin didn’t get the pop culture reference, but that was alright with me.  I wasn’t exactly foaming at the mouth for those curvy yellow fruits, but I didn’t mind taking fresh fruit to the beach. I was also very excited to visit Vai, which I had heard was an incredible beach, but is, alas, a story for another time. If you think I can’t tell an entire story about a banana stand and how the banana man thwarted me, you’d be wrong. So wrong.

The drive to Vai was about an hour and a half from where I was staying on the island of Crete, enough time for me to observe the beauty of the natural landscape of the place, and take some blurry photos on my phone. I slumped back into my seat after about fifteen minutes of failed photography, (though I guess, with the right filter, it could have been hipster-Instagram worthy), and closed my eyes. Car rides longer than 20 minutes will put me right to sleep, and the lull of the van as we rose and fell and curved with the land was the perfect sedative. I felt blissfully at peace, with the sunlight floating through the crack of the open window; if I had been a cat, I couldn’t have been happier.

The car eventually slowed, causing me to stir and look out the window, expecting to see palm trees and a wine-dark sea…and instead, saw a dirt road, and to the left of me, a shack. Or maybe a stand, but a stand that was larger than usual, of questionable structural integrity. It looked as if it had been painted at some point, but had definitely seen better days. Two or three different families were standing around, picking up fruit and asking an elderly man (who was sitting behind the stand) questions. My cousin, seeing I had arisen from my slumber, handed me some euros and told me to buy some of the bananas.

“Wait…why me? I don’t speak any Greek.”

“That’s okay, lots of tourists stop here. You’ll be fine.”

I looked around at the shabby stand and found myself doubting very highly that tourists frequented this place.

“But how many bananas should I get?”

“I don’t know. Try to get a kilo.”

“That sounds like…a lot of bananas…”

“It’s not really that much.”

“I think I should—”

“Just go get the bananas,” said my sister, who up until now had been quietly sitting in the back seat, minding her own business. She was in the part of the car that didn’t have quite as good air circulation as the rest of us, and was eager to get the bananas and get into the water. I felt like telling her to get out of the car and buy the bananas if she wanted them so quickly, but I sighed, put on my brave face, and approached.

The “conversation,” if you could call it that, was as awkward as I had expected it to be. I didn’t really know how to ask for a kilo of bananas with any fluency, as the Greek vocabulary in my arsenal consisted of “γεια σας”, “Καλημέρα”, and “κοτόπουλο” (due to me temporarily owning a pet chicken while on Crete, but that is a tale for another day). But the man running the stand knew enough to get my money, and I successfully made off with maybe 6 or 7 bananas, noticeably less than how many bananas made up a kilo in my mind. It was of no consequence: the fruit was purchased, the bananas were gained, and finally we could continue on to our beach day.

The beach was a wonderful time, with soft white sand, clear water, and sunshine galore, with a gorgeous palm forest stretched out behind me and to the left of me. I felt like I was becoming one with the beach as I let myself cook in the hot rays, and I wondered how feasible life would be as a tent-dwelling beach bum, when my musings were interrupted by my cousin handing me a banana. I was still skeptical of these bananas tasting anything other than how bananas normally taste, but I obliged him, and realized without question that I had tasted forbidden fruit. My cousin may have had a point when he told me I’d never had a decent one. These were sweeter than the bananas back home, so much so I’d almost classify them as being rich, and yet I felt refreshed after I ate them. They were the perfect complement to a day at the beach. They simply tasted like Summer.

I had to have more.

When we were packing up the car with our damp towels and beach covers, I asked my cousin if it wouldn’t be too much trouble to stop once more at the stand.

“I don’t know if he’ll have any left, it’s late in the day.”

I had not considered this, but by then my thoughts were consumed with the primal, caveman-like desire of “obtain more bananas.” I had to try, damn it. I had to try. My cousin shrugged, and two minutes later he once again pulled into the makeshift ‘parking lot’ of the fruit stand. I got out of the car with the desperation of someone trying to hurry up and abscond with the last bits of fruit in a shop’s possession while poorly disguising said desperation by trying and failing to check their speed. I glanced at the place where the bunches had been hanging before: success! There were two bunches left! I sped-walked over to the Banana Man, and asked him if it wouldn’t be too much trouble to buy his remaining stock.

“No, I can’t.”

I wondered if they had been sold, but the answer was…much more perplexing to me.

“I cannot sell them to other people if you buy. I lose money.”

In my mind came a flurry of thoughts that I had neither the ability or knowledge to convey. But if you sell all your bananas to me, you make the same amount of money that you were going to make if you sold them to other people. I just…I want to buy your bananas.

“Okay…can I have half of them?”

“Half?”

“Ah damn—can I take just these?” I said, gesturing to one bunch.

“No, I’m sorry. I need to sell to other people, or I make no money.”

But—but I’m still giving you the same—please just let me buy your bananas.

“Can I have three more bananas?”

He shook his head.

“Two more?”

He shook his head again, and I heard the desperation creep into my voice.

“One banana?”

