The Greek Islands have drawn us back time and time again for many years. Symi is our favourite, the perfect little Greek island. We also know tiny Folegandros with its beautiful old village and spectacular cliffs; Mykonos and its dazzling whitewashed main town; the incredible ancient ruined city on Delos; Ios; the village of Oa on Santorini; Rhodes Old Town and Lindos; Paxos and Anti-Paxos; Kos. All are very different. They are not all completely beautiful. Some larger islands have become very overdeveloped, mass tourism gone mad and attracting a raucous crowd. But our favourites have very special corners or qualities that will always draw us back.Would Crete be added to that list?
It had been over 40 years since I’d visited Crete while backpacking around several islands. I had only seen Heraklion, Malia (when it was a one horse village) and Agios Nikolaos. This time, I planned to do it more comfortably. Given it’s a big island and with only 7 days in late March/early April, my husband Chris and I focused on Western Crete’s north and south coasts.
LATE ARRIVAL AND KOSTA’S HOUSE
Arrived in Chania at 8pm and got the car within half an hour. With me giving Chris wrong directions at one point, we finally arrived at our apartment at 10pm.It was supposed to be a 15 minute drive! A combination of pitch black, rural roads and my bad eyesight in the dark resulted in me missing a vital left turn in the middle of nowhere. These stressful starts for us are like Groundhog Day – we have had so many!
Parked at Kosta’s House, our apartment for the night, lugged the small cabin bag we each had down some steps and roused our hostess. A middle aged woman of very few words, she brusquely opened the place up, pointed out obvious things like where the cooker and fridge were then left. Well, we were an hour or so later than planned but still…..
Never mind! The surf lapped softly somewhere close by – we couldn’t see a thing beyond the apartment, everything was dark – so we popped open the bottle of vino we’d bought at a local shop en route (and where I’d got new directions) and sat out on the balcony, wrapped in our fleeces, enjoying the sound of the sea and toasting to having finally arrived. It was cold but not any worse than the apartment which, with all the floor tiles and high ceilings, felt like an ice box. It was built for the hot days of summer not late March. But just HOW cold it felt here was a wee bit of a shock.
DAY 1:STAVROS TO RETHYMNON
Woke to sunshine and a chance to actually SEE where we’d landed. The apartments were nicely done, quite upmarket and close to the sea. I was a bit shocked though at the sheer scale of the development all around us, albeit it was all very smart. It was too chilly for breakfast on the balcony so we downed several mugs of hot tea and some local bread and cheese and headed out for an explore.
ZORBA THE GREEK’S COVE
There were lovely coastal plants covering the rocky shore, all coming into flower. Beautiful; a bit like South African fynbos. I had always imagined Crete to be renowned for wildflowers in spring and these were a delight throughout our week there.Took a walk along the bay then round into a very famous small cove which was used in the Anthony Quinn film ‘Zorba the Greek.’ It was a gorgeous wee spot. The restaurant and bar developments behind us didn’t add to the beauty however with garish ‘Zorba’ signs and poor quality architecture. That’s something we noticed a lot of on Crete’s north coast ; overdevelopment and very unattractive buildings, many half finished with steel supports still sticking out of the roofs, as if another storey was to come but had long been forgotten about. Eyesores and detracting a lot from the surroundings.
But the little bay itself was lovely with gorgeous water – that incredible clarity you get in the Greek islands that makes you want to just dive in and enjoy it.
GREEK COFFEE WITH OUR HOSTS
Got packed and called in to settle up with our hostess. I suppose we had some cause for complaint – we never did work out the heating; she didn’t explain it at all. In retrospect it might have been nice if she’d put it on for us arriving as the place was freezing .There was no hot water and the shower was cold in the morning. We boiled the kettle to wash. But what the heck – it was £40 for the night, total. Super clean. Who wants to start their holiday with complaints? Anyway, she must be a morning person because it was like meeting a different person. We’re quite a smiley, pleasant pair – I like to think – happy travellers for the most part and any snarls are reserved for each other rather than those we meet. I imagine most couples are like that! I always feel a bit like an ambassador for Scotland; you want to give a good impression of the country and the people and avoid unpleasantness or conflict. I also feel like a guest in the country we are visiting and prefer to be a well behaved one. Plus it just feels better to be nice and move on.
