After our magical adventure came to end, I had a little time to reflect back on some things I learned. I'm glad that I had a chance to learn them, but I also wish that I had known these things before I left! So, I'm going to share my new found knowledge with you for your next trip.. wherever and whenever it may be!
- It’s safest not to drink the water. Not because it’s ‘bad’ but because the mineral content is different than the U.S. If someone from another country came to the U.S. and drank the water, it could make them sick. America, we do not have magical perfect water.
- Unless you’re an expert on the location, those little audio tours could be a good idea. If you can get over the fact that it looks totally dorky, you’ll learn a load of interesting information that you would have not found out otherwise.
- Use Airbnb.com a website where people rent out an entire apartment or a private room of their home. Doing this saved us hundreds of dollars and we had more amenities than a typical hotel would offer.
- Pack light, some busses and subways don’t let people on with luggage.. and.. no one wants to lug around huge suitcases for 2 weeks! We used 3 backpacks. I wore one on my belly and one on my back.. and BHW wore the biggest one.
- A data plan on your cell phone is extremely useful, but expensive. If you want a cheaper but less inclusive option; buy a map and download viber/whatsapp/skype.
- Respect your elders, no matter what country you’re in.
- Write about your adventures. The details are usually the most interesting, but the easiest to forget.
- Wear proper shoes to the airport, you never know when you’ll have to run to your gate.
- Most places you’ll visit, there will be people there that know enough English to ‘get by’.. but be polite and at least learn a few key words in their language (hello, bye, thank you, please, sorry, excuse me, etc). Don’t expect the world to cater to you because you speak English.
- If you’re staying somewhere longer than a day or two, find a market and buy groceries, even if its just snack foods and microwave meals. It will save you so much money rather than having to go out 3 times a day and every other time that you’re hungry.
- Fly with Lufthansa when at all possible, free alcohol.
- Sitting on the wing seat in an airplane may be a smoother ride, but you'll probably miss out on some incredible views.
- A smile is universal.
- Always carry currency from the country you’re in, many places in the world aren’t so keen on using plastic, and don't ever expect anyone to take your American dollars, they're just like the water.. not magical.
- Make sure to try and see landmarks in the day and then again at night, both views are spectacular in their own ways.
- People seem to emphasize the ‘DELL’ in Philadelphia. If you say it the way Americans typically say it, you’ll get a confused look for a moment.
- When you say you’re from the United States people will pause, think, and say AMERICA! OBAMA!
- Check what time landmarks/monuments/museums close it could be as early as 3PM.. plan accordingly.
- No matter where you go and how well you planned, things will go wrong; all the road signs you need will be spray painted over, you will get the stomach flu, you will get lost in the mountains surrounded by sheep. But things will also go right; you will accidentally book a villa 20 minutes from a world class beach, you will experience new cultures, and you will come away feeling like a new person!
- Stray cats fight with stray cats and stray dogs fight with stray dogs, never with each other. They have either learned to stay out of each others way or have some kind of truce.
- Old City is a ‘touristy’ place but it doesn’t feel like it. The hotels are very small and are nestled in the tiny streets along with locals houses, hostels, and restaurants.
- Wear appropriate clothing when visiting the mosques. Women wear a long skirt or pants and headscarf and men wear pants. Also, you have to take your shoes off, so be prepared by wearing socks.. or going barefoot if you don’t mind that kind of thing.
- You can walk almost anywhere, the city is very much smushed together.
- It may be cheaper to fly here first if you’re going to a country nearby.
- Witness a prayer time in a mosque, but don’t take pictures/video, be respectful. You most likely wouldn’t appreciate it if someone came into your place of worship, got in your face, and started snapping pictures as you were singing or praying.. it’s a private and special time, we are lucky that we are even able to sit in the mosque and witness it.
- The corn they sell from the street cars aren’t worth it, but the sesame seed bread round is.
- Get ice cream, you’ll be in for a fun surprise. (make sure to have your video camera ready).
- Don’t let someone drag you into their restaurant, saying you just ate is a really good excuse.
- Experience a traditional hamam. The whole idea of someone else giving you a bath in a room full of other people may seem weird, but you’ll leave with a lot more self acceptance and confidence.
