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I've just spent autumn half-term in Crete. It's somewhere I'd already been to ("in a previous life" as my wife calls it) and she's always wanted to go to.
Having not been there since 1974(!), fearing the worst excesses of tourism, I was reticent, but as she'd booked a stay nowhere near my previous haunts, I was quite happy with this state of affairs, especially given the amount of ground work she puts into choosing a location.
Please bear in mind that this was the very last week of the (British) tourist season, so you may have other views on the places I describe, relating to how crowded they were at the time.
Where we actually stayed was a village called Koutouloufari, which lies just inland and uphill from the seaside town of Hersonissos, and slightly east of Heraklion Airport.
Heraklion (or Iraklion, which is nearer to the Greek spelling) is about dead centre on the north coast of the island. The famous resort of Aghios Nikolaos lies much further to the east, whilst the largely unsung but nonetheless visit-worthy towns of Rethymnon and Chania are west of Iraklion. All well known towns are along the north coast with the exception of Ierapetra in the south. This can be explained by the fact that the south coast, apart from the odd flat stretch, is largely impenetrably mountainous except by dead-end roads or by boat.
Koutouloufari turned out to be something of a 'designer' village - not entirely phoney, as it contained a wealth of old buildings and sympathetic new ones, but with a much higher proportion of eateries and boutiques than you'd expect in a 'real' village'. However, eating out is high on our agenda, so this looked more like our cup of tea than a beach resort, or villa in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, we're great believers in the GOYA principle, so a base is entirely that, somewhere to sleep, preferably after having eaten. As will become evident later on, not having to drive at night in Crete is a distinct plus!
If you've never been to Crete before, don't expect it to 'feel' like a Greek island in the same way as the ones where Uncle Spiros is the Mayor, taxi\donkey driver and local hotel owner/undertaker. Crete is big - driving from east to west and back again in one day is purely for the likes of 'white van man' on a mission; we're talking London to Manchester here. I'm guessing but I'd say that Crete represents around 10% of the total area of Greek territory.
THAT MOST BRITISH OF QUESTIONS
….and the scourge of all tour reps at the end of the season - '"What's the weather been like?" Well, we thought it was great - possibly a little overcast some mornings but revving up to a beautiful sunny day well before lunch, with temperatures consistently in the mid to late 20's. Admittedly, the swimming pools were a tad chilly, whilst the sea was relatively warm, having had all summer to get that way. Crete also has a tendency to be a 'bit breezy', so beware burning, thinking it's cool when it's not.
…….AND THE SECOND QUESTION
"What's the food/beer like?" Well of course, a foreign holiday wouldn't be a foreign holiday without genuine John Smith's on draught, Yorkshire pudding* on Sunday and football on Sky would it? These worst excesses of the British preponderance to only go somewhere 'coz the weather's nicer, whilst taking a little piece of home with them, or expecting it to be laid on when they get there never fails to amaze me. Why bother? - just buy a sun lamp guys.
* (it'd be interesting to see that one spelled phonetically in Greek - Γιορσιρ Πουντινκ?)
Of course, to avoid these traits, (and the Germans have nothing to be smug about either, with their "Echtes deutsches Frühstück und Bier vom Fass"), you need look no further than anywhere OTHER than resorts like Malia and Hersonissos. The latter's only redeeming feature is that it's a marginally nicer place than Malia, but scoring from a low base - at least it has less 'cead mile failte' and 'enjoy the craich here' jolly shamrock signs*. The Rough Guide's advice to eating out in Hersonissos includes going to Koutouloufari instead. Need I say more?
*Is this the new definition of the 'back of beyond' - when you haven't seen an Irish bar for two hours?
As you can imagine from my tone, I only drove THROUGH these places. I remember thinking that Malia couldn't get much worse in 1974, and to a certain extent I was right - it just got 5 times larger though.
When it comes to actual Greek food - I love it, the beer is so-so and the wines are better than I expected. Crete really does have some good vineyards and the supermarket prices for a bottle are commendably low, say £3.50 for a good quality vintage red.
