Off-Topic: Vacation in Crete

This year’s family vacation was spent on the Greek island of Crete, in an all-inclusive resort close to Chania on the north coast. Overall we got nice weather and an enjoyable pool-and-sun holiday, mostly staying at the hotel with a few excursions. In the following, I will go through some of the most surprising or interesting observations I made in Crete. Greek letters are cool, but I do not think we will go back to Greece any time soon when there are higher-quality places available (such as Spain).

Credit Cards Accepted

One positive surprise was how much you could pay with cards! It turned out that even small “Super Market”-style shops happily accepted cards, and most actually used contact-less payments that worked just fine with our Swedish-issued debit cards and credit cards.

Even this small Super Market right near our hotel took cards using contact-less payments!

The only exceptions were the taxis that took us to and from the airport, a guy who sold raki and honey from a stand on a mountain road, and a parking garage in Chania.

Excellent Service

With a few exceptions, staff and sales people at the hotel, shops, and restaurants were very helpful and cheerful. There was no sense that people were tired of tourists, and often the staff went an extra mile to make customers happy. Like the Super Market that offered to use their machine to inflate a new inflatable toy, and who immediately exchanged it for a new one when it turned out the first one we got leaked and would not inflate. Thanks! The bar staff at the hotel was almost disappointed when you did not order an alcoholic drink that would let them do a bit of mixing.

Louis Crete Princess Hotel

The Louis Crete Princess Hotel had received really good reviews on Tripadvisor, and we were looking for a place with more action than just a few pools and a beach. It did not disappoint in the activity department, with a set of water slides plus a couple of water play areas for kids. Much more fun than just some simple pools. Not perfect, but nice.

The big water slides at the hotel were rather good!

The main hotel building is rather cleverly constructed in such a way that all rooms have a little bit of a view towards the sea. However, the rooms are rather small and the hotel is very noisy with hard floors and no real sound insulation on the doors out to the corridor. The air conditioning worked and there were a reasonable number of power outlets.

The main hotel building with the cleverly staggered rooms.

The beach of the hotel was very rocky and did not really work for swimming in the sea. You could get out in the water, but it was not as much fun as it is when you have a real sandy beach. The rocks did make cool noises in the waves, though.

Sunset over the rocky beach, looking towards the Maleme airfield where the Battle of Crete began in 1941.

Not Very Good at Allergies

The main negative point we have was dealing with the many and varied allergies and food issues in the family. This might be unique to the hotel we stayed at, but I did get the impression in other places too that caring about vegetarians and allergies were not as ingrained as it has become in places like Northern Europe and the US. We have seen a lot better in the past on cruises and in Mallorca. It seemed that they understood “gluten”, but it was really hard to communicate with the staff about anything else. Their English was poor, and there was no way to ascertain the ingredients of each particular dish in the buffet- unlike most other places we have been.

OK… which of these desserts contain nuts? The signs are just not very well placed… and also inconsistent between different buffet tables with the same contents.

The explanations offered for the things on offer did not inspire confidence… too many strange things like this. Just seems that precision and attention to detail is not in the genes here…

I haven’t the foggiest about what this is…

In the end, we did manage to find something to eat each day. Even if we often had to fall back to reliable but rather bland basics like plain pommes frites and pizza.

Scary Roads

Crete is a mountainous island – the highest peaks are as high as the highest mountains in Sweden, and they rise quickly from the sea. It is very beautiful up in the mountains, and I definitely recommend renting a car or taking a tour to go check out the mountains. However, be prepared for pretty horrific road conditions. In some places, the road goes along steep cliffs without any kind of barrier to make sure you stay on the road. It can be totally nerve-wracking to drive or a be a passenger there.

This road close to the cave of Agia Sophia in the Cretan inland is actually pretty decent. At least there is a small barrier preventing you from just driving off the edge of the cliff… but the corner is so narrow that only one car can pass at a time.

Some stretches of the major roads are fine – but they could do with a physical separator in the middle. However, I do not understand why they let vegetation grow all the way out to the side of the road – to the extent that many road signs are obscured. It should be noted that all signs use both Greek and Latin letters, which is very convenient for us tourists who do not fluently read Greek.

I believe the sign here marks an exit. Why grow bushes this close to the road at all?

Old History – The Greek “Newcomers”

I took a guided tour to see the Minoan ruins at Knossos, and it is striking just how old the history of Crete is. Crete lies on the path from Africa to Europe, and there are remains of humans living here from about 150 thousand years ago! In more recent times, Crete saw the building of the first real cities and palaces in Europe, about 4000 years ago. The location of Crete was excellent, with easy sea access to Africa, Egypt, the Levant, and Europe.

The Minoans built a lot of palaces and cities around the island. The main palace at Knossos featured water pipes and flushed toilets more than 3500 years ago – more than a millennium before the Romans! It is definitely worth visiting Knossos with a guide to get an understanding for what the Minoans built – and how their mythology leads on into classic Greek mythology.

The famous reconstructed gate at the palace of Knossos – there were quite a few reconstructions like this at the site, which on one hand feels a bit strange. But on the other hand, it really helps bring the place to life! Otherwise it would just be “another pile of rocks”.

The history of Crete is so old that once you get to ancient Greece and the Romans, the fun is kind of over. The ancient Greeks are just a bunch of latecomers from the mainland that come in and take over after the Minoan civilization falls, not really all that interesting, right? Many of the origin stories for the Greek gods actually take place in Crete, such as the seduction of Europa by Zeus.

It is amazing that the burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala that count as “ancient” here in Uppsala are some 2500 years younger than the technologically sophisticated palaces of Crete.

Economy and Prices

According to what I have been able to read, Crete is in much better shape than most of Greece. Thanks to tourism and agriculture, unemployment is at four percent, about one sixth of that of the rest of Greece. Still, it did feel like a place hit by crisis, with ruins and empty buildings being rather common even in the areas very close to our hotel.

This house in Platanias does not look too bad compared to some others – but the entire second floor is left open and unfinished.
Apparently, the bar and restaurant called Lost has been lost. This one was right next to our hotel along the beach. However, in fairness, the next few slots for beach-front restaurants seemed to be alive and kicking.

The prices in Crete were really quite high considering the overall health of the economy. Taking a taxi to the airport cost like in Sweden, and eating out was not all that much cheaper. Tourist-related costs could be very high, like the charge of 9 Euros to rent two sunbeds and an umbrella at Falassarna beach.

Greeks work the most hours in the EU, but the productivity is just too low to carry a modern economy. From what we could understand, Crete spends about six months per year servicing tourists and working very long hours. Then there are a couple of months where agriculture like olive growing requires a lot of work too… and then several months of much lower activity. It is a mix of the old agricultural rhythm and the modern service economy.

Rampant Fakes/Pirated Goods

One rather distasteful aspect of Crete was the rampant and open sales of clearly pirated fake or pirated branded goods in Super Markets and other stores. You could find “Star Wars” baseball caps for like 5 Euros… including the “TM” mark on the Star Wars logo (totally unironic fakers here). Same for brands like Adidas and Nike, where a genuine article should clearly cost at least triple. On the streets of Chania there were a lot of fakes on display, like Fjällräven Kånken backpacks at about one third the cost of a real original. I could not see any real difference to the real deal, but I suspect the quality of the fake is not up to what you get with a real Kånken.

Way too cheap Kånkens in Chania, selling at 30 Euro rather than the 80-90 Euros the real deal should cost.

This kind of open selling of obviously illegal goods not what you would expect from a country that is part of the European Union, and it really feels bad to see this kind of behavior happen so blatantly. Clearly, someone is not paying attention to a rather nasty problem.

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