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I was not one to be sentimental about heritage when I was a child.


This was, more or less, by design. My family wanted me to concentrate more on the present than the past, except of course when it came to the study of historical personages who did things of note. I wrote family tree projects with the cold lens of an academic, and the idea of ancestry became so far removed from me that it was more like examining the history of a stranger rather than analyzing myself. I was a mutt, without a past, without roots, without ancestors. For the most part this was not an issue, and my love of history was no less strong.
Which brings me to the grand epiphany I experienced in the Archaeological Museum of Crete.


There is a reason why this museum is on every “Best Thing to See in Crete” article in existence; it is home to antiquities of the most unique nature. It is one of the oldest museums in Greece, home to collections that began before the formal construction of the museum. The Archaeological Museum contains artifacts from every pivotal evolution for the Minoan people spanning the last 5,500 years, neatly placed into 12 expansive rooms on the first floor alone.


The Minoans were the first real civilization on the island of Crete, emerging from the neolithic population that first inhabited it. They were the Bronze Age powerhouse, with a formidable navy, a rich artistic tradition that went through several evolutions, and a complex and intricate religious system that archaeologists are still unearthing new details about. They were the epicenter of trade, connecting the Hellenic peoples of mainland Greece with Cyprus, Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. They weren’t just the first inhabitants of Crete, they were Crete.


Upon entering the museum on a hot July afternoon, I found myself taken by the sudden weight of how old the Minoan civilization truly is. I have been to this museum many times before, but something about this visit struck me as particularly meaningful. The stone basins that they used for ritual cleaning, the delicate golden jewelry that is carefully displayed, even the little clay bulls all on display, were made by human hands so long ago I could not completely wrap my head around it.

I forgot to breathe as I stared at the famous Bee pendant, which was unearthed at the archaeological site of Malia in 1930. It is an intricate depiction of two bees (or wasps), each curved to form a semi-circle, meeting at their heads and stingers respectively. Three gold orbs hang from each wing and their connected stingers, and a circle of gold (perhaps meant to symbolize a fruit) sits between them. The piece is beautiful, and time was clearly spent carefully accounting for each detail in the textured wings and bodies of the bees. The realization that this was made by human hands, loving, careful hands, hit me like a train. Who had worn this pendant? Whose hands first undid the clasp and hooked it about their neck? Was it a gift? A purchase? A tribute to a ruler? ‘Who were you?’ I wondered, looking at every piece of jewelry that lined the glass cases.


Then there was the Phaistos disc, discovered at the Phaistos palace ruin in 1908. It is an unassuming object, a dull brown circle with a diameter not much bigger than my outstretched hand, (5.9 inches to be exact). It’s not in the cases that line the walls, but on its own encased pedestal in the center of one of the rooms. On each side of the disc, etched symbols follow a spiral pattern into the center of the disc, forty-five pictorial signs that are repeated and grouped in sixty-one different segments, on both sides of the disc. Is it a song? A hymn? A spell? Perhaps we will never learn the truth, as the disc is written in Linear A, and is still being deciphered. The placard on the pedestal dates the Phaistos disc to the early 17th Century BC. Yet again I found myself confronted with the almost uncomfortable fact of time, and simultaneously, how a human hand had carefully and expertly shaped and carved this little mystery.


Perhaps my favorite thing about the Archaeological Museum of Crete is how much art it showcases. There is something so intrinsically human about being an artist, and I think it is a testament to the Minoans that so much of their art has survived. A marvelous sculpture of bull-jumpers mid-leap represents the first time that art depicted motion in a three-dimensional space. I wondered if the artist knew they were the first, or if they had, like all artists, assumed someone had beaten them to it.


Just next to this statue is the famous bull-jumper fresco, depicting three jumpers, two female and one male, participating in the sport. One woman grabs the deadly horns of the charging bull, preparing to propel herself into the somersault. Her eyes shine with the confidence of an expert sportswoman, cautious but unafraid. The man is halfway through his leap, his hands spring boarding off the bull’s mighty back, his body moving on autopilot. The second woman stands behind the bull, arms outstretched in triumph, having just completed her leap. The bull remains forever in his forward momentum, ever charging, his brown and white coat standing out vividly against the bright blue background of the fresco. Out of all the frescos that once called the Palace of Knossos home only to reside in this museum, I think this is the most beautiful. There is a triumphant nature to it, not a mastery of nature but perhaps a mastery of the self; total control over one’s body is the only way to survive a bull-jump.


