The Complete Guide To Crete

Crete is famous for its contribution to civilisation - the ancient Minoans who lived on the island gave the world the foundations of Classical literature and wrote in a script that still baffles scholars to this day. The fifth-largest island in the Med is now known as a beach destination, but David St Vincent finds out there is a lot more to it than its sand
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The Independent Travel

WHY CRETE?

WHY CRETE?

A narrow 260km-wide ridge lying on the crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia, Crete is about as far south as you can go without leaving Europe. It's the largest Greek island, and the fifth-biggest island in the Mediterranean.

Much of the north coast is developed - besides the brash modern capital Iraklion (also transliterated as Heraklion) there are large resorts such as Malia, Hersonissos and Agios Nikolaos. The south is more tranquil. Some villages on the coast can be reached only by sea or on foot, but wherever you are on Crete, going a few kilometres inland takes you away from the crowds.

Most visitors arrive on package holidays, though the first direct scheduled flights from the UK begin next summer. Once on the island, you can be as active or inactive as you please. With ancient ruins, sandy beaches, lively resorts, wild mountains and historic towns, Crete packs quite a punch for its size.

WHO LIVES THERE?

Cretans pride themselves on their differences from other Greeks and - because of the formidable mountains straddling the island - each other. Even today, mutually incomprehensible dialects are spoken, while some islanders are campaigning for Cretan to be recognised as a separate language.

If Greece is the cradle of European civilisation, then Crete has a good claim to be its nursemaid. From their base on the island, the ancient Minoans (named after the mythical King Minos) established Europe's first literate civilisation. They ran a state based on commerce rather than military might that was known for its magnificent palaces and advanced administration. Long before mainland Greeks learnt to scratch a few letters, the Minoans were building grand public buildings, trading throughout the Mediterranean and chronicling the gods that became part of Greek mythology. The island's history is certainly distinct. We have a lot to thank the Minoans for, including wine, the merchant state and Classical literature.

For reasons not fully understood - but widely suspected to be the after-effects of the volcano that shattered Santorini - the Minoan civilisation collapsed around 1,500BC and faded into legend. It was only through excavations at the start of the 20th century that the Minoans were revealed to be more than myth. Later, the Myceneans, Dorians, Romans, Venetians and Ottomans all left their mark on the island. After the Turks left in 1898, Crete went its own way until 1913, when it officially became part of Greece.

WHAT CAN I SEE FROM THE GLORY DAYS?

If you prefer your Minoan vestiges in their original setting, head for the Palace of Knossos (00 30 2810 231940), five kilometres south of Iraklion. The largest Minoan palace, it comprised several storeys linked by ceremonial staircases and decorated with vibrant frescoes.

To this day no one is quite sure what the original layout was, or what function each room served. The site - and with it proof the Minoans actually existed - came to light only at the turn of the 20th century during excavations by the British archæologist Sir Arthur Evans. It opens daily except Mondays from 8.30am-7pm (April-September), 8.30am-3pm (October-March), entry €6 (£4.30).

Iraklion also has a fascinating archaeological museum (00 30 2810 226092), and boasts an extraordinarily rich collection of Minoan artefacts. In its Hall of the Frescoes, you appreciate how far ahead Minoan artists were for their time. The museum on Xanthoudhidhou Street is open daily from 8am-5pm between October and March, with different opening times in summer. Admission is €6 (£4.30), though it is free on Sundays from November to May. If that isn't enough for you, the archaeological museum in Agios Nikolaos (00 30 2841 022462) has a splendid array of Minoan and Greco-Roman items. It opens 8.30am-3pm daily except Monday, entry €3 (£2.15).

Among many remaining Greco-Roman sites, Gortis warrants a visit. It was Crete's Roman capital, and once had a population of 300,000 - more than twice the size of modern Iraklion. This was the site of the first recorded legal code in history, which dates back around 2,500 years. The tablet remains on the site, set into the walls of a Roman theatre. At Driros, 11 kilometres north-west of Agios Nikolaos, you can visit Greece's oldest surviving agora, from the 7th century BC.

CITY LIFE?

Hania (sometimes transliterated as Chania) is one of Crete's most charming towns, with many Venetian and Ottoman buildings in its old quarter, plus a lively market. For a snapshot of Cretan history stand in the inner harbour: you can see not only a Venetian lighthouse and an Ottoman mosque but, beyond it, the excavations of a Minoan building complex. The tourist office is at 40 Kriari Street (00 30 2821 092943).

Rethimnon, Crete's easy-going third city, has the largest Venetian fortress in Greece; it is also one of the best preserved. The "Fortezza" (00 30 2831 028101) opens Saturday-Thursday from 8.30am-7pm (6pm November-March), entry €3 (£2.15). The remote fortress-like monastery of Arkadi, 23 kilometres to the south-east, has sections that date back to the 11th century but is mainly Venetian in style. In the 19th century it became a centre of Cretan resistance to Ottoman occupation and it's now something of a national shrine. It opens from 8am-5pm daily, entry €2 (£1.40). Rethimnon's tourist office is at Eleftheriou Venizelou Street (00 30 2831 029148).

