Rhodes (see http://www.rodorama.gr/rodospanorama-main.htm)
Good food and drink are among the many attractions of a holiday in Rhodes. The local cuisine is the result of the action of Greek imagination on a basic stock of European and eastern dishes: the most characteristically Greek elements are the use of olive oil, tomatoes, onions, garlic and a wide variety of herbs and spices. Among the most popular dishes with both Greeks and visitors are moussaka, stuffed vine leaves (dolmades), meat balls (keftedes) and shish-kebab (souvlaki). The locals are especially fond of fish and all the other types of seafood, but they make sure that it has been freshly caught. Fresh fish is the most expensive type of food to be had, and is sold by weight. Almost every Greek meal is incomplete without a Greek salad (choriatiki salata), and this is frequently accompanied by tzatziki (side-dish made from yoghourt, garlic and cucumber)and feta (soft white sheep’s-milk cheese).
Most meals are rounded off with fresh fruit, of which the island has abundant supplies of the tastiest varieties. Among chief fruit products are apricots, peaches, water-melons, figs, grapes (all in the spring and summer) and pears, mandarins, and oranges in the autumn and winter. Prices are generally low, but will depend upon the season.
Greek coffee is more or less the same as Turkish coffee - that is, it is made in a small copper coffee-pot (known as a briki), in which the coffee is mixed with sugar and water and brought to the boil while being stirred. It is then served in small cups and accompanied by a class of water. Of course, instant coffee is available everywhere nowadays, too. The inhabitants of Rhodes are famed for their sweet tooth. Although Western-style sweetmeats are popular, the most typically Greek varieties are baklavas and kataifi, made of very thin layers of pastry filled with crushed walnuts or almonds and covered with sweet syrup.
The fact that Rhodian wine was popular and highly-esteemed even in antiquity is proved by the number of amphorae containing it which have been discovered all over the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. In the Middle Ages, too, the Knights of St. John developed a taste for it and helped to spread its fame. This tradition of producing good wine continues today. The bright sunshine and mild climate of Rhodes make it ideal for the cultivation of the vine. The main producers are the firms CAIR and EROP-EMERY, which make a wide range of popular wines. The best-known of these are ‘Ilios"(dry white), ‘Grand Maitre (dry white) and ‘chevalier de Rhodes’ (dry red).
Most growers make their own wine as well as selling their grapes to the industrial wine producers. Each producer makes his wine according to his own taste and recipe, of course, and after putting aside enough for his own consumption, offers the rest for sale at the island’s coffee-shops and tavernas, where it can provide a perfect accompaniment to a meal of village simplicity.
On the question of drink, visitors should not forget the existence of ouzo, the Greek aperitif. This is normally drunk before a meal, and should always be accompanied by a snack (mezes) served by the establishment and included in the price, as taken by itself its consequences are highly intoxicating. When you add ice or water to ouzo its colour will change, and it will become milky this is the effect of aniseed which is added as a flavouring.
Rhodes belongs to the Dodecanese
group of islands,at
the south-eastern end of Greece.
The island, with maximum length of 78 km. and maximum width of 38 km.,
has a total area of
1,400 square kilometres (forth
in size among the greek islands), most of it hilly: Atavyros (1,215
m.) is the highest mountain, followed by Akramitis (825 m.) and Profitis
Ilias (798 m.). There are no proper rivers or lakes, but there is plentiful
run-off of water from the hills to irrigate the crops.The climate of
Rhodes is the typical
with mild winters and cool summers.
Big city but stay in the old town and you'll love it. Fantastic castle built by the Knights of Saint John. Lots of nightlife. Try Sticky Fingers or the 60's bar. Tell Kosta Iraklides I sent you. Check out the rest of the island which is agricultural with great beaches and some fancy resorts. Lindos is picturesque and packed during the season but go early or late and share it with the locals. Plenty of undiscovered spots but you will need a car to find them. Don't forget the Valley of the Butterflies. Well they are moths actually but nonetheless impressive.
The city of Rhodes, with its 50,000 inhabitants stands on the same site as the ancient city, construction of which began in 408 B.C. The town thus has a history stretching back over 2,400 years, and monuments from every period can be found within its bounds.
The ancient city was rather larger than the present city. To the South, the walls reach as far as the hills which cut off the triangle of flat ground in the North from the rest of the island. Indeed, some of these hills, such as Monte Smith, were inside the walls. The area enclosed by the walls has been estimated at 700 hectares, while the area of the medieval city or Old City is only 48 hectares. The population of the ancient city during its period of greatest fame and power, in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., must have been about 80,000. Rhodes had not one acropolis, but two - one on the Monte Smith and another, smaller, on the site of the Palace of the Knights.
