Crete, Greece

After our time in Corfu, we proceeded to someplace I’d wanted to visit for quite a while but hadn’t had the chance to go: Crete! To be completely honest, we knew going in that we wouldn’t be able to do the island justice in a 4-day stay, especially since we had specifically chosen our resort because it had so many amenities on site. However, Crete was still beautiful and we did do a couple activities that are worth recording.

First up, our resort was absolutely beautiful and nestled in the small town of Elounda, which was a fishing village before tourism became the primary draw. To get there, we flew through the “capital” city of Heraklion, and then drove slightly north of the biggest city on the eastern side of Crete, Agios Nikolaos. The resort itself faces the island of Spinalonga, with amazing views of the Aegean Sea.

We decided to do a couple small day trips with our time in Crete: first, to visit Spinalonga island, and second, to visit the Cretan olive oil farm and see a little bit of Agios Nikolaos. The trip to Spinalonga from our resort was easy – we hired a speed boat from the beach and were whisked directly to the island, where we’d remain until the boat returned for us an hour later.

The island itself has an interesting history. It was originally built up as a Venetian and Ottoman fort during the various years when those empires conquered this area in modern-day Greece; over time it fell into disrepair, and in the early 1900s, it began to be used as a leper colony for Crete. When Crete was absorbed into Greece in the 1930s, Greece also began to send its lepers to the colony as well, all the way up until the 1950s when the leper colony was disbanded. From what we learned, it sounds like those ostracized to the island still had to find ways to earn their own money, and could even marry and raise families; it sounded like “Spinalonga” now has a connotation of great sadness given how bleak existence on the island would have been for many people for generations.

The island itself is relatively small, with a large fort on top, a “marketplace” on one side, a church, and a cemetary. You are allowed to climb pretty much anywhere (as long as you can find a foothold!) and are rewarded with really stunning views as you do so.

The 360-degree views from the island are amazing!

We also saw a variety of the ruins on the island too, which was interesting to see.

After Spinalonga, we spent a fair amount of time at the beach and the pool, enjoying all the delicious food and drink Greece has to offer! The resort offered some good food options, including wonderful baked fish, octopus, and apaki, a Cretan specialty of smoked cured pork.

Our other main excursion was to the Cretan olive oil farm and the city of Agios Nikolaos. The olive oil farm is really wonderful, if a bit touristy. They provide a detailed history of olive oil making in Crete (obviously, it’s been happening for thousands and thousands of years, and the oldest known olive tree on the island is ~3250 years old), as well as some interesting insights into both the culture of olive oil in Crete as well as the myths related to olive oil production which are often fed to consumers.

For starters, they did a great job of sharing some insight about olive oil production and its impact on the island. For example, they shared a lovely historic cultural practice, in which an olive tree is planted each time a child is born and when the child turns 15, the first oil is harvested (since the olives will then be mature). They also shared that each variety of olive has a different flavor and different yield – for some types of olives, it can take 150 kilos of olives to make 1 kilo of olive oil; however, some varieties only need 3-4 kilos to produce 1 kilo of oil.

Olive oil production itself has obviously also changed since the farm first started producing; they ran us through how the old press worked (basically, olives would be dropped into a press from above to be mashed, then placed in bags and “pressed” on the press itself; the oil and water by-product would be gathered and oil skimmed off the top, with the remainder of the flesh of the olives saved to light for heat / light as needed. Now, with industrial machinery, these practices are much less common and the yield is much greater for any given batch. However, it was interesting hearing a couple myths that about for consumers. For example, the “first cold press” essentially meant that, back in olden times, the olives were pressed when the press itself was still “cold” and therefore had less by-product in the final olive oil – this then translated to a lower acidity and overall better product. Today, when the acidity can be scientifically monitored, doing a “cold” or a “hot” pressing doesn’t actually affect product quality. Similarly, many producers label their product as “extra virgin” but take a small amount of quality olive oil (<0.2% acidity) and mix it with the high acidity stuff, so that their costs are low but they can capitalize on consumer desires for “fresh” olive oil.

Overall, super interesting! They also provide great insights into olive growth / production, the distilling of “raki” (a very strong Greek spirit that is made from the leftover grape skins after wine production), and cheese production as well.

After our visit to the olive oil farm, we headed into the town of Agios Nikolaos for lunch, heading to Gioma Meze. Located on a hill overlooking the town harbor, the restaurant definitely delivered both a great experience and great food. We tried a variety of Cretan specialties, including a mastika cocktail (a strong Grecian spirit), red peppers stuffed with Cretan cheese, an amazing pastry stuffed with melted cheese and covered in honey, incredible fried squid, and a beautiful roasted octopus.

Everything was incredible, and at the end of the meal they brought us a free dessert (chocolate cake) with a lovely almond drink. The views from the restaurant were also great.

It was hard to leave Crete – and I definitely feel we missed so much of the incredible culture and history (especially the archeological history) given that relaxation was our priority for this trip.

On our way to the airport, we had a great conversation with our taxi driver, who it turned out owned a small olive grove (about 400 trees). He regaled us with stories about his family’s olive oil consumption and their favorite things to make – and, he shared a lot of interesting recipes for authentic Cretan food, like omelettes with potatoes and potatoes grilled directly on the grill with olive oil (kind of like french fries, but way better from what I could tell). He kindly offered us a liter of olive oil, but we legitimately had nowhere to put it in our luggage. I wish we’d be able to find a way to take it, as how often can you say that you got free olive oil direct from the source in Greece?

Overall, it was a great trip to Greece and I’d definitely return to Crete!

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