Cretan house hunting

We arrived on Crete about ten days ago and since then we’ve been in and out of short term lets and if I’m honest, that sort of living can get a bit tiring. Even though we are in ‘holiday’ mode at the moment, it’s difficult to put it out of your head that you’re going to have to find a permanent place eventually.

We started our house hunting by making contact with a guy we had been in touch with on Facebook when we were back in Ireland. I was feeling pretty positive about our chances because I felt that we were still in the low season and that there would be plenty of availability, and also the Facebook guy came highly regarded and he had been good to deal with up until that point. We met… let’s call him Yannis… in his office, which was just a walk from our room at the Fortino Hotel. His office was pretty nondescript – to be honest, Yannis could have been trading in anything from there – tomatoes, underwear, seaweed. There were no pictures of sun-kissed houses on the walls, just a medium-sized room with two desks and a couple of chairs. Perfect for an interrogation.

Yannis was very personable and was different from how I had imagined him in the way that people are always different in real life. They look different for one and accents and mannerisms rarely breach the digital divide. He asked us what we were looking for and we answered that we didn’t really know. We settled on wanting to see a few places in town and a few places up the mountains or in villages by the sea. We shook hands and he said he would call us the next day. We went home and made contact with Elizabeth Estate Agents to make a booking to see a fancy-looking place in Chania town. It looked amazing and was outside our budget but we wanted to get the ball rolling and see how things worked.

The next day, we hadn’t heard a word from Yannis and we decided to drop by a few more estate agents. We met two, who were both very pleasant and they even had pictures of houses on their office walls. We agreed to view a house out in Akrotiri near the airport and another at Meskla, a small village up the mountains.

I was a bit weary of the Akrotiri area because I had heard that it might be a bit of a Cretan Costa Del Sol – lots of new development, heavy on the expats and low on authentic Cretan living. But when we drove out to see the house, located in the outskirts of the town of Chorafakia, I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, there were a good few expat-only zones but we passed some beautiful beaches along the way too. So, I wasn’t entirely negative towards the place when we arrived – a good start.

The house was massive and the owners were there as well as two estate agents to show us around. OK, that’s the first major difference between viewing a property here and at home. At home, you would never view a place with the owners looking over your shoulder. How are you supposed to joke about their taste in furniture, laugh at their colour schemes and poke about in their underwear drawers otherwise? Anyway, in Greece this is the way that it’s done. After looking about, we realised pretty quickly that this wasn’t going to be the house for us. It was way too big for what we were looking for, had a huge unkempt garden that would need to be tackled and there was a very vocal neighbouring dog barking away throughout the visit. We made our excuses and headed off down to a  beautiful little beach nearby to consider other possibilities. Our estate agent told us that Zorba the Greek with Anthony Quinn had been filmed just down the road. It wasn’t enough.

We then saw the fancy Elizabeth Estate Agents apartment in town and were blown away by it. Owned by a British couple who lived in the apartment next door, it was very nicely done out, had a whole range of balconies and terraces – this is a feature of a lot of properties in Greece – and it had great views of the sea. The only slight downside was that it was a bit of a trek from town but the area was nice and quiet. A definite possibility.

On the weekend, we took a drive down south to Palaeochora, a resort town on the southwest coast. I had never been in the area and we thought that having a drive about might give us some ideas for spots to look at. Palaeochora is in a lovely part of the island but the town itself isn’t any great shakes. It’s definitely more resort than village and wasn’t really what we were looking for. It does have a fantastic beach though, albeit with a colder edge to the water – apparently, this is caused by fresh water springs that flow up from the seabed. We then drove back up along the west coast and took in some fantastic scenery and some hair-raising roads – more donkey width than equipped for two-way traffic.

We ended the day turning off the main Kissamos road down towards Phalasarna and its ancient Roman port. I had been to Phalasarna once before and on that occasion the site was closed. Unfortunately, this time around we were doomed to the same fate, which is a pity as it looks from the outside and from what I’ve read of it to be a fantastic site. The ancient harbour is now silted up and in an excellent state of preservation, so you can wander about noting the jetty walls, where the boats would have been moored. Apparently, if you visited the site a hundred years ago, you would have still been able to see the giant metal rings which secured the boats. We consoled ourselves and found a little shelter from the strong wind in the shadow of a dune on the beach and watched the sun set. It turned out to be another highlight for Lenny. He was able to run around the empty beach like a lunatic after a long day in the car.

On Monday, we still hadn’t heard anything from Yannis and we were beginning to feel like it might not be as easy to find a place as we had hoped. All of the agents were telling us that Airbnb had changed everything. Whereas before, Greeks were happy enough to arrange long term leases, Airbnb short-term lets in the summer mean that they can now earn as much in a few lucrative summer months as they would have had for an entire year. Places in the centre of Chania are as rare as hen’s teeth.

Just when things were looking down, I got a text from Sylvia, an Irish friend who lives just to the west of Chania with her husband, Oliver. I met Sylvia a couple of years back while digging at Priniatikos Pyrgos in the east. Sylvia worked the contract archaeological scene in Ireland for years and was brought into Priniatikos Pyrgos to show us newbies how things were really done. Anyway, Sylvia had asked around and heard that there was a place going in a village on the Roudoupou Peninsula. It seemed like a long shot but I rang the contact, a Canadian woman and she agreed to put us in touch with the owners. We settled on a time to meet the next morning.

The drive up was marvellous. You leave the utilitarian town of Kolymbari behind and take the coast road past the monastery of Gonia Odigitria. The monastery is not only working and open to the public, it also functions as a training institution for Orthodox priests. A couple of years back, it was the base for a big gathering of the Greek Orthodox Church and as a result the skyline buzzed for a few days with helicopters ferrying the high ranking clerics in and out of Chania.

Past the monastery, the road begins to rise steeply and you are rewarded with steptacular views over the Bay of Chania. On a stormy day – and there can be many in this part of the world, even in the spring and summer months – the sea below churns and surges in a scene that brings to mind similar days all down the west coast of Ireland.

The village is situated at the meeting of a number of gorges about a kilometre inland from the coast. As with most villages in Greece, it is built around a central plateia or square, although in this case, it came in the form of a small open space used by locals to park their cars. There are, however two tavernas overlooking it and one I can say from personal experience is a very high quality. I have heard similar praise for the second and I look forward to finding out for myself.

We met our Canadian contact and she led us up a small road and within a few minutes we were in the courtyard at the front of the house. The structure was first erected about 200 years ago with a few additions made since. It is a good example of a kamará type construction, which means that the upper floor is supported by a roman-style arch spanning the ground floor. These types of houses are seen throughout Crete and they first appeared in the Medieval period.

We were introduced to the owners including the grandmother or ya-ya, who lives in a small apartment on the ground floor. Unsurprisingly for Crete, everyone was very hospitable and they showed us around the upper floor, which we had come to see, before leaving us to browse around ourselves. The second we saw it we knew that it was the one. Our Canadian friend had done an excellent job of downplaying it when we had chatted on the phone the previous evening. She marked out the kitchen particularly as being very small and inadequate. So, when we walked into it at the front of the house, we were actually pretty happy, having expected an old pot shoved into a cupboard. They had done a really good job preserving the old shell of the house, keeping the small niches that you see when you visit abandoned Medieval towns like Voila in the east and the high ceilings in the main room. The apartment also came with three balconies, with the back one boasting amazing views down towards the sea.

We were happy and did the deal there and then. Result!

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