Pleased to be leaving the fuss of Santorini, we boarded our ferry to Heraklion (pronounced: ‘Air-aklion). Arriving in the late evening, jumped into our hire car to drive an hour south through the guts of Crete to the small hippy town of Matala.
Not without first stopping for dinner, I had the grilled cuttlefish, Moo had lamb chops and we shared some deep fried zucchini. None of that should astound you, but what came next will. Upon ordering the bill, we received a whole plate of Loukoumades (doughnuts) served with ice-cream, an apple and orange with a knife to slice as we pleased and of course, 2 glasses of raki – all for free!!!!
We broke up our time in Crete into two sections, three nights in Matala and four nights in Hora Sfakion, both on the south coast. Our goals in mind for the island were; settle in, venture from base, cook and discover the true Crete. Which was already so different from the mainland and almost rural compared with the island life of Greece we’d seen so far.
Waking up in Matala, we’re relieved to have arrived. The beach is a narrow bay book ended by huge sandstone cliffs. Perfectly content, a day on the beach was just what we needed. Plenty of swimming, snoozing and reading. The view from the beach – snow capped mountains (we think).
“Today is life, tomorrow never comes.”
You can find plenty of ‘live in the moment’ quotes around Matala on painted murals throughout the streets.
Matala was another one of those places, like Sifnos, where I wonder just how much the place changes in peak season. Restaurants are a plenty, however for us, there is no sure way to know who was the best, because all were barely half full.
On our second day in Matala, we opted to hike over the cliff to get to Red Beach, we donned our trainers and packed a few supplies for a day dedicated to relaxing, something we are becoming very good at.
It’s a beautiful little bay with crystal clear water, and it’s slightly quieter than the main beach because you can only get here by hiking over the cliff, the path is well trodden and takes about twenty minutes.
That certainly didn’t deter the naturalists though.
Laying on the beach to read your book, looking left nothing was amiss. Reposition yourself and look right, and you’re staring at a full moon in the midday sun. Red Beach is a nudist beach, although it seemed like only half of the beach were committed.
Upon walking back to base, we decided to explore the infamous hippy caves (3EU). The sandstone caves angle towards the sea from all heights. Nobody is quite sure who created the caves but its likely that they were first hollowed out as Roman or early Christian tombs. There were exceptionally similar to the catacombs we’d seen in Milos.
By about the 1960’s and 70’s, the bohemian hedonists arrived, praising their independence from the conservative society and the American dream. They spent their time in the caves experimenting with sex and hallucinogenic substances living like primitives.
Story has it, they were trying to create a third sex, but I reckon they were just trying to avoid the things we all hate:
Taxes and politics!
If the hippies of the 60’s didn’t put Matala on the map, then Joni Mitchell sure did when she released her song ‘Carey’ in 1971 quoting the place:
“The night is a starry dome
And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the Matala Moon
Come on down to the Mermaid Cafe
And I will buy you a bottle of wine
And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing and
Smash our empty glasses down”
While we didn’t drink wine from the Mermaid Cafe, but we did enjoy the big full Matala moon – that, and – dinner! It was our goal to try the most local and family run place we could find, and for that, I highly recommend Giannis.
We shared the beef stifado (slow cooked beef with onions, cinnamon and tomatoes) and grilled octopus. We’ve come to having a third shot of raki at the end of our meals, it’s all we can stomach without feeling rude.
We drove from Matala to Hora Sfakion stopping in Plakias for lunch and what a jackpot that was! Great for many reasons, mostly because I finally found a sun visor. I’d been searching everywhere for the right one and while that may sound like a minor feat, but given my current priorities (not much) this was massive.
We celebrated with the best value meal possible: nine euro each for a two course meal with drinks. It was delicious, starting with hummus and salad, we devoured the grilled octopus and sea bream (dorade) – it was arguably as good as we’ve had.
The drive from Plakias to Hora is STUNNING.
Through mountains with glimmers of the ocean and occasionally snowy peaks (we think) and plenty of goats. It took about two and a half hours to get there and upon arrival we knew it was a great destination, the room was lovely, spacious and close to the action without too much foot traffic.
We settled in with an afternoon dip (the beach is about 30m from our apartment) and a tasty dinner at Hotel Zenia where we were able to go inside the kitchen and select what we wanted directly from their ready made dishes. Trying to decide on three was based on the expression of the chef after explaining each dish.
Moo and I shared the chicken, meatballs and eggplant covered in caramelised onions. Heaven. Pairing that with a pint of wine (no, not literally, but the way these Greek’s fill their wine to the rim, it’s impossible to fill it further without me needing to lick the glass like a cat!)
After our travel day, we decided to walk from Hora Sfakion to Loutro, an old fishing village (only accessible by foot or by boat.) An easy start took us along the mountain road for a couple of kilometers, before a rocky path and occasional scramble with beautiful coastal scenes of unattainable bays, crystal clear waters and plenty of other hikers.
I’ve FINALLY figured out why French women don’t get fat. They’re all here, in Crete, hiking!!
The walk took us past Sweet Water Bay and the Mermaid Bar, too early in the walk to justify a drink, we moseyed on. Two or so hours later, we arrived in Loutro and before I know it, we were flinging ourselves off another rock jump. Perfect!
An afternoon of sunbaking on the pebbly beach and an obligatory local beer before our boat ride back to base. Overall, it was a nice little spot – but it’s a shame little villages like this now only exist to serve tourists.
We came home to a cook a meal and retreat as sleep comes quickly.
The following day we decide to hike the famous gorge nearby, which I’ll write about in the next few days!
On our final day in Crete, we go for a quick last swim and drive into Chania in the early afternoon and I’m surprised how beautiful it is.
My opinion of Crete in general is that it has some seriously dramatic scenery, totally untouched in areas and completely underrated.
From Chania, we board a night ferry back to Athens before Moo and I split for a few weeks while I walk the EPW and Moo heads to Montenegro for some kite surfing.
Until then xo
PS: Have you been to Crete?