Unfortunately the forecast our last day in Crete called for severe thunderstorms. Given the treacherous nature of the roads even when dry and sunny, we opted not to stray too far from home.
We drove to Kissamos, a small town on the coast just north of where we are staying. There’s an Archeological Museum, seaside walk and plenty of restaurants. Unfortunately for us, while the sign outside said it should be open, the caretaker for the Archeological Museum decided to take the day off, and the museum was closed.
After lunch we walked in search of the local fire station. Despite our start to the trip, we’ve otherwise seen no signs of a medical system. I’ve yet to see a hospital anywhere, and have seen only one ambulance back in Athens. Public services have been scaled back over the years as the Greek economy struggled.
We continued walking towards the beach and passed by the Bishop’s Palace by the seaside.
At first glance, I thought it was a municipal building or home of a celebrity. It was only then I noticed the crosses topping the flagpoles that I realized this was a religious-affiliated building.
We hit the jackpot when we rounded the corner and saw a large public playground with slides, swings and monkey bars. Greece has a fair number of public playgrounds. We’ve run into one at almost every tourist destination.
We opted to drive back early to Villa Irene as we didn’t want to get caught in the rain. As we exited Kissamos, we were able to make a quick stop at a small church built inside of a seaside cave called Cave Church St. John.
The church was built in the 10th century. There’s a natural rock formation that provides a dramatic ceiling for this special church.
I entered the church with the black and white floor carefully. The floor was wet and slippery and the whole area dark.
We made it back to Villa Irene just before the thunderstorm unleashed torrents if rain, wind and lightening on the coast. Our instinct to get home before the storm was on point. Driving in the storm would have been dangerous and nail-biting.
Tonight I’ll start packing up for the flight back to Athens tomorrow. It’s hard to believe our trip is coming to a close.
This morning we awoke to #1 toddler attempting to catapult out of her crib. She still sleeps in a baby crib at home since she seems perfectly happy there. I’m thinking it’s about time to pull the toddler conversion kit down from the attic when we get home.
Amir did some research last night and selected today’s destination. Paleochora, a seaside town featuring Salino Kastelo (Castle Salino), was just a 1.5 hour drive from Villa Irene in Livadia. The only catch, zigzagging the roads that traverse the many mountains in between.
As we’ve been driving these narrow roads in Crete, I’ve noticed all these little roadside shrines, which I now know are called Kandylakia. Most are small shrines dedicated to different saints that serve as street signs to denote that an Greek Orthodox Church is close by, as most are not visible from the road. There are also no street names, so these little landmarks are helpful signposts.
A Google search also incorrectly stated that most are dedicated to lost loved ones, but this is just a false assumption by tourists. There are certainly some that serve this purpose, but most are signposts for larger churches.
We reached Paleochora (Pah-leh-oh-hor-ah) with little difficulty. We parked easily, strapped #1 toddler into the Baby Boba, and climbed a trail of stairs to reach the top of Salino Kastelo.
There wasn’t any signage to guide you through Salino Kastelo, so we weren’t quite sure what was what when we were there. After reading at home, the castle was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times since 1257 AD, which explains why it seemed to be composed of every natural material imaginable. Marble, granite, limestone, gravel, terra cotta – it’s all there.
It’s worth a trip for the views alone, but I recommend reading up on its history before you go.
There’s a vast selection of seaside taverns and cafes in Paleochora. We opted for Olympus Pizzeria for a change of pace, plus we knew pizza would satisfy everyone.
After pizza, as if we weren’t stuffed, we headed to a nearby family café for dessert. Baklava and vanilla gelato called our names, along with a cappuccino for me and a latte for Amir.
After the drive home from Paleochora, somehow we were all there filled with energy. Mind you at this same time yesterday my co-travelers were both taking 3 hour naps.
We opted for a brief walk from our house towards the sea. The first night we arrived, there were goats grazing throughout this area. Yesterday they had completely vanished, but today they returned. We went for a visit.
Before we made it 20 feet, #1 Toddler was fast asleep in the Boba carrier. She didn’t miss any great encounters with goats or sheep. We could see them in the distance and hear their bells, but with the sun silhouetting them, there wasn’t much to see or photograph.
