Since I got an iPhone I rarely use a paper map for actual navigation. I use maps a lot for planning, to create the itineraries, and get a good sense of timing and mileage, but when I’m on the road I almost always put the destination into the phone and go. This can have hilarious (in retrospect) consequences, as we discovered on the ride from Chania, Crete to Viglatoras, about 40 minutes southwest of Heraklion.
We followed the blue line on the phone along the E75 and took a right where it was indicated onto the Nikolaou Plastira. This meant no more to me then than it probably does to you right now. On the phone it looked like a real road, but as we went along it became narrower, then took us into a vineyard until it was little more than an ox path. The tracks were bumpy and wildly uneven, really only suitable for farm machinery, and we became concerned that we’d get hung up in the ruts that seemed deep enough to catch and hold a Sherman Tank. It was rainy and night was rapidly approaching.
I don’t worry easily. If we’d had to spend the night stuck in the middle of the vineyard, I’d have been resolute. But the prospect of not having dinner had me feeling like a termite in a granite quarry. Look up hangry in the dictionary and you’ll see my picture. But amazingly we didn’t get stuck and we didn’t do enough damage to the rented car for them to charge us the usual $3,000 or so that they do when the bumpers are scratched.
And then as suddenly as we had found ourselves on the vineyard oxcart path, we came to the top of a hill and were offered the option of turning right or left onto a genuine paved road. We continued following the blue line, with considerably greater trepidation than at the beginning of the ride, and just a couple of miles further on, at a fork in the road was a homemade sign that said, “Viglatoras” It was getting dark and overcast, so even though it was only about 6pm it was pretty miraculous that I saw the sign. What was especially strange, the blue line seemed to be going in a different direction than the sign indicated. But having gone down the primrose vineyard path we followed the sign and just a hundred feet past the fork we were there.
We grabbed our bags out of the trunk and walked to the door. It looked surprisingly dark, almost uninhabited, but we knocked and walked in. The place was nearly pitch black and as we entered we could hear the wind whipping up and the rain starting to come down in a big way.
After calling out a couple of times Maria entered the common area where we stood. Her English was heavily accented and clearly limited but she made us understand that they’d lost power, hence no lights.
After about 15 minutes, during which time we checked in, got keys and lugged our bags over to our room, the electricity was restored, the lights came on, and Maria was clearly relieved.
We had high expectations of this being a special place and we weren’t disappointed. The room was a wonderful lofted apartment with Cretan textiles on the sofa, pillows and bedspread. It was quite chilly when we walked in but the baseboard heaters kicked in immediately, lending a cheery warmth to the room. Though I had no real interest in cooking anything more than coffee, the little kitchen was sufficiently equipped that I could have prepared a meal. There are 5 such little attached apartments at Viglatoras, with a long cement porch out front. It all looked so old and original that we were surprised to learn that the apartments were built recently. The style, construction and ambiance matched perfectly with the original farmhouse.
The rain continued on and off and the wind was quite fierce at times but while we spoke with Maria about where we might go for dinner it subsided. The air was cool and smoky, but quite fresh after the rain. We had directions to a restaurant a town away that sounded quite promising, but even with Maria’s seemingly clear directions we got lost about a kilometer away. Our understanding was that we take a right at what appeared to be the first turn. But when we took that right and drove to the top of the hill just a couple hundred meters up it appeared to be a dead end. No restaurants, tavernas, bars or kafenios appeared in what looked like a little residential neighborhood, but you can’t always tell straight away.
A couple of young locals materialized and one of them started walking toward us. He appeared drunk or mighty close to it and while he wasn’t especially intimidating, we knew it was time to turn around and make our way out of there. I drove up what appeared to be a driveway that became narrower with every inch as I pulled forward so as to turn around. Costa started howling at us in a high pitched drunken and demented wail and of course we had only a vague idea of what he was saying, undoubtedly something to the effect of “Where are you going? What the hell do you think you’re doing?” We continued on, just a couple of miles and pulled into a small village. Somehow Maria had made us understand that there were 2 restaurants there, one at least a little better than the other. We ate at Ethimiko. It was quiet but not deserted in the tavern and we were seated by a friendly young woman, likely part of the family. The salad was delicious, made with local vegetables that have a depth of flavor that for vegetables in Chicago is a memory far more distant than a Bears championship. But the highlight of the meal was a plate of snails, fresh and tender, bathed in oil and garlic. Eating them I remembered standing outside the archaeological museum in Heraklion 45 years before, waiting for my mother and watching hundreds of snails making their way from one side of the grounds to the other. I was fascinated by that spectacle and wondered if people ate them. At 59 I finally had my answer.
