Spinalonga Island

Right across from our hotel was an interesting looking island.

Dining at our hotel our first night with “The Island” in the background

It’s original name was Greek and derived from language meaning to protect the ancient port of Olous (present day Elounda).  However, the island had quite a history after this origin.

Sun sets on the tiny island

First, it was occupied by the Venetians (of Venice).  They renamed it Spinalonga for “long thorn”.   It is said that until the Venetian rule, this island was actually part of Crete, but they carved it to be a free-standing island.   They used it in farming and selling salt.  However, they soon had to build fortifications as of the threat of pirate invasions as well as take-over by the nearby Turks, based on their profits in salt-mining.   The Fall of Constantinople (Istanbul today) hurried their development.

View from the top of Spinalonga at the middle fortifications

Lower fortifications

They built dual fortifications – both on the basin, and up above.  Having these enabled the island to become one of the most powerful defenses of this side of Crete.

The island of Spinalonga with its Venetian walls

They could view the entire Mirabello bay, ensuring Elounda’s protection

Even during the Cretean war, when the Turks tookover the whole of Crete, the island remained a Venetian stronghold.   Our driver from the airport commented, “imagine some people lived their whole lives out there in isolation, during that period”.

Walking the streets in Spinalonga

Spinalonga fell to the Turks in 1715. Ironically, because it was so hard to take over, it was the Turks last footing when the Christian Cretans overtook them.

Old buildings on Spinalonga

In 1903, Spinalonga became a leper colony for Crete. When Crete joined Greece, it grew into a leper colony for the entire Greek population.  They worked, married and had children, while isolated on this little island.  In 1957 it was dispanded and has been abandoned ever since.

I can’t imagine the isolation felt out here by the lepers

The author Victoria Hislop wrote a story about Spinalonga, entitled “The Island”.   I plan to read it to get a greater context for the history.

A few tips if you plan to visit:

-It was only a 5 minute boat ride from our hotel, The Blue Palace, via private boat where you can indicate when you wanted to come back.  You can also get tours from Plaka, Elounda or Ag Nik with the closer being the least expensive.
-We went the latest possible time in the day to avoid the heat and the crowds, as Spinalonga is the #2 tourist visited spot in Crete.
-Bring water and lots of it.   We had severe dehydration from climbing and not a place to purchase water on the island.
-You can swim if you want.  So bring your suit.
-Also, Spinalonga is incredibly windy.   Dress accordingly.   We thought Le Mistral was bad, but look at the effects on this tree:

a little wind-blown

I was a little wind-blown as well.   Headband and ponytail.  A must to visit Spinalonga.

A few other note-worthy islands we adore:

Burano:  Bella Burano, Mediocre Murano

Capri:  Oh, Amalfi.

Phuket & James Bond Island:  Christmas in Phuket

Exploring Crete – Krista, Lato, and more

It is hard to believe that snow still exists on Crete until mid-July (it just melted 20 days before our arrival), but that is the elevation on part of the island!  While visting Crete, we wanted to visit some of its mountainous region.

Mountain village of Kritsa

Kritsa was not too far from where we were staying in Eastern Crete.  During Medieval times, it was the largest town in Crete, however, now is a small village with 2200 residents.  It still looks like time hasn’t passed when you walk on its streets:

Gabe was a bit too tall for this door

Wait….which address is this?

Streets of Kritsa

Hot day in Kritsa




Nearby Kritsa is the archeological site of Lato.  It was the most powerful town during Dorian towns with two acropolis.  It was destroyed in 2nd Century BC.

It always amazes us how freely Greece (and Europe for that matter!) allows visitors.   There was no entry, no guards, to visit this incredible site.  We could freely walk all over the pre-Christ dated ruins.

Archeological site of Lato

View of the ocean from Lato


After Lato, we meandered through the mountainous roads back to the highway and to old town Hersonissos.  An old colleague of mine’s family originated from this area and many of them still live there today.  We tried to visit their restaurant in the charming old town square, but didn’t know it was closed for lunch.

