Night after night as we walked along the Venetian harbour in Chania, the air would suddenly fill with the shrill wailing of a bagpipe. We traced the sound to a young man sitting cross legged playing outside Yiali Tzami, the 17th century Mosque. Musicians often play next to the mosque (ordinarily used for art exhibitions), but I’d never heard a bagpipe there before. A perfect symbol isn’t it for the discordant sound of the 2020 summer.
The Cretan bagpipe (with the fitting name of ascomandoura, as the ancient Greek asco refers to a “bag” or “pouch” specifically the “asco of Aeolus,” the god and keeper of the winds) is not as well known as the laouto (oud or lute) and lyra (like a violin), which can usually be heard everywhere. I look in vain for the posters this time of year of dark moustached and bearded young men playing these instruments, giving details about paniyiria, celebrations or festivals often in a village square, with hundreds attending, eating, drinking, dancing. Paniyiria are banned of course, but you can hear live foot-stomping music night after night at the restaurant Ta Chalkina along the harbor.
Panayiria or not, the beauty of the palia poli (old town) always dazzles.
Our decision to go to Crete was very last minute. One day when the radio was playing the old song “summer holiday,” it made us feel so nostalgic for our usual Cretan holiday.
This was still in July before the spike in coronavirus cases and a crackdown and tightening of measures during our visit and after our return to Athens.
So, masked faces and health questionnaire in hand, we board the 8 hour day boat, which is blissfully empty of passengers. We have a lazy day out on the deck, reading, sleeping, listening to music… with room to spread out and distance, a sofa to ourselves, several tables, chairs. No need for a mask outside at that point. A fresh sea breeze during most of the trip, what could be more wonderful? “Happy is the man [or woman], wrote Nikos Kazantzakis, “who has the good fortune to sail the Aegean sea.”
In Chania, our friend Giorgos who has the rooms “Casa del Amore,” had told us on the phone that he wasn’t opening at all this summer for business, but agreed “just for us” so we had the whole Venetian building to ourselves. He even took down the sign for the pension, having become now slightly dilapidated.
We’re staying on our favorite street in the old town, Theotocopoulou, on the western side of the palia poli. From our balcony, one side leads to the sea, the other toward the lefka ori (white mountains). The street is bustling; there’s the much photographed honeymoon rooms,
many shops, such as this women’s boutique:
as well as rooms, hotels, bakeries, supermarkets
At El Greco hotel in the morning guests serve themselves breakfast and take a seat at one of the tiny tables outside to do some early morning people watching —
meanwhile they’re being watched by us on the 2nd (or 3rd) floor balcony, depending on the European or American way of looking.
And one of the enduring landmarks on the street, the restaurant Kalderimi (little alley).
The first evening we meet there with our son Ted who is back in Chania visiting old friends (he had left in 2013 when he got his engineering degree.) I search on the menu for my old Cretan favorites and their specialties like imam byaldi, but its nowhere to be found. This menu has kept a couple of Cretan meat dishes, but gone are the ladera or yiachni dishes with vegetables, cooked in oil & tomato. I face a whole new catalog of gourmet-sounding names! The owner Giorgos tells us that over the last few months he had plenty of time to develop new dishes. And indeed he has. We see there is a Cretan salad but we decide to try the “Kinoa Trilogy” — here’s the description from the menu: “black, red and white kinoa with cherry tomatoes, chives and basil, served with saffran mayonnaise, and beetroot cashew cream (vegan):” I didn’t know there were 3 kinds of kinoa! How does one think of such a dish…
We also sample ceviche, that they’ve added to the menu, the Peruvian specialty of fresh raw seafood cured with lime, spiced with chili peppers, salt, coriander, onions as well as an open dolma with rice, served with peanuts and harissa cream.
The main dishes are all works of culinary art.
For the kerasma at the end (a treat of raki and dessert), it’s the usual karpouzi (watermelon) with a most unusual caramel mousse.
All delicious with a whole new ‘master chef’ identity! A foodie’s paradise! Still I wonder if they’ve lost some of the Cretan taste in their very gourmet approach. I suppose it’s the problem when any restaurant changes its image or tries to “upgrade” itself. Time will tell.
“Creative Cretan cuisine” — that’s the new buzzword and is certainly what you find at the “The Well of the Turk” that we discovered last year in Splantzia, the traditional Turkish area with its tiny narrow streets.
With a combination of Cretan, Turkish & Moroccan, the restaurant features gavros marinato, tiny fish marinated for about a week in vinegar and spices,
mushrooms cooked in wine and fried anthi, the zucchini blossoms, vegetarian moussaka and pasta with feta, olives, tomato sauce.
