Lost And Found: How Uncertainty Makes Travel Memorable

As the bus begins to pull away from the bus stop in Chania, I catch the old man’s eye again, giving him a thumbs-up through the window. He stares back blankly – then leaps to his feet, waving his arms, pointing, shouting. I raise my hands in an uncomprehending shrug, keeping the palms turned inward to avoid flipping him a mountza, the traditional Greek insult. He shouts louder, as if volume alone could break through the language barrier that had us miming to each other a few minutes ago. Then his body slumps into a pose recognizable the world over – “Oh, you bloody fool” – and that’s when it hits me in the stomach.

I’m on the wrong bus.

I have an hour before my ferry leaves the port of Souda, taking me away from Crete and back to mainland Greece. If I don’t hit that ferry, my carefully engineered schedule slithers through my fingers and I’m left untethered, without local knowledge, a decent enough grasp of spoken Greek or the money for new tickets. Without that ferry, I’m lost.

I sit down, by order of my knees, and stare out at the dusty, baked scenery as we rattle God-knows-where-wards. And then something strange happens. Panic ebbs away. I start to appreciate how lovely the light is, the rose-fingered sunset fading through the spectrum into that special glowing blue that enlivens domed roofs and door-frames right across Greece. I’m warm, I’m well fed, and I have no idea what is going to happen next – and it’s this last feeling that is so intoxicating right now.

Perhaps this is the wrong question. Perhaps it’s really this: why do I want travel to be easy?

When most people travel, they seek the unknown – either in a familiar, packaged, piecemeal form with the help of guides and tour operators, or the raw, improvised version that’s so popular with people young enough for their nervous systems to take it. I go off the beaten track using a third approach, which I like to call “Oh You Bloody Fool.” Somewhat appropriately, it’s a way of travel I accidentally fell into. I go places, things go wrong, and I fall through space, screaming. This is usually, but not always, a metaphor.

There’s a perverse joy in having your travel plans collapse around you. I’ve missed many flights and will doubtless miss many more. Once I get over the initial shock, once I’ve leaned against the nearest wall and cursed everyone up to and including the Wright Brothers, a calmness steals over me. I change. Lacking any alternative, I’m forced to become the person who can deal with this mess. My senses fly open, taking great gulps of the world around me, collecting data for my suddenly hyperactive brain to sift through in search of Life Or Death Answers. My heart thumps. My jaw sets. No time to waste – and off I go.

In “A Field Guide To Getting Lost” (2006), Rebecca Solnit says:

“The thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”

I’ve spent a lot of the last decade getting lost. I’ve been lost on England’s North York Moors in the middle of a rainstorm with the light fading – one of the few times I’ve genuinely hated not knowing my location. I’ve blundered across Berlin at 4 a.m. in search of my hotel, clutching a rain-dissolved paper map. I’ve suffered a thousand deaths of embarrassment in front of strangers, and I’ve eyed other travelers – so competent, so self-assured – with a mixture of envy and hatred. Why can’t I land on my feet instead of my face? Why does it all have to be so hard?

Perhaps this is the wrong question. Perhaps it’s really this: why do I want travel to be easy? When it’s easy, it’s a non-experience that our memories can’t get a grip on. Thanks to the miracle of GPS, we need never be lost. We can get from A to B knowing exactly what B looks like and having a machine dictate the entire route to us. Our technological support networks are vast and all-powerful, and our guides, physical and virtual, know more about the places we’re going than we ever will. We are mired in certainty and we need never put a foot wrong. But what if that’s not what we need – or why we travel at all?

I’m not pondering any of this as my bus takes me away from Chania. I’m fully in the moment, hunting for clues to where this bus is going, scanning the horizon for landmarks that tally with the map in my “Rough Guide.” There are 11 people on that bus. One lady is wearing a brown hat; one man has spectacularly hairy ears. These details are unforgettably burned into me by an elevated level of awareness …

I’m having the kind of travel experience I left home in search of.

Ten minutes later, the port of Souda hovers into view, and I realize, with curious disappointment, that I’m saved. I’m on the right bus after all. I unwittingly compensate by getting off the bus far too early, forcing me to sprint the final mile with a fully-laden backpack, and then I spend the first hour of my ferry ride lying semi-naked on the cool metal floor of my cabin, trying to bring my temperature down. The rest of the journey is a self-recriminating haze.

These days, being lost is at the heart of the kind of travel I love, filled with stories I don’t know in advance, positioned along the uncomfortable line between serendipity and disaster. Occasionally wild uncertainty is thrust upon me, as when I was robbed of my passport in Düsseldorf, seven hours before my flight home to England. (Ever wondered how long a UK emergency passport takes to put together? About six hours.) I’ve learned to appreciate these experiences for what they are – a living hell at the time, a treasure-trove of travel memories afterwards. All that said, I give myself lots of leeway nowadays, spacing out connections and over-budgeting where I can. I may be a bloody fool, but I’m not stupid.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Jenny Downing]

The World’s Best Gyros?

gyrosThe Italians have their pizza, Mexicans have tacos, America is the home of the cheeseburger, the Germans dig their sausages and the French eat crepes. In almost any country there is one ubiquitous food staple budget travelers can count on for inexpensive sustenance. I recently spent six weeks in the Greek Isles, where the Gyro is king.

By my own informal calculation, I think I ate about 30 gyros while in country. I’d hate to have my cholesterol checked, but I’d guestimate that my level went from 210 to about 250 while in Greece. So my arteries might be very clogged, but I had some awfully good gyros and never spent more than €2.5 anywhere. In fact, I’d say the average price of a gyro in the Greek Isles is a paltry €2, making them a must eat treat for anyone traveling on a budget in Greece.