The layout of the ancient city was also different to that of the modern town. It was built in the Hippodamian manner: that is, around a number of wide streets in a grid system, running East-West and North-South. There is a theory that the ancient city was planned by the famous Miletian architect Hippodamus himself, but this would appear to be mistake. Whoever its planner was, Rhodes was the subject of great admiration in the ancient world. As Strabo says, "We cannot tell of any other city that is its equal, much less its superior"
Rhodes today has to offer an impressive variety of colours and forms; its marvelous beaches, big modern buildings, picturesque neighbourhoods, imposing medieval edifices and Turkish minarets are all swamped in greenery. In the town itself, the streets are lined with trees. Vegetation grows up even as far as the walls of the Castle, and the numerous palm trees hint at the tropical. For many, the best approach to Rhodes is from the sea, from which can be seen the medieval city towering over the harbour, with its biscuit-coloured walls, towers, bastions and battlements. Behind it, the domes and minarets of Turkish mosques. Those who arrive in Rhodes by air, as do most visitors, and thus miss this wonderful experience, can make up for it by taking a trip on one of the many small boats operating out of Mandraki harbour.
The West Coast
The north-west winds which blow throughout Greece during the late summer (meltemia) mean that the sea on this side of the island is not so calm as that on the east side. However, it is also the case that the heat which can be so trying during July and August is considerably less on the west coast.
(10 km). It was in 1876 that the amateur archaeologists Biliotti and Salzmann came across the necropolis (graveyard) of ancient Ialysos, between Trianta and Mt. Filerimos. Most of the finds from the site are in the British Museum and the Louvre, and only a few are to be seen in Rhodes Museum. The most valuable finds, mostly jewellery dating from the 15th century B.C.,are further evidence that the town reached its peak of prosperity at that time.
Ialysos was known throughout the ancient Greek world chiefly on account of the athletic feats of the Eratides family, and especially of Diagoras, who won the boxing event in the Olympic Games on three occasions. His third victory, in 464 B.C., was celebrated by Pindar in his 7th Olympionicus.
When the new city of Rhodes was built in 408 B.C., many of the inhabitants of Ialysos moved there, and the city declined and died. The peak of Mt. Filerimos may be reached by turning left in Trianda and following the road for four km through a green pinewood. This was the site of the acropolis of Ialysos, and it was used by both Byzantines and Knights for military purposes. The Byzantine forces were besieged here in 1248 when Genoans took the island, and it was the first site to be fortified by the Knights when they arrived in their turn in 1306. During the great siege of 1522, Suleiman the Magnificent directed operations from the summit of the hill.
The hill itself takes its name from a monk who arrived here in the 13th century bearing an icon of Our Lady painted, as tradition goes, by St.Luke. The chapel he built later became a full-scale basilica, and on top of that, the knights built a monastery of Our Lady in the 15th century. This was ruined by being used for the cavalry during the Turkish occupation. The Italians restored it, and even provided Cappuchine monks to reside in it. On our way up the ancient road which ascends the acropolis, we can see on our left the foundations of the 3rd century B.C. temple of Zeus and Athena and also the foundations of an Early Christian church with an underground font. To the left as we look at the temple is the chapel of St George, entirely covered within with wall-paintings of the saints, and to the right is the Monastery of Our Lady.
The view from the top of Mt. Filerimos is particularly worth a mention. To the North lies the Bay of Trianda, with its huge hotels, and to the West the villages of Kremasti and Paradeisi.
The village of Pastida and Maritsa are visible to the South, next to the old airport, and in the distance the green slopes of Mt. Profitis Ilias and the bare crown of Mt. Atavyros
Valley of the Butterflies
The butterflies breed in the valley, laying their eggs there in September. The caterpillars emerge from the eggs in April spreading throughout the surrounding area, have turned into chrysalis from May, and are full-blown butterflies by June. The heat and the smell of the storax draw them back to the valley, which they reach by travelling at night. They remain there, repeating the cycle all over again, and making the most of the coolness to be found there even on the hottest day.
Theologos or Tholos
(35 km). The ruins of Ancient Kamiros have been called the Pompeii of Greece, but the parallel is far from compete, since Pompeii, as everyone knows, was buried in the most dramatic manner under the lava of Vesuvius, while Kamiros was gradually abandoned by its inhabitants and covered by earth with the passage of time. The city was developed by the Dorians, as were Ialysos and Lindos. But the discovery of a Mycenean necropolis (burial ground) near the village of Kalavarda shows that in pre-historic times, before the invasion of the Dorians, the area must have been inhabited by Achaeans. In contrast to Lindos, with its tradition as a great naval power, Kamiros was largely a farming community, with figs, oil and wine as its main products. The need to export the wine and the olive was the stimulus for a flourishing pottery to grow up. It would appear that the city was at the height of its success in the 6th century B.C.,insofar as this can be judged from the pottery which has been found and from the fact that it was in this century that Kamiros became the first Rhodian city to mint coins. However, when the city of Rhodes was founded in 408 B.C., the inhabitants of Kamiros began to drift away. Archaeological finds seem to indicate that a small town remained on the site into the 4th century A.D., but after that kamiros was deserted. There is no certainty about the reasons for which this happened, although there is a theory that successive pirate raids were responsible.
