In October I flew to Crete, the largest and most famous island of Greece. I had little knowledge of Crete before I left. The only things I knew about Crete were it being a popular travel destination, the weather is nicer than in The Netherlands and Samaria George. Really, that was about it, but there was no hesitation in exploring as much as I could for my nine days trip.
Slowly but surely I learned about the culture, the people and their habits, the food and more. I enjoyed my trip so much that I am certain of visiting again to discover more of this lovely island. For now let me share with you what I learned about Crete!
1) Bus tickets – The first public transportation I took in Crete was the bus. I had no idea how much a bus ticket cost or where to even get one. At an information desk close to the airport of Heraklion I got told that bus tickets are sold on the bus, but also at the bus stop. They also are sold at some supermarkets, taverna or any kind of place that can double as a ticket office. Tickets on the bus are more expensive than buying them at a ticket office. Getting your ticket at a ticket office will save you up to an euro each time.
An interesting thing I noticed when getting into the bus was how my bus tickets got yanked out of my hand by the bus drivers, then ripped into two pieces and once ripped I got one half back. What I didn’t know was that you are supposed to hold your ticket firmly as the bus driver rips off the top part of the ticket leaving you with the bottom half. This shows that your ticket has been used.
The day that I went to the Minoan Palace of Knossos by bus from the city center of Heraklion it costed me €1,20. Of course I expected the bus ticket to be €1,20 on the way back. For some odd reason the ticket office near the Minoan Palace only sold tickets for €1,70. The vendor of the ticket office told me it was the correct price from Knossos to Heraklion. I was confused. I went to ask an old man waiting for the bus about it, but I didn’t get any savvier as his English was kind of poor and he seemed to be more interested in my dress then the question I had asked him, lol. I did see him holding a bus ticket with €1,20 on it! Now I don’t know if he was heading for Heraklion or not. I got even more confused. At that moment the bus was arriving so I had no time to figure it out anymore. I was bound to pay a €2,50 bus ticket in the bus, also another €2,50 for my boyfriend because I owed him a ticket. I had to pay much more than the €1,70 the seller was asking from me. With all of that rushing through my head I heard the bus driver say “Wait, wait!” as he tapped on my arm. I stepped back while he was reaching for his little black wallet. He grabbed one euro out of it and gave it to me. I took this as a very kind gesture and said that was not needed. He insisted, so I thanked him and took his euro. Hahaha. He might have felt some pity for me spending more than I should have.
2) Olive oil on everything! – Oh yeah, a thing I knew about Greece in general was that it is the land of olive oil. In Crete olive trees grow everywhere in all shapes and sizes. No wonder literally every house hold has jars and bottles full of olives and olive oil. I was amazed by it. Now as a high carb low fat vegan I do try to avoid oily foods, but in Crete I did not. I ate all the vegan food, all of it drenched in olive oil. When I say drenched I mean drenched as in, they poor as much olive oil over one dish than I would eat in a year time. And I, I did not care! Just for your information I don’t freak out about oils or have a crazy purist mindset about it, but I do tent to avoid it and go for the more unprocessed types of food. So I would rather eat the olive than only it’s oil. The majority of olives in Crete are very different from what I’m used to by the way. They are way smaller and tastier.
3) Honey on everything! – It seems like honey is just as popular a thing as olive oil is. As an ethical vegan I wasn’t really fond it. I saw it in gift stores, souvenir shops and supermarkets. Supermarkets have huge stashes of all kinds of honey in jars, honey in squeezable plastic bottles and honey in decorative glasses. You name it, they have it. When looking for sweets or desserts it can be tough to find something without honey. So if you are vegan be aware of the honey. FREE THE BEE!
4) Nistisimo – On the internet I checked if it would be difficult eating out as a vegan in Crete. While doing my research I came across the word ‘Nistisimo’. It is pronounced as nee-stee-see-moh. This word does not translate into Vegan, but it comes pretty close. The word is related to the Greek Orthodox Church and fasting. During fasting periods in Greek Orthodox churches people still eat, but they will abstain from eating foods containing animal products (with the exception of honey and some seafood like shellfish). Foods like meat and all meat products, dairy products and fish are prohibited. Foods that are allowed to be eaten during the fasting periods are vegetables, beans, grains and fruits.
Now in Crete the word Vegan isn’t very popular yet. Some of the younger people I talked to knew what I meant by the word Vegan, but for the older generation of Cretans it is better to use the word Nistisimo. I remember one younger girl at a pastry shop that didn’t knew the word Nistisimo.
