Three things I love about Crete

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Gazing out of the clouded airplane window, I absentmindedly take note of the expansive blue beneath me, We are flying over the Mediterranean Sea in route to the island of Crete. A German voice over the intercom jolts me out of my daydreaming and soon the english translation follows. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are beginning our descent into Crete. Please keep put your seat backs in the upright position…”. I tune out the rest and crane my neck around to catch the first glimpse of the island that was my home for five years. The Rodoupou peninsula comes into view in the hazy distance, and then closer I recognize the shape of the small island nicknamed “Kri-Kri Island”, sanctuary of the wild and elusive kri-kri goats of Crete. Tucked into a cove and out of view is the historic and picturesque Venetian port of Chania. But my favorite sight, the one that causes my heart to jump and my eyes to mist over is the foreboding cliffs of Stavros. How many centuries, millennium have those cliffs blazed red in the setting sun and been the inspiration for ancient and modern poets alike? Have they changed at all since the Minoans first called this island home? I doubt it. A sigh escapes my lips and something deep and spiritual, like warm honey, sweet and warm, flows into my soul.

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Even as I read these words, they sound a bit superfulous, yet still not enough to describe my feelings when I see Crete. All the chaos, confusion, and ugly realities of this crazy place give way to the the beauty and magic of the feeling that I’ve somehow come “home.” After living here for many years, I had become quite enmeshed in the fabric of the community, or at least, the community had oozed into the fabric of my being. What is it about this island that has such a hold on me that I spout adjectives in volumes greater than delicacies at a Greek wedding feast? Simply put, it is the simplicity of life that Crete embodies and embraces and clings to, while the rest of the world works itself into a frantic state of animosity and ambiguity. More specifically, it is three things that keep me coming back.

The Sea
I’ve often described the Cretan Sea as liquid silk. On a hot sultry summer day, it looks almost oily as it shimmers in changing shades of blue, green and gold. Some days it can be as still as lake water in the early morning hours. On other days, it’s as restless and unpredictable as a hormonal teenager. But on all days, it defines beauty.1000FC1A-ABCD-4E51-927A-952C97204AB3

The Food
Simple and fresh. No annoying gravies covering an indescript pile of meat and potatoes. If you’re English or German your mouth may be watering for this type of cuisine (which is a significant improvement on processed American food as a whole.) But for this girl, I love a tomato that tastes like the color red, and olive oil that tastes like Greek sunshine. It’s the kind of food that demands savoring. There are cultures (namely mine) that see food primarily as fuel. Then there are the cultures that see food primarily as an inspiration for social gatherings. The Greeks have mastered this activity, engaging in generous meals that last for hours, or as long as it takes until the storytelling and laughter subside. As long as the wine keeps flowing and the food keeps appearing, there is no end in sight. And why would you want it to end when the food and the fellowship rival each other for best memory makers ever.4211673C-7D61-46E2-906B-73F10AFF1192

The People

I love the Greek people – they are so blatantly proud, generous and determined. Everything has significance, nothing is by chance. As a result, what seems like superstitious nonsense to us has a traditional, time honored “truth” to them. A draft can kill you (that explains why most Greek establishments are devoid of any air movement.) If you talk about death, it is a bad omen (spit, spit to keep the evil eye away.) The wild herbs of Crete have miraculous medicinal effects. (Actually, I do believe that last one is true because when I use Cretan herbs in cooking or in cosmetics I just FEEL better.)
Have I ever met a Greek I didn’t like? Of course. Human nature is not completely subject to the culture in which one is raised. So you will find cheats, liars and bullies everywhere. But in general, the Greeks honor their families and their faith above all, and that goes a long way.