Only two rooms later, I found myself staring at the ‘Ring of Minos,’ a small golden ring engraved with the Minoan Epiphany Cycle. Dating somewhere between 1450 and 1400 BC, the golden ring depicts the Goddess, the primary deity that was worshipped by the Minoans for the majority of their existence. She exists in three forms: hovering in the air, on a platform that is also holding Horns of Consecration (which visitors of Knossos will recognize as the giant statue of Bull’s Horns that faces the mountains), and rowing a boat beneath a fruit tree. The goddess, and by default the Minoans, have dominion over air, land, and sea, and all who beheld the ring were meant to recognize this as fact.


When I first laid eyes on the ring, I was suddenly met with a fierce rush of emotion, and tears threatened to escape my eyes. I was taken aback by this. Though beautiful, the ring is quite small, and not the only ring on display in the case. But something about it touched me, and I was forced to quit the area before I embarrassed myself. When I visited the museum again a month later with a friend who had never been before, I was surprised to feel the wave of emotion flow over me again. Once again I left to explore the other artifacts as I let the feeling pass. I never figured out the reason why I was so affected. Maybe I don’t need to.


But perhaps the most striking thing about this museum is how much of the collection revolves around death as much as life. A sizeable portion of the museum is devoted to the Minoans’ burial practices, showcasing how they evolved as their civilization progressed. Jars specifically made to hold anointing oils for burial, tools to carry out burial ceremonies, and funerary reliefs reveal insights into how the Minoans cared for their dead. I was particularly struck by the examples of several Protopalatial, Neopalatial, and Final Palatial tombs, especially the large clay pots that housed skeletal remains of what was once a fellow human being. There is something to be said about the way a civilization cares for its dead. The Minoans, in most stages of their existence, took great care and reverence in burials. Staring at the visible skeleton that was laid to rest in one such great jar, I felt it spoke great volumes that, thousands of years later, evidence of this care still remains. I was one of thousands who came before that followed in the grand tradition of paying my respects to the noble dead.


I could write a book on all the wonders held by this museum. Several people already have. I could talk of the Snake Goddess, of the bull heads, the toys, or the effigies. I could go blue in the face exalting the historical importance of the collection in the cold and clinical academic context. Better men and women than I have long since beaten me to it. I have been to this museum several times in my life, but walking through those rooms on that hot July day, it finally became real to me that the Minoans did not exist in an abstract. The Minoan people filled their days with creating art, raising families, honoring their gods, waging war. They led the way of commerce in the Mediterranean and created a civilization rich with an art and culture worth remembering. They built homes and palaces, storefronts and temples. They built a life. Like I’m trying to. Like you, most likely, are trying to.


I still do not feel any strong ancestral tie. I do not feel as if I ‘belong’ in any place or among any people specifically. I don’t expect that to change, and I don’t know if I need it to. But what I feel instead is the commonality that spans across millennia to connect us as human beings attempting to turn our little lives into something worthy of remembrance.


And that is a tie I will cherish forever.

By Katarina Kapetanakis

If you have followed the author of this blog’s excursions up to this point, then you are most likely familiar with the fact that I like hiking; it’s hiking that doesn’t like me.


I’ve hiked the gorge of Preveli and survived, by the skin of my teeth. I’ve gone on multiple hikes across America, Europe, and South America, to varying degrees of success. Against all odds, I love the great outdoors, and to this day I cannot keep away. So it should come as no surprise that I decided it was time to hike Samaria Gorge.
Growing up, this hike was hyped up to me by my father, who spent several summers on Crete as a teenager. He told me what an adventure it was to hike the gorge, how incredible a natural wonder it was. He also told me it was a challenge. He quite often told me that it was a hike I should prepare for, but that if I did, and we were lucky enough to go to Greece, he would take me.


But me? Prepare for a hike? Please. I’ve hiked through mountain trails and desert paths, through crevices and canyons and cliffsides. Though I have certainly had my fair share of pain, (not to mention regretted not bringing along just one extra water bottle), I have never felt like I needed to prepare for a hike, and I was not about to start now. It’s not like I was doing the really challenging ones, anyway. There’s an old saying in my family: you can’t get off a couch and expect to climb a mountain. My existence was a testament to the opposite.


However, I will admit: I was intimidated by this one.


Samaria Gorge is one of Crete’s most well-known natural wonders, located on the southwestern part of the island in the White Mountains of Crete. It’s a 10 mile track through a limestone canyon that is traditionally open from May 1st to October 31st, whereupon the rains of autumn make the trail too dangerous to traverse. It is the longest gorge in all of Europe, making it a popular challenge for hiking enthusiasts. If you want to hike the whole length of the trail, you must arrive before 1P.M.