In the morning we were shown to a table outside the main house, under a small grape arbor. The air was cool and fragrant, and it was sunny and warming up. Maria had already set the table with cheese, yogurt, bread, jam, and pastries. It was all fresh, homemade and delicious. The coffee was strong and hot. While discussing the day’s plans we talked to Maria about preparing dinner for us. With a little notice she’ll do that. Again, with no Greek on our part and little English on hers, we got her to understand that we would like roast lamb. Whatever else she wanted to prepare was fine with us.
We drove off to Knossos, the millennia old ruins of the Minoan civilization and spent a couple of hours there contemplating life as it once, for better or worse, might have been.
I always have a few thoughts on what and where the next meal might be and that day was no exception. We drove into Heraklion in search of lunch, but whether the gps was mistaken or, more likely, the construction site we arrived at was in fact the former site of the restaurant we were seeking, lunch had to take a detour. Rather than just stopping in somewhere we decided to get some picnic fixings and go back to Viglatoras. The small store had some things we wanted, a couple of kinds of cheese, bread, bottled water and wine and some chocolate. Back at the inn we settled down at a table on the porch outside our room and ate lunch, a simple but delicious and authentic repast, followed by the kind of restful nap that restores ones will to live.
The anticipation of a fine home cooked meal still makes me tingle with anticipation, and when we awoke I was feeling that as though I was holding my hand over a Tesla Coil. Maria and her friend Barbara were working on a feast for 8 although it was just the 2 of us that were eating. Her cluttered farmhouse kitchen is used to prepare meals for visitors as well as do cooking classes. Ahh…and the meal itself. Meatballs as an appetizer, salad with artichokes, and a superb leg of lamb, roasted medium rare with potatoes and a large pan of baked eggplant with red peppers and sheep cheese, all of it brightly seasoned and cooked perfectly. Strawberries with mint and halva for dessert. Shosh said the homemade wine was undrinkable but she was happy enough with everything else to let that go.
After dinner we sat and chatted with Barbara while Maria cleaned up. She was originally from Germany but visited Crete years previous to our arrival and decided she liked it and would stay on, so she did. Her Greek was very good, but more importantly she spoke quite passable English, allowing us more in-depth communication with Maria. Periodically, she travels to California. For some people only a Mediterranean climate will do.
It is hard to believe that 70 years before our arrival at Viglatoras, this already 20 year old farmhouse was commandeered by the Wehrmacht, whose paratroops landed on the island with the goal of driving the British out and having a base and especially airfields to control the Mediterranean. In the short term they succeeded, but ultimately, cut off, with no naval or air forces to aid them, and weakened by an inability to resupply or evacuate, they simply waited out the war. When the eastern segment of the island was evacuated by the axis forces in 1944 it was retaken by a weak mixed English and Greek force that controlled that portion of the island until the general surrender in May, 1945. It is my understanding that during the course of the war Maria’s husband’s father, a father-in-law that she never knew was killed by the Germans. After the war, the family, which had been evicted from their home, returned and reclaimed Viglatoras.
All these years later the farmhouse and apartments make for a wonderful, relaxing vacation, near enough to Heraklion and tourist destinations but a million miles away from the frenetic pace of modern life. I’d consider staying there for several days and using it as a base to visit the valleys, mountains, monasteries, beaches, and archaeological sites of central Crete along with Heraklion.
It’s one of the most pleasant and enjoyable places I’ve ever stayed.
Always call and/or check the website to confirm hours of operation, ticket prices, availability and even continued existence (see above)
Viglatoras Traditional Apartments
Sarkhos in Malevizi, Crete
+30 2810711332 + 30 6979349286 +30 6946959960
700 13 Agios Myronas
Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Heraklion, Crete 712 02, Greece
+30 281 027 9000
The Palace of Knossos
+30 2810 231940