Here is the driest, most unwriterly report possible of what I did in Greece, with a minimum of commentary and absolutely nothing of interest to anyone but me whatsoever. I have for the most part gone through and taken out every interesting and amazing thing that happened and replaced it with, “Just the facts.” It was a pretty ridiculously inspiring trip, and I saw things I’m incredibly passionate about, and a lot of completely insane things happened. I managed to get to all but one of the locations I wanted to use in my book, and the notes I took in those places are going to absolutely make this a more powerful novel with the flavor of observation I appreciate so much in fiction. And all that was incredible, but before the boring slog details of what I actually did get lost under the brightness of what was incredible, I thought I should write this down. A smarter person would have done this night by night, because I can tell things already did get lost. But I did a pretty good job reporting day by day on Instagram so you can check out that story highlight if you are actually curious. And the things that were inspiring, you’ll see those in fiction soon enough. So yeah, I wouldn’t read any further than this if I were you, unless you really want to know just how many times I couldn’t find parking in Crete.
I arrived in Athens early in the afternoon. I had pre-arranged a cab, since I often get sick when I fly and couldn’t be bothered with an hour long metro. My driver spent most of the ride telling me that we were on the traditional marathon path. He was enthusiastic about my desire to see the Byzantine museum, which was fun.
I got to my hotel room, pulled back the curtains, realized I was staring straight down into the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and immediately started crying. Even though I was out and out exhausted, I got way too excited, didn’t even change, dumped my stuff on the floor and went right out the door. I walked around the columns being generally amazed by everything, then headed straight to the Acropolis Museum. I walked around the museum until I couldn’t stand, then went back to my hotel room for a nap.
That evening, I went out with no particular aim and wandered around neighborhoods I would later find out are called Thissio1 and the Plaka. I tried my level best to find a quick vegetarian dinner, but in part because I was (in retrospect) basically delirious from travel, I ended up with chicken gyros and passed out like the dead.
After having actually slept, I had my hotel breakfast on the rooftop looking up at the Acropolis.2 I managed to get out the door really fast, and was one of the first people up there. My favorite part was the Erechtheion. From there I went to look at the Roman Agora, where I came away with a curiosity about Hadrian, and then on to the Ancient Agora. While I was wandering around the Ancient Agora, I realized that I’d given myself heat stroke or was dehydrated or something, because I was stumbling. So I went home, drank an insane amount of water, and took a nap.3
In the afternoon, I walked by way of the olympic stadium and national gardens to the Byzantine and Christian Museum, which was every bit as cool as I’d hoped. I really like Byzantine jewelry, but the thing that really caught my attention was a corner of Anthibola that helped me understand how iconographic work comes to be.
In the evening, I walked up Filopappou hill and sat for a bit, then went to a see Le Samourai at Thision Open Air Cinema. Open air cinemas are a thing in Greece, and I love outdoor movies, and this one just happened to be showing a movie I’d always meant to see. The movie was great, the theater is cute and full of cats, and when I looked up, I could still see the Parthenon. So, this ended up being one of my favorite things on this trip.
After another hotel breakfast looking up at the Parthenon, I checked out of my hotel and left my bag at the desk. I went to Hadrian’s library, and then on to the National Archaeological Museum, which, of course, took the whole damn day. The first section, which has a lot of bronze age stuff, was a great appetizer for what came later. I again marched myself into a stupor, but luckily, as I found out, there is a really kind of not terrible cafe down in the basement that overlooks a courtyard full of statues from the Antikythera shipwreck. And that was pretty cool.
There’s a lot of stuff that’s obviously important there, like the Antikythera mechanism which has its own fancy little glass video box, but the thing I found myself interested in that I hadn’t expected was the pottery. It was nice to come away with an appreciation for something new.
I walked back to the hotel again through Thissio and got some ridiculously good frozen yogurt, grabbed my bag, and got a taxi to Piraeus port for the ferry. I was really early because I had no idea how ferries work in Greece and did not have any kind of confirmation besides a number which was scary, but I did know that boarding started at 6, so I just went down there because I was tired anyway.
But of course, everything was fine. I got a ticket, got on the ferry, and got politely shepherded around like the diminutive, obviously American girl I am. I had a room and all, so I just threw my stuff down in there and went up to hang out4 on the deck until we left. You can’t really see a whole lot on the ocean in the dark, but heading out as the lights faded away was really cool.
I also didn’t know how exactly disembarking would go, so I got up pretty early, had ferry coffee, and wandered around on the boat. Getting off was exactly as straightforward as getting on. So, all that worry for nothing.