You can probably guess how that ended. I looked around at the stretch of empty road, and at the only other people at the stand, a Dutch family that were examining some dragon fruit that quite frankly also looked just as good. But I couldn’t leave now. I couldn’t be thwarted by the Banana Man. How can you get a customer hooked on your product and then deny them another purchase? The gears in my head turned and clanked about as I tried desperately to string “γεια σας”, “Καλημέρα”, and “κοτόπουλο” into a sentence that would convey how badly I wanted, nay, needed, those bananas. But while I struggled and tried to make the pieces of this grammatical conundrum fit, the Dutch family glanced at, admired, and purchased the lovely bananas right out from under me, Banana Man smiling the entire time.

My eyes narrowed, my mouth opened just a tad, and in my mind, I could not help but wonder if it had indeed been personal. None of it mattered though. I was left banana-less, and, bereft, I turned back to the van, where my cousin looked at me, confused.

“I thought you were going to buy more?”

“I tried.”

“What do you mean?”

“He wouldn’t sell them to me. He said he would lose money if I bought them all because he couldn’t sell them to any other beach-goers.”

“Oh. Yeah, that makes sense.”

I couldn’t do anything but gape at him, so I did for a brief time, wondering just whose side my cousin was on here. We could be eating bananas right now. Beautiful, sweet, magical bananas. The best damn bananas in the world. And yet…here we were…empty-handed. And empty in soul. Had I made some sort of pact with an otherworldly banana salesman who operated on rules based in a supernatural plane and not our own? Was I now paying for my pride, my belief that bananas were nothing special, until some Greek trickster banana god thought I should be punished for my folly? Maybe. Probably. I like to think so.

So, if you’re planning on taking a trip to Vai, and you come across a lonely looking fruit stand of questionable integrity, with maybe three other people clustered around some bananas…make a stop. Buy some bananas. Enjoy them. And don’t, whatever you do, take them for granted.

 

By Katarina Kapetanakis

Holes in the Wall: Discovering Hidden Gems in Heraklion

None of what happened that day would have occurred if my sister was not an artist.

My family was spending the summer on the island of Crete, and it was one of the few days we weren’t attempting to do something together. Something about the very concept of the Family Vacation necessitates that every second of every day while out and about must be spent with the group as a whole. This is all well and good, for the most part, up until the point where you’ve found it may be better to take a day to be individuals instead of a cohesive family unit, for the sake of the continued family’s cohesion. You could consider it a vacation from the vacation, if you so choose. My sister, the aforementioned artist, wanted to spend her day drawing and painting some of the landscape, a noble endeavor that required art supplies that she, alas, did not have on her. Not to worry, however: a cousin of ours who lived in Heraklion knew exactly where to go. Since this was the day we’d mutually agreed to split up and explore, the rest of our family did not tag along. But I was curious, and figured a walk around the city would do me good. I happen to believe one cannot be bored in a city, and right when one believes there is nothing new left to experience, you stumble across a happy accident.

“It’s just down this street, until you hit the traffic lights. Then turn left. You cannot miss it, it’s, maybe, two blocks? Yes, two blocks away,” our cousin told us, and abruptly drove off, leaving us to our own devices. It seemed simple enough; go forward until you spot the traffic light. How hard could it be?

Well, as it turns out, it was very hard. There wasn’t a traffic light to be seen.

This was a pretty interesting corner, though.

I wanted to take a couple exploratory turns, every so often, but my sister, (a stickler for directions), wanted to keep going in the general direction of ‘straight,’ much to our misfortune. You see, for those who don’t know how the roads that are next to the city center work, they tend to ‘fan’ out, leading perambulators in a diagonal direction away from the center of town. We didn’t find out until we hit the coast, but the part of the coast that has large, Venetian walls showing the line of demarcation between the city and the rest of Crete. A happy accident in its own right, considering I had never seen the walls up close before, (unless you count quickly driving past them). You’d think that this would be the point where we’d want to turn back, and just retrace our steps? Well…

“Well, we’ve hit the coast. The road just loops around to the harbor. We can grab coffee there. Want to just do that?”

“Yeah, okay.”

Oops…

And so, in silence, we began to follow the road, more or less, with no conception of how far we were walking. We lost the road several times, (please don’t ask us how, because we still aren’t exactly sure ourselves), following the paths that the stray dogs take to navigate the back-ways. It did make for interesting photography, I thought to myself, but I hadn’t expected the hike and so had neglected to bring my camera. It’s just as well. I have a feeling that if I’d lingered in some of those back alleys for too long, the mangy dogs would have been the least of my worries. But we plugged on, thinking north, always north, keep north, (although we were probably going east), when suddenly we’d found the sidewalk once more, and could see the faint outline of the harbor in the distance.

“Oh hey—isn’t this that museum we keep seeing as we drive in?” my sister asked, pointing up to the yellow building that we’d found ourselves in front of.

“It is,” I said. I didn’t bother asking if she wanted to go inside. It was the middle of summer, we’d brought no water with us, and we’d been walking for about an hour. Inside meant air conditioning, water, possibly somewhere to sit. We were going in. Almost immediately, however, we decided to forego the plan to hit the café first, as we quickly became distracted by the wealth of treasures in the museum.

Image by the Historical Museum of Crete via their website. Sadly I neglected to take a photo of the building myself.

