Timeless Crete

Silvery olive grove

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.

Venetian lighthouse at mouth of Hania habor

Venetian lighthouse at mouth of Hania harbor

Agios Nikolaus and its bay, surrounded by concrete hotels, condos and villas.

Agios Nikolaus and its bay, surrounded by concrete hotels, condos and villas.

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.

A real Greek salad, with the ripest tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, non-rubbery feta cheese and, of course, lots of olive oil.

A real Greek salad, with the ripest tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, non-rubbery feta cheese and, of course, lots of olive oil.

Not for the faint of heart: grilled octopus tentacles, one of my favorite treats. It's a toss up between grilled octopus and grilled calamari, either with Greek salad, as my favorite meal.

Not for the faint of heart: grilled octopus tentacles, one of my favorite treats. It’s a toss up between grilled octopus and grilled calamari, either with Greek salad, as my favorite meal.

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.

Town of Lakki, perched on a ridge among the White Mountains of south-central Crete. The mountains were a haven for Cretan guerillas fighting first Turks then Nazis

Town of Lakki, perched on a ridge among the White Mountains of south-central Crete. The mountains were a haven for Cretan guerrillas fighting first Turks then Nazis

Lakki's Monmument to three generations of resistance fighters from 19th c. Turkish rule to Nazi domination in WWII

Lakki’s Monument to three generations of resistance fighters from 19th c. Turkish rule to Nazi domination in WWII

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.

Samaria Gorge, winding its way through the White Mountains

Samaria Gorge, winding its way through the White Mountains

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.

Lasithi Plateau, abundant farmland but missing the traditional windmills of old.

Lasithi Plateau, abundant farmland but missing the traditional windmills of old.

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.

Windmills' stone bases along the easatern mountain pass to Lasithi Plain

Windmills’ stone bases along the eastern mountain pass to Lasithi Plain

Virtually all the functional windmills now in Lasithi are modern iron-framed, soulless water pumps, as seen below.

Modern windmills on metal frame -- not quite the same

Modern windmills on metal frame — not quite the same

I finally spied a few stone windmills with the bare bones of sails, but without canvas, on the western side of the plain.

Windmill without its sails, western ridge of Lasithi Plain

Windmill without its sails, western ridge of Lasithi 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.

Old mosque and Venetian buildings on the east side of Hania harbor

Old mosque and Venetian buildings on the east side of Hania harbor

A charming art gallery in the old Venetian section of Hania around the harbor. Through the doorways you can glimpse the interior courtyard and garden of this old house.

A charming art gallery in the old Venetian section of Hania around the harbor. Through the doorways you can glimpse the interior courtyard and garden of this old house.

Cafes claim every centimeter of space possible in the narrow streets of old Hania

Cafes claim every centimeter of space possible in the narrow streets of old Hania

And the streets can get quite narrow!

And the streets can get quite narrow!

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.

The Venetian-era lighthouse in Rethimnon's harbor.

The Venetian-era lighthouse in Rethimnon’s harbor.

Rethminon's waterfront boulvard, replete with touts.

Rethminon’s waterfront boulvard, replete with touts.

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:IMG_1041First “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.

Knossos Hilltop Palace

Knossos Hilltop Palace

Jars or amphoras, partially reconstructed

Jars or amphoras, partially reconstructed

Throne room

Throne room

Detail of grifffin frescoe in throne room

Detail of griffin fresco in throne room

 

Bull Horns, symbol of the Minoan King (partially reconstructed)

Bull Horns, symbol of the Minoan King (partially reconstructed)

Bull Horns, symbol of the Minoan King (partially reconstructed)

Bull Horns, symbol of the Minoan King (partially reconstructed)

 

Gift Bearers frescor (reproduction)

Gift Bearers fresco (reproduction)

Bull Leapers of Knossos

Bull Leapers of Knossos

 

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.)

IMG-20130711-00214

The Spirous-Soula Hotel

The Spirous-Soula Hotel

Looking down the hill toward Lygaria Beach and beyond:

Lygaria Beach and bay below Spiros-Soula Hotel

Lygaria Beach and bay below Spiros-Soula Hotel

And, finally, as I end this posting, one of many reasons we plan to return to Crete:

Sunset ove Lygaria Beach and bay

Sunset ove Lygaria Beach and bay

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