Postcards from Crete
My wife and I spent eight wonderful days in Crete this past June, exploring the capital (Heraklion) and nearby Knossos Palace, the provinces of Rethymno and Chania, and the famous Samaria Gorge. If you're considering a trip to the Aegean islands, have an interest in ancient history, and want to venture slightly off the beaten path, then you might consider Crete.
We like Europe’s agri-tourism accommodations - small scale, eco-friendly, rustic but not rough. In Crete, we chose Dalabelos Estate, a small complex of 10 modern stone villas on 30 acres in the village of Angeliana, about a 45 minute drive from Heraklion airport. The village is a little rough and tumble, like many we drove through, although Dalabelos is anything but that. The proprietors - Vasili and Maria - embrace organic farming with home grown fruits and vegetables, and homemade olive oil, cheeses, breads, and yoghurt. The ingredients on the dinner menu not found on their property come from local sources who follow the same organic principles. Maria even offers Cretan cooking classes!
A short drive away is the picturesque village of Margarites, a center for ceramics. There are several high quality shops with resident potters who are happy to talk about their work, the history of the village, or European politics! There is a monastery with lush gardens just down the hill from the shops, and a taverna with a terrace offering up Greek beer and good food with which to enjoy the vista.
A little further up the mountain strung along a limestone ridge lies Ancient Eleftherna. There are signs the Minoans inhabited this ancient site but the ruins reflect a later society known as the Dorians. It’s a rugged place but beautiful, and there are numerous paths that criss cross down the ridge to the verdant canyon and creek a few hundred feet below.
Continue driving up Mt. Ida (also known as Psiloritis) and you’ll eventually reach the Nida Plateau, a spectacular high altitude valley bracketed by rocky crags. The ground is covered by ancient sponge-like fossils, evidence that it was undersea at one time. The countless herds of goats are still here, a staple of the Cretan diet. Also present are the distinctive shepherd’s huts known as Mitato.
Just outside Heraklion is the famous Knossos Palace, one of the foremost excavated Minoan sites in Greece. The site was first inhabited 9000 years ago in Neolithic times.Beginning about 2500 BC the Minoans built their first palace on top of these Neolithic ruins.Knossos had courtyards, administrative halls, beautiful clay storage vessels, and rudimentary indoor plumbing. The art and artifacts from Knossos fill several galleries in the Archeological Museum in Heraklion.
If you had one seaside city to spend time being a tourist it should be Chania. Like Rethymno and Heraklion, it has ample evidence of Venetian and Ottoman occupation, but Chania has more charm with its bustling waterfront and beautifully preserved ancient alleyways. There is a terrific maritime museum with an enormous ship model collection spanning the historical spectrum of war at sea. There is also an indoor public market filled with food stalls and kiosks for everything from seafood to sweets. Chania is built over Minoan ruins, and you might walk by an excavation site as we did and find yourself staring in awe at 4000 year old stone walls, steps, and rooms.
If you’re feeling strong and adventurous consider hiking the Samaria Gorge, one of the longest in Europe. We took a bus up to the Omalos plateau and began our hike from the top of the gorge at 4000 feet elevation, as most do. The beginning of the trail is steep but controlled by switchbacks. After the first few kilometers the trail levels out and follows the riverbed. The abandoned village of Samaria is one of several interesting stops along the way, with its rough stone huts and walls. Keep an eye out for the wild Kri Kri goats. The canyon walls close in the further along you walk, creating a gap of just a few meters at its narrowest. It’s hot and dusty but there are ample fresh water sources along the way. You can even safely drink the running river water that surfaces here and there. Allow for 6 hours of hiking to get to the village of Agia Roumeli on the edge of the Libyan sea, from which you will ride the ferry a short distance to one of the ports linked to roads leading back over the island.
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