For those who’ve never been to the Historical Museum of Crete, (not to be confused by the more well-known Archaeological Museum closer to the town’s center), you owe it to yourselves to pay it a visit. Museums have always held a special place in my heart, a place that both quiets and excites my mind. This museum was a fabulous treat for me; it began as a general history of the island, which has been host to various cultural influences and conquerors, as some of you probably know. It is a fascinating history, filled with political intrigue and real-life folk heroes. From the Minoan empire, to the conquering Greeks, to the invasion of the Venetians, Ottomans, the reclamation of the Cretan people, this museum takes you on a journey through it all. There is even a section of the museum dedicated to the resistance of the Cretans against the Nazis, and it filled me with joy and pride to see how brave these men and women were in their struggle to liberate their island. (On a personal note, I was especially prideful to find two of my ancestors listed as members of this resistance. My sister and I were able to share a moment that, I expect, is rare to museum goers: seeing personal history and global history collide).

One of the beautiful exhibits in this museum!

If history isn’t really your favorite subject, you shouldn’t worry. It also plays host to a large amount of art, including some of the most beautiful Byzantine iconography I’ve seen in a single collection. And if post-Byzantine is more your style, you should make a pilgrimage to this place for the sole reason that it is the only play to see the two works by the master El Greco on display on the entire island of Crete: The View of Mt. Sinai and The Monastery of St. Catherine (1570), and the Baptism of Christ (1567). Though he eventually settled in Spain, Domenicos Theotocopoulous (a.k.a. El Greco) was born in Heraklion, and to see him honored in this museum is something truly special. The museum also features a large collection of the works of Nikos Kazantzakis, perhaps one of the best-known Greek writers, (and a Cretan native). For those of you who are bibliophiles, make it a point to visit this part of the exhibit. Books I had never even heard of adorned the walls, correspondence between Kazantzakis and his wife or his friends lie still under a glass pane, and I couldn’t help but admire the covers of the various international editions that all had such beauty to them. It’s a special place for those who love literature and exploring new cultures and voices you may not know to seek out.

A bright road ahead

 

We soon received a phone call from our family, who were all now well-rested enough to regroup and take on the rest of the summer as a family unit. They asked us to meet them at Lion Square, not knowing of our small odyssey that had led us through the side ways and byways of the city. We got lucky, though; the museum was only about 500 feet away from the center. Upon spotting us, our family waved us over to them, where they were enjoying a lovely bougatsa at our favorite café.

“Did you find your art supplies?” our father asked.

My sister and I looked at each other before remembering our journey had an initial purpose that, in the excitement, we’d forgotten.

“No,” she told him, and smiled as she reached for a forkful of pastry. “But that’s alright. There’s always the next trip.”

By Katarina Kapetanakis 

The Sound of the Sea and Nothing Else: A Visit to Agia Pelagia

Many people come to Crete in search of the perfect beach experience, and they certainly will have no trouble finding options. That’s the beauty of an island vacation; every road leads to a cove, every path leads to a waterway, and every beach holds the promise of a good swim and plenty of sunshine. I’ve never been happier and more at peace than when I’m lying on the shores of a Cretan beach. The sound of the waves, the feeling of the sun baking my skin, the cool breeze that salves my budding sunburn, it all comes together to make up what is the highlight of my summers on the island. I’ve become something of a beach connoisseur during my time on Crete, and though there are almost too many beaches to choose as a favorite, Agia Pelagia has to be my number one pick.

Welcome to Agia Pelagia

There are other beaches on the island that travel magazines or shows will highlight as being the beach-to-see, and I wouldn’t disagree with them. As a visitor to Crete, you should experience all of the wondrous beaches to see there. But Agia Pelagia is so often overlooked, I felt that I should highlight the beach that has brought me some of my happiest days. (And, it helps that Agia Pelagia is located only about ten to fifteen minutes away from all of the Wine Dark Villas).  Agia Pelagia isn’t necessarily a small beach, but it certainly isn’t a large one. The beach is nestled in a semi-circle of cliff-side, where the sun shines perfectly down into the center. The ocean here is calm, with a blue that rivals the clearest of sapphires, with waters so cool you’ll have forgotten whatever discomfort the sun has brought you up to then. The water of Agia Pelagia is like glass, so clear and beautiful that you’ll see every strange and colorful fish as they come to say hello, or perhaps to give a tentative nibble. Don’t worry, though: all these fish are quite small and quite harmless, and many are a marvel to look at!

One of my favorite things to do is to dive and explore the many boulders, crevices, and small caverns that lie on the bottom of the ocean there. With a good pair of goggles and an average swimming ability, you can explore a whole new underwater paradise, watching the fish dart in and out between the rocks, seeking out the hidden places where the sea urchins lurk, imagining that this world is one that you can be a part of. It is a dream under that water, and one you can prolong by hopping on a charter and scuba diving into deeper parts. If you’re the daring sort who prefers thrills to relaxation, there is a short but steep path, for those who aren’t near-sighted or those not surefooted, that leads to a ledge where natives and tourists alike leap into the sea. When you feel like emerging from the depths of the ocean, you can relax on one of the lounge chairs that they have set up for rent along the sandy beach. From there you can relax, sunbathe, or take refuge from the hot Cretan sun in the shade of the umbrellas, sipping on drinks from the café behind you.