Me in front of Georgio’s

Old and new, we had a nice day exploring Crete.

Gratitude Friday: Fresh Food Sources

I think that it is very important to have a very true glimpse into where our food comes from.  Especially in the US, so much of our food is packaged and doesn’t resemble it’s source.

Seeing it as an animal helps you remember that it in fact, came from an animal.  I think it helps promote our gratitude for the food, that a living being is contributing to our well being.  Also, I think it helps in respecting to eat in small quantity and not wasting.

We had a very real experience of this in Tuscany when we visited the pig farm.  Prusciutto is shaved off the leg of the pig in the butcher.  You can easily recognize the body part.

Yup. That’s a leg.

When we were recently in Venice, two of our seafood meals were presented to us whole before cooking, after whole and de-boned at our table.

A delicious fresh flounder for four.

In Crete, we also had this experience in the fishing village of Plaka, which was nearby our hotel.   Our first night, we ordered a sampling of the local seafood.  When it comes out staring you in the face, you really get a connection.

Our dinner. A few whole fish.  A few whole shrimp – heads and tails.  I especially liked the “flying fish” they had.

This guy wanted a part of the whole fish action as well.

Our second night, we returned to Plaka, but a different restaurant.   We had the same experience of fresh catch of the day, yet with the pleasantry of them de-boning it for us and removing the head and fins.  I am sort of a wimp and while I appreciate seeing it whole before and afterwards in the presentation, I don’t like the eyes looking at me while I eat.

Our grouper the first night, split open, and drizzled with Createan olive oil. Perfection!

This grouper was the BEST fish I have ever had in my life, caught that day, in that very bay.

The fishing village of Plaka, the home of our grouper

We loved it so much we returned to the same restaurant the next night.   This is a first for Gabe & I.

Second night in Plaka

So, this gratitude Friday, I just wanted to express my thanks for fresh food and the appreciation of its source.

Bon weekend, everyone!

Where to find the best fish of our lives:

Ostria fish tavern

plaka elounda

720 53 crete

The world’s best olive oil

Living in Europe, we have seen several climates that bear olives – the South of Spain, Provence (South of France), Tuscany & Umbria (in Italy), and Greece.

Image courtesy of olimarket.com

It takes an arid region to cultivate this delicious specialty.   It is best grown in the Mediterranean basin where the temperature and soil yields the best fruit.

We have had the opportunity to taste olive oil from each region:

In the South of Spain, we enjoyed tapas, most of them drenched in oil.  It was delicious to have their oil integrated into their cuisine.

Spanish tapas. Mmmmm.

And, I actually had no clue that France produced olive oil until we did our summer trip to Provence and drove through many groves in les Alpilles.  Valdition, the estate where we found the lavender, had a hefty production of French olive oil.  We purchased some from our innkeeper.

French olive groves…ooo la la.

French olive branch

In Italy, we have had amazing olive oil on our trips.  As it is very delicious and fresh, it is best appreciated on bread.    Did you know that Italians actually import more than they export!

Olive trees dotting the Tuscan landscape

However, when it comes to olive oil, the Greeks dominate in consumption.  The average Greek consumes 26 L per year.   This is double Spain or Italy’s consumption at 14 L.  And the US, North America, and Northern Europe pale in comparison at 0.7 L.

The green in the hills…..those are olive trees. Crete, Greece.

One of our guide books indicated that Crete produces 20% of the worlds supply of olive oil.  I haven’t found facts to back that up, but this stat is staggering for such a small island.   I would believe it as the Cretean diet, heavy in foods farmed off their land – olive oil and fresh produce, was found to be the reason that Creteans have the lowest mortality indices, irrespective of what disease.

Olive trees lining the Cretean highways and mountains

Also, perhaps some of their consumed quantity could be attributed to non-traditional uses.   When in Crete, I had a massage at the hotel in which the masseuse used pure extra virgin olive oil.   I tasted my arm before leaving – it was the real deal.   Also, a friend reported that her daughter-in-law’s family, which hails from Greece, immersed her newborn grandchild in olive oil for luck upon meeting them for the first time.

