By Roger Allnutt
For many Europeans Crete is one of the Greek islands that they flock to in droves to relax in the sunshine at one of the many resorts that line the north coast of the 150-mile-long island. Large hotel complexes and a myriad of apartment blocks are squeezed in along the coast, reddening tourists sprawl out on deck chairs on the beaches and the shops, restaurants and bars are packed.
Away from these crowded places, life goes on around the rest of the island at relatively secluded beaches, at charming small ports and tiny villages and at the many archaeological sites that reflect the days of past empires.
The capital Heraklion is a bustling, modern city with narrow, shop-lined streets radiating out from central squares where locals gather to eat, drink and converse loudly. The old Venetian fortress called Koules (pictured, left) dominates the port, from which ferries and cargo ships leave for neighboring islands. Not to be missed is the famous Archaeological Museum famous for its Minoan art. I stayed at the Marin Dream Hotel, a boutique hotel close to the port (our balcony had panoramic views of the fortress and port) and only a short walk to the center of the city; the friendly staff could not do enough to make our stay pleasurable.
The main attraction of Heraklion is Knossos, 5 miles from the city center and easily reached by local bus. In 1900 English archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered the ruins of the ancient Minoan civilization that ended around 1450BC. He was intimately involved in the reconstruction of the buildings on the site including palaces, apartments, theatre, baths and stairways as well as frescos depicting animals and plants as well as people (pictured, below). Get there early as the tour buses descend on the site from about 9 a.m.
There are other archaeological sites scattered around Crete, of which Phaestos, about 25 miles southwest of Heraklion, is the best. It also provides sweeping views of the plain of Mesara. Other sites include Gortis, Malia and Zakros.
A freeway runs along the north coast from Kastelli in the west to Agios Nikolaos in the east and this excellent road makes travel between the major resort areas very easy either by bus or, as most visitors to Crete do, by rental car. I would advise renting a car as this will allow you to explore the rugged countryside, and to visit remote beaches and mountain villages away from the package holiday crowds.
The western half of the island is especially attractive and varied. Less than 70 miles west of Heraklion is the picturesque port town of Rethimnon with many lovely buildings from its Turkish and Venetian periods lining the tiny port and narrow streets. A Venetian fortress dominates the headland behind the port and the archaeological museum and the history and folk arts museum are worth a visit.
Further west the old Cretan capital of Chania is another attractive town and a good base from which to explore other parts of western Crete. The foreshore of the harbor is crowded with cafes and restaurants and on a balmy summer evening the place for a great seafood meal while watching the passing parade. I stayed at the Porto Veneziano Hotel on the waterfront, which offered great views of the sparkling harbor in the early morning and evening light, looking toward the lighthouse guarding the entrance to the harbor (pictured, below).
From Chania it is only a short drive to Kastelli and across a narrow ridge to excellent sandy beaches around Falassarna. At the bottom of the west coast Paleochora is another popular beach.
Chania is also the usual starting point for the excursion to Samaria Gorge, a 10-mile walk through one of the most dramatic and rugged “defiles” in Europe. From May to October the path through the gorge starting at Omalos in the White Mountains, an hour’s bus ride from Chania to Agia Roumeli on the south coast, attracts large numbers of hikers – up to 3,000 a day in the busiest period.
It is advisable to start early (there is a 7.30 a.m. bus from Chania to Omalos). Steep, rocky paths wind down into the valley to the ruins of the village of Samaria before you come to the dramatic 10-foot-wide defile through the gorge with 2,000-foot-high cliffs towering above (pictured, below). There are no roads along the south coast at Agia Roumeli and it is necessary to catch a ferry (timed to coincide with the walkers’ arrival) to Loutro or Hora Sfakion where you can stay overnight or alternatively catch the bus back to Chania. The walk is manageable for most people but I would recommend wearing good walking shoes and have trained a bit beforehand.
Chora Sfakion is a lovely fishing village with good accommodations and restaurants, all very welcome after the walk through the gorge. I stayed at Hotel-Restaurant Lefka Ori, which I would highly recommend.
Australians and New Zealanders have a strong connection with Crete from the action there during the Battle of Crete in World War II. Many soldiers were saved by the deeds of the locals in many villages along the south coast, especially around the monastery at Preveli east of Plakios. It is very moving to visit the monastery and its fascinating museum and the nearby memorial. The German army killed many villagers and monks in reprisal for their heroic actions.
Another popular beach area away from the crowds is Matala on the south coast, where pale-colored sandstone cliffs riddled with caves where monks once lived sink at an angle into the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.
Although many visitors are drawn to Crete for its history, beaches and sunny climate it is worthwhile driving off the main roads to smaller villages, especially those in the hilly country in the center of the island. Life goes on as it has for centuries: farming often still carried on with animal-pulled ploughs, widows still dressed in black, the men sitting around talking and drinking endless cups of coffee and potent ouzo and raki, small boys kicking soccer balls, and the handcrafts still practiced in the old ways.
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