Crete, Greece; A Writer’s Haven (Warning: FoodPorn!)

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Greece was never on my radar when I began this journey, but that’s the beauty of travelling without a set itinerary; you find yourself in places you never expected! After two glorious weeks in Italy, I knew I needed to find somewhere to hunker down for the next couple of weeks before meeting Rug in Turkey to begin our six week adventure together. I wanted somewhere close by, somewhere cheap, and somewhere preferably as warm as possible. That narrowed my options down significantly and so I began looking at flights to Greece. The cheapest I could find was to Crete Island, the southernmost island (known for it’s gastronomy!), which suited me just fine! The weather looked great, so I booked my flights and found a hostel with a near 100% rating, a rarity. I was looking for somewhere to settle down for two weeks so I could catch up on my blog as I was nearly two months behind. I had no plans to travel within Greece, or even Crete island; I simply wanted to hole up, throw my headphones in and glue my fingers to my keyboard for the next two weeks.

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This is always a challenge for me. I’m such a social person, it’s difficult to force myself to be anti-social. I had tried in Cuenca, Ecuador and failed miserably, as usual! But I was determined this time and so while I was polite and introduced myself to the my hostel mates, I kept to myself, always had my head phones in and typed away like a maniac on my laptop. I was here for one purpose: to write. Not to go hiking and beach hunting and meeting new people. As terrible as that sounds, after nine months of travelling at a brisk pace, I desperately needed to slow down and become a hermit for a while to not only write my blog, but to regroup, and reground myself. One hostel mate was highly social and constantly rounding up the troops for activities, and he politely invited me along. I in turn politely declined and after one night of drinking they came back and he made some rude remarks to me about always being on my computer, basically trying to shame me in front of everyone. It put me in a really sour mood and I only resolved to turn more inward because of the comment after defending myself: “I came here to catch up on my blog, and that’s what I’m doing. I’ve been travelling for nine months so I need a little break”.  He drunkenly brushed me off and went to play more drinking games.

To my delight, he left a couple of days later, and the vibe around the hostel changed entirely for me. I came out of my shell a little more, and after powering through blog post after post, I felt like I had accomplished a lot, and so allowed myself a little break. The group was heading out for a hike up the mountainside to a Monastery, so I tagged along. It was a beautiful day full of sunshine but the winds were howling fiercely at over 80km/hr. We hiked up the mountain through a couple of small villages and finally reached the Monastery. I don’t think it was really a Monastery; it was a small old Orthodox church perched at the top of the mountain, with the doors left unlocked, but everyone referred to it as the Monastery. With the winds screaming as hard as they were, we gladly took shelter inside and it did feel like a safe refuge. It was tiny, with room for only a few people. Our voices echoed eerily, reverberating off the white washed walls back at us. Paul, a musician within our group, began a haunting humming rendition of Lord of the Rings and we all burst out laughing, but were impressed at the same time – his voice sounded incredible in the tiny church. We took a snack outside looking down over Plakias, where our hostel was, bracing ourselves against the mighty winds before heading back down along another route. On the way down we found a tiny little staircase that led down to an isolated little bay and beach with a sign explicitly warning that there was to be no nudity! As we reached the bottom steps we were greeted with the sight of a heavy German man, butt naked, sun tanning. I think we disturbed his solitude, as a short while later he got up and got dressed. We lingered at our little beach for over an hour, enjoying the sunshine on our faces, climbing the rocks and some (dear brave Andrew) even braved taking a dip in the cool waters. We ended the night with dinner, a mixture of tapas to share, and then hired a cab back to Plakias as we were quite a ways away by now.

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The secluded little beach we found with the naked German

I had a great time and it was nice to get some exercise at last and socialize with a few lovely people after my hermetic life of the last week. I realized the next night how deprived I was of human contact and conversation when Andrew sparked up a chat with me and I talked his ear off for nearly two hours. It was like I had been holding in thousands of words each day and they just kept building up, until I finally burst and exploded all of them, all over Andrew. When we finished our chat, he headed outside and I felt this intense wave of relief wash over me. It had been so hard to be so anti social all week, I was desperately deprived of PEOPLE! But I was getting so much done on my blog. It was rewarding each day to fire out a post and get it online, and the progress kept me going. I was right on schedule and so allowed myself to loosen up just a little now that I had done so well. 

