September 19th, 2017
We are in Crete, south in the Mediterranean sea, closer to Africa than Europe. I am so at ease with the rhythm of life on this island, where people seem to really enjoy their time, their food, and their relationships. It’s past mid-September, yet the sun has no mercy in the afternoon and even later in the day. I love it. I love the heat, the dust, the salty breeze, the idleness, the coffee breaks and the late dinners.
We stay in a small town called Platanias, a 20-minute drive from Chania, the main city in western Crete. Our house is up on a hill, away from the crowds, with a large balcony looking over the sea. We like to sit there and take in the view during our morning coffee or at any other moment of the day when we are at home.
At night, soon after sunset, a thousand little lights coming from just as many windows are shining in the dark like terrestrial stars. We saw them from the plane last night, as we were landing. What a magical place to fly over! What an even more magical place to be!
After seeing Chania for the first time tonight, I am happy we did not choose it as our home-base in Crete. On the city’s promenade, at the so-called Old Venetian Harbour, tourists are outnumbering locals. Soon after sunset, the light balmy and the colour of honey, we walked along the waterfront to see the lighthouse, and with us, speakers of all languages of the world. I particularly liked the old warehouses of Chania, most of them turned into hip bars and restaurants. We will return to the city. Now we know what to avoid and what to try to get a better taste of next time.
We rented a car. During our eight days on the island, we would like to explore the western part – there are some beautiful beaches, we heard – and the south, with rocky mountains and traditional villages.
The trip to Chania tonight has been our first exploration. The white, low-rise buildings, the plethora of eateries along the main roads, the crowds, the oleanders, the scooters – so many things to take in and to pay attention to in the Greek landscape! This is Greece to me. A place where I feel at peace with myself, with nature, with the way life flows – a place that reminds me of my home country, Romania.
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September 20th, 2017
Today we drove to the mountains, deep into the heart of Crete. Our destination was Zourva, a small village in the middle of nowhere, with a couple of houses and one taverna run by a Greek family. The driving through serpentines, through orchards of lemon trees and pomegranate trees, across small human settlements of just a few houses, with the majestic view of the Cretan mountains in front of our eyes and the sea somewhere in the distance, made me feel small in front of the grandeur, a bit scared of the isolation, but nevertheless in awe of the beauty surrounding us. It was there that I felt the true spirit of the island – the cradle of the European civilization – and contemplated the luxurious feeling of peace, which in Crete is the natural and the only way of being.
The taverna where we stopped for lunch had views over the entire landscape described above. We sat in the garden, in the shade of an old tree, overlooking the mountains – bare stone peppered with shrubs and olive trees. In the distance, behind the mountains, the blue of the sky melted into that of the sea.
We got a jug of water – “from the spring in the garden,” our hosts said. On the immaculate white, cotton tablecloth, shadow and light played their neverending game, a calming dance that eventually removed all the tension and tiredness caused by driving into such unknown and unpredictable territory. The world and its noise were less than an hour drive backwards, yet right now we were just two people having lunch in the garden at Zourva.
“This is what life’s all about!” my boyfriend said while indulging in some of the best Greek food we had ever had: tzatziki (Greek yoghurt with garlic and cucumbers), dolmadakia (zucchini flowers filled with rice), dacos (grated tomatoes with fresh oregano, cheese, and olive oil, on a bed of toast), and later on, for Tom only, lamb on the grill with potatoes.
We washed all these up with a carafe of local wine – red, transparent, a more diluted version of Port wine – and ended the meal with a Greek coffee, just one sip before the wind decided to throw it all over the table, my dress, and my tote bag. Did we care? Not at all. Our senses were already satisfied by the food and the wine, and our hearts easy, delighted with the pleasure induced by nourishment and nature alike. The lunch in the garden at Zourva will perhaps be the peak of our holiday on the island – so purely Cretan and special.
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September 24th, 2017
It is Sunday today and it really feels this way. Even on holiday. We are not going to work tomorrow, but we are going back home. Tom is always happy to return to Amsterdam, to the comfort of our apartment and to our daily habits, such as brewing fresh coffee in the kitchen in the morning. When I think of going back, although I do appreciate the comfort of our apartment and brewing fresh coffee in the kitchen in the morning, I also think – inevitably – of going back to work.
I’ve been thinking about this earlier today while cooling the sun off my skin into the Mediterranean, at Falasarna beach. Waves dissolved into the sandy shore one after the other. Blue and cream. Water and land. In the middle of those natural sounds, colours and rhythms, being in a glass-and-steel building, staring at a screen and breathing conditioned air, appeared to me as utterly nonsensical, unreal almost. And yet, that is exactly what I am going back to.
Our host knocked at the door the other day. She had been trying to reach us, just to meet and greet, but we were never at home. Although not exactly in the mood for guests, we let her in, amazed and a bit intimidated by the naturalness and friendliness of Greeks. After exchanging some pleasantries, Agapi sat down on the sofa, next to me, and opened a map. She wanted to give us some tips on where to go and what to see on the island.