“Come in, come in!’ We were ushered in with great enthusiasm to the tiny apartment she shared downstairs with her brother or husband (never worked out which.) He was middle aged, wiry, smoking like a chimney and the place smelled pungently of smoke. But I don’t mind the smell of cigarettes; it reminds me of my Dad who smoked all his life. Tobacco is a comforting smell for me. We sat down as instructed and although we had been keen to set off quickly, found ourselves being regaled with stories of the hard winter they’d had; snow still on the mountains, what Kosta himself was up to (an octogenarian who we briefly saw lifting weeds outside the house).Oh and we had to tell her about Scotland. She insisted on brewing us some hot Greek coffee. Couldn’t refuse, though I’d never liked it but I revised my opinion after we’d had the real McCoy – it was very good, very sweet.
That half hour of chat in their cosy home was a delight and we left with a warmth in our hearts for Stavros, even if our bones were still recovering from the chill of 12 hours in the apartment.(I should have reminded her to turn the heating on for the next guests:))
Had a brief stop at this nicely presented area with the stone slab tombs of one of Crete’s most famous Statesmen and his son Sophocles. It was a great vantage point for views over Chania, a much bigger city than I’d imagined.There is also a statue to the fight for Greek independence.
ALLIED WAR CEMETERY (Soudha Bay)
We are both very interested in the World Wars, so a visit to the Allied War Cemetery was next. Chris’s father was a young doctor in the Far East in WW2; my dad was in signals and just missed getting sent to Burma; an uncle was in the Arctic convoys and his ship was torpedoed. Two of my great uncles (pipers) were killed in WW1. I think also with having two boys of my own, I have often thought of the unbelievable pain and terror families faced in the last century and how lucky we are not to live in a time of war.That also makes you realise how small and petty your own ‘complaints’ are (aka a cold apartment for a few hours, buildings which aren’t ‘pretty.’ Ye gods, woman,you have it too damn easy.)
It’s an immaculate memorial to the troops who fell during WW2 in Crete. Incredibly moving. Very sobering.
Our Rough Guide had suggested this made for a nice route through Kalyves but we didn’t find it hugely appealing. The resorts very built up and the architecture wasn’t great either so we headed inland to have a look at recommended Aspro and Douliana villages.The latter was the site of a well reviewed restaurant Ta Douliana which sounded good for lunch. Unfortunately, neither village was the old, traditional Greek village we hoped for and which we love on other islands. Everywhere seemed to be newish build, apartment blocks, with building sites on the outskirts. Time to go. The restaurant was shut for the season too and was one of the building sites! Nice when it is finished no doubt.
(I do often think Lonely Planet and Rough Guides are not as critical or discerning as they once were decades ago but I still tend to stick by them. Maybe there’s an opening for more critical guide books to be written these days.Or perhaps I’m just becoming more of a grumpy old woman.The ‘Grumpy Old Gits Guide to….’ series.)
Back to the coast and had a brief stop at this resort. Strolled the backstreets and along the front but not really our sort of place; just not attractive. Nice small white chapel though, at the end of the harbour.
I love medieval walled cities and so the old centre of this large town restored our spirits no end. Got parked below the imposing Fortezza and soon found ourselves amongst a warren of tiny medieval streets. Quite touristy certainly but there was a lovely 16th century loggia and lion-head fountain too.And an imposing Minaret. The harbour was attractively restored and the Venetian fortress made for an excellent visit, even in the rain. We wandered around its ancient ruins enjoying the history and the views out to a wild, choppy sea beyond the walls.
We managed, mostly, to ignore the ugly spread of the new parts of town on each side of the historic centre. There was an old mosque too with a wonderful domed ceiling covered in frescoes and a small Mihrab.
But after half an hour and with the rain literally pouring off our waterproofs as if taps had been turned on, it was time to head for a nice cafe and dry off.
AVLI FOR LUNCH
Found a superb place called Avli , a café/restaurant in a lovely old street. The place was going like a fair with lots of locals enjoying themselves, always a good sign. The food was excellent; not cheap but home made and tasty. Free gratis, we were served some lovely bread and olive and tomato dips which were first class. Then moussaka for me , homemade and unctuous and a lamb dish for Chris. A really atmospheric, cosy place, very friendly. Loved it.
A fairly uninteresting drive of 31 km east along the coast on a fastish road, took us to Balion and our accommodation for the night.
We both thought it sounded a small, quaint place but the ‘village’ seemed another fairly overdeveloped, not particularly attractive place. The dull grey weather wasn’t doing it any favours either. Our apartment was in a brand new complex with fine sea views, located down one of the steepest , narrowest, most broken bits of road I’ve seen. One wrong move and you’d be in the briny! Inside, it was a bit charmless but very clean and the view was lovely overlooking turquoise Balion bay and the hilly backdrop.
Got some supplies in and then enjoyed a glass or two of vino happy, as ever, to eat in and relax at the end of a long rather mixed first day.
NEXT DAY:WESTERN CRETE (KNOSSOS)