Being the biggest of all the Greek islands, Crete requires several days to experience much of what it has to offer.
It’ also the farthest away from Athens putting it in a unique position where many of the package tourists have opted for the closer islands and the overall experience is not diminished by the ‘Bobs and Marthas’ of the travel circuit.
Having travelled to numerous countries over the last 25 years, I am more than wary of the carbon-copy tours so common in the tourism trade. Thankfully, it’s now easier than ever to find passionate people only too willing to share with you their home town in a way you wouldnt be able to with larger, travel agency-arranged outings.
So when I met Isidoros outside my hotel, I’m instantly greeted with the enthusiasm and vibrancy Cretans and Greeks in general are known for, assured instantly that this would be something outside the square. Though Isidoros may be my guide for two days he’s just as much a proud local that wants to share the Crete he knows so well. The last thing he said to me on the phone the night before meeting him was ‘Don’t eat breakfast at your hotel, I know place’. I like this guy.
So our first stop is a little bakery just opposite the National stadium where I have the pleasure of indulging in some Kalitsounia, a delicious little pie once reserved for holiday traditions, it has since become a common delicacy in many a Cretan bakery but rarely found elsewhere. Made with the fresh soft variety of Myzithra cheese (not the salty type) it can sometimes be found with Italian Mascarpone or Ricotta instead. Served with a drizzle of warm honey and a sprinkle of powder cinnamon, your palate will never be the same again.
Taking the national road towards Kissamos followed by a myriad of dirt roads, Isidoros tells me of the excellent quality of honey made here by bees getting their polen from the Tyme herb as well as the long history of conquerors and rampant piracy through the centuries.
During the Byzantine era particularly after the 9th century, Crete – and to a lesser extent Sicily and Syria- were havens for pirates operating in these waters, becoming quite chaotic by the 16th century. It was only through the Venetians that any order was restored when the Castle of Gramvousa was completed in 1584 after 5 years of construction. The strategic island position of the castle allowed its Venetian rulers to control the strait between Western Crete and Peloponnese until 1645 when Chania fell to the Ottoman empire during a seige with the rest of Crete totally occupied by 1669.
During the Greek revolution of 1825, the castle was finally conquered by Cretan rebels disguised as Ottomans, thus allowing the castle to become the seat of the Revolutionary Committee of Crete. For 3 years it was the base of more than 3000 rebels who, through a lack of food, were forced into piracy. Before long, Gramvousa gained a reputation all over Europe as ‘the Pirate island’.
After a 10 minute walk from the road, I found myself standing on the top of a hill admiring the view of one of the most impressive beaches of Crete, The Mpalos beach at Gramvousa peninsula on the North-west edge of the island. There’s only 500 steps between myself, the tempting turquoise sea, soft white sand and almost no shade whatsover.
Through july and august, Mpalos receives a fairly high number of day-trip visitors arriving via ferry between midday and 6pm so an early arrival is recommended if you wish to achieve any kind of Cretan Nirvana. The road leading here is in a terrible state and probably should only be used by 4WD such as the one I was in.
At a quick stop in Astrikas, I’m given a quick lesson in Olive oil production in what is one of the last traditional, organic producers in Greece. The olive oil (Biolea) is stone-pressed then cold-milled and as a result is quite famous within gastronomic circles. Like much of Greece’s cuisine, time and tradition have been fundamental aspects to it’s quality and after taking in much of the scenery of Greece so far, it’s not difficult to see how they acquired such an incredible cuisine, not rushing to have something but allowing time to pass. The beaches and the mountains aren’t going anywhere so what’s the hurry.
And there are actually mountains in Crete, quite spectacular ones too. The White Mountains or Lefka Ori make up a substantial part of the centre of West Crete and are named as such due to their limestone formation as well as the coverage of snow through cooler months. Winding through one of the 50+ gorges here, it’s an environment more befitting Switzerland or Austria than Crete with at least 30 mountain summits higher than 2000m. A natural spring near the bottom of the mountains is a welcome relief and a perfect prelude to lunch at the small village of Rodovani nearly an hour away.
Sitting down at what must be the most spectacular yet traditional home-cooked Greek meal I’m ever likely to have, I’m told one anecdote after the other, surrounded by locals.This wasn’t really a restaurant so much, it was more like an extension of someones kitchen being served by a grandmother probably no differently than if you were a relative. Maybe it was the wine or the heat or even common sense but I really was getting to the idea of ditching everything and living here. There was a time everywhere that everything was made at home with local products from the area, no packaging and no waste, it’s a concept that still exists in this part of the world.
It turns out that ditching everything and living here was not a new idea for this area. Upon reaching the south coast village of Sougia, Isidoros tells me that during the seventies, this area was a haven for hippies and hitchhikers from across Europe and the USA, taking almost permanent refuge in the caves found in the beachside cliffs, eventually driven out by the church and the military. Ironically, it was these hippies that captured the worlds attention and now there is a festival to celebrate the fact. About half a days drive away in South Heraklion, the Matala Beach Festival is often described as the Burning Man of Europe with up to 60,000 loved-up revellers descending on this otherwise sleepy tourist village in june.
The sun was now pretty close to setting creating the perfect opportunity to visit Sougia’s beautiful beach followed by a drink at ALFA tavern in Azogyres village where I could spend the night at ALFA rooms at Isidoros’s suggestion. Though I had a room already at Chania, staying at ALFA meant we could start the next day at Azogyres. Listening to the surprisingly young owner of ALFA, he tells me the micro climate of Azogyres helps you to rest even with a few hours’ sleep
Azogires is a mountain village that usually gets by-passed on the way to the resort town of Paleochora 5 km away but should you be of the curious inclination, there are countless caves of rugged and rocky climes where pungent aromas of sage, thyme and oregano drift through the mountains of overgrown gorse while you wade through a natural pool under a small waterfall, adding to the calming ambience of Azogires’s seven churches and cave monastery.
Of the few things I knew of Crete, Elafonisi and Falasarna were among the top of the list which is why we wouldn’t be stopping there. It is one of the most famous and tourist-filled beaches in Chania and because this tour is about the hidden spots we’ll be visiting Kedrodasos where you are greeted with yet more amazing turquoise, crystal-clear waters just with the luxury of relative privacy. Once again, the setting seemed out of place like a near perfect replica of the Caribbean sans palm trees.
There were more archeological sites from there followed by beaches and incredible food and though many good things may come to an end, that will never be the case in Crete. It will be here just as you left it.
goCrete is an independent Cretan travel service with the goal of introducing people to the real, authentic Crete. Visiting places rarely mentioned in guidebooks, they visit amazing hideaways, sample local cuisine and ensure you can meet the locals, enjoying the hospitality for which this region is renowned.