Travel Talk – Crete 2017

This is my Dad, my Mum, and my brother. In June, we went on ‘the last family holiday’.

Every time I say that phrase, it sounds very morbid. None of us are dying or are off to war or have sworn a familial hatred. I personally think this title of ‘the last family holiday’ is an abbreviation. From my parent’s view, it was ‘the last family holiday when both of the kids are sort of kids, well they aren’t kids anymore, but the last one before university and full time employment ‘, and for Joseph and I it was ‘the last family holiday where we both don’t have to pay for anything’. So, let’s just call it ‘the last family holiday’.

Crete sunset

We went to Crete to spend time together, but also to celebrate my brother’s belated eighteenth birthday, and my twenty-first. My twenty-first birthday landed right in the middle of the holiday. I’ll be honest; there was nowhere I’d rather be on my twenty-first than RUNNING AROUND PRETENDING TO BE NATHAN DRAKE IN UNCHARTED 4. (For those of you who have not played the PS4 games Uncharted 4, Nathan Drake basically drives around some hills in a warm country and climbs small, run down towers looking for treasure. I know, I make the most cultural parallels).

I will be honest; Crete has the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen (and I grew up in hilly South Wales). It is naturally untamed, flowers bursting through old stone buildings. Dusty rock faces that crumble into the sea. Twisty roads that climb into the mountains. It’s just like if the Scottish Highlands and Dubai had a baby. Goats and shrubbery and hills; Scotland. Dust and sea and heat; Dubai.

As a child, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I was in love with Ancient History; the Romans, The Incas, the Greeks. When I found we were going to Crete, I was so happy; ‘think of all the crumbling old pillars I can see! The walls! The foundations…’ I was a little disappointed when I researched the area of Crete we would be staying in, and found almost zero remains of Ancient Greek history. I was in Greece and I couldn’t even learn about the Greek Gods.  What a first world problem. Of course, I was wrong. Crete was bursting all areas of history, including hidden Greek history.

On one of our first days, we visited the ancient city of Aptera. Aptera was a Roman built city, then take over by the Greeks, until it was destroyed by an earth quake in the seventh century. A monastery of St John Theologos was built on there by the twelfth century and only shut within the last fifty years. Considering most of the city is a thousand years old and was ruined by an earthquake, much of it still stands. Nature had begun to take its course and would have definitely taken over if not for the occasional care of the Crete government. We walked through shrubbery and rocks to explore the still standing cisterns, and the caved in temples. The theatre obsessed side of me was very happy to discover they had an intact Roman theatre with usable seating bank. I imagine we would have stayed much longer if the heat hadn’t been forty-two degrees without a breeze. (Also, when researching for this post, I discovered Aptera was actually a very important place for Greek mythology! Well, sort of. The Muses and the Sirens once had a riff off there.)

Skipping forward a few hundred (quite a few hundred) years, we visited the populous Chania Old Town, and the historic Fortezza of Rethymno, both built by the Republic of Venice in their mid-millennia take over. Both places were subsequently taken over by the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, but hey, let’s look at that in a good light; more history for us to see! Chania Old Town is made of dusty orange brick work, and is famous for the Venetian lighthouse that stands in the harbour. It is as typical as you would think of a large tourist town in Crete. Winding alleyways, open doors into homes, dogs and cats roaming the streets. Sellers trying to flog you jewellery, the warm smell of fresh bread, desolate houses next to luxury villas.

Fortezza of Rethymno was a historic sight as opposed to a historic town. We walked around, admiring the old buildings that populated the inside of the fort; the chapels, a mosque, store rooms, a random contemporary art gallery that scared me a little bit. I would advise wearing walking shoes when visiting the Fortezza; the Venetians did not cater for a sprained ankle and sandals.

I was surprised to find that the island had a strong historical presence from World War 2. The German Army attempted to invade Crete by air, but the Allied and Greek troops defended the island. All that is now left of the war are abandoned pill boxes and War Cemeteries. At the end of the holiday, we visited the Souda Bay War Cemetery, where hundreds of Allied soldiers are buried, many of them unnamed. It was a simple, beautiful, and moving place. A memorial in the centre, white gravestones fanning out across the green grass, flowers perfectly kept. It was a place of stillness.

On this ‘last family holiday’, we did more than just sightseeing. After the first two days of blistering heat, it settled to a gorgeous thirty-four degrees at midday; perfect weather for the beach. We tanned on the sand, read under the sun, and swam in the sea.

Oh, the sea. The sea in Crete was a beautiful azure colour; it looked like someone had taken the entire sea and put a saturation heavy Instagram filter on it.

When I go abroad, I like to be a cuisine connoisseur. What I mean by that is I love food and want to try and eat all of it. When it comes to food, Crete truly holds my heart. My birthday cake was a traditional Crete sweet cream pastry from a traditional street vendor. My birthday dinner consisted of wine, chicken, and the ultimate food; rice stuffed vine leave. Oh my. I felt like I had died and gone to foody heaven.

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As you can tell, I love Crete. I love its beauty, its food, its history. But there was one thing that I became particularly enamoured with, that I would request we pull over on the side of the road for.

Shrines.

On every road, there would be a small open-able box on the side. There were more on the mountains and on the winding roads. Some were made of metal and were rusting away, others of stone with their door hinges falling off. Some were small and made of marble; some so large they took your breath away. In each little box, there were remnants, memories of someone. There would always be a candle and a picture of a saint within, but the contents would vary beyond that. A perfume bottle, cigarette from two years ago, a medallion, a baby photo. I found out that each of these shrines are dedicated to someone who died in a crash, either on the certain part of the road, or nearby. The shrines are put up to remember those who lost their lives, the contents linked to the person and their families. Some of the shrines were much newer than others; glass doors, no dust, fresh flowers. Some were older but still cared for; you could tell this by the lit candle within.  Some were fifty, sixty, seventy years old, derelict and untouched, apart from the curious tourists. Some of the older ones had been reclaimed by nature; we opened one to find it was now a wasp’s nest, another to find that a rat had made the shrine its home. I found all of them curious and fascinating, but the one marking the entry to a small town was incomparable. There was a stone monument with steps up to the centre, where there must have been at least eight separate shrines. At the bottom of the monument there were even more. Despite my attempts at researching, I can’t find out why such a large monument is there. However, it has stayed with me as pure fascination and admiration.

It may be ‘the last family holiday’ (although I highly doubt it; we’ll always have family holidays), but I only have fond memories of my time in Crete. I turned twenty-one in our rented villa. I found out I was graduating with a 2:1 sat by the pool. I spent time with my family, something I miss now I live in Winchester and them in Wales. I learnt about the country and its history, and lots about the food and wine.

Crete is a damn beautiful island and I had a very special time there.

me