A few centuries later the whole area was given over to woods and fields, and was known to the inhabitants of neighbouring villages as "Kambiros".
It was this name, and the presence of some graves which villagers had turned over by chance, that led the archaeologists Biliotti and Salzmann to begin their excavations on the site. The first thing they came across was the necropolis, on the hills around the site. The finds were very rich, consisting mainly of pottery, of which the inhabitants of the ancient city were inordinately fond, filling even their tombs with it. Most of the finds were taken to the British Museum and the Louvre.
Most of the ruins which can be seen today are from the Hellenistic and later periods and not from the Archaic period during which the town was at its height and from which we have the best finds. Kamiros was seriously damaged by earthquakes in 226 and 142 B.C.
Embonas village (55 km) on the slopes of Mt Attaviros (highest peak on Rhodes with 1215 m.) is interesting for those attracted by folklore. It produces excellent wine and home-made ouzo (souma) and is among the few villages on the island where old men and women can still be seen in traditional dress.
Monolithos is a beautiful village on the slopes of Mt. Akramitis, with a fine view back towards Atavyros and into the centre of the island. A track leading southwest out of the village and down towards the sea brings us, after one km, to the medieval Castle of Monolithos, built on top of a rock which gives it its name (monos lithos =single rock ). It is one of the most outstanding sights on Rhodes, not so much for the remains of the castle itself, of which there are very few, but thanks to its imposing position. Inside the castle there is a chapel of Agios Pantaleimon which probably dates from 15th century.
The East Coast
Koskinou – Kalithea
The village of Koskinou (5 km from Rhodes City) has been declared subject to preservation because of its unique and lovely traditional houses. They are ornamented with multicoloured ceramics and embroidery, while their courtyards are paved with black-and-white pebbles
At the nearby Kalithea beach there were medicinal springs (no longer
in operation), which a few years ago were popular with devotees of this
form of therapy. The installations are worth seeing, however, and there
are plans to renovate them. There is good swimming to be had in the small
Afandou - Kolymbia
At nearby Kolymbia there are beautiful, sandy and peddly coves. The area is well developed with medium-size hotels, apartments, restaurants, bars, and tourist shops.
Kalathos and Vlicha
(47 km).Some fine hotels stand on this sandy and peddly beach, rooms may be rented, and there are restaurants and coffee-shops. As soon as we pass the bay of Vlicha, the imposing acropolis of Lindos come in sight, with the village built around its foot.
(50 km). Lindos today has approximately 1000 inhabitants and is probably the most famous village in Greece, at least among foreigners. As in the case of the Old City of Rhodes, it has been declared a monument for preservation, and thus has been able to retain most of its traditional colour. It is the most popular spot of outings on the island; every day it sees an influx of thousands of foreign tourists and locals who come to admire the village and the acropolis and to swim from its marvellous beaches.
According to Homer, in the Iliad, Lindos was built by the Dorians along with Kamiros and Ialysos - this must have been about the 11th century B.C. Rhodes sent nine ships to the Trojian War, and these were probably all from Lindos. This would seem to indicate that at that time Lindos was the strongest of the Rhodian cities. The city’s development, indeed, was largely a function of this sea power, for its twin harbours and its impregnable acropolis were unique in Rhodes. Even as early as the 7th century B.C. we hear reports of Lindian colonies, and the fleet cornered a large part of the trade and shipping of the Mediterranean. The Lindians were the first to draw up a code of maritime law, later known as the Rhodian law. This later became the basis for Roman maritime law, and even today forms the backbone of the law of the sea.
In the arts, the Lindians were most successful in sculpture. As the materials available in the area were not particularly suitable for sculpture in stone, the Lindans were obliged to work in bronze, bringing achievement in this to a very high point. The famous bronze Colossus of Rhodes was the work of a Lindian artist, Chares.
The city reached the height of its power in the 6th century B.C. ,especially in the reign of Cleoboulos, who ruled for more than 40 years.
When Rhodes city was founded in 408 B.C., Lindos lost some of its inhabitants, and the centre for sculpture, like the shipyards, moved to the new city. But the town survived as a centre of marine trade.
In 1522, the Knights of St John, who had controlled trade and shipping, left the island, and the Turks who followed, having themselves little idea of or interest in trade, allowed the Lindians to organise things much as they wished.
