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I t was drizzling in downtown Heraklion, the capital of Crete, as we dragged suitcases from our hotel toward the rental car I’d parallel parked nearby a day prior.
That’s weird, I said to my friend as we approached. Why is it sticking out onto the street like that?
My chest tightened. Our little 9-Euros-per-day red soft-top Fiat had been hit. The rear was smashed. At least one tire was flat, its hubcap flung onto the sidewalk. A handwritten note, in Greek, lay flat beneath the windshield wiper. It was 7 a.m. Our plane to Athens departed at 8.
This would be one of the more “exciting” moments on vacation in Greece, for which my friend and I had made no advance plans besides buying a round-trip mid-March flight to Athens for a mere $700. Operating on the fly, hour by hour, we wound up in Athens twice, visited three islands (Hydra, Crete and Aegina), then finished with a bonus 24-hour Istanbul stopover en route home to Texas.
"If you have no expectations, everything has potential to be a pleasant surprise," is something I remind myself often. Over the course of eight days overseas we rode a glorious wave of spontaneity and serendipity. We had a perfectly imperfect spring break. And did it all on a reasonable budget.
The trip provided added nutritional value, too: Meticulous planning is a form of control. Without that, one must let go, open and trust. We relied on recommendations of strangers and our own instincts. The world didn't let us down. Even when it kinda did.
Flights to Europe are the most expensive they've been in five years, according the travel app Hopper, up more than 35 percent from 2022. Greece is an especially popular summer destination. Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias is expecting 2023 to be a record year for visitors, many of whom no doubt have visions of strolling past white domes and cerulean water on Santorini and clubbing on Mykonos.
That was not my trip.
Embarrassingly, my friend and I did not note the weather would be in the 40s and 50s. We packed bikinis, colorful caftans and sandals. Since we didn't have any set schedule to speak of, though we'd briefly discussed island hopping, we presumed we'd make it to a beach, get a tan, eat our share of feta and olives and scoot off into the sunset. Instead, I wore my airplane sweater for a week straight. It rained daily.
Still, there is much beauty in off-season travel. The first-night Athens hotel we booked from an iPhone in the lounge at George Bush Intercontinental Airport cost less than $100 and was two blocks from the Acropolis. After check-in, we ventured out and happened upon a steep street of boisterous tavernas, complete with live music and many an "Opa!" Spritz cocktails flowed. Welcome to Greece! The next morning we had the Acropolis almost entirely to ourselves. A security guard said it is a completely different scene come May and beyond, when buying advance tickets is imperative.
After antiquing at the Monastiraki Flea Market and snacking at Varvakios market food stalls, we headed to port to catch a 90-minute ferry to the car-free island of Hydra. (You can buy ferry tickets the day of without fear of a sell out, another perk of spring Greece travel; our sweet Uber driver made sure we got where we needed to go.)
Hungry when we arrived, the proprietor of our cute two-room apartment in the center of town wrote down four restaurant recommendations. We hit them all in two days; all were objectively awesome. Our favorite was Manna, for a more contemporary take on Greek cuisine. In general, the island — known as a haven for artists and fashion types — was calm. Not all of the chic shops were open, but the ones that were offered discounts and wanted to cut a deal.
At one point, as we sipped Aperol at a cliffside restaurant after a sunny half-hour hike, Hydra was so quiet I could hear the clop of donkey hooves in the distance. The world seemed to slow down. Peace.
The weather would not cooperate for long and, ready for a change of scenery, we booked a cheap flight to Crete on the ferry back to Athens. We reasoned that Crete was Greece's largest and southernmost island and had the best possibility of warmer climes with plenty to do. We rented a car to see as much of it as possible.
Navigating the hills of Heraklion to our hotel at night as a person who is rusty on driving standard transmission felt like an accomplishment, and my friend, to her credit, was generous in doling out words of encouragement and directions between fits and starts. The next morning we drove a few hours west to Chania, which every stranger we spoke to had recommended.
It was easy to see why. The city's Old Venetian port and town are charming. We walked the cobblestone streets until we found a seaside hotel and inquired about a room, which was offered to us for 70 Euros cash and no fees. In the summer, the same room would be triple the price, if there was space at all, the manager informed us. She pointed us in the direction of Tamam restaurant for a late lunch, where we had Greek-inflected Ottoman cuisine and Cretan wine in what was a bathhouse in the 1400s.
The rain continued without cease. Our decision to take the off-the-beaten-path route back to Heraklion to (in theory) see some small villages and stop at wineries was a treacherous one complete with slick, one-lane mountainous switchbacks in a Tonka car. I later found out my friend feared for her life, but never let on. (Calm travel companions are important!) With the goal of making it in time to visit the Minoan palace of Knossos, which dates back to 7000 B.C., we managed to convince a single winery — thank you, Klados, love your Vidiano — to let us in for a quick tour and tasting en route.
We did arrive at Knossos 15 minutes before it closed for the day. I did have to beg the ticket agent to admit us, promising we'd be quick, and he did so for free. It probably helped that it was pouring rain and I seemed a little crazy. That night we scored an early reservation at hopping Peskesi in Heraklion, where we tucked into dishes inspired by ancient Cretan recipes surrounded by an international crowd. We were happy to be dry that last night in Crete.
As for the wrecked Fiat the next morning: After a few minutes of conference — what if that Greek windshield note was incriminating to my parking skills? — we asked a coffee shop employee to call us a taxi to the rental car agency at the airport. There, we shared the car’s location using a pinned Google map along with the note, which thankfully was from police who witnessed the hit and run.
After some paperwork, we skipped into the airport, through security and onto the plane with a few minutes left over to book our lodging for that night. An hour later, we were back in Athens.
Since it was still morning, we dropped our luggage off at a storage-locker spot near the apartment we’d rented in the historic Plaka neighborhood, paying our airport Uber driver an extra few Euros to wait for us, then carried on to the port to catch a ferry to Aegina for the day.
An island known for its pistachios, Aegina has a lovely a shop-filled harbor. In search of lunch somewhere a little less touristy — and thanks to some brisk internet research — we flagged a taxi to the fishing village of Perdika and had a long waterside lunch at Miltos restaurant, where we drank wine and pet many congregating cats as a man grilled a whole sea bream caught that morning in front of us.
The next morning in Athens we had brunch at a very cool gourmet grocer/restaurant, Ergon House and picked up edible gifts for folks back home before navigating the crowded subway to the airport, as all of central Athens was barricaded off to cars because of the annual marathon race.
Yes, another transport snafu. Neither of us flinched. It would all work out, we sensed, and it did. But even if it didn't, adventure is all about traversing the unknown.