Monday, 30 September 2013

Travel between Siteia and Heraklio by ferry... with your dog

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It can be tough traveling with a big dog if you don't have a car.

This summer I was lucky enough to get a lift with some friends down to Palaikastro, in the east of Crete. When it came to getting back to Heraklion, however, I wasn't sure how I was going to manage. Small dogs are permitted on the KTEL buses, as long as they are in carrier cases and you have the documentation with you to show they have had inoculations. With large dogs, it's a different story. I have heard horror stories about dogs carried in the luggage compartment of buses (extreme heat and lack of oxygen), so this is just not an option. Some car hire companies do permit animals in the cars, or you could hire a taxi/van (at some expense) and transport your dog in a carrier.

But the best option, by far, is the ferry that stops at Siteia and Heraklion on the route between Rhodes and Athens.  You can check ferry routes and timetables, and reserve your ticket, here: http://www.ferries.gr/greek-islands-ferry/ferry_heraklion.htm
I will admit that the timetables section is a bit frustrating. When I was looking, in September, there were two ferries per week, Wednesdays and Sundays.
I found this site a little easier to use for checking schedules: http://www.petas.gr/en/aktoploika-eisitiria.html
Guinness (the dog) on the ANEK ferry to Heraklion
The tickets costs just 15E, which is actually cheaper than the bus, and takes about the same amount of time. Plus, you can sit on deck with your dog!!

So that's what we did.

We were traveling in September, so there were not too many people. However, it's a big ferry, I'm sure even in summer you would find a corner to settle in with your dog.

Sage on the ferry
I think Sage was a bit unnerved with the noise and the movement of the ferry in the beginning. She didn't seem very comfortable, and I had to coax her up hundreds of stairs to reach the upper deck. We got to the deck and found a shady place to sit out of the way of the other passengers.

I was also uncomfortable at the start of the trip. I didn't want to leave Sage, but I was hungry. Dogs are not permitted inside the ferry, and although there is a bar on deck, they don't really sell anything except coffee. I was feeling a bit stuck, and the journey takes over 3 hours....

Luckily, I found an old friend from our days of dog walking in the Heraklion parks. She was traveling from Rhodes with her dog Guinness, so Sage and Guinness kept each other company while I went inside.


As Guinness had a longer journey, he did spend some time up in the kennels provided, when necessary, then came out to sit on the deck whenever possible. I went to have a look at the kennels. They were pretty clean, and are covered so the dogs are protected from sun and wind. There were a lot of dogs there though, some of whom didn't sound very happy to be there. I also learnt that during the busiest times, in the height of summer, the cages can get a bit dirty.
Kennels on the ANEK ferry

If you know you will have to put your dog in the kennel, it may be a good idea to have some wet wipes, and an old blanket so your dog has some familiar smells around. It can also get a bit chilly up on deck, even in the summer.

For a short trip, if you are traveling alone (I mean, just you and your dog), I'd just advise that you are better prepared than I was (go to the loo first, and buy a sandwich before you board, for example).




This is probably second nature to dog owners, but do allow some time for your dog to pee before boarding. There is a mop and water to clean up, but especially if it's a short trip, it just makes it easier if you don't have to think about this.
ANEK ferry kennels (it's not dog mess on the floor)
You know your dog. If you think your dog will bark and annoy other passengers, you may get less nasty looks if you put your dog in the kennels.

Unless it is very windy, I think this is a great way to travel with your dog, as you can sit together, walk around and stretch your legs, and comfort them if they are anxious travellers. 

Monday, 23 September 2013

Breakfast, lunch and dinner in the mountains - Kathodon Taverna, Myrsini... with your dog

 Taverna Kathodon
 A group of us had a recent trip from Heraklio to the picturesque village of Myrsini, Lasithi Region. We were going to the opening of a friend's exhibition in a new gallery space opened by a collective of locals. It was a really nice event, with quite a lot of people, considering it was held in a small gallery in a village in the mountains... The gallery is called Fabrika, and they have organised it really nicely; it even has a mechanised roof so that the venue can be open air in the summer and closed in winter.
Fabrika (Φάμπρικα) Gallery, Myrsini
The artist: www.mathewhalpin.com    Unfortunately, I didn't find a website for the gallery itself.

