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Dinner by the Edge of Paradise, Chania, Crete.
Thyme Honey, Simple Pleasures, and Having a Raki with Zorba
Thyme Honey, Simple Pleasures, and Having a Raki with Zorba
There is a scene in Casablanca when a newly married man “wins” enough money at roulette to purchase an exit visa so that his wife doesn’t have to sleep with Captain Renault. Excitedly the husband shows him the money and says, “we’ll be there at six,” and he responds, “I’ll be there at ten.”
When planning the trip to Crete we found it more economical to turn in our rental car before taking the ferry and renting again on Crete. After researching alternatives and based on feedback from other travelers we settled on a local company that would drive the car from Haraklion to Chania and meet us at the ferry. Finalizing plans though email, I contacted Demetri, the owner of the rental agency. Our ferry arrives at 5:30 AM, I wrote. I’ll be there at 7:00 AM, he responded. This slightly dismayed me as we didn’t want to waste any of our time on Crete and didn’t know what to do with ourselves for ninety minutes while we waited for the car. Maybe the ferry is often late I told my wife, but after reading reviews of the ferry we found that, although that does happen, it is not frequent.
We had a sleeping birth on the ferry across from Athens and it wasn’t until we checked in that I found the wisdom of Demetri’s words. Yes, the ferry arrived at 5:30 AM, but we were free to remain onboard until 7:00 AM. Demetri didn’t want to correct a possible client or assume by which status we traveled, but very subtly, in a way I discovered was very Greek, he had corrected me to the proper course of picking up our car at seven.
Crete is a hardscrabble land. Life here is tough. Always has been. Life in a land that is hard to live in tends to value life itself. Survival is a major accomplishment, and as we used to say, game sees game. In the beginning, Greece was a country built, not on borders, but a concept. If you spoke the language and you shared the faith, you were Greek. Crete is much the same — if you can survive on the island, you are Cretan. Much like the local greens — spiky, thorny, and hardy, but delicious when treated correctly, the people here are tough but welcoming and warm.
Car acquired, we headed to the harbor in the old city to grab some breakfast and explore. We found a parking spot on the backside of the old fort and walked around to the promenade. Pastel-colored buildings greeted us and curved around the harbor to the old mosque on the other side. Restaurants were just starting to bustle as waiters rolled out awnings and set the chairs for the tourists that would undoubtedly come. Again, the sky was one of my favorite shades of blue. If I close my eyes and think of Greece, the blue sky is what I see first. Walking the harbor, one is seduced to pop in and out of the shops as you pass. And, of course, I had to pop into the Cretan bookstore to find a couple of books that I couldn’t resist. The coolness of the morning was beginning to fade. Sorely deprived of caffeine and wishing to sit and just watch the harbor come to life, we took a table at a restaurant near the old mosque and ordered breakfast.
Breakfast on the Harbor
Chania is my first introduction to Barley Rusk. Covered with a soft sheep’s milk cheese and tomatoes it is an incredible mix of tastes and texture. Some coffee, and smoked pork and some toast with the amazing honey of Crete and I am in a very happy place. The morning, the harbor, the caffeine — this day is already good and only promises to get better. The Cretans have one of the healthiest diets in the world. After World War II, when nutritionists studied the diet, they expected that they would find malnutrition. What they discovered, and what we know now today, is that the diet provided amazing health benefits such as low blood pressure, great heart health, and good overall general health. Local honey, olives, a lot of local greens and herbs, with high fiber rusk, yogurt, olive oil, and tomatoes. Add in some protein from the sea, and you have a recipe for a long life. Given its location in the Mediterranean, Crete was rarely invaded and so the gastronomy and diet have changed little from when the Minoans ruled the island.
“I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis
Dinner at the Edge of Paradise
If you leave the main town of Chania east along the water about twenty minutes, or drive the main road east a bit, turn left, and left again, you will find a small alley in the Halepa area with barely enough space to park. Follow the unmarked drive on the side of a building and at the end you will be rewarded by finding yourself at one of the best seafood restaurants at one of the best views for sunset. It’s not a fancy place. And your view is of old tanning buildings. But the seafood is the freshest, most perfectly cooked, and unpretentious, that you will find on Crete.
