Thursday , July 25 2024
Crete is way down there: broadly speaking, you can't get any further south and still be in Europe.

Two Weeks in Greece, Part 6: From the Fish Taverns of Crete to the Jewish Museum in Athens

Unlike the long, slow ferry ride that took us from Athens to Santorini in Part 5, the trip from Santorini to Crete via hydrofoil was fast and uneventful. The hydrofoil is more like an airplane than a ferry: you can't go outside on deck, and you wouldn't want to if you could. There's nothing to see between Santorini and Crete anyway, just an unbroken expanse of grey waves.

Crete is way down there: broadly speaking, you can't get any further south and still be in Europe. Arriving in Iraklio at dinnertime, we checked into our hotel and headed out to the main square in search of dinner, finding, first, this red-clad marching band playing the universal music of the world: Abba, of course. At dinner, at an outdoor restaurant of course, we had our first taste of raki, the national Cretan grapeseed hooch that's served free after every meal. Not bad at all!

Iraklio, Crete, Greece

But more on raki later. We'd come to Iraklio mainly because it's near Knossos, the site of one of the great ancient Minoan palaces. Knossos certainly didn't turn out to be the most enjoyable of our visits to ancient sites. It was deadly hot, and jam-packed with big tour groups. Also, I think we'd simply had enough ancient ruins by then, even if these were some of the oldest of all.

Knossos, Crete, Greece
A reconstructed piece of the palace at Knossos

The artwork and the sheer age of the site couldn't help but make a spectacular impression, though, and the associated Archaeological Museum back in Iraklio showed an amazing array of beautiful and fascinating art and artifacts more than three and a half millennia old. We were actually thankful that the main museum was closed for renovations, with the cream of the collection housed in a temporary, smaller space; even this subset of the riches of the Minoan palaces was nearly overwhelming.

A visit to the Venetian fortress took us to the harbor of Iraklio, which is utilitarian but from certain angles picturesque, especially the fishing boats:

Harbor of Iraklio, Crete, Greece

But there isn't an awful lot to see there, so onward.  A bus trip westward along the spectacular north coast of the island also afforded views of the majestic mountains of the interior, which we have to hit on a future hiking visit—that's right, Crete is definitely on my list of places to come back to.

We arrived at the old city of Chania, which turned out to be the perfect place to complete our island adventure. The beautiful harbor is lined with restaurants and gift shops, but no less beautiful for that, both by day and by night. It was the atmosphere and the water as much as the visuals—the smells of good food, the clean air, the flowers (our whole trip to Greece was suffused with the smell of flowers), the glittering water full of fish roping around, the friendly people, and the powerful sense of relaxation that made the harbor of Chania such a magical place.

Harbor at Chania, Crete, Greece

But there's much more than the harbor to see: a fine archaeological museum, a fused mosque-church, charming old streets too narrow for cars, buildings bombed during World War Two and never fully repaired but still used. Wandering the old town you find all sorts of unique sites, like these walls—leftover from Venetian times, we think. Note the happy little swing set in front.

Chania, Crete, Greece

…and this Edenic courtyard:

Chania, Crete, Greece

Culinary adventures involved eating lots of fish (whole, of several sizes) and rabbit. In particular, we wanted to find a restaurant Anthony Bourdain had visited in an episode of No Reservations but hadn't named; we had simply noted that it had a brown and white awning that said "fish tavern" somewhere on it. Sure enough, we found the place and ate delicious fresh fish there. It was also one of the many places (including one gift shop!) that gave us raki. That's the traditional hospitality drink, often served along with free desserts after dinner. You can sit all night and keep drinking raki for free, getting plastereder and plastereder, usually from a re-used water bottle. This, my friends, is a tradition American restaurants should adopt. We would all be happier people.

Chania, Crete, Greece

Our second day in Chania dawned just as nicely as the first, but as the afternoon wore on the wind picked up, and it carried a nasty grit which, we were told, was dust from Africa. The hot wind carried the grit all over and into everything. The temperature climbed to 36 degrees centigrade, and the gusts of wind felt even hotter than that. Shopkeepers groused about their wares getting all dirty. Restaurants had to actually shut their doors so the wind wouldn't coat everything inside with grit. We had lunch indoors, for once, in an air-conditioned restaurant, though even then the front doors remained open as the owner frantically swept dust out and tried to wash down the pavement in front.

We had only happened upon that particular restaurant because it was right by the synagogue—an actual active synagogue. Greece's Jewish population is quite small—it was much larger before the Holocaust—but this was one town with a functioning congregation. We couldn't visit the synagogue, alas, because it was Shabbat (Saturday). But you can't say we didn't try, even fighting through a dust storm to get there.

Because of the weather we worried our overnight boat back to Athens wouldn't set sail. But the windstorm passed, and, as with all the transportation on our trip, the ferry left on schedule. We'd splurged on a cabin, since it was an overnight trip and it was, after all, our honeymoon (sort of). The ship was fancy and well-staffed, the cabin tiny but comfortable and clean. We even took showers before bed—in our own shower—in our own cabin—on a boat! (Maybe Cruise-Ship People are used to this kind of accommodation, but we sure weren't.) We climbed into our bunks happily; even the mattresses were relatively soft, compared to the extremely hard beds Greek hotels all seem to have. But then…

Shortly after we left harbor the sea got choppy. I mean, really, really choppy. We felt like we were being lifted out of our bunks and dropped back down, then swung from side to side as if King Kong had grabbed the ship and was shaking it to and fro. This went on for hours…no sleep was possible, and getting really seasick seemed imminent.

Eventually, though, we hit calm waters and got a few hours' sleep. Early in the morning we arrived back at Athens, where we took in a number of sites we hadn't gotten to before, like the Public Gardens; the beautiful and marvelous Benaki Museum, which collects Greek cultural artifacts from the Stone Age to the present; and the National Archaeological Museum, with its ridiculously huge collection, including rare bronze Ancient Greek sculptures. It rivals storehouses like the Metropolitan Museum of New York in size and scope—but it's actually in Greece. Big difference.

Almost as impressive was this giant pile of cherries:

Market in Athens, Greece

The Jewish Museum was a highlight of our final day of sightseeing. While we knew about the heroic efforts of the citizens of countries like Denmark and Holland trying to save their Jewish populations from the Nazis, we hadn't known the first thing about how the Greeks—civic leaders, religious leaders, and citizens—acted with similar humanitarian heroism. The Jewish Museum in Athens chronicles the long history, and then the near-total decimation by the Nazis, of the country's Jewish communities.

I'll close this account with a photo that makes an interesting counterpoint to the first photo of this series, of demonstrators protesting economic austerity measures in Syntagma Square. Below is a patriotic demonstration of the national colors, also in Syntagma Square: we'd sort of come full circle in our two weeks. Though we saw only a fraction of the country in that time, we experienced a lot of the highlights, and got a feel for Greece's wonderful people. We'll be back to explore further: hiking in Crete, visiting Meteora and more of the mainland, seeing more islands (we only got to two!)…it all awaits on another trip.

Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to our Music section, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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