The path to the diving ledge

And speaking of that café, it’s worth noting that the taverna Almyra is the perfect place to get some lunch (or dinner) at Agia Pelagia. The taverna is split into two halves, the first half a sort of club where you can dance, drink, or lounge while you enjoy the day with your friends. The second half is an excellent taverna that is fairly quiet compared to the first half, with modern twists on Greek cuisine. From delicious freshly marinated anchovies mixed with fresh vegetables, tuna sashimi, unique takes on hummus and tzatziki alike, to traditional fare like lamb-chops and grilled salmon. Don’t let the twists on the cuisine fool you: the Cretan tradition of providing good food and hospitality runs strong in this little seaside taverna. But for all of this, my favorite thing about Almyra is how open this taverna is, and how all of the tables provide an excellent view of the beach. In fact, I highly recommend eating there come sundown; the sunsets at Agia Pelagia are so colorful and vibrant that they almost serve as a reminder to me of how rich and colorful life on the island of Crete can be, and how beautiful life can be all on its own.

Anchovies, anyone?

Coming to Agia Pelagia is the quintessential Cretan experience for me. It’s the escapism from the busy day-to-day, losing myself in the waves and the sand and the sun, letting nature work its healing wonders on my stressed mind. To be rejuvenated by the lovely Agia Pelagia is to be rejuvenated by the best of Crete, and I hope you take the time to experience this wonderful beach in all its glory. I will leave you with a thought by Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis, who can sum up how I feel much more articulately than I: “I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.”

By Katarina Kapetanakis

Sweet Dreams are Made of Cheese: The Greek Treat Known as Bougatsa

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a tourist possessing many vacation days must be in want of an ice cream. Think about the last time you went absolutely anywhere on holiday: do you happen to remember a time when you didn’t see a massive line of hungry tourists waiting to get some ice cream? In many places, you can’t fault them for it. Ice cream is delicious, after all, and it’s a relief on a hot summer day. Its also familiar; you know ice cream is a safe bet, a delicious safe bet, when a sweet tooth hits you on your travels. So I won’t fault those tourists who spend their time in line waiting for ice cream when many of them simply don’t know that more interesting (and arguably better) alternative deserts exist.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to bougatsa.

The best sweet treat in all of Crete?

Bougatsa is a marvelous treat that is believed to come from the city of Serres, in Macedonia, and just so happens to be very popular in the Cretan cities of Chania and Heraklion. Bougatsa is a pastry made of thin, flaky layers of phyllo dough wrapped around either delicious mizithra cheese, or a sweet “cream” custard, both versions topped off with cinnamon sugar. It’s a warm and buttery wonder that hits all the right spots you didn’t even know existed. If you’ve never tasted it, you can’t imagine the warmth that spreads in you, that happy feeling that grows with every bite. The perfectly flaky, buttery phyllo is such a wonderful compliment to the slight tang of the cheese, while the cream version sits on the tongue like a dream,  the perfect balance of savory and sweet. When I was first introduced to bougatsa, it was like my third eye had opened. As a great lover of cheese, I had fallen head-over-heels in love. Truly, nobody does cheesy pastry like the Greeks. I honestly wonder if they were the first people to discover that cheese pairs so perfectly with pastry, and that it’s the perfect thing not only for an afternoon snack, but for those looking for a sweet and savory start to their day: that’s right, bougatsa is actually a breakfast food! Although nobody would blame you if you got it for lunch….and dinner…and dessert.

Isn’t she looooovely

My favorite place to get bougatsa is a small café called Phyllo Sophies, (which automatically wins extra points for that world class pun). Here you can find bougatsa at its most authentic, complete with an attentive staff and some pretty lovely surroundings, such as the fountain in the heart of Lion’s Square, and the universal joy that comes from people-watching. In fact, every so often talented street musicians will set up shop near the fountain, providing the perfect soundtrack to your afternoon cheesy (or creamy) treat. Stopping for a bougatsa in Lion’s Square is like stepping off the ride that is life for a short while. The world keeps spinning without you at a lightning pace, while you get to sit and enjoy a warm slice of comfort. That’s really what bougatsa is to me; a chance to collect yourself, to feel refreshed and be made whole again with just a touch of extra sweetness. It reminds me that life is short, taking stock of time, your surroundings, and your life is important, and most importantly, it reminds me that  sometimes the perfect way to make life a little better is to add a touch of sweetness. Perhaps that’s a little corny of me. But would you really begrudge me a little armchair phyllo sophy?

By Katarina Kapetanakis

Cave into Belief: A Journey to Lassithi

I don’t know if you know what it’s like to be raised on a myth, but I’ll try to explain it to you.

Imagine growing up on stories like they were your bread and butter. I suppose that isn’t so unusual, plenty of children grow up in this fashion. Their parents spin them yarns for a tapestry so vast and old that no one can quite pinpoint where the first thread started. They’re a vast web of tales and folklore that, when woven together, make up the fabric of a reality. Not actual reality mind you, but a kind of reality. The whole world takes on a sort of shine, because when you’re raised on tales you end up believing in magic, and when that happens you’re never sure how much is real and how much is make-believe. Kernels of truth exist in myth, after all. And all that makes you wonder if your place in this world fits perfectly in between the truth and the story.

