Wednesday 30 September 2020

The Not Quite As Distant Holiday Diaries - Rethmyno, Crete


What a welcome! Thank you so much for your lovely comments and messages, you certainly helped lift our post-trip, quarantine blues.  

Ready for the next installment?

From Chania we caught the bus to Rethmyno, the first time I'd used public transport in six months (longer for Jon, he hadn't been on a bus since India). The bus runs every half-an-hour, costs €8.50 and the 65 km journey takes just over an hour. In Greece masks are mandatory for all passengers over 5 years of age. A masked conductor patrolled the aisle throughout the journey to ensure the rules were being followed. We've read that it's not uncommon for the police to stop buses and to do spot checks, throwing non-mask wearers off and issuing fines. Everyone abided by the rules, there doesn't seem as many Covidiots in Greece as there are at home.

Rethmyno is the island's cultural and intellectual capital, a relaxed university town overlooked by an imposing Venetian fortress, nestled in the foothills of Psiloritis, Crete's highest mountain.

Our home for the next three nights was this bougainvillea-covered apartment above a potter's studio. With the amount of cameras trained on us every time we sat out on the balcony we started to feel like superstars although I'm pretty such the tourists were more interested in the flora than the inhabitants.

Despite being Crete's third largest city, like Chania, Rethymno is an easy-going and laid back place with an old town packed with generations of fascinating Venetian and Turkish architecture, pretty much indistinguishable from one another. Ornate wooden doors, balconies and ancient stonework crop up everywhere with a number of mosques and elaborate Turkish fountains hidden in obscure corners.  

Show me a dilapidated doorway and I'm a happy woman.

Rethymno is in a different prefecture to Chania. While mask wearing remains mandatory indoors, at entertainment venues and on public transport, you don't need to wear them in the street.

The seventeenth century Rimondi Fountain is a Venetian survivor with its lion head spouts looking over Platia Petihaki, in normal times said to be the liveliest part of town. Rethymno was pretty quiet during our visit although a couple of the coffee bars did get crowded at night (we gave them a wide berth) 

Towering above our apartment was the ruins of the Fortezza, a huge Venetian fortress, large enough to shelter the entire population of Rethmyno in the event of a raid. 

Said to be the largest Venetian castle ever built, the Fortezza was a response in the last quarter of the Sixteenth Century to a series of pirate raids (by Barbarossa in 1538 and Uluch Ali in 1562 and 1571) that had devastated the town. The Italian-designed fort took ten years to build but, in 1645, fell to the Turks in less than 24 hours. 

When the English writer Robert Pashley visited in 1834 he found the guns, many Venetian originals, to be entirely useless. 

Through the impressive gateway you emerge into a vast interior space dotted with the remains of barracks, arsenals, officers' houses, earthworks and deep shafts. At the centre is a large domed building which was once a church and later, following the fall of the town to the Turks, converted to a mosque dedicated to the ruler, Ibrahim. 

I'm not sure how busy the Fortezza normally is but when we visited we shared it with two other couples, perfect for taking photos.

When we'd checked into our rooms our host, Frosso, warned us that Medicane, a tropical cyclone was on the way and severe weather warnings had been issued for the next 48 hours. Apparently high winds aren't a common occurrence in Rethmyno so I needed my hat to keep my hair from blinding me.

Although Medicane wrought havoc, washing roads away and destroying villages on the Greek mainland and causing the evacuation of tourists in Zante and Cephalonia, Crete was mercifully spared. We had hours of torrential rain and the mother of all electrical storms but luckily it was throughout the night and didn't curtail our activities (other than our sleep).

Rethymno's Archaeological Museum occupies the church of St Francis, once part of a Venetian monastery.

The gorgeous Venetian gateway behind is decorated the lions, the symbol of Venetian rule.

The collection within in the museum is staggering, ranging from Bronze Age axeheads over 100,000 years old to jewellery, amphora and pottery dating from as far back as 4000 BC, all found within the province of Rethmyno.

Helpfully each exhibit bore the image of a camera, with a red cross through any that couldn't be photographed.

The Rough Guide had warned us that Rethmyno's beaches would be packed and best avoided at weekends. On the Sunday we visited we had the entire place to ourselves and were able to enjoy our hastily gathered picnic of crusty local bread, tzatziki, goat's cheese flavoured with thyme and a tomato as big as your head in absolute peace. Travel during a worldwide pandemic ain't all bad.