While we didn’t find many goats, we did find a hidden gem carved into the seaside cliffs, St Anthony Chapel. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get closer to it, not for a lack of desire, but because we are not rock climbers. There’s no clear path. I’m still desperately wondering what’s inside. A Google Maps search did provide a close up photo from a much more adventurous traveler than I.
We made it home in time to watch the sunset from our Villa while enjoying a glass of local red wine. We still need to plan tomorrow. So I’m off to search Google Maps via satellite view to see what hidden places we can explore.
I skipped writing yesterday because my eyes were closing as I tried to type last night. Yesterday was also a travel day, which is a guarantee for exhaustion, even when traveling without a toddler. And of course, WordPress has opted to change its entire editing process mid-trip. Hurray! Forgive any misalignment – I hope you know me better.
We flew from Athens on a short flight to Chania airport in Crete. The service on the flight was impeccable. While only a 50 minute flight, we were on a large plane with plenty of leg room and served not only a beverage but also cookies and mints. Aegean and Olympic Airlines have a special check-in lines for families (no wait), and bump you to the head of airport security screening. What’s usually our most stressful part of travel was a breeze.
Porto Veneziano, Chania, Crete
Our first stop in Chania was to see the Porto Veneziano (Venetian Port) where there are 17 dry docks dating back to 1597 when the Venetians occupied this part of Crete. Three of the original docks have been renovated and converted into a museum and cafe. We stopped to enjoy a cappuchino to offset our early start to the morning. They even made a steamed milk just for our daughter, which of course she spilled all over the stone floor.
After our coffee, we went for a leisurely walk along the harbor with the goal of finding a nice spot for lunch. The water is crystal clear despite the harbour being filled with active fishing boats and other commercial enterprise. We saw a few men fishing and others feeding the pigeons. It’s a warm and slow way of life here. Just what we’ve been looking for given the chaos of our past year.
The Maritime Museum of Chania is located on the west side of the harbor, an easy walk from the free, public parking lot. At only €3/person, it’s worth paying the fee just to gain access to the elevated view of the port and lighthouse. If you have the time, there is an indoor portion to the museum with displays explaining the history of the Venetian occupation, shipbuilding process and artifacts discovered during recent renovations.
After the Maritime Museum, we walked through the alleys of old Chania, just to make sure we didn’t miss any better lunch options. It’s cliche, but we always like “going off-road” in other countries because you can get away from the Tourist traps and see more local life. I often find this is where the photographic gems hide, too.
We’d spent the morning exploring what we wanted to see, so we knew our daughter would need to run around and let out some energy. Fortunately, along the walk from the parking lot to Porto Veneziano, there’s a small but scenic playground perfect for kids age 2-10 years.
Driving Southwest to Villa Irene in Livadia, Crete
After the playground, we packed ourselves back into our rental car for the adventurous drive to our AirBbB in Livadia, Crete. Amir has researched the drive well in advance of our trip, so he knew to expect winding, at times, trecherous roads. It’s definitely an adventure for daylight, and also requires an SUV.
The road is narrow, requiring one car to yield to another when two approach at the same time. Similar to our drive in Cornwall, England, there are many hairpin turns and near-misses involving livestock – in this case goats and sheep.
While the drive was heart-stopping, it was also breathtaking, with small moments of beauty revealing themselves with each turn. It’s most comparable to driving the Pacific Coast Highway in California, but with small villages, livestock and weathered townspeople dotting the way.
Villa Irene in Livadia, Crete
Our AirBnB was difficult to find given there are no street names or house numbers. Restaurants and homes are known only by their name, which is feasible when the villages and population are small. Our AirBnB host, Maria, had given us an address for our GPS, but unfortunately that plan failed as we rented a TomTom with our car, and she had meant Google Maps via a smart phone. We solved the problem by calling her on the phone the old fashioned way and reading aloud the limited signage and landmarks we could identify. Despite our navigational issues, we arrived without our projected one hour window, before sunset, and with time to relax.