This was all a rather longwinded way to say that the cave Zeus was born in is a real place you can actually visit. You know Zeus; king of the Greek gods, lover of thunderbolts, and the man who set the philandering bar at its high, (or low, depending on your views on philandering). His birthplace, the cave at Lassithi, is a real place that thousands of tourists flock to every year. It was the place his mother Rhea fled to, to hide the existence of her youngest son so he would not be devoured alive by his father, Cronos.

A view of the plateau

Zeus’s cave is an hour or so drive into the center of the island of Crete. It’s a good drive, a grand way to appreciate the island in all its splendor. There’s nothing quite like turning a corner on a winding mountain road, or seeing a patch of sun drift across the valley in the center of the Lassithi plateau. It’s picturesque, like something out of a storybook. Perhaps a little on the nose, considering I’m selling you on visiting a place rooted in mythology, but it really is quite something to see in person. The last turn you take is a short uphill drive to the parking lot, where little tavernas welcome you with nourishment and a gorgeous overlook. The path to the cave lies across from them, where under an olive grove a small group of donkeys stand around, somehow managing to look both adorable and more than a little treacherous at the same time, as donkeys often do. Music from the tavernas drifts through the trees and dances on the wind as you turn to start the climb.

That’s right. The climb.

“But isn’t this a trip to a cave?” You might be saying. “Isn’t this supposed to be a little hole in the wall? You—you tricked me into hiking!”

Yes, that’s right: I tricked you into hiking. I tricked you into climbing a mountain on your summer vacation. I tricked you into exercising. I would be lying if I didn’t take a sort of perverse pleasure in it. I too was fooled by picture books depicting Zeus’ mother Rhea nursing her child in a cave that was ground level. However, in misleading you I have broken that sacred trust between blogger and reader of said travel blog, and I am sorry. Let me rebuild that trust.

Here’s an adorable donkey to help soften the blow

I’ll be honest with you, this climb takes a lot out of you, especially if you’re out of shape like I am. There are two paths to take, the paved ‘easier’ path and an unpaved, wild, untamed path that, if you’re craving an authentic hiking experience to mirror what it was like to climb this mountain a thousand years ago, is perfect for you. If you’re like me, a casual walker at best who just owns a decent pair of sneakers, a water bottle, and some plucky optimism, go with the paved pathway.

The path is steep but not unbearably so. Every so often you find yourself turning around to look back over your shoulder to see just how far you’ve come, which is reassuring as the view really is spectacular. If you can plan your daytrip around a partly cloudy day, do it; the way the sunlight filters through in patches across the valley is so beautiful, it can fill even the most inexperienced hiker with optimism and wonder. Hold that feeling. Carry it in your heart and treasure it as your calf muscles start to seize on you. Try and make it sustain you as you come to realize what those donkeys at the bottom were for, as the little kids riding them up the mountain point their stubby fingers at you in mockery. But don’t glare at them for too long: those donkeys are loaded, shall we say, and they do leave ‘gifts’ along the path. Try and avoid them.

A view from the top

It’s an incredible feeling to reach the top of this path, however. You’re rewarded with a sense of pride, something those brats on the donkeys know nothing about. You worked for this view, you earned it. Bask in your sense of superiority. It’s good to reflect on our accomplishments. In fact, the top of the mountain is the perfect place to celebrate them; someone had the absolutely brilliant idea of building a small taverna at the top, which serves fresh juice and water to the poor dehydrated visitors.

“So now, I’ve reached the top. A quick peak into the tiny cave and I walk casually back down the mountain. Right? …Right?”

I’ve misled you again. I keep doing that. I really do need to work on our trust exercises, I’m aware.

After paying a small entrance fee, (hope you brought some cash to get past this point Dad, or else you’re trekking back down that mountain to the car and up again all by yourself), you turn a small corner and see a hint of the cave entrance. The hole may not seem that large at first, but as you approach it widens, like the mouth of a monster opening to receive the offering of tourists. It is a gaping maw, a black abyss into the side of the mountain, with steps that descend into the very bowels of the earth. This is why they call it the ‘mouth’ of the cave, you think, as you commit yourself as one of thousands who step willingly onto the tongue. It may seem slightly dangerous, and I’d be lying if this part of the trip didn’t require a bit of caution. It does. The stairs are metal, and the farther you descend into the cave, the more saturated with moisture they become. Hold tight to the (albeit slippery) railing, follow the signs for which set of stairs to keep to, and you’ll be just fine. It’s pretty surreal to see, hordes and hordes of people filing down into the earth, and you have to wonder if the scene before you mirrors a descent into Hades rather than the place a baby once lived in. The cave screams “underworld” more than “nursery,” but I suppose you can’t be too picky when avoiding your father who wants to eat you.

