What is Crete – The best way to explore Crete – Heraklion – Knossos – Rethymno – Chania – Samaria Gorge – Village roads and Cretan countryside – Elafonisi – Matala – Olive Factory – Cretan wines.
My parents still live in Russia, so we made it a rule to meet and see each other at least once a year. Sometimes they come to our home in Florida, but now we live on our sailboat Elysia, so we meet in other countries and explore them together. There are so many cool places in the world! This year in May we decided to meet on the beautiful Greek island of Crete.
Crete is the largest and the most populated of the Greek Islands, and is full of culture and history. It was once home to the earliest known civilization in Europe – Minoan civilization, flourishing from around 2700 to 1450 BC, and there are still lots of archaeological sites.
Unlike a lot of other Greek Islands, which are predominantly blue and white, Crete is bursting with green and has all kinds of nature wonders: from deep gorges to turquoise beaches, and everywhere you look – you see olive trees.
The best way to explore Crete is to rent a car. This way you have the freedom to go pretty much wherever you like without paying high prices for guided tours and you won’t depend on schedules. The roads are good, safe and well-marked. There are plenty of car rental companies. Since we use Budget a lot in the States, it was our company of choice here as well. For a small up-charge we booked a car with automatic transmission – I know how to drive stick shift, but automatic transmission is so much more comfortable, at least to me.
So, here in Crete we spent 10 awesome days, filled with activities, both by foot and by car, and here is my list of the best things to do:
1) Explore the Old Town and Fortezza in Rethymno
We were based in Rethymno, so we walked a lot around town. Rethymno is a mid-size city and features a lot of local lifestyle as well as tourist attractions. One of our favorite walks was through the Old Town – a web of narrow streets with mixed elements of both Venetian and Ottoman era. Walk up to Fortezza, the old Venetian citadel that once protected the water approaches to the city. For a small fee you can go inside and climb upstairs to enjoy spectacular views.
2) Have dinner at Veneto restaurant in Rethymno
After a walk in the Old Town, dining at this restaurant is the perfect icing on the cake. It is not too expensive for the superb quality and service you get, which makes it a great choice to end the day. Filled with candlelight and romantic atmosphere, the restaurant occupies a real Venetian mansion from 15th century. Eat inside, surrounded by historic walls and luxurious interiors, or in a quiet courtyard, filled with blossoming flowers and calming sound of water from decorative waterfalls. Veneto features Cretan cuisine and is also famous for their wine cellar,offering a great wine selection. There is a sommelier to help you with your choice, if you are unsure. By all means, try some Cretan wines, they are fabulous!
3) Take a day trip to Chania
Chania is a more upscale and expensive place to stay in Crete than Rethymno, so we didn’t want to stay there the whole time, but it was definitely worth a complete day trip.
Start at the Venetian Harbor, walk around the old port and 17th century Firkas Fortress, which has a panoramic view of the harbor. Marvel at the old Venetian and Turkish buildings, stop for a coffee at one of the waterfront cafes and visit a couple of craft shops: it is possible to find something really cool there! Then get lost in the old narrow streets, so picturesque it makes you feel like you are in a fairytale. Take a horse carriage ride to really top the experience!
4) Hike Samaria Gorge
Samaria Gorge (and the National Park that surrounds it) is an absolute must-do, even if you cannot hike far. My parents cannot manage strenuous activities like a 10 mile hiking trip, so we just enjoyed the views around the scenic outlook platforms. But if you are physically fit to do it, this is, no doubt, one of the most exhilarating activities on the island. There is an awesome article about the hike that I found on the web.
After our short, but fulfilling walk we had lunch in a beautiful restaurant right there at the entrance to the National Park, and continued to enjoy the spectacular views.
5) Stay overnight in the Cretan countryside
A little pre-story: we were leaving Samaria Gorge and heading to the pink Elafonisi beach. But there is no straight road from one to the other, so we had to take serpentine trails through the mountains and tiny villages. And of course it was the perfect timing for our GPS to act up! The naughty Navigator brought us to a dirt road that ended in someone’s back yard with chickens and a huge German shepherd. Terrified, we finally got out of there, and realized we were completely lost. The only living creatures we met on the road were sheep, which were totally unafraid of cars and couldn’t care less that we had to pass!
After driving aimlessly for a little while, we stopped at a local tavern with several Greek old men drinking raki, and asked for directions. They knew only a couple of words in English, but directions we got! LOL
However, we lost a lot of time, so we decided not to go all the way to Elafonisi, but stop halfway, in the mountains. In a small town called Limni, we ran into a beautiful bed and breakfast with adjacent tavern. The experience was so unique and authentic! We were the only guests and the owner opened the restaurant and cooked a complete meal just for us! At the end of the dinner, as usual, we got a small pitcher of raki on the house. Our lullaby that night was made up of distant “baaaaa” of the sheep and conversations of shepherds downstairs, who returned home and poured a shot of raki for themselves.
The morning greeted us with energizing mountain coolness, so we continued our trip.
6) Check out the pink sand of Elafonisi Beach
I can tell you with all confidence – it is truly pink! Coral pieces, which with time turned into sand particles, make it look like this, especially right by the water. The beach offers chairs and umbrellas, but we wanted a wilder, more private experience, so we choose a place a bit further away. For those who really desire some privacy, it is possible to cross a shallow lagoon and walk behind rocks to the open sea. The water has a completely unbelievable color and you will not regret visiting this wondrous miracle of nature.
7) Learn how olive oil is made at a real olive oil factory
Olive oil is probably the most important food on the Greek table. Not just because it is incredibly tasty (especially here, in Crete!), but it is also one of the healthiest additions to one’s diet, and Greek even use olive oil to regulate their digestion: add a little more if you are constipated, add a little less… well, you get it.
