When Priyadarshini Paitandy lands on this little island, she finds that stories of its charm are not just myths
There’s panic and spilt coffee, wailing children and shrieking adults clutching at barf bags. My rendezvous with turbulence, thus far limited to airplanes, has now extended to ferry voyages. The vessel slices unsteadily through the choppy sea, occasionally tossed up high by the angry waves. But our Flyingcat 4 fights back and determinedly races towards Crete.
My hands feel as cold as the sandwich I was snacking on till it went flying out of my hand. An agonising hour later, the vast blue expanse gives way to concrete structures. We inch closer to Crete and are greeted by the Koules Venetian fort, the 6th century structure that stopped the Turks from invading the island for 22 years.
Crete is the largest of the Greek isles and is divided into four prefectures — Heraklion, Rethymnon, Chania and Lasithi. We choose to stay in Heraklion, the largest, primarily because of the shopping it has to offer, a perfect mix of international brands and local creations. Dedalou Street is what everybody recommends but it has to wait until tomorrow because shops close early here. We head instead for a relaxed dinner at a rooftop restaurant with fantastic views of the glittering old port.
Next morning starts early with a long drive to Rethymnon and Chania. For mythology geeks, Crete has sacks full of stories. The tour guide, a 60-year-old, easily-irritable-but-vastly-knowledgeable woman, points out of the window every now and then with little stories. “You see that island there?” she asks. “That was a princess but when Zeus’s wife caught him flirting with her, she changed her into an island,” she laughs.
Vineyards, olive farms, and oak trees dot the area. We reach Rethymnon and make our first halt at Arkadi Monastery. There’s a fortress surrounding it and a large arched doorway leads you inside. Once you step in, it feels like you have teleported into the 16th century. I don’t know if it’s my imagination or if the entire area really has a sepia feel to it. During the Cretan revolt of 1866 that resisted the Ottoman rule, 900-odd people including women and children gathered for shelter in the monastery decided to blow themselves up with barrels of gunpowder rather than surrender. The room remains roofless, with walls still sooty black from the explosion.
From here, we drive to Chania, pronounced ‘hania’, an old town where one senses a constant tug-of-war between the modern and the ancient, fighting between high-end boutiques and posh travellers and grungy backpackers, generations-old dingy souvenir outlets, and street stalls. Horse carriages are everywhere, and you can take a ride if you have euros to squander. Charming waiters are also everywhere, trying the “I visited India once and loved it” card to lure us into their cafeterias.
Tired of walking, we curl up at a dark bar, interestingly done up with bottles, pans, broken chains and truck horns. A smiling waitress with blood red lipstick places a plate of calamari on my table. I don't remember ordering it. Then I realise I was trying to say Kalimera, Greek for good morning, but had clearly mispronounced it! The plump, crunchy rings are a delight but the same cannot be said about the accompanying tsipouro, a heady drink made from the pomace of grapes.
As the watering hole slowly fills up with adventure-seeking tourists and casual Cretans, the afternoon gets more intriguing. Soon a bunch of them begins singing popular Cretan songs that to our ears is, well, all Greek. But the catchy music is infectious and before we know it we are pulled up to the centre where everyone is doing the energetic Maleviziotis. With loving thumps on our backs, they egg us on to join in their traditional dance, which we do despite missing quite a few beats and stepping on everyone’s feet. By the end of the evening, we’ve made quite a few Cretan friends, even though we are mostly communicating through sign language.