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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!) As this was 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 too fascinating to ignore, I demanded that we visit one. The closest cave to Heraklion is the Dikteon Cave in the Lasithi 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?
I like atlases. They are very useful. Somehow with the invention of Google Maps, a decent atlas is really hard to get a hold of. Without internet access, Google maps is not nearly as useful as it normally is. I spent the previous night before our cave trip using the excruciatingly slow internet at the hotel to save map images on the iPad to help us navigate to Psychro cave. Why was I going through such “painstaking” trouble? To get to Psychro there is a bus from Heraklion bus terminal. It leaves on Thursdays. If Thursday isn’t your day, too bad. I didn’t want Shana to miss one of her most anticipated sights. It was decided that we would rent a car and drive out there ourselves.
We had not used a single “real” map of Greece at this point. We were surviving solely on bad free tourist handouts and the occasional Google maps where we could find wifi. Google maps over seas are also not as helpful as they could be. Nearly all local place names are in their native language and script. It was all “Greek” to me. 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.
The Skoda Fabia is not a good car. It’s adorable that it tries so hard to be a good car. I was so proud of it at the end of day. Upon delivery of the rental car, the main thing the agent wanted me to know was that the car horn worked really well. Oh and this, “Take lots of pictures of car, outside.
This is good for you, protection.” He said this to me while demonstrating just how effective the horn was. Protection from what…?
Since my stick shift skills are terrible at best, Andrew got to drive. The interior of this one began to disintegrate as soon as I climbed in. Off we went with a small collection of tourist maps and some saved images on the iPad. Since it was delivered with the fuel gauge on empty, we needed to find a gas station.
Naturally, I started off quite confident in our plan. It was quite simple. Drive to the cave. Enjoy cave. Come back. EASY PEEZY LEMON SQUEEZY. I had done a not insignificant amount of map study the night before and could visualize the route we were going to take in mind quite easily.
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. On Crete, 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.
At the gas station, I didn’t know much driving we were going to be doing so I had them fill up the tank. Filling up a gas tank anywhere in Europe is expensive. Back on to the road we went. I would have been playing music but since the Fabia had concentrated all of its working parts in the horn and 3 of the 4 engine cylinders, the radio was not an option.
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. I slowly realized that as we pulled out of the gas station and on to the freeway I had no confidence in my ability to lead us. I 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.
Women be stressin’. To be fair and despite my confidence, I had only a very rudimentary understanding of the road we were going to take. I knew we had to turn right and it was shortly after a small city on the left. Thankfully the lack of roads in general made navigating a little easier as there fewer opportunities to really screw it up. After a couple false alarms I found the turn that went up to the Lasithi plateau.
After finding the appropriate mountain road, we began to climb slowly up in to the mountains surrounding the plateau. The decision tree looked something like this, Left, Left, Right, Right, (A, B, A, B, Select, Start … just kidding). I didn’t know the names of the roads but because it was a mountain there were very few roads to choose from.
For being what felt like a rather isolated area, there were luckily lots of road signs telling us we were going the right direction. Honestly, if it wasn’t for these signs, I can’t be sure we would have found the place. I was starting to feel much better about our rental car decision, although being on the passenger side meant being the closest to the edge of the windy mountain road, often bereft of guardrails. A couple times we had to pass another car and I was certain that these roads were not meant for two-lane traffic. Does holding your breath for extended periods of time qualify as an ab workout?
Getting to plateau was easy enough but finding Psycrho cave was a bit more challenging. It was so poorly labeled that it seemed like they were having a contest for worst placed road signs.
Since we had driven all the way out there I insisted that we explore the area to “see what we could see.” I decided that we should go check out the other cave in the valley called Tzermiado. The road on the Lasithi plateau basically does a big loop and Tzermiado is almost exactly opposite Psychro. I came to regret this decision since the Tzermiado cave is not set up for visitors. It’s a dark pit surrounded by wasp nests with no lights and a trail that is in disrepair and overgrown. Tzermiado was follwed by some…shall we say not so pleasant roads in the back country areas of Lastithi. Eventually we ended up back at the exit of the valley and stopped for lunch while we considered our next course of action. We had a car… we should go wine tasting. We still didn’t have a decent map of Crete but considering my successful navigation of the morning adventure how hard could it be to get to the wineries?
It was quite difficult.
On our way back down from Lasithi we got stuck behind a truck carrying a load of hay down the narrow mountain road. Despite all that the ancient civilizations of Greece and Crete had accomplished for math and science, physics was not on this truck driver’s strong suit. The hay bale was so tall that as he started to ascend a relatively steep hill all of the hay fell off the back of his flat bed nearly landing on the hood of our poor little Fabia and completely blocked the road. Good thing I wasn’t tailgating! As Tyche would have it there was a short dirt road bypass that got us around the failed hay physics experiment.
The directions to Lyrarakis 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.
I will take full responsibility for this. We made like… I don’t even know, twenty wrong turns. We got a very scenic tour of central Crete south/southeast of Heraklion. The drive would have been lovely had I spent more time actually looking around and not concentrating on the next Y-intersection. We probably spent a solid hour or so driving aimlessly, all they while I insisted I knew where I was going.
We still had not reached the winery we were intending to go to and then 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 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.
After a great tasting session we now had the challenge of somehow carrying around 3 bottles of wine in our luggage but 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.
I feel like this may gloss over what maybe one of the single greatest feats of parking in the history of mankind. Parking the rental outside the hotel was no easy matter (neither was staying alive on the streets of Heraklion).
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…