It’s not just the Greek people that I love, it’s people in general on the island of Crete. Just like stress can bring out the worst in someone, the laid-back lifestyle of Crete brings out a childlike wonder and lightness of heart to those who will linger long enough to let it all sink in.IMG_6862

I suppose it’s not so much the island as the feelings it exposes that I love the best. My best self emerges here and I feel God’s smile on me more often. Perhaps because I slow down and become more intentional about listening for His voice. Or perhaps I recognize His touch that brought me to my knees and lifted me up at the same time when I lived here so many years ago. Such a place of dichotomy – of brokenness and healing, of chaos and serenity. Of being keenly aware I need Him every moment to survive and to soar.  The simple truth is that every moment holds a treasure, even in the hard places.

For today, I revel in these simple facts;

A big Greek salad, fresh bread with olive oil, a sizzling plate of calamari and a carafe of wine = 18 euros
A day rental of beach umbrella and 2 lounger chairs = 6 euros
A luxurious swim in the clear turquoise waters of the Med = Free
Friendship and wellbeing on the island of Crete = Priceless.

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Hidden Heidelberg

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On every leg of our journey, God gave us protection, provision and especially people who made our journey memorable.
The German people work hard and play harder. If there is a way to make a game of it all, they will figure it out – strict rules included, of course. They can be stoic and rigid but they know how to have fun. And they are more than ready to show you how, or just help you out before you even ask. The language barrier never stopped any of them from offering help with a smile. If it weren’t for their open willingness to lend a helping hand, we might still be wandering off the beaten path towards Croatia or stuck in a Bahnhof waiting for a cancelled train. We found most Germans to be very accommodating and self-confident especially when it came to fashion. Hairstyles of all colors and shapes were common especially amoung the younger set. Even the older conservatives could show a little leg and not be bothered in the least.FullSizeRender

The last leg (pun intended) of our biking tour was a short 40 km so we took our time to walk around Eberbach in the morning before departing.

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Eberbach town square

The town dates to the 12th century and the four towers of the fortifications are still intact. Across the street from the tower Rosenturm is an austere little monument dedicated to Eberbach’s Jewish population that was wiped out during WW2. The bronze carvings on a stone map depict the family names and their home locations throughout the town. It was a sad yet intimate portrayal of those who were forced to leave and never return to their homes in Eberbach.

As the Neckar River curved around to reveal the city of Heidelberg we anticipated the first sighting of the massive Heidelberg Castle. It had been over five years since our last visit to this city and the castle was just as impressive as the first time we laid eyes on it.

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Schloss Heidelburg

The streets were also just as crowded with tourists. Travel guru Rick Steves barely gives it a mention in his books except to say it is overrun by Americans (true fact mostly because until recently the American army base housing over 16,000 soldiers and their families was based in Heidelberg.) When the Americans closed up shop and left Heidelberg, it was nothing short of an economic crisis for the locals. But they have obviously bounced back because business is booming especially along the commercialized Haupstrasse pedestrian street filled with stores and restaurants.

We steered our bikes down the Haupstrasse to the Hotel Bayrischer where we were greeted warmly by pretty frauliens dressed in dirndls offering us glasses of cool sparking wine. Our room was spacious and very comfortable but we didn’t linger there very long. It was our last night in Germany and we were on the hunt for a cozy out of the way winehaus to enjoy our last supper. Walking around Heidelberg can be overwhelming with the sheer number of restaurants offering every type of cuisine so we finally resorted to consulting our faithful Lonely Planet. Score!

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Weinstube Schnitzelbank

We had a few hours to kill the next day so on a tip from our Stuttgart friends, we passed on the crowded castle tour (did that last time), and headed back over the bridge into the little visited Neuenheim district.. This mostly residential area of the city boasts some great local shops and beautiful mansions that dot the steep hillside. It is also where a mountain path called the Philosophenweg or Philosopher’s Path leads to the Heiligenberg area. Since our cycling days were over, we decided to hike the “hill.” We heard that the path led upwards along the side of the mountain and offered spectacular views of the old city and the river. Very true!

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View of Heidelberg from Heiligenberg

Our destination was at the top where the old St. Stephens monastery was in ruins but even more interesting was the stadium built by Hitler in honor of himself during the height of the Third Reich. The Thingstaette is an open air amphitheater with eerie roots. First hallowed as a magical place in the deep forest by the Celts, Hitler chose it as a local rally place and had the Heidelberg people build it for him. To this day, a local will usually tell you about it only if you ask and even then it’s with an apology. Every country has its own stain of shame. America had slavery and German had Hitler.