Even though Nistisimo is not the same as Vegan it is still a useful word while in Crete and I suppose in the rest of Greece. Just kindly say you also don’t eat honey nor other aquatic animals such as shellfish. And oh yeah, cheese. Also say you don’t eat cheese or you could end up with some feta cheese in your Greek salad or cheese sprinkled all over your pasta.
5) Beautiful mountainous scenery – Coming from a very flat country I’m always quickly impressed by hilly landscapes and mountains. This was no exception in Crete. From up in the airplane I already saw how mountainous Crete was. Especially when I traveled by bus from Heraklion to Chania. We drove through valleys and went up and down the mountains on sometimes really narrow roads.
One day I also went cycling up some very lovely hills and mountains. With the hot sun in the sky and a bicycle that wasn’t really working properly I managed to cycle up a tall mountain for an amazing view over the area of Amoudara. I saw almost the whole coastal line in the direction of Heraklion, landscapes filled with olive trees and bumpy roads in between the mountains where flowers grew in all kinds of colors. I passed by small houses and huge villas, I found goats grazing from the dry lands and I heard cute little birds singing their songs.
6) Cretan hospitality – I was figuring out how to get to my apartment after landing by plane in Crete and it struck me how helpful people were. The bus staff at the airport made a memorable effort to take me exactly where I needed to be. At the apartment building I got a very warm welcome from the hostess who directly offered drinks and a free bottle of water. The upcoming days she gave us snacks, she took us in her car to a local supermarket, she cooked me a vegan lunch once and she was always very approachable for any kinds of questions I had.
At restaurants staff members are super friendly too. I know that they do more effort because they care about how much tips they make, but the vibe of most staff members was just so positive and welcoming. I am comparing this to the Netherlands where a lot of people have even difficulties putting a smile on their face. I’ve never given so much tips in my life before as I did in Crete. I almost felt overwhelmed by the hospitality provided in many taverns and local restaurant. Encountering many kind and welcoming Cretans throughout my stay made the trip even better.
7) Free desserts and alcohol after every meal! – Yes, this looks like it is actually a thing in Crete. Nine out of 10 times after finishing a meal at a restaurant or a taverna the waiter will bring a plate of fruit or sweets like cake or candy accompanied by two shot glasses and tequila. I don’t know if the tequila is meant to clear your taste pallet, but as somebody who doesn’t enjoy drinking alcohol that much I was more interested in the desserts.
8) Minoan history – With every new thing I learned about the Minoan civilization, a new questions arose. I got so curious that I spend a lot of my free time googling things like “Chronology of the Minoan civilization”, “Minoan language”, “Minoan pottery”, “Minoan art” and “Minoan architecture”. Did you know the Minoans are said to be one of the first civilizations of Europe? Super fascinating!
I’m happy that I visited The Heraklion Archaeological Museum. It taught me over 5500 years of Cretan history. It showed me all kinds of treasures of the Minoan civilization including beautifully decorated pottery and shiny golden jewelry. Seeing these thousands of years old artifacts in real life and reading about how life was back then made it able for me to visualize how the Minoans lived and looked like.
I also visited the Palace of Knossos, the largest Minoan site discovered. The layout looked like a labyrinth. So many passage ways, rooms and stairs. It was very impressive to me. Most of the restoration of the palace is based on the ideas of Arthur Evans’s who “discovered” it.
9) Not much diversity in people – With a population of over half a million people I found that there wasn’t much diverseness in people. From the Minoan times the people of Crete had contacts with Turks, Arabs, Egyptians and Venetian people. A mixture of them and their cultures must still remain in Crete. But I barely have seen people with dark colored skin or Asian features for example.
My features might look a little different from the average Cretan girl, but I think I blend in easier than Tatsuya. As a Japanese male he has Asian features which drew a lot of attention to him. Not blatantly or rude in anyway, but more out of curiosity. People stare out of the side of their eyes, they would give him a second look. Some started a conversation asking him where he is from. To me people just started talking in Greek assuming I spoke the same language.
10) I will go back to explore more! – Crete left me hungry for more, it made me curious and excited. I want to hike Samaria George, I want to stay in Chania and Rethymnon, I want to explore more of rural areas and the beaches and learn more about Crete’s history by visiting other archaeological sites and museums. It is a good thing that you don’t need weeks to explore plenty in Crete and it is a good thing that I don’t live too far away. Crete, I will be back!