Advantages Great if your young and want fun.
Disadvantages Not for the quiet holiday lover.
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
As many of you will already know I am an ardent fan of Greece and its islands. This review is about Crete, the most sizeable of those islands measuring 260 Kilometres from West to East and differing between 12 and 60 Kilometres wide from North to South. It is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean.A SHORT HISTORY LESSON
Most of you will be aware that Crete is a popular tourist destination. As well as having a plethora of unspoilt historical sites, there are also some interesting little known facts about the island.Crete is commonly recognised as the seat of the most ancient civilisation in Europe.
It was the site for the ultimate, and strategically largest, airborne attack by Nazi Germany in 1941. (Battle of Crete) This invasion was also the only recorded battle in history to be won solely by airborne troops.Another notable fact elicited from 17th century records was the removal of the Venetians from Crete by the Turkish Ottoman Empire after the siege of Candia, (1648-1669) noted as the longest siege in recorded history.
Crete is best known however from Minoan history, made famous by historians such as Homer. His descriptions of ancient Greek history allow us to explore and understand Cretan origins. There are many legends mentioned, such as King Minos, Theseus and the Minotaur, Daedalus, and Icarus.The first signs of human settlement are believed to have begun around 7000BC but it was the Minoans who emerged as the first historically recognised European civilisation making the most historic initial impact, occupying the island from around 2600BC-1400BC.
Since the Minoans, Crete has been occupied and fought over by several countries and empires. The Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, and latterly the Turkish Ottoman Empire have all played their parts in the cultural development of the island. However, Crete was not recognised as part of Greece, until after the Greek war of independence in 1913.FACTS ABOUT CRETE
Crete lies 180 Kilometres south of the Greek mainland. It is extremely mountainous with three mountain ranges stretching the complete length of the island. The most commanding are the White Mountains at 2452 metres above sea level. These mountain ranges have allowed Crete to remain temperate and fertile.Crete crosses two climatic zones, those of the Mediterranean and the North African, although the majority of the island lies in the former. Normal summer temperatures can usually be expected in the high 20s-30s centigrade. Its indigenous resident population is around 700,000, which can swell to over 2 million during the summer season.
MY CRETAN EXPERIENCE
FIRST IMPRESSIONS DAY ONEAs the plane banked to port for its final approach I glimpsed my first real view of Crete. The vista before me seemed to belie the dimensions of the island I was about to visit. From high in the air it looked no more than a scorched bowl of soil, resembling arid desert, with small green islets of vegetation like oasis dotting the landscape and the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean swirling spume at its shore.
We landed at Heraklion; the capital city since 1971 after that status was removed from Chania (Hania). The heat was rapidly evident upon landing as the planes air-conditioning struggled to cope with its increasing engine inactivity. When the cabin doors opened the heat swept through the aircraft like a flame through a dry forest.I have always found Greek airport efficiency to be amongst the best in the world and at Heraklion it was no different. Twenty minutes later we had cleared the airport.
For this holiday we had decided to hire a car for the duration of the two weeks. I had become increasingly disillusioned with package holiday operator’s prices. I accomplished this through the internet before we left home. We used (economy car rentals.com) and obtained a four door car with air conditioning (a must in the summer months), and CD player for 357 euros inclusive. (Around £237). Compare this with my package operator’s demand for over £400. They were an excellent company and both the car and representative were waiting at the airport when we arrived. The car comes complete with full insurance and unlimited mileage. I would highly recommend them.From the airport was a twenty minute drive to our accommodation in the resort of Hersonissus. The road was moderately busy but it was a pleasant, easy experience with the drivers courteous, calmer, and slower than their counterparts on Kefalonia a neighbouring Greek island we had visited the year before. Our apartment was located in the old village of Hersonissus, 2km from the main coastal resort where we were to later find Crete still enjoyed some unspoilt anonymity from the tourists.
After checking in to our apartment, shopping was next on the agenda and cold beer was top of the list after a long tiring day. Not really knowing where we would end up we followed the signs to the Port of Hersonissus to find a supermarket. (They stay open very late, some until midnight). As we entered Hersonissus from the Eastern side around 9pm it was very quickly evident this resort was ruled by the young.Mopeds, Quad bikes, bronzed half naked girls, and short clad topless men lined the streets in ever increasing numbers as we approached the centre of town.
DAY TWOWe decided to familiarise ourselves with the local area, and headed again for Hersonissus. We approached from the West with the heat certainly justifying my choice of air-conditioning. The town resembled a sleeping giant waiting to awaken as the temporary inhabitants slept off the effects of the night before.