The village today contains many houses dating from the 16yh,17th and 18th centuries - which are known as the houses of the captains. Their architecture and decoration is unique in the Greek world. Up until very recently most of these buildings were deserted, but the money earned from tourism has enabled the locals to renovate them, under the supervision of the Archaeological Service, so as to ensure that any alterations remain within the traditional style of the town.
The building of hotels is forbidden, but the Lindians have over two thousand beds available for visitors in their houses, and is an ideal spot for those who wish to avoid the modern hotels to be found elsewhere.
The acropolis and the area which surrounds it were excavated by the Danish Archaeological School between 1902 and 1912. The oldest things found were obsidian tools dating from the Neolithic period, about 3000 B.C., and this shows how long the history of Lindos stretches back.
The acropolis itself is an approximately triangular rock, 116 metres high, which is wider and lower to the North and rises through four step-like levels to the South. The crown of the acropolis today is dominated by the walls built by the Knights. The ancient walls were much lower, and did not hide the buildings behind them.
Kiotari - Gennadi
Santorini (see http://www.greektravel.com/greekislands/index.html)
We arrived at night by boat to the port of Athinaos and my friends got on the bus to Thira but it was really crowded. Since my friends were getting on my nerves anyway I decided to walk to town, not realizing what the road was like. If you have never been to Santorini the only way I can describe this road is to imagine a slinky toy stretched up a thousand foot cliff. For an hour I walked back and forth making my way to the top of the crater that I did not even know was a crater because I had never even looked at a picture of Santorini. (Don't laugh. I know Athenians who have never seen the Parthenon). I tried creating short cuts by cutting through, going straight up and dissecting the road but it was bloody and difficult to do, especially at night. Finally after an hour I made it to the top. Totally exhausted, I walked a couple miles to a small church in the middle of an enormous field of grapes and fell asleep in my sleeping bag.
When I woke up I started walking towards Thira and that was the first time I saw the volcano. I had no idea there could be anything so spectacular. It was mind boggling and all I could do was stare at this enormous crater filled with sea, so high that the cruise ships anchored below Thira looked like models and the wind on the water looked like calligraphy.
When I got to the main platia it was the usual tourist island mass of confusion, with motorbike rental signs, fast food, ticket offices, travel agents and an atmosphere more like Orlando Florida then the Greece I was familiar with at the time. But when I walked up the main street from the square there it was again: that big awe inspiring hole that just makes everything else irrelevant when you stare at it. This was at 10 AM and I looked at all the cafes on the cliff with the tables and chairs facing west and came to the profound realization that this must be the best place in the world to watch the sunset. I was right.
Santorini is like two islands. One side is the crater with the villages of Thira and Oia perched so far above the sea that it may as well be a painting. The other side is where the towns of Perissa and Kamari attract to their black sand beaches, thousands of suntanned boys and girls with perfect bodies. I remember hearing of these marvels of nature (the sand, not the tanned bodies). Black sand to me was like white whales or purple mountains majesty. Something that was considered beyond special and had to be seen to be believed. What the tourist guides don't tell you about black sand which would be fairly obvious if I had thought about it is that it's hot as hell. On a summer's day you cannot walk from your towel to the sea without your flip-flops. You can look down the beach and see the heat rising in waves off the black sand and the shore is lined with flip-flops, waiting like patient dogs whose masters have gone for a swim.
There is certainly plenty of nightlife in the beach towns but the true romantics stay in Thira and get back there from the beaches with plenty of time to shower, take a short nap and then walk to one of the bars that line the volcano for a few drinks and to watch the sunset. These are the types of places where friendships are made since you are all sharing the same remarkable experience. It is an experience that heightens one's awareness of nature and his own place within it. It's a sense of awe combined with the relaxation that comes from the drink you have and the knowledge that there is nowhere you have to be.
It's also a great place to meet girls (and boys).
Santorini Archeological Sites
There is more to Santorini of course then the bars, restaurants, views of Thira, the quietness of Oia or the beaches and nightlife of the outer coast. There are the ruins of Akrotiri which some claim is evidence that the people that once populated the island may or may not have been the civilization of Atlantis. The first trace of the city was discovered by French archeologists after an eruption of the volcano in 1866. Professor Spyridon Marinatos later unearthed the rest of the city which was preserved by volcanic ash. Marinatos was killed by a fall on the site and he is buried among the stones to which he had devoted his life. Since the ruins are mostly of mud brick the site is covered to shelter it from the elements.