Depending on whether you feel like hiking for six hours, there are ‘lazy’ versions of the trail that exist. There are different starting points within the trek that lessen your hike time, and serve as a great alternative for those who are unable (or unwilling) to hike for long periods but still wish to see the park. There are, of course, tours you can purchase that come with a guide to make sure you don’t get lost. Some even include breakfast. All include transportation, most departing from the city of Chania, though there are some that will pick you up from your hotel, or in Heraklion. Most tours arrive at Samaria Gorge at about 7:00 A.M. in order to make the most of your day.


There were plenty of logistical reasons for me to worry about this hike, but the selling point was that for the most part, the trail went in one direction: downward. Six hours of hiking sounds like a rough day, but in my hubris I was convinced that it truly would not be that bad. So what if I had to wake up at the crack of dawn to catch a pre-arranged bus to transport me to hike at 7 in the morning? Today was going to be a good day.


As I stood outside the entrance to the trail on that brisk morning, I regretted staying up late. I also regretted coming alone. The jokes about not being prepared were starting to no longer feel like jokes, and in the back of my mind I questioned the decision to do this solo. I stared up at the entrance to the park and could not help but recall the immortal words of Dante Alighieri: “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.”


Of course, I tend to lean on the overdramatic side, so I squashed my anxieties and marched through, into the trail. ‘I’m prepared,’ I reminded myself. Unlike the Preveli Beach trip, where I was forced to walk up the mountain in flip-flops, I had purposefully brought hiking boots. I had packed not one, not two, but four bottles of water in a drawstring backpack. I had my trail mix, something I had to remind myself when I glanced longingly at the cafe that sat just outside the park’s entrance.


It was a beautiful day, and though the sun was steadily growing hotter, the dry heat meant I felt all the benefits and none of the drawbacks of summer. I am a Florida native, and any hot day without humidity is a relief to me. As a solo hiker, I took my time. The last thing I wanted was to run into any issues while I was locked into this hike for six hours, and I was more than willing to take in the beautiful scenery as I went.


There is something very humbling about walking in a gorge. I’ve never felt smaller when juxtaposed with the awesomeness of solid rock walls that jut out on either side of me. Nature, in general, is where I retreat when I want to recenter myself. Hiking offers clarity, peace, and a chance to expend all the energy I acquire sitting in front of a computer most of the day. It’s a break from a world with non-stop connection, a chance to be at one with my thoughts and the natural world. Samaria Gorge offered all of that, as well as the chance to spot one of the Kri-Kri, an endangered species of feral goat that calls the gorge home. I regretted the decision to leave my DSLR camera at home, thinking the extra weight would have made the trek more difficult. The beauty of Samaria Gorge was too beautiful to capture on a smartphone, no matter how well their technology has advanced.

Samaria Gorge is a one-way hike that ends at the coastal town of Agia Roumeli. By the time I reached that town I was dying for a dip in the ocean, and I did not restrain myself. If you happened to be hiking the trail one summer day and saw a woman plunge into the waters of the Libyan Sea after just barely taking the time to remove her hiking boots… no you didn’t. After refreshing myself from my six-hour hike, I bought a beach towel, dried off, and spent a good hour in a taverna. I had earned my lunch that day.

All I had left to do was wait for the boat that would return me to Sougia, where the bus, complete with air conditioning, would be waiting. I had conquered another hike, lived out a childhood dream, and I had done it all by myself. As I looked out onto the waters of the Libyan Sea, watching the dappled light reflected from the waves, I could not help but think…


It had been a good day.

By Katarina Kapetanakis

I have been writing for Wine Dark Sea Villas for almost two years now, and I am shocked to discover that I have not written about the city of Chania in all that time. I’m flabbergasted. Surely, I thought to myself as I scrolled through old entries, I would have written about Chania? Crete’s oldest port city, its original capital, my first real introduction to Cretan life…surely I would have written about this beautiful town by now. Sadly, I have been remiss in my duties as vacation raconteur, a mistake that I wish to rectify immediately.

Chania has roots that stretch all the way back to the days of the ancient Minoans, the original inhabitants of Crete. Back then, it was known as Kydonia, the source for the word quince, (which is appropriate, considering the prevalence of the fruit). One myth establishes that the ancient city-state was founded by Cydon, a son of Hermes (or Apollo, depending on who you ask), and his wife Akakallis, who was the daughter of King Minos. Another myth states Minos himself was the founder of this powerful port. Archaeologists are still excavating parts of the old town, and have determined that this ancient city-state (for all major cities on the island were self-governing seats of power) was not only an important center for trade, but was also constantly at war with other city-states like Aptera, Phalasarna, and Polyrrinia. Kydonia even has a small appearance in Homer’s Odyssey, though the mention is quite brief.