We pulled into Heraklion around 6, and from the port I just walked to my hotel rather than get a ride. They very kindly took my bag, and I spent the early morning on one of the less amusing logistical endeavors: getting to the airport to get my car. Eventually I did figure out the bus (when in doubt, follow the people with suitcases headed in that general direction). But by this time, I was completely losing my shit, because I was really, really nervous about driving. I don’t even like driving in the US, and this was what I was most afraid to do by myself.
So I went up to Hertz, and like everything else, actually getting the car turned out to be really easy. Except when they brought around my car, it wasn’t one of the little tiny Fiats or Kias I’d seen all over the lot. It was a really goddamn nice grey BMW. And, next to a Kia, it looked huge. And also like it was way too nice for me. And also who the hell would trust me with a BMW?
So I asked if I could just have a Kia (which in retrospect was ridiculous) and they told me this was my car, so I obediently got in and hoped for the best.
I was actually in tears trying to drive in Heraklion, where there are no road rules, and people honk, and there’s insanely aggressive driving, and everything seems loud and crazy. But Knossos isn’t in Heraklion. It’s outside the city. So instead of driving back to my hotel, I booked it to Knossos just to get my head on straight. This wasn’t my original plan, but because it was so early, I thought it might be ok.
Knossos was incredible. Too incredible for sentences. But the thing you should keep in mind is that in addition to the original site, I was also interested in Sir Arthur Evans’ fantasy of the site, which meant that the dubious reconstructions weren’t a problem for me. I actually stayed for quite a while and ended up eating a terrible sandwich from their terrible cafe on a bench.
Then I got back in the car and drove back to Heraklion. Parking was a complete and total disaster, and I ended up getting valet from my hotel. Then I had a full blown panic attack. I cannot emphasize how scary driving in a foreign country where you can only read at a hooked on phonics level can be.5 I got pretty frustrated because I could not calm myself down, and my brain was making me upset about things that were still days away, and problems I couldn’t possibly solve from where I was standing, but as always I was eventually fine, and I realized I was letting anxiety rob me of the things I came to see.6
So then I went over to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, which was one of the “big things” on this trip, because it’s where the Phaistos disc and all those beautiful Minoan frescoes are. It’s amazing. It doesn’t seem too big when you go in, but it’s just got so much stuff that you can spend all day there. They said it was fine for me to leave and come back, so I ended up breaking it into two floors because the frescoes are upstairs and I was yet again on the verge of fainting. So I went and got some food, and then came back and closed down the museum (which means a generous but at the time heartbreaking 8 o’clock). Again, it would be insane to list all the amazing things I saw, but I’m sure they’ll leak out piece by piece.
After a less than inspired hotel breakfast, I hit the road towards Malia. Driving went much better, and it was a beautiful day, so by the time I got there I was having fun. I liked Malia a lot, but I think that these palaces make the most sense when you see them in a series, so in part I liked it because I’d already been to Knossos.
From there I walked down to a beach, just to stroll, then drove to the Church of Panagia Kera. Panagia Kera is a Byzantine church with some pretty amazing frescos and I absolutely loved it. I also had one of the most bizarre polyglot experiences of my life here, where a German guy very kindly explained, in French, what was going on in one of the sections to me and some other not-french tourists, which was then translated by those who spoke French into other languages.
I got a Fanta across the street and petted a kitten, and started driving towards the Lasithi Plateau. I stopped at Lato, in part because I was lost, and I really liked looking into the houses.
I stopped at a taverna to get some food because I was starving and fanta is not food, and looking out on the Lasithi Plateau, the thing I kept thinking is how much Crete looks like Oregon. From there, I battled some questionable roads until finally, pretty late, I made it to Psychro cave, which is one of the birthplaces of Zeus. It’s a pretty steep climb and they have donkeys that can take you to the top, but even though I love donkeys, I didn’t ride one.
After the cave, I drove all the way back to Heraklion. Then I went running along the sea wall because Archimedes, my watch, was harassing me, but the water was coming over the sea wall and spraying me so I decided to cut it short. But in terms of epic runs, this was a pretty good one.
I got up early, braved another uninspired hotel breakfast with uninspired coffee, then went to Gregory’s where they have real coffee while the valet got my car. Gregory’s is a coffee chain and it’s not amazing but it’s omnipresent and they have cold brew.
I drove first to Gortyna and saw the law code, which I thought was really interesting. I didn’t explore the site on the other side of the highway because I had trouble finding it, and it was early so no one was around. Then I went on to Phaistos (as in Phaistos disc) and stayed there for a long time. It was incredibly windy, but some parts of Phaistos I found really unique, like the “prince’s” section, his mini palace. Also I didn’t remember to take any pictures of any of them, but I ate a ton of these Cretan pastries called Kalitsounia that are made with sweet cheese. Every time I saw one I wanted one, so just inject that into the narrative randomly and that’s about how often I had them. I love them. Anyway, I got one at Phaistos because I was starving and tried to perk myself up with some water.
