Travel Guide: Explore Crete, the Crown Jewel of the Mediterranean

The mountains and landscape of Crete.
Credit: akvillas.com

When discussing the Greek islands, Crete often takes a backseat to more prominent locales like Mykonos, Santorini, and Syros. But don’t be fooled, Crete is anything but forgettable. This mountainous stretch of land is equal parts mythical island paradise and modern metropolis.

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and offers a plethora of diverse activities for travelers; you can scale 2000m high mountains and trek through massive canyons, explore ancient ruins of lost cities, swim in sparkling lagoons, and take in the vibrant urban night life at one of the major cities.

History of Crete

A fresco panting depicting a Cretan bull and three onlookers.
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Crete is viewed as the cradle of European civilization due to the appearance of the Minoan people approximately 5000 years ago. They hold the title of the first recorded kingdom in Europe. The Minoans possessed a remarkably rich culture in the way of art, pottery, architecture, and even an alphabet. Exceptional navigation and sea faring technology allowed for the creation of productive trade routes extending to nearby Anatolia, Egypt, and mainland Greece, spreading their influence across the Mediterranean.

The Minoans also took a refreshingly egalitarian approach to social class that eschewed hierarchy and placed women in roles of power. Indeed, depictions of women as divine figures are prevalent throughout religious paintings of the time.

Alas, the mighty empire met its downfall in the face of devastating natural disasters, a crumbling economy, and the invasion of Greeks who absorbed much of the native culture into their own. Although the Minoans all but disappeared, their influence is deeply embedded in Cretan culture, while the remnants of their existence can be seen throughout the island.

Transportation to Crete

You may choose to fly directly to the island or layover in Athens, which is sometimes the cheaper option. There are two international airports, the Nikos Kazantzakis in Heraklion and the Loannis Daskalogiannis in Chania.

If you are set on seeing as much of the beautiful landscape as possible, then another option is to catch a ferry. Ferries are a popular way of hopping between islands in the Mediterranean and they are used extensively in Crete. The island services 60 ports in the area and services are available year round.

Since there are no railways as of yet in Crete, via road is your best option for getting between cities. Bus stations are present in all the major cities and you can easily get between cities for a cheap price.

Food and Customs of Crete

Common foods in Crete.
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The staples of the Cretan diet are olives, organically harvested fruits and vegetables, nuts, and local meats like octopus, rabbit, and goat. The much adopted Mediterranean diet is associated with longevity and vitality. Some of the must taste delicacies include fried snails (Chochlioi boubouristi), cheese pies (Kaltsounia), and decadent crumbly custard cakes (Portokalopita).

Meals are often served with a spirit called raki, which is the national beverage. Seeing as this alcoholic drink is customarily given before and after the meal, as well as during greetings and goodbyes, it is very easy to find yourself three sheets to the wind without even realizing it.

If you are hoping for impeccably fast service when you sit down for your meal, then it is best that you familiarize yourself with the concept of Greek time. Here in Crete, the long days and blazing sun mean that the locals are in no rush. This means that the Cretan people can be quite frank in their interaction with others. This is not to say that politeness is absent from social discourse. On the contrary, the locals are extremely open and are more than willing to invite you into their homes to dine on a bounty of cuisine. This type of straight forward interaction may seem foreign to western travelers, but it can also be very refreshing and engaging once you get accustomed to it.

Cities and Islands

Heraklion

Overlooking the port from Koules Fortress in Heraklion.
Credit: cretetravel.com

More than likely, your first stop when you arrive in Crete will be in the capital city of Heraklion. Living up to its namesake, this port city is a bustling and robust urban center that is steeped in history. A stroll down the gorgeous waterfront promenade offers plenty of options for cuisine. There are plenty of beautiful landmarks, such as the Koules Fortress and the Venetian Arsenals. The nearby Old town is a pedestrian’s dream with narrow cobbled streets decorated with overhanging foliage and full of cafes, churches, boutiques, and museums.

Ruins of Knossos

A short distance outside Heraklion are the ruins of the ancient Minoan city known as Knossos. The main palace was constructed between 1700 and 1400 BC and is known for its brightly colored frescos and intricate architectural designs. It is a significant setting within, Greek mythology as it was said to be the location of King Mino’s Labyrinth: a maze that imprisoned his son the Minotaur. Artefacts such as finely crafted pottery can be found throughout the many halls and rooms. You can even spot remnants of an aqueduct system which brought fresh water to the city, a true testament to the sophistication of its inhabitants.

At some point around 1375 BC, Knossos fell into ruin. This was probably caused by a natural disaster or possibly an invasion by the Mycenaeans. The site only became a tourist destination in the early 20th century after it was discovered by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who immediately began restoration efforts. It was the work of Evans that resurrected the Minoan empire from obscurity and shed light on their vast cultural contribution to Mediterranean life.

Matala

A local shop in Matala.
Credit: guidesulysse.com

Matala started out as a small fishing village which transformed into a hippie refuge in the 60’s before becoming the resort town it is today. Despite the 60’s being long gone, the counterculture spirit is strongly felt in every corner here. There are colourful murals adorning the streets and even a VW bug decked out with flowers and peace signs on display on the main road. The restaurants and bars overlooking the beach provide an incredibly romantic view of the bay, perfect for couples. Make sure to keep your eyes open for the indigenous Cretan goat, which can be spotted scaling the surrounding cliffs and hills.

The village is also home to a nude beach, known as Red beach. It is located on the other side of a ridge about 20 minutes from the town center. Getting there is not exactly a breeze. You must traverse a difficult mountain path that is studded with large boulders and small shrubs to trip on. Cheekily, the locals have put up a sign for an alternate route marked “easy way” which unfortunately does not live up to its title. For some, the effort may not be worth it, but if you have an adventurous streak in you, then it can be a fun little excursion.

Gavdos

This absolutely dazzling oasis island is renowned for being remote and untouched by civilization. Indeed, the local population is only around 150 and amenities are not abundant. Due to the lack of hotels, most travellers choose to pitch a tent and camp out under the stars, which is perfectly legal to do so.

During the day, it is deemed to be one of the sunniest locals on the continent due to its proximity to the equator. The landscape is quite diverse with several beaches, a forest of squat cedars, junipers, and pine trees, hiking trails, low-lying mountains, and striking coastal rock formations. Don’t forget to visit the historic lighthouse situated near the village of Ambelos and take a rest in the attached café.

Gavdos has the novelty of being the southernmost island in Europe. If you want to get really technical, you can take a seat on the comically oversized “Chair of Gavdos”; a tourist attraction perched on the coast which officially marks the absolute southernmost point on the island. Being situated so far south makes it an ideal stopping place for migratory birds on their annual trip from Africa to Europe. Getting there is as easy as making your way to one of the south coast ports in Sfakia or Paleochora and hopping on one of the scheduled ferry rides that regularly make trips to Gavdos.

Spinalonga

A birdseye view of Spinalonga.
Credit: toursoncrete.com

This small island just off the north-east coast is home to an impressive fortress that calls to mind legendary citadels of antiquity. Fortifications started being constructed in the 1500s after rich salt deposits were discovered in the area around the lost port of Olous. The stronghold served as a hot spot for ancient cultures due to its position and it was successfully conquered by the Turkish Empire before finally returning to Greek hands in 1903.

Spinalonga’s unique history continued into the 20th century when it was transformed into a leper colony during a time when people diagnosed with leprosy were still ostracized from normal society. It was one of the last known leper colonies in Europe and the inhabitants suffered from poor conditions. Thankfully, it is no longer used for those purposes. It now acts as a historical destination for travelers. Today, visitors are free to stroll through the arched corridors and sun-drenched ruins of the once bustling locale.

Activities

Balos Lagoon

While there is some pretty stiff competition for the best beach in Crete, there is little debate that Balos lagoon is a sight to behold. This white-sanded beach is located about 55km west of the city of Chania. It is highly regarded for its majestic colors and awe-inspiring vistas.

Being cut off from the ocean by a sandbar, you can float comfortably in the warm shallow water without having to worry about large waves. Additionally, you are certain to spot a host of brightly coloured fish and other marine life such as loggerhead sea turtles, scorpion fish, and stingrays. At the northern crest of the lagoon is a protruding island which contains a Venetian Fortress on its summit. The reward for getting to the top is a breathtaking view of the surrounding landscape.

Samaria Gorge

Inbetween the rockfaces of Samaria Gorge.

If soaking up some sun on the beach all day has you feeling a little restless, then a visit to the stunning Samaria Gorge will certainly give you a chance to stretch your legs. This impressive natural landmark is the largest gorge in all of Europe and is designated a natural park. Seasonal tours offer transport from Chania to the main entrance point, which starts at an altitude of 1230 m and runs downhill for 16 km. The route concludes at the small village of Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea.

Despite being downhill, the trek can be arduous at times, especially during the first hour. This portion is the steepest and rockiest. Once you descend into the canyon, the path begins to level out and the true magnitude of the gorge really comes into view. Sheer cliffs on either side rise 1000 feet into the air. Even more striking is the narrowness of the trail which at one point reaches a section only 4 m wide known as the “Iron gates”.

Mount Ida

The legendary Mount Ida is located at the geographic center of Crete and reaches 2456 m into the sky. The trek to the peak itself is not too punishing for your average hiker, but the lack of any cover throughout most of the journey means that exposure to blistering heat is a serious issue. Moreover, the Cretan breeze that is so common to the island often lulls travelers into believing the weather is cooler than it actually is. It is best to come prepared with face coverings, sun block, and, of course, water.

On your way to the top, it is worthwhile to explore the Idaion Antros cave. Known as “Cave of Ida”, this limestone cave was an important spiritual site for early civilizations and was initially discovered containing many objects dedicated to worship. Depending on which legend you read, it is claimed to be the birth place of the Greek god Zeus.

Final Thoughts

The renowned Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis once said of Crete: “There is a kind of flame in Crete – let us call it soul – something more powerful than either life or death”. World travel seems to have become a very enticing prospect for many people after a seemingly endless global lockdown following the pandemic. More than ever, there now exists in the global consciousness a deep, unspoken longing to both connect with the past and explore a new and dynamic future. If this sentiment strikes a chord with you, then the ancient island of Crete is certain to set off a spark inside. The Cretan sun is waiting.

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