The following two nights our hostel host, Uli, was going to take us out to two local restaurants, his favourites on the island. We all hopped in his vehicle and drove through the narrow winding back roads of Crete for a half hour to reach Goules, a local restaurant located in the mountains between Rethymnon and Plakias. The place was finely decorated in a perfect blend of rustic and elegant Greek style. We were the only ones in the restaurant and our host, Kostas, greeted us warmly. “Kalispera” he said, as he took each of our hands. We sat down around our large table while our host poured us wine and waters and brought dried bread with olives. We let Uli take care of the ordering as he knew what was good, instead of browsing the menu and attempting to order dishes we were unfamiliar with. I put my faith in Uli’s decisions, and wasn’t let down. Not in the least. What ensued was one of the best meals I have ever had in my life. I’m not exaggerating, and that is truly saying something, being the foodie that I am! 

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The array of foods spread in front of us was mouth watering. A golden mash of fava beans, with a crisp green olive perched on top; a mixed green salad with avocado, tomato, feta, onion, apple and a honey balsamic dressing; goat cheese blanketed in phyllo with a thick plum jam; a pork roast with meat so tender it fell apart at the slightest nudge of your fork, bathed in a savoury sage sauce; roasted rooster with a hint of cinnamon; thick, creamy garlicky tzatziki; froutalia, a omelette-type dish of egg with minced pork and spices; deep fried patties of mixed vegetables and spices; and for dessert, a cookie crumble (similar to graham) with fresh, thick greek yogurt, topped with chunky cherry preserves. Every single bite was pure ecstasy. I’m not much of a meat eater, but I promised myself when I started this journey that I would be open to trying new foods, especially local delicacies or specialties, so I broke off a small piece of the pork and gave it a try. It was delectable! So much so that I had another piece. And another! The rooster was so unique and tasty with that hint of cinnamon (who knew!), but after the tenderness of the pork, it was hard to compare. 

There is good food and then there is great food, meals that you remember years after with a fond smile of remembrance, meals that years later still send an explosion to your taste buds. This was one of those meals, a meal I know I will talk about for years to come. The quality of the food used to prepare these dishes was without a doubt of the highest degree. This chef was enormously skilled at his art. The presentation was beautiful, the ingredients fresh, and the service impeccable. My friends wine glasses were never less than half full and once all of the food was out he checked in once or twice to ensure we were okay, but otherwise left us to our meal while he retreated to the back room. The evening consisted of a considerable amount of the usual Brittany-orgasmic-food-moans-of-pleasure, but this time I wasn’t alone! Andrew kept laughing at me from across the table, but then nodding his head, because he understood. None of us could contain our pleasure at the deliciousness of the food.

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We all left with bellies stuffed, and a feeling of deep satisfaction, and the memory of a meal that we knew would last years, a meal that would be hard to top! But Uli was determined to show us yet another prestigious taverna the next evening. We all piled into the vehicles again, after having a day to digest the heaven that was last night. This drive was even longer than last nights and we crossed a good section of the island before arriving in the small village of Kato Poros, about 2km from the larger village of Agriropoulos. Uli told us that this taverna was basically the complete opposite of the one we ate at the evening before. It was rustic and traditional but the food would blow us away. When asked which place he preferred he said you just can’t compare the two because they are both equally delicious, but both completely different in their style of food.

I liked his answer and was excited to see what tonight’s taverna would bring to the table (god, I love puns!).  Uli gave us the quick history of this place. All of the food we would be eating comes from the owners own farm which is on the same property as the taverna. All of the meat comes from his animals, all of the dairy from his sheep and goats, all of the fruits, vegetables and herbs from his garden, the eggs from his chickens etc. You just couldn’t get food any fresher, nor know any more intimately where your food was coming from unless it was your own backyard! I loved the idea of this, and had high hopes for our meal.

