Exploring Crete

Iraklio-Rethimno-Chania- Balos-Elafonsi-Chania-Agios Nikolas-Iraklio

We spent a total of six days in Crete and barely put a dent in it…

Crete is the largest of the Greek Islands and its inhabitants are traced back as 7,000 BC. Its first advanced civilization was the Minoan, 3,000 BC, following numerous invaders and occupiers including but not limited to Dorians, Romans, Ottomans and even the Nazis during WWII.  Each era left its trace in archeological as well as cultural achievements (except for the Nazis who pretty much burned, bombed and executed).

There are numerous archeological sites in Crete but if your goal is to visit most of them do not come in the summer because it is too hot to stroll among the ruins exposed to the sun. Otherwise Crete is very enjoyable and the coastal towns are charming and dynamic and relaxing at the same time.

We flew into the Heraklion tiny airport and immediately were ripped off by the taxi driver. There are set prices displayed at the taxi stand but obviously as we tried to pay the listed amount the driver was arguing that the prices are not current. Actually this is a recurrent theme for drivers around the globe, must be something they teach them in taxi school..Since this was past midnight we were tired and didn’t want to make a scene so we just paid what he asked, but I advise to agree on the price ahead of time.

We spend one night in Iraklio at the beginning of the trip and the last night before boarding a ferry to Mykonos.

Notwithstanding the late hour we felt compelled to run out and get one of my favorite foods, a Greek salad. The restaurants by the way are open very late so this was not a problem. The next morning we leisurely explored the town center.  The main drag is a pedestrian 25 Avgoustou Street, which runs from the old harbor into the town center anchored by the famous Morosini Fountain. The street is full of restaurants and bars and lots of people were having breakfast or just their morning coffee in numerous cafes enjoying a nice summer morning. We did the same for some time making plans for the rest of the trip.

We did rent a car in Crete otherwise it is not possible to cover as many sites in a short time.  The next stop was the main archeological site of Crete, the Knossos Palace, and the capital of the Minoan Crete[i]. It is huge and impressive and my recommendation to get there either early or late but not during the hottest hour as we did.

After Knossos we started to drive west towards Rethymno, but being really hot decided to stop at Bali beach first for couple of hours.  It’s not the best beach on earth but swimming in the sea was refreshing and enjoyable enough after walking in the sun at Knossos.

bali beach

Rethymno on the hand is fabulous. Its maze of narrow streets lined with restaurants is draped around a historical Venetian harbor under the gaze of a looming Venetian fortress.  We grabbed a table overlooking the harbor for sunset happy hour and proceeded to have dinner at Raki Baraki –totally recommended.  We didn’t like the beach adjacent to town, it is too exposed to the elements and as a result the sea was too rough and the wind was blowing sharp sand into our faces.

25 kilometers south of Rethymno is the 16th century Arkady Monastery, Moni Arkadoiu, located in a lovely mountain setting. There is a beautiful church (1587), the gardens and the museum depicting the story of an 1866 siege by the Ottoman forces of the monastery where hundreds of villages where hiding. The villagers blew themselves up rather than surrender and apparently only one girl has survived. You can see the site of the explosion and it’s hard to reconcile the serene atmosphere of the place with its gruesome history.

 

From there we proceeded to Chania, another charming and lively town concentrated around a beautiful Venetian harbor.  I can’t tell which of those two towns is nicer. Chania is much bigger but is equally lovely and engaging. The pinnacle of the day is its happy hour and it seems that hundreds of people show up from nowhere to sip Aperols and to gaze at the sunset.

From Chania we drove west to Balos Lagoon. It was a big mistake to drive there instead of taking a boat from the port of Kissamos. Instead we took an excruciating 12 kilometers bumpy unpaved and endless road finishing by the large parking lot. From there it’s another 1.5 kilometers by foot, part of it down steep stairs. Obviously, on the way back those stairs are up…The lagoon itself is pretty but sunbathing and swimming was impossible; the water was freezing cold and strong winds blew sharp sand into our face.  So we left very quickly and endured another 2 hours of bumpy and shaking experience.

 

In order to improve the experience we proceeded to Elafonisi on the south-western side of the island hoping that the winds are not as strong there. We were correct but unfortunately by the time we got there it was later in the afternoon and not much time left to enjoy the beach. Elafonisi is a very nice wide beach with nice and soft white sand.  I was planning to spend the night in the area but unfortunately, there was nothing close available and we returned to Chania just in time for happy hour. One cannot be unhappy spending an extra night in Chania.

After Chania we drove all the way east to Agios Nikolaos. When we got there it seemed that the town is deep asleep having an afternoon siesta. It was extremely quiet and no information available at the port where I was planning to find out about tours to Spinalonga Island. Since I was unable to get any info we ended up not going there. We got a nice cheap room in a hotel located on the quay with a view of the bay.

The town itself is small and all the activities are concentrated between the port and a lagoon separated by a bridge. This is the place where everybody gathers in the evening in outdoor cafes and bars for eating drinking and crowd gazing.

So there was nothing to do but to go to the beach and we opted for Kytroplata beach, a walking distance from the center. We settled in Faros restaurant on the beach and took dips in the sea. The water was a little cool and the beach was pebbled so it was nicer to sit in a restaurant then on the ground. The food was very nice; as usual we got a Greek salad and grilled octopus, pretty much our staple in Greece, and lots of white wine of course.

The next day was our last full day in Crete and we had to drive back to Iraklio. On the way we stopped at the Iraklio wine region for some wine tasting. Apparently there are many wineries but they are not listed well so the only open one we found was Boutari winery located outside of Peza village, the center of wine producing country. It was not easy to find the place even with a GPS but it was worth it. The winery’s tasting room is located on a hill and the views are lovely. The wine is ok, a little too mineral for my taste but it’s the experience that carries the day. After wine tasting we drove down to the village and had our last full traditional meal in Crete in a restaurant called Tαβέρνα “ΟΝΗCIΜΟC”. The last evening in Iraklio we spend checking out its nightlife and its bars.

[i] https://ancient-greece.org/archaeology/knossos.html

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