AH YES, THE NOSH
Along with Turkish, with which it has many links (whether they like it or not), Greek food is, I find, wholesome, unpretentious, tasty, colourful and pretty good for you, if a little heavy on the cheese sometimes. Crete has a few of its own specialities, one being 'Dakos', which turns out to be a posh form of cheese and tomato open sandwich, and it's none the worse for its simplicity, making a good snack or starter. We dined in about 6 restaurants in Koutouloufari, over the 7 nights we were there (leaving our personal favourite for a second coming on the last night). Prices were "only" reasonable, not dirt cheap - I think those days are gone, but the presence of a lot of locals coming out for an evening out from Heraklion I took to be a good sign. It certainly made the restaurants feel a bit more Greek, as in their effort to look a bit more up-market, some of the "Greekness" had been lost to cosmopolitanism.
Don't expect to find pita bread here - that's more likely to be found in the Middle East and Cyprus. The locals do actually have some pretty healthy looking stone-ground wholemeal bread with all kinds of seeds, as well as more "French-style" white bread.
Just a few notes about Greek menus.
Firstly, the most accurate description of an item is known only to those that can read Greek - by the time something like "Пαϊδακια - Pah-ee-thackia" gets translated, it could look like anything from Lamm Chips to Lamp Chopping. Anyway,
Pictures of Crete (Greece)
Koutouloufari In The Rush Hour
it's nice to show off, and in fact the Greek alphabet is actually shorter than ours, and on top of which, many of the letters, particularly the capitals are the same or at least recognizable.For example, it doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to see the connection between "ΤΑΡΑΜΑΣΑΛΑΤΑ" and Taramasalata. Unfortunately, it all goes pear-shaped in lower case, "Ταραμασαλατα" not being quite so easy on the eye
By the way, anything ending in 'aki' is a small one, or 'akia' if plural. Hence souvlaki is small souvla, dolmadakia are small dolmades, kalimarakia are small kalimares, and so on.
Favourite dishes? Stifado (Στιφαδο) comes close. This is a delicious casserole, usually of beef or veal cubes, having been marinated prior to cooking.
Likewise, the ubiquitous 'Kleftiko' (Κλεφτικο) is slow-cooked lamb which literally jumps off the bone, it's so tender. Don't hesitate to ask why it sounds like English words prefixed with klepto-. Originally, so the story goes, you rustled a sheep on someone else's land, and to avoid detection whilst cooking it in the woods, you buried it in the dying embers of a fire in a hole in the ground, hence the slow-cooked aspect. So, it's thieves' meat. Of course, these days, it's bought fair and square and cooked in a clay pot, but the idea's the same!
Yes, you DO get chips with it, or occasionally, a jacket potato in foil!
Then of course, there's the lovely Greek Salad with all that Feta (Φετα) on top - did you see that the EU just ruled in favour of Greece, demarcating feta as strictly Greek? Sorry Denmark, it's only 'feta-style' cheese from now on.
PLACES TO MEET, PEOPLE TO GO
Having six full days available to use, we listened intently to the Monday morning 'Welcome Meeting'. Normally, we'd wait till the rep finishes his spiel, and announce we'd like to hire a car. However, cars were thin on the ground, for some unfathomable reason it being the last week of the season, and since the Tuesday and Wednesday coach tours would save the poor driver, i.e. me, a long haul we opted to go on these, hiring a car for a very reasonable €105 for the last three full days.
TOUR 1 - ANOTHER SEAPORT, ANOTHER SEAFOOD LUNCH - This entailed an early start, setting off to the western end of the island, taking in, on the way, a 'comfort break' at the pretty village of Fodele, which, it transpired, was El Greco's birthplace, and a museum commemorated this fact. Our main objective was the largest town at this end of the island, Chania (Χανιά). First impressions of any town can be off-putting, as you stare out of the coach window, but as we neared the centre, it got better. Chania has an old port area dominated by a Venetian rampart. Of course, the waterfront restaurants are pricier, but it's a lovely place to sit.
Chania's many back streets and alleys, just away from the waterfront, felt quite Venetian in their atmosphere, and in fact the place has earned the soubriquet, The Venice of Crete. You'd never go short of somewhere new to eat in Chania, and it's only after you've strolled the harbour's edge, having succumbed to the very last exhortation to read a menu, that you find somewhere 30% cheaper and nicer in a side street. This actually highlights one of the perils of being there in the last week of the season - being outnumbered by waiters!
Just prior to arriving in Chania, we'd been taken to the Commonwealth War Grave at Souda Bay - not a cheery holiday experience, but peaceful and thought-provoking. The majority of the graves here are those of British/Canadian/Australian and New Zealanders, killed during the fierce battle for Crete in 1941. The number of 19-year-old soldiers killed was a dreadful sight. Officers aside, you'd have to look hard for anyone over 30.
