Sometimes we don’t get what we want. We are looking forward to something, get mentally prepared, plan how and what we will do and then booom – something happens and our initial plan and dream is gone and we are left with a gap that we think is hard to fill. This happened to me recently. Despite being sad and disappointed, I quickly learnt that the gap can be filled with something else that may be different but not less gorgeous than what I had initially planned. Here is my little story of how I came to the Greek island Crete.
So a friend and I were ready for some adventure. We wanted to go to Georgia, go for a hiking trip, visit the region close to Azerbaijan, you name it. Flights were booked and we were eager to start…. until I had to slow down considerably because of health issues. I tried to take care of myself and hoped that we could still do our trip but my friends, family and doctors recommended to delay the journey to Georgia as they saw too much exercise and thought that it was better for me to stay in a place where it was easy to obtain medical care if I needed it.
Believe me, this was hard to accept. I was angry at myself for a while, sad about the missed-out experience and wallowed in self-pity for a couple of hours. Of course I knew they were right but we are no machines, we can’t be happy or rational all the time. So I sat with my feelings for a while until I felt that it was enough and that I should let go. Let go of the sadness, self-pity and fixed ideas. And once I accepted that the trip to Georgia (or any other travel / product / person for that matter) would not define me as a person nor my happiness, it was surprisingly easy to embrace the new situation.
So instead of going to Georgia, my friend and I were considering a short vacation to another place and quickly discussed our options: we didn’t want to spend too much on flight and accommodation, we wanted to go to a place where we could relax and spent days and days at the beach, where medical care was within reach and where we could enjoy nature. We ended up escaping our city in a cloak-and-dagger operation, booking our flights to Crete at 7 p.m and sitting in the plane the very next morning.
As you might expect, we had almost no time to prepare the journey and only chose the city of Rethymno as our base as it seemed to be central enough for what we had in mind: it was right in the middle between the main tourist centres that are Chania (at the far Western end of Crete) and Heraklion (the administrative capital Crete, lying quite in the middle of the island on the northern coast).
Rethymno turned out to be a good choice. It has a nice old town with many shops, bars and restaurants, the youth hostel was one of the best hostels ever (clean, super nice staff, low prices and right in the city centre) and it is well-connected to other parts of the island (no matter if you choose to rely on buses of if you rent a car – which I definitely recommend if you can afford it).
Here is why Crete and Rethymno are worth a visit:
1. The Fortezza of Rethymno and its exhibitions
Rethymno has a long history that reaches back to the Minoan period (approx. 3500-1400 BCE). However, the city was no major Minoan centre and its role and status only changed when the Venetian conquerors decided to have Rethymno as the intermediate commercial centre between Chania and Heraklion. They build the Fortezza (the citadel of the city) and today’s old town in the 16th century, of which both are still in good condition.
When Rethymno and the Fortezza were captured by the Ottomans in 1646, the Fortezza did not undergo major changes except that the Ottomans converted the Cathedral into a Mosque (Mosque of Sultan Ibrahim). The Fortezza stayed intact and in use until the early 20th century. Sadly, many buildings were demolished after WWII which is why there are now only a few historic buildings left.
When we entered the Fortezza, the first thing we noticed was the exhibition in the entrance building which portrayed several paintings of local artists. We didn’t know that the Fortezza was used as an exhibition centre and were pleasantly surprised by the paintings’ motives and good quality. There was another exhibition in the mosque (pictured above), displaying some beautiful paintings that showed scenes from a typical Crete wedding.
The view from the Fortezza down onto the city, sea and harbour was incredible beautiful and the underground parts – that were once used as storage rooms – gave us the chance to escape the heat for a moment.
2. Beaches, beaches, beaches
Rethymno has its own beach that I was told is pretty but also quite crowded. My friend and I thought that we better trust the recommendation of the hostel staff and drove to a close-by beach further westwards. We took the E75 towards Georgioupoli and left the street shortly after Petre’s Bridge. There are several accesses to the beach, we always stayed at the part that was close to a restaurant called “Kyma” (I am not sure the link will work, I hope you can find it here on Google Maps). The restaurant is superb and the beach is amazing: it is wide, the water is turqoise and crystal clear and there are not many people (the beach is shown on the lower left picture above).
There are several better known beaches across Crete, one of them is the Palm Beach in Preveli on the South Coast, a bit more than 20 km away from Rethymno. The beach is a major tourist attraction as it is located right next to a palm forest. It is also close to a plateau with several mountains and canyons that seem to be popular among hikers.
I think some beach visitors were actually hiking before coming to Palm Beach and I imagine this must be a perfect end to a long hiking trip. The mountains are impressive and the beach comes with a beautiful palm forest. That is the good news about it. The bad news is that the beach has little more to offer. My friend and I were both a bit disappointed as the beach is quite small, with dark sand and even in September (when the high-season was already over), it was crowded with people. There was only a small kiosk with tourist-pleasing dishes (French fries, gyros and the like), only two toilets that were disgusting and taken all of this into account, we liked “our” beach close to Georgioupoli much better. Still, if you visit the Palm Beach as part of a day trip (e.g. after hiking the surrounding mountains or when visiting the little coastal town Plakias, some 8 km away), I am sure you will enjoy it a lot.
3) A selection of gorges
Despite my prescribed convalescence, we still wanted to go to one of the many (m-a-n-y) canyons that you can find all over Crete. There is of course the most famous one, the Samaria Gorge that is 18 km long, but it was out of the question that I could do that one. And besides, why go for the obvious attraction when there are so many other good options?
We did some research online and eventually settled for the St Anthony Gorge that was only 25 km away from Rethymno and that was described as “family-friendly”. That couldn’t be too hard for me, right?
St Anthony Gorge started easy – it was fairly even with nice little bridges, a small church built right into the rock, plateaux that we could easily walk up… Definitely family-friendly. And then it changed slowly. We crossed a bridge, climbed down a rock, slided down another one, walked a little bit and before we knew any better, we were in a whole different setting. Now instead of steady paths, there were ropes and ladders that were not looking stable at all. Sometimes, we were not sure if we were still on the right track, then we went looking for one of those black, green or red signs that were painted on the rocks. I would not say that it was super hard, it would definitely have been fun if I had felt fit. But for somebody who was told to take it easy? (Small) children? Not sure. All I know is that it took us more than 2 hours until we came to a lake (the Amari Dam Reservoir) where we were glad that our Gorge Adventure was finally over.
Long story short: it didn’t end there. After our first excitement, we realized that we had two options: going all the way back through the gorge or walk on the road for more than 2 hours. It was incredibly hot but there was no way we would go back through the gorge. So we walked, came across goat skulls, walked some more without meeting anyone, accepted that we would die out there (or so we felt)… until we came to a bigger road about an hour later. From there, we hitchhiked. At this point I would like to say thank you to the elderly French couple who was so kind to give us a ride: we really appreciate that you drove us right next to our car!
St Anthony Gorge is great, really (as is the tavern right next to the entrance) – just make sure you are fit and keep in mind that you need to walk all the way back! 😉
Culture, gorges, beaches, very hospitable people, delicious food, … we enjoyed our stay on Crete a lot. Sometimes, we may not get what we want but we end up with something entirely different that we love nonetheless and all the more. Crete was not Georgia but honestly, it didn’t bother me one bit!
What was your recent escape destination? Has any of you hiked on Crete?