Escaping Lockdown in Crete

Hello from day six of a two-week quarantine in our Algiers home. While sitting around our house and not being able to leave isn’t ideal, it was TOTALLY WORTH IT as a condition the nearly three-week Greek islands trip Adam and I just took.

I know I said there were no flights out of Algiers, but a few repatriation flights opened up, most flying through Paris or Frankfurt, and it looked like we could get on one, but not to continue on to the Covid-19 hotbed that is the United States (which had been our planned summertime vacation destination). The trick was we had to find a country that would allow us: Algerian residents (sort of) who are American, but haven’t been to America since long before the novel coronavirus came. The Internets told us Greece might fit the bill. Sure, Americans are banned from vacationing there right now (as is the case with most every country in the world), but Algerians are not. We brought with us our Algerian ID cards, a note from the Greek Embassy in Algiers saying it was okay by them if we traveled to Greece, and a note from our embassy here in Algiers (ie. our place of work) saying we hadn’t left the country of Algeria since February. We booked our plane tickets the day before we left! It was sort of a crap shoot if it was going to work out, but it was a gamble we were willing to take as we felt so very cooped up and were ready for a getaway, especially Adam, who hadn’t had a vacation in a long time.

So, I had very little time to plan a trip and somehow let Adam convince me that we’d island hop, planning our next moves only days before we took them. (Not my usual style of travel). It worked out! Particularly because tourism is way down on the Greek islands – one cabbie told us it’s down by 75% – what with no American, Asian, and limited British tourists. So we always found lodging, a space on a ferry to the next island, and a table at a great restaurant.

I’ll blog about all the islands we visited – Crete, Santorini, Naxos, and Sifnos – because they were all so different and all wonderful. Reader, maybe you don’t want to hear about a Greek island vacation right now at this particular time. But perhaps someday you will and these blog posts will be here waiting for you, ready to transport (or help you plan your trip) to land of whitewashed houses, blue-domed churches, salty feta cheese, ice cold beer, clear water that is both navy blue and turquoise in the same bay, and soft pastel sunsets.

We flew from Algiers to Paris to Athens on a Tuesday. We arrived in Athens very late on that first day, were given a Covid test upon arrival to the Athens airport (not the nose-swab test, just one that swabbed the inside of our cheeks) and then we checked into a hotel at the airport. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling feverish. Oh, nooooo. By the next morning, I was real bad. We didn’t have to catch our flight until late afternoon so I laid our airport hotel room around feeling like garbage and considering what to do. If I had contracted the coronavirus during our day of travel, I couldn’t possibly already be experiencing Covid symptoms, right? Also, the Greeks gave me a test and would email within 24 hours if it was positive. It was doubtful I’d caught the virus in Algeria as we’d been mostly at home for many months. The thought of not getting on our flight to Crete and potentially staying in the airport hotel for who knows along was seriously unappealing, more so even because the gym, the lobby bar, and the restaurant in the hotel were closed. I took lots of Advil and we made it on the flight to Crete; I even passed the temperature check at the gate, for which I credit the copious ibuprofen I ingested and also my weirdly low normal body temperature.

Approaching Crete from the sky

Once on Crete, which is the largest of the Greek islands, we got in a cab and couldn’t believe what we were seeing out the window: People in skimpy shorts and no masks living and loving life. Outdoor cafes, outdoor bars, bikers, joggers. It felt like vacation. Greece, and especially the islands, were not hard hit by the virus. We checked into our charming boutique hotel in a Renaissance-era townhouse that was built during the long rule of the Venetians. Despite still feeling sickly, I forced myself out for dinner with Adam, and it was just as good as you’d imagine your first dinner out in four months to be. We had mussels and fries and risotto and a pretty good white wine from Santorini whilst sitting outside on the bay at Salis restaurant.

View from our hotel room shortly after we arrived to Chania, Crete.

We spent the next two days exploring the town of Chania, which is a kind of small but somewhat bustling old Venetian port town. (Venetians controlled Crete for many years, until the Turks took over in the 1600s). We took in the naval museum in town that showed how Germans occupied the island during WWII and then went on a boat cruise and snorkeled over the fuzzy remains of a downed German plane. We swam to a deserted beach and then drank raki (ugh) and had some ice cold watermelon. Adam got a scrub and massage at a Turkish hammam.

We visited an archaeological museum and then had craft beers and giant crisp, creative salads (something I always miss!) at Bohem.

Other delicious things I ate were at vegetable fritters with fried cheese with fig jam at Tamam and cheese-stuffed fried squash blossoms and vegetarian mousaka at The Well of the Turk. (Future blog post on Greek food. I knew I loved it but I didn’t know how much I loved it until this trip.)

Also, Chania has a ton of cute shops, so we (ha, really just I) had a swell time poking in boutiques. I bought sunglasses, a sun hat that was basically an MVP of the trip because the islands are VERY sunny, and a fringed boho purse as my vegan leather bag I’d ordered off a Facebook ad — which means it looked nothing like advertised and was a cheap made-in-China thing — broke into pieces the moment we approached our hotel in Chania.

