Visit Chania and the old Venetian harbour
The second largest town after Heraklion, Chania has managed to preserve its old charm compared to Heraklion which has become more and more industrialised over the last half a century.
Chania’s streets and corners are all filled with history, often tumultuous and brave. In 1851, during the Ottoman rule it became the seat of the pasha of Crete and in 1898 it became the capital of a semi-autonomous Cretan state, until 1913 when the island became officially part of Greece.
The Old Town is built on the ruins of the Minoan Kydonia (the name of the city during the Minoan kingdom) and is a truly open air museum, enchanting not just for the history lover but also for the regular traveller.
The Old Port, also called the Venetian Port is a beautiful reminiscence of the Venetian rule in Crete (13th to 17th century) which was mostly peaceful and left many delicate pieces of art and architecture, as well as some undoubtful Italian influences in the cuisine.
Go and see the old Venetian lighthouse and walk along the narrow harbour alley to the Fort of Firkas, next to the Naval Museum and San Salvatore Franciscan church (hosting the Byzantine art collection of Chania), admire 7 of the originally 17 docks (14th-16th century) or walk to the Sintrivani square with the mosque of Küçük Hasan, dating back to 1645 – just opposite the quay with the Venetian lighthouse. Also don’t miss a visit to the old Sitvanadika market if you want to buy leather goods or just enjoy the perfume of old times.
Suggestions for where to stay:
Mama Nena – this is where we would have liked to stay, but they were fully booked. It is a very small place (only 3 rooms) so make sure you book in advance – http://www.secretplaces.com/hotels/greece/crete/chania/mama-nena/
Hotel Porto Veneziano – this is where we stayed, very pleased with the location, food and service overall – http://www.portoveneziano.gr/ .
Sunbathe on some of the best beaches in Europe
Most of the most spectacular and best preserved beaches in Crete, tend to be on the south coast and hard to reach unfortunately. Expect a lot of bumpy dirt roads and several hours of drive, depending on your location. However I can assure you they are totally worth it. And prepare yourself for many encounters with the local … goats – in fact goats and cats seem to be the most frequent four-footed species on the island.
Balos – a ‘secret’ paradise-like beach on the far most west coast, where you can enjoy crystal clear turquoise waters, sheltered by rocky mountains and admire beautiful sunsets. Lying at the foot of a 200 – 300 metres hill that you will have to climb down and then up again (allow about 20 – 25min from the car park). The climb can be steep in some parts or seem like too much of an effort to some beach lovers, therefore the inventive locals have introduced the “beach taxi” which is in fact a donkey you can rent to go up and down the trail for about 8 Euro. And for another 7 Euro you can rent an umbrella and sunbed. Also be warned that the last 6 – 10 km of road to the beach are a bit of a dirt track, so it will probably be another 30-40 min drive from the Kaliviani village which you will find on the way.
Elafonissi – one of the most beautiful and tropical looking beaches on the island, reminds you of the Caribbean. Famous for its white and pink – red sands and clear blue waters, protected by the majestic White Mountains. There are a couple of restaurants and beach bars and also a few hotels and family B&Bs – the closest one is only 10 min walk to the beach – Kalomirakis.
Preveli Beach – a small beach flanked by the same type of palm trees that grow on Vai beach; this is a unique place with a unique landscape (a mountain river flows into the sea here) and unique history drawn by the medieval Preveli Monastery nearby: destroyed during the Greek War of Independence of 1821, it was rebuilt and became a revolutionary centre during the local rebellion against the Turkish domination. And it does seem that local monks had a real taste for adventure as during the WWII they got in trouble again by helping the Allied Forces and sheltering Australian solders which led to their monastery being bombed by the retaliating Germans.
Vai – another famous beach with a unique ancient forest of around 5000 palm trees (the largest in Crete and in Europe), made up of Cretan Date Palm and the legend has it that the trees grew from date stones thrown away by Saracen pirates (these were Moors – Arab raiders from Andalusia, Spain that had been expelled by their Emir and took over the island from the Eastern Roman Empire in the 9th century) and washed up by the sea.