A lone olive tree, Spinalonga island

Regardless of the use, we would argue the best tasting olive oil comes from Greece.   From our first taste in Athens at Pritangon to our most recent tastes in Crete at Osteria Fish Taven, it is still confirmed our favorite.   Surprisingly, I even heard an Italian in Sorrento admit that the Greek oil was the best.

So, why is olive oil Greece’s best kept secret?    I guarantee you if the world knew how amazing this stuff is, then Greece’s economy wouldn’t be struggling so much!

Knossos Palace : Home of The Labyrinth & The Minotaur

The Minoan civilization was just a myth until the last century when Sir Arthur Evans , a British archeologist, was able to pursue his intuition and dig after the Turks departure from Crete.  Before that, he was not able to dig due to the conflict.

And he found what he was looking for – traces of the ancient Minoan civilization which flourished in Crete from 2500 BC to about 1500 BC. This civilization was the oldest  in Europe, happening during the Bronze Age.   For a reference point, it thrived in the same era as the Egyptian times and the Ancient city of Babylon.

The first settlement on top of a previously Neolithic village occurred around 2500 BC – time of King Minos.   They flourished, but were completely iradicated around 1700 BC – possibly by earthquake or the Santorini volcano which is likely to have caused tsunami effects.   During this early time, they were far advanced, producing:

-the first flushing toilet.  Our guide pointed out that even the Palace of Versailles didn’t have such technology 2000 years later.

Evidence of the Minoan engineering – a top channel for regular water, underneath was a channel for waste water from the toilets (not visible in photo)

-the first draining bathtub in the queen’s quarters.

Image courtesy of daedalus.gr

Original terracotta pipes

-the first throne.  The original is pictured in the below photograph.  A replica sits in The Hague at the International Court as a reminder of the power of justice vs. war (the Minoans were peaceful).

King Minos’s throne

-the oldest road in Europe

Our guide said this was the first road in Europe that went from the port to the Palace of Knossos

We toured the Palace of Knossos, capital of Minoan civilization when visiting Crete.   If you know your Greek mythology, you are likely familiar with the Palace of Knossos as it is the site of the great labyrinth and the Minotaur.

The labyrinth of the Palace of Knossos

A few myths related to the Palace of Knossos & Minotaur occurred here.  You may remember them?

–Father and son  Icarus  were traped in the maze of the labyrinth at Knossos.  Finally, they came up with the idea to use wax and feathers to make wings to fly out of their captivity.  The father Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high, but being young and foolish, he did, the wax melted by the heat of the sun and he drowned in the sea, now named The Icarian Sea.

–King Aegeus  was fed up with King Minos sacrificing 14 young Greek boys and girls each year to the Minotaur.   His son Theseus agreed he would go with the troop and kill the beast, changing the sails from black to white to signal his success.   He succeeded with the aid of the King’s daughter Ariadne using string to help him find his way.  However, in his rush to return to Sounio, he forgot to change the sails.   His father jumped into the sea in mourning, thus naming it the Aegean sea.

Lucky we didn’t get stuck in the labyrinth!

Other than it’s tie-in to Greek mythology, we found the original 4000 year old urns to be quite impressive – they were made to hold olive oil, honey, and wine.  They were extremely heavy, requiring many lifters and handles.   It is said that the son of King Minos was curious and climbed into the honey urn and accidentally fell in.  He met his death by the bees that swarmed the urn.  What a way to die!

Impressive urns

Also, I really loved the frescoes.   Throughout the archeological site, they had imitations so you could get an idea what the palace looked like.  We later toured the archeological museum which contained the smaller and most precious artifacts found at the site.   My favorite fresco was the one that depicted the acrobats flying over the bulls for entertainment.   Bulls were sacred (unlike Spain and Mexico where they slaughter the bulls), so the acrobats had to be very talented to grab the horns and flip over, with no harm to the bull.

Fresco of the bull dancers

Talk about dangerous jobs!

