|June 29 -- Kissamos Kiss -- Crusades and Venetians
Crete is the largest, and most southerly of the Greek Islands. We arrive on the northwest end at Kissamos, kiss each other for good luck, and start riding east along the northern coast. The temperature has risen to over 100 degrees the last few days, along with the humidity. We are instantly covered in sweat, hot enough that we switch from sleeveless biking jerseys and helmets to billowy long sleeved cotton shirts and big brimmed sun hats. We ride through a string of little beach villages, make lots of photos, then stop in the early afternoon in Hania, which on maps and road signs can be spelled Chania or even Xhania.
In 1204 the leaders of the fourth Crusade decided Christian Constantinople held much richer pickings than Muslim Jerusalem, so they sacked and "liberated" the city using the excuse that they (the Crusaders) spoke Latin, the language of the Pope in Rome, opposed to the Greek speaking inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire. The former eastern Roman Empire was then divided among the victorious Frankish princes, who had collaborated with the Venetians (as in Italians from Venice), who quickly took over the lucrative shipping throughout the Aegean Sea, including Crete.
The Venetians continued to rule Crete for over 400 years, until the mid 1600s (when they were ousted by the Turks), and built beautiful, huge walled cities with strategic castles and forts to protect all the ports. In Hania we head straight for the old Turkish and Venetian quarter. We get a hotel built up against the old Venetian fortifications and head out to explore the narrow, twisting streets, filled with cafes, shops and tourists.
June 30 -- Hania --
Hania has a huge weekly farmers market where we spend the morning ambling up and down the streets making photos and people watching. The market is not well advertised and we see very few foreigners, mostly Cretans shopping for vegetables or digging through giant piles of clothes and shoes in the "All Items One Euro" bargain tents.
Later as we are eating a delicious Greek salad (huge chunks of tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, olives, and lettuce mixed with olive oil and herbs) at a sidewalk cafe away from the tourist district, our hotel owner rides past on his bike. He yells out for the waiter to give me a beer and Tass a glass of wine, and put it on his tab. So never mind what I wrote earlier about Greeks being grumpy and unfriendly!
July 1-- Rest Day
We planned on leaving early but instead pull out the maps and have a logistical meeting. After spending more time than we planned in Egypt, and more extra days in Athens dealing with dentists, we are behind schedule. To catch up we decide not to cycle through southern Crete, an area of rural scenery and wild camping probably much like the Peloponnese. Instead we will cycle across northern Crete, more touristy but also more culturally interesting, and a much shorter route. With the change we can now do the one thing in Hania we still have not done--have a true rest day. No big photo expeditions, no late night internet cafes, we actually take a real day off, explore town, relax, read and even take a nap.
July 2-- 110 Degrees -- Reythimno
Leave Hania before 7 am and already extremely hot and muggy. Today is going to be stiffling. We ride on secondary roads through small interesting towns. A third of the tourists who come to Greece visit Crete, and it seems they are all here on the north coast, each town is filled with tourist shops and cafes. After our week in rural Peloponnese we enjoy the bustle of activity and the people watching.
The road climbs inland away from the beaches and tourists, and we stop at a little village cooperative where women raise silk worms and weave silk scarves by hand. Tass buys a beautiful shawl for only 30 dollars US. As we leave the shop a "train," a vehicle built to look like a locomtive engine pulling three open seated trailers with canvas awnings, carrying 40 people, pulls up and stops beside us. I guess we are not the only ones to visit the cooperative this morning. All the passengers get in line to enter the store, which will only hold about 10 people. A man from Australia see us and his eyes nearly pop from his head. "How do you cycle in this heat?" he asks. We haven't even checked our thermometer the last few days so I pull it out. 110 degrees. Sometimes it is better not to know.
Although the temperature is higher than we would have guessed, our riding is very relaxing. We are now cycling shorter distances that only require half a days riding, allowing us the afternoon and evenings off the bikes. In Reythimno we again head for the old Ottoman and Venetian part of the city. The huge walls the Venetians built are extremely well preserved, we cycle under giant stone archways to enter the old quarter, make a few turns and then ride down a narrow, pedestrian only cobblestone alley, shaded by tressels and covered with flowering vines. We stop at a small sign painted "rent rooms" and knock. Two sisters, both tiny, old and shriveled, show us the room. When they speak they chatter in animated and indecipherable Greek using exagerated, elfin-like facial expressions, jumping about like marionettes, gestulating wildly with jerky arm and hand movements. We wish we could rent from them for a month they are so friendly and adorable.
July 3 Through the Mountains to Iraklieo
We take a pleasant, traffic free ride around the Reythimno Venetian fort in the golden light of early morning and then cycle east on a road up a fertile valley through a region known for quality vineyards. The road continues on with almost no traffic, like we have the whole valley to ourselves. We chat and joke as we ride, cross a small pass, speed down the twisting back side, then resume climbing.
After another larger pass we come into a small village where the outdoor cafe in the center of town is filled with Greeks sitting in the shade of the huge old trees which fill the square. Half are having the "typical" Greek breakfast of coffee and cigarettes. Although it is only 10 pm, the other half are sipping beers, which is amusing until Tass points out that some of these people could be driving past us later.
We climb a fourth pass then stop for a delicious meal of vegetable pies baked in light and flakey crust, filled with 12 different leafy green herbs and spices, a specialty of the area. The final pass, the highest, is short, easy, and stunningly beautiful--we can see all the way back down to the coast and our destination, the city of Iraklieo (named after Hercules). The descent is again filled with fun hairpins and steep, banked corners. The downhill is so long we have to stop to rest our arm and hand muscles from pulling on the breaks.