Silvery olive trees, fertile plateaus ringed by craggy stone mountains, luscious oranges, throat-searing retsina and unrivaled warmth and hospitality from its people – this is the Crete I remember when I first visited over 35 years ago.
Yes, much about Crete has changed. Sun-worshiping northern Europeans began drifting in over 30 years ago, and once the Iron Curtain was torn down, eastern Europeans arrived in droves. Aigos Nikolais, in the east, once sported just a couple of hotels; now there are hundreds, with thousands of condos spread over the hills above the still-turquoise bay. The dozens of stone windmills that once ringed the Lasithi Plateau, are mostly in ruins, although one shop keeper claimed the government was restoring them. The once-sleepy capital, Heraklion, which I traversed on foot in less than half an hour, sprawls for several kilometers and its port is a routine stop for cruise ships. Rethymno in the west was so full of obnoxious shills and even more obnoxious tourists, we beat a fast retreat. Hania, the capital in post-Ottoman Crete from 1898 until 1971, retains its Venetian architecture and charm while merging with the more modern city.
Yet, away from the crowds of sunbathing tourists and the jungle of shops selling junky gewgaws, especially south of the island’s northern rim, much of Crete remains wild and beautiful (to steal a phrase from West Virginia’s tourism pitch) and the people are unfailingly polite and hospitable. We rented a car for the four days we were in Crete and drove over as much of the island as we could cover while still giving ourselves ample time to pick different spots to relax in (or get the hell away from!). Michael now knows why Crete, for me, holds such a special, distinct place in my heart. We crawled up soaring mountains which, off-road, only goats can traverse; seen the biggest (reputedly) gorge in Europe; ate the ripest, best tomatoes I’ve had since growing my own; sipped homemade wine; eaten grilled octopus and calamari, feta cheese, dolmades, spinakopita and kebabs, that put the best American versions to absolute shame. And everywhere we enjoyed the hospitality and joie de vivre that make Cretan Greeks so unique.
Crete is not a big island: Its population is about 600,000 (the entire population of Greece is not quite 11 million). It’s 260 km/160 miles long, and 56 km/35 miles at its widest point, and has just one highway, the “National Road” that runs the east-west northern length of the island – and with 90% of it being only one lane in each direction. Most of the mid- and cross-section of Crete down to the southern shore is mountainous and sparsely inhabited. The vast majority of roads south of the National Road are narrow, two land roads. There was no “highway” in Crete 35+ years ago; I rented an ancient VW Beetle (I swear it was pre-WWII vintage and had only 2 cylinders) and coaxed it over the steep mountains on roads barely wide enough in places for both my car and a fat donkey. (Some of the secondary and especially tertiary roads today are not much wider.) Traversing the mountains onto the western ridge of the Lasithi Plateau and seeing the ancient windmills in full sails was one of the highlights of my week in Crete so long ago.
Today much has changed, this is inevitable. Some of the change is for the good, some I wish hadn’t happened. But Crete is so special, so beautiful, it would have been impossible to prevent the world at large from discovering this haven. It all depends, I guess, on where and how you choose to spend your vacation days in Crete.
Michael and I tend to travel differently from most people we know. Our lack of pre-planning and reservations and distaste for package tour groups has led to some novel, wonderful, interesting, as well as (infrequent) unpleasant consequences. Crete for me never disappoints in delivering the most pleasant of experiences. And I am now going to stop “talking” and try to show Crete as I’ve rediscovered it instead of putting too many words to “paper,” so to speak.
Day one we drove to the Samaria Gorge in southeastern Crete, reputedly the largest/longest gorge in Europe at about 16 km long. The White Mountains earned their name from the amount of snowfall received annually. The highest summit is 2,453 m (8,048 ft) and there are over 30 summits that are over 2,000 m (6,562 ft) high. Lakki was a small town about half way to the gorge, situated on a ridge among acres of olive groves.
Agriculture is still a major source of income in Crete, although dwarfed by tourism these days. Two fertile plateaus east and west, provide a great deal of the produce, while terraced olive trees cover the lower slopes of mountains in orderly rows, with citrus and other fruit orchards squeezed into nearly every available space in the lower altitudes.
I recall vividly clambering over the mountain pass bordering the eastern edge of the Lasithi Plateau and finding several ancient windmills, sails turning majestically in the breeze. Unfortunately, these windmills have largely crumbled into disrepair.
Virtually all the functional windmills now in Lasithi are modern iron-framed, soulless water pumps, as seen below.
I finally spied a few stone windmills with the bare bones of sails, but without canvas, on the western side of the plain.
Outside of Lygaria Beach, where we stayed, my favorite town in Crete is Hania, mainly because the municipality has retained much of its quaintness without sacrificing too much to the all powerful lure of tourism. Nevertheless, Hania had its share of touts, cheap trinkets and souvenirs and overpriced cafes. Yet the city has done a much better job of preserving its centuries-old Venetian architecture than its neighboring city, Rethymno.
By contrast, Rethymino was highly commercialized, and many fine Venetian-era buildings crumbling from neglect. It was very common to find a beautiful building’s street level area renovated and housing a tony boutique, IT store, or cafe, while the upper stories languished in disrepair and neglect.
We became so annoyed with Rethminon’s waterfront cafes’ touts that we beat a fast retreat. We stopped for a cool drink and snack at the first quiet cafe we came upon, only to find this two doors down:First “Euro Store” I’d seen in Europe. What a disappointment!
In total contrast is Knossos, the royal palace of the ancient Minoan culture that once ruled much of the Mediterranean eastern rim. Historians and archaeologists accredit the Minoans as having the first European civilization. I was glad to see that the excavations were proceeding more cautiously and with greater protection than 35+ years ago, but there are still problems with looting an even graffiti on the premises. For that reasons, most of the truly significant, original artifacts, including the frecoes, have been removed to the Archaeological Museum, and musch of that you see here has been reconstructed – not without controversy from purists.
We stayed at a small, family-run hotel on a hillside above Lygaria Beach, 18 km west of Heraklion. It was like being in our own private world. The room was small and Spartan, but the restaurant very reasonable (if not inexpensive), and the food outstanding. The Spiros-Soula Hotel was a delight and a respite, with cool breezes obviating any need for A/C. The family was friendly, generous and lovely to spend time with. Even the family cat adopted us. (What a surprise.)
Looking down the hill toward Lygaria Beach and beyond:
And, finally, as I end this posting, one of many reasons we plan to return to Crete: