We’ve been in Hiraklion, Greece, on the island of Crete since Jan 3. The first thing I have to say about Greece is that the people here are so nice! It all started with Aegean Airlines. They certainly aren’t a luxury airline and our tickets from Lisbon to Hiraklion were fairly inexpensive. In fact, it cost more to take our luggage with us then it did for us to fly. The seats on the A320 were small and tightly packed. They even disabled the recline feature which sucked for my back, but otherwise I would have had the seat in front of me in my face. The flight attendants are what made the flight though. Their vintage style uniforms and matching hair buns gave the appearance that they took pride in their job. They were nice, friendly, and very helpful. As we taxied out to the runway, they passed out hard candies to everyone. To help equalize your ears during take off maybe? What ever the reason, we took off to the sound of candy wrapper crinkles throughout the cabin. The four + hour flight went by very fast as the flight attendants were constantly going through the cabin and cheerfully giving us stuff; first a drink, then some food, then more drinks, then another hard candy for landing.
Our flight was delayed leaving Lisbon but the pilots made up some time in the air. We ended up landing in Athens only ten minutes late. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem but this left us with less than 30 minutes to catch our connecting flight. I figured we could make it, but our luggage may not. Before we landed, a flight attendant told us there would be a “Connection Ambassador” waiting for us under the wing (We disembarked on the tarmac) and there was. She said the airline put us on the next flight, which was leaving an hour and a half later. No problem, in fact if we had the option of choosing this later flight when we booked our tickets we would have. Then the Connection Ambassador gave us vouchers for a free meal while we waited for the next flight and a round trip tickets anywhere Aegean Airlines flies. How awesome is that! If only US airlines were half this accommodating.
It was a quick 40 minute flight from Athens to Heraklion, complete with hard candies and drinks. We retrieved our luggage, and went outside to get a cab. This is where the fun begins. This airport is rather small but there is the usual one way loop for cars by the terminal. This is where we got a cab. Instead of continuing around the one way loop, our driver did a u-turn and drove into oncoming traffic to exit the airport. Then he raced towards our Airbnb without the slightest hesitation or even a glance to the right or left at stop signs. And we thought Chicago had crazy cab drivers!
As pedestrians, we quickly learned it’s not just cab drivers that have an utter disregard for stop signs. None of the drivers stop. They also don’t stop for pedestrians on crosswalks. In the center of Hiraklion are a lot of brick and cobble streets that seem like they should be walking only streets, but mopeds, motorcycles, and even cars will still go there, zipping through the outdoor cafe tables and people. Walking down the sidewalk can be a challenge too as mopeds and motorcycles, sometimes carrying three people at once, will use the sidewalk if it means avoiding traffic. Nowhere is safe as a pedestrian.
We rented a car for a couple days and joined in with that side of the mayhem. There was a mix up on where we were supposed to pick up the rental car and we ended up going all the way to the airport rental counter. Fun fact: according to my smart watch, it is exactly 10,000 steps from our Airbnb to the Hiraklion Airport!
The first day we drove just outside of Hiraklion to the Palace of Knossos. The palace was built around 2000 BC on the site of a Neolithic settlement first inhabited around 7000 BC. If you know Greek mythology, Knossos is the Labyrinth where the Minotaur dwelled. (You can read that story here.) It’s unknown why, but the palace was abandoned during the Late Bronze Age, 1380–1100 BC. At the end of the 19th century, the palace was unearthed and parts were reconstructed to show what it most likely looked like during it’s peak.
The next day we drove a little over an hour to Phaistos, another archaeological site. No reconstruction was done here and you are free to walk pretty much anywhere among the ruins. Our favorite part of Phaistos was not the ruins but the cats. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by several very friendly cats. One or two of them accompanied us on our tour of the site, switching off at times. They were probably keeping tabs on us as much as they were enjoying being pet and hoping for a snack. There are a lot of stray cats and dogs all over Crete. Oddly, the cats are more friendly and interested in people, where the dogs just ignore everything except other dogs. It’s sad to see so many strays and of course we’d love to take them all with us, but for the most part they seem well fed and some even have boxes with blankets and beds set up.
We also drove about an hour west of Hiraklion to a beach resort town called Rethimno. Our plan was to park on the edge of downtown, walk around a bit and grab some dinner before heading home.
Our plan did not work out though and thanks to Google maps we ended up on a road that was so narrow we had to fold the side mirrors in so they didn’t scrape the buildings on either side. I had directions from a nice guy on a moped as to the best way back to a main road, but turning off this road was impossible as all the other roads in this area were just as narrow. At one point, after about a 20 point turn, we ended up wedged at an angle in a T intersection. We weren’t sure what to do and backing up was no longer an option. The guy who gave us directions had moved a couple motorcycles out of our way so we could get by. He was gone now and the motorcycles were blocking the road behind us. Luckily a car came along. The driver didn’t speak a word of English but another guy on a moped came by and translated. Much to everyone’s surprise, car guy declared everyone would just lift the back of the car up and scoot it over to complete the turn. Howard and our translator doubted this would work, but it did. It was also great comfort to know I wasn’t the only fool with a car on these streets.
After we were parked on a real road, we went to get a much needed beer and de-stress. We got to talking to the bartender at Brick’s Beer House. I asked her if people were supposed to stop at stop signs in Greece. She said yes, but no one does. She told us how there was huge problem with car accidents in Greece. (I bet!) We witnessed some of this on the way to Rethimno. The highway is literally lined with roadside shrines for victims of traffic accidents. Instead of a wooden cross with flowers like you may see in the US, they put up little mailbox looking houses that may have a candle and a picture of a saint inside. Obviously nobody drives the speed limit here either and many of the roads are winding and steep.
I asked the bartender if she could recommend any place for dinner and she told us about a cute little Greek place a couple blocks away. I said I think we drove by that place on our way here. She replied, oh no, you can’t drive down that road. (Wanna bet?)
While it was our fault we ended up on that very narrow road in Rethimno, we also got to witness a lot of insane things that I did my best to steer clear of. A few of the highlights were; a big metal scaffolding thing in the road that we later realized was a detour sign that had been hit by a car so it was laying sign side down, drivers in such a hurry to get around each other that the lanes end up reversed so everyone was now driving on the left side of the road, and a farmers market right in the middle of, and completely blocking, Highway 97, a main thoroughfare across the island.
It was fun exploring the island some by car, but I was really glad when we had returned it and were back to dodging vehicles on foot.
January is the off season here in Crete, but Hiraklion is a large city. There are not too many tourists here right now, but people are out and about every day. Most of the restaurants are open can get crowded. The shops are open, at least for a few hours a day, too. Downtown it can look like the economy is booming. In other places evidence of the 2006-07 debt crisis can be seen with unfinished homes and half built buildings, sometimes lived in despite not having any walls. There is a laid back island feel to this European city I don’t think you get too many places. Everyone we have talked to has been warm and welcoming, whether we speak the same language or not. Many of the people speak very good, if not fluent English. Some speak German too and when they see Howard, they assume he is German. He is, but it’s funny because he kind of stands out among all the Greeks.
We both like Greece a lot, and thanks to Aegean Airlines, we will definitely be back!