Crete – island of gods, mountains and turquoise sea

Crete is godly! Not only because – according to Greek myths – Zeus, the god of all gods and ruler of heaven, was born and raised here. Crete is vast. It is the largest Greek island and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Crete is diverse. Full of mountains, deep gorges, rocks, wide plains with wild kri-kri (Cretan) goats, olive groves, historic towns, endless beaches and small deserted coves being washed by the turquoise sea. Crete is unforgettable. It brings a different experience to everyone, but everyone will spend his holidays according to his tastehere. One week will not be enough.

In the north, Crete is densely populated and especially in summer full of tourists. All along the northern coast, there is a road from which it´s really close to all seaside resorts. Here you can enjoy sweet idleness on a beach, chatting with friends at a hotel bar, tasting Greek specialties in taverns or a busy nightlife. But if you go inland or to the south, you will experience more Greece and encounter places where you will not meet a living soul. The choice is yours. Read and see what you can experience and visit in Crete.

Heráklion

In Crete, there are certainly more picturesque towns than the island’s capital, which is full of cars and people, but a few places here are definitely worth seeing. The “old” city centre is surrounded by stone medieval walls, but you won’t find many historical buildings here. Most of them were destroyed during World War II. A good starting point for exploring the city is the Venetian port of Enetiko Limani with fishing boats and yachts and the impressive Frourio Koules fortress. The fortress was built in the 16th century by the Venetians. From the walls of the fortress you can enjoy a wonderful view of the city, turquoise sea and islands in the distance. Above the entrance gate and on the wall facing the sea, have a look at the carved winged Lion of Saint Mark, which was the emblem of the Republic of Venice. From the fortress you can also observe the remains of the Venetian shipyards, the so-called arsenali. The pier is about 800 m long and if you happen to be here early in the morning, you may encounter a small fish market. From the port, head to the city along 25is Avgousta – the place where most of the attractions are located. These include the Church of St. Tito (Agios Titos) with sky-blue ceiling and a dome; St. Mark (Agios Markos), which now serves as a concert hall and gallery, or perhaps the former resting place of the Venetian nobility, the building of the Enektiki Loggia, which now houses the city hall. Along the way, you will cross the bustling Liberty Square (Platia Eleftherias) and small Platia Venizelou Square with a magnificent fountain with four stone lions and a marble tank. Sit in one of many taverns or cafes and watch the bustle around you. If you are interested in history and art, visit the Archaeological Museum (Archaiologiko Mouseio) for EUR 12 or smaller History Museum (Istoriko Mouseio Kritis) for EUR 5.

Chania

It is the second largest town on the island, nicknamed Crete Venice. Not because there are canals and gondolas, but because of the colourful townhouses, narrow streets, and magnificent Venetian harbour, dominated by a beautifully restored lighthouse. The port and its surroundings are very lively, full of cafes, shops and souvenir stalls. For centuries in Chania, many raiders and people have been coming, changing the town more or less. The oldest Turkish building is the 17th-century Janissary Mosque, located on the harbour square. Today it serves as an exhibition hall. Take a walk along the waterfront, view yachts contrasting with small fishing boats on your left, and the old Venetian shipyard (Arsenali) from the late 15th century on your right. Some of them are reconstructed into exhibition spaces, craft workshops or the Maritime Museum. When on the pier, walk up to the Venetian lighthouse, which offers a magnificent view of the harbour and the towering peaks of the White Mountains. All around the harbour you can sit and relax and also buy leather goods, jewellery, herbs or wine. Of course, you can also visit museums (archaeological, local history or naval) in Chania. When you no longer enjoy walking, head west of the old town, where you will find the most beautiful beaches of Chania.

Rethymnon

On the northern coast, roughly in the middle of Crete, under the hillsides of the Ida Mountains, there is a picturesque town of Rethymnon, which has a Venetian-Turkish character similar to Chania. However, the city centre is much smaller, with crooked streets and small squares. It is dominated by PlatiaPethihaki square with a beautiful Rimondi fountain from 1626. The fountain has three water reservoirs, three columns and three lion heads through which water flows. You will see the magic of Rethymnon if you wander aimlessly through the narrow streets with Venetian houses, small fountains and local taverns. A great attraction of the city is again the Venetian port with a pier and a lighthouse, which is much more modest than the one in Chania and you will walk around it quite quickly. The city is dominated by the massive Venetian fortress Fortezza standing on a rock, which served as a protection against pirates and the Turks. The exterior masonry of the fort has been preserved to these days, but the space inside looks more like a city park. You will find here a mosque, a church or remains of the barracks.