Although a natural protected area, the beach is very touristy, becoming a hot-spot in the early 70s when Mars International filmed its Bounty chocolate bar “taste of paradise” advert right on the beach – you can watch an 80s version of the ad here .
And if you want to try Eastern Crete cuisine and admire traditional stone cottages, walk to the nearby Metochi Vai Village – an easy 15 min stroll away.
Falasarna – another large beautiful beach on the south coast, close to Platanos village just up the road.
Komos Beach – once a major ancient port city, a gem of Minoan architecture – it is now a natural protected area and a nesting beach for the sea turtle…and if you are into nudist beaches, you will be pleased to know it is considered the best nudist beach (clearly not the entire beach is nudist, just designated areas) in Crete.
But just in case you feel you cannot reach the south coast due to your location or means of transport, don’t despair – here are some very nice beaches and places you can reach on the north coast (accessible by regular ferryboats):
Balos on the far west and Vai on the fast east, mentioned above.
Rethimno – with its provincial air, Rethimno city enchants with its old Venetian and Turkish architecture, tall long shore and an equally long beach strip with fine sand (it has 12 km). The beach starts from the historical city centre and extends to the east – while not as spectacular like other beaches in Crete, it is easy to access and large enough for you to find a spot even in peak season. However if it is windy (as it often happens on the north coast) you may not be able to swim due to large tricky waves… I would then recommend the Agia Pelagia beach (about 30 min drive away) which is sheltered by mountains and can be much more convenient on a day with strong winds.
Agia Pelagia – the beach streches along the little town of Agia Pelagia, flanked by hills and mountains and protected from winds. Agia Pelagia is the main and the largest beach of the town, but there a few others a bit less crowded and cosier such as Ligaria Beach (farther away from the town centre and smaller than the main Agia Pelagia) or Filakes beach (very small and harder to reach but offers a lot more privacy).
And while you cannot see the sunset on the north coast, you can always wake up bright and early just in time to catch the sunrise on the north coast.
Hike and trek on beautifully carved gorges
Samaria Gorge is by far the most popular. At 17km it is the longest in Europe and it has some beautiful walks. Usually one day is advisable for the walk – the route to Samaria village and back is about 8 hours walk but if you do not have time, you might decide for a shorter 4h walk to Ay. Nikolaos and back. The entrance to the park is at Xyloskalo ant it costs 5 euros (you also get a map within the price). There is a car park and souvenir shop and taverna where you can also stock up on food for the day. The path is beautifully descending to Ay. Nikolaos and make sure you wear proper shoes as it can be a bit rocky and slippery. The forest has a fresh smell from its cypress trees, and here and there the fragrance mixes with pine and oak aromas – a real delight to the senses.
Until the ’60s when it became a natural reserve, the Gorge was inhabited and there were several mountain villages that trace their history to the Turkish occupation (17th to 19th century) – as Christians were persecuted and heavy taxes and restrictions were imposed on local people, some Cretans retreated in the mountains and founded a resistance movement. There was even a local newspaper ‘Crete’ printed from Samaria village from 1867 and supporting the rebellion.
Visit old sleepy villages
Old Cretan villages have a particular charm, hard to resist. They mostly have a gentle tranquil lifestyle, soaked in the soft sun light and oftentimes you may find Cretans in local costumes, be that for a celebration or in some places it remained daily routine. The food is often delicious and truly organic and it will most likely compensate for the bumpy roads that lead to these fabulous hidden places.
Recommended by local people and myself, here are some villages you may want to stop by:
Kaliviani, in the prefecture of Chania – this is a tiny village, 1 mile or so from the entrance to Balos Beach and Lagoon. If you are planning to visit Balos, you absolutely cannot miss this little gem. Many of the foods are sourced locally and the olive oil is surely from the surrounding olive trees. We tried the Gramvoussa tavern, right next to the little church and with beautiful views over the coast, but its neigbouring tavernas looked equally delicious and the prices are a real bargain!
