A Family Vacation in Greece
By John & Linda Paitakes
Special to the Hellenic News of America
One of our bucket list dreams of my wife and I for a number of years was to take our entire family to Greece for a vacation. Our family consists of our daughter Christina, her husband David, and her children Megan (13), Laura (10), and Nicole (6); Tanya and her husband Garry and my wife Linda and I. After considering everyone’s work and school schedules we were able to formalize this most memorable vacation to the country of my father’s birth. Although my wife and I have been fortunate enough to have traveled to Greece on numerous vacations and daughters Christina (once) and Tanya (three times), their husbands and children had never been. We wanted our grandchildren to know more about their heritage and Greek culture. So, on June 30th we all departed Newark airport on a non-stop flight to Athens, Greece. We spent three days in Athens visiting the historic sights of the Acropolis, Parthenon, Agora, Evzone Guards in front of the Parliament, the new national museum, and of course the Plaka . We dined in the evenings with our cousins Lillian Paitakes Tsibikoukis and her husband John. We enjoyed sampling the variety of delicious Greek foods to include, souvlaki, gyros, pastitsio, Greek salads, saganaki, and many others. Of course all meals are usually followed by watermelon and complimentary shots of raki (an unsweetened, occasionally anise-flavored, alcoholic drink).
After spending three full days touring these historic and memorable sites we departed Athens on a thirty minute flight to Chania, Crete. I had previously rented two vehicles, a seven passenger van and a four-door vehicle to drive twenty-five minutes to the village of Kalyves where my wife and I had stayed several times in the past. A driver from the car rental agency also accompanied us in his vehicle taking some of the luggage. I had made reservations at the Kalyves Beach Hotel months in advance, as it is the only large most modern hotel in this small village. The setting of this hotel is breathtaking as it borders Souda Bay on the Cretan Sea with a spectacular view of the mountains surrounding the hotel. Although this is a small village, it has all the conveniences one needs such as 7 or 8 restaurants, a pharmacy, bakery, Post Office, Greek Orthodox church, several souvenir shops, Laundromat, etc. The General Manager of the Hotel, Despina, and her Assistant Manager, Penelope, welcomed my family with the typical warm Greek hospitality. They provided us with the four best rooms in the hotel. Upon getting settled in the hotel and testing the beautiful blue sea and outdoor pool, we began planning our days’ itinerary in Greece’s largest Island.
My mother was of Greek descent and was born in the United States. Her mother, Penelope Orphanakis Kuklakis was born in the village of Kefala. Kefala is only about a 20 minute drive from Kalyves and so we decided to take the family to this small village; my wife and I had visited this village in the past. As you enter the village there is a monument built of stone and cement. This appears to be a religious monument dedicated to deceased individuals. Built into the monument are a series of mail-box like cubicles. Inside the mail box like inserts are religious items such as icons, raki, worry beads and other small personal items. It appears these items were for the souls of the deceased. Upon entering the small city center of Kefalas we sought out a small convenience store to purchase some waters and mosquito repellent. The manager of the small convenience store spoke fairly good English and indicated there were a number of Kuklakis’ living in Kefala, most likely grandchildren and other related individuals somehow related to my grandfather Michael Kuklakis. The fact that my grandparents left the village about seventy-five years ago, make it difficult to find relatives remembering the connections.
Visiting my Father’s birthplace, Vafe, Crete was next on our “must see list” adventures. My wife and daughter Tanya had been to Vafe previously. Vafe is a small village on the upper portion of a mountainous area outside of the more popular town of Vrisses. The present population is about seventy. There is one taverna, a general store, a gift shop and a church. A cousin of ours, Soula Paitaki, had renovated her grandfather’s small house and resides in the village. We had arranged to meet her at her house this day. She graciously greeted my wife and I, our daughters, son-in-laws, and our granddaughters. As all Greeks normally do, she had drinks and a variety of sweets waiting for us. I continue to always be amazed at the extreme hospitality (philoxenia) exhibited by the vast majority of Greek citizens. After a visit and exchange of conversations relating to our ancestry, we walked the small main street of the village. We came upon the only gift shop in town operated by Staliou (Stanley). My wife and I had met him two years previously. We all bought some souvenirs and a beautiful hand-made wind chime totaling probably his biggest sale of the day. He was elated and offered to give us a tour of a historic mill that had previously been used for making olive oil. This was quite interesting. Upon leaving the village it appeared that there had been very few overall changes in decades.