By 69 B.C., Kydonia had been conquered by the Roman consul Caecilius Metellus, though it was allowed to operate as an independent city-state. Fast forward a few hundred years and we find Kydonia renamed Al Hanim (Arabic for ‘the inn’), during a period known as the Rule of Arabs, once the island itself was conquered and the previous Byzantine rulers were ousted. In 961 AD, the city was reclaimed by the Byzantines, and renamed the city once more to the Greek ‘Chania’. The name has stuck, despite a temporary change under Venetian rule to the Latin ‘Cydonia.’ Since then, the city has changed hands multiple times, from the Venetians to the Ottomans, from them to the native Greeks, to a brief occupation by the Nazis during World War II, and finally, back into the permanent hands of the Cretans, though the capital of Crete was moved to Heraklion in 1971 after thousands of years of turmoil. I’ve done my best to condense a rich history for the sake of clarity, but I highly encourage readers to look into the fascinating and extensive history of this beautiful port city.

 

Of course, my own history with this city also has its twists and turns, and my impressions of the place have led to a deepening appreciation for Chania, its people, and its impact on the island of Crete. Every time I visit, I make sure to pay at least one visit to the city. You can never actually park close to the old parts of town, (unless you’re extraordinarily lucky, that is), but the parking garages that lie just outside the borders aren’t too far away to stroll leisurely into town. You may be tempted to visit the beaches there, with soft sand and clear blue water, with strange and curious ruins dotting the coast line and the road leading into the town, the Necropolis of Chania. The path is a straight-forward, uncomplicated one into the heart of the town, where vine-covered trellises grant much-appreciated shade to restaurants. Though the smell of the food might beckon you to stay, as it most certainly does to me whenever I go, I recommend that you take one of the alleyways down to the pier before you eat. There’s time to eat later.

Pick any one of the alleyways that presents itself. As long as it leads downward, you’re going the right way. Wonderful shops line both sides of the street, from the more touristy beach shops and ice cream stores, to the markets and stores that sell gorgeous and intricately painted wooden religious iconography in the orthodox style. Maybe you’ll pick up a set of komboloi, unique to you, that you can flip over your hand as you stare out over the harbor and out into the open sea beyond. It’s perfect for that kind of meditation, after all.

The harbor itself is lined with shops and tavernas of all kinds, though perhaps it is best not to dine at these particular tavernas that tend to overcharge visitors who come from the cruise ships, knowing they have no time to wander the city streets. Once you’ve decided to eat, you’re better off at one of the delicious tavernas you passed on your way down to the harbor. There are more novelty shops along this road, perfect for finding just the right gift for that friend or relative you’ve left behind. You can’t go wrong with a postcard. But the best thing about the harbor is the beautiful crystalline water, a blue-green window into another world where colorful fish often swim amongst the rocks. There are glass-bottomed boat tours that you can take for a leisurely two-hour excursion, and even a submarine ride that can show you the ocean in ways the average tourist has probably not seen before. In all the years I’ve visited, I’ve never taken either voyage, but one day I hope to.

 

If you’re facing out towards the water, the right hand side of the pier is where an ancient and beautiful mosque lies, a remnant of the Ottoman occupation. On the left hand lies the War museum and the Nautical museum of Crete, both filled with impressive collections that will thrill history lovers. (There are, in fact, several worthwhile museums to visit in Chania, including but not limited to: the Archaeological Museum of Chania in Saint Francis Monastery, the Folklore Museum, the Municipal Art Gallery, the Byzantine/Post-Byzantine Collection, the House of Eleftherios Venizelos, and the Museum of Typography.) Of these museums, I can only really speak in great length about the War museum, a place I highly recommend for anyone who wants to learn more about the heroic Cretan resistance to Nazi occupation.

Explore the alleys leading up and away from the port. Don’t be too afraid of getting lost: you can always find your way back by heading downhill. Up in the twisting alleys, you’ll find art galleries and unique pieces, evidence of Chania’s growing artistic community. If you’re a photographer like me, you’ll find wonderful shots around every corner, from open doorways leading to vine-covered stone courtyards to cats resting in the shade, and if you want to find wonderful, handmade textiles, you’ve certainly come to the right place. Stick around the town for a night of music and fun, as there’s quite an indie scene that’s up and coming in Chania, not to mention the flourishing Jazz scene. (Don’t even get me started on native Cretan music, which you can find in abundance).

Chania has something for everyone, whether you simply want a fun day out in the sun, a day on a boat, an afternoon of exploring museums and shops, or culture. It is rich in a history that is palpable, architecture that entrances, and a people who have pride in their city. Though I’ve been remiss in sharing my love of this enchanting place, it’s better late than never.

 

By Katarina Kapetanakis

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

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 

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 

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

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

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