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.
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!
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.
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!
I'm not a huge souvenir collector, but I am happily making braised beef with my Cretan olive oil as I type this.
Next up was a stop in the second largest town on the island, Rethymnon ("reth-imm-no").
Similar to Chania, the town had some rickety, ancient architecture,
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.
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.
The drive along the coast was blindingly teal, and simmering hot. We stopped at beaches and scenic overlooks along the way.
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.
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.
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!
The throne, however, didn't look very comfortable.
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.
Although it was blisteringly hot, it was fascinating to discover how advanced the culture was and walk over the extensive palace.
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.
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.
To wrap up the day, we drove through Agios Nikolaos, Crete's fifth-largest city, and the dry mountains exuded twilight pink.
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.