From there, I went on to Matala, which is a horrible touristy place that’s famous because hippies used to sleep in the caves, which smell terrible. I bought all these hotels with credit card points, and this was the closest I could get to Phaistos using points. Which, even though I hated Matala, was good because I was exhausted. I did go and walk the coast, and I went into the caves, but mostly I just slept in Matala. The wind was crazy and maybe it just wasn’t the best day to be there.
I got up early, had a hotel breakfast, and hit the road as early as possible. I literally followed a rainbow to an insanely deep ravine with yet more terrifyingly strong winds, then up again to Preveli Monastery. I felt really weird because there was a group there getting blessed or something with a cross, and the fact that it’s a working monastery made me feel like I shouldn’t be there. But it was interesting to see it as an evacuation site.
I drove from Preveli through Agrygoupoli which I’m sure normally is beautiful, but unbeknownst to me, we were about to get slammed with a major storm, and it was already pouring so I basically just stretched my legs and sped through.
I tried to get to my hotel in Rethymno, but because I couldn’t find parking, and Google kept directing me down pedestrian-only streets, I actually gave up and drove out to Arkadi monastery instead. I was pretty freaked out about the parking, and Arkadi monastery is kind of weird. It’s a site of a huge massacre, where the surviving Cretans blew themselves and the invading Turks up, which is the spirit of resistance they love to highlight. But when you read some versions of that story, it’s actually that one priest blew up a bunch of women and children to spare them from being spoiled in the hands of the Turks. I was also just in an annoyed mood generally so I was being cynical.
I did manage to park my car in Rethymno, and check into my hotel, where they had upgraded me to their “Champagne Suite” and while I’ve had pretty good luck with hotels in my life, this was one of my favorites ever. It was this large suite with no windows disconnected from the main hotel, which gave it this feeling very much like a luxury monastery. I ate at one of the hotel restaurants, called Raki Ba Raki, and it was fantastic.
Storms woke me up very early, so I went for a morning walk to the fortress in Rethymno. I liked walking around the fortress and hiding in the lookout spots. Then I had what may be the best meal I ate on this trip at breakfast in the Avli restaurant. It was honestly just the yogurt I liked so much. It was the best yogurt and honey I have literally ever had. It’s like when you’ve been eating storebought butter for your whole life and then one day try some weird amish butter, and you realize that’s what butter is supposed to taste like and you’ve been living with a delicious shadow of its potential.
After breakfast I wandered around Rethymno. I had planned to go hiking, but everyone that morning was cancelling their plans because of the coming storm, so I thought a solo hike down a gorge might not be wise, especially with a long drive on both sides. Instead I took a tiny tourist train for a ride, went to the beach and read a book, saw all the sights of Rethymno, and had dinner at this great little cafe hidden in a corner. It felt like kind of a wasted day, though I had fun, but later I found out that they cancelled all the schools in the area and in Athens because if the cyclone had landed, it was going to be severe and deadly. The baby storm that woke me up in the morning had thunder so loud it knocked a glass off a table, so I feel like this was the right choice.
I had another amazing breakfast, then headed my way to Chania. I had the same parking issues as before, but this time I actually understood why I couldn’t drive down those pedestrian streets so it was less frustrating. I went to their little baby Byzantine museum, where I found some wood carved things I can’t remember the name of that I really liked. Then I went to the Maritime museum which I also ended up really liking. I took a break to get my stuff into the hotel, then went to their Archaeology museum, which was fine. The sights around Chania are kind of a lot like Rethymno, but less cute. There’s a lighthouse, a waterfront walk, etc. But I liked Rethymno much more, maybe just because I wasn’t confronted with Rethymno’s night life coming through my window.
Mostly it was a logistical evening, because I wanted to go hiking tomorrow and that meant I needed to be out the door just insanely early with food for the hike, which was a little more difficult to obtain than I’d hoped. But I managed to put together a little hiking bag and went to bed early.
In the morning, I set out well before dawn and started the drive up to Samaria Gorge. The drive was incredible as the sun came up over all these churches and towns, and I drove through some truly beautiful hills. I knew something was wrong, though, because the roads were deserted. By the time I’d gotten almost to the entrance to the hike, I could see this black fog just boiling off the mountain. Also just so many goats.