They allowed our dogs inside too, but this may depend a bit on who is exhibiting and whether or not they like dogs.

I had been to this village before, but had never really explored properly. I loved it. Everybody was extremely friendly, both to us and to our three dogs (!). They have really worked hard to restore the traditional architecture of the houses and the village is extremely beautiful, with narrow winding streets full of bougainvillea, jasmine and geraniums. It still has the feel of a functioning village, however, where people actually live, rather than a stage-set for tourists to admire. I especially liked it that it was a group of local residents who had started the exhibition space, and were inviting artists from all over Crete to come and exhibit and discuss their work.
Side street of Myrsini
And the best part? From this village you have fantastic views over the mountains to the west, to the next village along, Tourloti, of the endless mountain peaks disappearing into the distance to the south and east, down to the coast to the beautiful island of Mochlos...


View towards Tourloti from Myrsini
There is not a lot to do in the village. You walk around nosing at peoples' houses, looking at the plants that fill the courtyards and streets, and admiring the view. There is a small shop, but I didn't find it. There is also a kafeneio, again, I didn't go there. We kept finding our way back to the lovely Kath'odon  Taverna (Roadside), with the incredible views over the Mirabello Bay.  


They served a basic breakfast (omelettes, toast, that kind of thing), as well as lunch and dinner of course, at reasonable prices. They didn't seem to mind when we sat there just for a coffee, and again later just for raki and mezedes. They were fine about our dogs, although probably would have preferred if Betty (the boldest of the 3) didn't find her way in there alone and start begging from the other customers. There was a nice mix of tourists and local residents eating there. I also liked that the taverna stayed open quite late at the weekend, providing a little bit of nightlife to the village. 

Here is the Facebook page for Taverna Kathodon: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Taverna-Kathodon/197882956957077  This would provide a good rest stop on the road going to east Crete too.
While staying at the village of Myrsini, we went down to the sea-side village of Mochlos, to have a look at the Minoan settlement that has been excavated on the mainland and on the islet opposite... and to have lunch at one of the many small fish restaurants there: http://travelcretewithyourdog.blogspot.gr/2013/06/explore-village-of-mochlos-with-your-dog.html

We also went for a hike at the nearby Richtis Gorge, and swam under the waterfalls halfway down the gorge: http://travelcretewithyourdog.blogspot.gr/2013/09/swim-under-waterfalls-in-richtis-gorge.html

While the beaches in East Crete can be a bit strict about dogs (especially in the Itanos district), there are many great places to go in this area with your dog.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Eat at To Votsalo, Kouremenos Beach... with your dog

View of To Votsalo, from the beach road
To Votsalo (The Pebble) is a lovely taverna just behind the beach at Kouremenos. The same family own Cafe Stavedo (Downwind) next door, as well as the nearby Glaros Rent Rooms (The Seagull).

Cafe Stavedo was closed when we went by last night - I suppose mid-September the majority of the tourists have already packed up and left this area - but I did go there last year once or twice, with Sage, and nobody seemed to mind. This place stays open late in the evening during the summer, and usually fills up after people have left the tavernas (or during the afternoons for coffee).

I had a lovely response to my email, asking whether dogs are permitted in the Glaros Rent Rooms: Yes, they are, no restrictions on size, just as long as they don't make too much noise (fair enough!). I haven't seen the rooms, but I do know some people who love it there and return year after year. Glaros is in a great location for Kouremenos beach, windsurfing, several great cafes and restaurants. See my previous post: http://travelcretewithyourdog.blogspot.gr/2013/09/my-morning-walk-from-palaikastro-to.html

So, we went to have dinner at To Votsalo taverna. This taverna is also closing soon for the winter, so I'm glad I got there in time for a last meal down by the sea at Kouremenos.