There are the ruins of Ancient Thira on a mountain between the beaches at Kamari and Perissa which are best visited in the early morning before the sun has gotten too hot. The terraced ruins that overlook the sea date back to the 3rd century BC and the Ptolemies, with also the remnants of Hellenistic and Roman civilization. Many of the artifacts found in ancient Thira and Akrotiri can be found in the archeological museum in Thira next to the cable car that takes tourists from the cruise ships below to the village and back.
The Volcano of Santorini
I can't help but to keep coming back to the volcano because even sitting at my desk writing, it looms in the back of my mind like a sleeping giant. And it is asleep, not dead. It's an active volcano that erupted in 1956 and may do so again one day though perhaps not in our lifetime. Proof of the life that still exists within this giant hole filled with water is the island of Nea Kamini in the center of the bay which emerged in 1707. Next to it in the older island of Palia Kamini you can take hot mud baths, usually an indication of something brewing beneath the surface. You can reach these two islands by excursion boats. Across the bay is the island of Thirasia which is actually the other rim of the volcano and was once part of the same island. There are hotels, tavernas and a village that faces the cliffs of the volcano on the main island.
I had a dream once of Santorini erupting. I had not been there in years but in the dream I was on Sifnos and we saw the plume of smoke and I had the sensation of major change that one gets in a hurricane or when he looks out the window and sees tanks in the square across the street. Even as we talked of what we were witnessing we could see stretched on the horizon the line of boats as the first refugees from Santorini came, seeking shelter from the earth's upheaval.
Since there were no human remains found in the ruins of Akrotiri, it's a good indication that the inhabitants of Santorini knew what was coming and took off for safer ground. But did they make it? It is believed that when the volcano erupted in the 14th century BC it caused a tidal wave that destroyed the cities of Minoan Crete. That is quite a tidal wave and the eruption was perhaps the biggest cataclysmic event within human history (so far).
For all Santorini has to offer, it's fine beaches, active nightlife, restaurants, tomato keftedes(deep fried tomato balls are an island specialty), raki (like ouzo but stronger and does not taste like licorice), excellent wines (the volcanic soil and climate make the island one of the best places to grow grapes in the world): it's the volcano that is the star of the island. Take it away and all you have is another island with tomato balls. The black sand beaches, the wine, the raki are all by-products of the explosion that destroyed life on the island and created in it's place a destination that offers what few others do, that is not only fun but profoundly dramatic in scenery. I don't think you could go to another planet and be more impressed then you will be when you see Santorini for the first time.
The most important advice I can give anyone traveling to Santorini is
to arrive by boat and get there before sunset. Stay in Thira, Imogivli
or Oia, and at least once during your stay, sit on the edge of the caldera
and let your mind try to grasp the immensity of what you are looking
at. You may come back a changed person.
The Island of Crete
Forget Iraklion, Ag Nikalao, Malia, and the major tourist beaches which have been taken over by British package tours. Take the boat to Chania, the bus to Omalos and walk down the Samarian Gorge. Most people stay in tiny Agia Roumeli long enough for a beer and to catch the next boat to Chora Sfakia, but there are rooms to rent and the few days I spent there at the end of my trip down the Gorge were some of my best days in Greece.The cities of Rethymnon and Chania have nice harbors lined with restaurants and cafes. Iraklion is a city, noisy and crowded. The South coast is busy with tourists, but the beaches are nice and if you don't mind doing a little walking you can get away. The hippie villages of Matala, Paliohora, Agia Galina, Sfakia and Loutra are now pretty much full-blown resort towns in the summer. Try the east or western tips of Crete. Palekastro has several nice beaches that are fairly uninhabited and the most amazing wind I have ever experienced. The beach at Vai is the only palmtree forest in all of Europe and as you might imagine full of tour buses during the day. Kato Zakro is a small village on the coast at the bottom of a deep ravine cut into the rocks. The western part of Crete in the area known as Kastelli, there are small villages and beautiful beaches. The whole island is full of Minoan ruins, medieval fortresses and active monasteries and a guidebook is essential (unless you don't care about that kind of stuff). Save this island for the off-season. It is big and really a country in itself. Follow small roads to tiny villages and unknown beaches. If you don't have a car and are spending your days laying in the sun and your nights in the bars and discos of the hideously over-touristed towns of Agia Nikolao, Malia and Cheronissos, you may as well be anywhere.
Sometimes people send me their desired itineraries to Greece for comment and suggestions. Many times along with their 3 days in Mykonos and two days in Santorini they want to do 2 days in Crete. My advise to them is to forget it. Unless they have at least a week to spend on Crete, I tell them to go elsewhere. Crete is simply too big and too mutli-dimensional to breeze in and out of for a couple days. It would be like stopping in New York for a couple hours. What's the point if all you will see is Times Square?