On the way back, we also took in Rethymon, a smaller sea port with a similar if more subdued atmosphere to Chania. Being smaller, it doesn't take long though to find yourself in very uninteresting backstreets full of those wonderfully unfinished concrete structures that abound here.
TOUR 2. - "WHOOPS THERE GOES ANOTHER CIVILISATION" - Not such an early start for this one, as we're going to be spending the day in the area of Heraklion, which is only 23 kms away. First stop, Knossos, main centre of the defunct Minoan empire. Knossos would just be a pile of disjointed stones to the uneducated eye, i.e. mine, if it wasn't for the efforts of one Arthur Evans who reconstructed parts of the Palace to give an idea of its dimensions and architecture. Unfortunately, he made two grave errors, compared to the principles of modern day archeological restoration. Firstly, it's only his idea of how things were, and secondly, to make the structure more permanent (the Minoans had incorporated a lot of wood into the structure to make it more 'quake resistant'), he used concrete. As it transpires, the concrete is now subject to a 'rot' all of its own, and more money has to be spent in keeping Evans' speculative structure up than on any 'real' historical work.
I'd been here years before, but without a guide. Our guide, Constantin was a student of history and politics (a bloody dangerous combination for a Greek, I'd say!), and really knew his stuff, although he was quite impressed by what I'd retained from 1974. The Minoans didn't quite disappear over night, but it seems like that nearly 4,000 years later. The volcanic island of Thira (Santorini) blew its top with a force similar to Krakatoa. Being only 80 miles north of central Crete, the Minoans 'copped the lot' - an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, which effectively swept the first incarnation of their city and palace away. As if that wasn't enough, the dust thrown up created what we'd now call a nuclear winter, and killed their crops, so they went from an affluent egalitarian society to subsistence and poverty in a very short pace of time.
Exit the Minoans as a force to be reckoned with. In their current state it didn't take long for 'boreal tribes' on northern Greece to come a-knocking, and the arguably founding culture of what we now call Europe just faded away.
Entry to Knossos is €6 per adult or €10 if you combine it with a visit to the Heraklion Museum, which is where we went next. You are allowed to take pictures without an extra fee, but beware in the museum - no flash, and watch out for the items marked copyright. The staff is VERY vigilant. To be honest, despite Constantin's obvious enthusiasm, I was starting to get 'cultured-out' by then, so perhaps I'm not the museum's best champion, but it did contain a fascinating display of Minoan artifacts, since, fortunately for us, the Minoans believed in burying their dead with their belongings. Don't forget, the Palaces would have been ransacked over the centuries, but the graves of ordinary people were largely ignored. Curiously, they were buried in the foetal position, presumably as a gesture that they were returning to where they came from (not unlike the amount of leg room in a Thompson Holiday's flight!).
TOUR 3 - ELOUNDA & "AG NIK" - aka "I KNEW THIS WHEN IT WAS ALL GRAVEL" - Aha, now we're printing with ink; I've got a car! No holiday to somewhere you haven't been for years would be complete without a trip down memory lane, would it? Wrong - read on.
As Ruth had never been there, we set off to the eastern village of Elounda, near Aghios Nikolaos, which is where I stayed with a group of friends in 1974. Shortly before that, it had been the location for the shooting of the BBC series, 'Who Pays The Ferryman?' I could still remember the basic geometry of the place; come down a hill from "Ag Nik", through a narrow street of shops to be greeted by a rectangular gravel harbour front opening up to the right, in the centre of which was a narrow jetty out to a fish restaurant. Well……..the shops start a 'bit' earlier these days, say a mile out of town. The harbour front isn't just tarmac-ed ; it's covered with outdoor sections of the cafes that throng the remaining three side of the quad. Sure the little jetty was there, but since it now faced another breakwater, the view from the restaurant was ruined - glad I never ate there before! To be honest, it's quite a nice place still, and a lot of expensive villas have been built around the area, as have hotels with (very) silly prices.
Was the villa still there? Well, yes and no really. After a quick look down a few side streets I found it, hemmed in by the rear view of shops. Having lost its sea view, it's now just a house, lived in permanently. Planning laws - what planning laws?
Ironically, I'd have liked the place as it is now more in 1974 - sadly there's no way to rediscover how it was, and I can't even find my colour slides!