I got sick of eating gyros at times – I even resorted to eating at a couple of crap Mexican restaurants – but if you want something fast and cheap on the Greek Isles, there aren’t a lot of other options. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one gyro place from another but there was one establishment called Thraka (charcoal in Greek) in Chania on Crete that stood out from the pack.

I knew I had to try it the first time I walked past the place, which is located just past the Old Town on busy Chatzimichali Ginnari street, just down from a pet shop. While every other place had a smattering of customers, Thraka was packed with locals devouring gyros, souvlaki and kebabs. Aside from the cheap, mouthwateringly delicious gyros, you can also get a three skewer plate of souvlaki for €5 and kebabs for a ridiculous €1 each.

What makes the gyros at Thraka special? For me, it’s the quality of the pita, the meat and the tzatziki. And the fact that you leave full after spending €2 is an awfully nice bonus. My vote for world’s best gyros actually goes to a place called Samos, in Baltimore’s Greektown, but like all gyros in the U.S., they go for twice the price you pay in Greece. Check out the video but be forewarned – you’re going to want to run out and get a gyro when you see it.

A Walk Through Chania’s Old Town In Crete

chania old townTrying to find a vacation destination where you indulge both your curiosity and your desire to lounge on the beach can be a chore. The most interesting cities are often nowhere near a good beach and the best beaches often have very little else to see. But if you’re looking for a small city that’s packed with history and is close to world-class beaches, consider checking out Chania, an atmospheric old town in Crete that was built by the Venetians on the ruins of the ancient Minoan settlement of Kydonia in 1252.

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Chania’s Old Town (see video below) is a lively stew of colorful old homes, narrow lanes filled with outdoor restaurants, and architectural treasures. On sultry summer evenings, the streets are packed with children playing in the squares, couples enjoying romantic meals and partiers guzzling beer and ouzo.Chania’s Archaeological Museum is small but packed with must-see mosaics, statues and artifacts. And when you’ve had your fill of history, head about 15 minutes northeast of Chania to Kalathas Beach, a beautiful sandy beach that has very shallow, clean water and a good taverna right next to the beach.

Initially, we stayed at the Halepa Hotel, just outside Chania’s Old Town, but, despite the glowing reviews we read on Trip Advisor, we thought the place was overpriced given its location and small rooms. We moved to a small, brand new boutique hotel just off the harbor in the Old Town called the Palazzo Duca, which turned out to be cheaper, nicer and in a much better location (see video). But one word of caution about Chania – we were there in June and it was already getting quite hot, so you definitely want to visit in the shoulder season.

[Photos and videos by Dave Seminara]

Three Hotel Bargains In Crete For Less Than $100 Per Night

palazzo duca hotel chaniaCrete has it all: frozen-in-time mountain villages, unspoiled beaches, medieval churches and monasteries, the atmospheric Venetian port cities of Rethymno and Chania, and an abundance of hiking, rock climbing and other outdoor activities. The north coast of the island is also chock-a-block with hideous resorts filled with sun-starved package tourists from Northern Europe.

But it’s easy to avoid the tackiest places and, perhaps best of all, Crete is still very affordable, even in the cusp of the high season in late June. I stayed in four hotels, all priced at less than $100 per night for a family of four and can highly recommend these three establishments as great bargains.

Palazzo DucaChania

We were staying on the outskirts of town in The Halepa Hotel, which we found to be adequate but overpriced, when we stumbled across this brand new, eight-room, family-run hotel, right smack in the middle of Chania’s unforgettable old town, just a half block from the waterfront. The Duca had just opened a couple weeks before and the large, light-filled rooms were cheaper and far nicer than the Halepa, so we decided to switch hotels and were glad that we did.Most budget and mid-range Greek hotels are pretty light on amenities – scratchy towels, razor thin mattresses and archaic plumbing are often the order of the day, but this place comes as a terrific surprise in the mid-range price category. We paid 75for a big, beautiful room (see photo above and video below) with a terrace and small kitchen. The Duca has super comfortable memory foam mattresses, plus very high quality sheets, pillows and towels, all very rare at this price point in Greece.

Plakias ResortsPlakias

plakias resorts plakiasIf you’re looking for a relaxed little beach town, free of big, tacky resorts with a huge, lovely sandy beach, look no further than pretty little Plakias, which is popular with families and naturists, rather than party people. Plakias Resorts offers inexpensive but very high-end, new vacation apartments right across the street from a beautiful clothing-optional beach.
We had a modern, very comfortable one-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen and three terraces, two with stunning sea views, for just 70per night. My kids loved the kids pool and there’s a beachfront taverna around the corner with very good grilled octopus. The only downer about this place is the dour manager who always seems to be in a bad mood. But it’s well worth enduring her moodiness for this terrific bargain.

Afroditi HotelRethymno

afroditi hotel rethymnoOn a three month trip around Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Greece, this was the cheapest place we stayed at just 40per night but I don’t think we received a warmer welcome anywhere. Yiannis picked us up at the bus station, plied us with free wine, a plate of fruit, gifts for our kids and a ride back to a car rental establishment upon departure.

We had a very nice loft with a kitchen that was fully stocked, a washing machine and a shady courtyard terrace. The bed was a bit Greek for my tastes, as in hard and uncomfortable, but at this price, I was complaining. I couldn’t figure out where Yiannis’ profit margin was but loved the bargain.