One day after lunch, we came upon a little synagogue located in an alley and went in to to check it out. The man working there was a historian who told us the terribly tragic story that all the Jews in Crete were rounded up by Nazis (who occupied Greece) in 1944, and sent on away on a ship bound for Auschwitz. As the ship approached Athens, British submarine troops mistook it for a German war vessel and fired four torpedoes at it, killing everyone on board, including 300 Jews, which effectively wiped out the entire population of Cretan Jews, who had lived on the island in relative peace for some 2,000 years.

In my one day of pre-planning for this trip, I became interested in Crete as a destination because I had several friends who had hiked the Samaria Gorge, which is the largest gorge in Europe. I don’t really know what kind of distinction that is, but it was a enough to convince me to go as I love me a good long hike. Finally on a Saturday, it was time for the 16 km hike. I’d been on-and-off having some stomach pains and issues but nothing serious. (I mean I went out on a rickety boat for four hours, had gone on a morning jog with Adam, was eating lots of fritters and tzatsiki, and enjoying the excellent daily breakfast at our hotel, so how bad was I really?)

A very early morning coach bus took us to the trailhead of the the Samaria Gorge. The 16 km hike takes about six hours, and it’s all down, down, down into the gorge, then through the gorge, then ending at a little town right at the edge of the Aegean Sea. Crete knows how to make a nice hike: There were outhouses and fresh water every few kilometers, handrails on the very steep parts, well marked trashcans and so nary a scrap of garbage in sight, and a perfectly marked and clear trail. I enjoyed myself for a few hours or so but then started feeling really bad and sleepy. I didn’t get much sleep the night before and we had to be up at 5am to get on the 6am bus to take us to the hike, but still, it’s kind of weird for me to be yawning and closing my eyes while doing hard physical activity. About three hours into the hike, smack in between two of the well-marked and private outhouses, disaster struck. My body turned iced cold with fear, my stomach clenched and I knew I needed to find a spot to use the bathroom immediately. Which was horrifyingly difficult as the trail wasn’t very wide and it was somewhat crowded with other people. The primal part of me decided the only way out was up, and I basically scaled a wall to get up above the trail and onto a dried pine needle-covered mound of trees. It was steep. I held on to a tree for dear life. Adam was down below distracting anyone from looking up above them by calmly munching on a sandwich (?!). The rest of the hike was very much worse for what had happened. I became rather comatose just in time for the last two hours trudge in direct sunlight through the gorge. Finally we saw a few snacks stands at the end of the trail. I tried to drink a fresh orange juice. Sounds faded away, my vision narrowed into a little pin and I was about to go down. Every time I sat up, I’d almost pass out again. Someone fetched me a few salt packets and I drank some salt water, which helped a great deal. (This also made me realize that I spent the end part of essentially every hot weather hike or jog thinking about what I’d do for a cold and crunchy dill pickle, a handful of capers, watermelon chunks sprinkled with salt, so I probably should be carrying salt with me on hikes always). At this point, hikers can choose to walk a few kilometers into town, or to pay two euros for a van ride. I so like to make things hard on myself that for a moment I was like “We’ve come this far, let us walk!” but then I was like “Wtf, I’m dying, let’s get in that van.” Once in town and at a taverna on the black sand beach, I attempted to eat a beautiful Greek salad (yes, Greek salads do exist in Greek and they are glorious, each with an entire slab of creamy feta!). I downed lots of water. Adam, who is never sick and not phased by anything, declared he still had a great time on the hike, ate a feast and drank lots of beer. It was hours until the ferry that would take us off this beach would depart. I submerged myself in clear cool water, plopped down on a shaded chaise lounge, and conked out for a full two hours. Ferry back to other town, hour-long bus ride back to hotel, to bed for moi.

During the Crete portion, we planned our our next stop — three nights in Santorini — but the ferry to Santorini leaves in the morning from a different town in Crete, Heraklion, which is a few hours from Chania. So we took a bus to Heraklion the day before so we didn’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn to get the ferry to Santorini. Heraklion didn’t strike me as anything great, but we were also there on a Sunday when everything was shut. We did talk ourselves into the booked-full foodiest restaurant in town, which prides itself on using ingredients and cooking styles from hundreds of years ago. Adam and I decided that some things have unequivocally improved with time, and one of those things is the culinary arts.

So despite being sick on this leg of the trip, I was still ecstatic to be out somewhere new and beautiful, around people (although we talked to pretty much no one in Crete – an odd byproduct of these times?), and eating delicious food.

Next morning we were off to Santorini, and I’ll blog about that glorious, delicious, and swanky three days real soon.

To Crete,

Emily

4 Comments

  1. I’d lobbied for a first-ever trip to the Greek Isles this past spring; she had a hankering for Scotland-Ireland. She won, but we got Covid instead (the shutdown, not the disease, at least so far…). Not sure if that means my Greece comes up next year or we try a Scotland-Ireland redo (assuming/hoping there will be a vaccine, and/or effective treatments and a State of Normal by then). Whenever the Greece roulette ball does come up, though, I’ll be coming back here for consultation. The salads alone seem enough to risk one’s long-term well-being!

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