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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

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 

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