I should say that this place would probably be rated 'dog tolerant' rather than 'dog friendly'; it seemed the staff were a bit apprehensive about Sage, and although they were fine about us bringing her, they didn't seem to be exactly 'dog lovers'.

The decor of To Votsalo is simply and beautifully done - with lanterns hanging from the trees, colourful chairs arranged around just the right amount of tables to seem full but not packed in, cushions on benches, flowers in pots... And to top all of this, you are less than 5 metres away from a long, sandy bay that ends with the distinctive squashed pyramid shape of Kastri mountain.













The food was great. They serve all the typical grilled meats and fish, as well as some 'specials' such as okra in tomato sauce, and oven-cooked lamb.  I would say the prices are higher than in the nearby villages at Palaikastro and Angathias, but not too bad (we paid 30 Euros for okra, meatballs, salad and wine).

This taverna is closed in the winter, and opens around Easter. Definitely worth a visit if you find yourself hungry, in East Crete... with your dog.

You can find photos and information on how to get there on this website:  http://www.palekastroholidays.gr/index.html


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Friday, 13 September 2013

My morning walk from Palaikastro to Kouremenos Beach... with my dog

I don't mean to make you all jealous, but my morning dog walk here in Palaikastro is glorious.
We have been going down to Kouremenos Beach from the village of Palaikastro every day for the last week. Some days we jog down, have a quick rest on the beach, and try to jog back up. Other days we amble, stop to sniff things, throw some sticks, have a swim, then amble home again.
Sometimes we have company for our morning walk down through the olives, other times it's just the two of us.


There are lots of great off-road walks in this area. We turn down the dirt road by the small church of Agios Antonios (from the Palaikastro-Vai road, turn right at signposts for Hiona Beach, and turn left almost immediately onto the dirt road).
Although there is something of a labyrinth of tracks criss-crossing the olive groves, it's hard to get lost when you have the beautiful Kastri mountain on the horizon, and glimpses of vivid blue sea. I love that this track, which only takes about 20 minutes at walking pace, passes first through olive groves, then through tall bamboo reeds, by tamarisk trees, and finally palms, before suddenly opening out in to the wide, sandy bay of Kouremenos.

I haven't been there yet this year, but at the end of this beach, by the small harbour (mainly used by local fishermen), there is a great cantina, which opens from around Easter until October. This is one of the best kept secrets of the area, if you like a dinner of barbecued meat and a simple salad, washed down with raki or beer. The owners of this place are wonderful, very welcoming to everybody, and had no problem with me bringing Sage along the last couple of years. Last year they told me they had just got a dog too. There are many other places to eat dinner around here, and many with more varied menus and fancier decor - the charm of this place is that it is so low-key, friendly, and cheap!  

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The small harbour where you will find a great cantina
during the summer months
Turning in the other direction, you will find a couple of windsurfing schools. I was really hoping to catch some of the campers this year before they headed back home; last year we met lots of tourists who had traveled with caravans from Italy, Belgium and France, with their dogs, to spend some time wind surfing at Kouremenos. Sadly, I arrived too late this year, and they had mostly already dispersed. Usually, some tents are pitched on the beach under the trees towards Kastri, while caravaners set up home just behind the surf school, back from the beach. 
A couple of caravans parked behind Kouremenos Beach
You can take lessons from some very experienced windsurfers, or just hire out the equipment you need.   Links for the surf clubs: http://www.gonesurfing.gr/en/         http://www.freak-surf.com

Gone Surfing (windsurfing club), Kouremenos Beach
There is a new cafe/bar on the beach this year. I haven't been yet. Each year there is a little bit more development, but fortunately this area is still fairly peaceful and not choked up with hotels and bars.