There is lots to see on Crete, and a lot not to see. While the mountain villages and coastal towns on the Eastern and Western tips of the island have retained their traditions and their beauty, towns like Malia, Agias Nikaloaos and most of the beach towns in Northern Crete have been over-run by British package tours and gigantic hotels owned by international travel cartels who have turned much of Crete into Nassau with Mousaka. Not to discourage those who are looking for a Club-Med style vacation. If that's what you want, it is certainly here in quantity and in quality and two days in Crete is fine, though you might as well have spent the time on whatever island resort you just came from since it was probably not much different from what you will find in Crete.
But I have come to praise Crete, not to discourage those travelers who come to Greece looking for the real thing. Crete is spectacular and if you take the time to get to know it, you will probably return.
Getting to Crete
Getting to Crete is easy. If you are a backpacker you simply take the subway to Pireaus sometime before 6pm, decide which port in Crete you want to arrive at, buy a ticket and get on the boat. It's a 12 hour trip and if it is a warm summer night and you are in your sleeping bag under the stars on the top deck you may never want the journey to end. If you prefer a cabin then you should get your tickets in advance through a reliable travel agent in Athens <../dolphin/index.html>. The boats have restaurants and bars, videos on tv's in the lounges and in some cabins. Some of the ferries are newer and better then others and your travel agent will be able to tell you which is which. The ferries to Crete are to your far right when you get off the train and face the harbor. You can walk or take the free shuttle which goes back and forth along the dock.
Ports in Crete
There are 3 main choices of Cretan ports to arrive at. Heraklion is a big city with traffic, noise and all the chaos that goes with a large population. It's the closest place to ancient Knossos and for that reason many people go here first. It is the capital of the island so many of the travel agents, major hotels, car rental agencies, restaurants, nightlife and tours are based here, but that does not mean you have to be.
Chania and Rethymnon to the west of Iraklion are more my speed and maybe yours too. They are smaller but they have plenty of life, with great restaurants, hotels, and all that you will need, without the congestion of Iraklion. The only drawback is that they are so far away from Eastern Crete, but that is not a good enough reason to not stay here, nor is it a good reason to stay in Iraklion and make that your base because of it's accessability to the rest of the island.
Chania and West Crete
Though Chania is a modern city the interior is a labyrynth of old Venetian houses that you can wander around with only an occasional reminder of the twentieth century. The port is actually in Souda Bay, but there are buses and taxis available to take you right into the city. The bus will leave you at the market place near the old town. There are hotels all over the city but the ones overlooking the harbor are probably where you want to be even if the nightlife below can get a little noisy. If you don't see yourself as being one of the people making the noise then you may want to find a quieter place further back or ask your travel agent what she suggests.
As for what to do in Chania it's a case of passing the day until the sun goes down and the lights of the cafes, restaurants and bars around the harbor come on and life begins. Like most harbor towns the expensive cafes have taken the best spots on the waterfront and the cheaper and more traditional restaurants are on the fringes and the back streets. There are also some interesting non-traditional restaurants scattered around the old town which you will come across in your wanderings. Most of the bars, discos and nightclubs are located in the inner harbor. For traditional Greek music in a traditional Greek setting try the Café Kriti at 22 Kalergon, the next street up parallel to the inner harbor.
The beaches are to the west and being close to the city they are usually if not crowded, well populated. Anyway, for adventurous travelers to be in Crete without a car is like being in Manhattan without a wallet. Your days should be spent exploring the island. If you came to lay out on the beach and watch people you should be at Elounda beach or Ag Nik.
Another option for a port of arrival is the city of Rethymnon which is a mixture of high end tourist resorts and a traditional inner harbor of old buildings. Most of the tourist activity and nightlife is located on the road behind the town beach, but some of the best beaches on the island are a short distance away to the west where development is not as advanced as it is toward Heraklion. There are long stretches of sand and you may find yourself alone, but be aware that there can be strong currents and there are no lifeguards.
The Arkadiou Monastery between Rethymnon and Iraklion is a 5th century holy site that became a symbol of Cretan restistance on November 9th 1866 when hundreds of refugees and revolutionaries chose death over surrender to the Turks and blew themselves to pieces with the gunpowder that was being stored there by the Cretan Revolutionaries. The monastery was rebuilt again and is well worth the visit.
The Sammarian Gorge
To go to Crete without going through the gorge would be a missed opportunity for an incredible experience, providing you are physically strong enough to walk downhill for 15 kilometers. This part of the trip to Crete should be done before renting a car unless you are prepared to walk 15 kilometers back uphill to retrieve it. There are buses from Chania to Omalos and to give yourself plenty of time I suggest taking the first one. When you get to Omalos find the Xiloskala, or Wooden Staircase and begin your journey down. Eventually you reach a stream and begin your trek towards the sea, passing on your way the deserted village of Sammaria and a variety of wildflowers and terrains. The gorge ends at the village of Agia Roumeli where there are restaurants, cafes and a boat that will take you to Chora Sfakion where you can find a room and spend the night or catch a bus back to Chania or Rethymnon. There are also less frequent boats from Agia Roumeli to Souyia and Paleo Hora which will be less tourist impacted then Chora Sfakion, with better beaches and cheaper places to stay and eat.There are at least five buses a day going to Chania.
