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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 

Sashimi Rollin’…They Hatin’: Crete’s Unexpected Treasure

When my cousin told me, out of the blue, that he had found the best sushi I would ever taste, I did something many of you would consider to be…rude.

I laughed in his face.

After all, when I say the Greek islands, does Asian cuisine come to mind? No, it doesn’t! The kind of fish you’d find in the town of Heraklion is not the same style as that you’d find in Tokyo. Frankly I figured I wouldn’t taste anything but lamb, chicken, and gyros for several more weeks. I had planned to hit my favorite sushi restaurant the very day my plane would touch American soil again, where I would treat myself to salmon sashimi, a tuna tartar, maybe some tamago, and the like. I loved the Cretan palate, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t dream of the occasional volcano roll. So how could I expect the Greeks to enjoy the taste of raw fish, since every other restaurant I’d been to (though their fish was delicious), cooked theirs? I wasn’t under any impression that there was a market for sushi on Crete.

“Trust me. You’ve never had sushi like this.”

“I’ll believe it when I taste it,” I said.

My cousin didn’t seem to understand my skepticism. My siblings, who were just as Americanized as I, couldn’t understand how our cousin thought that he had found sushi on the island. My brother rolled his eyes and was ready to write off all my cousin’s protestations. My sister wanted to take the risk, but my brother and I figured this was due to a desperation for food that wasn’t lamb. Finally, our curiosity overcame our trepidation we had over trying whatever the Greeks thought sushi was, and we decided to call up our cousin and have ourselves a culinary escapade.

We drove about 45 minutes to the seaside town of Chersonissos (or Hersonissos, depending on who you ask), a place that, for me at least, reminded me a little of Hollywood beach in South Florida. For those that haven’t had the pleasure, picture a cozy but commercial seaside town, where the nightlife is more like a comfortable party than an all-out bacchanalia, where the restaurants all have gorgeous views of the sea, and people on motorcycles riding on paths that probably shouldn’t allow motorcycles, but do anyways. It’s a place that gives off a calm and pleasant atmosphere, one that satisfies anyone looking for a party while at the same time giving those who just want a nice dinner their space. Never had I seen the personification of a happy medium in a physical place. It was quite nice, and, as I was to learn, a greatly appropriate place for a sushi restaurant on a Greek island.

The restaurant is named Kymata Sushi, owned and run by a wonderful visionary named Christos, who was inspired while on business in Japan to bring the wonder of sushi to his home. His other profession, that of high-end jewelry store owner, has influenced his passion. The sushi he has helped to bring to this country is, quite simply, a work of art, as seen on the screens on the walls above the restaurant that show his beautiful jewelry morphing slowly into intricately rolled pieces of sushi. It was a little entrancing, and I couldn’t help but allow my mouth to water just a little.

“Wait until we order,” my brother said. “Just…wait.”

My brother takes his sushi very seriously. He can down four to five rolls of sushi (with some pieces of sashimi here and there) in the same time it takes a normal person to eat one roll with maybe an appetizer. It really is an impressive thing to witness, almost like a free Vegas magic show: watch this pound of tuna disappear before your eyes in 3…2…you get the point. His litmus test was a tad more precise than mine, and so we agreed to order a wide variety, to my cousin’s distress.

“Are you sure you’ll be able to eat all of that?” he asked, wondering just what we were feeding my brother in America, who was tall and thin and didn’t look as if he was physically capable of eating an entire kitchen. My brother’s face was stone. He wasn’t there to play games…he was there to eat sushi.

Our waiter took our order, and after some pleasant conversation with some of the staff and the owner, and some complimentary hors d’oeuvres, our sushi came. We think, in retrospect, that the waiters stuck around because they simply couldn’t believe my brother would be capable of eating, though a more realistic explanation is that they were the most attentive staff I’d seen in a while. I don’t think my water glass was emptied once that night.

But the sushi was a marvel. It was beautifully presented, as if Poseidon himself had wrapped up his treasures and presented them to us on a plate. Our eyes wide, we couldn’t help but drool at the colorful array before us, filling the table, and making us just a little unsure of how much, in our hubris, we had ordered. The taste test, however, was still before us. We gazed at my brother, who had assumed the position of authority, and waited with bated breath as he lifted the first piece of sushi to his lips. The air went out of the restaurant. You could have heard a fish bone drop.

Our cousin, as you probably guessed, was right: the sushi was the most delicious we had ever tasted. My brother’s eyes rolled back into his head, enraptured, and my sister, usually a proponent of sharing from other people’s plates, decided to start hoarding her own. I had to confess to my cousin that we ugly Americans were eating our hats. This was, in fact, the best sushi I’d ever had, and my brother concurred. He devoured 30 pieces of sushi, 12 pieces of sashimi, and an entire bowl of salmon tartar. He thanked our cousin for showing us the restaurant, and then walked off into the night, his thirst for sushi officially quenched. What a hero.

So if you are searching for a break in between the traditional Cretan fare, look no further than the small, lively town of Chersonissos. Look for a clean, well-lit place, known as Kymata, and enjoy some of the best sushi you’ll ever have in your life.

Say hello to Christos for me.

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