Crete: 50 Shades of Blue

It has been a dream of ours to return to Greece, ever since our trip to the country in May 2010.  We enjoyed the history, being surrounded upon every turn with magnificent ruins and chronicles of the past.  We loved the amazing simplicity of their food.  We appreciated the openness of the people, so eager to share their culture, their specialties.   And, the islands….the highlight for me.  I cried the day we left Santorini because I didn’t want to leave the most beautiful place I’d ever seen.   And Santorini being my favorite place in the world…still true.

This time, for our return trip, we selected the island of Crete.  We had heard the enormous island had a ton to offer – in history, more great food, and gorgeous blue waters.

We stayed in the Mirabello Bay, in between the town of Elounda and the tiny fishing village of Plaka.  I had selected the hotel based on the photos I’d seen other travelers post online of the Elounda area.   I just love it when there are other islands or peninsulas to look at in the distance.

A guy on our plane to Dublin told us Ireland had 30 shades of green.  I’d say, they certainly do, but if you are dedicating colors to islands…Crete has 50 shades of blue.

Varying blues in Mirabello Bay

Turquoise blue in our little harbor of Blue Palace

Clear water leading to brilliant blues

Boats near Elounda town in deep turquoise blue waters

The turquoise of Elounda town

Overlooking cerulean waters

Lots of variation on the cliff above our hotel – turquoise in the bay and deeper blues in the Aegean sea

Bright blues and bluish mountains looking back towards Ag Nick

And my favorite view…blues varying with depth – greenish blue to turquoise to dark blue

Ducks & Delightful Towns in the Dordogne Valley

Yesterday, you read about the magnificent prehistoric caves we saw in Dordogne.   However, we did a few other neat area activities, and I wanted to share.

While we were waiting to enter the cave (closed for lunch for 2.5 hours, it is France), we saw this cute bistro.   As it turned out their sandwiches were 3.50 euro which was an excellent price.  However, the downside (or upside, depending on who you are), was that all the sandwiches involved duck or goose.

I am not a foie gras person, so any type of duck modification that isn’t breast meat scares me, so I went goat cheese.   It was lathered on crispy French bread. Yum.

A cute lunch spot.

After our feast, we checked out the shop.  They had duck and goose everything.   The owners invited us to check out their geese.

Duck. Duck. Goose!!!!!

We continued onto the cave and had a great experience there.

After, as we were driving, we saw magnificent sunflower fields.  They were just turning to their peak, way after Geneva’s had long gone dreary.

A & S in the sunflowers

We stopped upon little Sarlat-la-Canéda, also in Dordogne valley.  It is on the UNESCO “maybe” list, due to the excellent form of its medieval architecture.    Goose and duck souvenirs were everywhere….not to mention a lot of the canned and jarred stuff.  Ick.

Sarlat’s architecure – love this style.

Cute streets

We hit the road for a little while, realizing it was time for dinner soon.  S spotted a hilltop town very close to an exit.  Since French roads only have exits every 30 km or so, we took advantage and pulled off.

Donzenac, France

Streets of Donzenac

We enjoyed a great pizza there before heading back.

I love France…each trip there are so many different discoveries.  But, I am afraid I am getting “adorable” town burnout.   Is this awful?

Gratitude Friday: The oldest thing I’ve ever seen

This Friday, I wanted to dedicate gratitude Friday to seeing “the oldest thing I’ve ever seen”.

We stopped in Dordogne Valley of France on the way home from Bordeaux.   Dordogne is known for being a very beautiful area of France, with lovely buildings banking the Dordogne river.

Image courtesy of French property

The Dordogne is also known for being the home of many one-of-a-kind prehistoric caves.We decided to visit Rouffignac Cave, which included drawings that were over 15,000 years old.

We arrived to the site at 11:50.  They closed for lunch from noon until 2pm.  It is France, after all. The fellow warned me I might want to come back early to get in line, however.

There was talk that maybe we should hit another cave instead. However, we researched and found that most other caves either required advance reservations or were also closed at lunch.  We were so remote that it would take awhile to get to another location.