I WANT EXCITING NIGHTLIFE

Then you should probably go to Ibiza, at least in season. By comparison, Agios Nikolaos has calmed down in recent years. But its 25 Martiou Street, known by locals as "Soho", offers a mixture of clubs catering to Greek and tourist tastes.

If you prefer your partying more frenetic, head for nearby Malia or Hersonissos, both popular with teenage Brits. Agios Nikolaos's tourist office (00 30 2841 082384) is at the marina.

I ONCE READ A STORY ABOUT SPINALONGA

This islet, reached by boat from Agios Nikolaos, is one of Crete's main draws. Spinalonga was the site of a forbidding fortress built by the Venetians in 1579 to protect the whole Gulf of Mirabello. Replete with guard towers and other bespoke military features of the day, it served its purpose well. The Venetians ceded it to the Ottomans by treaty only in 1715, long after the invaders had occupied the rest of Crete. In 1903, after the Turks left, it became enforced home to all Crete's lepers. Europe's last leper colony, it only closed in 1957, long after medical advances had made it superfluous - not to mention barbaric. It opens from 8am-7pm daily, entry is €1.50 (£1.10).

I JUST WANT TO LIE ON A BEACH

Some of the best and least-crowded beaches are on the west and south coasts of Crete. Falassarna beach on the west has a long expanse of white sand, rock pools and a heady mountain backdrop. It's rarely crowded: you can easily find a stretch or even a cove all to yourself.

For something more remote, you can visit a real desert island. A four-kilometre wide lava deposit from an underwater volcano, Hrissi is a short boat trip from Ierapetra. It boasts cedar woods, fine sandy beaches and not much else except a taverna or two. If you believe the best beach is the one you've discovered yourself, hire a boat or walk along the south coast: you'll be sure to find one. Latter-day hippies in search of the next Goa can flock to Plakias, a small fishing village on the south coast. Accommodation is of the cheap-and-cheerful kind and the fine beaches have surfing and naturist potential, attracting a youngish but mellow crowd.

WATER SPORTS?

They don't get much better. Crete offers everything from the tranquility of pedal-boating to the exhilaration of extreme sports such as kite-boarding. Not only does it have some of the cleanest waters in Europe but it also has the right wind conditions for the keenest practitioner.

Every summer, windsurfers from across Europe flock to Kouremenos beach, Crete's windiest place. You can hire equipment or take surfing lessons from the Austrian School for Windsurfing (00 30 2843 061116; www.freak-surf.com), which is open from April to September.

The waters off Crete teem with moray eel, sea urchins, starfish, octopus, grouper, stingray and box fish. Road Runner Travel Services in Kato Gouves (00 30 2897 041417; www.roadrunners.gr) organises guided underwater forays for certified scuba divers and lessons for beginners.

Malia beach is a popular base for speedboating, jet-skiing and waterskiing as well as more sedate pursuits such as pedal-boating and canoeing. Dolphin Water Sports (00 30 28970 32250; www.water-sports.gr) can arrange equipment and instructors.

More extreme watersports such as kite-surfing, kite-boarding and wake-boarding are just taking off on Crete, although you need to bring your own equipment and conditions aren't suitable for novices. One starting point is the Greek Wakeboard and Kitesurf Association ( www.gwa.gr).

ANY OTHER ACTIVITIES?

Were Icarus to return today, he would discover that flying close to the sun need not be fatal. Doubly blessed with strong winds and plenty of mountains, Crete is ideal for paragliding. There are many take-off points where you're guaranteed several hours in the sky alongside the eagles. A good place for beginners is Nea Hora beach, two kilometres west of Hania. More experienced paragliders are spoilt for choice, but soaring over the Samaria gorge is hard to beat. A spectacular take-off point is 42 kilometres south-west of Hania near Zeus's birthplace, at the end of the road for the Kalergi mountain hut. For details contact Androulidakis Adamis at Iraklio Airclub (00 30 2810 245592; www.eagles.gr) or ICNA Paragliding (00 30 2897 051200; www.icna.gr).

If you prefer bird-watching from the safety of land, Crete is a magnet for twitchers. Birds of prey to look out for include griffon vultures, golden eagles and the rare lammergeir, which breed here, and peregrine falcons and honey buzzards, which don't. The Samaria gorge is a good place to look. The Travelling Naturalist (01305 267994; www.naturalist.co.uk) offers an eight-day bird-watching tour departing on 19 April that costs £1,145.

Dolphins have long been associated with Crete, and are depicted in bathroom frescoes at Knossos. But if you prefer to see the real thing, Selino Travel (00 30 28230 42272; www.paleochora-holidays.com/selino-travel.htm) runs three-hour dolphin-spotting trips from Paleohora near Hania every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, departing at 5pm. Tickets cost €16 (£11.50).

