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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 

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