It was after the park should have been open when I arrived, but I was the only car there. And I hadn’t seen any busses. And there was a big no entry sign over the very, very locked gate. So I thought this was pretty much fucked. When I opened the door, the wind was so strong it ripped the door out of my hands. I didn’t even take any pictures outside the car I was so afraid I’d lose my phone.
A really nice older guy who I think was a park ranger came over when he saw me standing there looking confused, and I managed to ask him if the park was closed for the day. He said yes. As I drove back down, I did see other cars heading up there, and I kind of wondered if the park was closed-closed, or if it was closed to tiny American girls in pink sweatshirts. But either way, for me to do the gorge I would have had to do something completely insane: hike it twice. You’re supposed to do it one way and catch a ferry, but with the car I would have had to do it twice with a break at the bottom. And on a good day, I’m fit enough to do that, but with bad weather it would have been dicey.
I was pretty disappointed, but the drive had been beautiful, so I decided to drive to Elafonissi, which I had considered as a location for the book I’m writing. I thought I was just going to get the lay of the land, and it was a long nice drive with some fun tunnels. At that point I was solidly addicted to driving my BMW, so I didn’t mind.
When I got to Elafonissi, it was gray, but not as dark and horrifying as the mountains behind me. There was literally no one there. There were a few cars, but Elafonissi is huge so I really didn’t see anyone.
I was just going to leave, but I noticed that there was something on the other side of this big strip of water, so I waded through it and found the few other people at Elafonissi. At that point the sun came out and it was like a completely different and completely gorgeous place. I kept walking, past the people, and then it was just me. I walked up to the church on the other side of the island and it was just incredible, with an incredible view. Being alone up there was really eerie, but I loved it.
Elafonissi is like a long series of small beaches, so I found a rocky cove I liked and swam for a while even though I hadn’t thought to bring a towel or a swimsuit, and then I spent a while pretending to be shipwrecked, which was fun. There were some interesting looking caves up on the hill but I was a little concerned about climbing up there in sandals, so I just enjoyed the coast.
The drive home was also incredible beautiful, and I finally bought some raki from a roadside stand. I went back and had a really great middle eastern dinner where I yet again ordered a carafe of wine thinking it was a glass. Then I was tired and went to bed pretty early.
My last day in Crete, I walked early around Chania and found that excavation site in the middle of the city. Then it was time to hit the road. I drove first to Lake Kournas and stopped for coffee. I wanted to go kayaking but I had my camera and wasn’t super sure on the stability of those glass bottom boats.
From there I went to Melidoni cave, which was neat, but mostly closed off probably due to flooding. I was tempted to do a repeat of one of the palaces, but I said no repeats as a rule on this trip, and I managed to stick to that.7 I wasn’t ready to give back my car, so I drove south to Rouvas gorge. If you look on a map, this is nowhere near where I needed to be. But it was a fun drive and a fun walk, though I couldn’t get too far in sandals.
Then I drove back, dropped off the car at the airport, took a bus into Heraklion, and got a vegetarian pita at this random cheap place I liked a lot called Izmar Kebap. Again, I found it pretty hard to eat quick, cheap, relatively healthy vegetarian food in Greece. There are souvlaki places all over, but if you try to order the vegetarian option, it often takes a million years because there’s always some special random thing they have to make. And it’s annoying because so much Greek food is vegetarian. I was totally fine in all the real restaurants I went to but I didn’t really solve the “vegetarian on the go” problem on this run.
I walked to the ferry and got on, had a few drinks, and watched the lights fade from the deck. Then I slept like a rock.
I love to get up early and see the ferry pull in, so I did that from basically every angle on the ship over some horrible, horrible filter coffee. Then we all disembarked, and I followed the trail of people to what I hoped would be a metro station, which of course it was.8 I got off and found my hotel, where they were nice enough to let me exchange my breakfast on the following morning for that day, and I regrouped on their roof over coffee looking up at the Parthenon.
I’m an idiot and the Benaki museum was actually closed on Tuesday. I knew everything would be closed on Mondays, but I stupidly didn’t look up this specific museum. Rookie mistake. So I missed the exhibition on Joan Leigh Fermor’s photographs, which I was pretty heartbroken about. I think it’s coming out as a book though so that’s ok, and her archives are in Scotland so I can go there too. Anyway, so instead I climbed up Mt. Lycabettus, which I’d been staring at since I got to Athens, because when there’s a mountain that prominent you just have to climb it. I really liked the view so I’d recommend it.
On the way back, I found a cute bookstore and bought the letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor to make up for the museum. I truly bought nothing on this trip but food and entry tickets and parking, but the thing about books you find abroad is that no matter how globalized we get, it’s still sometimes a massive pain in the ass to get a book that’s out in Europe but not in the US. Dashing For the Post is probably out here, but why risk it, and also it made me happy to read it on my last day and on the plane.
