I’m sitting in a hopping cafe on the waterfront in Chania, Crete eating a giant breakfast and sipping freddo espressos, my newest obsession. All of a sudden, as I’m admiring the Venetian lighthouse, a group of paddleboarders wearing Santa hats approach the harbor and clamber onto the wharf. They start blowing whistles and shouting “Santa!” at the passersby.
I have no idea what’s going on and I love it.
That’s Crete in a nutshell for me: loud, kind of confusing, and an incredible amount of fun all the time.
Mountains and valleys and beaches
The terrain here is ever-changing: you’re driving along a coastal road overlooking a smooth, sandy beach and suddenly you’re headed up a scrub-covered mountain. Then you turn another bend into a valley so green you wonder briefly if you’ve stumbled into Ireland along the way.
Alive with traditions
As you poke your head into a taverna high in the mountains and smell the night’s menu bubbling away in the kitchen, you feel like you’ve stepped into a time warp in the best way.
Here, farming is still the way of life for many. The best tavernas still grow the greens they cook, raise the pork they smoke, milk the goats they make feta from, and make their own wine and raki (a Cretan kind of brandy that is a staple here).
The tradition of hospitality is alive and well here too: Cretans are famed for it. The proprietor will often pull up a chair and toast you with some raki, and they’ll usually bring you about twice as much food as you ordered. One night, the very elderly mother of the owner came over to our table, kissed me on the cheek, pinched my other cheek, and gave me a rose from her own garden. What a welcome!
(Actually my cheeks get pinched a lot here, I’m not quite sure what’s up with that but it’s always adorable.)
If you’re very lucky, you might even see an elderly man in traditional Cretan dress atop a donkey, heading to the post office.
Freedom and food
Crete is great for solo travel, because it’s very safe, easy to travel around (I’ve been taking buses), and so friendly. You can hike every day, you can never hike (hi that’s me), you can swim or lounge or see historic sights.
The only occasional hitch? Food!
Not that it’s not great. Seriously, it’s some of my favorite food so far. Fresh, healthy, and delicious. And the waiters are really nice too.
But woah: they do not believe in small portions here. And they get so sad if you don’t eat everything! I have had so many lovely waiters turn to me sadly and say “was everything all right?!” with concern in their eyes like I’m a starving waif. Yes, I just ate several pounds of food including at least a pound of cheese, I physically can’t eat more!
The culture here is to share all your plates, which is great but when you’re eating alone, it’s just you vs. a plate of boureki (Cretan zucchini and potato pie) which is the size of your head.
Survival strategy? I am on that intermittent fasting life where I just eat two meals a day. Greeks are not breakfast eaters (mostly they have very strong coffee and a bunch of cigarettes), so it’s working well. And lots of long post-prandial strolls help too.
Slow down, stay a while
Crete is a big island. You could spend months here exploring and see the whole island, or you could just settle into the easy pace of life here. Meals take at least two hours, no one is in a rush (except when they’re driving), and even the street cats are always taking naps during siesta.
It’s lovely. It’s how life should be sometimes.