Exploring Rethymno: savoring the easy life in Crete

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Rethymno Beach Crete Greece

Sunset along Rethymno Beach

 

“A piece of cake”

 

That’s what Ioannis thinks about driving a moped around Crete, often to locations hours away in a climate that can change from scorching hot beaches to freezing mountain rises.

Cars are a pain to park, and who wants to hassle with traffic?

Or pay so much for gas?

Or deal with maintenance?

No, no. Life with a moped is good easy living. It’s a piece of cake. (Imagine shrugged shoulders and a wide grin.)

Many people around the world make the same decision and consider it a simple one, you might say to yourself. Can he maintain his nonchalance with something more complex, like juggling the multiple languages and dispositions of tourists around a bar, or growing and harvesting olives?

As luck would have it, those are Ioannis’ summer and winter jobs, and furthermore they, too, are a piece of a cake.

Life does in fact seem blindingly simple as we sit at our hotel lounge, overlooking the 7.5 miles of Rethymno’s beach while sipping on Craft, a local beer. A red sunset dissolves into hovering twilight as the day exhales deeply, and the city slips into a relaxed mood matching that of our guru-bartender.

 

What you’ll see

 

Rethymno Ottoman overhang Crete Greece

Varied architecture in Rethymno’s old town

 

To walk through the streets of Rethymno’s old town (or Rethymnon, Rethimno, or Rethimnon, depending on your spelling preference; pronounced reh-THIM-no/n) is to be surrounded by interwoven evidence of the Mediterranean’s great civilizations.

The Venetian Rimondi Fountain lies beyond second-story Ottoman overhangs; a twisting alley idles past a Byzantine church; that in turn leads to a harbor framed by Venetian facades; at the mouth of the harbor rests an Egyptian lighthouse, complete with hieroglyph designs. Overlooking it all is the Fortezza, a Venetian fortress, and beyond that are the snow-capped mountains featured in almost every postcard image shot between November and May.

 

Morning light

Morning light over the city and mountains (Photo credit: Theophilos)

 

What you’ll notice

 

The present isn’t daunted by its illustrious past; there is a blight of tagging-style graffiti, an unfortunate epidemic even on some of the most historic monuments. Just as noticeable is a scourge of homely developments catering to package tourists that jostle for space across the street from the famously long, white beach. Venues like the hotel where we stayed are doing their best to beautify the stretch.

 

Egyptian lighthouse Rethymno Crete Greece

The Egyptian lighthouse is decorated by its creators as well as modern day graffiti taggers

 

Luckily, negative examples are few. If any characteristic stands out, it’s that modern life seems quirky in Crete, hearkening back to an era that has faded away in other locations. Finicky hot water and internet, elastic schedules, and waiters or shopkeepers that disappear unexpectedly are a few examples. “It is the beginning of the season so problems might appear,” we are told unconcernedly.

But isn’t it worth it? At least it’s got soul. Here in Rethymno you’ll actually see locals in the old town; bars and nightclubs beckon a lively university population with their rainbow lights, and each afternoon the cafes swarm with high school students lunching together on gyros or crepes.

 

Rethymno Venetian Harbor bars Crete

Nightlife heating up near the Venetian Harbor

 

(A caveat: we were here in off-season. From Easter through September, expect tourist crowds that might or might not send locals into hiding.)

Take, for example, the phyllo maker and his wife, who have been in business together since the ‘50s and continue to make phyllo, a flaky dough necessary for spanakopita, cheese and spinach pies, or baklava, a desert dripping with nectar-like honey. The traditional, labor-intensive method requires stretching the dough carefully into paper-thin sheets, covering it with burlap, and beginning again. It must be excruciatingly difficult to master, because the pastry chef’s apprentice – who never actually touched the dough while we were there – looked to be in his fifties. At what point will he graduate?

 

Phyllo dough in Rethymnon Crete

 

 

Phyllo circa 1955

The early days

 

Life is … nice

 

Rethymno is Crete’s third city: not as political or industrial as Heraklion nor as cosmopolitan as Chania. Yet still far larger (pop. 40,000) than you would expect for such a small-town atmosphere.

Ioannis works 5.5 months as a bartender, takes a month break, works the winter with his olive trees, then takes a second month break. He knows he has a fortunate life in a place relatively insulated from The Crisis (meaning the current economic crisis).

However, that’s not why he returned to Crete after living in the United States for many years. He returned because of the low crime, easy attitude, and the friendliness. “Stop into the taverna of a mountain village here, and somebody will buy you a coffee. You know no one; but it doesn’t matter. Someone will buy you a coffee!” he laughs.

We experienced the warmheartedness too. Ioannis’ happy disposition and easygoing attitude is exemplary, but hardly unique. Ask a question with an unknown answer, and: “My wife will know! One minute. I’ll go find her.” Hotel owners showered us with homemade jams and rakomelo – or raki, a clear alcohol drink, brewed with honey and spices.

The warmth came through in even the smallest gestures: touching the hand to the heart reverently with a nod means “thank you.”

And when it happens, you know they mean it.

 

Rethymno Fortezza Crete Greece

The Greek flag flies over the Rethymno Fortezza

 

*Special thanks to the Crete Tourism Board and Rethymno Tourist Office for invaluable assistance with planning this trip, as well as Atlantis Beach Hotel for their sponsorship in Rethymnon. To read about our commitment to candid and balanced reviews, see our disclosures page.

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Comments

  1. Kristen says:

    I was entranced. This read like a story of life long ago, except it’s now. How fortunate to be someplace like that in the off season so you could truly experience the quiet lifestyle.

  2. So informative and interesting. Would love to have your dad make his olive tapanades with that phyllo pastry!

  3. I think Ioannis has chosen very good reasons for returning. Very few places, it seems, are friendly and have low crime and an easy attitude. Rethymno seems wonderful with fascinating culture and history. Though, I’m curious to know: where do they go the ‘waiters or shopkeepers that disappear unexpectedly’ ???

  4. Hi Gayla, I think they meander to a local cafe for a coffee or beer! That’s what happened to us at the “No Name Cafe” in Lassithi 🙂

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