Friday, May 28, 2010

A Cretan Adventure

When we decided to visit Greece, we didn't really know where we'd end up going. With 227 inhabited islands (thank you Wikipedia), plus numerous places to visit on the mainland it was a bit daunting to decide where to go. We chose Rhodes to start because it was close to Turkey, but from there we had many choices. We're definitely glad we added Crete to our itinerary.

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands by both population and area. Most of the people live along the northern coast, and we landed off the ferry in Iraklio, around the center of the north coast. Although a definite stop on the tourist trail, Iraklio had a sort of rundown feel to it. There was graffiti everywhere, and there were many beggars and street kids trying to sell us stuff as we walked around.
From Crete
Now is the part of the blog where we describe things that we didn't go to see; The Archaeological Museum is apparently quite nice, and the Palace of Knossos is the main tourist attraction of Iraklio. Unfortunately we didn't go to either. We did try to go the Battle of Crete Museum, but it was closed. (I read a little about the Battle of Crete, which took place from May 20 to June 1, 1941 when Germany invaded and "conquered" Crete during World War II, and I was hoping for pictures of the famed glider troopers that Germany used in the battle.) There's also the Cretaquarium (a great name for an aquarium, by the way), "the largest aquarium in the Eastern Mediterranean." Which begs the question, does this mean it's large or small? I assume they mean to imply it's large, but really, how many aquariums can there be in the Eastern Mediterranean?

Anyway, after enjoying a few of the numerous street-side cafes in Iraklio (and honing our backgammon skills) we moved on to our couchsurfing hosts of Irene and Arjan in the small village of Koutouloufari, about 15 miles east of Iraklio. Hoping to couchsurf on Crete we had sent a message to the general Crete couchsurfing group. This was a new method for us to find a host. Normally, the way couchsurfing works is that a surfer (one who wants to stay with someone else) does a search in a given area for hosts and then messages them each individually requesting to stay. However, all the people we requested to stay with were unable to host us for one reason or another. So we sent a message to the Crete Couchsurfing Group saying we were on Crete, didn't know where we wanted to go and wondered if anyone wanted to host us.

Luckily, Irene messaged us and said she'd love to host us. It couldn't have turned out better. Irene is from the Netherlands, having moved to Crete only five or six weeks ago. She moved in with her Dutch boyfriend who's summered here for the past 15 summers. They are relatively new to couchsurfing (we were only their second guests) but they were outstanding hosts. We had our own little apartment, on the second floor of an impossibly cute little Greek house. Additionally, Irene is a chef and she cooked us a delicious vegetarian meal the first night we were there. Here's Jaimee relaxing in our little room:
From Crete
Irene's boyfriend Arjan runs a tour business, called Routaki Routes where he provides customized driving routes all over Crete. There's an audio portion where you listen to information at each "stop" of the route. He drives the routes periodically to make sure they're up-to-date and he took us one of the off-road trips in his jeep and it was a blast. We went all over the mountains of Crete, saw many vineyards, orange groves, churches, a huge agave plant, and a giant cave! He wrote the trip up on his blog (even written in English for those of us who don't read Dutch). Here we are in front of one of the churches on the route:
From Crete
We ended up having dinner at this farm/hotel which we never would have found otherwise, and had a wonderful gourmet meze meal (Greek style tapas) of over 10 different dishes.

It was hard to leave Irene and Arjan, but we took a bus across the island to Chania in western Crete. It was there another couchsurfer (Juan, from Spain) agreed to host us. We had contacted him individually from an earlier couchsearch and his "maybe" turned in an "accepted" while we were staying with Irene and Arjan. We wanted to visit western Crete primarily to hike Samaria Gorge, and this turned out to be a highlight, not just of Crete, but of our entire trip. It's listed as being of varying lengths (from 13km to 18km [8 to 11 miles]), depending on where you measure the start and end but it is invariably listed as the "longest gorge walk in Europe". (Similar to the Cretaquarium discussion above, I wondered, how many gorge walks are there in Europe?) Regardless, it was both long and beautiful.

The standard route is to take a bus to the start at the northern end which begins at 1,250 meters (4,100 feet) and walk down through the gorge to the sea. Then catch a ferry to another town where you catch a different bus back to Chania. In all, it was a 13 hour day, but totally worth it. We took some photos during our hike, which you can see at the end of our Crete album but there are some good ones on the Samaria Gorge information page as well.

Now we're off to Athens. We weren't sure if we were going to go to Athens or not, but the only ferries from Chania go to Athens. We are couchsurfing in Athens as well, and we're supposed to meet up with our host for breakfast tomorrow morning. The ferry leaves at 11PM and gets into Athens (Piraeus) around 6AM. We bought "deck" class tickets (no inside cabin) but it's a full moon and we hope (well, I do at least) to pull out our sleeping bags and sleep outside on the deck.

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