Be Still My Cretan Heart
Well I never thought I would be sat here in beautiful sunny Greece, looking at the sea, being able to write about my days explorations. Especially as right down to the night before we were due to leave, I wasn’t even packed as I didn’t think it would be possible to travel. I always like to have the next destination in mind, so started to think about coming back to Greece around a year ago, in previous travels I have visited Kefalonia and Thassos and absolutely adored both, just fell in love with the Greek food and way of life. I want to visit every island of Greece, but this time chose Crete, specifically the gorgeous, idyllic town of Panormos.
The fact we are still in a global pandemic of coronavirus, being the main cause of concern, I was scared the UK government were about to add Greece to our quarantine list, just a few days before it was being rumoured. Just 4 weeks ago I flew to Belgium to visit my boyfriend and on return had to quarantine for 2 weeks, as they added Belgium to the list while I was there. As luck would have it, 5 days after we arrived in Greece, they added 7 Greek islands, Crete being one of them, to the UK quarantine list.
My boyfriend was supposed to travel with me, it was a trip we had been excited about together, with my sister and parents too.
He was still stuck in Belgium but eventually managed to join us just 5 days later, after a lot of messing and stress trying to sort a COVID test and having to fly from Holland rather than Belgium.
So around 9 pm the night before, bearing in mind our flight was at 7am, I decided to pack and finally began to get excited. We flew Manchester – Heraklion with Jet2, they’re my favourite short haul airline, so easy and especially throughout this summer of Covid have been the best at refunding flights quickly and without hassle. I booked a flight and got a deal to throw in my 22kg case, a seat of my choice and a meal .. I got a full English breakfast going and chicken tikka coming home, for plane food I cannot complain – one of the best I’ve had. The airport and flight felt pretty much like nothing had changed, other than everyone had a mask on.
Landing in Heraklion I saw the little bus coming to pick us up and my face lit up, in typical Mediterranean style, getting us off the plane and into a little bus that drives you 10 feet to the airport door, I was never so happy to be getting into a hot, sweaty bus before. If anything this pandemic has made me more grateful for things like travelling, seeing friends and family and even having a hug. Stepping of that plane feeling the warm whack of heat in my face, I couldn’t help but smile, as it was one of the most normal things I’ve done all year. After months of lockdown I was finally away and able to travel and explore a new place again!
We rented a car while on the island from AutoRentals Crete who met us at arrivals and made the whole process quick and easy, the car was new and immaculate, highly recommend their service. Around 50 mins of driving later we turned off to our little Greek paradise town of Panormos. So quaint and quiet, with little winding, cobbled streets, tanned little Greek men sat outside tavernas, shouting ‘Kalimera’ as we passed by. The island was dead compared to the usual amount of tourists for this time of year so I think they were glad to see some different faces in town.
We pulled up to our Villa – Lygaries, Villa Louisa, home for the next 2 weeks and it was just stunning! We opened the big grey door, to a corridor lined with stone walls and gorgeous plants, up some stairs to the door to our garden, filled with beautiful trees and plants, to the left with a stone archway that lead round to our amazing and serene swimming pool.
Four sunbeds lined up, as well as a white wood table on the terrace, all with a view of the sea. We opened up the sliding doors and found our way into the kitchen/ living area and had the most lovely surprise of a welcome pack left by our host, we found this gem on Air B n B! It was a gorgeous woven basket with locally made olive oil, homemade biscuits and cake, a mountain of fruit and homemade Raki – which I soon come to find out is one the strongest shots of alcohol I’ve ever tasted.
It was a 3 bedroom villa and my room was just so perfect, blue and white with a balcony overlooking the pool and Cretan Sea. We were staying on the North of the island so faced onto the Cretan Sea, another new body of water to tick off my list.
We arrived at the villa around lunch time, so after a speedy unpacking, a dip in the pool, we headed to the local supermarket for some goodies. I swear I was Greek in another life, some of my favourite things are olive oil, feta cheese and wine. So that’s what we got, as well as tomatoes, cucumber and onion to make our own Greek salad and of course amazing fresh bread from the cute little bakery. While we were here, a local actually told me I looked like an old style Cretan lady, so maybe I was a Greek in another time.
