The next day we bade farewell to our host Andreas at the Lena Hotel, and made our way along the E75 westwards to Chania. This route affords cliff-edge views of pretty bays and “star” beaches. It passes small valley plateaux with vegetables, citrus and olive groves, and terraces with multi-coloured bee hives.
We interrupted our journey with a digression south to several recommended places of interest. The first was the Paráschakis olive oil factory, a family-run business for several generations.
We were greeted by current owner Ioánna, and her American mother Eléni who took us on a fascinating tour of the olive-pressing process, both present and past.
They have 6,000 trees, and 5 kilos of olives produce one litre of oil; 400 tons is pressed every winter.
Theirs is a very “green” process, with solar power derived from panels on the hillsides. The leaves remaining after separation from the olives, now infused with oil, are fed to the goats, who in turn provide deliciously tender meat for the pot. The oil must stand for three months after pressing to allow the impurities to settle, and for it to become palatable. The acrid stench of charcoal-burning pervaded the air, made from the branches of the pruned olive trees.
The heat persisted, exacerbated by a hot wind which Eléni explained comes from the Sahara to the south, carrying with it fine red dust which sometimes obscures the surrounding mountains. We relished the coolth of the cavernous factory, along with bread dipped in Paráskis olive oil to taste, and shots of ice-cold raki.
Next was the “potters’ village” of Margarítes, comprised of a steep winding road flanked by potters’ studios, shops and tavernas.
On Eléni’s advice we had lunch at Mandalas taverna, which has sweeping views down over olive groves and rolling hills to the faraway sea.
Here Cretan specialities and cold draft beer are served beneath the shade of thickly-foliaged mulberry trees. The delicious aroma of roasting meat pervaded the air, and we tasted each other’s dishes of red peppers stuffed with rice, tomato, onions, carrot and herbs, and tender goat stew.
In one of the studios I watched George Dalamvelas at work at his wheel, churning out vases for the tourist trade.
His daughter paused in her reading of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in Greek, to take my payment for a clay water whistle that makes sounds like a nightingale. I was amused by the “cups of justice” which, when overfilled, cause the wine to pour through a concealed hole in the bottom. Such is the punishment for greed.
The shop is filled with wares: lamps like those of the ancients, though today fueled more effectively with paraffin than olive oil,
mugs, lamps, bowls and wall ornaments – a veritable Aladdin’s cave of beautiful objects.
In the last potter’s workshop at the end of the village, Tsikalario, the píthoi are made – giant clay storage jars once used for the storage of grain, oil and wine.
Here we watched a craftsman at work, carefully trimming one of his large masterpieces.
Last on the day’s agenda was the Arkádi Monastery, located high on a mountain plateau 23 km from Rethymno.
This national shrine of Crete was once the terrible scene of a rebellion against Ottoman rule. A small museum exhibits portraits of the participants and their memorabilia, while the skulls of the victims can be seen through the glass doors of the ossuary opposite the entrance. The women and children blew themselves up in the gunpowder room, rather than capitulate to the Turks.
The words “Freedom or Death” were implemented with the explosion at the Arkadi Monastery on the November 8th 1866. The self-sacrifice of the Cretan men and women, who had willingly retreated to the monastery in order to avoid falling into the hands of the Turks, shocked the entire world. Many philhellenes wrote in the foreign press supporting the Cretans, and sent supplies and ammunition.
The church, with its well-balanced mixture of Renaissance and Baroque elements, has been restored.
There is a small picture gallery, a gallery of icons, and the monks’ cells. Visitors can also wander through rooms exhibiting the tools of various trades: black-smithing, honey-extraction, cooking, olive-pressing and wine-making. There are courtyards with roses and benches shaded from the hot south wind, where one can listen to the cooing of doves and contemplate the fate of the erstwhile inhabitants.
Joining the E75 once more, at the famous Platanés Beach, and bypassing Rethymno and Georgioúpoli Beach, the highway took us inland. Here the vegetation is suddenly greener and more verdant. Pine forests flank the route, along with the ever-present white and pink oleanders.
And then at Soúgia, on the coast once more, we bought spinach and feta pies, and ate them in the shade of a hardy tamarisk at the edge of the pebbly beach.
