If I have learnt one thing this year it is that things do not always go according to plan. Anyone who knows me even just a little bit would never describe me as spontaneous. More likely words to spring to mind would be organised, good planner, control freak and sensible. I think my friends and family may be in for a little bit of a shock upon my arrival home because this year and all my experiences has certainly changed me. My gap year hasn’t turned out AT ALL how I expected and planned it to. But I couldn’t be happier with the outcome and wouldn’t have it any other way. Due to unforeseen circumstances I found myself looking for a place to spend the month of August. The Greek islands had completely stolen my heart and so I thought why not base myself there for the next 4 weeks. Without even realising what was happening I was booking flights to Crete, packing up my life, walking out of that door and not once looking back. FREEDOM.
I touched down in Crete and found the bus that I thought would take me to where I needed to go. A Greek answered his phone and inevitably the beautiful word parted from his lips, “Hella!”.
I smiled to myself.
I was in Greece.
The quite and collected order of France and Switzerland had been replaced by Greece’s beautifully disorganised chaos. Another part of me learning to let go this year is the simple act of trusting a stranger. Trusting at 12 ‘o clock at night, the bus driver that speaks no English has understood where you want to go and that you are going to arrive safely. Bill Bryson puts it pretty well,
“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”
But I did arrive safely in Chania that night. It was late and I was tired but when I woke up the next morning I had to try to convince myself that I wasn’t still dreaming.
I stayed at Angelika Studios in a dorm room. It was absolutely perfectly located, the dorm door opening out onto a tiny little cobbled alleyway right in the heart of Chania Old Town. It was so quaintly beautiful and after staying a week here my love for the locals, the countless cats and daily routine of my little alley just grew and grew. Oh Agion Deka filled with all your funny characters. Like the owner of the restaurant who arrives each morning on his bicycle carrying fresh produce from the market, the funny group of three old Greeks next door including the old man who had a soft spot for all the street dogs and cats feeding them each morning, and of course the quiet but kind lady who swept the alleyway each morning before anyone was awake-yet she’d always wave at me as I came out or my breakfast.
Chania town is made up of a network of impossibly narrow cobbled streets filled with shops selling leather goods, sea sponges and clothing. Restaurants trickle out music from leafy gardens covered by bougainvillea. The Old Venetian harbor is beautiful, lined with the rustic coloured buildings. The architecture definitely has more of an Italian feel than the Cyclades.
I was based in Chania for a week and so did many day trips to the surrounding areas and beaches from there. Crete has an amazing bus system with really reliable and frequent buses to a wide range of destinations. One of my first trips was to Seitan Limania. And once I’d been here I didn’t want to go anywhere else. It was just too beautiful.
We drove out of Chania and soon left civilisation in exchange for groves and groves of olive trees, rural country houses and little pockets of blue sea, the landscape becoming more and more desolate. Then the bus driver turned off the music and air con and we all hushed as we began the spine tickling hairpin bend zigzag descent. And there it was! Out of the rocky and mountainous terrain a bay so blue it seemed unreal popped into view. The bus driver continued to navigate the treacherous road like a doctor performing heart surgery until we’d arrived safely. White rocks and cliffs parting just enough to let the sea flood into a little bay of blue BLUE BLUE water. A fifteen minute walk down a rocky slope and then you can sink your feet into the white beanbag sand. The white sand became light ice blue turning turquoise then a deeper teal and finally dark blue. As the cliffs met the wide open sea the motionless water was jolted with the energy of the ocean – awoken out of its tranquil daze. Swimming in this water was beyond magical. Seitan Limania was a truly special place for me and I went back another time with a lovely Australian girl I’d met in my dorm.
The Samaria Gorge is on every must-do list for Crete. I had read about it but wasn’t dead set on going. I told myself that if someone else was going then I’d tag along but didn’t want to put the pressure on myself to feel obliged to do it. So when Lauren, the Australian girl I’d met, said she really wanted to do it- I thought why not join her? We got up early to catch the bus to Omalos where the 16km trail began. A zigzag path set in the pine forest took us down. The landscape changed as the temperatures soared. The marble paths led into a ravine with sheer cliffs and a pebbly riverbed as a path. The many rock forms and sandstone swirls were beautiful. By the time we’d reached the bottom we felt sun frazzled, wobbly legged and extremely proud of our accomplishment. Hiking the longest gorge in Europe was no easy feat but 6 and a half hours later I was so glad that I’d done it.
Rethymnon is another big town close to Chania which I decided to go and check out. I went about getting lost in the beautiful little side roads of the Old Town. Peeling off paint doors, sprawling bougainvillea, stray cats, colourful shutters and street markets. I licked my ice cream with a very happy heart as I strolled around photographer’s paradise.
