Entering Europe. Island of Crete, Greece

Europe!

My last travel-post was about the desert: Oman and Egypt. Crystal Serenity had already entered the south Mediterranean on visiting Cairo (and the Pyramids), but we were still technically in Africa/Asia around the Suez Canal.

Traveling North a bit, we hit our first stop in Europe: the Greek island of Crete.

You’d picture life on the Mediterranean and envision the warm sun, olive-skinned tans everywhere – and all of us on the ship laying on the open deck savoring the salty, humid air.

But, then you must look at the date of this blog entry. End of April. Believe it or not, this is the part of the journey that started to get a bit chilly. Well, chilly in a relative sense. Low to high teens as we got farther north in the Mediterranean, and by the time we finished off in England it was long-sleeve weather. [Now, I’m publishing this entry during the heat of the North American summer, so you’re probably not relating; but remember that I was doing this whole journey during the dead of Canadian winter and spring… so back then, I’m sure you wouldn’t have felt a smidgen of sympathy for the “cool” weather. You know, it’s all relative].

Just to reflect briefly on working on the ship too (before I really get into the travel description), I must also point out that a major secondary reason why I was doing much less laying in the sun on my breaks was the simple fact that breaks were becoming shorter and shorter as I got closer and closer to the end of my contract. Gearing up to the end of the world cruise, the workload quite simply increased. By this point, the daily newsletter Reflections was completely in my hands: a daily publication of at least 8 pages (usually 12-16 pages of activities and info!). Special events, formals to attend… oh, it got very busy. Not that I’m complaining of course – when it’s all so very exciting and you’re enjoying the formal/high-life social scene on board, you don’t notice that you’re so tired and busy.

Plus, entering Europe, the pace of our *travels* with the ship shifted dramatically. Unlike our sailings throughout most of the rest of the world where there would be a string of sea days to cover the distance between our far-off ports of call, we now had ports in rapid sequence by virtue of the compact geography of Europe/the Mediterranean. Fewer sea days meant more places to visit: meant less free time on the ship so as to maximize the time to explore ashore.

In speaking about my first European port, I will start by contrasting the “busy” theme of my pervious paragraphs. The first and most dramatic thing I noticed upon setting foot on the Greek island of Crete was how calm and relaxing the whole atmosphere was. This was in STARK contrast to the last while: from Hong Kong through to Egypt. Most noticeable was that as a tourist, I was no longer hassled. Especially compared to Mumbai where the millions of homeless beggars were pulling at our every heart-string (harassing us for money out of their desperation); I was virtually ignored and free to just roam around the island. I had grown so used over the last while to the intense pace and tourist culture of Asia, India and Egypt that it was a huge shock to have the calm freedom in Europe.

This feeling of calm was amplified, of course, by the renown European (or rather, particularly the Mediterranean) culture of relaxation. These people, save those in the busy cities, seem to have a stunningly serene way of life. Siesta… oh yes it’s very real still and adhered to almost religiously. Not too shabby an idea, in my opinion. The peacefulness, laid-back attitude, and zest for the art of actually *LIVING* was frankly refreshing.

One part of the visit to this Greek island was slightly disappointing, I must admit. And that has to due with the fact that there were no blue-and-white stucco, domed churches/homes anywhere to be seen. I think that travel marketing creates a very over-blown impression of what the Greek islands look like – overblown and very narrow. The famous blue stucco dome and white-washed walls is a trademark of the island of Santorini. And even there, apparently, it’s only a few of the churches that are like that. So, it’s a little misleading.

Similarly, the ancient ruins of Greek culture are generally only on the mainland (Athens, obviously).

That said, Crete has its own charm and beauty. The volcanic origin of the island leaves it very hilly indeed. So much so, that in the city of Aghios Nikolaos where we docked, there are stairs absolutely EVERYWHERE – and most of the buildings are built into the inclines. To the point where if you’re living in an apartment, your neighbor could be 100 feet higher than you are!

The buildings are very compactly spaced together to take advantage of whatever flat land they could find. It almost looks like a puzzle the way everything is put together so tightly.

I spent several hours simply walking around, up and down all sorts of stairs throughout the city across the zig-zagging streets. The city is built around a beautiful lagoon with a very classic Mediterranean boardwalk – lined with local shops and restaurants. I stopped for a bite of some souvlaki… and was disappointed. That was a very good lesson in the fact that even if you’re in an authentic area (where a food actually ORIGINATES), you still cannot guarantee that you’re going to land with a great/authentic meal. Tourist culture still leads to some pretty “westernized/gentrified” experiences – and some lackluster food. It’s sometimes impossible to get a local recommendation to discover a truly real local experience. And sometimes you stumble upon a bit of luck and discover an authentic gem. But all too often, as a tourist, you can wind up with a touristy, watered-down version.

I’ll refer you now to the photos. The most classically “Greek,” I suppose, would be those of the Eastern churches with their domes and stucco. Sorry, no blue paint, though. Pics from Europe begin in “Europe Pics 1.” Logical, no?

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