The west coast of Crete is along with the southeast coast the least developed coastline on the island. From Kasteli on there are plenty of deserted beaches and the small island of Ellafonisi which you can walk to. Of course as usually happens to any magical ‘undiscovered' spot on the island, the giant multinational hotel conglomerates have bought up all the land and are making plans to destroy it.
The island of Gavdos off the coast of Paleochora is your best bet for escaping the throngs during the summer months.This does not mean you will be alone there, but chances are anyone you see will be a lot like you. There is something funny about an island full of people seeking solitude. There is not much there besides a few beaches, tavernas and rooms and it's inaccesability makes it unlikely to be developed. There are rooms for rent which can be arranged from Paleochora.
Plakias, Agia Galina and Matala
These coastal villages have a lot in common. At one time they were remote villages with beautiful beaches, inexpensive rooms and small tavernas. Now they are built up with hotels, tour buses arriving by the minute, tourist shops and wild nightlife. But this is the case with lots of places in Greece and particularly Crete and if you are here in the summer you may as well enjoy it. Anyway we are not all traveling monks and recluses looking for olive groves on empty beaches where we can contemplate the success and failures of our lives. Some of us like to party at night and lay out on the beach and watch girls and guys in their bathing suits by day and these beaches are perfectly suitable. Plakias is 2 kilometers of tanned (and often lobster red), young,(and old) bodies. Matala is a coved beach with the hippy caves made famous by life magazine in the late sixties and thus changed forever. In the winter of 1973 I stayed in these caves until one day we were awakened by policemen led by priests who evicted us because they are actually mausaleums. In fact several of the caves had skeletons in the carved out beds we were sleeping in. Agia Galini is a full blown tourist resort however there are three good reasons to recommend going there. The sun is usually shining there, the people are nice, and I can't remember the third. That being said, any of these places is fine during the off-season and being the southernmost part of Greece, they can be a little warmer in the winter. In fact I swam on New Years day in Matala in 1974. When I emerged from the water, Germans dressed in winter overcoats, scarves and hats gathered around to have their picture taken with me.
The town center of Agias Nikolaos is a bottomless lake, which is actually not a lake because it is connected to the sea and is not bottomless because it does not go all the way to the other side of the earth. But it is deep enough for the retreating Germans to dump all their tanks during WWII, and nobody has seen them since. Now the ancestors of those same Germans can frolic in the sea and in the pubs with the ancestors of the British people they fought, while being served by the ancestors of the farmers who defended their land with muskets against those tanks at the bottom of the bottomless lake. Indeed ‘Ag Nik' as the British tourists call it, is an interesting town, somewhat less so in the summer when it is so packed with tourists that the local buses can barely get through the streets. Nearby is the Elounda Beach, one of the most well known and successful resorts in the country and from what I have been told is not bad as resorts go. There are enough sandy coves and beaches along the coast so you can get away from the crowds if you want though you probably won't find solitude unless you head inland.
Between Agias Nikolaos and Iraklion is the famous Malia which represents everything I dislike about the tourist industry in Greece. Once a small coastal village with an interesting Minoan archeological site, it is now an overwhelming , chaotic collection of tourist shops, supermarkets, fast food restaurants, mopehead rental and travel agencies where you can't walk down the street without being accosted by someone trying to get your attention so they can drag you into their restaurant. The once quiet beach is now packed with tourists who could not give a damn where they are as long as it is sunny and there is a beach and a pub nearby. There are plenty of pubs. Discos too, and they compete with each other by playing their music loudly to draw customers in. You have to wonder how anyone gets any sleep, but generally these people did not come for sleep. Nor did they come for Greece. They come because someone told them to come or because everyone else does, and the package tours rake in the pounds and shillings. Unfortunately this is what many of the coastal towns in Crete aspire to and even as far as Palakastro farmers have begun planting apartment buildings in their fields for the anticipated hordes. But before anyone accuses me of being unsympathetic to the needs of the people of Malia to make a living (well, get rich actually), or for the common people to have a place where they can go and spend their holidays unhindered by local culture and customs I have to admit that Malia does serve a purpose, much in the same way that prisons do by getting hoodlums off the streets. Working class people with simple needs should have a place in Greece to call their own. Not everybody cares about tradition or is enamoured with the culture of Crete. Some people just want to get hot, wet and drunk. They want to go to a foreign land that is not too foreign and they want it to be cheap. Places like Malia are perfect for them, but if you are reading this it probably is not for you.