Anogia, in the prefecture of Rethimno – historical village, at 740m up on the Psiloritis mountain. Famous for the bravery of its residents, the village has been burnt by the Turks and later by the Germans during the first world war. It is also close to the Nida Plateau and the famous Ideon Cave where apparently Zeus was brought up.
Arolithos, 11km off Old National Road from Heraklion to Rethimno – this is a re-creation of a traditional Cretan village, opened in 1988. It is a family run business, built on a mountain, 11 km from Heraklion with the goal of bringing Cretan traditions and architecture back to life.
Spili, in the prefecture of Rethimno – a picturesque traditional village 20 minutes from Rethimno. Although with only 800 inhabitants, it is quite touristy with several tavernas and souvenir shops but well worth a visit if you have some spare time.
Milia, close to Kissamos in the prefecture of Chania – a pure ecotourism and agritourism destination, Milia is an authentic mountain settlement from the 17th century. Off the beaten track and difficult to find but a real retreat if you are looking to escape the hustle and bustle of cities.
Mavrikiano hamlet, in the Elounda village and beach resort, in the Lasithi prefecture – beautifully located on the hill next-by, it is a bit of a walk but the views and hospitality of local tavernas are totally worth it. I would recommend stopping by The Hope tavern – the owners are delightful, the food will make you lick your fingers and the views over the bay are stunning.
Taste the local cuisine
Some say that food reflects the spirit of a nation and I fully subscribe to it. One cannot visit a place and get to know its true nature without training their taste buds in local foods – and here are some Greek specialities widely appreciated by the Cretans:
Stuffed zucchini flowers – boiled or stewed zucchini shells filled with a combination of rice, tomatoes and spices.
Tzatziki – a yoghurt sauce mixed with fresh cucumber, some garlic, olive oil, lemon joice and sometimes fresh herbs such as dill, mint or parsley.
Fried courgette balls (kolokythokeftedes) – grated courgettes mixed with dill or other spices, lightly fried and often served with tzatziki.
Octopus and fresh fish – with a plethora of seaside tavernas all over Greece and Crete, you can never go wrong with fresh fish, served as meze or main dish from ancient times.
Dolmades – this classic grape leaf-wrapped rice parcel is such a widely spread dish, served cold or hot with a variety of spices (almost every household has its own variation) – but interestingly this is also one of the most widely spread dish in South Eastern Europe and Middle East – Romanians, Bulgarians, Turks, Greeks, Iranians, Lebanese – they all have it and they all would like to think it is a local invention…but who knows?
Souvlaki – popular meat skewers made with either lamb (most traditional) but also chicken or pork and sometimes with grilled vegetables in-between. In some places the meat is marinated overnight with a variety of spices which gives it a particular taste.
And of course, specific Cretan dishes are a must:
Fried cheese – white cheese (usually sheep or goat’s cheese or a combination of both) fried in a delicious crust, sometimes with added sesame seeds on top – served hot and sometimes with lemon juice, it is a must try. Graviera, a harder type of cheese is a local delicacy as well as myzithra, a mild and soft type.
Dakos – this reminds me a lot of Italian bruschetta – it may be indeed a reminiscence of the Venetian rule in Crete (the island was under Venetian dominance for over 4 centuries). It is served on dried barley bread (rusks) lightly sprinkled with water and olive oil and topped with fresh myzithra cheese and tomatoes.
Fried snails (chochlioi boubouristi) – snails have been a local delicacy for millennia and are usually prepared with flour, olive oil, vinegar, rosemary and lemon juice.
Smoked pork (apakia) – this is usually a starter and the meat is marinated with vinegar and special herbs for several days. Some restaurants serve it hot, some cold but it is equally delicious.
Pilafi (Gamopilafo) – this is a risotto type dish, similar to Spanish paella and usually served at weddings. It is prepared in a rich meat broth usually from goat (typical for the mountain or hilly areas of Crete, difficult to find on the coast), lamb or rooster.
Drink raki – it is a local Cretan brandy, made from grapes in Autumn and usually served with meze (many tavernas will offer this drink for free).
Savour the many varieties of honey, especially the thyme honey which is a local speciality.