Posts Tagged With: what to do

Discovering Crete…

Buongiorno,

How is everyone? I’ve been to Crete! It was my first holiday to a non-Italian / non-English location for years. It turns out, as an ex-pat it’s quite easy to spend all your holidays going back to your country of origin rather than discovering other parts of the world, something I used to love doing. Deciding it was high time to change that, a friend and I decided we’d go abroad.

Now, I usually try to go somewhere off the beaten track; I’m not a package holiday sort of person. However, my holiday buddy doesn’t seem to appreciate my hour-by-hour holiday itineraries to ensure no potential area of interest is left un-turned and besides, it’s been a stressful few months so why not give ‘relaxing’ a go, I thought. Our criteria was thus: as relaxing, as sunny and as cheap as possible. After an hour or so of trawling websites, we found an all-inclusive deal to the Kalyves Beach Hotel in the north west of Crete. We arrived with me excited but still full of disdain for my own holiday choice and imagining Crete (completely unfairly and based upon no information at all) to be a tacky resort island with no charm at all. I imagined 7 days of lying by a pool, stuffing my face with food and drink until I had to be rolled back to the airport.

I was wrong! (Well, about the sitting by the pool bit at least – regarding the constant eating, well, my prediction was accurate and I’ve pretty much doubled in size). It wasn’t anywhere near as boring a holiday as I’d anticipated, far from it in fact! I’m now actually impressed with Crete as a holiday destination. It’s much bigger than I’d imagined – you need a car to get around it really (about 30 euro a day). There’s lots to see and we didn’t get to see half of the island. It’s got a lot of history with ruins and castles and forts. There are quaint little towns and some spectacular natural wonders to see too.

Kalyves Beach Hotel

The hotel was good – I’d recommend it. The staff were nice. It was clean, bright and well decorated with lots of sofa space inside and lots of sun-beds, tables and chairs outside. The bedrooms were simple and bright with a balcony. The beach is a stone’s throw away from the hotel. It’s a nice beach which you can walk along to a little harbour and have a drink in one of the bars on the beach and watch the sunset.

Crete with Ashley (32 of 68)Crete with Ashley (35 of 68)Crete with Ashley (33 of 68)Crete with Ashley (34 of 68)

The food at the hotel was really good. It had a buffet so you can pile your plates with all manner of things. The salads were many and varied and the hot food was good too.  As a vegetarian it was a bit of a challenge, not because there wasn’t any vegetarian food but because the food wasn’t labelled and meat was often snuck into seemingly safe looking food! There were always people around to ask though so it wasn’t a great hardship. The deserts were great. After having effectively a baklava intravenous drip for the whole week, I’m now having withdrawal symptoms.

Crete with Ashley (36 of 68)

This was the outside part of the restaurant – overlooking a river which fed into the sea a few meters further up.

The bad things were few and far between… I was a little disappointed by our ‘sea-view’ which we were charged quite a bit extra for but was more of a ‘other-side-of-the-hotel-and-pool-and-if-you-looked-carefully-to-the-right-you-might-see-a-bit-of-sea-view’.

The shower ended up being more of a wet-room which meant having constantly soggy feet whenever you went to the bathroom. The complementary body cream smelt like gone-off sewage. You had to pay 20 euros extra for the safe for a week. The bed sheet was just a little bit too small for the mattress and so had a habit of working itself off. I’m a wriggly sleeper and somehow one night I woke up under the undersheet and on top of the mattress itself. Ugh.

If you use the MTS transfer service – be prepared to not know when you’re being picked up to get to the airport until the last minute and be prepared to speak to a very annoyed woman whilst you’re trying to work it out!

Things to do

Samaria Gorge. This was my favourite bit of the holiday. Crete is quite mountainous. The closest mountain range to us were the “White Mountains” which were still snow-capped much to my amazement given it was about 28 degrees every day. In the midst of the White Mountains is the Samaria Gorge. These mountains are spectacular. The gorge is 18km long. To ‘do’ the gorge you really need to go on an organised excursion that takes you to the top of the mountain. We got picked up from the hotel in the middle of the night (well, 5.30am or so!), and then by about 8am we were dropped off at the start. You’re then left to your own devices to get to the other end of the gorge by late afternoon. It’s an easy route but possibly hard going for people that aren’t used to walking a lot. We just had our normal trainers but I’d have felt more comfortable with my walking boots – the path is quite slippy and rocky in places. Be prepared to ache the next couple of days!

I took a million snaps of the Gorge – these are a tiny selection, and still none of them do it justice…

People have passed their time in the gorge creating little rock piles and propping up boulders with small sticks!

And there were some unusual flowers and plants …

But in parts it felt quite dangerous with signs instructing people to ‘walk quickly’ in case of rock falls and there were a few ominous looking river crossings.

Tip: TAKE FOOD! Don’t listen to any crazy person in the excursion office telling you there are taverns. There are none, only at the very end of the walk. (And on that note – if you want to see the a waiter with the bluest eyes known to mankind – go to Taverna Rousios.) We also arrived back at the hotel a couple of hours later than advertised so missed dinner too.

