Travel: Gateway to culture and country: Crete's capital city suffers from 20th-century blight, but the island beyond is a treat, says Simon Calder

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The Independent Travel
THE southernmost fringe of the European Community is warm and alluring - Crete is as far from Maastricht as it is possible to get without leaving the EC. The scenery on Greece's largest island is mostly magnificent, good sunbathing is virtually assured, and the island is dense with ancient history and legend. Naturally, then, it attracts swarms of tourists, but most of the half-million Cretans take the summer invasion in good heart and the island is big enough to dilute the effect.

The character of the capital is rather at odds with the rest of the island: some say the way to get the best out of Heraklion is simply to get out, and certainly you could do worse than to head for the splendid old Venetian town of Chania to the west. That said, it is a useful gateway to a glorious isle.

GETTING THERE

The scheduled service on Olympic Airways (071-493 3965) costs at least pounds 345 return and involves a change in Athens. Fortunately, on a charter flight you can go non-stop to Heraklion in about four hours from several British airports. Flights from Gatwick or Luton in June cost pounds 155 to pounds 195, while the average from Manchester is pounds 175 to pounds 200. Seat-only deals are available from operators such as Falcon (061 745 7000), Thomson (081- 200 8733) and Unijet (0444 458181).

GETTING AROUND

The Greek national bus enterprise, KTEL, has a good network of services radiating from Heraklion. Buses run once an hour to Aghios Nikolaos (fare pounds 2.20), Rethymnon ( pounds 2.50) and Chania ( pounds 4.50). Services to Malia depart every half-hour and cost pounds 1.20. Buses to Ierapetra run every two hours ( pounds 3.30). The station for eastbound buses is just inside the city wall, close to the ferry port; buses to the west leave from the bus station just outside the Chania gate. The ticketing system is chaotic, so arrive in plenty of time.

CAR HIRE

A car can be extremely useful on Crete. Rental companies are crowded together on 25 August Street in central Heraklion, and a small car should cost no more than pounds 100 per week. For the security of a guaranteed booking and a fixed price, book a vehicle ahead in the UK. Budget (0800 181181) has a weekly rate of about pounds 154 for a Fiat Panda, if you book and pay in advance.

ACCOMMODATION

The Xenia (telephone: 284000), on the waterfront, is the top hotel in Heraklion; a double room with breakfast costs pounds 40. The best three-star option in town is the Hotel Daedalos (224391) in the street of the same name; a double room with breakfast costs pounds 22. At the centrally located youth hostel (Vironos 5; 286281), a bed for the night costs pounds 2.

SIGHTS TO SEE

Heraklion may have fine Venetian fortifications and an attractive harbour, but it also has dust, noise and ungainly late 20th-century construction. You have to search out the side streets, which are the arteries of Greek society; the narrower the street the more it seems to pulsate with life.

Many visitors choose just to explore the Archaeological Museum before heading out of town. Treasures were brought here from the Minoan palace of Knossos, situated just beyond Heraklion's unpleasant suburbs.

A palace was begun at Knossos about 1900BC, wrecked by an earthquake in 1700BC and rebuilt, before being largely destroyed by a fire three centuries later. You reach Knossos by bus route 2 along Evans street, named after the Victorian archaeologist who excavated the site.

A more atmospheric site is Phaistos, in the south of Crete. It is in the middle of nowhere, and has been excavated but not reconstructed - a much better venue for tranquil communion with Minoan civilisation.

If you prefer countryside to culture, Crete can still deliver. The Lasithi Plateau is a dramatic raft of rock in the middle of the island. It is a honeypot attraction for the tourist buses, but you can beat the crowds by going early or staying late. Close by is one of the caves that is reputed to have been the family home of Zeus.

BEST EATING

Several restaurants are exquisitely located on the Venetian harbour (at the north end of 25 August Street), but you pay heavily for the view. The ferocity of the free market keeps prices low in the capital's main pedestrian precinct, Daedalos Street, where the menus for the dozens of restaurants hardly vary, but prices do: ignore anywhere with a tout outside. To find a genuinely Cretan restaurant, head for the hills. Ten miles south-east of Heraklion, in the small town of Mirtia, the Restaurant Kazantzakis is a lugubrious taverna. The clientele is all male, and the bewildering decor comprises wrap- around posters of the Swiss Alps, but the food is cheap, and delicious.

BEST BEACHES

Three miles east of Heraklion, on bus route 1, Amnisos beach has gently shelving sand and an islet just offshore. It gets crowded because of its proximity to the capital, and is noisy because of its location beneath the airport's flight path. Going east, most of the beaches are good; 30 miles on, Malia has been heavily developed, but its broad, sweeping bay is faultless and safe for children.

BREAKING AWAY

A catamaran or hydrofoil can zip you from Heraklion to Santorini, perhaps the oddest place in Greece, in a couple of hours. Here, a barren island has been smashed by seismology; volcanic activity has created what looks like a massive decaying tooth rising from the Aegean. It may not be the lost city of Atlantis, as the tourist trade would like you to believe, but it is well worth a day trip from Crete.

SET BOOKS

In-flight appetiser: 'Scenes from Spinalonga', a short story from After the Fountain by Linda Cookson (Cassell, pounds 8.99). Good guide: Crete - the Rough Guide by John Fisher and Geoff Garvey ( pounds 6.99).

FURTHER INFORMATION

From the UK, the dialling code for Heraklion is 010- 30 81. The Greek National Tourist Organisation is at 4 Conduit Street, London W1R 0DJ (071-734 5997). In Heraklion, the tourist office is at 1 Xanthoudidou Street (228203).

(Photograph and map omitted)

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