Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and also one of the most beautiful. It may lack the signature towns of Santorini or Mykonos, but its natural landscapes are up there with their Cycladic Island peers and its place in Greek history as a warrior land from the times of the Ancient Minoans right up to the partisan resistance of the Great Wars is unsurpassed.
Despite visiting Greece frequently for the past twenty years, I had never been to Crete until now. We based ourselves in Xania (aka Hania or Chania), a forty-minute hop from Athens, as we did, or just under four hours direct from London.
As is common for us nowadays, we booked a nice apartment on Airbnb for four nights at a comparatively bargain price. We later heard tales of how long-standing tenants had been turfed out of their rental homes to accommodate holidaymakers and how local hoteliers were up in arms, unable to compete on an uneven playing field. Winners and losers, as is nearly always the case with new modes.
Having spent a first day chilling around Xania’s delightful Old Port & Venetian Harbour and fortified by my recent driving experiences in France, I took the plunge to hire a car for the first time ever in Greece. €85 for an automatic Suzuki Splash from Kriti Plus based in the old town.
On our first day of unrestricted freedom, we stayed pretty local in exploring the Akrotiri Peninsula where the airport is also based.
First stop were the graves of Eleftherios Venizelos and his son, both former leaders of Greece. Venizelos senior is to Greece what Churchill & De Gaul are to U.K. & France, albeit his great leadership exploits occurred during WWI. He is buried high up overlooking the town and port, a splendid view any time of day, but apparently particularly lovely at sunset. We viewed it in the midday sun.
Next up Agia Triada monastery, a fabulously tranquil spot about 16 km out of town. It was now 34C and the shady gardens and gorgeous church gave marvellous respite to the dry heat.
The church had a no photographs rule and having visited many many Byzantine churches over the years and never photographing any inside, this was no problem to me. It was a particularly fine example though, full of valuable icons and expertly crafted candle chandeliers gilded with gold.
The most striking feature though was the cupola. You looked up through a chandelier to see Christ painted with his arms wide open, welcoming you into his Father’s house. A memorable image.
The church in keeping with all the buildings was constructed of large red & honey-coloured stone blocks, as were the paved courtyards & corridors and the eye catching steps, arches and vaulted ceilings of the verandas that led to the living quarters of the monks.
The air was filled with the scent of jasmine, honeysuckle, gardenia, mint, marjoram and basil, whilst citrus & fig trees and deep purple bougainvillea gave a riot of colour as well as welcome shade.
The monastery also contained two fascinating small museums, the first brimming with religious artefacts, hand painted bibles and ceremonial vestments worn by bishops & priests. The second contained ancient tools used by the monks to make and store wine, olive oil, soap, candles and vinegar – medieval looking presses, barrels and glass containers of all shapes & sizes.
Inevitablty there were shops selling produce and religious items. With the €2.50 entrance fee (waived for us due to my wife being Greek) being such a bargain, I am sure they do rather well out of commerce. We left at least €25 lighter.
After our visit it was time for lunch. We headed back towards the airport to a village called Chorafakia and Irene’s Taverna. The founder came to take our order. At 83 years of age she sat at our table and painstakingly wrote down our choices, Greek salad with feta cheese on the side (Mrs Wilbur hates it!), fried zucchini, meatballs in tomato sauce and tomatoes stuffed with rice. All cooked to order and absolutely delicious. Far too much for us to eat in fact, but they were very happy to place our uneaten food into foil containers for us to enjoy later.
As seemed to be the tradition everywhere we ate, we were offered a dessert and some raki on the house. We devoured the chocolate mousse, but politely declined the lethal shots of alcohol. It did make me a little concerned though that there may be other drivers on the roads that had knocked a couple back after lunch. Best be even more careful then!
There were a couple more monasteries to visit, but first we had to climb high into the mountains, contending with several hairpin bends. The heat was a blistering 35C, with no breeze and precious little shade so high up.
The first monastery (Gouverneto) looked a pale also ran compared to Agia Triada and was shut until later anyway, whilst the second (Katholiko Monastery) was a tiny ruin, once the home of a hermit named John. It was a long, steep walk to get there so we satisfied ourselves with some photos from distance and out towards the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean.
Our final stop of the day was a visit to the seaside to Stavros, meaning ‘cross’ (as in crucifixion not annoyance) in Greek. The beach was made famous as the spot where Anthony Quinn performed a Greek dance in the film Zorba the Greek. We avoided the temptation for a drink in Zorba’s Tavern, instead having a coffee and ice-cream sat at a beachside cafe.
Another thing that struck me about all the places we visited was that parking was totally free. By this time in the U.K. I would have spent about £10 on car parks, that is if I had been fortunate enough to find a space!
After our refreshments we headed home, for a relaxing night in with a bottle of wine and our leftover food from Irene’s.