Elafonisi Beach

Elafonisi beach is on the south west of the island. It’s a bit off the beaten track with nothing else much around it. The way to the beach is beautiful, through lots of twists and turns in the mountains and past quaint little towns and bars offering fresh orange juice. This beach has to rate as one of my favourite ever beaches (it only lost out on my top spot of Australia’s Byron Bay because the water was so icy cold!). The beach is wide and long with white and pink sand and cool rocks. The water is a beautiful turquoise and is absolutely crystal clear. Definitely worthy of a visit!

The Cave of the Wisdom of God in Katsomatado

If you’re going to Elafonisi beach, stop at this cave. It’s big, (100m wide, 100m deep) set reasonably high into the mountainside and it’s free to enter (though you have to walk through a taverna to get to the entrance so it requires a bit of courage if you’re not going to buy anything!). There’s lots of unusual stalactite and stalagmite formations and there’s legends going back to 1347AD. One describes how a couple of religious folk were voluntarily decapitated by their son (and nephew) who took their heads to the Venetian rulers at the time to get amnesty (who knows what for but it seems quite a high price to pay!). Their headless bodies were recently discovered in the cave. Back in the Neolithic period there’s evidence that humans used to live in the cave. All in all, very interesting.

Crete with Ashley (49 of 68)

Kournas Lake

This is a lake nestled between some low level mountains. We rented a pedalo (5 – 10 euros an hour depending on who you go to!) and went turtle spotting (they’re near the edges by the reeds). Apparently the turtles are completely native to the lake. On the shores there are tavernas and shops selling tourist paraphernalia. I must say, I was really impressed with the level of craftsmanship to their souvenirs – it wasn’t just the usual tourist ‘tat’. If Easyjet weren’t quite so harsh with their luggage requirements (honestly, Ryanair put them to shame – I never thought I’d utter those words!), I would have bought quite a few things.

Crete with Ashley (1 of 68)

I took this from the lake! I should have taken more pictures of the pedalo and the little town!

Chania

Chania is a town in the north east of the island. We didn’t get to explore the town much unfortunately, spending only a couple of hours there but it had a really nice vibe to it. There are lots of little backstreets to explore and lots of nice things to buy. Head to the lively harbour area where there are lots of bars to relax in and take in the scenery.

Rethymno

Reythymno is also in the north east but inland. It’s quite big and certainly the bit we saw lacked some of the charm of Chania, seeming less of a tourist area. It did have some quaint parts though and we had a look at one of the Greek orthodox churches which was interesting to look around.

However, its big selling point for us was the fortezza and that was definitely worth a visit (4 euro entry). It’s a Venetian fort built in the 16th century and which was captured by the Ottomans in 1649.  Crete has had quite a troubled past seemingly being taken over by people left, right and center.  The fort has a few buildings remaining inside – including a couple of chapels and a mosque, but my favourite part was just wondering around on the grounds. It offers great views of Rethymno and certainly at this time of year, the grounds are covered with wild flowers.

There were a couple of things about Crete that puzzled me. The first being that there is no consistency at all on how they spell any place. It adds a level of stress when trying to navigate as the place names on the maps don’t represent any of the names on road signs. Even the road signs themselves will spell places differently from one road sign to the next. Chania can be Hania, Xania or one or any of those with various accents placed over the letters and then of course there’s the Greek word. The graffiti artists of Crete have gone on a mission to cover over many of the road signs to make them illegible. They needn’t have bothered; bushes and tree’s cover most of them anyway. If you don’t have a sat-nav – be prepared to get stressed!

In towns, people seem to paint the bottoms of their trees white. We uncovered some theories as to why… Apparently some people do it in the belief that it acts as a pesticide (apparently it doesn’t actually work) and it also helps to reflect heat (I’m not entirely convinced about this theory. Whoever heard of a hot tree? And besides, they even paint the bottoms of telegraph poles, you can’t tell me they suffer from the heat!). I think the more likely explanation is that they think it looks nice. It doesn’t look bad, but it was certainly a talking point!

Crete with Ashley (9 of 68)

Anyway, all in all, Crete is a worthy holiday destination and has my seal of approval! Go forth with confidence… 🙂

A presto,

x

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Naples Part 1: Seeing Naples and Dying

Buongiorno!

I’ve been to Naples! I had 3 days or so there this week and I can confirm, the city has my seal of approval 🙂  Its chaotic, vibrant, dirty, spectacular and fun all at the same time.  What it lacks in cleanliness it makes up for in atmosphere. It has hills, coast, amazing architecture and great food. I’ve written up my little trip in three parts. This, Part 1, is a general summary. Part 2 covers things to do in the city if you visit yourself. In Part 3 I’ll tell you about my visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum.