We had an explore then chilled at the Villa, it wasn’t long before a furry friend came to play, a gorgeous grey tabby cat/ kitten came over the fence and onto the terrace, she was jumpy but a bugger for attention, she was following every move we made, so we put her some water out and me and my sister headed back to the shop to buy her some ham.
She became our holiday pet and came every day for some food and cuddles, of course we called her Feta.. Me and Dani (my sis) actually cried our eyes out the day we left, she sat and watched us leave, her little face was too much. Plus I left a piece of my heart in this incredible place.
That evening we wandered through the town and down the cobbled roads and came across a beautiful Taverna, with tables and chairs set out in the street, under a tree, called ‘George and Georgia’. I was too excited for all the food, so ordered Greek salad, Tzatziki and then Chicken Souvlaki all of my favourite things. I didn’t know when ordering but its tradition in Crete for after the meal to not only give a free shot of Raki as a thankyou but also to offer some homemade desert or fruit.
The restaurant was beautiful and an old Greek couple sat outside, obviously the owners, more than likely George and Georgia, they kept asking if we were happy and if we ‘like their food’, they couldn’t stop smiling when we told them how beautiful it was and that we would be back. We had about 6 cats around our table and seen as though we ordered so much food, we couldn’t help but give them some scraps, it makes me so happy to feed animals like that and then of course they’re always happy for some attention. Other nights in other restaurants we had up to 11/12 cats around us just waiting for us to feed them, there was a huge black and white one we called ‘The Boss’ and he followed us around every night, jumping up trying to get attention but more so our food.
The next day I decided to explore the coast of Panormos a bit more, there are some beautiful cliff top walks you can do, a few little areas to climb up but all in all not too tiring, the scenery is so worth the exercise and so is the tranquil turquoise waters waiting below.
The first time we explored, the sea was so rough and made it impossible to climb down to the little coves without being swept off by a wave, but we went again afterwards and it was just surreal.
That night we went to a taverna less than a 5 minute walk away from our Villa, recommend to us by the owner of our Villa and I am so glad we listened to her. Taverna Kastro is some of the best food I have eaten in my life.
Greeted by an array of smiling faces, we sat at our table and ordered our fave Mythos beer and a litre of house red wine, it came in a beautiful glass vase, I love little added touches like that. Starter wise we decided on Greek salad and Tzatziki which is standard, we also ordered the most gorgeous sausages and a selection of Cretan olives.
You know when you order in a restaurant and you get about 10 max? No joke there was about 60 olives that came in the bowl, they were amazing!
The main course was just as amazing, I got chicken souvlaki again but it was beautiful the chicken was so tender and it came with rice and pita .. like how perfect?!
During the 14 nights we went back to eat at Kastro a further 2 times, once my boyfriend had arrived, we tried their homemade pasta and beef which was delicious, and also their moussaka. We didn’t know but it is quite common in Cretan cooking to add cinnamon to their meat dishes such a Beef Stifado and the Moussaka, T Jay (my boyfriend) is sensitive to cinnamon he really doesn’t like it, so even before he tasted the food he knew it was in there, like a sniffer dog. I love cinnamon but in dessert or coffee at Christmas, so just be sure to ask before you order. They had the most amazing Raki there, its flavoured with almonds and Tjay adored it, so much so that one night he kept ordering more ‘Raki Karafes’ at the bar. Raki is a grape based pomace Brandy of Cretan origin that contains 40% – 65% alcohol by volume.. safe to say Tjay did not remember some of the evenings events after gulping 10 shots of the stuff!
After the meal we wandered through the streets, just basking in the moonlight and taking in the surroundings, stroking the local cats as we went. I turned a corner and come across this beautiful white church, with a hole at the top and a bell dangling down, as I looked the moon was perfectly positioned in the hole and was shining through onto me. It was magical and made me stop and just think how wonderful life is and what an incredible world we have.. I took a picture and actually have an orb on the photograph.. hopefully my gorgeous Nanny Mil and Grandad Harry were looking down on me, it’s what I like to believe in moments like that anyway.