The last day of our honeymoon came to a close in Istanbul, although it started out in Crete. Our flight left Crete at 6:30AM so we had to leave our villa at 4AM in order to get there in time, return the rental car, and get through security. Thankfully the Chania airport is, frankly, dinky, so we didn’t have to run through the place to get anywhere on time. During our flight from Crete to Athens we witnessed a wonderful sunrise. I wish we were sitting by the window so I could have taken a million pictures. But, I was in the middle seat, I totally asked the stranger at the window if I could lean over him and get a good photo though! Once in Athens we boarded another flight to Istanbul. There we would spend the next 20 hours or so finishing up sightseeing and bumming around at the airport until our flight Saturday (my birthday!) at 6AM.
We first took the Metro to Asia. Yes, to another continent. Istanbul is in two continents, Europe and Asia. They recently built a metro line that goes under the Marmara Sea and to the ‘Asia side’ of Turkey. There was still some minor construction going on but the metro was still in full swing. I guess I can say I’ve been to 3 continents now.. although I was only in Asia for an hour or so. While we were there we grabbed some döners and cola. Döners are the ‘fast food’ of many european countries. It’s sliced lamb or chicken in a pita with lettuce, tomato, pickle, and even french fries. It’s delicious, and really cheap.. our favorite combo! After lunch we walked along the sea, watching the old men fishing with their massive poles, we weren’t sure what fish they were going after with such huge poles! It looked like they could catch something as big as a human! While walking along the sea we stumbled upon some padded seating on the wall of the sea. We sat down and were brought some traditional turkish tea. Coincidentally we were about to go and find a place to have some, so we lucked out! The tea was ok, it was black tea from what I can tell, not sure what was so Turkish about it, besides the fact that people here literally drank it ALL the time! I’m sure they would prefer to have an IV of it if the option was available.
The same Metro took us back to Europe where we visited Basillica Cistern. It was full of tourists, but I had been wanting to see it, so we did. For being a place that just held water for the city, think an underground water tower, it sure was beautiful. The lighting was very dim and it felt a bit spooky, but that’s what made it so special. There were huge columns every few feet, each with intricate designs, and also gigantic fish swimming in the water that was surrounding us on the ground. Once we visited the cistern we had some time to kill so we relaxed in the park in the middle of town. I closed my eyes for a bit and soaked in the sun. We didn’t have a place to sleep that night so we had to occupy ourselves until about midnight, when the last train ran for the airport. After getting annoyed with the stray cats begging for food, we decided to head to the spice bazaar one last time and look around. At the spice bazaar we picked up a few things for our family and ourselves. I got a tile that I want to put into a frame and also a bracelet for myself.
It was about time to grab dinner so we found a place in Çemberlitas. It was right next door to the turkish baths (hamam) that we were wanting to take after dinner. We ate on the second floor of the restaurant, enjoying the view of the people below going about their day. There were some young kids picking through the trash and then wheeling these dollies 10 times bigger than them around, full of trash. We were trying to wait until the latest possible second to get our Turkish bath, that way we would be spending less time in the airport. At around 815PM we headed into the Turkish bath. It looked super shady from the outside but I had already seen photos of the inside so I knew that there was nothing to worry about. We headed inside and experienced the most amazing ‘outside of our comfort zone’ situation ever.