We walked up to the Taverna named Sarakas (see picture below for the name in Greek – print it off and get a taxi to take you here – trust me!), which means ‘saw’ in English. True to it’s name, there were two huge saws (about 2 meters in length mounted on the walls, which were covered in scribbles and doodles of visitors to the taverna on the white paint. The old wooden tables and chairs were scattered haphazardly about the room and four old, worn men sat at one of the tables with their bottles of lemonade, the chewed on straws sticking out, and short, now empty glasses of Raki (and not, it’s not the same as Ouzo, nor the Tuskish Raki!), the local alcohol. A small family sat to the back of the taverna and the owners son sat in a chair watching the television mounted in the corner that was playing some children’s show. The taverna was attached to the owners house and his wife and daughter were in the joined kitchen that functioned as their own and that of the tavern.

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After some table rearranging, our host got us seated and we let Uli take the reigns again. This place didn’t come with menus, you were merely told what was available and made your choice from there. We were lucky to have Uli with us who spoke some greek, because we were in a local hotspot, and English as not spoken here in the smaller villages! After how successful last night was, I again had full faith in Uli and was excited about what he was ordering us, even though I had no idea what was coming since he ordered in Greek. As usual, wine, olives, bread and water was brought to the table to keep us busy until the food arrived. In Greece you get your tapas food first and then your meat usually comes towards the end of your meal. Out came the fresh tzatiki, thick and creamy with green strands of dill and chunks of delicious garlic; a mountain of shredded greens soaked in lemon and olive oil; Saganaki (fried greek cheese) with a bowl of thyme honey to slather it in; a salad of huge chunks of tomato, cucumber, onion and fresh sheep’s feta cheese; traditional froutalia; and battered, fried fresh fungi mushrooms.

A short while later, while we were all still moaning over our starters, the meat dishes came out: lamb patties and lamb ribs soaked in a deletable concoction of greek spices; tender smokey pork that smoked for over 24 hours; and huge plates of fried chips (french fries). At first I let the plates of meat pass me by, knowing I wasn’t a fan of lamb (except the one time shortly before I left on my trip that dad made greek style lamb at home and I found myself enjoying it!) and didn’t care for the sound of smoked pork. But then I thought how horrified my father would be if I let this chance pass me up – to try the specialties of Greece in such a traditional taverna! I politely asked for the plate of lamb back and took one small rib, and selected a very small piece of the smoked pork. I was immediately brought back to my dad’s greek lamb roast as I sucked the meat off the bone, the favours were so familiar! My friend Laura from New Zealand told me that lamb shouldn’t taste gamey, that good lamb tastes mild and delicious, like the lamb my dad had made that one time.  I knew right away that this was top quality lamb because it didn’t have that strong wild flavour that always turned me off lamb so much. This was absolutely exploding with flavour! And the pork? My god…I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the slightly sweet, smokey, woody flavour that burst after my teeth sunk into the soft piece of pork. I immediately scooped up another little chunk with a piece of caramelized onion stuck to it. There wasn’t much talk at the table unless you consider moans and groans a form of communication – and when it comes to meal time, I definitely do!

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After our meal, the bowls of honey were still half full and I simply couldn’t let them go to waste, so I started dabbing my finger in the bowl. I’ve never tasted better honey than when I was in Greece, and I am the world’s biggest honey fan- trust me!  Then I drizzled it over some leftover bread. Then I just gave up and put the whole honey covered spoon in my mouth. Our host brought out a lemon and Uli peeled it with a knife, and divided it up into slices for each of us and instructed us to dip it in the honey (good thing I didn’t eat all of it yet!).  I couldn’t believe how delicious it was! The heavy sweetness of the honey cut the bitter sourness of the lemon perfectly – the combination was divine. We all gasped as the flavours burst in our mouths – how could something so simple be so delectable?! How had I never heard of this before?! I discovered a new dessert that night, and an incredibly healthy one at that! Next our host brought a platter of sliced apples which we again dipped in the ever diminishing honey bowls. I felt stupefied after the meal. I was so satisfied, so content.  I was floating on the high of the dopamine exploding in my head from taking so much pleasure in such delicious food.