From Elounda, you can 'pay the ferryman' to take you on a boat trip to the fortress island of Spinalonga, which in more recent times had been a leper colony, and strangely enough was the only part of Crete that the Wehrmacht didn't seem inclined to invade! If you combine this ride with a lunchtime visit to a nearby deserted beach (well, deserted apart from all the other boats anchoring there!) for lunch, a swim and a snooze, you'll be able to say 'spinalonga day' when you get back!
Oh well onward and upwards as they say. Whilst we were over 'this way', we also decided to try Aghios Nikolaos. Strangely enough, apart from having gone pear-shaped around the fringes, the famous 'picturesque bits' were more or less as I remember them except that the eateries are somewhat more up-market these days. The little inner harbour (The Bottomless Lake) is still there with its bridge offering no headroom at all to boats. The main part of the harbour looks much the same. This already was 'the place to be' in 1974, and it seems that the word's spread even further. Fortunately, this more traditional part of town always has been tightly packed, so it kind of defies further development except in the purpose for each building, most of which are now places to stay, eat or drink (or all three).
I had to smile when I recognized the site of my 'getting off' with a girl from Doncaster, only to reappear at the villa three days later not looking any more sun-tanned than when I left. I thought it prudent to keep this to myself, as her indoors wasn't "at home to Mr. Boasty" that day.
As a pleasant surprise, the harbour-side restaurant where we lunched turned out to be a very reasonable, at around €25 for two, including starter, full main course, beers and coffees each. "Ag Nik" - (God I hate it when the tour reps call it that) lies in the spectacular Golf of Mirabelou, skirted all around by stark mountain sides, which is presumably what keeps them safe from villa builders!
A quick burn down the E75 (no, it's not a food additive), and we're home.
TOUR 4 - THE PLATEAU OF LASSITHI. Aka " I KNEW THIS WHEN IT WAS ALL WINDMILLS", although not the traditional Greek sail-cloth ones, just those metal wind-pump things - I'm not THAT old!
Driving due south from the Hersonissos area, a surprisingly good and very scenic road takes us through the heart of the island following signs for the plateau. This involves driving over some of the islands highest roads, so nothing quite prepares you for the sight of the plain suddenly appearing at quite an altitude. I imagine it's akin to driving over Ben Nevis, to find Romney Marsh shortly below the summit. We had the privilege of touring the outer perimeter of the plateau at 'pottering speed', there being no other traffic whatsoever. The juxaposition of contre-jour and autumnal foliage was breathtaking - (the sun shining through brown leaves was nice too), and many happy moments were spent getting that definitive arty-farty photo.
As it was shortly before lunchtime, the many local outdoor restaurants were getting into gear for 'Oxi Day', it being 28th October. This is the day that the Greeks told Mussollini, what he could do with his 'side with us or be invaded' ultimatum, and he wasn't best pleased as it involved sticking it somewhere 'the sun don't shine'. Anyway, history apart, it's now a national holiday, and the wood-smoke from the dozens of barbecues was quite heady, especially as the sun DID shine, through the smoke this time. It takes about an hour to cruise the edge of the plateau, and you can make a detour to the Diktean Caves, supposedly Zeus' birthplace. I'd seen it before and it's currently a bit of a mess, being the site of further Neolithic archeological digs.
It seems that most of those windmills, yay, even the metal ones are now merely accessories for cafes and restaurants though - shame; last time I was here, they were actually pumping artesian water up to the surface. I did run into a few wind-farms on my travels, so the age of the windmill is coming back, but to make electricity this time.
This was my first view of the old Greece for quite a while. Old men with grey-ing handlebar moustaches, wearing baggy black trousers and riding boots, Orthodox priests, complete with 'chimney pots', sipping coffee (or was it Metaxa?) with their chronies in a street café, little old ladies (yes, do all tall women die young here?) in black, riding mules, AND, the vast majority of signs ONLY in Greek.
You can more or less chose to exit the plateau at three of its corners, the rest being hemmed in by mountains. Here, much of the islands 'temperate' vegetables are grown although vines seem to do well too. Snow is possible in winter - about the only flat land in Crete where this happens, not surprising really, as it's the only flat HIGH land.
TOUR 5 - "WE'VE HIRED IT FOR THREE DAYS - LET'S DO SOMETHING WITH IT".