When you first walked in you looked at the menu and decided what you wanted with your treatment. BHW got the traditional bath and I got that plus a 30 minute massage. After paying we split off into separate areas of the bath, the men and the women are separated for the entire experience. Once inside there was a changing area with lockers. I was given bathing suit bottoms, a wrap, and some sandals. I had done a wee bit of research before entering so I sort of knew what I was getting myself into. What I did expect was all the people, it was getting late on a Friday, didn’t people have a party to go to or something? For some reason I was expecting the place to myself! haha! I opened the door to the hamam and there were about 30 ladies, just in their undies, laying on this huge marble stone underneath a dome that was letting in the last of the days light. Around them there were other women (mainly older ladies), in bikinis, scrubbing everyone down with mitts and about 8 inches think of bubbles! I tried not to act shocked and found a place on the marble stone. The stone was warm and the room was steamy, opening our pores for the bath part of the experience. I laid on the stone for about 15 minutes and then someone poured water on my foot. I was near where some ladies were getting bathed so I thought it just splashed my way and ignored it. I then got a little smack on my foot and heard ‘Lady, come.’ I got up and was greeted by a really sweet lady who spoke little english. I don’t know her name, but she wore a badge (kind of like a name tag) with the #40 on it. I don’t want to refer to her as a number, but it’s all I’ve got. She instructed me to lay on my belly and she poured warm water all over me. She then took a mitt/loofah and scrubbed me. I was then told to flip over and was scrubbed then to sit up and was scrubbed so she could get me squeaky clean. The woman noticed I had a sunburn on my stomach and pointed to it and made a face of sympathy. That was one thing I was nervous about people seeing, not me, completely exposed, but me with a weird sunburn line. After the scrub I flipped back to my belly and was met with the weirdest sensation! I actually don’t know what was happening because I couldn’t see it, but it felt like I was being engulfed in a bubble of bubbles! It was like she was pouring bubbles on me! I couldn’t stop smiling. After the washing, which included my hair, she rinsed me off. I was then told to go to the jacuzzi and relax for as long as I wished. I got up to go to the jacuzzi, went to grab my wrap, now soaking wet, to cover myself a little more, when she ripped the wrap from me and wagged her finger at me. She said ‘jacuzzi first, then get green wrap.’ Well, ok then. There went all my chances at being modest. I scurried to the jacuzzi, only a 15 foot walk, but while walking there I got an overwhelming feeling of empowerment. I’m not sure why being in a room full of not so clothed ladies made me feel that way, but I was oddly comfortable with the whole situation. I got to the jacuzzi and hopped in for about 10 minutes or so. There were a few other ladies in there but no one spoke, except for the few people that came in little groups of 2 and 3 together. I’m not a fan of anything hot; summer, bathtubs, saunas, etc, so I didn’t stay in there for too long. I got out and went to the waiting room for massages. There was a long line but I sat calmly, soaking in what just happened in that crazy marble room. It was finally my turn for my massage and I was taken back to a room that had 6 massage tables in a row. There were no dividing curtains but I was pretty used to that seeing as what just happened in the bath. The massage was decent, icing on the cake from the bath. Once finished, I met up with BHW at the cafe inside and we talked about our experiences. Both of us came away with a positive experience, feeling relaxed and refreshed.
We then headed to find some hookah and tea before our journey to the airport. The man at the cafe of the hamam told us to go to a little place down the street. I was glad we took his advice because it was a good place where the locals went, not a single tourist around. We got a big hookah and I ordered a turkish tea, this time apple, while BHW ordered a Sahlep (a warm milk drink with cinnamon). We relaxed there for an hour or so, enjoying the quiet alley where the hookah cafe was. We started getting nervous about missing the last metro to the airport so we left and caught the metro. Aside from the fact that we were packed in the metro car like sardines, the ride there went smoothly and we arrived without a hitch. Once we got to the airport we thankfully found a couch and snuggled in for a good rest, or so we thought.
Thank you Crete, thank you for your wonderful mountains and your beautiful beaches. I will return, I promise.
- I would rent a car if I were you, the island is fairly small and the roads are manageable to navigate.. there also isn't much of a public transportation option. If you want to see the island's best, rent a car.
- And when you do rent a car, don't rent from an American company (Hertz, etc), they're WAY expensive. Find a local place, in the airport main lobby, and rent from there. It will be significantly cheaper and your car will be just as nice.
- If you're going to drive slowly, do so on the shoulder of the road. You know, that place on the road that you're supposed to avoid in America? The one where you pull over when you're caught speeding? Yeah, drive on that. It's basically another lane here in Crete.
- The island isn't too big and nothing seems too far, distance wise, but don't forget the entire island is cut in half west to east by huge mountains. Get ready for some hairpin turns and ear-popping altitudes.
- It's windy all the time.
- Eat fish, but make sure you know what fish you're ordering. You may end up with a plate full of tiny fish that you have to rip the heads off of.
- Yes, there really is only one main highway on the entire island.
- You have to work to see Crete's most prized possessions. There are no easy ways to see Samaria Gorge or their world class beaches. It will involve dangerous drives and exhausting hikes, both of which are completely worth it.