I lucked out and got to check in to my hotel insanely early, so I settled my bag there and headed to the Numismatic Museum. This museum is in the ridiculous neoclassical mansion of Heinrich Schliemann, who is too complicated to explain. Just google him. Between the house and the collection, I really loved this one. Numismatics is really interesting, both in the “Where’s George” sense and the representations of subjects.
I finished up The World of Odysseus over a drink, because Finley really hates Schliemann, and then went to Kerameikos which is a little off the beaten path but I really liked it, especially their little baby museum. I strolled around for a bit and read my new book, and then I decided to close out my trip with my one and only repeat, Cine Thissio, where they were showing Papillon which I completely loved. It was kind of a perfect ending to Greece.
Every trip has its annoying logistical ending, but mine wasn’t too bad. I went for a morning run around the Acropolis in the dark, then I showered and put myself together and managed to get out the door pretty early. I wanted to take the metro to find out if it was doable for next time, so I left earlier than I needed to, which turned out to be good because the train isn’t as frequent as I thought. It does take about an hour to get from Monastriki to the airport, and it’s not too expensive, like ten euros. I would put it on par with Heathrow to London in pain in the ass levels.
The airport was fine, but the check in counter was a pretty big mess. I ended up in the wrong ticket line which I still don’t quite understand, and both lines were long. I think there’s almost certainly a way to use the self-check, but it was blocked by the winding horrible line. After checking in, though, the airport was fine. I got a drink or six in the Goldair lounge, then got on the plane, and that was goodbye to Greece.
- I gave up on the romanization of these names, because they’re not even consistent on the signs. Just roll with it.
- Side note: I’m not sure why exactly but the North slope was closed.
- I should mention, this is going to be a theme here. I repeatedly stayed out in the sun walking mile after mile, realizing only when it was too late that I was, for example, having trouble reading text on signs.
- Euphemism for drinking.
- Pro-tip: anyone who tells you that you don’t need to be able to read the Greek alphabet is lying. Thank God I could read, though it turns out pronunciation of Greek has changed a bit since the birth of Christ, so it wasn’t super useful when speaking. You need to know the alphabet if you’re going to drive, because you can’t “puzzle it out” going 100 miles an hour.
- Traveling with anxiety is hard. However, I tried to remind myself that even with the time I lost to anxiety, everything I saw is so much more than I would have seen if I’d let fear keep me from coming in the first place. So, that kept me from getting too frustrated, and I think it helped me bounce back a little quicker.
- This took an incredible amount of self control, especially with the two archaeological museums. But a first trip, I think, should accept that nothing will really feel like you really saw something (at least for me). I wouldn’t feel bad going to the Louvre three days straight because I’ve been to Paris a few times but particularly because I was doing location scouting for a novel, I really made myself stick to this rule. It’s not a life thing, it’s a this trip thing.
- Ok, fine, one long personal side note. It’s amazing how you can worry so much about something and you find that you absolutely have enough common sense and experience to figure it out because you’re thirty and not a fucking idiot. In fact, it turns out that the ridiculous amount of travel I’ve done in my life was more than sufficient to prepare me for a solo trip in a country where I don’t really speak the language, even with some tricky transit issues. I just filled out my Global Entry application because customs lines are just awful in DC, and when I had to reconstruct the list of places I’ve been just since 2013, it was insane. And that’s just internationally. For all my freaking out about parking, for all that other people worried about me, there was never a time when anything went seriously wrong that I couldn’t fix myself. I didn’t find “traveling alone as a woman” to be the empowering experience of self-completion so many people have. I mean it was fine. It was fun, and because I was doing research for a book it probably would have annoyed the hell out of another person to travel at this slugtastic pace as I jotted down notes and took pictures. If anything, it wasn’t traveling while female I wanted to break through, but traveling while me, because it’s specifically me people seem to worry about. But even if it wasn’t particularly empowering, it’s really nice to know for certain that I can do it, and that I’m actually much more savvy than the couples I overheard trying desperately to figure shit out at the airport. It’s nice to have solid proof that I’m not a princess who needs to be delicately transported and constantly monitored, and that the infantilization I politely put up with is exactly as much bullshit as I thought. I knew that. Now I have proof. Admittedly, I definitely benefit from that same infantilization when, for example, strangers come up and try to help me everywhere I go because I look small and lost and I have big ‘please help me’ eyes. But I am so sick of being treated like an incompetent person and being the victim of other people’s concern, and next time someone wonders if I can do something by myself, I’m going to point to this trip and impolitely say go fuck yourself.