Steeped in Homeric history and culture, scented by wild fennel and basil, Greece''s largest island now hosts a quarter of all visitors to Greece. The north is overdeveloped, but it''s still possible to find some peace by visiting the west and south coasts or the ruggedly mountainous interior.
The relatively small island of Crete has given the world some pretty big potatoes, not least of which is a traditional costume of baggy pants tucked into high boots which the New Romantic movement foisted on an unsuspecting public back in the 1980s.
Other accomplishments include Europe''s first advanced civilisation; the mythical Minotaur and its labyrinth; King Minos himself (the semi-fictitious sacrificer of maidens and youths); the palace of Knossos; El Greco; an enduring linguistic mix-up between Cretans and cretins; and the ultimate definition of ''family vendetta''.
Πότε να πάτε
The best times to visit Crete are late spring to early summer and autumn, when the tourist infrastructure has geared up but you won't have to contend with the crowds of summer tourists. The weather is usually pleasantly warm during this time, but not too hot, and swimming is possible.
Hania is Hollywood Moussaka. Apart from being the largest city in Western Crete, it's
swamped with beautiful Venetian and Turkish buildings and this, along with its harbourside setting, white onion-domed churches, and winding paved laneways make it ideal camera-bait. Any location scout or photographer searching for Greek appeal ends up, sooner or late, at Hania town square looking through a viewfinder. Add to its photogenic and esoteric appeal a number of colourful markets and a wonderful eating culture and you'll see why most visitors to Crete put the city on their itinerary.
There are a number of museums worth visiting, including the Archeological, Naval and Folklore museums. The Public Market, a turn-of-the-century building housing grocery stores, butchers' shops, a fish market and vegetable shops, and the Public Gardens next door are also worth a look but Hania's biggest drawcard is it natural assets and architecture. Check out the Venetian quarter of town and the massive fortifications and lighthouse, also built by the Venetians, for an exercise in historical charm.
From Plateia 1866, the main city square, it's a short walk northward to the Venetian Port, and a promenade that follows the semicircular curve of the harbour itself. As the road bends round to the fortress on the headland, the main hotel area is on the left, as you face the harbour. The headland separates the Venetian Port from the crowded town beach in the quarter called the Nea Hora. Zambeliou, down near the harbour, was once Hania's main thouroughfare, but is now a winding street lined with craft shops, hotels and tavernas. Many of the Venetian townhouses along the magnificent harbour have been restored and converted into domatia (cheap accommodation), restaurants, cafes and shops.
You can fly to Hania from mainland Athens on any number of domestic flights, take a ferry from Piraeus or bus it from Iraklio. It's about two and a half hours by bus, with a service leaving every 30 minutes from the capital.
Crete's largest city and the main point of entry for tourists, Iraklio is often dismissed as a grim necessity that must be endured in order to get to somewhere more inviting. But scratch beneath its traffic-ridden, helter-skelter surface and you'll find a certain urban sophistication coupled with a lively cafe scene.
Iraklio's two main squares are Plateia Venizelou and Plateia Eleftherias. Plateia Venizelou, recognisable by its famous Morosini Fountain (better known as the Lion Fountain), is the heart of the city and the best place to familiarise yourself with Iraklio's layout. The city's major intersection is a few steps south of the square. From here, major arteries run northeast to the harbour, southeast to Plateia Eleftherias, west to Hania gate and south to the markets.
Your stay should at least be long enough to visit the outstanding Archaeological Museum (second in size and importance only to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens), the Historical Museum of Crete (evidence of Crete's Venetian past), the city walls, the fortress of Rocca al Mare and, of course, Plateia Venizelou and its lion fountain.
Also in the vicinity of Plateia Venizelou is El Greco Park, the rustic centre of Iraklio's civic sprawl. This is where you'll find the greatest concentration of cheapish rooms and quite a few upmarket restaurants and cafes. South of the plaza, past Lion's Square, you'll find Dedalou Street in the Korai area. It's renowned for its cafes and, although a Dedalous Street cafe latte is pretty pricey, the area has a certain high-velocity ambience that is pure Iraklio.