The following day we took the car, 40 mins east, to a place called ‘Georgioupoli’, a bit more commercialised than the quaint town I was staying in, but still beautiful. The main attraction being a long path of rocks heading out into the sea, until you reach a stone white church in the middle of the water. I walked along and felt like I was stepping onto the set of Mamma Mia 3! I went along in my bare feet, trying not to be knocked off by the oncoming waves, singing “Donna Please show it, you love me and you know it” in my best Pierce Brosnan voice… I wish I could do a ‘Donna’ and stay in Greece and open a little ‘BellaDonna’!
After a day of exploring I loved nothing more than coming back to our stunning, relaxing villa, grabbing a glass of wine (I found the most amazing local white wine in the supermarket for 3 euros)! And watching the sun go down before we went out to eat.
Every morning one of us would walk into the town, it was no more 4 little cobbled streets, we’d go the bakery for fresh bread and the most amazing cookies, past the little gift shops sometimes buying a little bracelet or anklet just to give the locals a bit of trade, then round to the little supermarket for fruit and juice and of course beer and wine.
The beach in Panormos is beautiful too, most days the waves were huge but it was actually so much more fun, it was quite shallow and sandy so you can stand and then when a wave came you could just jump through it. Me, Tjay and Dani spent hours doing this, then when we were tired there was a perfect little taverna on the beach, with a table and chairs set up on a rock, facing the sea, where we’d stop and have a refreshing beer or Gin and Fanta lemon.
In true European measures, it was more like a glass of pure gin with a splash of lemon and only 4 euros! I forgot how cheap Greece is, especially in our little town. I only spent half the Euros that I had estimated and taken with me.
A few days in I got to go and pick up Tjay from the airport, after all the uncertainty he was finally going to make it and I was so excited to have him with me for the rest of the trip. We have such a good relationship, we always find the fun in a situation, we can talk about anything and we always laugh together, he is literally my best friend. We ended up in the swimming a pool a few nights after a few drinks and another night after a Raki too many, to be fair I stuck to wine and a few Pornstar Martinis, we convinced my parents and sister to come midnight swimming in the sea with us.
We laughed so much, after leaving the bar we grabbed some towels and a few cans of beer and walked to the beach in the pitch black and dove straight into the water. It was so warm, one of my favourite memories from the trip, all the worries and cares of home and Covid just washed away. I’ve said before how fun my parents are, them and Tjay get on so well and can have a laugh together, it means the world for me that they have such a close relationship.
Another few nights Me and Tjay spent down at the beach, not swimming, we just took a towel and a drink, lay and watched the stars, listened to the waves wash up on the beach, it was so romantic, so tranquil, just perfect, talking and being together in the most surreal setting.
There was actually a turtles nest, protected by a little fence, until the eggs hatch, on Panormos beach.
Another day we went to a more lesser known beach, called Spilies, a location where you can find the endangered Mediterranean Monk Seal, we didn’t see any on our two visits there but we kept a look out.
This seal is actually one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, they live mainly in Greek seas, there are less then 500 left in the world, most of them being found around Crete, Hence why this beach is kept more of a secret.
A gorgeous beach with a cave to the left and a rock formation to the right, we went twice here just for a swim and a chance to spot a Monk Seal from afar.
The second night after Tjay arrived we decided to try a new taverna, after a few disappointing nights eating at the Harbour restaurants we went to a Taverna in the heart of the town, opposite the bakery, on the cobbled streets, under a beautiful Bougainvillea tree, was ‘O’Makis’!
What a gem of a find this place was, we came to eat here 7 nights out of our 14 because we loved it so much, it was so different and filled with amazing energy, plus the sensational food, we were being pulled back night after night. Our first evening we didn’t know what to expect, we were greeted by a lovely smiling couple who shown us to a table, Maki and his lovely wife, who own and run the restaurant themselves.
