So, I was off to the ancient city of Chania, hoping to soak in as much Greek culture as I possibly could in a week.
I soon discovered that while Cretan culture did for the most part align with mainland Greece; it boasted a distinct heritage of its own. My first meal, a dish known as Bougatsa, evidenced this diversity — layers of delicate, hand-rolled phyllo sheets, an item commonly used in Greek cuisine, enveloping a filling of mizithra, sheep’s milk cheese of ricotta-like consistency unique to Crete. Next on my list was the Dakos salad — another Cretan speciality — consisting of a barley rusk topped with tomatoes, mizithra, and copious amounts of olive oil.
The feasting, of course, did not stop there. There was moussaka, the beloved meat and eggplant casserole; souvlaki, grilled meats on wooden skewers; kalitsounia, cheese-stuffed, deep-fried pies; and boureki, zucchini and potato-filled phyllo pastries.
My personal favourite was the Cretan lamb stew. Slow-cooked in traditional earthen pots over a flame, not dissimilar to our own mutton curry.
Desserts were always on the house; I was delighted to find, after every meal, a slice of cake or chocolate pudding, or yoghurt with fruits brought to the table.
Greek islands are renowned for their beaches, but I was nevertheless unprepared for what I encountered in Crete. At the Elafonissi beach, waters were amazingly blue, and what was perhaps even more astounding, the sand had a soothing pale pink, caused by broken down corals and shells of sea-creatures.
The drive to Balos Bay, another fixture in every must-see-in-Greece list, was a treacherous one. The Bay is situated about an hour away from Chania, but a large portion of the journey was on unpaved, gravel roads on steep cliff sides that looked straight into the vast seas, roads with frequent twists, and turns and with no safety railings. And once we had driven to our destination, it was another half an hour of trekking down the mountain to get to the beach.
Now, was it worth it in the end? Absolutely!
The views on the trek down were jaw-dropping; white sands meeting a shimmering turquoise sea, a massive lagoon with shallow, clear waters, and best of all, hardly any tourists to spoil the scenery — an advantage of going in early-June instead of peak summer.
I could not say how Crete compares to other Greek islands, but I will say most emphatically that it has the whole package of a rich culinary tradition, stunning coastlines, warm, gentle waters perfect for a swim, friendly locals, and most importantly, free desserts with every meal!
Photo: Tonima Hassan