- Don't order dessert, you get one for free at the end of the meal anyways, complete with a drink called ouzo. Don't drink the ouzo unless you're ready to grow hair on your chest.
- The tourists flock from April-September and when you go outside of these times, you will likely be the only person in any establishment you go into.
For our last day on the sunny island of Crete, we decided to make the trek back out to Balos beach, this time actually seeing the beach! We packed up our bag with snacks and towels and hit the road! Like I said a few days ago, the drive there was pretty scary! It was a rough gravel road and there were some large rocks in the middle of the road that you had to swerve around.
I was a little disappointed when we started on the rocky road and saw a couple other cars.. the other day when we made the drive there was no one there. I guess we went on March 31 and the tourists don't start coming until April.. apparently they come right on time around here! On the way there we passed a little arrow that said 'cave' and there was a tiny little path leading down the mountain. Being the crazies that we are.. we parked the car and headed down the path. It took us about 20 minutes to hike there.. now, in America.. this path would have been groomed, maybe even paved(!) but here in Crete it was filled with thorny bushes and big rocks. We weren't complaining though, I would much rather it be this way than all messed up by us humans. We reached the cave and it wasn't much of a cave at all, more like a little cove. It still was beautiful! BHW had researched the night before about Balos and had read something about a nearby cave and that a bunch of pirates had killed each other there in the 1800's. Don't worry, we didn't find any human remains, or wood peg legs.
The hike back up the mountain was obviously a little more difficult and when we reached the top we celebrated over a Lemon Fanta. YUM! We were now onto another hike down another mountain, this time the mountain would take us all the way down to Balos Beach! The hike was nice, this was a little more groomed than the path to the cave. We reached the ridge and held our breath a little because of the sight we were about to see. Once we peeked over the ridge we were in for a treat! It was B-E-A-yooteeful! The water was so blue it looked fake and the sand was perfect (it was even pink in some places!)! There weren't too many people around either so that was nice. We didn't have the place to ourselves but just about, we set up camp far away from everyone else. We spent the rest of the day at the beach, napping, searching for shells, reading, and relaxing. It was so picturesque! After being in the sun for awhile we came back home to pack and get ready for our long day tomorrow.
We also ate dinner right next to our villa at a little taverna. We were, once again, the only people eating there, but we've gotten used to that. Tomorrow our flight leaves at 6:30AM and we land in Turkey. From there we will spend the day doing the things we missed the first time around, and trying to stay awake until our flight at 5:55AM the following day (Saturday). It will be a very long day but hopefully fun!
Today was a day we planned to relax at the beach. There are two beaches we wanted to visit, Balos and Falassarna. Balos is supposed to be one of the best in the world (35 out of 100 according to CNN), so we decided to go to Falssarna first and Balos tomorrow! Before we left we made sure we had some sort of directions and we also looked up the article about the top beaches in the world, and Falassarna is on there too! It’s 100 out of 100 but, heck, at least it’s on the list! We were on our way to Falassarna when BHW says ‘Oh great, I left the beer in the freezer! I was supposed to pack it for the beach trip!’ I said ‘Well, let’s just go back and get it, it’s not like you have a book or anything to do while we lay on the beach so you better get the beer.’ His reply was, ‘My book IS the beer!’. We turned around and grabbed the goods. Thankfully Falassarna isn’t too far away so it was a quick trip back.
Now, when you go to a beach rated by CNN as a top beach in the world.. what do you think of? White sand, mind bogglingly blue waters, fancy hotels lining the beach, restaurants, umbrellas, lounge chairs galore, oh.. and hundreds of people… right? Well, after twisting and turning down the mountain to the beach we arrived, and it was just beach. Just the most beautiful beach. There were no umbrellas, no hotels, no restaurants, not even a SINGLE other person. One of the things that I appreciate about Crete is the fact that no matter how ‘popular’ a place becomes, it does not become any more modern, any more luxurious, any more anything.. they leave the place as it is because of what it is. Take the Samaria gorge for example.. remember the post I was talking about where I said it was the second most visited place in all of Crete? Well, you had to drive for 2 hours through mountains, and I mean MOUNTAINS, to get there. There was no pretty little straight road filled with signs leading you there, there were no restaurants or pit stops where you could go and take a break from the bus/car/van.. it was a ridiculous drive. We didn’t pass a single car for 30 minutes at a time. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. This beach was exactly the same, on the way down to the beach you want to know what we passed? Shacks, and row after row after row of massive greenhouses. Essentially, we were driving through farm country to get to the beach. Cretans don’t set aside their priorities or their livelihood to cater to tourists, they let you experience the completely raw beauty of their island and are proud of it.
