Crete: Introduction

  • © DocMagic,

    © DocMagic,


Crete is a world in itself. With its 2500m (8200 ft) peaks, Greece’s largest island rises out of the sea like a massive mountain. Here, everyone finds what they are looking for: long stretches of sandy beaches and isolated coves, a vibrant nightlife, the silence of wild gorges as well as various opportunities for biking, playing golf, surfing or diving. And the island offers a lot culturally because it is also home to one of Europe’s oldest civilizations. Towns and holiday resorts have moved with the times, but in the mountain villages, life is still very traditional. And so it goes in a small sleepy town in the Cretan mountains. In the modest kafenío at the platía, the coffee shop on the town square, wood is crackling in the fireplace. Chairs with woven seats line three of the walls. Against the fourth wall, behind the counter, the host brews rich coffee in brass and copper pots and pours it into small espresso cups and serves it to the guests with a glass of water.

Crete is part of the globalised world and aims to keep it that way

Yet even on Crete time does not stand still. Huge wind turbines can be seen on the mountain ridges and along the whole northern coast a wide motorway now shortens your trip. Quad bikes now roar through the narrow alleyways of Mália, a few miles from the Aegean coast there are now water parks with loud music and giant water-slides. For holidaymakers who prefer being taken care of there are a number of all-inclusive hotels and holiday resorts and one luxury hotel in Eloúnda even offers helicopter transfers and butler services with the holiday villa that also comes with a private pool. In Iráklio an EU institute takes care of the data security of the whole of Europe, while on the south coast Chinese investors want to build a large container ship harbour for the distribution of their wares in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. On the Lassíthi Plateau, Albanian migrant workers harvest organically grown potatoes and the Pakistani shepherds can phone home to their hearts’ content because of a flat rate. Crete is now very much a part of the globalised world and wants to keep it that way.

But Crete also has another interesting and distinctive side. Travelling from the airport, one cannot help but notice the bullet holes in the street signs. They have served as target practice for many Cretans. Every shot is an expression of the locals’ unease over too much state authority. The small mountain village of Zonianá made headlines when citizens protested against a large police presence after a narcotics investigation – according to them the sight of all the uniforms would have a negative impact on the children. This situation must have felt like an echo from their past under foreign rule: until Crete’s union with Greece in 1912 and during the German occupation (1941–44) every act of resistance was seen as an act of bravery and is still praised in school text books. To this day the Cretan motto remains: ‘Freedom or death!’

Despite this behaviour Crete remains one of the safest holiday destinations in the world. For centuries, hospitality has been one of their top priorities and as a tourist you will always experience it – certainly when you are away from the tourist centres. Rakí and fruit are served as dessert free of charge in most tavernas where the owner also often invites the guests to a cup of Greek coffee. And if you should stumble on a village wedding, you may well be invited to stay and join in with the celebrations.

Around 600,000 people live on the island, with more than 150,000 of them in the northern part around the capital Iráklio. The other cities on the island are also situated mostly on the northern coast. Chaniá and Réthimno should definitely be on your sightseeing list: both places have picturesque harbours, Venetian royal palaces and narrow alleyways, mosques with tall minarets and inviting shopping streets. In the east is Ágios Nikólaos, with its lovely location on the Gulf of Mirabéllo and a small lake directly next to the harbour, while the nearby Sitía has a serene landscape and a relaxed atmosphere. On the south coast, next to the Libyan Sea, there is only enough space for one city, which has an African flavour to it: Ierápetra.

The island’s interior is just as diverse as the coast. Four mountain ranges define Crete: the White Mountains with its 2453m (8043 ft) high Páchnes summit in the west, just east of the White Mountains, Mount Ída with the 2456 m (8056 ft) high Timíos Stávros summit, then in the eastern centre the 2148m (7045 ft) high Díkti range and finally in the far eastern side the 1476m (4841 ft) high Sitía Mountains. In between these mountain ranges, a whole range of hidden plateaus are completely cut off from the sea. Certain plateaus like Lassíthi and Chandrás are farmed intensively all year round, but on some like Nída or the Thriptí plateaus, farmers only move there during the summer.

Beaches, isolated mountain villages and Minoan history

It is possible to get to know Crete in a very short time. The island is quite big, 260 km (161½ mi) long and up to 60 km (37 mi) wide, but the different aspects are located close to each other. Day trips from the beaches and busy seaside resorts on the coast take you into isolated mountain villages and historic old towns, to the excavations of Minoan estates and temples. There are boat trips to off shore islands and guided mountain bike tours to experience nature. In the mountains of the surrounding plateaus, you will see more sheep and goats than people. You can hike through mountains and gorges, but you can also play golf, practice yoga or meditate. And as for swimming, there are beaches for every taste: from west coast lagoons with turquoise blue water and sandy beaches to the palm tree lined beaches of Vái in the east. There are sand dunes and colourful pebble beaches between jagged steep stretches of coast, pretty coves and endless water sport possibilities. No entrance fees are charged on the island’s beaches because freedom-loving Cretans are not interested in resort taxes and private beaches.

Crete is also unsurpassed as a destination for those wanting a study tour. Especially for its unique relics from the Minoan era that are 3500 to 4000 years old. The former palace cities of Knossós, Festós, Mália, Káto Zákros and Agía Triáda all bear evidence of the first civilization on European ground. Crete’s archaeological museum shows that people from these prehistoric times possessed just as much art sense as we do today. Classic Grecian and Roman excavation sites in the countryside are also fascinating and there are almost 1000 churches and chapels that date back to the Byzantine era, some of them decorated with medieval frescoes.

The Venetians also shaped Crete’s cities and landscape

The Venetians, who ruled Crete for almost 300 years after this, also had an important influence on the cities and the landscape. Venice promoted the cultivation of olive trees for oil to light up their palaces. They built impressive castles and surrounded cities with massive defensive walls some of which still exist. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Crete became the place of exile for Greek aristocrats and artists for the next 200 years. The exchange with Italy brought with it elements of the Renaissance visible in Cretan art. Many Turkish buildings, (the Turkish drove the Venetians from the island) give the cities of Chaniá, Réthimno and Ierápetra a strong oriental influence. As the home of so much cultural and history, the island has a lot more to offer than you would find in a normal holiday – another good reason to revisit Crete again and again.

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