Palace of Knossos
This palace, in a beautiful site just southeast of Iraklio, is the most magnificent, intricate and evocative of Crete's Minoan sites. In order to give visitors an idea of what the palace looked like, its discoverer, Sir Arthur Evans, had parts of it reconstructed.
Strategically placed copies of Minoan frescoes help infuse the site with the artistic spirit of these remarkable people. Arrive here early in the morning and visit the Throne Room, with its simple but beautifully proportioned throne, before the tour groups arrive.
Local bus No 2 travels the 5km (3mi) to Knossos from Bus Station A every 10 minutes. Leave yourself about four hours to do justice to the palace.
Many travellers spend a day trekking though the stupendous 18km (11mi) Samaria Gorge to get to Agia Roumeli on the southwest coast. At the Iron Gates, the gorge measures only 3.5m (11.5ft). Apart from its beauty, the gorge is teeming with wildlife and there is an incredible number of wildflowers during spring.
Further along the south coast, which is too precipitous to support large settlements, are the villages of Loutro and Hora Sfakion, linked by boat to Agia Roumeli.
The gorge is open from the beginning of May to mid-October, depending on the amount of water in the gorge. There are excursions to the gorge from every sizeable town and resort in Crete, with most excursion companies offering a long or short trek.
Έξω από τα συνηθισμένα
The first view of the mountain-fringed Lasithi Plateau, laid out like an immense patchwork quilt, is stunning. The plateau is a vast expanse of pear and apple orchards, almond trees and fields of crops dotted by some 7000 windmills. Unfortunately, most windmills are not in use today. Lasithi's major sight is the Dikteon Cave where, according to legend, the newborn Zeus was hidden from the kind of unfriendly father that made Captain Von Trapp look like Old Mother Hubbard. The plateau makes for excellent cycling, as long as you don't have to cycle up it from the coast.
You can get to Agios Nikolas, a major centre on the Lasithi Plateau, via a morning or afternoon bus from Tzermiado on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Iraklio also has buses running twice a day.
This small town, on the southwest coast of Crete, was discovered by hippies in the 1960s. From then on its days as a quiet fishing village were numbered, but it remains a relaxing place favoured by backpackers. On summer evenings, the main street is closed and the tavernas (traditional restaurants) move onto the road. Reachable by boat from Paleohora is tiny Elafonisi, which has one of the loveliest sand beaches in Crete. In summer there are three buses a day from Hania; in winter there are two. Summer also sees daily ferries between Paleohora and Hora Sfakion.
The village of Zakros in eastern Crete is a lively place where cafes are always animated and busy with locals and there's rarely a tourist in sight. A visit to nearby Zakros Palace and Kato Zakros combines an intriguing archaeological site and a long stretch of under-populated beach. The best way to get to the palace and beach is via spectacular Zakros Gorge.
There are two buses a day from Sitia. In summer the buses continue on to Kato Zakros.
Crete is a veritable paradise for trekking, provided you don't come during the hot summer. Options for hikes include spectacular gorges such as the Samaria Gorge, across mountains and plains, and visiting remote villages. Crete's mountainous terrain isn't ideal for cycling but travelling on two wheels through the escarpment villages and valleys of the north coast, the Mesara Plain of the south and on and down from the plateaus, is popular.
Apart from swimming, parasailing, water-skiing, jet-skiing, canoeing, yachting and windsurfing are available at most of the major beaches. The often crystal-clear waters, particularly in the south, make snorkelling and diving here a real pleasure.
Between 5700 and 2800 BC, Neolithic Cretans lived in caves or basic houses. These people were hunter-gatherers who also farmed and raised livestock. The Minoans arrived in Crete in about 3000 BC from North Africa or the Middle East, bringing with them the skills necessary for making bronze. The Minoans thrived, as their use of bronze allowed them to build better boats and thereby expand their trade opportunities. Around 2000 BC, they built their first palaces and improvements in technology allowed them to produce fine pottery and excellent jewellery. The Minoans became the first advanced civilisation to emerge in Europe.
