In order to escape the spring rains and kick-off summer properly we decided to fly to Crete for a short holiday.
It’s a land full of hills and gorges, rocks and beaches, Venetian castles and Minoan ruins and miles and miles of winding roads surrounded by oleanders. As such, Crete is a challenging geography to navigate but an impressive one. Being one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean, it’s not easy to discover Crete to its full potential on a short holiday but we did our best.
We stayed at Heraklion which is located sort of in the middle and drove to Chania, Rethymno, Ierapetra and Agios Nikolas for day trips. En route we passed many ancient castles, monasteries and Minoan palaces. It is a civilisation born in Crete around 2700 BC – and wasn’t discovered until 20th cc. To put it into perspective, Minoans were there before the Greeks. The motifs from their palaces and artefacts are so contemporary and cool that they are everywhere, adorning modern ceramics and t-shirts. Somewhere a five thousand old designer must be smiling.
One thing that I find missing at Crete is that special island feeling, unconsciously knowing you are surrounded first by the sea and then nothingness. Being the largest city on the island, Heraklion was no exception.
Our hotel was close to the old harbour and had great views. We spent couple of days playing the tourist, visiting its ancient castle, learning a bit of its history (in a nutshell, they liked their Venetian invaders but hated the Ottomans – quelle surprise !), browsing the shops and sampling its cafes and taverns. Thanks to its young population, there are quite a lot of nice bars in Heraklion and we enjoyed a few of them.
Heraklion is full of good restaurants and taverns; both traditional and otherwise. But I want to mention two of them specifically; because I simply loved their food and atmosphere.
One was the Herb Garden, a rooftop restaurant overlooking the old Venetian castle. We went there for dinner. The views were spectacular and the food was a good mixture of traditional and local cuisine. They also carry quite a large selection of local wines. Being the second largest wine producing region in Greece, Cretan wines are worth a try. I specifically enjoyed the crisp fruity white from a grape variety called Vidiano from the coastal city of Rethymno. Among the reds, we tasted a coupage of Liatiko and Mandilari, a dry wine which suited perfectly with the local meat dishes.
The other restaurant is Ippokampos just outside the harbour. We went there for our first meal on the island and had a lovely lunch of fried Atherina (baitfish), tarama ,parmigiana di melanzane and dolmades. Simple, fresh ingredients served with glasses of Giannatsi ouzo and a friendly service. It was a feast for the eyes and the palate.
We quickly learnt that no meal was complete at Crete without a shot of rakı, a local drink quite similar in taste to the Italian grappa then the Turkish rakı, and probably a nod to the island’s complicated past at the hands of two foreign invaders, Venetians and Ottomans.
There are some varieties prepared with honey or herbs and almost every tavern claims it is homemade.
Of the three northern cities we’ve visited, my absolute favourite was Chania with its relaxed atmosphere, cool bars, chic shops, well-kept Venetian harbor & castle and covered food market. These Venetian castle – harbour duos were the de-facto attractions in every major Cretan city we visited. Old Venetians must have loved their trade.
We went there on a Saturday, a market day at Chania, so we sent the boys to a cafe and went for a stroll at the weekly food market to check on the local produce and get lost in the colours and aromas. Afterwards we found ourselves magically transported to a little street full of fabulous little boutiques and spent some time and money supporting the local economy.
When we returned we found the boys in excellent spirits at a tavern on the harbour, enjoying their second rounds of ouzo. We ended up having a lovely lunch there feasting on the local specialities with more bottles of Barbayanni.
I’d love to spend more time at this ancient port town, sitting at the cafes, sipping my frappe and watching the world go by.
A note on the Cretan cuisine : Before visiting the island we had a very high expectation to find unique tastes, based on some Cretan restaurants in Turkey. Although everything we tasted was delicious, in general we found the menus too much text-book Greek. Not that it’s a bad thing, just somewhat disappointing. Thankfully with the help of local friends and by sheer luck we managed to find places where they prepare authentic recipes that we throughly enjoyed.
We spent an unforgettable day touring the southern side . The nature was truly majestic, especially at the Kotsifou canyon and the Imbros gorge. One can cross the Imbros gorge at a four-hour hike, but somebody has to pick you up at the end of the gorge, for another four-hour hike to the top of the gorge to the car would be quite challenging . We didn’t make prior arrangements, so we satisfied ourselves with the views from various stops along the route and stopped at the tavern Parafarago overlooking the entrance to the gorge. We had a beer and a Sfakian pie ; a kind of pastry filled with local cheese and mountain herbs, usually eaten with honey. The cook was happy to explain to us the Sfakian specialities, a mountain cuisine heavy on goat, lamb and cheese that is specific to the seventeen mountain villages that make up the Sfakian region.
Afterwards we drove to Frankocastello, yet another impressive example of the Crete-Venetian architecture, once vital to its keepers. Today it commands a beautiful geography of green fields, secluded beaches and white hills.
I know that the views of the gorge and the castle will stay with me.
When you google the best beaches of Crete, almost all are on the north for the north side of the island is constantly being beaten by meltemi, the life giving Mediterranean wind that blows through these lands all year long. This struggle between the land, the sea and the wind created countless little coves, gorgeous beaches and beautiful bays.
One example was the Vai, a secluded beach surrounded by a natural palm forest. There’s nothing there except for a hilltop cafe and palm trees, with their roots in the sand and leaves in the sea. In May there were only a handful of people, so it was the perfect day to shake the winter from our bones and enjoy the cool blue waters of Mediterranean for our first swim of the season.
En route we stopped at a little roadside tavern aptly named Panaroma overlooking the nearby island of Pseria and enjoyed the views as well as their yummy rabbit stew. One thing funny about Crete, it’s so big, the surrounding little islands ‘belong’ to it.
Another lazy day passed driving through 15th cc monasteries, walking around at Agios Nikolas and taking a boat to Spinalonga, a small islet at the mouth of the Elounda bay. There on the island Venetians built fortifications that protected the island from pirates for centuries- even after it fell to the Ottomans and in modern times it was used as a hospital for lepers. Now it’s a tourist attraction, a rocky island with it’s ancient ruins and deserted buildings.
For a late lunch, we stopped at the Tavern Smile which belongs to a friend of a friend and had one of the most delicious meals that we had on the island. The owner chose the menu for us and brought out incredibly tasty specialities. Among many, I remember the dolmades in a creamy sauce, tarama prepared with squid ink and a delicious rice dish, quite similar to the Portuguese Arroz de Tamborile. Accompanied with a local white wine, it was quite delightful.
Another thing to mention is the generosity of the Cretans. After every meal they offer deserts, fruits and rakı, even at the shops where we shopped they gave us little souvenirs as gifts.
All in all I was happy to visit this island of diverse and amazing nature, with its friendly people and memories of a glorious past.