 A kingfisher - a common sight in Goa, the first time I'd spotted one in Greece.

When Jon shared some photos of the graffiti in Platia Mikrasiaton, behind the Neratses mosque on a travel forum several people were saddened by it, we thought it was rather wonderful.

Look at that sky! We had a feeling that we hadn't seen the last of Medicane.

So what else did we do as well as exploring the maze-like streets of the old town, basking on the beach, climbing up to old fortresses & visiting museums and galleries? Stuff our faces, of course! 

There was Greek salad and Cretan olives (obviously); Fava, mashed white beans drizzled with olive oil & thyme; Sagnaki, pan-fried cheese; Kolokuthopita, courgette and feta cheese pie; Dolmades, vine leaves stuffed with lemon scented rice; Gigantes Plaki, butter beans in a tomato & herb sauce; Tiropita, Feta cheese pies in filo pastry; Kolokuthopita, aubergine and cheese fritters. Jon had lamb gyros.

The Cretan hospitality is legendary. Every taverna we visited gave us free desserts (either cake, baklava or fresh fruit) as well as a small bottle of raki, to aid digestion. We even got free raki when we popped in for an iced coffee at 11am. No wonder the Cretans smile so much!

We made friends with loads of cats. If you're not a fan of felines don't visit Greece!

We admired how, no matter how tiny their outside space, the Cretan always manage to fill every inch with beautiful plants. 

Just like our time in Chania, our three days in Rethymno absolutely fled. Where next? Stay tuned for the next installment of our holiday diaries.

Stay safe and see you soon! 

(For all my Rethmyno photos click HERE)

Monday 28 September 2020

The Not Quite As Distant Holiday Diaries - Chania, Crete

Step away! We're back from eleven days exploring the gorgeous Greek island of Crete and, in line with current government Covid regulations, we're having to self-isolate for the next fourteen days. 

When I first travelled to Crete in 1990 I was in my early twenties and loved it. I stayed in Ayios Nikolaos on the east of the island back in the days when holidays meant dancing all night and doing very little by day, although I did visit the former leper colony on the nearby island of Spinalonga and pretty Elounda beach. My boyfriend at the time insisted on wearing his Wolverhampton Wanderers strip & picking fights with Brits in opposing team shirts. Thirty years on, having traded in the old boyfriend for a far better model, the only obstacle standing in the way of a triumphant return to Crete was the small matter of travelling abroad during a worldwide pandemic.

We flew from our local airport, Birmingham. After handing over our bag, our passports and the Passenger Location Form* (PLF) were checked by the sole airline rep on duty who waved us through to passport control. The airport was spookily quiet, many of the shops were closed and there was plenty of empty seats to allow passengers to maintain a safe distance. We decided to forego the obligatory pint at Wetherspoons, eating half the sandwiches Jon had made before we left home. At the departure gate our PLF forms were checked once again. A man in front of us was denied boarding as he'd neglected to apply for one. After hearing numerous reports in the media about lax cabin crew and passengers roaming the plane mask-free, we were slightly wary about the flight but we needn't have worried, Ryanair were brilliant. When we boarded we noticed that two lads in their 20s had removed their masks. When another passenger took them to task they replied that they were exempt and didn't have to wear them. He called a flight attendant who informed them that they either wore masks or would be removed from the flight. The masks went back on and stayed on. Nobody was allowed to get up from their seat, go to the toilet or open the overhead lockers without buzzing the cabin crew first to seek permission and, as the flight was only a third full, social distancing was pretty easy.

*These are available from the Greek Government website and submitted on-line by each passenger a maximum of 48 hours before departure. At midnight on the day your flight is scheduled to leave an individual bar-code is sent via email, permitting the applicant to enter Greece. No bar-code, no trip.

On landing at Chania airport some four-and-a-half hours later our PLF codes were checked both by immigration and the gun-wielding - but friendly - Greek police. Some passengers were chosen for random Covid-testing although we weren't. Outside the terminal we caught a taxi to Chania's Old Town. Masks are mandatory in taxis in Greece for both passenger & driver, with santiser available & the driver's seat screened off. On arrival at our destination we phoned the key holders of the apartment who turned up within minutes, both wearing masks. They showed us into what was to be our home for the next three nights and handed over the key. After nine hours of wearing a mask it was a real joy to remove it, crack open a bottle of wine, eat the rest of our sandwiches on the balcony & marvel at the late night warmth.

Travelling at such a weird time has its advantages, a lot of the available accommodation had been slashed in price. Our gorgeous 16th century Venetian apartment complete with four poster bed and roll-top bath was just £30 a night. 

Islanders will tell you that Chania is Crete's spiritual capital, although the formal title was passed to Heraklion many years ago. It's a stunning city, with a shimmering waterfront and a jumble of Venetian streets, a maze-like old town contained by ancient city walls and littered with Ottoman, Byzantine and Minoan ruins.

In more normal times the stepped alleyways and narrow streets would be packed with both sightseers and residents going about their daily business but, in this strange new world, we'd often be the only people about. 

You might be able to see from the photos that mask wearing is mandatory both inside and out although most people exercise common sense, removing them whenever social distancing is possible. 

Despite Chania being one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world, tourism is relatively new and the architecture is finally being restored after years of neglect. 

Known as Kydonia in ancient times, Chania was a substantial Minoan community, warranting a mention in Homer's Odyssey. It was captured by the Romans in 69 BC, then by the Byzantines where it remained part of their empire until the Venetians took over. During the thirteenth century the Genoese briefly seized it, holding control until 1285 when the Venetians returned, turning it into the island's most beautiful city. 

In 1645, after a two month siege, Chania fell to the Turks. Although churches were converted to mosques the remainder of the city remained relatively unchanged making it almost impossible to differentiate between Turkish & Venetian architecture. In 1897, following the outbreak of war between Greece and the Ottoman Empire, the Great Powers (Britain, France, Russia and Italy) imposed peace and stationed a joint force off the waters of Chania, finally forcing the Turks to leave. During World War II Chania suffered severe bombardment by the Germans, the destruction compounded by a fire which wiped out almost everything apart from the area around the harbour.

The Yali Hassan (meaning seaside) mosque was built in 1645, the year the Turks conquered Chania. It is the oldest Ottoman mosque on the island and although no longer in use as a place of worship, occasionally opens to host exhibitions.

As with the other Greek cities we've visited we were amazed by the cleanliness and lack of litter. Graffiti is the only sign of disorder you'll come across.

Much of the arched Arsenali in the photo below are in a ruined state although a couple have been sensitively restored into cafes and temporary exhibition spaces. 


Our three days in Chania were mostly spent wandering the tangle of Medieval lanes and alleyways in the Old Town, invariably getting hopelessly lost. We ate lazy lunches in shady town squares, followed by complimentary bottles of raki which the waiters (always masked) claimed both helped aid digestion and to keep the dreaded Coronavirus away. The menus offered a Cretan rather than the better known Greek salad, served with freshly made mizithra cheese along with crisp barley rusks and tangy capers.

We spent an afternoon on Nea Hora, the city beach a 10 minute walk from the harbour, an immaculately clean Blue Flag beach which apparently gets absolutely rammed in more normal times. The water was impossibly clear and we loved watching sea bream fearlessly swimming in-between our ankles as we paddled.

After dark the temperature barely dropped, hovering at a balmy 28°C. The wonderful To Adespoto, a restaurant set within the ruins of a mansion destroyed by a bomb in 1940 served as a location for the 2012 film The Two Faces of January. The Well of the Turk, tucked away in a labyrinthine alleyway inside the old Turkish quarter of Splantzia, was another beautiful find.

These ancient walls were constructed by the Venetians against constant raids by pirates, in particular those by the dreaded Ottoman Pirate, Barbarossa (1475 - 1546).

Of course we met lots of cats, huge groups of strays living in colonies fed and loved by the locals as well as possibly one of the silliest felines ever, this dozy tabby who had made this model boat into a home for both herself and her kittens.

After six months barely venturing further than our garden gate we weren't sure how we'd feel about spending time in Crete's second largest city but from the minute we arrived Chania bewitched us and the three days we spent there absolutely flew by. Atmospheric, beautiful and authentic. We'll be back.

Yammas, Chania!

Hope you're all keeping sane, safe and happy. See you soon.

PS For all my Chania photos click HERE