By Roger Allnutt
Crete is one of the Greek islands that many Europeans flock to in droves to relax in the sunshine at one of the many resorts that line the north coast of this 250km long island. Large hotel complexes and a myriad of apartment blocks are squeezed in along the coast. Reddening tourists sprawl out on deckchairs on the beaches, while 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 dominates the port, where ferries and cargo ships leave for neighbouring islands. The famous Archaeological Museum has been closed for renovations since 2006, but a temporary exhibition is now open there. The museum, once it is fully open, should not be missed. I stayed at the boutique Marin Dream Hotel close to the port and only a short walk to the city centre. Our balcony had panoramic views of the fortress and port. The friendly staff could not do enough to make our stay pleasurable.
The main attraction of Heraklion is Knossos, 8km from the city centre and easily reached by local bus. In 1900 English archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered the ruins of the ancient Minoan civilisation 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, plants and people. Get there early as the tour buses descend on the site from about 9am.
There are other archaeological sites scattered around Crete of which Phaistos, about 40km southwest of Heraklion, is the best. It also provides sweeping views of the plain of Messara. 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 100km west of Heraklion is the picturesque port town of Rethymnon 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 is worth a visit, along with the history and folk arts museum.
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 harbour is crowded with cafes and restaurants and is perfect on a balmy summer evening for a great seafood meal while watching the passing parade. I stayed at the Porto Veneziano Best Western Hotel on the waterfront. There are great views of the sparkling harbour in the early morning and evening light, looking toward the lighthouse guarding the entrance to the harbour.
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 16km walk through one of the most dramatic and rugged defiles in Europe. From May to October, large numbers of hikers – up to 3000 a day in the busiest period – take the path through the gorge starting at 1200 metres from Omalos in the White Mountains to Agia Roumeli on the south coast.
It is advisable to start early. The 7.30am bus from Chania gets to Omalos an hour later. Steep, rocky paths wind down into the valley to the ruins of the village of Samaria before you come to the dramatic six-metre wide defile through the gorge with 600m high cliffs towering above. There are no roads along the south coast at Agia Roumeli and it is necessary to catch a ferry (timed to coincide with the walker’s 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 good walking shoes and some training in advance.
Hora Sfakion is a lovely fishing village with good accommodation and restaurants, all very welcome after the walk through the gorge. I stayed at Hotel-Restaurant Lefka Ori, which I highly recommend.
Australian 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 villages along the south coast, especially around the monastery at Preveli east of Plakias. It is very moving to visit the monastery, its fascinating museum and the nearby memorial. The German army killed many villagers and monks in reprisal for their heroic actions.
Geoff Edwards, one of the Australian servicemen assisted during the evacuation to the HMS Thrasher in August 1941, spent many years afterwards raising funds for the people of the Rethymnon region of Crete. He donated a fountain at the monastery at Preveli and money for the St John the Theologian chapel at Prevelly in Western Australia. He received an Order of Australia four days before his death in 2002.
Another popular beach area away from the crowds is Matala on the south coast. The pale coloured 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 ‘centre’ of the island. Life goes on as it has for centuries. Farming is often still carried on with animal-pulled ploughs, and the handcrafts are still practised in the old ways. Widows still dress in black. Small boys kick soccer balls, while men sit around talking and drinking coffee, ouzo and raki.
There are no direct flights to Crete from Australia, but you can get regular flights from Athens to Crete (Heraklion, Chania, etc), and also flights with British Airways from London (Gatwick) to Heraklion.
For information on Crete, visit www.explorecrete.com.