When we first arrived in Crete we rented a car, a tiny manual with an engine that could either go up a hill or provide you with air conditioning but not both at the same time. I had some of my first driving and stalling experiences on that car. The nice thing about learning how to shift gears when driving in Crete is that nobody will care or honk their horn if you stall at a stop sign. They will simply drive around you. People aren’t really in a hurry to get anywhere, except maybe to the beach.
In Crete people drive with one wheel on the shoulder of the road so that it is easier for other cars to pass them. This was the very first thing we learned when we arrived. Most roads, with the exception of the highways, are single lane and locals tend to stick to the shoulder as though it is an extra lane. Driving habits around the world can vary a lot — in Ukraine, drivers tend to tailgate the car in front of them until they can pass them with a short burst of speed. Nobody is patient enough to just stay in the flow of traffic and they are constantly looking for a chance to pass. In Crete, people avoid this issue altogether by cruising lazily on the shoulder.
The roads are unbelievably beautiful and recklessly dangerous. They twist around mountains without any guardrails or roadside shoulders, just barely big enough for two way traffic. Some of the roads that go through villages inexplicably become one way streets and you have to hope that you don’t meet oncoming traffic. Regardless of the challenges, driving in Crete is an enjoyable and breathtaking experience. Behind every turn there is an amazing vista or a cute picturesque village. On the way to our apartment rental we passed through a section of the road which squeezed between two cliffs, the rock like an archway overhead.
We wanted a more genuine experience of Crete so we chose to rent a small apartment instead of staying in a hotel. Our building sat on top of a hill overlooking a gorgeous bay, in a town called Plakias. Behind us there were mountains, in front of us the sea, and on all sides we were surrounded by olive groves. We arrived just as the sun was setting and had to maneuver down the stairs to our apartment in the dark. When we got inside we saw a bottle of raki (a strong local drink) sitting on the kitchen table as a welcome present from the building’s owners. With raki in hand we went out onto our balcony and watched the last of the sun sink into the water.
I remember waking up the next day and looking out the window at the landscape. I had seen only the barest outlines from the night before and in the daylight everything was unbelievably vivid. The bright colours made it seem so surreal that it wasn’t until we got outside and experienced the heat of the sun that it really sunk it that we were in Crete.
We spent the first day at the beach, no surprise there. Swimming in the Mediterranean is an unparalleled experience. The water is very clear and you can see the smallest flicker of sunlight catch on the scales of a fish that could be swimming a couple meters below you. Also, you won’t encounter any jellyfish or sharks at Cretan beaches, which is just the cherry on top of the cake in my opinion.
The South of Crete is less developed commercially for tourism so it doesn’t see the same hoards of partygoers and resort vacationers that you get in the North. This means that the beaches aren’t overcrowded with people and you can enjoy sunbathing without some stranger shouting in your ear or kicking up sand around you.
Living in a small village for a short time made our experience in Crete all the more authentic than opting for an all-inclusive package at a resort. Every other morning I would go to get bread, cheese or grapes from the little old woman who owned the grocery store up the hill from us (in Crete, everything is uphill). It was wonderful to be greeted by her smile and friendly words whenever I managed to say good morning in passable Greek.
After spending a couple hours soaking in the sun at the beach we hopped back into our car to explore the surrounding area. Crete is a perfect combination of sky, land and sea. The rugged mountains break up the gentle slopes of olive orchards and golden fields of dry grass. Beyond that, the water passes through every shade of blue imaginable as it stretches away from the shoreline and into the horizon. We drove around taking in the sight and smell of the sea until the evening when we finally retired back to our balcony with a bottle of local wine. The moon hung right over the bay, creating a glowing path over the water towards the lights of the village below where we had spent our very first day in Crete.