That is how, a few hours later, we ended up on the southern coast. We were at Sougia, Agapi’s favourite beach on the island. While we didn’t particularly like the beach – too pebbly to be comfortable – we thought the driving there was nothing short of amazing. Crossing the mountains – this time, on a different route than when going to Zourva – the breath-taking landscape, the remote and barely inhabited villages, the sheep blocking the road, the olive groves – all these made our trip to Sougia memorable.
The following day, we decided to follow our tourist instincts and head over to Balos, no matter what. The image of the pristine water and smooth sand, which we had seen on postcards displayed in a bookshop in Chania, was reason enough.
The road to Balos, roughly carved into the rock of the peninsula, was unpaved for most of its length. It took us an hour and a half to go the 40 kilometres. It was just us and a few more cars. And goats, lots of goats, looking all carefree and satisfied. How could they not be?
We parked the car, then followed the other people on their way down to the beach, walking among rocks and wondering how long that would take. It was not before 15 minutes of descending that we had the first view over the lagoon. The turquoise water and the pink sand seemed unreal. Balos is, to date, the most beautiful beach I have seen. Its exotic looks make it hard to believe this is in Europe. It could just as well lie somewhere in the Indian ocean and it would not stand out.
On the beach, we realized it was just us and a few more people. Also, there was no phone signal. Heaven! We were happy like children, floating on the mild waves, our knees into the sand – that’s how shallow the water was – looking around and trying to grasp all that natural and secluded beauty.
We stayed longer than planned, and yet it was hard to leave. The beach had become much crowded eventually, so we took comfort in the thought that we had already seen it at its best. We climbed all the way back, in the unforgiving heat of the afternoon.
We did not return to Balos, the same way we did not return to Zourva. Some things deserve exclusivity to make their memory even more special.
There were, however, a few places we kept on revisiting on the island, and a few things we kept on enjoying. I will start with the places.
Although we never stayed overnight, Chania was perhaps the place we drove to every other day. It became our second base on the island, so to say. If on our first visit, of which I wrote before, we were slightly disappointed by the invasion of tourists on its waterfront, our affection for the city grew with each visit. We ended up being totally charmed by the picturesque streets in the old town – so blissfully quaint during the day and so animated at night – by the quality of cafes, bars, and restaurants, and even more so by the delicate, exotic details of the Venetian and Turkish infused architecture.
When it comes to recurrent things, perhaps my favourite of them all was watching the sunrise over the Mediterranean while sipping coffee on the balcony, the flavourful vapours delighting our nostrils and spreading their comforting smell into the chilly, morning air.
I can never grow tired of watching the sunrise. No two sunrises are the same. Watching the sun go up, like an immense drop of fire expelled into the sky day after day, surely puts things into perspective. It makes you realize no two days are the same either, and there is a lot to do in the time between sunup and sundown. It is up to you to fill this time with good, meaningful work or experiences, or to waste it. The sun has a purpose. The sea has a purpose. The land has a purpose. We have a purpose, believe it or not.
Getting caught up in routine is easy. Who has time to watch the sunrise on a regular day, when the alarm goes off and before we know it we are already late for work? Sunrise happens every day and yet it is not every day that we see it or at least think of it.
On the balcony here in Crete, the act of the sun going up on the sky is as it should be: full of significance and unique. It is the most generous of gifts offered to us every day.
Another favourite thing, one that needs no further explanation, was to indulge in delicious Greek dishes. The feast started early in the morning when our hosts treated us with a basket full of pastries made at their bakery downtown. We would find it hanging from a hook in front of the door. Bougatsa, a Cretan pastry filled with vanilla cream, was the most delicious – fresh, crispy, creamy, and warm.
For the vegetarian in me, the Greek salad was the perfect lunch, day after day. Then came the tzatziki, the fava (mashed beans spread), the aubergine salad, the dolmadakia, and occasionally, the dacos and the boureki (sort of a moussaka made of layers of potatoes, courgettes, and mizithra cheese). Surprisingly, fish was rather hard to find, at least the kind that I like. There were, however, plenty of meat dishes, to my boyfriend’s satisfaction – lamb, pork, rabbit etc. His absolute favourite was the moussaka, which I was eventually able to find in the vegetarian version, as well.
Each meal came with a carafe of water, at the beginning, and a small bottle of raki, accompanied by a sweet bite, at the end. Because of this and the decadent breakfast we were spoilt with each day, we never had to ask for dessert, which would have been, according to most menus, Greek yoghurt with honey.
I made Tom burst into laughter when I told him, on our second day on the island, that our holiday was almost over. “But we still have six full days!” he said. My impression, however, could not be changed. When there is so much beauty, peace, and warmth around – from both nature and people – it all starts to look like a dream, and like a dream, it happens fast.
We will, no doubt, return to Crete. Until then, we will remember it as a welcoming place, able to restore faith in beauty and kindness. And in life.