I should have probably said this first: I have been informed that there are "No Dogs" signs on the beach at Kouremenos. Honestly, I haven't seen them. It's true sometimes I pretend I haven't seen such signs (like on the next beach round at Hiona), but in this case, if they exist, they are at the far end of the beach closest to the newer fish tavernas and rent rooms, towards the small harbour. I believe this beach is long enough for everybody to enjoy it, windsurfers, families, and dog-owners alike.
Garbi enjoying an early morning walk on Kouremenos Beach


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Sunday, 8 September 2013

Have a spa day at Xerokampos... with your dog


At the clay beach, Xerokampos
As it was a windy weekend, we decided to try Xerokampos for a couple of days relaxation on the beach with our dogs (Sage and Mayia). My reasoning was that there are a number of small protected coves, as well as longer more open beaches, and we would surely find somewhere to shelter from the wind. This didn't turn out to be true. We had a lovely weekend anyway.

Arriving at Xerokampos about midday, we saw that a couple of the more central beaches, the ones with umbrellas and sun loungers, were a bit busy.

On the road heading out of Xerokampos (to the east), we found a large, empty beach where we could let the dogs run around without causing any damage or annoyance. The only problem with this beach was lack of shade, and with the high winds it was pretty near impossible to keep our small tent-shelter vertical. I think we were at Alatsolimni, or Salt Lake, which fills in the winter and is home to a variety of migratory birds, including flamingos! As usual, Cretan Beaches give great descriptions of all the beaches in this area:  http://www.cretanbeaches.com/Beaches/Lassithi/xerokambos-beaches/
Alternatively, you can just turn up and wander from one to the other, and find somewhere you like the look of.
At Akrogiali Taverna during the evening

After a long afternoon trying to keep in the shade of the collapsed tent, and cooling off in a beautifully clean and refreshing sea, at about 6 in the evening I finally felt able to venture out and explore. Some friends of mine were holidaying in the area, so I went to join them in the Akrogiali Taverna, or Sea Shore, behind Ambelos beach.

This taverna was fine about our dogs. Sage  passed out in the middle of the taverna so the poor waiters had to step over them with plates of food and trays of drinks, yet nobody complained at all. The menu was fairly standard Cretan cuisine, with reasonable prices. We preferred this taverna to the other one close by, as there was more room to sit outside, but in the shade. Here is a link to a tourist information website that describes this taverna: http://www.insitia.gr/english/akrogiali_tavern_in_xerokampos_sitia-tde-59.html

Sage at one of the coves at Ambelos Beach,
Xerokampos
Camp on Ambelos Beach, Xerokampos

We did sit for a short while on the more central beach by the taverna, but by 7 in the evening, everyone had packed up and left, so we had the beach to ourselves.

Later in the evening, we found a quiet spot beneath the tamarisk trees, at the end of this beach, and tried to sleep through the howling winds. My friends told me they managed to sleep. Myself, I saw the moon rise. I saw the moon move across the sky and descend. I saw the sun rise. I gave up trying to sleep.

Mayia enjoying the sunrise over Ambelos Beach
At least I was up and awake early enough to fit lots of things into the day. First, we had a wander up to the Hellenistic site of Xerokampos, just at the west end (and above) of the main beach. This site is not fenced off, and you are free to walk around the ruins. However, there is no information at all, and I have not found much while searching online.

This settlement seems to have been ancient Ambelos, referred to in ancient texts. It was protected from attack by being on raised ground, as well as by a fortification wall. Now little remains of the settlement, although parts of the wall, foundations of numerous houses, and the odd mill stone and drainage channel can be spotted.

Hellenistic Site at Xerokampos
One of the best things about this archaeological site are the views down over the fantastic clay beach, the almost turquoise seas, and sandy bays.

As with a large part of this area of Lasithi, the scenery here is very arid and rocky, and has quite a stark beauty when you are driving inland. These magnificent bays, each with its own feature and character, contrast perfectly with the dry landscape of East Crete.