We can’t stop ahhing and oohing, everything tastes so fresh and delicious. You can sit on the street or in a kind of garden to the side of the restaurant.
A new taverna we try is “Perperas” in a small busy garden with walnut trees, though it’s hardly scenic in that you’re looking into the back side of the neoria, the Venetian shipbuilding yards or arsenali, with their doors full of crumbling notices. Eric Clapton is playing softly in the background as we eat, simple delicious food with great prices. If you walk around to the front on the harbor, this is what the neoria look like. Note the minaret in the background, one of the two left in Splantzia.
And again we return to one of our favorites, “To Hani” (the inn, with the traditional meaning of a place where travellers, usually on horseback or mule, would stop and have a glass of wine and rest before continuing their journey.)
Here we greet familiar faces from years before. It’s a fun bustling place with a guitarist and bouzouki player that play old favorites you love to sing along with. For the kerasma at the end, Hani offers not only raki and watermelon but also rakomelo (raki with honey) and yogurt cake. That in itself makes it worth going there.
We are in the Evraiki, the name given to the traditional Jewish area of the old town and To Hani is right outside the wall of the 17th century synagogue, the Tree of Life, which was painstakingly and lovingly restored about 20 years ago. Over the years as well as being a place of worship, it’s had a rich series of cultural events, a dedicated local community and is a site that attracts many visitors.
Perhaps you prefer to sit at a cafe and just order raki. Then it’s served with simple mezethes like tomato, rusks, cucumber, feta and graviera and olives.
Longing for some simple home-cooked food? The dimotiki agora, the closed public market which dates from 1911, is the place for you. Besides tourist products – magnets, Cretan knives, towels, spices, sponges, olive oil soaps,
as well as wonderful graviera cheese, olives, a bakery with calzounia (spinach or cheese stuffed pastries) and raisin muffins, you can find fresh fish markets (photo) and the old-fashioned mayeireia, the cooking places where you see what’s cooked that day in the kitchen and decide.
In the market we go to Patsas Agnos, established in 1928. Places with “patsas” are a tradition all over Greece. Patsas is a soup made of tripe and is supposed to have restorative properties, especially if you have a hangover or the flu.
We carry out fish soup, vlita (wild greens) imam byaldi (I finally get my imam!) and stuffed zucchini blossoms and tomato with rice.
Now food for the soul. One of the places that has cultural performances this summer is the theatre of the anatoliki tafros (eastern moat), among the easternmost walls of the old town. A dance school is showing everything from mambo to tango to Cretan to hip hop to tiny tot ballerinas, much to the delight of the crowd.
Theotocopoulou street is the best place to stay if you want to walk to Nea Chora beach, west of the town. You start at Talo Square, the Monument of the Hand, memorial to those who died when a ship sank from Chania to Pireaus in 1966.
past the beautiful café with the incongruous name of Pentagono.
along Akti Kanari and the tamarisk trees along the open sea,
past the municipal swimming pool where it seems that all the kids of Chania go to learn to swim, until you approach Nea Chora.
The fish tavernas string up octopus when they have a catch.
In back of the beach along the main road are a series of helter skelter apartment buildings, rooms and hotels, put up with little thought of planning. Vigorous swim, walk back and climb up the 36 winding stairs of Casa del Amore!
Chania is gorgeous and you could just stay there for the whole time, but there’s so much more to Crete and since our son has a car with him, we take an excursion one day.
First stop, the small village of Vouves with its giant olive tree. In my olive oil blogpost, I wrote about the largest olive tree in the world, the “monumental olive tree of Vouves,” declared a national monument. Tree ring analysis, which admittedly is not exactly precise, nevertheless estimates the tree to be around 3,000 years old, and it is still producing olives today. At that time, the Cretan inhabitants had already started cultivating the olive tree.
Near the tree we enter the small museum in a 19th century house
with mostly traditional tools, used from antiquity up until the mid 20th century, showing the process of olive cultivation.
One card of information about Linear B script (palace of nestor blogpost) shows the ideograms for tree, seed and oil, from 1800 B.C. Minoan times.
The olive is a favorite subject in Minoan art, depicted in many wall paintings. One of them shows an olive tree between two wild goats.
But 3,000 years old is nothing; a glass case showed some fossilized olive leaves dated from about 50,000 years ago found in Santorini.