After a sandwich pit stop, we came back at 1pm.  There were already 30 people there.  At 1:30pm, a line had started to queue which we quickly jumped into.  There were at least 100 people in line when the place re-opened at 2pm.  We luckily got into the first tour.

We boarded a mini train and started our journey.  The cave continues for over 10km, but our journey kept us at the first kilometer, where most of the drawings were.  Nowadays, you have to go on train and no photography is allowed.  This is because they discovered visitors were having a bad affect on the preservation of the artwork located in the cave.

Image, courtesy of donsmaps.com

One of the first things we saw were mammoth etchings.  They were made with a sharp object, and carved into the cave wall just below the ceiling and rock nodules covering the cave ceiling.

Mammoth etching image courtesy of donsmaps.com

We weren’t allowed to take photographs, but our guide showed us with a special light the outlines.  Sort of like this:

Image courtesy of joh.cam.ac.uk

Our train continued and then we were able to see the three rhino frieze.   It was breathtaking.

Image Courtesy of Flickr photosteam of Gleinster1936

Following was a 10 mammoth freeze, where 5 mammoths were standing off vs. another 5 mammoths.  Most of the artwork in nearby caves doesn’t include mammoths.  This is why Rouffignac is particularly special due to the inclusion of this long-instinct species.

More mammoths, image courtesy of nature.com

Lastly, they took us into the great room, where there were dozens of images overlapping, mammoths, horses, rhinos.  The room was shallow, but they hollowed the floor to allow for tourists to stand underneath.

Ceiling image courtesy of donsmaps.com

The guide pointed out that cave drawings weren’t discovered until the late 1800’s.   And details on mammoths weren’t fully understood until the 1950’s when excavations found the remains in Siberia, thus helping develop the scientific understanding.  These drawings had details on the animals someone couldn’t possibly know who wasn’t living at the time.  So, they were able to prove and data the history of these magnificent drawings.

I still am in awe that I was able to see that in my lifetime.  What a cool experience.  This area isn’t that accessible, so it truly is because of our living arrangement in relatively nearby Geneva that we were able to get there.  Also, a big thanks to Schwingen in Switzerland for driving us.  It was truly magnificent, and I am thankful to have seen it.

Bon weekend, everyone!

Big Bordeaux: Château tastings in Médoc

Médoc was the second region we explored on the Bordeaux wine adventure.

Map of Médoc / Bordeaux wine regions

While Saint-Émilion is quaint, Médoc is high brow.

First of all, they have very strict classifications.   You might say, well, Saint Émilion and Burgundy also have classifications.  Well, in Médoc, when the classifications were set in 1855, they have only made one exception.   So, they are very rigidly based on the land.  It doesn’t account for changes to the land, to the owner, or to the wine-maker.

It was set back in 1855 by Exposition Universelle de Paris and was the idea of Napolean III to show off all things France.  He wanted to show superiority of Bordeaux wines, thus upping the great exhibitions of England.

The designations are :

Premier Cru / 1st

Deuxièmes Crus / 2nd

Troisièmes Crus / 3rd

Quatrièmes Crus / 4th

Cinquièmes Crus /5th

In addition to strict designations, most Médoc wineries are in châteaus, castles.   Just driving around in Médoc, this is the type of winery you see:

Typical landscape in Médoc

Middle Eastern flair

Just a little ole winery

Rothchild estate

We happened to start our Médoc at Château Gruaud-Larose, a deuxieme cru (2nd).

Château # 1 – Gruaud-Larose

The grounds

View from the bell tower.

Tempted to ring the bell

Beautiful wood tanks

Spotless and immense concrete tanks

Lines of barrels in the old basement

Old world racking technique

Unlike Saint-Émilion,some of the Médoc have two types of wine.  They call it first and second label.   The first retails for higher. The second makes use of the wine from vines not deemed to be qualified for the first label…maybe younger, or a specific plot not included for some reason.  That way, they can still keep the first label quality and price up, while still using the marketing benefit of their name on a less expensive bottle.