One of the most beautiful beaches in the world – Elafonisi
This beach on the western side of Crete has been rated one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world. My wife and I, our daughter Tanya and her husband Garry were the only members of the family to make this trip as it is a two-hour drive from Kalyves through some mountains and winding roads and felt it may be tiring for the grandchildren. Everything I had read and heard about this beach is true; crystal clear blue water, pink sand and beautiful surrounding mountains and scenery; truly a spectacle!. A must see for anyone visiting Crete.
The only lake in Crete — Lake Kourna
My wife and I had been here previously, but wanted my daughter Christina, her husband David, and their three daughters to see this spectacular lake. The lake is located a short distance from Georgiopoulos (George Town). The lake is surrounded by a spectacular view of the mountains bordering it. In addition there are a number of tavernas and gift shops. A very picturesque restaurant, which my wife and I had been at two years ago, is located on an elevated section of the area and provides an excellent view of the entire lake. After my daughter, her husband and their children rented a U-pedal boat and toured the lake, we all met at the restaurant for some refreshments. The owner and manager of the restaurant “Eleni” remembered us and greeted us in typical Greek tradition, kissing each one of us on both cheeks. After purchasing some additional souvenirs, we began our drive back to our beautiful hotel. Lake Kourna is another “must see” in Crete.
Cretan night at our hotel – Kalyves Beach
Every Tuesday evening at the Hotel during tourist season is “Cretan Night”. Professionally dressed Cretan dancers accompanied by a Bouzouki and Lyra player perform. They also encourage the audience to join in. We thought this would be a good occasion to invite our relatives to join us for a buffet dinner and then enjoy the music, performance and dancing. We also thought this would be a great opportunity to treat the relatives due to the fact that they always insisted on treating us whenever we went out with them. Our cousins Maria, Chrissa, and her daughter Irene (7), Cousin Peter and his Aunt Irene joined us for a buffet dinner. The performance by the professional group of dancers began. My daughter Tanya was an active member of the Hellenic Dancers of New Jersey for over ten years and is the Dance Director for the Jr. GOYA members of her church, St. Andrews Greek Orthodox Church, Randolph, NJ. The professional dance group observed her accomplished dancing when there was audience participation. She was later singled out to dance with the professional instructor. After that, the audience was encouraged to join in. All of my family and relatives joined in the dancing. This was a most enjoyable and memorable evening for my relatives and family.
A Visit to Knossos and Rethymon
Another must see sight on the Island of Crete is the ruins of the Temple of Knossos. (There are so many must see sights). These remaining ruins are located on the eastern part of Crete in the capital city of Crete, Iraklion. The ruins date back to the Minoan civilization and it is surprising how the remaining structures have held up over time. The columns and drainage system were progressively constructed for that period of time. Surrounding the sight are a number of souvenirs shops and tavernas where one can refresh during the hot summer days and large numbers of tourists. To arrive at Knossos from Kalyves is about a two-hour ride by car. However, there are bus tours scheduled from many cities that one may make arrangements. On the way back from Knossos it is recommended that one can stop at the mid way portion of the Island of Crete, Rethymon. This is a beautiful cosmopolitan city with a beautiful Limani (group of shops along the harbor). It’s a great place for a respite on the return trip to Kalyves. We stopped there for some more shopping (we made our contribution to the Greek economy again) and some refreshments sampling some of the delicious ice cream made in Greece. This fortified us for the return drive to our hotel.
The last night in Crete
The last night in Crete was spent with several of our relatives which included, Cousin Peter, his brother John, Katina (John’s wife), their son Vardees, and my entire family. We gathered at a small village tavern in the town of Stylos. It is a very old rustic town bordering a spring water stream where the most popular bottled water, Samaria, is bottled. Cousin Peter spoke to the restaurant manager to see what the best specials of the day were. All agreed to let Peter order a variety of different dishes and we would all share, which is customary with many residents of Greece. Everyone talked and reminisced about all the exciting things we had seen and done while in Greece. We were all somewhat emotional knowing that we did not know when we would see each other again. After a filling repast of food, the night was capped off with watermelon and glasses of Raki, the local moonshine. We said our goodbyes as several of the group got teary eyed. On the way back to the hotel my 13 yr. old granddaughter said, “I think I’d like to move here”: I think that says it all!
Significance of the family vacation in Greece
My wife and I were very pleased with the impact this vacation had on our son-in -laws and grandchildren. They were exposed firsthand to the attributes of Greek culture: family, love of life, philoxenia and the Mediterranean diet. They learned a lot more about Greek culture, customs and the people. These attributes were learned as we traveled to the many villages in Crete to include: Alymrida, Kefala, Vamos, Georgipolou, Vrisses, Vafe, Iraklion, Rethymon , Kalyves and many others.