Time for a cold drink! The little café/restaurant run by the keepers of the museum sits under a grape arbor with some of the fattest juiciest well-cared-for grapes I’ve ever seen.
Next stop, the nearby village of Episkopi (town of bishops) where off the road in a pine tree grove we find one of the most impressive Byzantine churches in Crete (and there are a great many). It’s usually closed so we’re lucky to find it open. We’re greeted by a friendly young woman who almost seems to be expecting us! A couple of adorable Jack Russells wagging their tails adds to our welcome. Seems they get very few visitors… The church’s official name is the Archangel Michael, but it’s usually known as the Rotonda, because of its circular dome. Note in the photo the 5 concentric circles of the dome – this is unique in Crete and very rare in Byzantine architecture.
The church was built in the 6th c. AD under the rule of Justinian, the same Justinian who abolished the ancient Olympic games and closed Plato’s Academy – the effort then was to discredit the ancient “pagan” Greeks, and promote Christianity. The church must have been very beautiful inside with its floor mosaics of plants, animals and geometric designs, and its many frescoes, 5 layers of them to be exact, from the 7th to 14th centuries.
We say goodbye to the young woman and her excited little dogs, and wonder if anyone else is going to stop to visit such an impressive church.
In a little bit of gruesome history during the 1821 war for independence against the Turks, the bishop Melchizidek, who lived next to the church, was hanged in the main square in Splantzia (mentioned earlier). If you find yourself in the area, be sure to also visit the tiny chapel of Agios Stefanos and according to my friend Karen who lives outside Chania, bring a flashlight to see the frescoes. Unfortunately we didn’t make it there this time.
We decide to continue our historical wanderings and this time find ourselves in Hellenistic and Roman times with our visit to Polyrinia, a short drive from Kissamos (Kastelli). The name, “polyrinia,” translating as “many sheep” shows the wealth that the community had then. It’s so quiet out in the valley except for the incessant tzitzitzi of the cicadas.
But the sun is beating down on us. Noel Coward’s lyrics “mad dogs and Englishmen [and a few tourists] out in the midday sun” keep running through my mind. Elias and Ted trudge up to the acropolis.
I park myself at the store that sells olive wood objects, nicely in the shade.
I’m sorry we didn’t see the Roman aqueduct, but that will have to wait till it’s not so hot. We do discover that you can indeed drive up to the acropolis (where there’s also a 19th century church with the unusual name of the 99 brothers).
Enough history for now… We’re on our way to the northwest coast of Crete to the impressive beach at Falasarna, which we learned was a traditional rival of Polyrinia. Signs point also to ruins of ancient Falasarna and an ancient harbor, now inland, but no thanks, we’re can’t wait to get to the beach!
The descent where you see a series of beaches along the sand, is breathtaking but unfortunately marred by all the greenhouses with their white plastic covering. From a distance the water is a deep blue but when you’re actually swimming in it, the sea shimmers with a turquoise color.
And since it’s late in the day, we join the line of others watching the sunset over the water.
On our remaining days we enjoy the magical time of dusk along the old harbour
and we do the usual sunset walk along the ramparts to the faros (the lighthouse) the most photographed landmark of Chania, begun by the Venetians in 1570 but restored by the Egyptians later in the 19th century. The faros epitomizes the layers of history that you feel all about you in the old town, Ottoman upon Venetian upon Byzantine upon Hellenistic, when the town was known as Kydonia, back to even Minoan, as you can see in the walls and sites along Karnevaro Street.
In order not to destroy in any way the historical layers of the town, building or making renovations on existing buildings in the old town is strictly regulated from the archaeological department. Getting approval could take years of inspections and red tape. Many of the crumbling buildings along the waterfront have been renovated; others await approval. These cats are hoping this abandoned building will stay the way it is.
Since we’ve returned to Athens, there’s been an alarming spike in covid cases here as in many other countries. New measures are in effect now, at the height of the tourist season. Masks are required at any gathering of people. They’re mandatory at outdoor cultural performances — though since concerts and other cultural events can only have up to 100 people seated, organizers are not bothering to schedule. Masks are necessary on the boat even outside on the deck. On some islands even masks at the beach. No standing at bars. 12 midnight curfew of restaurants and bars. When people are used to eating out at 11 pm in the summer, in a town where night life often begins at that time, many people are grumbling. The Greek government is particularly targeting young people as they comprise many of the new cases. For the first time since April, siren sounds went off today, followed by an alert sent to our cell phones, to exercise extreme caution upon return from vacation. Difficult times: be gone the discordant sounds of 2020! Bring on a better 2021!