Saturday, February 7, 2015

Trip report: Six Days Exploring Crete on Our Own

"One must live as if it would be forever, and as if one might die each moment. Always both at once," - Mary Renault, English author of "The Bull from the Sea," "Fire from Heaven," and "The Last of the Wine," among others.

After checking out the seaside town of Agios Nikolaos on a sunny warm day in October for a couple of hours, we settled into an outdoor table along the city’s waterfront. The menu was inviting, prices reasonable.
Deep-fried anchovies, ummm. A tasty bowl of shrimp in cream sauce and a salad with fresh tomatoes, egg and feta.  Culinary magic…a moment to savor among many during our six days on the island of Crete.
Since childhood (for me it was reading Mary Renault novels about the ancient Minoans and Greeks) both of us have been fascinated with the Mediterranean. When we first met, we discovered that traveling to the region was No. 1 on both our bucket lists. After signing up for a Rick Steves’ Best of Turkey tour in mid-October, we thought a few days on Crete would add to our adventure. Here’s how we did it:
Getting there and getting around: We flew from Portland, Ore. to Athens, did three days in Athens, then flew from Athens to Heraklion International Airport located on the north-central coast of Crete. Just over an hour’s flight. Dimitris Kopidakis met us at the airport with our rental car. Check out AutoRentalsCrete, which is recommended as an efficient and honest rental company. Getting around was easier using our iPad with International GPS link. Even when we were momentarily lost, we knew where we were. Thankfully, most road signs are in Greek as well as in English lettering and sometimes even in English. Driving was not a problem and made the trip more interesting. In terms of our limited time on the island, having a car made things efficient and flexible.
Accommodations:  Exploring all of Crete in six days would be a challenge since it is a big island. Instead we focused on the central region offering many important museums and ancient Minoan sites. Using Villa Kerasia bed & breakfast as our base for all six nights was a great decision for its central, but rural location and lovely setting.
Villa Kerasia from poolside
Owner-operator,  Babis,  provided helpful advice that made our stay more rewarding.  His evening meals were great fun for the wonderful collection of people at the dinner table…Finns, Israelis, Brits, Germans. Surrounded by olive tree orchards, Villa Kerasia in a restored rock farm house with just seven rooms. There’s a pool and paroramic vistas both east and south.
DAY ONE: Flew to Crete from Athens. Got our  rental car and traveled out of town, south to Villa Kerasia. Dinner out off the hillside at a nearby town of Vlahiana.
DAY TWO: Explored south by car to the Minoan ruin of Phaestos (dating from the 15th Century B.C.), then onward for a few hours on the beach at Kommos. It’s easy to understand why the Minoans built Phaestos on this hilltop with its magnificent views south and southwest. This Bronze Age ruin has been extensively excavated and provides a good first opportunity to learn more about the Minoan culture. Habitation here began in 4000 B.C. and peaked about 1500 B.C.
Beautiful location and well interpreted with labeling in Greek and English make this site a must for visitors to the island.
We found plenty of charming small towns where an outdoor lunch was an inexpensive and fun stop. You won’t believe how much feta cheese goes on their salads.
Pheistos, Minoan site
DAY THREE: Destination Agios Nikolaos. We headed north from Villa Kerasia toward Heraklion and managed on the first attempt to negotiate the right hand exit that put us on the well-traveled highway east to Agios Nikolaos. Formerly a fishing village, the city is now a major tourist destination. Quaint streets, gorgeous water, lots of history here. This filled our day. We stopped at Malia on the return to check out the Minoan ruin there.
DAY FOUR: Palace of Knossos and Heraklion Archaeological Museum. The partially restored Palace of Knossos is over-run with tourists (many off of cruise ships or from nearby beach resorts) but is a must, if you go to Crete. The elaborate Bronze Age complex with its stunning frescos and fascinating history provide a context for how civilization started in the Mediterranean. The Minoans were much earlier than the Greeks and the Romans. This stuff is old!
We could have spent more time in the Heraklion Archeaeological Museum. The place is filled with exquisite jewelry, pottery and frescos (See the frescos on the top floor first)! The Cretans know what they have with this collection and show it off beautifully with modern well-lit glass displays and helpful interpretive labeling. This is world-class.
DAY FIVE: Our favorite beach experience began with a hike through the Ayiofarango Gorge to Ayiofrango Beach. The hike-beach experience starts just out of the town of Sivas on the south coast. We drove out of the town to an unpaved rocky parking area where we left the car and walked (1.8 miles) through a beautiful, deep and somewhat shaded rocky gorge to a small pebble beach. The walk was mostly flat with plenty of sights including free-roaming goats along the way. The highlight was the Aghios Andonios Church which dates from the earliest Christian times. The pebbly beach is protected from the wind. Clothing was optional for both sexes.
Aghios Andonios Church

DAY SIX: A car trip to Hania (or Chania), west of Heraklion on the north coast. This town takes you deep into another epoch of Crete’s complex history. Starting in 1252, the Venetians established a trading center on Crete with Hania as their administrative center. The town still looks Venetian with brightly painted waterfront buildings, imposing brick warehouse structures and a massive breakwater meant to protect the harbor from pirates and the Turks. The Venetians stayed until 1669 despite repeated rebellions by locals. Rebellions continued under the Ottomans.
Exploring Hania Old Town was a treat with its charming back streets and small restaurants that offered better menu selections at more reasonable price than the tourist-trap watering holes on the waterfront.
Hania, occupied by the Venetians in 1252

WHAT WE LIKED MOST:  Our lunch-time meal in Agios Nikolaos was one of our most memorable but certainly not the only fabulous food experience while exploring the island. One of the healthiest diets in the world, Cretan cuisine embraces olives, greens, delightful cheeses, potatoes in all forms, herbs with plenty of personality and wines. Considering that people have been making wine on the island for several thousand years, you know it is good.
Crete offers ancient ruins with mythical stories from the very beginning of recorded history, landscapes that sweep to the horizon and villages little changed from hundreds of years ago. Our visit was in October toward the end of the tourist season, so beaches that would be teaming with tourists were pleasantly quiet.

TIPS: Villa Kerasia, about 30 minutes south of Heraklion, is a gem. Send email directly to Babis to make a reservation. We paid 60 Euros a night including breakfast. Dinners were additional, so was the wine. But all reasonable.
Renting a car at the airport from Dimitris Kopidakis of AutoRentalsCrete gave us freedom and easy access to most everything we had time for. Roads are surprisingly good. Driving is a bit hectic because slow traffic moves to side to allow faster moving vehicles the non-existent center lane to pass. Take an iPad with GPS. It's a miracle.
Let’s make something clear: We’re active travelers, not beach people. We like to explore, to visit historical sites and learn about local culture by talking to the people and eating their food. But having said that, the beaches in Crete are great. On any beach you will meet plenty of Europeans, especially Germans (who take their clothes off) and Russians, people from throughout the Mediterranean as well as lots of locals.

The people of Crete have a certain energy. Their olive orchards and farms are well-kept Their customer service is excellent. Roads are good (better than in Greece, proper) and the food is extraordinary in terms of fresh ingredients and presentation. All of this at a price well below that of Italy or England, for instance. We would go there again and explore more of the island, both east and west. ( Photos by Julia Anderson. Permission required.)

The waterfront at Agios Nikolaus 

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