The mouth of the cave

The hot and humid summer air has no influence here, in fact it makes you wonder why you didn’t think to pack a sweater. Lights illuminate the rock formations on the ceilings and the walls, and small pools of water glisten in the darkness, and you know for sure that though they look quite shallow, they’re probably fathoms deep. Look closer at the walls around you. Are those faces, ghosts of legends imprisoned in the cave wall? Or just your eyes playing tricks on you? Echoes bounce around, and you wonder if that faint cry is the ghost of a memory of the infant Zeus, as the shushing of an anxious mother quiets it out of fear and love. The air is somehow thinner here. Maybe you’ve slipped between the cracks, between times, and maybe you’ll turn the corner to find them sitting there in the darkness, perched on a rock. It’s exciting and unsettling all at once.

Only a small orb of light makes it down from the entrance, but it’s a light you’re drawn to as you circle around and make your way. Gripping the railing tightly, you follow the procession of visitors who make the slow climb back into the day. If you’re like me, you’ll probably blink a little in confusion, turn around, and stare again at the mouth of the cave. Were you ever down there at all, in that inky blackness? Did you transition from reality to myth and back again? You check your phone for the photos of the rock formations. They’re there. Boy, are they going to make some killer Instagram pics later…perhaps you were down there after all. But now it’s time for another fruit juice. Banish these thoughts from you, of blurred lines and jumbled myths: sip something cold, gaze at the view, take a deep breath, and get the group together. It’s time to go.

If you get the chance, when you’ve returned to your villa, gaze out over the pool. There’s a mountain range there that looks almost like the profile of a grizzled man, cut from the stone, his eyes closed. That’s Zeus, come to rest on the island of his birth, taking refuge in death at the same place he found safety in birth. I’m not yanking your chain, he’s there, sleeping and covered in grass and trees and goats and Cretans, and of course, you. They let him sleep though, the Cretans…his dreams keep the island the magical place that it is, a blend of myth and reality, a place where the lines between the two are blurred. And you know firsthand the power of that blur now.

By Katarina Kapetanakis

The Hidden Gem of Gortyna

To look at it now, you’d never know that Gortyn, or Gortyna, (or Gortys for that matter), was once the most prominent city in ancient Crete. In fact, from the outside, you wouldn’t think of it much except as a passing roadside attraction. I can’t say I took notice of it until I felt the car slowing down, and looking up I found myself in a parking lot that was most definitely not for the beach I thought we had been en route towards. I discovered, shortly, that though the place is unassuming from the outside, the archaeological site of Gortyna is not one to be missed.

Gortyna is now a small unassuming archaeological site that had been discovered in the later 1800s, but once it spanned so far and wide that it governed the whole southern-central part of Crete, including part of Rhethymnon. It was more important than even Knossos or Phaistos was at a time, and their Great Inscription, a summary of legal code that even today is considered advanced and complex, was a testament to their importance. Gortyna was a city of firsts, it seems: it was the first prosperous and powerful city in Crete during the Hellenistic era, the first Cretan city to fall under Roman rule, (including such updates as a new circular theater, a third agora, and a hippodrome), the first city to become an anchor to Christianity when Saint Titus preached there, and more. And  yet today, a stroll through the grounds of Gortyna is less a trip back in time than it is a wander through a ghost town, where nature seems to have reclaimed the land that once was a great metropolis. Giant lizards scurried in and out of cracks and crevices while cats lounged lazily in the sun, as usual in places they probably shouldn’t have been, and in the undergrowth the hum of the insects set the perfect soundtrack to my exploration. I had no idea the importance of the place at the time, as the placards and information cards were limited. But the site had a weight to it, the sort of calm one experiences when walking through a town that was once alive. The shadows from the columns of the ancient Odeon engulfed me and whispered to me questions of who else had stepped into their shade, who had walked these halls before I had. Who had walked these worn dirt roads before me? Had the people who had built these columns, once so tall, foreseen their toppling? Had they known people would hop on and off ledges, through phantom walls into rooms that no longer existed? I thought about that as I stood in the center of what used to be a house, or maybe a store. I was never to find out.

Despite not knowing a bit of the history of the place before visiting, the heat of the day and the surroundings lent itself to dreams of when the city was in its prime, and it was easy to slip into the fantasy of wandering the streets of a busy Grecian city as the theater across the way performed its latest epic drama. I had heard that it was here Europa was finally seduced by Zeus, after he had whisked her away, and the three great kings of Crete were conceived under a plane tree that still stands.  This fine line between myth and reality is so blurred in a place like Gortyna, where the facts are just obtuse enough to make one believe that anything was possible. So much was born in Gortyna: Roman influence, the root of Christianity in Crete and Greece…why not the royal sons of Zeus? Was it so impossible?

But of course, I haven’t even discussed their own unique wonder yet.