While on the beach we walked around and looked for seashells. I don’t think I’ve ever seen sand like the sand I saw at Falsarnas. It wasn’t tiny grains all white, it really was little bits of shell! You could see all the different colors when looking closely. BHW didn’t have a book so he drank beer and made up a game that he could play by himself. He does that sometimes. I laid around soaking up sun and reading my book. It wasn’t the most ‘perfect’ beach weather.. it didn’t even get up to 70 degrees and it was super windy, but when the sun popped out behind the clouds it felt glorious! We appreciated being the only people on the beach, I can’t imagine the place in August when it’s swarming with tourists, ew.
After we got enough sun for the day we wanted to head back to a little taverna and grab some lunch, we passed one on the way to the beach and it looked fun. We tried to go out a different way than the way we came, why you ask? I do not know.. we’re just like that I guess. We ended up not finding a way out but finding something much better instead. I asked BHW to park the car because there was a great opportunity for a picture of the rocky coast with the water crashing against it. When we got out BHW noticed there was a tiny path that led to the coast. Of course we walked down it! The path ended at a million razor sharp rocks, so we decided to climb on those and get closer to the water, smart move right? It was pretty hard to climb around on them, even putting your hand on one for balance too hard would have resulted in cuts. There was a lot of arm flapping and wobbling, trying to balance without touching the rocks/boulders or falling in between them, that would have hurt! As we got closer to the water the view just kept getting better! Something caught BHW’s eye on our left and he headed in that direction. I stayed put because I was trying to climb, balance, and not touch the sharp rocks all while holding my camera in one hand. All he said was ‘Oh my god.’ and I forgot how dangerous it was and was on my way over towards him. When I got to the cave I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was seriously out of a National Geographic! The cave had water from the sea in it.. not sure how deep.. the water is so clear you can never tell, it seemed more than 5 feet though. It was GORGEOUS! There was a rock in the cave and BHW climbed into the cave and sat on the rock so I could get his picture. Neither of us could stop smiling, it was just so amazing! Who knows if anyone has ever stepped foot in that cave, we could have very well been the first!
After that accidentally amazing cave we stumbled upon our drive back to the villa was uneventful, except that we saw a dead dog on the road. I was literally just about to tell you all how there are so many unleashed and uncaged/fenced animals that I’m surprised they don’t get hit all the time. I was so sad to see the dog.. until we got up to it and started to drive around it.. and it got up. It was just sleeping, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MAIN ROAD! Why does the dog cross the road? He doesn’t he stops and takes a nap in the middle of it. That was my funny joke for the day. When we got home we realized how sunburnt we were. I did a really good job of applying sunscreen, only missing a few places.. which got roasted. I guess I learned that sunscreen works.. but only where you put it. So that was a bonus. BHW failed to put any sunscreen on and his back looks like a tomato. We made fun of each other for a while and then headed out for dinner.
On our way to dinner we passed a church built into a cliff and a small cave. We parked the car and looked in the church, it was dimly lit and there were lots of pictures of Jesus and some unlit candles. The cave next door had some scenes from the bible painted on wood and propped up. We’ve seen a million tiny churches built into mountains, all by themselves, on the side of the road, everywhere.. we just haven’t gone into any until tonight. It was a cool experience! For dinner we stopped at a little place next to the bay. I ordered the fresh fish for the day with a salad. I didn’t know what the fish was but told myself that anything fried had to be good! When the woman put my plate in front of me I almost freaked out on the spot. Instead of one nice fried fish fillet.. it was about 20 tiny fish the size of chicken wings.. complete with their HEADS! BHW got swordfish, which I’ve had before, and offered to trade. I tried his and didn’t like it so I was stuck with this pile of fish. He tried one and said it was delicious, he showed me that ‘all I had to do’ was rip the head and tail off, and pick the spine out, then I was good to go! Thats ALL I had to do?! Well, ladies and gentleman, I DID do it.. and the fish was scrumptious. I won’t say that I enjoyed ripping it apart before I ate it, but I couldn’t just not eat it!