Having spent the first half of our trip in the centre of Heraklion’s old town, we then chose to stay at the beach-side Phaedra Hotel in Káto Stalós (Lower Stalos), 9 km west of Chania, for our last four nights. This pleasant place, named for a daughter of King Minos, has fully-equipped studios in which guests may self-cater if they wish. After two nights in a back studio, the hotel being fully booked, we moved to another right on the beach for the last two nights, the sound of the sea audible through the open doors.Security is not an issue here. Indeed, there was no evidence of crime during our trip, petty or otherwise, and barely any police presence. Ladies can be seen walking out at night, unescorted, and the guests left their balcony doors open to the cool sea breezes.
Preferring to continue sampling Cretan cuisine for our dinners (and enjoy a break from the kitchen), we drove up the steep hill to Stalós and the Taverna Leventis, recommended by hosts Nikos and his no-nonsense mother Georgia. We chose a table at the edge of the large balcony, high above a river valley.
Here another worthy host plied us with crispy “Stalos cheese pies”, served hot, with honey, followed by kelftikó (literally “stolen lamb”) and chicken slovaki, respectively. I ordered baklava for dessert – a mistake in Greece, since guests are always plied with complimentary dessert or fruit and raki after a meal. This delightful custom is endearing to tourists, but disastrous for the waistline, and mein host brought us syrup-soaked pastries (koeksusters), with ice-cream and caramel sauce, after the baklava. “No more, please!” begged the German ladies at the table next door. But if it’s there, I’ll eat it.
Tired after a busy day’s touring, and replete with a splendid meal, we fell asleep to the soothing sounds of the Mediterranean, breaking just beyond our door.
The next day, having found a dubious parking spot outside part of the remaining city wall, we began our exploration of Chania town with her picturesque Old Venetian Harbour.
With a lighthouse standing at the end of a protective breakwater, and lined with colourful souvenir stalls cafés and tavernas all vying for the busy tourist trade, this is the most attractive harbour on Crete. No galleons or merchant ships are anchored there today, only excursion and pleasure boats, and fishermen installed along the harbour’s edge.
Highlights in Chania, which is easily explored on foot, include the Ágeos Nikólaos Church, with its curious western façade, flanked on one side by a Christian clock tower and on the other by a minaret.
There is also the Archaeological Museum, housed in a Gothic style Franciscan church,and the Nautical Museum, the City Park, where coffee is still served in copper pots at an elegant coffee house, the Historical and Folk Museum, and the Janissary Mosque.
The Mosque is now misused as a souvenir shop, its minaret having been demolished in 1930. Here tourists can be seen taking a ride in a horse drawn carriage.
Best of all are the pedestrianised shopping streets with all the craft shops: leather and olive wood goods, jewelry, pastries, herbs and souvenirs.
Like those in the Heraklion market, the stalls in the Municipal Market are bursting with the bounty of Crete, all displayed in tempting delectable splendour. Souvenir sellers mingle with greengrocers and fishmongers, and quaint, traditional tavernas.
The Old Town is a maze of narrow winding alleys, with hotels nestled between historic Venetian and Turkish houses. Bougainvillea tumbles over ancient walls, and private courtyards beyond wrought-iron gates afford a glimpse into the elegant lifestyle of yesteryear.
And everywhere, in town and village, and roadside taverna, the names of famous and mythological ancients: Taverna Dionysus, Socrates Taverna (do they serve hemlock?), Zeus Apartments, Electra Hotel, Salon Aphrodite…
In the afternoon I made a trip to the village of Kókkino Chorió, easily found with the GPS, and the well-known Tzkompanakis Blown Glass workshop and shop. (http://www.blownglass.gr/map_en.html ). Over thirty years of experience has resulted in the artisan’s superior ability to create imaginative yet functional works, achieving an incredible clarity with the material. The craftsmen of Andreas Tzokpanakis forge a new heritage of skills that bear witness to the magical qualities and romance of this wondrous material.
Fire like Friend – our process requires various ingredients: pieces of recycled glass, silica sand, stabilizers, flux and metallic oxide colours. The mixture is melted at a temperature of between 1 400˚C and 1500˚C.
Ideas so inspired – The heritage of crafts and the natural talents of our craftsmen in the high skill of hand-crafted glass have been handed down since the beginning of time, from the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs, until today.
Design very distinct – We create to explore the fascination and beauty of molten glass.