This was the tour we didn't really mean to make. Like Topsy, it just grew and grew. Setting off again in a southerly direction, I had this mad idea of pottering around in the mountains to see what happens. However, when it dawned on me that I hadn't seen a petrol station for hours, and we were on one of those 'bring it back empty' deals, this seemed less of a good idea as the day drew on, so, straitened by this thought, we headed for a main road, this time leading along the south coast towards Ieraptra, which was somewhere we'd never been, so that was OK.
It's very difficult to head along the ACTUAL south coast of Crete as it's largely impenetrable, but the views from even 5 miles inland were stunning especially as the road seemed to be high up most of the time. It was also VERY windy, making steering a straight line difficult. The Rough Guide isn't very complimentary about Ieraptra, but it seemed pleasant enough, although by now, we were outnumbered by waiter by an even greater ratio! We'd taken sandwiches, so our 'no thanks, we've eaten' was no lie. Ierapetra lies in one of the only flat southern part of Crete, with a fine sweep to its tourist beach, edged with outdoor restaurants, which on a less windy day would have been tempting.
Away from the beach, there's a whole working town out there, ATMs, traffic jams, drivers 'on the horn' and holes in the pavements you could lose a leg down. I'd recommend it as a way of breaking yourself in for coming home to Hounslow any day.
Getting back from Ieraptra was somewhat less of a rally drive. It's only 12 miles to the north side of the island here, bringing you back to the splendid coast road that sweeps round that Golf Of Mirabelou I mentioned earlier, taking you past the burgeoning outskirts of Aghios Nikolaos and down the E-75 to home.
Greece is within the Schengen zone of the EU, which means very little to us Brits coming TO an island FROM an island as it manifests itself as two immigration queues - us and the rest of Europe. The Euro is the local currency - ironic really, since Europa was a Minoan.
Continental-style plugs at 220 volts AC apply. ATMs are common and petrol stations take credit cards.
The double white lines down the centre of roads mean nothing to Greek drivers, unless it's as a challenge to see how long you can 'hide' them beneath your wheels. (Perhaps they think they are in Scalextric cars, and need to keep on the rails). If you don't move over onto what appears to be the hard shoulder, they'll tailgate and flash you to within an inch of your life, practically sweeping your wing mirror off as they pass. Fortunately, the line marking the hard shoulder is only smooth paint, not a rumble strip!........
......speaking of paint, white-lining is a luxury in some places; it having been applied with magnolia emulsion from B & Q, so it soon wears off.
Goodness knows what the main road speed limit is - about 200 kph if the locals are anything to go by. Whatever it is, it doesn't get enforced much on Crete! The E-75, which is mainly wide single carriageway, with a little dualling thrown in, is the worst road with an appaling reputation for drink-driving accidents, fortunately during the small hours after numerous wedding parties break up, when I'm back in my resort.
Overloaded vehicles with badly adjusted headlights are seemingly 'compulsory'.
Ditto for smoking in restaurants.
THAT END OF SEASON THING
Much of what I've written may well be at variance to other people's experience but this was the last week of the season.
There are pros and cons here.
Firstly, the great British travel industry choose to rack it back up to high season rate to fleece those with children, as it's half-term in the UK. Despite paying more, the service in hotels can sometimes seem worse, like they're waiting for you to move before they roll up the welcome mat behind you. Restaurants start to close down DURING the week, so plan ahead for that last night party. They also start to run out of things, and sometimes, it's quicker ask what's still 'on' rather than flick through 5 pages of the menu. In our apartment block, the flats vacated during the week were being mothballed as we watched, using a tasteful selection of bin bags over the aircon, and newspaper taped inside the windows - mmmm, choice job guys.
You're outnumbered by waiters trying to get you to eat in their place.
The tour rep goes home 4 days before you do - I wasn't sure whether to file this as a pro or a con! Being part of TUI now, Thompson Holidays sent us German-speaking staff to escort us to the airport, and to them I'd like to address this remark - "Never assume that no Britons speak foreign languages - I heard what you said about us!"
Having said all that, it's a last glimpse of nice weather for several months.
The 'all-night' party-goers don't seem to like this week, making even Malia quiet.
You end up talking to a lot of teachers (pro or con - you chose).
Autumn sun makes for superb photos.
I didn't get stuck in anything remotely like a traffic jam, and even got through the few sets of traffic lights on their first change - try THAT in west London.
Being cooler, it's easier to have an active holiday, and……