Lasithi – Dikteon – Kronion – Kounavi – Alagni
We’re not lost, we’re just taking the long way…
Going to Crete was mostly my idea. My mother and father came to Crete after they were married as a honeymoon, and then they just decided to live there until various circumstances brought them home (one of which being the discovery that I was on the way!) So I have always felt a need to see this place that enchants so many non-locals to stay and make a life with the Cretans. As it is also my honeymoon I thought it was rather appropriate.
After deciding we would put Crete into our itinerary, we next had to decide what we wanted to do there. In my very first search I learned of many beautiful caves that scatter the island, and as caves are entirely fascinating I demanded that we visit one. The closest cave to Heraklion is the Dikteon Cave in the Lisithi Plateau. It is also called the Psychro cave, named after the town in which it is situated. According to myth, the baby Zeus was born in this cave when his mother fled to it for his protection, fearing that his son-gobbling father would eat him.
Sounds awesome, right? Wouldn’t everyone on vacation to Heraklion want to see this? Apparently not, since there was only one bus a week that guided visitors to this spot, and it included Knossos Palace which we’d already seen. So what to do now? A taxi was out of the question, so Andrew suggested a rental car. Seeing as we also wanted to visit some authentic Cretan wineries which were not on any tour, this seemed like the best way to do everything. Luckily our hotel had a rental car service, so we booked one for Sunday and decided to leave around 8 in the morning.
Since my stick shift skills are terrible at best, Andrew got to drive our little white Skoda Fabia, a compact Czech car whose interior was falling apart. Since it was delivered on empty, first thing was to find a gas station. I should preface all this by telling you that we have had no real maps for Greece up until this point. We were surviving solely on bad free tourist handouts and the occasional Google maps where we could find wifi. So the night before Andrew had plotted out our route as best he could and had highlighted it on a free map app on his phone. Problem was that this map had no detail: no landmarks, virtually no street names and the ones that were named were completely in Greek.
Also, the way addresses are written in Greece are not exactly clear, sometimes they are simply two streets intersecting, and sometimes these streets do not even have names. So off we go with this and a couple more free tourist maps. Sunday is definitely a better day to drive, as lots of shops are closed and people seem to be attending church or resting at home. The Greeks drive on the same side of the road as us, but that is all that their traffic laws have in common with ours. Lanes are very much a suggestion, as it is acceptable to pass other cars by any means possible, and pedestrians have practically no rights of way at all.
The restaurants in Greece take up all the surrounding sidewalks adjacent to their property to set out extra tables and chairs; sometimes these sidewalks are across the street from the actual restaurant. So when you are driving through the local cafe areas, you must be watchful for rogue waiters crossing the street and wobbly tables and chairs placed precariously close to the road. Maybe all of this would have been more amusing to me at the time if I had had a decent map or an innate sense of direction. I had neither and since Andrew was driving he made me the navigator. As we headed out towards the freeway I slowly realized that I had no confidence in my ability to lead us and began to hyperventilate as quietly as possible so as not to attract Andrew’s attention to my fears. This proved impossible because Andrew can read every expression on my face, especially the wide-eyed look of panic I thought I was concealing. As Andrew tried to reassure me, we ended up on the right road with the help of some local signs and I began to feel a little better. We arrived at the Dikteon cave in the early afternoon and it was relatively quiet. We opted not to take a donkey ride up the 200 meter hill and hiked instead. While not in the full heat of the day, it was still warm and getting warmer by the time we reached the top, but this was all forgotten as soon as we entered the cave. At least 20 degrees cooler if not more, the cave descends to a small pool below and all the stalagtites and stalagmites glisten with moisture. Inside is lighted with fluorescents that depart an eerie green hue to everything, and other than the sounds of other tourists, it is completely silent.
While only containing one “room,” it is spectacularly beautiful and impressive. I was starting to feel much better about our rental car decision. We grabbed lunch and decided to head out to find a winery called Lyrarakis, directions to which contained streets with no names and old country roads that were not exactly labeled. Using only our free map with city names, no freeways, we managed to take a wrong turn somewhere. While we hunted for street signs, we found small red signs directing us to a winery. It wasn’t the original winery we were looking for, but the signs said it was open and their directions were a heck of a lot more helpful than any map we had. So we followed them behind a small town named Kounavi into the vineyards.
At last we came upon a small building atop the vines, where an elderly man missing more than one tooth was seated outside, smiling and patiently waiting for us to park. We greeted him in Greek and he seemed very excited until he realized that “Kali sperah” is one of the only phrases of the language we know. He asked “American?” and laughed. He led us inside where an older women, we assumed was his wife, also greeted us and had us sit. They poured three wines for us, and we exchanged lots of awkward gestures and smiles trying to convey information to one another. The wines were excellent, as we hoped they understood by our delighted “Mmmmms!” They gave us a tour of their facility with another couple from New York who had managed to find the place. We thanked them profusely (the only other Greek phrase we know) and headed off to try our luck again with the other winery. I realized that reading the signs and tourist map would be much easier if I had a compass, and luckily there’s an app for that! I finally figured out which way we should be heading, and with the help of a few more conveniently placed winery signs we found ourselves heading through rows of Syrah and Plyto grapes. We found the central tasting room, which did not appear open, and my heart sank a bit until we saw another car that had been parked near by heading towards us. A woman who was one of the tasting room managers had stopped by to check on the property and was happy to show us around and give us a tasting.
She was originally from Holland but now lived in Crete with her husband. She spoke four languages, one of which was very good English so we were thrilled to be able to ask about the wine and learn more about Cretan viticulture. She was glad to have young people so interested in wine, so she opened up pretty much every bottle they had available and brought us tomatoes picked from her garden for a snack. We sat for at least an hour and tried many varietals we had never heard of, let alone could pronounce. Everything was delicious, unique and affordable. The Greeks must not understand how much we pay for wine in America and therefore don’t have exaggerated prices like Napa. At the previous winery we walked away with a 2004 red blend for about $16, and at Lyrarakis we bought two bottles of white for six euros each, around $8.
While we now have the challenge of somehow carrying around 3 bottles of wine in our luggage, we also had an unforgettable experience that doesn’t take up any room in our suitcase. We found our way back to the hotel, dropped off the car and found some dinner. Despite all my irrational fears, Andrew managed to help me realize that we would never be “lost” as long as we were together. We might not be exactly on track, but that’s just because we are taking the scenic route…