From the cooking, cleaning, buying the fresh produce every day, and serving the guests, they do it all and Maki still finds time for a little chat with all his tables. They were amazing and so welcoming, we felt instantly at home and happy.
So the difference about this place and what made us love it even more is that there are no menus, as for one, the menu changes every night and two Maki likes to personally take you inside his kitchen to show you what’s cooking and let you decide. There was usually stuffed vegetables, such as green peppers stuffed with Feta cheese, Tomatoes stuffed with rice and shrimps, mushrooms and aubergines stuffed with peppers and onions, all baking away in the ovens, available for starters. I tried all of those and they were just to die for, the taste and texture was like nothing I’d had before.
Maki and his wife have owned this taverna for over 40 years and home cook everything from scratch everyday and you can tell they have the excellent experience. They often had fresh pies such as spinach and cheese, chicken and veg and my favourite the courgette, potato and cheese was gorgeous, they even gave us some to take home for lunch the next day because I loved it so much.
In the pots on top of the oven would be pots of food bubbling away, one night there was beef Stifado another night a Green Chicken Curry and one night spaghetti with a meat sauce but the meat was chunks of gorgeous steak, they often had Lamb Kleftiko simmering away in the oven for hours and you could see and smell the love and work that had gone into every meal.
Then he would show us the fridges where there was whole Cuts of fresh Tuna Steak, Whole fresh fish, Chicken and Pork Souvlaki, Lamb Chops, Steak and the Meatballs that would all be cooked fresh on the barbeque out the back! The meatballs were stuffed with cheese and tomato and were just gorgeous, between us we tried everything and there were no faults, it is outstanding, I could go on and on about the food here, you have to go try it!
We became quite good friends with Maki and his wife by the end of our time there, so much so that I let a few tears fall when we had to say goodbye, he felt like a holiday Grandad and with me missing mine so much, he was such a comfort! He would sit with us throughout the evenings and tell us stories about his life and his family, I loved it, every story he told was so interesting and gave us a real insight into another way of life. You would not believe he was in his mid-70s he seemed so young and full of energy, the Mediterranean lifestyle is the way to go, the sun, the food and the relaxed way of life. I think I’ll retire to Greece!
On our last night after our meal, he would usually bring us some grapes and Raki or some Baklava, he come to realise that us girls loved chocolate (I mean who doesn’t) and so started to clear our table saying he needed to make room for our surprise, minutes later out he comes with a massive chocolate cake, topped with fruit! It was beautiful, so fresh and light, I had 2 pieces and then some for breakfast. We invited Maki to sit and have a piece with us and it was a perfect end to a wonderful night, he said when he went to pick up the fresh fish and meat he saw the cake in the fridge and bought it for us, it touched my heart! I hope I will see Maki and his wife again one day, they left a special in my memories!
Another adventure we took was to the South of the island, firstly to a place called Preveli! It was around an hour drive from Panormos through the amazing mountain roads, the drive itself went by so quickly, with the incredible scenery keeping us entertained. We drove up to the top of a mountain, to a little car park and then hiked down the hundreds of steps to the beach, I love that type of thing, having a little adventure before you reach your destination, just bear in mind the coming back up is a bit more tiring. Stepping down each step with the beach in sight I was getting more excited to jump into the refreshing sea.
What is unusual about Preveli is that you have a stunning beach with the sea on one side and on the other is a beautiful river, lined with palm tree’s running towards the beach and eventually into the sea, from above the view was incredible. It took us about 15 minutes to reach the bottom from the car park and that was stopping along the way to take a few pictures and just admire the view. When we reached the bottom there was a beautiful wooden pier, stretching out into the sea, the walk down was a bit sweaty so Tjay ran straight along, jumped into the sea and swam to the beach, I was desperate to do the same but I had the bags to walk to the beach with.