Interesting: Olive trees are very special to Greeks, they are even worshiped as something that came directly from the gods. In the old myth, Poseidon and Athena were competing for the newly-founded city of Attica, and each one offered something for the people: Poseidon gave a gift of sea water, and Athena presented an olive branch. The citizens chose the gift of Athena and she became a patron of the city that bears her name.
The unique tour of the olive oil factory was provided by one of the coolest tour companies in Rethymno, Eco Events. They offer individually tailored tours to explore Crete from “the inside”: eco tours, gastro tours (local bakeries, wineries, etc), walking tours, sailing and diving tours, tours to learn about everyday activities of the Cretans and communicate with locals.
Hara Manoliadi, our guide for the day, took us to Kanakis Olive Mill and its co-owner Adonis (don’t you love all these handsome Greek names!!) gave us a complete tour of the facility.
May is usually a low season, since olives are not yet ripe, so a lot was left to our imagination. Even then, it was really cool to see all the machines and learn about all different kinds and qualities of olive oil. Even though it was quiet, you could realize that during the season it’s rocking and rolling! Adonis described it with one word: “panic!” After the tour we had a tasting and the product is absolutely heavenly! (I think I have eaten my yearly dose of olive oil!). The unique thing about Kanakis Olive Mill: right outside the doors grows one of the oldest olive trees in Crete. The locals believe it is over 3000 years old!
8) Explore “hippie” caves in Matala
I can only imagine how they did it in the 60’s. A sleepy fishing village and an empty beach, no tourists yet. And spacious caves with cool air – perfect for throwing your sleeping bag in and join the hippy craziness.. A campfire and a bunch of American “flower children” singing songs and playing guitars. Maybe smoking something good 😜… Joni Mitchell, Janice Joplin, Bob Dylan… They discovered these caves, possibly made by the Romans or the early Christians, and stayed for a while, inspired by Matala Beach, living in these caves, right here in Crete, and writing songs. What a party it must have been! Nowadays, the town hosts its own Matala Beach Festival, featuring local and international musicians.
The night is a starry dome…And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock and roll beneath the Matala Moon – wrote Joni Mitchell in her song “Carey”.
Now you cannot sleep in those caves anymore, as they became a protected area, but you can still climb and explore them. Afterwards, having lunch in one of the local restaurants, you may accidentally run into someone who actually met all the musicians and even hung out with them in the 60s!
9) Go to a wine tasting at a local winery
This trip was also organized by Eco Events, after my parents had left back to Russia. I was so sad, so I needed to drink something! Not only did we want to have Hara as our tour guide, we needed a designated driver! Dourakis Winery opened their doors to us that day.
We had a tour of the cellars and learned about the process of making not only wine, but also champagne! It is made with the traditional champagne method. First sugar and yeast are added to the wine. Yeast eats sugar and produces CO2 that becomes bubbles. But what to do with all this yeast later? The winemakers turn the bottles upside down (see photos below) and rotate them every day until the yeast is all in the neck. Then they freeze the neck with liquid nitrogen. When they open the bottle, they just take it out as a piece of ice! Then they close the bottle with champagne cork, wire cage and voilà!
Later we got comfy in a beautiful courtyard and tasted a variety of wines. The wines turned out to be very affordable, so we couldn’t resist buying a couple of bottles for later.
10) Explore the Minoan Palace of Knossos
Apparently, not much is known about the ancient Minoan civilization (that walked this region long before the Greeks!). Their earlier writing (Linear A) is not yet deciphered, scientists can only understand Linear B (later language). Some even believe their civilization was what they later called Atlantis. It was the world, where gods lived with people (and had children with them!) and historical facts and persons intertwine so closely with mythological characters. You don’t know anymore where actual history ends and fantasy begins. Perhaps it was all true! So, to learn more about this ancient civilization, to dig deeper into the stories of Ariadne, Minotaur, King Minos and other interesting characters of those times, visit the archaeological site of Knossos and see for yourself!
11) Find Phaistos disk in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
The quest of exploring the ancient Minoan civilization would not be complete without visiting the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. The Museum is full of exhibits, covering history of Crete from the ancient to modern times. It is not unusual to spend the whole day roaming the halls.
The most interesting artifact is, no doubt, the Phaistos Disk. Found in a Minoan palace of Phaistos, it is about 4000 years old. No one knows what it says. The language has nothing in common with Minoan, Greek, Egyptian, Sumerian or any other language, dead or alive, known to men. Many scientists pulled their hair out trying to decipher it, but no one could go beyond the “pregnant mother goddess” phrase.
The writing is not inscribed by hand with a sharp object (like Sumerian tablets), but stamped into clay. It means, whoever made this disc, had symbol stamps built for it (kind of like a typewriter). It also means that it was easy to”write” with this language and the stamps would’t be built for just one disk. But where are the other disks or objects with this writing? Nothing else has been found. Maybe if there is enough funding one day to excavate territories around the four Minoan palaces, they will find more answers? It is not allowed to build there for this very reason. Right now, there are only questions… And what do you think about this mystical disk?
12) Take a day trip to Santorini
In our trip we came to Crete from Santorini, using the elaborate systems of ferries between the islands. However, for those, who came only to Crete, there is an opportunity to take a trip to Santorini with departure in the morning and return the same evening. The company that can take you to Santorini in just 2.5 – 3 hours is called Sea Jets and you can book your tickets here. They are not cheap, about $60 each way, but the experience is worth every penny!
13) Visit the cave where Zeus was born
The Dikteon cave, or Psychro cave, as it is also known, is believed to be the birthplace of the Greek god Zeus. It is also considered one of the sacred places, most worshiped by ancient Minoans.
And where else have you been in Crete? Share in the comments!
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