HOW EASY IS IT TO GET TO CRETE?

As winter approaches, increasingly difficult. Charter flight schedules to Iraklion and other Cretan airports from the UK are dwindling. Scheduled services on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick to Iraklion from 3 May next year should make life easier. Simply Travel (020-8541 2201; www.simplytravel.com) sometimes has flight-only deals between May and October from £79 return, while Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0460; www.olympicairlines.co.uk) has scheduled flights via Athens to Iraklion and Hania from Heathrow and Manchester from £200 return.

A cheaper option is to fly to Athens and take a ferry to Iraklion, Hania or Agios Nikolaos from the nearby port of Piraeus - you can book tickets to Iraklion or Hania in the UK through Viamare (08704 106 040; www.viamare.com). Prices start at €23.50 (£17) one-way. However, it's rarely a problem buying tickets on the spot, unless you're taking a vehicle. Numerous ferry services link Crete with other parts of Greece, a few with other Mediterranean countries. For up-to-date information visit www.greekislandhopping.com or www.gtpnet.com.

WHERE CAN I STAY WHEN I GET THERE?

Most visitors book package holidays, which tend to be fairly cheap. The main operators are Thomson (0870 165 0079; www.thomson-holidays.com), First Choice (0870 850 3999; www.firstchoice.co.uk), Thomas Cook (0870 750 5711; www.thomascook.co.uk) and MyTravel (0870 238 7777; www.mytravel.com). Simply Travel (020-8541 2201; www.simplytravel.com), part of the same combine as Thomson, is an old hand in this part of the world, and offers a number of options across the island, many specifically aimed at families. The cheapest packages are often to resorts in the north-east of Crete, especially Hersonissos and Malia, which can become raucous in summer. The more up-market resorts can be found around Agios Nikolaos and the Gulf of Mirabello.

One of Crete's best-known hotels is the King Minos Palace (00 30 289 702 2881; www.kingminospalace.com), open April-October. A large self-contained complex of luxury rooms, suites and bungalows, it sits in landscaped gardens on a scenic promontory just outside Agios Nikolaos. Singles start at €111 (£80); breakfast is another €15 (£11) per person. Further off the beaten track, look out for villas in various remote locations run by Pure Crete (020-8760 0879; www.purecrete.com), which restores disused Cretan houses using traditional building methods. Prices start at £345 for seven days including flights. Throughout Crete there are rooms to rent, sometimes self-contained, sometimes in someone's house, that usually represent better value than hotels. Look for signs or ask around. A useful website with hotel listings is www.greekislands.com.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

Hop on a bus. It will take you more or less anywhere that isn't better reached on foot or by boat. There are several different bus companies but they cooperate enough to share a timetable on www.ktel.org. There are no trains or domestic flights, while a few ferries go to small islands and secluded beaches. The other option is to hire a boat: ask around at your hotel or in tavernas.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

From the Greek National Tourism Organisation, at 4 Conduit Street, London W1S 2DJ (020-7495 9300; www.gnto.co.uk)

WHO WERE THE MINOANS?

Although the Minoans left written records they are in a hieroglyphic script known as Linear A, which has defied translation to this day. What we can tell is that the Minoans first settled on Crete in around 3000BC, probably coming from Asia Minor, and that by 1900BC they were living in cities built around palace complexes such as Knossos. By 1150BC their civilisation had collapsed, probably because of Crete's unstable geology. The Minoans traded extensively, and their innovations included multi-storey buildings and plumbing. Unlike their predecessors, who painted largely for symbolic reasons, they covered buildings with colourful frescoes depicting everyday scenes and sporting contests. They were particularly fond of bull-hopping, in which participants had to grab a charging bull by the horns and leapfrog over it.

Minoan deities were all female, although they also worshipped nature. They created many of the Greek goddesses and myths, although their precise contribution to the Classical pantheon is hard to quantify.

EAT CRETE

Cretans consume industrial quantities of fresh fish, lamb, cereals, yoghurt, fruit and vegetables, washing them down with liberal doses of olive oil and moderate doses of wine. Eat like a Cretan and you'll live to a ripe old age - or so studies have concluded, attributing the Cretans' exceptional longevity to their particular version of the Mediterranean diet. Crete has Europe's highest life expectancy, seven years higher than in the UK. Cretan cuisine is rustic rather than sophisticated. As with elsewhere in the Med, appetisers (mezedhes) are often the highlight of a meal and include octopus, baked feta (saganaki), garlic dip (skordalia), tzatziki and taramasalata. Other specialities include kakavia (fish soup), tsalingaria (snails), kalitsounia (savoury stuffed pastries) and tourta (pickled seaweed). A uniquely Cretan side dish, horta, comprises boiled wild green vegetables with olive oil and lemon.

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