Once on the beach, I was straight in the sea and I swear steam came off my body when I dove in, we arrived around 11am before the midday heat was too intense to climb down. After a swim and a little lie in the sun I decided I wanted to swim in the river. It looked like nothing I’d ever seen before, just this calm, beautiful, serene body of water that I needed to emerge my body into! Shit it was fresh, I know the water is running off the mountains but it didn’t quite prepare me for how ice cold it was. Once I was in it was okay and I made sure to go for another dip before we left, just to keep me nice and cool before the hike back up the hill!
From there we headed just 15 mins along the coast to Damnoni beach where we sat in a gorgeous taverna on the water front. Me and Tjay do this thing where we both order a meal and then swap plates half way through so we can try each other’s food, we have literally done this our whole relationship. So we got a pork Gyros and a Pizza and shared and then thought we’d also try a Cretan salad which is lettuce, Egg, Potato, cheese and peppers and its lovely, a little change from our usual Greek salad. We of course ordered a couple of Mythos beers and just relaxed, then they brought the Raki! At like 2pm in the midday heat it was not the best combination. After a cool off in the Sea at Damnoni we walked just around to the next bay, Ammoudi.
As we came around the hilltop I started to notice a lot of naked bums, a lot of boobs and as you looked closer a fair amount of old, dangly willies too, there was even one old man putting sun cream on another man’s bits. Me and Tjay stopped, looked down for a few minutes, and slowly realised it was a nudist beach, but the water looked too beautiful not to go for a swim. I felt so immature as we walked down the beach, all we could see was naked bits of men and women, all we could do was laugh and laugh as we didn’t know where to avert our eyes! We did not get naked by the way, I’m all for filling in my white bits but not on a beach where everyone can see.
The water was as perfect as it had looked from above, we put our scuba masks on and had an explore, there was a few dangly odd looking fish in the sea, most of them hanging around peoples legs strangely enough! No but if you avoided the old naked bodies floating around there was a secret swim hole that we found, that lead through to the next bay. It was lovely and just wide enough for you to swim through safely to the next side. Thankfully the next bay was not a nudist beach and we had a snorkel an found some amazing fish, a lot of little flat fish shimmying along the sand, fish of different colours and size and also an octopus! Whether you want to tan your bits or not it is definitely a beach you need to discover on Crete.
Since we rented a car it was so easy to travel round the island. Crete is much bigger than I originally thought, I knew it was the biggest island in Greece but we were quite central on the North coast and to travel right to the West coast where some of the most famous beaches are located, such as Balos and the pink sands of Elafonsi, were over a 3 hour drive away. So I decided to leave those adventures for another trip. Another day we took a drive to the South again, stopping at the small village of Spili on the way to our beach day.
Spili is a beautiful village hidden away in the mountains of Crete, the word ‘Spili’ in Greek means ‘cave’ and its thought the town gets its name from the local caves surrounding the area. The main attraction to the village is the venetian looking Lion head Fountains, or known to the locals as ‘Kefalovrissi’, where clean water flows through their mouths, it is the jewel of the village, on a dry Mediterranean island such as Crete you have to understand what a miracle running water is, they believe that natural springs are one of mother natures’ gifts. 330 cubic meters of water flow every hour, rich in iron and with a constant temperature of 13 degrees Celsius.
The people of the village believe the water is healing and special and many people come to have a sip from the fountains or fill their water bottles, I put my hands underneath the flowing water just for a splash of the magic. Spili had a lovely vibe about it, cute little shops and tavernas serving traditional Greek dishes, lining the streets and friendly faces smiling as you walked by, I would definitely add it to your list of places to see in Crete.
After passing through Spili we headed to the coast and the beach of Trioptera. Trioptera consists of two beaches, separated by a small peninsula, at the edge of the peninsula, in the sea, are 3 majestic rocks, this is where Triopetra gets its name as in Greek it means ‘three rocks’. We got to the main beach of Triopetra first, secluded and beautiful we walked along the coarse sand towards the main attraction, the slanting rocks at the end of the beach. Being the little adventurers that we are, Me and Tjay started to climb the rocks straight away, the rocks are quite smooth and fairly easy to climb in bare feet though, for better grip on the sloping stones.