At first difficult to locate, and with a massive pile of empty wine bottles in the back yard, I was glad that I had ventured here – to another Aladdin’s Cave of glorious wonders. Sadly no glass-blowing was taking place. On the way back to the hotel at Stalós, I stopped at a roadside taverna overlooking Soúda Bay to take some pictures. Another Venetian fortress can be seen on the opposite side of the entrance to the bay. Back in Chania that evening for a fish dinner at Thalassino Ageri (Sea Breeze), a fish taverna on the other side of the new harbour recommended by Nikos and Georgia. Here customers choose their fish, which are weighed (and priced), and cooked according to the suggestions of the chef. Here we enjoyed sardos (similar to Dorado, a white sea bream) and red snapper respectively, with “mountain greens” (similar to spinach), Greek salad, and crispy deep-fried chips.
Sadly the windy weather precluded our sitting outside on the veranda, which is lapped by the waves.
The next day, another self-guided drive, south towards Xilóskalo and then west to the island’s most southwestern corner.
Through more mountain switchbacks, passed peach and citrus orchards, a dry river bed, and flat-roofed houses with trellised vines on top. On the side of the road piles of olive branches, waiting to be made into charcoal, and nets on the ground under the trees, ready to catch the autumn fall.
And around the corner, another surprise awaited us: the Botanical Gardens and Park of Crete: Awaken your senses: thousands of different fruit trees, herbs, pharmaceutical and ornamental plants. Walking in the Botanical Gardens offers spiritual tranquillity and visual pleasure while getting acquainted with the flora and their different compositions. Aromas, colours and flavours. The restaurant, located high above the park, offers Cretan cuisine using fresh produce from the vegetable garden and fruit and herbs from the park. We parked beneath the chestnut trees, and ordered tall glasses of orange juice at a cliff-edge table out on the balcony. Splendid views surrounded us, over the hills and valleys and far away to the distant sea.
Outside the park, another roadside stall, selling orange honey, herbs, olive oil, and lethal raki in a variety of fruity flavours including lemon and cherry.
More mountain passes with several tunnels, and fantastic views, where we encountered other rental cars, discernible by their newness and measured pace, compared to the locals’ battered pickups careening around blind corners at reckless speed. Here, beside badly eroded dust roads, there are chapels in the middle of nowhere, and plane trees beginning to turn with autumn’s crimson tint. Our GPS chose to pick out the shortest routes which were in many cases certainly “less traveled.
And down through an avenue of gum trees to the isolated seaside village of Paleochóra, once named by the locals “The bride of the Libyan Sea”. Now a popular resort with pebbled and sandy beaches, and, opposite the village church, the permanent exhibition the Acritans of Europe, presenting the similarities between the sagas of Western and Byzantine heroes. And a magnificent craft gallery selling excellent quality ornaments and goods. “No photo” – but I did anyway, from behind a pillar.
More nimble goats resting in cliff-side crevices, which, disturbed by our approach, scampered away, bells tinkling irritably.
At last, after winding along treacherous dust roads, we reached Elafonísi Beach, a South Sea-style beach with palm leaf umbrellas and turquoise-blue waters. In summer the beach is connected to the small island of Elafonísi by a sandbank, which turns the bay into a child-friendly lagoon.
There is nothing here but a snack bar and a taverna. The fierce autumn wind ruined our plans for a swim, and drove us back to the car parked beneath the palm trees.
Back on the road northwards to Chania, we stopped at the mountain village of Voulgáro, and, attracted by the welcoming lights of the roadside taverna Neratzoula, we stopped for a supper of kleftiko and slovaki. Named for the small citrus trees that protect the taverna from the road, I learned that the pomerans is a small bitter orange that originated in southeast Asia. A sponge semolina cake followed, flavoured with citrus, and the now-expected shots of raki.
On our last day I took the hour-long drive from Chania to Réthymno along the scenic northern coastal road. This atmospheric little university town is home to the Philosophy Faculty of the University of Crete and the “intellectual centre” of the island. (There are also has campuses in Chania and Heraklion.) There is a theatre, a philharmonic society, and a college of education exclusively for women.
Réthymno also has a well-preserved and picturesque old Venetian harbour, though smaller than those of Heraklion and Chania, lined with cafés and tavernas eager to ensnare the passing tourists.
The Venetians decided to use this once Minoan settlement as an intermediate commercial station between Heraklion and Chania. It was captured by the Ottomans in 1646 during the Cretan War, 24 years before Heraklion, and they proceeded to rule it for nearly three centuries. A long sandy beach stretches from the new harbour to the pier.
