Two weeks in Crete on a last-minute deal: from Chania and Rethymon to Iraklio, Chersonisos and Siteia, we packed it all in those 14 days!
Day 10 : 22 July 2003 : Rethymno and Chania
Despite the fun and games of last night, I still had to get up this morning for a prearranged meeting - I was to collect a hire car at 9am, a little one-month-old Fiat Seicento with just over 10,000 km on the clock. I had a feeling that we would be running up its premature mileage gain even more over the next few days, but once I'd signed the paperwork, there was only one thing for me to do - go back to sleep on some Nurofen and try to get rid of this drum-playing Tasmanian Devil that was in my head.
At around 11am I was about as fit and ready as I could be, and so we decided to head east towards Rethymno. This worked out to be a good couple of hours away through some stunning scenery. For much of the way along the national highway we were tracing the coastline with spectacular views over the sea and, to our left, the frequent hills/mountains that we would occasionally cut inland to drive in between.
Rethymno is one of Crete's major towns (described in one of our guide books as 'the island's second most attractive') but strangely enough we didn't know when we'd actually arrived. It was thanks to the island's usual inconsistent signage again, so we saw the sign that read 'Town Centre', thought to ourselves 'What town? Is this Rethymno?', and I ended up following my (not inconsiderable sized) nose and taking us down past the beach and to a parking area in the port. From there we could see the Venetian fortress in the distance and ascertained that we had arrived. To a very unpleasant smell, actually.
Nevertheless, we walked back to the beach for a while and sat ourselves down at a couple of sun loungers. Correction, Manda sat at the sun lounger while I immediately took my mask , snorkel and fins and headed out to the water. The waves were crashing on to the shore - something I hadn't seen so far this holiday - so I didn't think that I was going to get much in the way of decent visibility; no chasing fish today. Instead I found myself avoiding the waves or diving under the surface just as the waves were about to break and then looking back up to the light to see the froth and broil. You really couldn't call it snorkelling though.
When I came back in from my swim, I looked over to the right and saw one of the scariest sights ever - an overweight German lady whose notion of 'bikini line' was presumably that it should not exceed the line of the lederhosen. The problem was that she was wearing a bikini and 'it' was escaping to the extent that it was almost blowing in the wind. It was time to move on, but - just our luck - as we were preparing to get our things together and head off, the lady collecting money for the sun loungers appeared. It seemed daft to give her the money (€6) and then go straight away, so we made use of the loungers for a little longer.
We then went back to our transport for the day - ah what joy, freedom at last, and it also meant that we didn't have to carry everything around with us all the time - and headed off to see if there might be a better place to park. However, after driving through a few mini roundabouts and past the fortress we realised that we were heading out of Rethymno. So we just kept on going, all the way to Chania.
I'd heard good things about Chania (pronounced 'Harnia'). I wasn't sure whether we'd actually get there, as it seemed like a long drive - quite far west of the island but not by any means at the extremes. Our drive to Samaria Gorge on Sunday had taken almost 5 hours with pick-ups and comfort stops along the way, and it was not much further west of the town we were heading for now. Just over an hour later and we had arrived in Chania. Or at least we thought we had - it was the same situation as Rethymno, in that we'd got to a town but couldn't tell which one; looking at the signs above shops for things like 'Chania Handicrafts' or whatever revealed nothing. Once more, I followed the nose which took us to a car park that turned out to be just about the best place in town to stop - just around the corner from the Venetian Harbour and no parking fees to boot.
The harbour is where most of the photos used in guide books are taken - there we could see the Venetian lighthouse, over there the Mosque of the Janissaries, and immediately to our right heaps of restaurants offering great views over the harbour and beyond. Behind this scene, although not viewable from our vantage point, stood the Lefka Ora, or White Mountains. We decided that we liked the look of Chania.
After stopping for lunch, we walked all the way around the harbour; while Manda stopped to look in a couple of shops, I carried on round to one of the furthest points in the harbour to get a good view back - including the White Mountains in the distance.
In one of the side streets we discovered a restaurant called 'Ela' that I'd read about in my Crete Top 10 book (listed as number 1 restaurant in Chania). We were taking a look from the outside when the manager said to come on in and have a closer look. We explained that we'd already eaten, but decided to have a couple of drinks of coke here because it was pretty special. The restaurant has no roof, no plaster on the walls, the remaining supporting beams are charred almost to non-existence and it's overgrown with vines and flowers - and that's half the attraction. The other reason that it gets so many mentions in travel guides is because of the chilled music (piped and live) that they play and also because the prices are pretty darned reasonable. We kicked ourselves for having eaten earlier, because this was one of the coolest restaurants we'd seen anywhere.
Not far from Ela is the bastion - a perfect lookout point over the town that we checked out and from which we could see all the spires and minarets scattered around. Definitely worth the steep walk up.
We continued on to - and through - the covered market area then back down towards the harbour, passing a fruit shop that was selling whole watermelons for just 20 cents. We carried on in disbelief (and wishing we had a large, sharp knife back at the apartment), stopping off at a dive shop along the way to get Manda a decent pair of fins, then on to the harbour again. As we rounded the corner Manda pointed out just how low the sun was - it was moments away from setting, and so I hot-footed it over to a good vantage point to capture the lighthouse against the lilac sky; previous experience had shown that taking too long adjusting camera settings can make all the difference between getting the shot or missing it completely.
As it got darker, we walked back around the harbour towards the car park. Suddenly the place seemed absolutely full of life - everyone had come out for the evening to dine, by the looks of things, and there was a real buzz. We contemplated going back to Ela for something to eat, but it was 9pm and there was at least a three-hour drive back to home base, so we bade farewell to Chania safe in the knowledge that we had at least managed to capture some great photos.