Moni Arkadiou Monastery

On a plateau at an altitude of 500 m, about 20 km southeast of Rethymnon, there is a monastery, which was founded in the 13th century and at that time it had a school and a rich library. It became most famous as a bastion of resistance to the Turkish occupation. In 1866, there was a bloody struggle for independence. At that time, women, children and rebel fighters were hiding inside from the Turks. When the Turks took their sanctuary after 9 days, the abbot ordered to blow up a gunpowder store so that the Turkish invaders couldn´t beat them. In a giant explosion, most of the hidden Cretans, as well as the Turks, were killed. This heroic act thus became a symbol of the struggle for independence and every year on the eighth of November this event is commemorated. The monastery has a shape of an almost rectangular parallelogram and from the outside it still somewhat resembles the fortress as it is surrounded by a high wall and you will also find loopholes. Inside there is a beautiful courtyard with a church with a Renaissance facade and a bell tower. On the left side of the courtyard in the corner stands the above mentioned gunpowder store (originally a wine cellar), which witnessed the event of 1866 and remained without a roof. On the opposite side of the courtyard there is a cloister and a small museum. In the courtyard to the left of the church you will notice an old cypress tree – have a look atits tribe, there is a bullet from times of the siege of the Turks. In some parts of the monastery there are also private cells of monks who still live here. A tourist attraction is also an ossuary located in a former windmill and built in 1910, which preserves the remains of those who died here in the mentioned explosion.

Ágios Nikólaos

A small town located about 60 km east of Heraklion does not have many historical monuments, but there is some beauty as well. It is located on a hillside above the Gulf of Mirabello, which is nicknamed the Gulf of the Rich Ones. The dominant feature of the town is the inner lake Voulismeni, which was freshwater until the 19th century. But then it was connected to the port and the sea by an artificial narrow channel. According to ancient rumours, the goddess Athena used to have a bath in the lake and it is said to be bottomless. But a few years ago, its depth was measured and it was 64 meters deep. It´s quite busy around the lake, there are lots of cafes, bars and discos. Climb the rock above the lake and enjoy breath-taking views not only of the lake but also of the sea port and nearby islands. Then walk through the pedestrian area from the main sea port on the PlatiaEleftherias Square with a nearby AgíaTriás church. If you have time, drive 7 km north of the town to a small town of Elounda,a tourist resort for the upper crust. It is said to be the best and the most luxurious place Crete can offer. In addition to the luxurious hotels, you will also find a beautiful fishing boat harbour, where cruise ships leave for Spinalonga Island. In the 16th century, the Venetians built a fortress there as a protection against invaders. Later on, the fortress came under the rule of the Turks, who, however, even after the independence of Greece refused to leave. The government therefore established a colony of leprosy patients, which finally forced the Turks to leave the island. The lepers were on the island until 1957. If you carry on up the way to the town of Elounda, you will have a breath-taking view of the entire bay. And if you continue along the road through mountains, you will see real Crete. Olive groves, pastures full of kri-krigoats and sheep, small villages with hidden taverns and windmills typical of this area. Along an unforgettable routeyou will return to the town of Neapoli on the main road to Heraklion.

Lasithi Plateau

Maybe you don´t think so, but Crete is quite mountainous. In spite of that you don’t have to fight high mountains to get beautiful panoramas. Even the journey to the Lasithi plateau in the Diktimountains is a great experience. Drive from Heraklion towards Neapoli, after about 35 km turn to the village of Mochos (or follow the Lasithi Plateau sign) and embark on an adventurous journey full of hairpins through the Perasma Seli Ambelou Pass. Its ridge is full of stone windmills from the Venetian period – and you can walk around them. Previously, however, there were many more. From here you will have an incredible view of the infinite sea level as well as the vast Lasithi plateau. Once you are behind the pass, the landscape suddenly straightens, the roads are lined with olive groves, orchards, vegetable fields and small villages. You get to one of the most fertile areas of the island. Windmills were used to irrigate the fields, but unfortunately they have been replaced by motor pumps. After you pass Psychró village, turn right to the Dikteon Andron, the most famous cave in Crete. According to myths, Zeus was born and hid here, making the cave almost a sacred place. The entrance to the cave can be reached on foot or on a back of a donkey from a car park about 1 km away. In summer, it might be more difficult because of the heat, but it´s not that hard even when it is all the way up.From the entrance to the cave you descend 65 m to a small dark lake. Cave formations are really impressive, but be ready for crowds of tourists who are almost always here. The entrance fee is EUR 6. After that you can continue along the road all around the plateau through picturesque villages such as Agios Georgios with Folklore Museum, Agios Konstandinos with handicrafts or Zenia. Stop by in one of them and visit a typical Greek tavern and have lunch or just a glass of wine. From the plateau you can return to Neapoli or to the seaside to Ágios Nikólaos.