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Thingstaette in Heiligenberg

But at the end of the day, the sobering visit to Thingstaette made us appreciate even more the strength of the German people to forge a future out of the rubble. And as the greatest party of the year approaches, cities and towns all over Germany will once again redefine their national identity in a deluge of dirndls, lederhosen, bratwurst and beer. Prost Oktoberfest!

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Not your typical Macy’s

 

Biking through Wine Country

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The Freiburg/Marbach area of Germany is famous for its wines made from Riesling (white), Topplinger (red) and Lemberger (rose) grapes. The hills in this region are covered with terraced vineyards between small towns nestled at the water’s edge of the Neckar. One of our favorite stops was at Besigheim. It oozes charms of the old German style with cobbled streets, window boxes and timbered houses all within the old castle wall.IMG_6576

Between Besigheim and Lauffen, we decided to imbibe in some local wine at a conveniently located Weingarten right on the bike path. For some reason, the bike ride seemed more enjoyable after our stop.
Not too far down the trail, the Neckar River flowed through the town of Lauffen flanked by the old castle on one side and a 15th century church on the other.

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Neckarsulm was a welcome sight when we finally pulled into our hotel for our third night on the journey. We would’ve been happy to just lay our heads on a clean pillow anywhere but our accommodations far exceeded our imagination. It was easy to see why The Nestor Hotel had earned every one of its four stars. Our stay was beyond comfortable and the stellar breakfast the next morning made it hard to get back on our bikes.
But before we left Neckarsulm, we knew we needed to visit the famous museum dedicated to two wheeler transportation through the centuries.
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Our trip north towards Eberbach was highlighted by gentle paths, frequent castle sightings and quintessential little German villages with funny names like Zwingenberg and Bad Wimpfen. (Bad, pronounced “Bod,” actually means bath or spa.)
Our only complaint was the head wind we fought while those “cheaters” on e-bikes breezed past us. But once the path curved into the forest, the quiet enveloped us and we slowed down to breathe in the magic of the deep forest.IMG_6709

And no surprise, we found another little weingarten in a sleepy town that had our names on it. It was the perfect ending to another great day of riding a total of 55 km. Wish we could say the same for our hotel that night. Hotel Krone Post in Eberbach – Noisy room, tired food, grumpy proprietor. Enough said.

Navigating the Neckar River

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Today I celebrated my birthday in Eberbach on the Neckar River in southern Germany. We are five days into our bike tour and feeling stronger than ever. Two days ago I couldn’t honestly say that, but tonight I think I turned a corner. Or maybe I’m just in denial about being another year older. Either way, I’m thankful that I’m healthy enough to navigate the hills and valleys of life as well as the bike paths of this beautiful part of Germany.

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Unterensingen

We started out from Tubingen on Day One with 55 km of riding ahead of us. Cycling along the flat terrain of the Neckar River is a delight for these hardened hill climbers from Colorado. We actually felt like we were on vacation enjoying a relaxing ride through some pretty amazing countryside.

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But the best thing was stumbling across a quirky “miniature train park”. Little railroad tracks crisscrossed the park in every direction and it was packed with parents and their toddlers clambering aboard the little cars for a ride. But by far, we were most entertained by the size of the German men driving the tiny steam engines. In some cases, you could hardly make out the engine due to the size of the rump sitting on top of it. The engineers obviously took their job very seriously but we thought it was hilarious.

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We arrived at our destination late in the afternoon when the sun cast a golden hue on the old city. Walking across the the Innere Brucke into Esslingen am Neckar we could imagine why this bridge is compared to the Ponte Vecchio in Venice in that is covered with little stores and workshops and has been since Medieval times. The bridge is a welcoming entrance to a beautiful old city.

A great night’s sleep at the modern and very minimalistic EcoInn fueled our tanks for the next morning’s explorations beginning with 270 stone steps up to the castle heights above the city.