There was no way to compare the two meals and say which was better- the quality of each was superb, but each was so completely different. I was happy to have finally tasted some authentic Greek food as I was trying my best to save money and would make a delicious breakfast each morning of greek yogurt, chopped apple and granola, and for dinner have a massive home made greek salad. While saving me loads of money, it would have been a sin to come to Greece and not eat out at least once or twice to try some of the local food. I was definitely treated to the best Crete has to offer with these two gems; I have no doubt in my mind and I will fondly remember my time in Greece as defined by those two meals. If you go to Crete I cannot urge you enough to seek out these restaurants, and Plakias Youth hostel. You will have a hard time leaving the island after these experiences, and you’ll likely find yourself coming back year after year! 

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Halloween was looming around the corner and I was saddened by the fact that this year I wouldn’t be participating in my favourite of all of the Canadian holidays. There were only about five guests left at the hostel, and I mentioned halloween in passing, about it being my favourite holiday and so everyone jumped in suggesting we celebrate! The hostel was in fact supposed to close on October 31st, but Uli is an absolute dear and said we could keep the hostel open one extra day and all celebrate halloween together! We picked squash and pumpkins from the hostel garden, I picked up some candy from the store and put it in a bowl, and I volunteered to paint faces. We would have a communal dinner of squash/pumpkin soup and then hit the town with our painted faces to visit the local bars. I snuck away to my room and consulted my make up bag. I didn’t have much, but with red lip lipstick, black eye liner and eyeshadow, I thought I could make due. I spent the next 45 minutes watching some videos and covering my face in a mess of make up and teasing my hair. I stuck a few branches and leaves in it and concluded I looked well enough like a zombie! I went out to show the others and while Chris carved his pumpkin I painted Andrews face.

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Ten or so of us, some of Uli’s friends from town, all sat down, some with painted faces, to a delicious home cooked meal of squash soup and vegetable soup with heaps of bread. We had halva for dessert, and I fell in love with the new dessert immediately, the soft tahini and sugary pieces melting away as soon as they hit your tongue. I ate bowl after bowl of Kristina’s delicious soup, and revelled that we were eating a dinner made from the squash we picked earlier that day. After dinner I quickly carved a classic pumpkin and set to painting Uli’s face in my first attempt at the Joker. Not having any white, we improvised by dampening his face with hand lotion and then threw flour on his face! Sometimes I am amazed at the ingenuity you can come up with even when you have so few resources! It turned our great and 5 of us grabbed our lit up pumpkins and hit the town to do a little tour. The locals loved it and were taking pictures everywhere we went. We had a blast scaring people and stopping for drinks in each bar. Chris, Andrew and I stayed out a little later and chatted deeply about personalities and our own image of ourselves and each other and the beauty of meeting strangers and finding friends.

Greece was a getaway for me, a place to escape from my hectic travels, hunker down, and write for two weeks. I didn’t get to practice much yoga; I only had one afternoon at the beach, and the weather wasn’t so great – but in the end, my two weeks in Greece were perfect.  I had two of the best meals I’ve been blessed to taste in all my travels, I met some really cool friends at the most incredible hostel, and most importantly, I hammered out near 40,000 words – 10 posts – on my blog . I accomplished what I set out to do and I got to enjoy sitting in one place for two weeks without travelling around at all. It was a much needed break from the constant upheaval my life has been these last 9 months and I left feeling rejuvenated and accomplished. I was about to embark on a 6 week grand adventure with my friend Rug from home through Turkey, Jordan and Namibia and I needed some time to recharge. While my time in Greece isn’t what most people would have done with their time, it was exactly what I needed. 

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