Matala

In the south of Crete in a wide bay there is a resort surrounded by high rocks. In addition to the calm and turquoise sea, visitors are attracted by caves carved into sandstone rocks above the sea. They were carved by the Romans and used as catacombs, shelters and burial grounds. In the 1960s they were used as shelters by hippies. The caves can be walked through freely for a symbolic entrance fee of EUR 2. Some have carved benches, door frames and windows. When you climb to the upper floors, you have a beautiful view of the entire bay and the town. I have read in several guides that Matala has kept the atmosphere of the original village and it is a quiet resort, but I must say that it is quite the opposite. Even at the beginning of October the town was full of tourists and the atmosphere was far away from calm little place. Nevertheless, I liked it there, as it was very much different from all other places in Crete. And if you want to escape the crowds a bit, head to the nearby Red beach. But you will have to climb up the rocks and then climb down again to the beach. The climb and descent are not demanding, but I would not make it during hot summer time. The beach is beautiful and well hidden, so there are plenty of nudists here. There is a small bar at the end of the beach. Less than 30 km north of Matala, you should not miss the charming town of Agia Galini. Originally a small fishing village, although it is a bit more busy and touristy now, but it certainly retained its charm more than the neighbouring Matala town. The town is terraced on a slope of the canyon leading to the sea. The houses are painted white with turquoise doors and windows, covered with jasmine, alleys are only for pedestrians and the countryside offers very nice panoramas. Not far from the harbour there is a small but nice beach.

Phaistos Palace

When in Greece you have to visit an ancient monument. There are quite a few in Crete. The most famous and most visited is the world-famous Minoan Palace of Knossos, which we deliberately omitted and chose a palace in Faist. It is not so perfectly reconstructed, but even here you can get a good idea of ​​the civilization of that time. The palace can be found in the south of the central part of the island, about 60 km from Heraklion, at a place with a magnificent view of the fertile plateau of Messara and Psiloreitis, the highest mountain of the island (2.456 m). The first palace was built around 1,900 BC, but about two centuries later on it was destroyed by earthquakes and fires. A new palace was built on its ruins, but it was also gradually destroyed, and around 1,400 BC it disappeared completely together with the whole Minoan culture. The palace, the seat of the local ruler, stood on a hill side and there was a wide staircase leading to it which you can still climb today. In the complex there was a main spectacular courtyard lined by colonnades in the past. Unfortunately, none of them were preserved. In the other parts of the complex you will find separate chambers of the king and queen, pools and many other rooms in which archaeological works are still under way. The most famous discovery is the Disk of Faist, a clay disc from the 2nd millennium BC, which has a diameter of about 15 cm with engraved hieroglyphs in the shape of animals, flowers, human figures and characters similar to script. The area where the disc was discovered in 1908 is marked and you can see its pictures here, the original disc can be seen in the Archaeological Museum in Herakleion. Admission to the palace is EUR 8, reduced EUR 4.

Sarakinas Gorge

There are hundreds of gorges in Crete. Some of them are accessible on foot, some by car and others not at all. The most famous gorge is Samaria in the southwest of the island, which, along with its length of 16 km, is one of the longest ones in Europe. The descent begins on a plateau at an altitude of 1,227 m and ends on the coast where you have to take a boat to return to one of the villages. Unfortunately, we didn´t have enough time, so we went to the southeast of Crete to the smaller Sarakinas Gorge, which is located about 16 km from the town of Ierapetra in the Díktemountains. The gorge is about 2 km long and from 3 to 10 m wide. There is the Kriopotamos River flowing through, which will probably not cause you any problems in summer. In October, when we visited the gorge, the water level was higher and the riverbed wider, so we had to take off our shoes in many places. A relaxing walkin the beginning soon changed into a more challenging walk. The deeper you go into the gorge, the more obstacles you will have to overcome. There will be huge boulders and rock walls in your way, which you will have to climb, crawl or use someone’s helping hand while jumping into the water from time to time. Definitely you need to have good solid shoes and also enough time. Although the gorge seems to be short, it´s definitely not an easy walking. Keep in mind that one way takes 1.5 to 2 hours. We came to the gorge quite late, so we did not reach the end. At the end of the gorge you have two options: you can either return the same way back or continue through the riverbed a little further up and to the right through an olive grove until you reach the road again. But you need someone to wait for you there or you have to walk along the road back to the beginning of the gorge, where there is a parking lot. But even if you walk only part of the gorge, it will be great experience, as there are rockwalls some 150 m high all around you. The gorge is not suitable for children.

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