We found Villa Irene though a simple search on AirBnB. The listing had an icon identifying it as “usually booked” – it caught my attention. At just $164/night off-season, it’s a bargain. You can check out the details here. The only negative mentioned about the place is its remote location. But, after just one day here I can say that while it is remote, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to do. If you want extensive shopping and nightlife, this is not it. If you want nature, amazing views and authenticity, Villa Irene is your spot.
At the risk of sounding like a promo for the place, here are a few more photos from around the property.
When we went to Florence, Italy last summer, one of our favorite experiences was a market tour and cooking class through In Tavola . If you’ve never done one, they are an affordable way to get a taste of a wide variety of local meats, veggies, cheeses and other products. You have a local guide who knows the sellers and restauranteurs who will prepare you samples and small plates of their best dishes.
For $58/person, we booked a 3 hour tour with Marina through AirBnb. This was dollar for dollar, money well spent. No charge for kids under 2 despite the fact that she sampled everything.
We met Marina at 10am in a City Square just a few blocks from our hotel. Unlike our tour in Florence (10-12 people), this tour was private. I’m not sure if that’s the case because it’s off season or if it’s private year round, but it worked to our advantage as many of the places we visited were small with tables for only 3-4 people each.
Stop 1: Creme Royale
Our first stop was to learn about the process of making filo pastry dough by sampling different savory pies. At this shop, they offer pies featuring 3 different kinds of filo. We enjoyed cheese pie with a flaky filo and a spinach and leek pie with a thicker filo.
My urge was to eat every delicious scrap in front of me, but I know we had at least 5 more stops ahead of us. We took the leftovers with us in a small paper takeaway box.
Stop 2: Zarkadian Meat & Cheese Market
I should have taken notes here because we tried more new things than any other stop. The butcher was friendly and generous. We sampled a feta and a goat cheese along with cured olives, spiced meat and salted and seasoned camel. Yes, camel.
The butcher put together a generous cheese and charcuterie plate served with basil seasoned toasted bread pieces, white wine and water. Our daughter devoured the cheese.
The plate was so generous we were only able to finish a little over half of it. Our daughter started to grow restless, so I took my last swig of the simple dry white table wine, and we moved on to our next destination.
Stop 3: Mocca Coffee Shop
Through our Netflix travel show binge, we’d also identified “sand coffee” as a must try while in Athens. We were delighted to discover our next stop was to experience exactly that.
First, the coffee is ground to the finest setting and added to the small pot. Water is added, and the mixture stirred. Unlike filtered coffee, the grounds remain directly in the drink. The pot is placed in hot sand that is over 200 degrees Celsius until the water boils. It’s stirred just once to allow the sediment to settle to the bottom. Just before it boils over, it’s removed from the sand and placed on a tray, ready to serve.
In the traditional Greek fashion, we sat, slowed down and savored our coffee as we watched others in the cafe chat politics and catch up with old friends. Mocca is the place where locals meet to catch up and unwind.
Stop 4: Varvakios Market
Wherever you travel, if you decide to do a food tour, always pick the one with a market tour. You’ll always find the freshest and most exotic local ingredients, plus if you enjoy photography, there’s plenty of inspiration.
We didn’t sample anything at the meat market, mainly because everything was fresh and nothing cooked. In Florence we tasted raw sausage and were scolded by an Infectious Disease colleague the week after. At least we can avoid the epidemiological doghouse this time.
The central portion of market is meat and seafood, while fruit and veggie stands fill the outer ring.
As we walked through the market, I was again reminded just how much Greek people love little kids. So far since we’ve been here, our daughter has been offered (read handed) chocolate, lollipops, pastries and today in the market, a banana, oranges and a strawberry. All for free. The people, more-so elderly men, just love to see the face of a little one light up. The people are generous.
It pays to be cute
Stop 5: Της θεάτρου το στεκι
For our main meal, we walked just a few blocks to Της θεάτρου το στεκι (Tis theatrou to steki). Marina worked with the chef to select a few dishes to best represent what they had to offer. We dined on roasted eggplant, muscles, feta spread, butter beans and sardines.
Stop 6: Serbetia
We finished off the day with dessert at Serbetia, a small dessert shop specializing in both traditional Greek and more modern pastries, tarts and cookies.
Marina gave us a choice between traditional baklava and a cream filled baklava. We opted for the latter. It did not disappoint.