Our tasting. These bottles retail for about 100 euros and 80 euros each. We didn’t buy any.

When we were tasting, our guide mentioned that she recently had a Russian client who bought a 1200 euro bottle, just to taste.   I would guess she was pretty disappointed she got us that day.

After a charming lunch in Bages, we headed on to our second château, Château Pontet-Canet.  This one is a cinquieme (5th) but is such renowned quality and technique, it prices for higher than deuxieme / 2nd.   It doesn’t make any sense and is a fault of the current classification system.

The most interesting thing here was that they were organic & biodynamic.  As such, they had stopped using tractors and other heavy equipment, and had gone back to the technique of horses.    They had created special carts that allowed weeds to be picked out of the vineyards by horse-drawn cart:

Horses hard at work

Taking a break.

I thought that was really neat.   Just like our first chateau, this one boasted immaculate facilities:

Concrete tanks

They called this terrace, “The Ocean of Vines”

Cellars at Château Pontet-Canet

The “library” of old vintages

Our tasting. We had the 2007 which was 68 euro a bottle. The 2008 jumps to 130 and keeps climbing. Didn’t buy here either!

It was really nice to see this famous wine region.   It is unlike any I have ever visited.  Too bad our budget keeps us from actually purchasing the good Bordeaux stuff!

Related Links:

The Wine Doctor:  Bordeaux Classifications

The Swiss Watch Blog: Adventures in Bourgogne Wine

The Swiss Watch Blog:  Getting Intimate with the vines in St Émilion

Getting intimate with the vines in Saint-Émilion


Our first stop on our Bordeaux regional wine tour was the little town of Saint Émilion, where we were staying.   We had wanted a blend of these small family-owned wineries in Saint-Émilion, along with the larger châteaus in Médoc.

We stared out at Laniotte, which is family owned.  The man who runs it is actually a baron.  However, you wouldn’t know from his humorous personality.

Laniotte winery

Farmhouse / winery at Laniotte


One thing that was interesting to me was that these small wineries only produced one wine.    In the US, one winery might have a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Merlot, and a variety of whites.   Not here….they made one.

And the classification is very important.   At this winery, their product is a “Grand Cru”.   We had learned about cru designations when we went tasting in Burgundy last Fall.  In that region, they were given the designation: Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village level, or Regional AOC.

However, here in Saint Émilion, the best was Premier Grand Cru, and the next was Grand Cru.

Still different nomenclature from Burgundy.   Confusing, huh?


Packing room of their wine:  A Grand Cru Classé


The owner’s wife was a chemist.  She explained to us how they sometimes used the pure juice from the vats.  However, sometimes the pressed grape juice was added.  It just depended on the year, and what the wine “needed” in order to reach its best formulation.


The crusher

The press

This winery produces 60,000 bottles a year.   Not bad.   At the time, they were racking.   Racking is the process of moving a barrel of wine into another barrel.

Enjoying our small personal tour of Laniotte

I am familiar with wine tanks which were used in the fermentation process.  However, most of the time, I had seen stainless steel.  This was the first concrete one I had seen.   The winemakers said concrete helps retain the temperature more constant.

My first time seeing concrete tanks


The result?   Nice.

Our tasting. More like a full glass.  Very nice for a bottle that retails for 32 euros. 

We enjoyed meeting the family and tasting their product.

Enjoying our taste.  Mind you, this is 9am. 

While tasting, we asked if we could explore the vines.   We had noticed that the vines in this region are more squarely pruned.  It is hard to tell from this photo, but they looked more manicured compared to those I had seen.

Checking out the vines

Later that night, we had more time to get “intimate” with the vines, as we took a little post-dinner walk through some of the terraces of Saint-Émilion:


Vineyards at dusk

Vineyards, very close to the town center

Terraces at dusk.  Aren’t they well “manicured”?

Sun setting on Saint Émilion’s vineyards

Vineyards going into town

Night falls on the vineyards