The 'golden age' of the Minoans was from 1700 BC to 1450 BC. Palaces destroyed by a cataclysm in 1700 BC were rebuilt to a more complex design with multiple storeys, sumptuous royal apartments and reception halls, and with advanced drainage systems. Some fabulous frescoes and other expressions of the fine arts were created during this period. Another cataclysm in 1450 BC brought Minoan civilisation to an abrupt halt.
Crete then underwent over three millennia of occupation by various forces. First were the Mycaeans from the mainland (1400-1100 BC), then came the Dorians, also from the mainland (1100-67 BC), although this period saw almost constant warfare between Crete's city states. The Romans took over in 67 BC; in 27 BC Gortyn (present-day Gortyna) became the capital of (and most powerful) city of Crete. When Rome's power declined at the end of the 4th century AD, Crete became part of the Byzantine Empire and was ruled from Constantinople (Istanbul). The Arabs conquered Crete in around 824; the Byzantines reclaimed it in 960 and sold it to the Venetians in 1204; it fell to the Turks in 1669 and became part of the Ottoman empire; it was given to Egypt in 1830; and returned to the Ottomans in 1840.
In 1898 the Turks were removed from Crete, which was then ruled by an international administration. Greece and, in particular, the world powers of the time resisted Crete's desire to be unified with Greece until 1913. By 1935 a rigged plebiscite put King George II on the Greek throne. He promptly named Metaxis prime minister, and then turned a blind eye as Metaxis went down the autocratic road in the guise of protecting the nation from communist forces. Metaxis had a grandiose vision of a Third Greek Civilisation rising from the ashes of its Byzantine past, but what he created was more Hitlerian than Hellenic: opponents were exiled or imprisoned, trade unions were banned, the Greek Communist Party was gagged and fascist youth gangs were encouraged. His one act of moral fortitude was to say 'No' to Mussolini's request to use Greece as a thoroughfare for Italian troops.
In the final washout of WWII, Greece was overrun by the Germans and, after the bloody, gritty Battle of Crete in 1941 (waged on the Cretan side by peasants with pitchforks ), the Third Reich occupied the island until defeat in 1945. Post-WWII, Cretans tended to favour all things British so there was little of the communist-versus-colonial tug-of-war that plagued the rest of Greece. However, the island did get caught up in the subsequent Colonel Coups of 1964 - a military junta, popularly thought to be supported by the CIA and US interests, determined to stop the country going anywhere near the centre or left of the political spectrum.
Postwar politics in Greece resembled nothing more than a fast-moving car with a drunk driver at the wheel: left, right, left, down the middle. By the '80s, Greeks and Cretans were fed up with right-wing governments, and Papandreou's left-wing socialist party (PASOK) hit the jackpot with promises of reform and a decrease in US military numbers. Unfortunately the only thing Papandreou could deliver was financial imbroglios and sexual scandals so, by 1990, the old-style New Democracy had regained control and swung the nation back to the right.
Two years later, the New Democrats had corruption scandals of their own to answer, and an older and ailing Papandreou was dragged out of bed to run a socialist-style country again. This time, though, Papandreou had almost to fax his performance in due to ill-health.
After Papandreou's death in 1996, PASOK was taken over by Kostas Simitis, re-elected in 2000, who promptly Blair-ised the party, vowing he would modernise and moderate it, even if he had to drag it kicking and screaming into the pragmatic centre. Many PASOK hardliners complain that it's too hard these days to tell a New Democratic party policy from a PASOK policy. Elections will be held this year (2004).
Crete is the largest island in Greece and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. A long, slug-like island of some 260km (161mi) in length, Crete is Greece's most southerly point, with its largest city and capital, Iraklio, situated in the middle of the north side of the island. Most of the tourist developments lie either side, and the south and west coasts remain largely untouched.