View of Clay Beach from the Hellenistic Site
Having explored the archaeological site, we set off for the spa. The beach of Argilos, Clay, has a dramatic backdrop of soft white clay that you can moisten and run onto your skin. I didn't get to the bottom of exactly why this clay is good for the skin, except for the drying/cleansing action.. but we slathered it all over ourselves just the same. You then wait in the sun as the clay tightens on your skin, and lightens to an off-white colour.


Of course you spend the time trying to take photos without ruining your camera with wet clay...



And then you rinse yourself off in the sea at the next small bay.











We left our dogs behind with some friends while we went to try out the clay treatment. They seemed tired, and happy to sit quietly in the shade on Ambelos Beach. I did create a mini Mayia out of clay, but not sure she survived the journey home...
Clay Mayia

After a few more swims at the main beach, a bit more lazing in the shade of the trees, a few photos of the rare white lilies that grow in the sand dunes at Xerokampos.. we headed back to the Akrogiali Taverna for lunch before slowly making our way towards Monday and work...
At Akrogiali Taverna for lunch






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Thursday, 5 September 2013

Eat with a sea view at Studios Stavris, Frangokastello... with your dog

At the taverna/beach bar of Studios Stavris

On a trip back from the Sfakia region of Chania, we returned to Heraklio via the south road, and stopped off for lunch at a place just outside of Frangokastello. We drove by the castle, looking for a taverna that appealed to us, that would also be dog-friendly (we had two dogs with us at this time), and turned back round to return to the area a little away from the main beach, where it seemed quieter.

We turned off the Hora Sfakion- Frangokastello road at a signpost pointing down to the sea which read Stavris Studios. Here we found a small, relaxed taverna, with tables right on the beach if you want to sit under the shade of the tamarisk trees, near the sea.

I didn't get to see the studios themselves, but I contacted the owners to ask whether they permit dogs in the rooms. They sent a quick and friendly response to my email, saying that dogs are welcome in the studios, and that there are no restrictions about size or breed of dog. The only rule that they have is that dogs should be on the leash when outside the accommodation. Here is the link to their website: http://www.studios-stavris-frangokastello-crete.com

There were a few families around, presumably staying at the studios there. I have heard that this is quite a popular destination for families with young children, which may mean it is not ideal for dogs. Anyway, we kept the dogs on their leads, and there was plenty of space for us to sit a little away from the others on the beach.

We took it turns to swim while the other sat with the dogs. The sea there is fantastically blue and clear; there are some rocks to snorkel around and you almost don't need a mask to be able to see fish swimming by.

The beach by the taverna at Studios Stavris
Prices at the taverna were very reasonable - we had quite a simple lunch (salad, sausage, fava, a beer or two) and paid less than 20 Euros between us.

This beach is about 3 minutes drive from the Venetian castle that gives the area its name. The castle was built in the late 14th century. It was constructed to defend the Venetians against pirates and local rebels, and was named the Castle of St. Nikitas. The derogatory name 'Frangokastello' (Castle of the Franks, or  Catholic foreigners) used by the locals eventually became adopted by the Venetians themselves.

The castle has a simple, but dramatic rectangular shape, with crenellated towers at each corner. Architecturally, it is a very unusual sight for Crete, particularly as it perched against the blue seas and sand dunes of the south coast.

The castle at Frangokastello
The castle is famous for its bloody history during the long war of independence against the Ottomans. In 1828, led by Hadzi Michali Daliani, the Greeks took a stand against the Turks at Frangokastello. A massacre followed, and the martyrdom of Daliani and his soldiers entered the history of the castle and its surrounds. It is said that each year, at dawn on the 17th of May, the ghosts of those who lost their lives at Frangokastello can be seen marching out of the castle. These ghosts are called 'drossoulites', dew shadows.