After the dinner I just had to go through, I felt that I deserved a treat, so we went out for gelato. We drove into town and found a place that had some. After we paid for our gelato the lady said, you are the first customer all day. It was 9PM! Everywhere we have been, besides the grocery store, we have been the only people in there. I guess it really is low season here in Crete, not even the locals are out!
Tomorrow we make the treacherous drive up the mountain again and the steep 30 minute hike down to Balos Lagoon. And this time we’re going to actually SEE the beach! It was rated #35 out of 100 of the best beaches in the world. I can’t wait!
Today our plan was to hike the Samaria Gorge, Crete's second most visited sight. Unfortunately, it was closed until May so we had to find another plan. We still wanted to do some hiking and thought it would be fun to find another gorge. We found Agia Irini, which is nearby the Samaria Gorge, and it's open all year. Our villa is located on the northern coast of Crete and the gorge is located near the southern coast, meaning we had to drive width of the island, which was only about 30 miles. What we didn't think about was that we were driving the width of the most mountain filled island ever. The Googlemaps we searched before leaving said it would take us 1.5 hours. Not too shabby, we got this.
We packed our things and armed ourselves with a map and a general idea of where in the world we were going. THREE HOURS LATER, we arrived at our location. Now let me tell you a little bit about what happened during those 3 hours. First off, we got lost more times than I can count. We started off taking the wrong 'National Road'. There is an old national road and a new national road, we were supposed to take the new one but ended up on the old one. It wasn't too bad of a mistake, they were both generally doing the same exact thing.. the old national road was just a bit more.. hair-pin turn filled.
Our drive did not get any less mountain-y for the next couple hours. The views were astounding and we were soaking it all in! I've never seen so many olive trees, goats, or sheep in my entire life. At one point we were going through a small village and there was a herd of sheep right in the road, at least a hundred! We slowly kept moving forward while they ran around/away from us BAAAA'ing the whole way with their little bells around their necks clanking.
We stopped and asked for directions more than a few times, but it was worth it! While we were at one of our lost points, we stumbled upon this older man and his wife. The conversation went a little something like this.. BHW: 'Hello. Do you speak english? We are lost..' Old Man: 'Where you go?' BHW: (points to map) Old Man: 'Ah, ok.. first you want to ...--' His wife: (interrupting and pulling something from the back of the car) 'Give them cake!' BHW finished his conversation with the man and we got in the car, thanking them both for their kindness. And we were back on our way, with directions, and cake. It was homemade lemon poppy seed, and it was fabulous.
Our drive lasted another hour or so after this conversation until we reached the village of Sougia. This is where the gorge we wanted to hike ended, we decided to park the car there and hike for a bit. The beach area at Sougia is pristine! After our unexpectedly long drive we sat on the beach and ate our lunch we packed before the hike. The weather was sunny and warm with a slight breeze. When we were ready to hike we asked a man at a local taverna where the the gorge came out at so we knew where to start our hike. He informed us that we actually should drive back out about 1.5 miles and park there, that's where the end actually is. We hopped back into the car and found the correct location.
The gorge was beautiful and I'm fairly certain we were the only people hiking through it at that moment. The cliffs on either side of us stretched towards the sky, keeping us in the shade for most of the hike. We hiked for about 1.5 miles and then turned back, we didn't want to drive through the mountains in the dark. The drive home was MUCH faster than the drive there. We were a little more familiar with the roads, and most of it was downhill.
Once home we ate at a hotel right near our villa. We were the only people in there for the majority of the time and I'm fairly certain we're the only Americans in all of Western Crete. There have been a few other 'tourists' but none of them have been American yet.
At our wedding we had the guests vote on where they thought we should go for our honeymoon, and they voted Greece! So, 11 months later, we are finally making the journey! Turkey and Greece, here we come!