I had made the trip from Rethymno to Ierapetra through the south coast back in 1985 and I remember vividly how it took a long time, and the roads I traversed resembled in no shape the little red lines I was seeing on the map. Eighteen years ago the pavement appeared and disappeared erratically, signage was absent for the most part, and when it appeared at irregular intervals it was simply more confusing . The scenery did stick in my mind though and all in all that trip was a memorable experience. I was not the least bit surprised when this time our trip was a bit smoother, although we did hit more patches of gravel than we expected. But allow me to start from the beginning.
We calculated the trip from Sitia to Agia Galini to take about five hours through a comfortable driving pace and a few stops along the way to rest. The first half hour was familiar to us because we had made the trip to Makrygialos before, and after a stop there to refill our car with juices, popciles, and snacks for the girls we headed West, hugging the coast and seeing some spectacular views all the way to Ierapetra. Our tentative plan was to maybe stop at Ierapetra if anything looked inviting. But nothing did, so we drove straight through it thinking that the Crete we admired was behind us. The landscape, and development around Ierapetra looked like any other place in Greece; we could have been driving though the outskirts of Corinth for all we knew. To be fair, we only saw Ierapetra as it passed by our windows at eighty kilometers per hour (I do drive slowly), so I am sure it is a wonderful place since so many visitors choose to spend their vacation there.
After Ierapetra and as the the sun was getting higher in the sky we looked more vigorously for a place to swim. Our little girls are great travelers but we did not want to bore them through six hours of straight driving, so we finally stopped at the last town before the road turned inland: Myrtos.
I had read nice things about the town of Myrtos and looking at the map I had concluded that this was an isolated fishing village with a nice beach. I was wrong on both assumptions. Myrtos was not isolated -which was fine with us- and the beach was not as nice as we had expected. To make things even more difficult, we had to park away from the beach, and when we tried to rent an umbrella at the beach we were slapped with a € 7.00 charge. We did not think this was a good price for an hour's use so we squeezed under a shabby looking tree at the edge of the beach for all the shade we could get. It would be impossible to withstand the summer sun at noon without shade in Greece. When we cooled enough, and after the girls had a blast playing with the fresh water shower at the beach, we ate a not so memorable lunch at one of the twenty identical restaurants that line the promenade, got in the car and began the journey inland this time.
Immediately after Myrtos the road climbed awkwardly up and up towards the Omalos plateau and the views were fantastic. The girls fell asleep in their car seats and we drove through several little towns nested at the slopes of mount Dikti among the stoic olive trees. Small towns like Peykos, Viannos, and Martha, went by our car as we serpentined smoothly around the road bends, and then right after we passed Skinias the road took a plunge on the quality scale. A long stretch of gravel surface which shook our kidneys to bits finally ended somewhere near Kastelianna, and when we hit the asphalt pavement we felt as if we were floating in a cushion of air after all the shaking. We cruised accustomed to the twisting road through more beautiful landscape that for long stretches engulfed on both sides with mountain slopes and olive trees hanging in neat rows above us. And then at times we found ourselves soaring way above the landscape and looking far on the horizon until our gaze was lost in the haze of the August heat.
Soon the road descended into the low land and we passed through several agricultural communities, Gortyn and Phaistos, before we reached Agia Galini. A surprise awaited us at the mouth of the town in the form of about ten police cars stopping cars indiscriminately (they can do this in Greece) to check if the ownership and insurance papers are in order. This was the third time we were stopped for the same reason in our two week visit in Crete. It is annoying to be stopped when you have done nothing wrong, but in every case the policemen were very courteous and let us go within a few minutes of finding everything in order. The fact that we must be the only drivers in the entire country who insist their kids stay in their car seats with seat belts on must have some positive effect on being released quickly but we are still randomly stopped.
We chose Agia Galini for an overnight stay because it is a popular resort and we knew we would be able to find a hotel at such short notice. We did in our first stop. I don't remember the name of it but it was right on the harbor and only cost € 36.00. It was clean, right in the town, and every door had a little sign right above the knob which read: "Please don't shoot the door" in English! It was obviously an unfortunate translation of "don't slam the door" because shooting doors was the last thing that could happen in Agia Galini. The only problem we found after we hauled all our luggage three flights of stairs was the fact that there were no electrical outlets anywhere in the room, so I was forced to use the shaving outlet in the tiny bathroom to charge my computer, my two cameras, and my cell phone. Wall outlet availability will be definitely in our list of things to check next time we book a hotel. It all worked fine though, and I had some time to reflect on our long day when late at night I downloaded my photographs to my powerbook sitting at the balcony overlooking the peaceful harbor.
Next morning I raced over to visit Phaistos while Maria (my wife) and the girls went swimming at the beach. I had to return by 12 noon to check out of our hotel, so I had to skip a visit to the Agia Triada, and Gortyn archaeological sites, but my experience at the beautiful palace of Phaistos provided enough excitement for one day.
Our ferry for Piraeus did not leave Heraklion until 9:00 PM so we had all day to explore a little more of Crete. After leaving Agia Galini we drove south to the legendary beach of Matala where we had a chance to swim, to have lunch, and to visit the vacant roman tombs on the rock above the beach which also doubled as a hippie colony during the sixties. Later in the afternoon we headed North through some more spectacular mountainous landscape in order to catch our ferry to Pireas.
Crete has so much to offer that we could not have seen everything even if we stayed two months. As it is we departed the island full of great memories and with the certainty that we will return again.