Also of interest in this area are the early Christian Basilica of Agios Nikitas and Agios Astratigos, both founded in the later 6th century AD. The Basilica of Agios Nikitas preserves a mosaic floor with geometric patterns and scenes of animals, as well as a later (13th century) church, built above the ruins of the older, decorated with wall paintings.  A later church (14th century) was also constructed above the Basilica at Agios Astratigos, dedicated to the Archangel "Archistratigos, commander in chief. Unfortunately, little now remains of this church. A useful summary of these sites can be found on the Explore Crete website: http://www.explorecrete.com/crete-west/EN-Frangokastello-Basilicas.html


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Sunday, 1 September 2013

Swim under waterfalls in Richtis Gorge... with your dog



Sage, Betty and Princess at the entrance to Richtis Gorge
I have driven by the signpost for Richtis Gorge so many times, going between Sitia and Heraklio for work, but I never had the chance to stop and explore. A week or so back I was in the area with some friends, and we decided to do a short hike.

There are 2 versions. You can stop at the top of the gorge, on the national 'highway' between Sitia and Agios Nikolaos. The entrance to the gorge is just after the village of Exo Mouliana, coming from Sitia, and just after Mesa Mouliana coming from Agios Nikolaos. Some friends of mine have done the full hike from the top of the gorge, and they said it took a bit more than 2 hours (they walk pretty fast).

We took the easier version... we drove down to the beach at the end of the gorge. The turning is in the middle of the village of Mesa Mouliana, sign-posted 'Richtis Beach'). The road down to the coast is a bit hair-raising. It's mostly dirt road, with some fairly sharp bends. Luckily, I wasn't driving, and my friend seemed pretty confident about it. I just focussed on the view - the arid but extremely beautiful landscape so characteristic of the Lasithi region.

The beach at the end of the gorge is small and rocky, and on a windy day the waves make it difficult to swim there. We didn't even try, we just headed straight into the gorge.

For the first five minutes there is little shade. The gorge is at its widest here, and there are few trees. It is ideal, however, for picking wild oregano and sage.

After a few minutes the gorge narrows, and the scenery changes dramatically. We were suddenly in some kind of oasis, with a small stream that still had plenty of fresh water for our dogs to drink and play in, and trees overhead for shade. It is really green and lush, even in August. This woody gorge is such a well-kept secret, hardly anybody I know has been through there. And you don't expect it. While driving through the wild and barren landscapes of East Crete, you don't really imagine there is a long, narrow stretch of woodland and running water.

We followed the path up through the gorge for about 40 minutes, stopping to take photos, help small dogs over large boulders, rescuing big dogs from pools that were deeper than expected... Our dogs had a great time. They were all excited, running through the water, climbing rocks, getting covered in mud. It made a great change from hiding in small patches of shade on beaches, for all of us. We were walking right in the middle of the day, in August, and it was easy going.

 The best part though, is that going this way through the gorge, after 30 or 40 minutes you reach the waterfalls.

We stopped for quite a while to enjoy the waterfalls. There is a picnic table there, and space to sit around the small, deep pool where the water collects. Some of us were brave enough to swim under the falls, which was amazing. In summer the volume of the falls is just right to swim under; I imagine in the spring the flow might be a bit strong. I have heard that the gorge is not usually passable in winter, due to  rainfall swelling the river. The pool was mostly shallow, but gets deep enough to swim close to the falls. It is also very refreshing (should I just say cold?), especially after a midday hike.

Our smallest dog, Princess, had an involuntary swim, and was shivering for quite a while afterwards. She cheered up on the way back down through the gorge though.

We headed back down the gorge to where we'd left the cars after reaching the waterfalls, so I didn't get to see what the first part of the gorge is like. I'd definitely like to go back and walk the whole thing. The only problem is that unless you can arrange a lift to take you back up via the road, you have to walk back up the same way, which makes this quite a long hike. I would say the path was moderately easy, with a bit of scrambling, but not too much (we managed wearing flip flops and broken sandals). This is a great way to spend half a day, to see a different and unexpected side of East Crete. And, because it is not very well known there was almost nobody there, so we could let our 3 dogs off their leads to run around freely and enjoy themselves.  

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