I said goodbye to Chania with a very heavy heart but excited for the new adventures that moving more westwards to the town of Kissamos would bring. I would be staying in this next hostel, Hostel Stylianos Kissamos for three weeks. At first I was quite worried about being in one place for so long and getting bored of the same place. But in fact it turned out so wonderfully. It meant that I really became a part of the furniture and built my own little hostel family. Firstly there was Georgia, an amazing Greek girl brought up in Detroit, Michegan but has been living in Greece for 2 years. Georgia was working at the hostel as the receptionist go-to-gal. We got to know each other pretty well over the three weeks that I stayed there going to Greek music festivals, spending time at the beautiful beaches, having crazy hitch hiking experiences and getting to know all of the cool people that passed through the rooms of the hostel. Then there was Stylianos, the owner who was lively and friendly and loud. And of course the hostel mama, a lovely lady who spoke no English but was so sweet and kind. She sort of adopted Georgia and I as the hostel kids, showering us with delicious home cooked Greek food and forever offering us snacks and treats. When it was time for me to go she said that no, she wanted me to stay so she could have me as a sort of daughter and help her work the olive groves in winter. So who knows, maybe I’ll be back next November, picking olives in Crete?
At the time of booking it was literally just the cheapest option that was available for the whole time I wanted to stay. I hadn’t researched the area at all and was just going on a whim that there would be a pretty beach nearby that I could go to each day. Little did I know that I would be staying in the best possible location to visit three of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Honestly. Go to your bucket list right now (and if you don’t have one-make one!) and write these three places
- Balos Lagoon and Gramvousa island
- Elafonissi beach
- Falasarna beach
Falasarna was the least famous of the three and I hadn’t really expected much. I’d heard it was pretty and with only a 30 minute 3,80€ bus drive away I thought, why not check it out? I had built no expectation but oh my was I blown away! Driving down the mountainside through roads lined by olive groves a massive bay of blue comes into view. A beautiful white sandy beach with gorgeous blue water. It looked as if a thousand glass crystals were lying on the ocean floor, reflecting diamonds of light as the water danced to its silent song. The best item I’d packed for this trip was a pair of swimming goggles. It had been a last minute, second thought but my ticket to the magical kingdom of the mermaids. Becoming submerged in that water invited you into another realm with such an other-worldly feel. The sand ridged on the ocean floor in little mountains of pink, the water was so clear you could see the vast variety of fish swimming about. Frolicking about in the surf like a mermaid my heart beamed with joy. There were secret sea caves to be discovered, hidden coves to be explored and long afternoons of sun lazing to be had. I spent many days at Falasarna. It became my regular spot, my go-to beach, my norm. It was with a very heavy heart that I bid farewell to this special place but I will forever treasure the memories of the experiences had here.
The beach of ‘pink sand’ and a gazillion tourists. After an hour long drive through the treacherous mountains passes of Western Crete, you arrive at the beach of Elafonissi. The beach is a sort of lagoon with a peninsula of gorgeous clear water and slightly rose tinged sand. The story is that that the sand is made up of tiny pink shells that have been broken down by the washing of the waves. The result is a pink sand lining the shore of this beach. I think in the past the colour was more prolific but unfortunately due to too many tourists taking a handful of Elafonissi home in their suitcases, the shore now just holds a slight pink tinge if you look at it at the right angle in the right light. So yes, I was a little bit disappointed but it was still an incredible stunning landscape. I visited this beach 4 times in total and got to explore the many corners of the ‘island’, its rock pools and beautiful teal blue lagoon.
Balos Lagoon and Gramvousa Island
Balos was something else. Getting there was a little more tricky as you could either go by car on a dirt road or take a cruise. No bus. I wasn’t about to start braving the chaotic Greek roads after not driving for 8 months (flip, I have no idea how I’m going to remember how to drive when I get home!) and not to mention on the other side of the road. So the boat cruise it was! It was quite pricey meaning that I could only really afford to do it once. But it was so so so worth it. I had met two girls from Germany the night before and so the three of us decided to do the trip together. We set sail from Kissamos port cruising through aquamarine-coloured waters and jiving to fun music. We arrived at Balos Lagoon where it looked like the boats were floating on air. This water was by far the most beautiful in all of Greece. So dreamy and perfect, this seascape is the kind of image your mind conjures up at the uttering of, ‘paradise’. We had a few hours to try to take it all in. Like hungry street kids who hadn’t eaten in days we let our eyes feast hungrily on the awe-filling beauty.
We then left reluctantly, hopping on the boat and being transported to the next island: Gramvousa. Here we stayed in the water the whole time, swimming out to an old shipwreck which gave the island its nickname: Pirate Island. We dragged ourselves onto the beach feeling salty and sun kissed.
My month on Crete was absolutely incredible. It was exactly what I needed at this time in my life. A time of joy and happiness coloured with interesting people and unforgettable experiences. A complete me-time where I could do whatever my heart desired. It was a completely spontaneous and unexpected gift, for which I am eternally grateful.
They say that wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow, and Crete will forever hold a very special place in my heart.
I am now heading on to my next leg of the journey. A 6 week round trip I’ve been planning for months now. The French Rivera, Provence, Spain, Portugal, Brussels, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. And then back in Cape Town at the beginning of October.