The most incredible part of Gortyna is the olive grove. I have never before had the pleasure of walking with trees that were there long before the existence of modern civilization. Trees that are some of the oldest in existence reside here, thick and worn and bent with age, but still strong and firm. Perhaps they’re a reflection of how the people age on Crete, growing stockier and more knobby, but never weaker, never less fascinating, never less beautiful. Imagine being able to reach out and touch a living thing that existed at a time when the ruins around you once stood tall. Imagine feeling the wind blowing through their leaves, the same wind that would have brushed against the faces of the ancient citizens, perhaps as they waited for the shops to open or a show to begin. Imagine placing your hand on the same bark that someone who existed before Christ himself placed his hand. It is a surreal and beautiful experience, this testament to living history. All at once you become a part of it, and a connection is forged between you and the rubble that surrounds you, the cicadas, the cats, the once great pillars and carved legal codes. All of it is connected and alive again, standing there in the olive grove.

 

A landscape reflected in its people is perhaps the most beautiful monument to civilization that stands today. I don’t think even the ruins would dispute this.

By Katarina Kapetanakis

On the Shores of Preveli

The quintessential element to summer holidays were always, at least to me, going to the beach. I adored the sun and sand, feeling the cool sea breeze on my face, enjoying the splashing of the waves as they playfully danced around me. I was always at home in the ocean. I always felt, therefore, that a summer without a trip to the beach was one that was wasted. Over the years, as I became more familiar with holidaying on Crete, I acquainted myself with many beautiful beaches, each a different experience, each new one more varied and wonderful than the last.

And then I visited Preveli.

A piece of Preveli

I had been to Preveli Beach once before, when I was very young. I remembered little, only that it had been a beautiful day and that I had not packed a swimsuit. I had walked around the area for a little while with my family before turning right around and leaving, promising one day to revisit it. I had only a faint impression of what the place looked like, and how to get there, but I longed to one day go back. Something about it called to me, perhaps that it was unfinished business, a beach I had left unexplored. Or maybe I was just restless in the villa and wanted to travel somewhere out of my comfort zone. I spoke about going with my family, and we made arrangements to visit the beach, though the discussion was met with some slight protest.

“Preveli? You really want to go to Preveli?”

“Yes. Why not?”

“Well…it’s not for the faint of heart.”

“I’ve been to a beach before. How bad can it be?”

“You’ll have to wear comfortable shoes, and pack water-“

“It’s settled then. We’ll be up by 9. See you then.”

Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the tone of the discussion before embarking on this journey, but I was filled with the impetuousness of my youth. I had my sights set on this small adventure, and I would see this beach if my life depended on it.

The view on the road to Preveli

Getting to Preveli Beach is not, well, a day at the beach. Though it is a beautiful and popular destination for locals and tourists alike, is not easy to reach. It is a bit of a drive to the south side of the island, full of winding roads and looming cliffs. It is beautiful, however, and we stopped along the way to take pictures of these rockfaces. It seemed like a good start to the day, setting the tone for one of a peaceful, albeit long, drive. The parking lot is on a cliffside, and to reach the cove below one must traverse down a large flight of winding, stone cut, and often uneven stairs. They are carved from the side of the cliff and are lined not only with large pebbles but a blanket of brambles that blow onto it from the mountainside. It is advisable that one, before making this journey, wear thick walking shoes, as flimsy sandals or rubber flip-flops will not protect your feet very well. You can guess which shoes that I, in my infinite wisdom, wore.

The path narrowed and widened seemingly at random, and as the hot sun beat down upon our little band, some of our party questioned the worthiness of this hike in relation to the beach visit. The beauty of the sea below, however, could not be denied, and we hurried on with the hope that once we reached the bottom we would be refreshed by the sea air. I pretended I was like the old heroes I’d read about in myths, climbing down chasms to explore new worlds and face new gods or monsters, and it made the climb down much more exciting, (and distracted me from all the thorns my flip-flops had embedded in them, at any rate). Once we carefully rounded the last corner, and carefully maneuvered our way down to the shore, we all agreed it was worth the work. Here, in the shade of the palm forest, the Great River (or Megas Potamos) meets the Aegean. The river is cold and biting like ice, but you must cross the small tributary to get to the sea. The ocean isn’t much warmer, but from it you can look back onto the shore, marveling at the Theophrastus palm grove that makes you wonder if you haven’t stumbled upon the Nile River, and aren’t staying in Crete at all. In fact, once I worked up the nerve to submerge myself into that icy river and swim along its banks, I felt as if I had indeed traveled to another place, another time. I kept an eye out for crocodiles, though of course there were none. Around the bend, the river kept on flowing, but I did not follow it any farther. I climbed out onto the bank, shivering, and walked back to where my family had settled on the beach.

It was then that I noticed the geese.

How could you not notice?

I suppose I should have noticed them sooner, but I was enraptured with the water and didn’t think to look around the land any longer than it took me to lay my towel down. But the thing about geese is that they’ll get you to notice them eventually. Loud, honking, and larger than I expected geese to be, these wild birds roamed up and down the shore approaching anyone who looked remotely like they could have food on them. Most of these beachgoers did, in fact, as there was a convenient café located off to the side of the beach. The geese that frequented (or perhaps, haunted?) these shores were not afraid of anyone, as they seemed to have learned long ago that if they did not get what they wanted by begging and through their own admittedly cute appearance, they would get it by force. Perhaps the gaggle of geese worries you, potential beachgoer? Don’t be worried. These comical little mafiosos aren’t really any bother, and most people tend to ignore their honking.

