Crete from East to West
August 22, 2012 § 3 Comments
From Athens we shipped out on an overnight ferry to the southern most of all of Greece’s Isles: Crete. Drawn to the island for its mountainous terrain, thriving local cuisine and its burly edge I appreciate Crete the most now, sitting here, wondering if I’ll ever have the opportunity to traverse it’s bountiful hills again.
Getting to Crete (economically) required us to take an overnight ferry that docked in the new port of Chania (Xania, pronounced han-yah) at dawn. In Chania, Crete’s most charming port city, we were greeted by the luminescent colors of the morning sun and a quiet bus stuffed with both travelers and locals.
At six in the morning Chania was otherworldly, with character so bold it was nearly tangible. Woven between the intimate B&Bs, humble taverns and homes were narrow alleyways with curves and secrets as bountiful as a woman’s body. Aside from the few learned locals who seemed to know that the site of the rising sun igniting the city’s old port was worth experiencing, the alleys were silent. With a few hours before we were able to retreat to the room to catch up on sleep we stumbled upon the ultimate
breakfast food: bougasta.
Bougatsa is so heavenly its characteristics should never be verbalized, but for the sake of those who have yet to have the experience I’ll try my best. Bougatsa begins with practice and practice leads to perfection. Perfection seems to be necessary when crafting the fragile layers and layers and layers of filo pastry that embrace myzythra, a soft Cretan cheese. As if that’s not enough, when warm out of the oven the filo becomes saturated with a buttery oil from the heated cheese, then is sprinkled with cane sugar and cinnamon. Surely now you might understand why words lack the meaning to accurately describe bougatsa. For twenty-two years, Bougatsa Chania, the place we found the filo pastry, has been turning out this indulgent sweet served with Greek Coffee or espresso, every day from dawn to noon. Visiting the humble bakery to eat with the locals felt authentic – and yes we went back for more.
Crete has more local specialties than we had time to try but we did enjoy a fair share of raki, tzatziki, paximadi, stewed rabbit and goat, fresh sea food and my (our) favorite, a meze called staka. Staka, made from slowly heating goat’s cream while mixing it with flour to form a roux-like consistency, is an appetizer served with bread for dipping. Its rich buttery flavor makes staka irresistible; with each bite the oil that has separated from the curd coats your lips while its milky aroma soaks into the pads of your fingers until you realize you’ve completely wiped the plate clean. Staka is dangerously delicious. I’ve already decided that when I come across fresh goat cream, staka is how I will use it.
Staka was first introduced to us at Xani, a bustling restuarant with live music and a staff composed fully of family. Throughout my entire life, I’m not sure I’ve eaten more than a handful of meals that could compare with the freshness, the quality and the intense flavor of the food we were served here. We started with a dark Cretan Syhra and a plate filled with creamy staka at which point I was sure it couldn’t get much better – boy was I wrong. After the staka we were served fragrant goat stifado (goat braised in wine with vegetables) with a hunk of bread for soaking up the juices. After the goat we finished with the restuarant’s specialty, rabbit stifado. The rabbit, slow cooked in a tomato and red wine sauce, was served with the request that we eat it using only our hands and that we had to be sure to suck all of the meat off the bones. Yes, we’re American, but come on, you don’t have to beg us to indulge.
After a few days in Chania, we left to explore Rethymno, a city nestled between snow capped mountains and the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. There we toured a fortress that started as a temple of Apollo, morphed into a place of protection for the Venetians then was seized by the Turks. From the fortress grounds there was a panoramic view, so we took in what we could then headed down to the port where we were bombarded by somewhat aggressive male waiters. The enthusiastic restaurant staff danced and sang and shouted greetings in every possible language to encourage those who passed by to stop and dine with them. So, although they were probably all great places, we headed away from the port to a small tavern that caught our attention when we first arrived.
Lunch was better than I expected. We were served traditional meze consisting of apaki (smoked Cretan pork), cheese flutes, tzatziki, stewed black eye’d peas, dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat with lemon sauce) and dakos (twice baked barely rusk bread) topped with myzythra (local soft cheese) and tomato, with an enormous Greek salad. Rethymno was nice, but I preferred Chania.
Our last full day in Crete was spent hiking the Samaria Gorge, an eleven mile stretch through the White Moutains. The trail begins outside the village of Omalos and concludes in Agia Roumeli, a fishing village perched on the Libyan Sea. The hike was long and the terrain fluctuated based on our elevation. We began in fragrant pine forests, descended through the abandon village of Samaria to rocky water-filled canyons and finished when we hit the hot sea swept streets dotted with family-owned taverns. Upon arrival to Agia Roumeli it wasn’t long before our relaxing hike turned to anarchy as we realized that the only ferry back to the bus we needed to get to Chania arrived at the bus station after the bus was scheduled to leave. It took a bit of communication and a whole lot of trust, but we finally decided to believe what the locals were telling us; that the bus always waited for the ferry.
Thankfully, they were absolutely right, so while we waited for the ferry to arrive we enjoyed house specials, a Greek salad flecked with rose petals and outstandingly fresh fish with capers and stewed summer vegetables, from a curiously under the radar tavern.
Fatigued we headed back to Chania and caught the next possible bus to Heraklion, Crete’s largest port city, where we took a ferry to Santorini. Heraklion was the most metropolitan, but I have to say, at seven in the morning, the old port was surprisingly peaceful as it hummed with fishermen who were busy loading and unloading their boats.
Crete treated us well; the food was hyper-local, the people were kind and the sights were incredible. However, if I were to do it again I would rent a car and give myself more time on the island.