Crete, the largest and southern most of the Greek islands has a unique spirit and beauty, born from the suave union of its deep blue sea and soft white mountains and from the various waves of rulers and cultures that swept its land across the centuries, from the ancient Greeks to Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, Turks and Egyptians.
One of the oldest civilisations in the world, Cretans are believed to be direct descendants of the great Atlantean Empire (according to some scholars this was in fact the Minoan civilisation) from the mythical land of Atlantida. They also believe to be of divine descent as Zeus, the almighty chief of the Greek pantheon of gods is said to have been born in the Diktaian cave and raised in the Idaian cave on the highest mountain in Crete, Mount Ida or Psiloritis. According to the legend he was brought up in secret by a holly goat Amalthea that suckled him and the nymph Melissa who fed him honey (Crete has a large production of honey, thyme honey being more characteristic) in order to grow quicker and liberate his brothers and sisters who had been swallowed by his father Cronos who feared they would take over his throne.
The island of 100 cities (as it was known in ancient times) is of blissful beauty but bear in mind that what makes it charming it also makes it …hard to reach. The first time traveller to Crete should know a few facts: most beautiful (and pristine) beaches tend to be located on the south coast and far away from the cities. So expect several hours of travel and a lot of dirt roads. I have to admit that the infrastructure is not great and most good roads have been improved in recent years from EU funds (as frequent road signs tell you). There is a lot of traffic (especially in high season) and as mentioned many nice places can only be accessed by driving on wavy serpentines and dirt tracks, so be warned.
Renting a car is advisable in order to properly enjoy the island and get to visit places such as Samaria Gorge (at 17km it is the longest gorge in Europe and a natural protected area), the Imbros Gorge, Agia Irini Gorge or any of the 50 gorges on the island, sunbathe on some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean (Balos, Elafonissi, Vai to name just a few), visit old picturesque villages anchored in tradition such as Anogeia or Spili or visit the beautiful historic cities of Chania and Rethimno.
Always a rich island, in ancient times it made its fortunes from olive oil and other local product exports and today, due to a flowering tourist sector it seems almost untouched by the Greek crisis and austerity measures. All of our hosts seemed to agree this year had one of the most fruitful tourist seasons, despite turmoil in the rest of the country. As one proud tavern owner puts it “ Greeks and especially Cretans are free people… there is a sense of freedom here that you cannot find in any of the most developed Western countries… a democratic spirit to freely govern ourselves that cannot be taken away”. He is from a small mountain hamlet in the beautiful town of Elounda, in the north-east. But fewer social and legislative restrictions come at a price: local authorities and the government also make decisions “freely” – a couple of years ago they brought gas pipes to the small hamlet on the hill. But as the funds “drained-up” they left the works unfinished with no real timeframe given to local people. No one complained or has any means to do so. Yet, who cares when you wake up every day to the kiss of the sun, breath in the white light and smell of sea and feast on the most luscious foods from the fertile local lands?
Crete is indeed a mythical place of unparalleled beauty with hidden gems scattered across the white sandy beaches and white and green mountains. Follow the link below to discover a few highlights of the best things to see and do on the island.