Exploring Greece: Crete, Day 1 (and a half)

We knew our time on Crete would be a brief 3 full days bookended by travel at either end, so picking what to do was an immense challenge. We read books. I scoured blogs and travel guides. I picked out what I thought were the best beaches. And on our first full day on the island… we stayed by the hotel pool until it was time for dinner.

Perhaps I should explain.

There’s so much to do on Crete, owing to its rather large size. But compounding that factor is the island’s composition: gorgeous beaches line every edge, tall mountains rise from its spine, and hundreds of villages lie scattered upon its fertile ground. There’s a story hidden in every crack and crevice, and three days simply cannot afford even the most aggressive adventurer a full grasp of everything Crete has to offer. A car or bike is absolutely necessary, as is a hearty appetite and plenty of energy.

Chris & I had an unexpectedly long night after arriving at the cozy Heraklion airport at 2:00 p.m. on Monday. We collected our rental car and drove East to our base camp on the outskirts of Hersonissos, Home Hotel. Home is owned and operated by two fabulous Scotsmen named Ben and Gordon who were professional sign language interpreters before they traded up to island living. After giving us a tour of the property and a proper warning about the inner workings of plumbing systems on Crete, Ben brought us to the bar for a welcome drink. Already there was a delightful red-headed Dutch diva by the name of Astrid, who offered us a pastry and then promptly began running through all the sights and scenes we should consider adding to our itinerary. The thing we most wanted, however, was a bite to eat and both she and Ben swiftly recommended David Vegera in nearby Piskopiano.

In theory, David Vergara serves mezzes, which could be compared to the Spanish style of tapas dining. In actuality, their portions are all based around what a Yaya (Greek grandma) would consider a light snack: Greek salads heaving with fresh tomato and cucumber beneath a giant slab of feta. A tower of thinly sliced and fried zucchini worthy of standing in for a Jenga game. More bread than Jean Valjean stole at the start of Les Miserables. Crisp and delicious calamari served with half a lemon because a mere slice is just won’t do in this country, and of course a complimentary desert of semolina cake, yogurt with spoon fruits, and shots of raki. We left stuffed and determined to return the following night so we could try more of their dishes.

Back at the hotel, Ben, Gordon and Astrid were still holding court at the bar, so we decided to join in their game of playing various music videos on YouTube while drinking more beer and more raki. As the night wore on, we learned that one week ago Astrid sold her bar on the island which was, ostensibly, the only gay bar on Crete apart from the one attached to Home. Clearly going through withdrawal from being surrounded by Men Who Dress With Style, she kept us up well past our bedtime and the owners up until 5. She told us stories of her younger days as a flight attendant and how many of the men on Crete lived closeted lives.

Blatant outward homophobia towards visitors is virtually undetectable, but being gay and living here isn’t any sort of picnic for natives, either. A patron at the bar that night told us how his father had broken both his legs when he came out. Astrid had trouble hiring staff because gay men who lived near her bar were afraid neighbors would see them working there and cause trouble for their family. It all sounded very much like the stories older gay men told me when I was a wee gecko in college.

Even though not every story told as the night wore on was a happy one (don’t worry, nearly all of them were), it took nearly all our willpower to peel away from the bar and retire to our room at 2:30 a.m. And by the following morning, I ached from spending so many hours sitting on a bar stool. Gordon greeted us on the hotels’s restaurant patio and offered us our choice of breakfasts: Basic, English, or Cretan. I opted for the latter, which included eggs with pesto over toast, fresh fruit, and Greek yogurt with honey. It was a heavenly start to a hungover morning, but try as I might I couldn’t muster the drive to head up to the Lasithi Plateau and check out Zeus’ birthplace as we had planned.

The built-up exhaustion of traveling to Greece and a prolonged lack of proper sleep was causing my body to stage a revolt: Sore and overly tight muscles demanded that I spend some time in recovery mode. My realization of this was in direct competition with everything I had hoped to do during our brief time on the island, which in truth just made the situation even worse. I began to stress out (read: have a panic attack). On top of not feeling physically fit, I was frustrated and disappointed with myself. This wasn’t how I wanted our adventure to play out and I felt woefully impotent to do anything about it.

So I “made lemonade” as best I could. I camped by the pool in a tasteful speedo and dove into a book. I also occasionally dove into the pool. I also dove occasionally into a can of Fix beer, since apparently I hadn’t learned my lesson from the previous night’s activities. And so on my first day in Crete, I explored not the upland countryside but the world of the Dragonriders of Pern because sometimes, you’ll find adventure and excitement on vacation without leaving your deck chair (whether you had planned to or not).

Thus was the gecko taught his first important lesson on this trip: As much fun as it is to go running out into the world around me on an adventure, sometimes a great book and a day off from everything are what a person actually needs more than anything else.

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