The old town, built mostly by the Venetians during the 16th century, occupies a peninsular, and has the massive Fortézza at its tip. It is well-preserved and mostly traffic-free, though I found my pleasant wanderings disturbed by several buzzing foul-smelling scooters. Otherwise it has a lovely atmosphere, with its narrow streets, pretty balconies, arched doorways and stone staircases, shrubs and potted plants.
Réthymno old town is also highly commercialised, with stores selling leather goods, Cretan produce, souvenirs, and especially jewelry, crammed side-by-side between the tavernas. ATM’s on nearly every corner beguile tourists into spending their money, and that sunny Saturday it was full of visitors, shopping and eating and gazing at the abundance of tempting merchandise on glorious display. In the back of a quaint bakery visitors can watch an elderly baker lovingly preparing the flour-and-water mixture for phyllo pastry – and buy freshly-made baklava from his wife in the front.
The weather was hot and dry, and I refueled with a cheese pie and fresh orange juice in the cafeteria in City Park, a green oasis between the old and modern towns. I was disappointed not to find the pen of kri-kri, the wild Cretan goats, which my guide book informed me could be seen there, but did enjoy the shady avenues of old trees.
There is another Archaeological Museum, with artifacts from the Stone Age to the Venetian era, housed in what was once a Turkish prison.
The elegant triple lion-headed Rimóndi Fountain was built by the Venetians in 1623 and has survived along with many other old Turkish fountains in the centre of the old town.
The Historical and Folk Art Museum, (€4) is a whimsical space that was once a Venetian town house, filled with exhibits relating to the way of life and work on Crete through the recent past: beautiful hand-made lace, weaving, pottery and basket-making.
There are costumes, documents and letters, and the tools of various trades, and an old olive press in a peaceful courtyard.
The Museum aims to promote and preserve all aspects of the traditional Cretan lifestyle. It is located on Vernardou Street, known by the local as Raki Street because of the number of Meze places where students eat, and drink the local Raki.
After a final dinner of sea bream and tuna at a taverna by Chania’s old Venetian harbour, we reflected on our travels on this fascinating island.
Here one has a sense of life in ancient times, through millennia-old practises still in operation today, and feel the presence of the gods through their surviving monuments and mythology. It’s a shame that many areas, especially on the coast, are overrun with tourists and cats, many of the latter feral. Every lovely beach, monastery, viewpoint, cave and canyon, and archaeological site is over-commercialised. For apart from the fruits of the sea, the olive, the hive and the vine, tourism is the primary source of income in Greece.
But there is something special about every corner of the globe, and Crete is one such place. For who can fail to be inspired by the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean and the landscape of Crete. From the red stones and the greens of the olive trees, to the seasonal changes of springtime’s profusion of wild flowers. An island where light changes with the hours, and colours spread all through the spectrum, from dawn to sunset until night’s dark midnight blue, inspired again with the moon’s silver light and myriad of sparkling stars. (From Tzkompanakis Blown Glass, brochure.)
To the people of Crete, with your “interesting” driving, fascinating history and friendliness, helpfulness and generosity – especially with the after-dinner sweet treats and raki, for your delicious food and fabulous scenery, I say
Ευχαριστώ! Thank you!
3500-2600 BC: Early Minoan – Early Bronze Age: centres of commerce on Crete, handiwork, leadership of the upper classes
2000-1900 BC: First Middle Minoan Period: Knossos
1900-1850 BC: Second Middle Minoan Period: bronze, pottery, hieroglyphs
1850-1800 BC: sea power
1800-1750 BC: Third Middle Minoan Period: palaces: Malia and Phaistos
1700: destruction of palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Kato Zakros, possibly an earthquake, of invasion from Anatolia. Palaces were then rebuilt on a larger scale – the apex of the Minoan Civilization. Cultural influence on mainland Greece.
c 1600 BC: another natural catastrophe, possibly an eruption from the volcano Thera, or an earthquake.
c 1450 BC: yet another natural catastrophe (possibly another earthquake; Crete sits astride two tectonic plates.) Knossos and other palaces again destroyed.
1420 BC: the Minoan civilization was overrun by the Mycenaean civilization from mainland Greece.
Back to CRETE Part 1 here