There is a really nice vibe about Naples. It has the most depressing apartment blocks I’ve ever seen (so ugly and unkempt they’re picturesque), just seconds away from swish hotels with doormen outside. Almost all of the apartment blocks look worse for wear sporting a ‘never been painted’ look with clumps of building missing. Rubbish litters the confetti sprinkled streets (confetti is used here for lots of celebrations, not just weddings so it’s literally everywhere!).

 

That said the Neapolitans, making the best of a bad job, do what they can to make their space as nice as they can by putting the occasional plant out on the balconies. And despite graffiti stretching up to head-height, it’s generally soppy rather than offensive; “I only want you”, “You are in my dreams” etc. (also “don’t park here on pain of death” but let’s gloss over that one!). There’s even a Banksy!

The city very clearly has a past and its character is etched into the fabric of every building. Washing is hung up and sprawled across cobbled streets (I can’t help but think that it’ll end up dirtier than when it started).

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The bottom part of each palazzo often seems to have been turned into a shop of some sort, particularly around ‘Spaccanapoli’ – a road running through the centre of Naples’ old town. Neapolitans are a very holy lot; there are churches everywhere and where there isn’t a church there’s a shrine embedded into the wall.

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One of the many, many shrines.

I can see why there’s such a need to feel like there’s some higher being looking down on you. Aside from the constant threat of volcanoes, to get anywhere by foot, one must step into speeding traffic and blindly hope you won’t be run over. I don’t think this is what is meant by the “see Naples and die” phrase though! However, you can manage to get around to see the main sites on foot. I wouldn’t recommend driving (car or vespa – it’s manic and once you park, someone will block you in) but other options are the metro which only costs a euro, trams and buses. Sightseeing buses are 22 euros but they can’t access many of the the narrow streets that make up much of Naples.

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I couldn’t get the hang of crossing the road at all. I often waited at the side of the road and then sidled across with someone that looked like they knew what they were doing. If I could have held their hands, I’d have felt better still. This photo is not representative of the sheer amount of traffic but I quite liked it anyway for some reason!

 

So yes, it’s certainly chaotic but charmingly so.  I found the people to be generally quite friendly.  There were people that seemed quite obviously fed up with tourists but nobody was rude, just direct. Even the grumpy ones seemed to warm up – one guy let me off paying extra to “eat in” because I was nice (he said this without once breaking out of his grimace). A guy at the train station gave me a cheap ticket because I only had a credit card and they didn’t take them (can you imagine someone in the UK doing that?!) A waiter at a fish restaurant gave me a note to give to the manager of the pizzeria up the road to give me a good service, despite me having complained to him for implying vegetarians eat fish (THEY DON’T! You can’t arbitrarily decide what animal is OK to eat. That just makes you a fussy meat-eater).

There’s none of this anonymity like you get in other cities where eye-contact is something that is avoided like the plague. People yell across at balconies to their mates, old ladies walk arm in arm, men fist-bump each other on their scooters, they beep at their friends and even the school kids seem to greet each other by hugging and kissing.

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You’re not held to dress-code rules here either – you can chose what you wear based on temperature rather than the month like you are in other parts of Italy.

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They’re so unlike ‘normal’ Italians – some guys actually stripped off and jumped into the water. I mean, it was a nice day but it’s February and the water is surely a little chilly?! An Italian in Le Marche wouldn’t be able to compute that at all assuming they were committing suicide!

Eavesdropping is difficult. Neapolitans speak in an accent and dialect so strong and odd that it could be a foreign language. They do speak “Italian” though too when needs must and lots speak English.

As with many cities, there are a lot of beggars and homeless folk (mostly all with fancier smart phones than I have curiously). Naples also has a terrible reputation for thieves. I almost didn’t bring my camera just in case it got stolen.  However, I think it’s pretty much like London. You just need to be careful – don’t leave your stuff unattended, maybe use a backpack rather than a handbag…  I didn’t feel too unsafe anywhere. I’m not sure whether it’s comforting or the opposite but there seem to be police riot vans and army vehicles around every corner.

If you’re a man coming to Naples and you want to fit in, you must leer at women as they walk past and tell them they’re beautiful. If you’re a woman, you must ignore them. How the men escape these daily interactions with their self-esteem intact, I’ll never know.

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This is a terrible photo (but one that makes me laugh) of a handsome chappy that has absolutely nailed his “leer”. He can be found in the Certosa di San Martino.

 

Staying in Naples

I stayed in a nice hotel called Hotel Rex. It’s on the seafront and therefore marginally out of the hustle and bustle of the main town, particularly at this time of year. However, after 5 minutes walking, you’re in Piazza Plebiscito which is a very grand open space surrounded by majestic buildings and then after a further few minutes walk and you’re in the ‘old town’. I really enjoyed escaping the chaos and coming back to the hotel at the end of the day. The staff were all very friendly and the breakfast offered a good range of food.

I think that about sums up Part 1 of the trilogy! Tune in for Part 2 to see what sights Naples has to offer…

I hope you’re all having a great weekend!

x

 

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