Thalassino Ageri is owned by brothers, one the owner of the taverna, the other the fisherman and owner of a beer brewery. Other than staples that they know are plentiful, like squid, sea urchin, shrimp, and small fish, the menu is the days catch. You go inside and select the fish and your bill is charged by the class of the fish and weight. You buy the fish, you don’t buy the portion. The seafood is expertly cooked, usually in a simple sauce of local olive oil, tomatoes, onions, and herbs. The wine is good and as always, the raki, delicious. There is an interior dining room but outside is where you want to be. The tables are placed to the water’s edge and offer an unobstructed view of the Cretan sunset.
Captain Nick and His Glassbottom Boat
I am not one to follow groups. Unless absolutely necessary I would rather go at my own pace and follow my own whims. But occasionally you must do what the tourists do and sign on for a group experience. Usually, for me, this involves gaining access to somewhere I would not otherwise be able to visit. On this trip the group experience was a trip to Agioi Theodoroi on Captain Nick’s glass-bottom boat, to view the Kri-Kri — the wild ibex of Crete — which were moved from the mountains to the island to protect them from hunters, the wreckage of a WWII German Stuka, and do a bit of snorkeling from a private beach on the island. Captain Nick is the kind of character you want to meet when you travel — gracious, knowledgeable, entertaining, and funny, with a deep knowledge of the local lore. We set sail from the port of Chania and chugged out of the harbor under blue skies and on top of the bluest of waters and headed for the island. The Kri-Kri blend perfectly with the landscape and you find that the game the Captain likes to play is partially rigged, because the Captain, unlike his guests, knows exactly what he is looking for against the rocks and skyline.
After circumventing the island, we paused briefly over the wreckage of the Stuka. The battle of Crete is probably one of the most important battles of World War Two and here below us in the water is a fairly well-preserved wreckage. For twelve days in May of 1941, the Germans attacked the British, Australian, New Zealand, and Greek units by air assault alone. The inhabitants of the island took up arms and waged a gorilla style war in defense of their homeland. In the end, the Germans succeeded in taking the island but incurred so many casualties to their elite paratroopers that the strategy was to never be used again. The battle of Crete was a test run for how Hitler wanted to invade Britain and it was their last attempt to insert troops by air alone.
Snorkeling the waters surrounding the island is a magical trip to an octopus’s garden in the sea, and again, Captain Nick has an eye for finding what he is looking for. When he finds one he proceeds to give the younger members of the crew a basic lesson in the life of an Octopus and, if the creature is small enough, allows anyone who desires the opportunity to briefly hold the Octopus and let it explore your hand, before letting them return to their garden of rocks and plants.
Lunch with Zorba
On the last day on the island, we decide to spend the day swimming on the beach made famous by the movie, Zorba the Greek. Stavros Beach. The waters on the ocean side were rough and dangerous, but the public beach in the lagoon, in the shadow of the famous mountain, was a Mediterranean joy. Floating peacefully on your back while watching the cottonball clouds drift by above is hard work. The type of work that can quickly build an appetite as lunchtime approaches. One of the things that I love about going to the beach in the Mediterranean, is that food does not get compromised by the fact that you are wet and wearing a swimsuit and wrap. No hotdogs and thin hamburgers served by teens here. And this beach was no different. Just across the access road, in between the lagoon and the sea, is the taverna Almyriki. You will know this place by the windmill on the property and shaded outdoor tables. How can one complain when one is looking out across the water while enjoying an expertly prepared lunch of a Cretan Salad, Grilled Kabab, and Fried Calamari, with a bit of the complimentary Raki and tahini cakes. Properly fed and ready for the remainder of our difficult day, we trudged back to the lagoon and quickly resumed the work of the monitoring of puffy clouds.
The next day, as we drove to Heraklion for our ferry to more adventures, we stopped at Suba Bay and the WWII cemetery. Here, after the battle, the woman of Crete buried the Germans, Allies, and their own sons in the same cemetery. When asked why, they proclaimed, these are all sons who have mothers, they all deserve peace.
Next stop, Santorini.
Resources if you’re traveling to Crete
Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes from the World’s Healthiest Cuisine by Martha Rose Shulman is one of my favorite cookbooks for the Mediterranean diet.
Originally published at http://www.feedthemuse.press on July 24, 2020.