As we finished dessert, we knew our tour was coming to a close. Wrap up was easy – everything was paid in advance on AirBnB, so no awkward pauses waiting for extra tips or hassle of trying to make change.
After the food tour we headed back to our hotel for a siesta. We had hoped to catch the Archeology Museum this afternoon, but we learned the hard way that it closes at 3pm during the off season. Make sure you check your times if you plan to go.
Instead I searched Google for a rooftop bar with great views of the Acropolis. My favorite thing about the European lifestyle is slowing down, sitting on a patio, people watching and enjoying cocktails and good conversation. A for Athens had great reviews and was open. We set out to find it.
We are turning in early this evening as we have an early flight to Crete tomorrow morning.
We’ve slept like rocks for two nights in a row now. We’re staying at the Grecotel Palace Athena, a small boutique hotel with modern, funky design. Evie sleeps in the pack n play provided by the hotel. We have a large balcony with a view of the square where we played with the pigeons yesterday.
This morning we set out on a mission for breakfast. We binge-watched travel shows on Netflix and YouTube to plan our trip. One spot that surfaced on every show was Stani. Known for their fresh dairy and honey breakfast/desserts (fine line here), there are two staples to try. The Greek yogurt with honey and nuts and the simple cream with honey top. We didn’t even make it to the loukoumades or baklava.
After breakfast, we walked to the metro station and rode it three stops on the red line to Acropolis Museum. The metro was easy to navigate, even with a stroller.
The Acropolis Museum opened in June 2009 and had won numerous well-deserved awards. As you enter, you walk atop a glass floor that lies above the ruins of the old city . There are circles within circles, rooms, fountains, walls, staircases. All of the functional elements reveal themselves if you look closely enough.
As you enter the Museum and walk up the steep ramp to the exhibits, you get to peek at various frescos and statues – an amuse-bouche to the main course.
There are three main floors to the museum, with the first floor housing a visiting exhibit, the second floor endless sculptures, and the third floor an experience in an of itself.
It’s interesting to think about how we view these ancient civilizations through the carvings they left behind. Why did they choose to carve what they did? they chose the story they left behind. Many of the fresco carvings depict romanticized versions of battle war or opulent feasts.
I was left wondering what wasn’t depicted. What was the boring day to day of life in Athens in 480 BC? We see only these romanticized scenes and snippets. Is what these artists did that much different than what we criticize people for doing today with social media? Showing only a glorified and glamorized version of ourselves?
As you reach the top floor of the museum, you suddenly realize you are inside a modern rendition of the Parthenon. There are 17 columns spanning the longest side of the museum, and in between each are carved marble blocks which were once part of the upper ceiling of the inner portion of the Parthenon. The pieces were excavated years after the ammunition explosion that destroyed much of the structure. Also from the top floor, huge glass windows allow for parallel viewing of the real deal.
I do have to give a nod to the museum for having my all-time favorite family changing room on the first floor of the museum. Complete with changing table, toys, kids table and hand sanitizer, it was everything you need right in one room. It was also nice that all three of us could go in together since changing a diaper on a two year old often requires four hands.
We opted to walk back towards our hotel rather than taking the metro just so we could see some new sights and grab a small snack along the way.
Every hour on the hour, there’s a changing of the guard at the palace. We decided to catch the guards and then head to the National Garden before sunset. They have a large playground with swings and slides, and entrance is free.
On our walk back from the National Garden, we stopped for dinner at Diporto, another hidden gem we discovered during our Netflix binge. There’s no sign and no menu. A true hole-in-the-wall place, you just walk down into a basement with paper-covered tables, wine barrels and not a word of English. You sit down and are served within 3 minutes, which is easy to do when there’s no choice of what to eat.
The only choice we made was to have “vino” with dinner or not. Not red vs white, just “vino.” We stuffed ourselves full for a mere €18.
And as the life of the toddler parent goes, we were warned by our little, “I need poop.” Diaper changes have been the rate limiter to a lot of things these past two years. Diporto for all its charm, didn’t have a restroom nevertheless a changing table. We settled up and headed back to our hotel. Tomorrow we’ve booked a food tour – as if we haven’t been eating enough already!