The main road runs through the centre of town and as we later found on an evening excursion it caters for everyone and everything. It was also pleasant to see it had occupants over the age of twenty five. Restaurants, bars, clubs, shops of all types, internet cafes, amusement arcades, and almost anything you can name are here. Although my initial impression was negative as we enjoy a quieter holiday, if you are young and looking for fun then this is certainly the place to be. Apart from Greek families there did seem however to be a shortage of children. The timeshare vultures were also in abundance.DAY THREE
After acclimatising to the weather (anything between 28-47 degrees centigrade this year) we decided to embark on our first real excursion into the countryside. A three pronged visit to the monastery in Kera (2 euros entrance) a quaint place in the mountains and my first amusing glimpse of a nun conversing on a mobile phone in a church. From here we journeyed to the Plain of Lasithou. A completely flat green fertile plateau opened up a visual festival reinforced by the fact it was surrounded by mountains on all sides, with a road running around the outside transversing eighteen Cretan villages all seemingly untouched by tourism.
Our last location was the Dictaean cave, (4 euros entrance, 2 euros parking) the mythical birthplace of the God Zeus, my namesake. This is a 1km climb up a steep incline with a 65 metre drop to the cave centre. You can however hire a donkey to take you up but it will cost you 15 euros one way. This was a bit of a disappointment as caves go for the effort involved.
The Minoan palace of Knossos was our destination where European civilisation reputedly began. Missing a visit to Knossos (Crete’s most popular sight) could be likened to omitting a visit to the Vatican if you visited Rome. The mythical home of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur it was a visit I was very much looking forward to. To get to Knossos you have to go through Heraklion the capital city and it certainly lived up to its status. A sprawling metropolis of dusty, busy roads, traffic jams, and people everywhere. I could best describe it as hellish.As you approach Knossos you are beckoned into the many car parks that line the road. Don’t be deceived by the offers of free parking, you only get that if you partake of a drink at each car park with its attached restaurant. Go to the last one before the palace itself and that is the municipal car park and is genuinely free. It is 6 euros entrance to Knossos and it was packed to bursting point. To say I was disappointed would be the understatement of the year. Although with great respect for what Knossos stands for, I can only describe it as a pile of old stones with some falsely reconstructed parts. If it wasn’t for that, Knossos would almost be a flat ruin. There will be no lasting impression left on my mind for Knossos.
DAY FIVEWe headed east to the town of Agios Nikalaos to catch a boat to Spinalonga a former leper colony and the place featured in the bestselling book, “The Island” by Victoria Hislop. I won’t spoil this by revealing the details about this trip, as it really was a special day in contrast to Knossos. For 12 euros, plus 2 euros to actually enter the former colony the boat will take you to the island with a guide. It was fantastic value for money for four and a half hours of sightseeing plus there is plenty of surprises both on the way out, and on the way back. We sailed with the “Ostria” with all facilities. The boat leaves at 12.30pm every day. This excursion with a tour operator costs 35 euros.
DAY SIXNot venturing far we visited Malia, 8km from Hersonissus. Malia could be described as a smaller version of the latter. However the beaches are bigger, sandier, and more plentiful, try palm beach, or sun beach, but beware they are very busy. Just 1km away is the Minoan palace of Malia and in my opinion much more impressive than the palace at Knossos and of similar size. (4 euros entrance) Free parking.
DAY SEVENThis day was initially planned as a visit to the subtropical island of Chrissi 8km offshore, located in the Libyan sea south of Crete, the southernmost point in Europe. After arriving in Ieropetra the port of departure and sitting in a traffic jam of 30 minutes duration constantly looking for a place to park, it soon became evident that would be an impossible task. The town was a manic maelstrom of vehicles and people and we made our escape to Agios Nickalaos. This was a stylish town with a quietly lively atmosphere, quaint harbour, and lake. From here we went to Elounda, Crete’s playground of the rich. As comparable peasants of the world a drive through this area was sufficient to quench our curiosity. At prices up to £1000 per night I am sure you are not surprised. We headed back to the mountains and the solace and the silence.
DAY EIGHTWe were determined to rise early to dissipate the disappointment of Chrissi Island. Faced with a 130 mile drive to Stora Stakion to board the boat to Agios Roumelli, and the Samaria Gorge, described by some as the Grand Canyon of Europe. Boats leave at 10.30-13.00-15.00 (7.5 euros return) and the journey takes an hour and a quarter, stopping at Elounta, a calm haven protected from the sea by a small offshore island. This resort is inaccessible by land or air and can only be reached by boat from whence it gets all its supplies as indeed is Agios Roumelli and the gorge itself.
The gorge is eighteen Kilometres in length and can be walked, but unless you are very fit I certainly would not recommend it in the summer. We walked three kilometres into the gorge. Very scenic with a stream that turns into a river in winter, but it was extremely busy and that spoilt the aesthetic beauty and atmosphere. There are check points along the way every 2-3 kilometres and donkeys and a helicopter to help with any people who get injured. The sun is unrelenting so take plenty of water as it gets very hot.DAY NINE
Sitea, the largest town to the East was our destination, and I felt it was certainly no mean feat to get there. Located at the Eastern end of the island, its locality making it remote from the tourist population, the road to Sitea would be a challenge to any driver, with a long winding road and undulating extremes of height. We ate in one of the many harbour side restaurants and unlike many of the towns on Crete it was free of the Quad bikes, mopeds and scooters. Sitea also has a beach which appeared deserted. Tired from the driving we stopped at one of Malia’s beaches on the way home to refresh and this is where we were met by a dog chewing a fresh tampon, and a pile of used condoms in the car park. A sign of Crete’s darker side.DAY TEN
We had a day of rest with a walk to the resort of Gouves which is at the opposite side of Hersonissus to Malia. Gouves is much quieter and upmarket and generally free of the noise and bustle of the dreaded Quad bikes with a beautiful sandy beach.DAY ELEVEN
If I told you about today then I would be going off topic as we visited the volcanic island of Santorini. It was a disaster and I intend going back so I will omit a report of it from the review.DAY TWELVE
Day twelve was spent as an exploration day with no particular destination except to explore the mountains. I feel this is the ideal way to see the genuine Crete, with untainted culture. Watch women lead mules along bumpy streets, old men playing cards outside Taverna’s, passing stress free time. Beautifully kept gardens full of blooming flowers, and children playing in the streets. See fields and acres of olive trees, and growing crops. Enjoy the atmosphere, the benign silence, tranquillity, and remoteness the mountains bring. Most mountains can be reached in less than ten minutes by car if you want to escape the manic residues of humanity and tourism on Crete.DAY THIRTEEN
As it was our last full day we retraced the drive to the western end of the island firstly visiting the German war cemetary near Chania (Hania) where we later lunched. The cemetary is a memorial to the futility of war and although i have visited many war memorials this one moved me emotionally almost to tears. It really brought home the fact that normal German families lost their young men the same as us as i walked down the immaculately kept aisles with not one of them aged over 27.Chania was a chic, stylish town with mixed architecture of Cretan, Venetian, and a very concise Turkish presence. The huge Venetian fortress is still very much in evidence around the town. It was a bustling town but relatively tourist free and seemed to have a relaxed decadently strange atmosphere. From here we went to the beach at Georgeopolis, a huge sandy beach stretching for miles. We also visited Fournes Lake which seemed to have been taken over by the Greeks and their families for the weekend. There were pedaloes, canoes, with swimming and a lovely mountain backdrop with plenty of Tavernas around the edge.
An early morning visit to the cave of Milatos, where 3000 Cretans were massacred by the Turkish Pasha in 1823. A great place to visit with a nice walk along the gorge at the top albeit a macabre location considering the events that occurred there.
WHAT TO EXPECTFood: Expect to pay between £12-£18 for a meal for two, with a drink in a restaurant. Many restaurants have children’s menus. Expect a meal to take anything between 1-2 hours as they have a very laid back attitude. The food is varied with Greek, and international cuisine available in most of them. Supermarket food is comparably priced with the UK
TAKE plenty of water anywhere you go. Put a litre of water in the icebox of the fridge the night before as it acts like a huge ice cube and as well as drinking you can use the bottle to cool your face.
DO NOT GO on the package holiday excursions. They have reached ridiculously high prices and for totalling only three of the more modest ones, it would have paid for all our petrol and the car hire for two weeks and we went on all eight of them offered, in the car.DO NOT BE SCARED of driving in Crete, the standards and roads are good, and getting used to driving on the opposite side of the road is not difficult.
BEACHES for seclusion and free from people are best visited after 5pm. Most people are going home by this time and it’s easy to park.
I felt Crete was an island of many contrasts. From the general bustle of most of the towns to the serenity of the mountains it really was a fast changing atmosphere from day to day and sometimes hour to hour. In places it was dominantly ruled by the young and occasionally for someone of my age it became overpowering.To be fair and to present an objective opinion to anyone thinking of visiting Crete I think it depends on your choice of location. There is such a diverse choice and we may have made a mistake choosing our apartment. There is no doubt Crete caters for every taste and type of holiday. Having visited four of the Greek islands Crete definitely has the ability to provide for the most fussy holiday maker. Maybe its size has something to do with that. It still retains a lot of Greek family values and traditions but that is much more evident in rural locations. However by the clear substantial presence of cranes, bulldozers, and the massive amount of half constructed concrete buildings in almost all the outskirts of the towns and resorts it is clear Crete and Greece as a whole is hugely exploiting the tourism trade, and that is clearly growing at an explosive rate.
Would I go there again? No, as I feel Crete is going to explode in the future and then implode on itself, probably destroying its culture from within. I can liken it to England where most traditions are only kept alive by rural living inhabitants. The cities lose the inherent culture in the name of multiculturalism. The concluding result will be the eventual loss of that individual culture that gives each country its identity. We will all fade into the same melting pot and the uniqueness of individual countries will be lost forever.
Overall I enjoyed the holiday together with its ups and downs but with no major positive impressions. It certainly would have had a greater appeal if I was thirty years younger. I leave the reader to make their choice.
Tony. August 2007.
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