We headed out on our bikes later that morning towards Stuttgart. Our route to Freiburg was noted as 40-45 km for the day but navigating through Stuttgart turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Desperately looking for green bicycle signs pointing the way through the outskirts of this huge city was stressful even for seasoned bikers. Another American and his German girlfriend were having the same sort of trouble, so we stuck together until we finally got to the other side of the city. They continued on at a hurried pace while we stopped by a bakery and toasted our success with two strong espressos and a couple of fresh pastries.
We heard that there was a pumpkin festival at the palace grounds of Ludwigsburg just north of Stuttgart so we set our sights there for our next break. As we approached the ascent up to the castle grounds, we were happy to find a rest stop of sorts that included a small pool of cool water where travelers could soak their weary feet. We took full advantage of this luxury at the invitation of a German couple who were sitting by the water’s edge. They showed us how to do the walk properly – slowly with knees held high in a counterclockwise direction. Soon the four of us were walking in a line like slow prancing horses, laughing and enjoying the refreshing break from a long day’s ride.

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The pumpkin festival at the castle was impressive (sculptures, food, gardens all pumpkin themed) but it was the castle itself and the grounds that were amazing beyond description. We spent most of our visit in the pumpkin fest area but I did wander around to the back yard and discovered a full botanic garden complete with fountains, a carousel, an orangerie and flower beds still bursting with color.  (This is an unimpressive photo but it will be will be replaced as soon as I get my good ones off my nice camera!)

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We approached our night’s destination of Freiburg and discover it to be a sleepy little village. A perfect end to a long day’s ride included some great pasta at a local Italian cafe and a great night’s sleep in a quiet inn called Hotel Schober.

Wander, Linger, Savor Germany

Biking the Neckar (Baden-Wurttemberg region)

And we’re off – again!  The wanderlust kicked in and so did the itch to return to our home away from home – the island of Crete. Living abroad for five years in a place of such unpredictable joys and challenges comes with its addictions. We keep going back again and again because in some unexplainable way, Crete has wormed its way into our souls and every year or two we need another fix.
But before Crete, we will wander, linger and savor a small piece of Germany.

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View over Tubingen from the castle wall

A few years ago my husband RC and I did a self guided bike tour around the Bodensee in Germany. See my blog post about it here: https://cretanchronicles.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/biking-the-bodensee/
In spite of the consistent rain, we still rate it up there as one of our all time favorite wanders. So much so that we decided to do another bike tour in a different part of Germany.

We started this trip in Stuttgart and thanks to the hospitality and great company of our friends living there, we jumped right into swinging beers and tanking up on Swabian cuisine. Jet lag never had a chance to catch up with us. Which is a good thing because on the third day, we boarded a train and headed south to Tubingen, the departure point for our 250 km cycling tour along the Neckar River.

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Tubingen am Neckar

There are certain places in the world that are best seen from the saddle of a bicycle. The Neckar River region is one of them. Leisurely cruising thru a landscape filled with imposing castles, medieval towns and terraced vineyards is the best way to experience this land of fairy tale wonders.

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Neckar Radweg through the countryside

On our first day we wandered around the charming medieval city of Tubingen. Located on the river, the old city boasts a canal, a castle (schloss) and a university – think Copenhagen and Venice but with German roots.  The combination of healthy tourism and a vibrant college vibe serves the city well and it pulses with energy all day and into the night. Our hotel was nestled just outside the castle gate where a lively wedding reception was in full regalia. Our room in a medieval house had window boxes bursting with red geraniums, and we could hear the clatter of heels on the cobbled street below.

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We savored some delicious regional food for dinner, checked on our bikes that had been delivered that afternoon and packed up our panniers for an early morning departure to ride the Neckar River bike path (Neckar Radweg). Our first leg would be 55 km so we settled in early for a good sleep.  Luckily, the delayed jet lag came in handy, because we hardly noticed the party noises under our window that started at sunset and went until … who knows when.