In my latest post about Thessaloniki, I told you about how that city began as just a quick trip stop-over before the ‘real destination’ but actually ended up being a great experience that left me wishing I had more time to spend there. So, what was the ‘real vacation’ that was worth the 10 hour bus journey (both ways) and the headache of various transportation methods? That would be the island of CRETE, Greece’s largest island and the one hardest to get to… for me anyways.
Lots of people fantasize about taking trips to the Greek Islands of Mykonos and Santorini. I however have always wanted to see Crete most. When I was 15 years old in High School, I learned about the Minoan Civilization. My class studied architecture, frescoes found inside, ceramic statues and pots found at the site, and also read the related mythology. Still to this day my favorite myths are those of King Minos and the Minotaur and of Deadalus and Icarus. For me, going to Crete was always about seeing the Palace of Knossos and stepping inside the legendary world of the Minotaur.
What I did not expect was FOOD that REALLY AND TRULY was amazing at EVERY tiny small village restaurant.
Over 5 days, my best friend/roommate/ High School best friend who also studied the Minoans (Yes! What a friendship!), rented a car and drove the whole of the island. We started in Heraklion then headed down to the Sfakia region, then up to the Chania region and back to Heraklion. At nearly every small village road sign that we passed we took the exits and followed the roads. It was perfect. Crete, an island with beaches and moutains, is perfection.
Starting in Heraklion, we started the day off right with a bakery near our hotel. It was called Elit Special and I do believe it was called ‘special’ due to its moon-shaped breakfast pies. They were essentially a sweet cottage cheese of some sort inside a salty buttery pie crust. Do I need to say more? Another discovery was a tiny moon-shaped sweet bun called the Ave Maria. The bread was a perfect spongy consistency and inside was cottage cheese and HONEY! Yes, thanks Maria, I approve. Again, while Greek and Turkish food is very similar, these pastries are really something I haven’t ever come across before due to the cheese and honey combination.
Still in Heraklion, after a visit to the archeology museum (where actually all the ceramics, statues and frescoes found at Knossos are on display), we decided to splurge a bit for lunch and found ourselves at Erganos Taverna. There’s no delicate way to put this- we had a 5 hour meal here- thank you Hunger Gods.
As you can see from the picture above, we clearly were not aware of the portion size. I think also the waiter was amused and thought we didn’t know what we were doing by ordering all this… rest assured, there wasn’t much left over. These were some of the best meze I have ever eaten in my life. Nothing was overly oily or salty. It was easy to taste the ingredients which were all really good quality. For the second course I got pork souvlaki. I miss pork so much. It’s my favorite meat… hands down, it wins. This was marinated in yogurt, garlic, dill, and lemon. You could distinctly taste each flavor of the marinade. Perfection. For dessert, as we were getting ready to ask for the bill and roll ourselves out of the taverna, we were given a plate of cakes with ice cream, watermelon, and a small jug of alcohol as a gift of the restaurant. When food is a gift it must get eaten, no matter how much you want to burst. The alcohol we later realized is a traditional drink produced in Crete and it’s basically Cretian moonshine. It’s made from grapes and is called raki, although it’s not at all like Turkish anise seed rakı and is not to be confused with it. The Cretian raki is most similar to ChaCha from Georgia or Rakia from the Balkan area…it quickly became a new favorite of mine.
The remainder of our time in Haraklion we went back to Elit Special Bakery several times and also frequented a tiny-no-name-hole-in-the-wall place near our hotel. Sorry about the name but never before has the idiom “It’s all Greek to me” rung so true. My favorite was the stuffed eggplant. The eggplant was sliced very thin, narly paper-thin, and grilled. Then, it was rolled around a piece of halumi cheese and smothered in tomato puree and chopped fresh parsley. There was garlic and olive oil somewhere in there as well. It was so soft and tender…and RICH…it really reminded me oddly enough of Italian-American ‘veal parmesan’… only better and much more authentic. We ate this paired with lots of Greek salad and of course, the free raki after the meal.
We left Heraklion and headed to the ruins of Knossos, had a wonderful day filled with sun and selfies, then headed on to the region of Sfakia. This was my favorite area on the whole big island of Crete. It’s much less crowded is just filled with strings of charmingly authentic villages, where you can always find delicious food…always. I have never before been somewhere that I haven’t researched and just stopped in, sight unseen, and consecutively had good meal after good meal. Nothing was bad or even just ‘ok’. I think this really comes down to the quality of the ingredients. Many of the herbs and vegetables as well as the cheeses and olive oil are grown locally there on island and then exported to other parts of Greece. Pictured above is fried zucchini chips, perfectly lightly battered and crispy, and then of course, the free dessert which included a sfakian pie: a kind of cheesy honey pancake.
Our last meal in the Sfakia region was in the small village of Sellia, at a taverna named Elia and it was a magical and storybook-esque as it sounds. The food here was a tad pricier than at other tavernas we had stopped in but I think this was due to the fact that my roommate and I took a few bites then both declared the food to be ‘next level’. Again, simple fresh ingredients yielded complex and intense flavors. The top left picture is of baked feta topped with spicy peppers and tomatoes. The greens were called ‘horta’ which I have yet to figure out what plant it actually is. I feel there was a hint of cinnamon in nearly all the dishes, adding sweetness and depth to the savory dishes.
We left the Sfakia region and headed up to the opposite end of the Island to see the old city center of Chania. We walked around a bit then got on the road back towards Heraklion, and again detoured to a small village-this time stopping at Vamos Village. Here we had our final tastes of Crete, complete with the end of the meal complimentary raki, and filled with delicious meze. The star of the show was the fava bean puree. I know fava doesn’t sound that interesting, but I promise it was everything. It was mushy and tangy and splashed with good quality olive oil and loaded with dill, chunks of fresh garlic, and sliced onions.
After downing our free raki, we headed back to Heraklion, dropped off the mini-car, and boarded the plane with heavy hearts. Leaving Crete meant that the end of summer was truly here and it was time to head back to work, another busy school year to start back in Istanbul. It also meant no more free alcohol and dessert while overlooking an olive grove. While Crete might only be an island, it has been inhabited and flourishing since about 3650 B.C.E, and to top it off, the food is pretty epic as well.