The snorkelling around the ‘three rocks’ was gorgeous, the beach on a whole is quite shallow but by the peninsula it drops and becomes a perfect area for diving down and seeing what you can find, an array of fish and another octopus were waiting for us when we dove in.
We went for lunch at yet another lovely Taverna right on the beach, we all ordered fresh grilled sardines and they were gorgeous, me and Tjay also added some rice stuffed tomatoes from the specials of the day menu just because they sounded so good.
We had house white wine and then again we were hit with the Raki, other than the fact it was 30 degrees, 1 o’clock and we were about to hike over the hill to the next beach, ‘Little Trioptera’, it was a good idea. I drank wine at every taverna we went too, usually white with lunch and red with dinner and always opted for the house wine. Most tavernas make it themselves, with no additives or preservatives, just fresh wine, beautiful tasting and with no hangover, plus most of them were only 4-6 euros for half a litre, how can you complain?
So after lunch, Mum, Dad and Dani drove the car round to the next beach, Me and Tjay opted to climb over the hill to get there. It took around 30 mins from one beach to the other and it was a nice little bit of exercise after our meal and wine, It’s a bit of a steep climb to reach the top of the hill at first, an old fence has fallen down and you can pass it easily and get up onto the hillside.
Once you reach the top, the view from both sides is just beautiful, we sat and took it in for a few minutes and enjoyed the sun on our skin for a few moments. After a few minutes we were hit with a lovely smell, I said to T “Can you smell oregano?” to which he replied “yeah smells like pizza!”
Around us was small little green bushes everywhere, I rubbed my fingers on the leaves and it was fresh oregano just growing everywhere around us, it was amazing being surrounded by this beautiful aroma. We walked the little pathway, through all the oregano towards the other side, the path eventually led us all the way down to Little Triopetra. We spent the rest of the afternoon just relaxing and swimming in this idyllic location.
On the days that we decided to relax around the villa and explore Panormos, Me and Tjay went to a little spot for lunch, called ‘Vinzi Café’. It’s situated on the waterfront, over looking the harbour, it was such a romantic setting for a little drink and lunch together. We went there for lunch 3 times over the 2 week period, It offered a wide range of cocktails which we tried a few, my fave was the strawberry margarita, they did sandwiches (The Cretan and The Rustic were our favourites), salads and then crepes, waffles and ice cream. Everything we tried was fresh and tasty and the location just added to the ambience of the place.
One of our last explorations was along the coast, East towards Heraklion, firstly to a place called ‘Paleokastro’ a cute little location for a swim in beautiful turquoise waters, over looked by the remains of an old castle. Afterwards we headed to a beautiful place called ‘Lygaria’ .. first stop there was lunch at a taverna called ‘Lygaria Taverna’… It was right on the beach side, we were sat on comfy couches and the vibe was fab! Me and Tjay did our usual thing of ordering a few things to share, so we went for meatballs, chicken salad and pork gyros. The food was amazing but the portions were like something out of Man V Food..
we wanted a light bite to eat and could not shift it, my Dad got Spag Bol and it was the biggest ive ever seen in my life, he seemed to eat it for about half an hour and not even make a dint in the portion, but better too much than not enough! After all that came a plate of fruit, plus cake and ice cream as a little extra to say thank you, as well as the famous Raki! Safe to say we didn’t float when we went for a swim afterwards.
I loved the beach at Lygaria, the water was clear and tranquil, there were little paths both sides of the beach to have a wander, find a perfect spot to take in the views.
The time we spent in Crete absolutely flew by, but you know time flies when you’re having fun but this trip for me was more than just fun, it’s a trip I will remember forever, one that’s left quite a big impact on my life, a place that will keep a very special piece of my heart.
I think between escaping from Covid and the news and feeling like we were in a different world far away from all the stress and worry, totally secluded from the Pandemic was definitely part of it. After having trips cancelled all year we just found the most special, perfect place with the kindest souls, peaceful, tranquil and just truly wonderful.
Pure quality time with my family and boyfriend after such a hard, stressful year is just what I needed, I just Sometimes I wish I could freeze the picture and save it from the funny tricks of time.