Although the island is formally divided into four prefectures (Hania, Rethimnon, Heraklion and Lassithi), it's more readily divided into east, west and central Crete. The east is by far the driest part of the island, studded with the ubiquitous olive tree and a rather stunted, albeit feral, mountain range, Thripti. A bit of tourism goes on around the towns of Nikolaos and Mirambello Bay but by and large it's a fairly untouched area of Crete.
The central area of Crete crawls with tourists and vineyards, a not altogether unhappy mix. Apart from containing the capital, Iraklio, the central area of Crete is also famous for its archaeological ruins and rabidly fertile plain of Mesara that produces crops of olives, oranges and pretty-as-a-picture windmills in equal measures. Located on the border of the centre and the eastern areas is the Lasithi Plain and cave-riddled Mt Dikitu. It is said that Zeus was born in one of these caves, the Dikteon Andron. Ideon Cave, another famous cave a little to the east of here (around Mt Psiloritis), is alleged to be the spot where the newborn Zeus was hidden by his mother Rhea from his cannibalistic father, Kronos.
The western areas of Crete are the greenest and most mountainous; the White Mountains or Lefka Ori dominate the landscape, rising to a height of almost 2500m (8200ft) before plunging in spectacular fashion into the Libyan sea in the south. This sudden geomorphic freefall gives rise to a number of deep gorges, including the famous gorge of Samaria.
Most of the wild animals in Crete these days are of the two-footed Le Tan'n'Party kind but occasionally you may spot a 'kri-kri' or wild goat amongst the shrubbery, a few snakes amongst the rocks, and more snails than you could possibly be interested in on the ground. Ironically for a littoral people, for whom the sea represents a potent cultural, mythological and historical symbol (not to mention a traditional livelihood), the seas around Greece have been severely depleted of marine life. Overfishing and dynamite-fishing have contributed to this state of affairs, as has petroleum pollution from boats. Steps are only now being taken to rectify the dire situation.
Πως θα φτάσετε εκεί
Many visitors fly first to Athens on the mainland, which is well served by international flights, and then travel to Crete by air or boat. It's also possible to fly directly to Crete from Europe, although most direct flights are offered by charter companies during the busy summer months.
Most overlanders currently arrive in Greece by ferry from Brindisi (free for Eurail pass holders), Ancona, Trieste, Bari or Venice in Italy. Most ferries to Crete depart from Piraeus harbour, just to the south of Athens, but there are also departures from Thessaloniki, Rhodes, Kalamata and Glythio, plus some of the Cyclades islands and Kythira. The ferries from Piraeus depart from docks convenient to Larisis train station. Some ferries take much longer than others to reach Crete - check before buying a ticket. Be aware that services in the off season (November to April) are considerably curtailed.
Crete is easy to travel around due to its comprehensive bus system. There are frequent buses travelling along the length of the north coast. Less frequent services link north coast towns and resorts with places of interest on the south coast, via the interior mountain villages. Ferries link towns along the south coast and islands; some towns can only be accessed by sea. Many ferries operate only during the summer months, though. Those planning to bring their own car to Crete (or rent a car) should be aware that Greece has the highest road fatality rate in Europe. Roads in Crete have improved in recent years, but there are still many unpaved and rough roads in the south and country road signs are often only in Greek.
History of Crete by Theoharis E Detorakis covers Cretan history from Minoan times to the beginning of WWII.
Alexandre Farnaux's Knossos: Searching for the Legendary Palace of King Minos is an English translation of the search for the mythical palace.
Winds of Crete by David MacNeill Doren is an amusing account of island life as experienced by an American and his Swedish wife.
Douglas Bullis' The Chania Town News is witty and wacky and has been described as the best book about modern Crete.
The most widely read Greek author is Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis, whose novels are full of drama and larger-than-life characters. His works include The Last Temptation and Zorba the Greek. For an excellent feel of ancient Crete, try Mary Renault's The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea.