A one-hour flight from Athens to Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, dropped us near Heraklion, a bustling, noisy town I didn’t expect to like. But who can resist those exuberant Greeks, who love to talk? Every square and every cafe-bar was crammed with coffee-and beer-drinkers watching the scene and talking endlessly to each other and their cell phones.
In a sprawling street market, around the corner from our comfortable bargain-rate hotel, El Greco, John and I reveled in a feast for the senses. Vendors sold wine, purses, shoes, strawberries, artichokes, great piles of beets, herbs, baskets, saffron, delectable thyme honey, jewelry, and more. Greek men strolled by, constantly fingering their kombouli, traditional worry beads. We knew by now to say “kali mera” (good morning), “efcharisto” (thank you) and “parakolo” (please/you’re welcome).
We visited Heraklion’s cathedral, the Venetian fortress, and a harbor full of yachts and fishing boats, but I was mainly interested in the remnants of the ancient, splendid Minoan culture. That great civilization was destroyed by earthquakes, conquerors, and finally a tsunami some 3500 years ago.
The peaceful Minoans were skilled artists. In the Archeological Museum, I was impressed by the displays of their treasures and frescoes. Then we saw where some of them came from, the famous palace of Knossos. The ruins are 5 kilometers southeast of Heraklion, and by catching an early bus, we got to the site before the crowds. Knossos, sprawling over 185 acres, was excavated in the early 20th century by Sir Arthur Evans, the British archeologist. His partial reconstructions of walls, frescoes, and temples with red columns are controversial — some say ruins should be left as they’re found — but in truth, it helped a lot in imagining what Knossos was like. From the courtyard where bull-leapers faced charging bulls to the huge clay storage jars, it was enthralling.
Heraklion has some fine restaurants. A few: Thalassina for simple, fresh, well-prepared seafood; Brilliant Gourmet, sleekly modern (and expensive); and casual, fun Terzakis. Also high on the list are Pardalos Peteinos for great mezedes (small dishes) and well-priced wines; and Kyriakos for good traditional Greek food.
I’m always on the lookout for Black Madonnas, and when I found one, a small statue in a chapel, I lifted my camera. A black-clad woman rose from her chair, waggled her finger and said “no photo.” She was sternly adamant, so off I went to admire the silver pictures of saints.
Leaving Heraklion in a rental car, with John at the wheel, we drove 45 kilometers southwest, through springtime orchards, vineyards and fields, to the Minoan ruins of Phaistos. The location of the palace is spectacular, on a high plateau near mountains, including snow-topped Mt. Ida, the highest point on Crete (8,058 feet).
We continued through a dramatic landscape, with a sapphire sea far below and rugged mountains above. Passing chasms and cliffs, we dropped down to Matala for lunch. This pleasant beach town was a popular hippie hangout in the 1960s. They, and many people before them, lived in caves that pock the limestone cliffs. We ate perfectly cooked seafood in a taverna and waded in the shallow surf with Greek families enjoying the sun and sand.
The coast road turned inland, growing more precipitous and narrow. Passing through deep, craggy Imbros Gorge, we rolled on to the north coast and Hotel Doma, in Hania (Chaina). The Doma, across the road from the sea, was once the British consulate mansion. Its few quirks (such as elevator doors you held closed with your hands) only added to its charm. Our kind hostess provided touring suggestions and an excellent breakfast. The only drawback was the lack of a good restaurant nearby.
A 20-minute walk took us through a park and along the cafe-lined harbor to the main part of Chania, with Venetian and Turkish houses on narrow streets, wrought-iron balconies, and hanging geraniums. Many of the artifacts we saw in the museum in Heraklion — pottery, painted sarcophagi, statuary, Roman mosaics — were taken from the ground beneath our feet, and more still lie waiting to be dug up.
Strolling around the harbor docks, we saw just-caught octopi hanging on lines. We learned that after an octopus is caught, it’s smacked against the dock, rinsed in a bucket, and hung out to dry and die. The scene seemed grim now, and no longer so picturesque. I stopped eating grilled octopus.
At Restaurant Kariatis we switched from Greek to Italian food for a change. The menu was excellent and only moderately expensive in this pretty, white linens-and-candles place.
On a crystal-clear day we drove one hour east to Rethymnon, a flower-filled town on a small harbor. Its folk art museum, in a restored Venetian palace, has displays of typical Cretan clothing and furnishings of the past. At Cavo d’Oro restaurant, on the waterfront, we were served a wonderful mixed fish grill. The meal was superb and ended with complimentary glasses of raki, the powerful clear liquor. Our congenial waiter observed that Rethymnon, a university town, is small enough to know everyone and big enough to be interesting.
Our next stop was Arkadi Monastery, a hilltop complex with a 16th-century church. In 1866 when the Turks stormed in, the abbot and rebels refused to surrender. Turkish forces broke in and the defenders lighted their gunpowder, killing themselves and the Turks. The monastery became a place of pilgrimage. One room has a case filled with rows of skulls.
On this somber note we drove the last 19 miles to Heraklion, where we turned in the car and found a room at Hotel Lena. It was time to pack up for the Aegean isles.
Crete offers far more than our visit could cover. We’ll go back for more ancient ruins, seaside villages, tavernas where locals meet to drink ouzo and raki, beautiful beaches, luscious pastries, and the wild and steep hike through Samaria Gorge. And, not least, the outstanding Cretan hospitality.
Written by and photos by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com