Musings on Crete

Trip To Crete

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Musings on Crete

Crete

One of the first things that strikes you about Crete is how dry it is. It’s more like Southern California than a lush Mediterranean isle you might have expected based on pictures of other Greek Islands.

Greenery is sparse and scrubby, with few big trees. The coasts are mostly rocky; sandy beaches are few, and didn’t seem to attract many swimmers, at least when I was there. An olive farmer told me they hadn’t had a drop of rain in nine months. The olive trees (the major farming endeavor there, it seems) seem to be doing OK for now, but the farmers are concerned.

The north coast of Crete

The north coast of Crete

Crete has suffered several bouts of drought in recent decades; some parts are undergoing desertification, seemingly related to climate change.

Driving in Crete

The experience of highway driving in Crete is, by US standards, completely insane. The main highway which loops around the island is just two lanes for most of its length, but with a generous shoulder. The first time I drove on this highway, I puzzled that so many cars seemed to be driving partially on the shoulder, instead of centered in the lane. It soon became obvious why — you could never tell when you’d come around a corner and find an oncoming car half in your lane. People seem to pass there without any regards to risk; they are just as likely to pass on a narrow, blind curve as on a long, wide straightaway.

A quick search on Google reveals Greece to have the worst accident rate in Europe; I’m not surprised. On multiple occasions I witnessed three cars traveling abreast of each other in a single direction, overlapping the oncoming lane almost completely. It seemed that a slow car was overtaking a slower car, and a faster car overtaking the slow car, all at the same time. Needless to say, this is a recipe for disaster, but luckily I escaped unscathed during my trip, even though you really need to do a bit of driving if you want to see anything other than the cities or your resort.

A Cretan Mystery

All along the coast where I drove, I saw evidence of a past building boom. There were many buildings that had been abandoned after an initial concrete skeleton had been made, and it didn’t look like there had been any action at those sites for many years.

Even stranger, there were many finished and occupied buildings that had rebar sticking out the top of them. This gave them a rather provisional feeling, even though I think they are quite permanent. Google again provided the solution to this mystery: apparently it’s a tax dodge. According to tax laws on Crete, property taxes don’t have to be paid until a building is finished. Having rebar sticking out of your roof qualifies your building as unfinished, so voila! — no property tax.

Rethymno

I spent most of my time in Crete in Rethymno, also confusingly known as Rethymnon and Rethymnos, among other spellings. It’s a charming smallish city with an attractive Venetian harbor and old town. It’s much more appealing than the other two Cretan cities I briefly visited, Heraklion and Chania.

Rethymno's Venetian Harbor at Sunset

Rethymno’s Venetian Harbor at Sunset

Rethymno's Venetian Harbor at Night

Rethymno’s Venetian Harbor at Night

Adjacent to the Venetian Harbor is a long beachfront promenade home to a string of bars restaurants that stayed busy until the wee hours of night.

Beachfront Promenade in Rethymno

Beachfront Promenade in Rethymno

As is usual in my experience with touristy cities, the establishments right on the waterfront, while pretty, were overpriced and served mediocre food; much better food could be found just inland among the narrow, winding streets of the old town.

Old town alley in Rethymno

Old town alley in Rethymno

Rethymno’s old town isn’t just for show; although the blocks closest to the water housed an assortment of touristy shops and restaurants, farther in the alleyways were purely residential. Things like trash pickup and mail delivery seem to be handled by bike or scooter, but mostly you’ll find only pedestrians.

Old town alleyway in Rethymno

Old town alleyway in Rethymno

Given the warm climate (it was in the 80s and 90s every day we were there in mid-September), there are tropical and subtropical plants everywhere, including Bougainvillea, one of favorites.

Beautiful doorway in Rethymno

Beautiful doorway in Rethymno

For history buffs, the city is home to a 16th century Venetian fort, and an equally old lighthouse guards the harbor. The Venetians also constructed a beautiful fountain in 1626, which still operates today inside the old town.

Rethymno Lighthouse

Rethymno Lighthouse

Ruins inside Rethymno's Fortezza

Ruins inside Rethymno’s Fortezza

Rethymno's Venetian Fountain

Rethymno’s Venetian Fountain

Everywhere we went, we were surprised by the generosity of the people. Time and time again we were offered free drinks or desserts at restaurants, given surprise discounts we hadn’t asked for at shops, and even given free bottled water when we couldn’t produce the correct change to purchase it.

Athens has a reputation as a place where you have to be careful not to be ripped off or pick-pocketed, but there didn’t seem to be anything like that here in Rethymno.

There was literally no language barrier, either. Everyone at the shops, restaurants, hotels, airports and attractions spoke English. This was a little surprising to me, especially given that Germans seemed to make up the majority of tourists. But it made getting around a breeze.

The Kitties of Crete

Cats seemed to be ubiquitous in Crete. They were roaming freely all about restaurants and in the streets. At least some didn’t really seem to have owners, but were somewhat tame from interacting with tourists. I’m not sure if they were kept around deliberately to deal with rodent problems, or what. But they provided more than a few moments of amusement.

Rethymno Kitty

Rethymno Kitty

Rethymno Kitty

Rethymno Kitty at a restaurant

Conclusion

Rethymno was incredibly beautiful, welcoming and relaxing…just what I had been hoping for.  The larger towns of Chania and Heraklion seemed like real cities, and less interesting for tourists…congested, noisy and not particularly pretty. The interior of Crete seems rustic with a lot of character (one of the towns in the interior only received electricity in the 1970s!), but I wasn’t able to explore it as much as I would have liked.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Rethymno as a vacation destination, and hope to get there again someday.

3 thoughts on “Musings on Crete

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