Rethymno to Heraklion, Crete

My father-in-law has a knack for finding the local take when we travel, and on our recent Greek trip, had booked a tour from Chania across the island with Lefteris. When the taxi arrived, his daughter Alexandra was there to pick us up--she was petite, spunky and super fun, and drove across the north of Crete west to east to our final destination of Elounda.

Greece2016-7476

If you drove it straight, I'm guessing it would take 3.5 hours, but Alexandra took us to so many incredible sights along the way that the tour took more like 8 hours. I can't wait to show you!

Greece2016-7276

Our first stop was the Kanakis olive oil factory, and second to a butter factory, I can't imagine anything better. Crete is the world's best producer of olive oil, with over 35 million olive trees on the island and the terroir perfect for growing olives. Alexandra explained that most families have trees out in the country, and when the tourists leave in the fall, Cretan families harvest them together in the winter. Because of the growing season, the plant wasn't in operation, but we got to see the sorters and learn about the process.

Greece2016-7243
Greece2016-7245

Many towns have their own processing facilities and families will bring their olives there to have the oil bottled---or the olives can go into the town blend, and they'll get their olive oil a few months later. Alexandra told us the Cretans live a long time. And what did she attribute this to, but olive oil and sunshine! Happy, happy Alie! Olive oil and sun!

Greece2016-7254

I'm not a huge souvenir collector, but I am happily making braised beef with my Cretan olive oil as I type this.

Greece2016-7262

Next up was a stop in the second largest town on the island, Rethymnon ("reth-imm-no").

Greece2016-7313

Similar to Chania, the town had some rickety, ancient architecture,

Greece2016-7286
Greece2016-7283

and a sun-bathed promenade lined with restaurants. The proprietors stood in the streets to welcome anyone walking by, exclaiming their specialties and offering a seat. Along the promenade was a little beach that was pretty empty. I dipped my toes in because it was about 95 degrees out and it felt not-too-cold-not-too-hot.

Greece2016-7304
Greece2016-7300

Greece2016-7315

For lunch, Alexandra took us to a local 'taverna' (Taverna Synolakis). Tavernas were all across Greece, and are basically casual, family-owned, small restaurants serving local cuisine. We were the only English-Speakers there, and she ordered everything for us in Greek, our first real taste of Greece: tzatziki (yogurt cucumber dip), doumadakia (grapes leaves stuffed with savory rice), braised lamb, thick fries, fried cheese, honey-macerated fruits, and a warm brownie. The view was something out of a postcard.

Greece2016-7333
Greece2016-7326

The drive along the coast was blindingly teal, and simmering hot. We stopped at beaches and scenic overlooks along the way.

Greece2016-7268
Greece2016-7265

Our next stop was the most famous and popular tourist attraction on Crete: the palace of Knossos (know-sohs). We were lucky to arrive in the afternoon to have the place fairly empty; Alexandra said the morning is often crowded from cruises.

Greece2016-7356
Greece2016-7372

Our guide, Katarina, told us so much about this palace, a labyrinth that was once 5 stories tall, with over 1000 rooms, for the monarch of the Minoan civilization (from the Bronze Age). The ruins are the oldest city in Europe.

Greece2016-7403
Greece2016-7398
Greece2016-7394
Greece2016-7364

The first palace on the site was destroyed in an earthquake and a second palace built on the site from gypsum; it would have sparkled like glitter in the sun. The palace had a complex room organization, air conditioning system, and even flushing toilets . . . .6,000 years ago!

Greece2016-7383
Greece2016-7379

The throne, however, didn't look very comfortable.

Greece2016-7377

Their huge pots for transporting and storing food were sealed in a specific way to ensure no tampering, and under the palace were huge store rooms for grains and oils in these pots, so large that I could have hidden in them.

Greece2016-7384

Although it was blisteringly hot, it was fascinating to discover how advanced the culture was and walk over the extensive palace.

Greece2016-7410
Greece2016-7411
Greece2016-7413
Greece2016-7416

Our next stop was the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Housed in the capital of Crete, Heraklion (pronounced er-ACK-lee-on), the museum houses the artifacts discovered at Knossos and other digs. The Minoans loved/worshiped cows and their palaces had huge horn sculptures around them. And all their gods were female.

Heraklion had a similar city wall to the other ancient Cretan villages, as well.

Greece2016-7464

This tour across Crete was a highlight of our entire trip, because Alexandra gave us a behind-the-touristy-scenes look at how Cretans live, how proud they are of their beautiful island, how much they rely on tourism through the summer to make it through the winter.

Greece2016-7264

To wrap up the day, we drove through Agios Nikolaos, Crete's fifth-largest city, and the dry mountains exuded twilight pink.

Greece2016-7495
Greece2016-7482

After a rainbow drive across the northern edge of Crete, we arrived at last in Elounda, the beach town where we'd spend the next few days.