Over the course of a decade or so of trips to Greece, I had never managed to make it to Crete, the largest and most diverse of the hundreds of Greek islands. It is so rich and varied that it could well be a country of its own (an ambition held by some Cretans, I am told, who envision following the model of the Catalans and Scots.) When I told a friend here in Athens of our plans to visit Crete, he said simply “You won’t want to come back.”
So it was with high expectations on my part that we departed several days prior to Greek Easter for the big island between here and the coast of North Africa. I can’t say that I am sorry to have come back to Athens, but I can say that, if anything, Crete exceeded my high expectations. It truly has it all–majestic wild coastlines, fabulous beaches, impressive snow-capped mountains, luxuriant wildflowers, picturesque Venetian-era cities, and some of Greece’s best food and wine. Yes, in the peak summer months it also has vast hordes of package tourists flown in straight from various northern European hubs, but if you avoid traveling during that peak, you can happily miss out on that attraction.
We had eight days on the island and spent it primarily in three spots: the lovely small city of Hania on the northwest coast, a wonderfully homey mountain “eco-resort” in the White Mountains south of Hania, and the island’s major city, Iraklion. Hania was everything we had heard and read: charming and friendly, with a fabulous, long arcing waterfront promenade. The primary “site” to see there is simply the bay itself, with its mix of fishing boats and pleasure craft and waterfront restaurants and bars. We were fortunate to find live music one night in one of these bars where we listened to some traditional music on bouzouki, guitar, and a Cretan lyre. We also were pleasantly surprised with the city’s archaeological museum, with its small but well-chosen collection. Another interesting site is the unusual church that retains one of its original mosque towers, in addition to its church steeple.
The Milia Mountain Retreat (http://www.milia.gr/EN/) was a good place to spend a couple of unseasonably chilly days on Crete. Nestled high in the White Mountains, it offers lovely walking paths, cozy rooms with fireplaces in traditional-style stone cottages, and wonderful food. (Sadly, the wine they serve is undrinkable, despite the presence of numerous excellent wineries on the island.)
We spent our last few nights in Iraklion, a city that is often summarily dismissed by tourists as not as picturesque as Hania or Rethymno. Maybe because of our relatively low expectations of the city, we were very pleasantly surprised. Yes, it has its share of unattractive blocky buildings, but much charm as well. Much of the city center has been made pedestrian only, making for pleasant strolls. The Venetian fortress and the long jetty on the waterfront are plenty picturesque, if not as cozy as Hania, and offer great opportunities for cycling and walking.
The one must-see attraction on the island, in my opinion, is not the most famous one–Knossos–but the Iraklio Archaeological Museum. The sheer quantity of spectacular objects from the Minoan period was astonishing–statues, jewelry, and a vast variety of works of great artistic talent. We were very fortunate that we were able to see it, thanks only to the dedication of the museum staff, who voluntarily came in on a holiday weekend to keep the place open for tourists like us.
Easter Sunday we spent at the home of our most generous hosts NIko and Eleni. Niko masterfully grilled the lamb on the spit over the course of the day and the result was melt-in-your-mouth tender meat. It would take years of travel on Crete to explore fully all it has to offer. In one week, we barely scratched the surface. I’m sure it won’t be our last visit.