On their way to steal some food

In a strange way, it seems to add to the charm of the liminal space that is Preveli Beach. It sits on the border of what you’d expect to see of Crete and what it would look like in a dreamscape, a land that isn’t entirely rooted in reality and yet you find your feet buried in its sand. And if you find that you’re ready and able to make the long climb back up the stairs, think of yourself as Orpheus, climbing the long and winding stairway to return to the real world, where reality and dream are divided in a way that you are used to. Only this time, I encourage you to turn around, to look back, to look behind at one of the most beautiful seascapes nature has dreamt up. Marvel at how far you’ve come. Then keep climbing. You only have a thousand more steps to go before you reach the top.

A view from the top

By Katarina Kapetanakis

Colossal: A Journey into Rhodes

Up until this point we have exclusively shared with you the wonders of the island of Crete, highlighting its people and surroundings. We’re still committed to sharing our love of the island with you, but today’s post is going to be a little different. Today, we welcome another Grecian island into the fold of the Wine Dark Sea family, the beautiful Rhodes, and with it our newest immersive property…Lemuria Manor.

Gardens at Lemuria Manor

Rhodes does not feel like the Greece you read about in your history books. It’s not Athens, bleached white and regal, the acropolis looming over the city like a sentinel. It isn’t Crete, a wild and lively island with a looseness and excitement that one could associate with a party of dryads and satyrs. No, Rhodes is a strange blend of a medieval world and a garden paradise. It is a land that transcends antiquity and plunges its visitors into a medieval world of Templar Knights and giants of stone that served as a gateway to an ancient kingdom. But you wouldn’t know that from your first impressions of the island. Driving from the airport to the old city feels almost as if you’re driving through a high-end beach town: towering hotels that mirror the mountains behind them, reflecting sunlight into the waves below. The beach is usually busy, packed with sunbathing tourists, and the water looks far away and close all at the same time. But once the taxi drops you off in front of St. John’s Gate, and you look over the wooden bridge that leads into a massive stone fortress, you begin to wonder whether you’re actually in Greece.

It’s a wonder, you think to yourself as you pass through the massive stone gate and walk down cobbled streets that have not changed in hundreds of years. The roads are narrow, the byways narrower still, and it almost feels as if you’ve entered a labyrinth with nothing but the sound of your own footsteps for company. The silence does not last; the sounds of shopkeepers haggling with tourists, the music of street performers, and the hustle and bustle of life permeate every stone and corner of the town. The scents of delicacies float down from the cafes, and suddenly you’re confronted with the most lively and vibrant colors that shops and nature have to offer. You’ve made it to the heart of the Old City. And what a city! Date palms loom over your head, yellows, browns and greens are everywhere, and the most beautiful colored glass lamps and carpets seem to adorn every corner. At the heart is a mosque, a remnant from Greece’s time under Turkish rule, where a tower topped with the strangest spires loom above you.

It is a short three-minute walk from this very square that you find yourself staying. From the outside, the building is hidden by a large stone wall, where only vines and flowers are visible. But upon turning a key, you unlock a path into a garden paradise, a private Eden where the hustle and bustle of the town is shut out. Nestled in the garden is Lemuria Manor, itself is a piece of history that has stood since templars themselves roamed the island, that proves to be a blend of elegance and modern convenience, and upon entering you are overwhelmed by a feeling of homecoming. You wonder if perhaps it is the city embracing you with open arms. You wander its halls and wonder what secrets a place like this holds, what histories it could share with you. It is an insight into the city in its own way.

A sneak peek of Lemuria Manor

But you do not linger there for long, and you set off again to the square, throwing yourself into the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. You are heading to the great stone palace of the Grand Master, the leader of the Templar Knights, the looming stone structure that towers above the square. Long ago, knights held residence on this great island, a stopover before the knights marched on towards the crusades. There’s an energy here that is palpable, as it draws in tourists by the thousands to gaze upon its magnificent halls. You step into a large stone courtyard with staircases that look like they could have been part of an Escher drawing, angular, precise, almost beautifully dividing the empty space created by the archways it passes. Statues grace the walls, of great philosophers and kings, keeping watch over the crowds. Inside the palace are gorgeous stone walls, alabaster floors with inlaid mosaics, with tapestries and religious icons hanging reverently on the wall. This palace is a work of art, a fortress on the outside while its inside suggests a certain European elegance. It is a wonder, that a castle such as this, that looks as if it was carved out of the very island itself, could be so elegant inside.

Of course, any introduction to Rhodes is incomplete without addressing the Colossus, the famed statue that once straddled the harbor. Alas, the statue does not exist today, and to visit the site is to pay homage to a grave. The only thing left of the statue are remnants of the pedestals it stood upon, and a broken weatherworn foot. Talks have circulated in local governments of rebuilding the statue, but if you’re curious to see the original site, take a walk to the harbor. Try to fathom something taller than even the statue of liberty holding its own torch alight, beckoning traders and visitors alike to the ancient island.

Rhodes is more magnificent than a single post can capture, as are all the islands in the Aegean. But stay tuned. The beauty of Rhodes will be covered more extensively in coming posts, and you won’t want to miss your chance to explore it.

By Katarina Kapetanakis