Sitia and Eastern Crete
The main road that runs between Agia Nikolaos and Sitia is one of the most dramatic in Crete, winding through olive groves on the steep sides of mountains where around every bend is a spectacular view. Sitia with a population of 8500 people, is the easternmost city on Crete and perhaps the least developed. Sitia has been inhabited since the Minoan period. At Petra, to the east of the town, a section of ancient settlement has been excavated. There is a waterfront with restaurants and cafes, a large public beach, and an archeological museum which holds many of the findings from Palekastro. Above the city is a Venetian castle where they have concerts, in fact we were lucky enough to see Ross Daley, an Irishman who singlehandedly has popularized traditional Cretan music, on one of his rare visits to the far end of the island. There is a weekly boat that goes to Karpathos and Rhodes and returns to stop in Santorini, Ios, Sikinos, Folegandros, Milos and Sifnos before going back to Pireaus in case you are interested in a long and scenic return. Outside the city is one of the wonders of nature, a beach that attracts plastic from all over the aegean. By some miracle of sea currents, this tiny beach seems to be Mecca for every bit of plastic that has been tossed or blown into the sea and though they try to clean it up continuously, it is a losing battle. On the bright side though, it is a beautiful site at sunset when the light reflects off every piece of plastic and engulfs the beach in a prism of beautiful colors like sparkling jewels. Recently the headlands next to the beach have been bought and developed into a large resort community and one must assume they have a plan to challenge nature and restore the beach to all it's pristine glory. I for one will be disappointed at the loss of the plastic beach but I suppose there are benefits to having clean seas.
Palekastro and Vai
The town of Palekastro or PK as the archeologists call it, is an agricutural town which has opened it's arms to embrace the mass tourism which has not quite arrived yet. There are plenty of working class tavernas in the central part of town and plenty of working class people to fill them at night. The town is slowly being built up as apartment buildings and hotels have sprung from the ruins of the traditional stone family dwellings which have been allowed to collapse in favor of commerce. Still it's not a bad place to stay. There are some nice beaches, miles of olive groves, hills and mountains and a wind that while some might call it maddening, I found it entertaining as it made it's way through every crack and orafice in our hotel to create a symphony of whistles and banging.There are a couple nice tavernas by the old customs house on the beach and there you can find many of the archeologists from the Minoan site nearby, mostly Americans and British.
The beach at Vai is very commercial with tour buses from all over the island, fast food, tavernas and corn on the cob sold in the massive parking lot. But Vai deserves the attention. Not only is it one of the nicest beaches in Greece, but it is also the only natural palm tree forest in Europe. There are also a couple huge pelicans that wander around terrorizing sunbathers by jumping on their backs as they sleep or sunbathe in the rented beach chairs.
Furthur north are the small beaches of Itanos where there are some classical ruins and a retired professor who lives in a hut and entertains dignateries with grilled fish and raki. The day we were there we just missed Constantine Mitsotakis, the former PrimeMinister.
Nearby is the Toplou Monastery with it's high walls and beautiful gardens, worth a visit, especially if you are interested in Byzantine icons. The icon of The Theotokos the Immaculate is one of the most holy in all of Greece and some of the works of the well known iconographer Ioannis Kornaros are on display. The monastery also took part in the uprising of 1866 and in the resistance against the German occupation when a wireless transmitter was placed here.
The eastern most tip of Crete, the beach town of Kato Zakto is at the bottom of an enormous gorge and the journey from upper Zakro will test your courage while it amazes you. The mountain road is suspended above the sea and as exciting as the ride is, the village is a welcome sight. The gorge is known as the ‘Valley of the Dead' and contains ancient tombs and an impressive Minoan site. There are tavernas along the beach with fresh fish and there are rooms to rent though they can get scarce in the mid summer. Beyond Zakro the pavement ends but if you are adventurous don't let that stop you. There are some amazing secluded beaches and tiny isolated tavernas that you can have all to yourself where the food is inexpensive and excellent.
Iraklion: Crete's Capital
Iraklion is Crete's main city and has a population of over 120,000. Most people arrive here and base themselves in one of the hotels within or on the outskirts of the city. There is an international airport and an enormous harbor full of ferries and cruise ships and the Palace of Knossos is one of the few places that visitors to Crete have ever really heard of if they were paying attention in ancient history class. The city is built on the side of a hill overlooking the port and it's a climb to the center of town with a fully loaded backpack. Mercifully there are taxis below and the bus station is also in the port area where you can leave your bags and wander around in the town above until you know where you are going.
Like most cities there are local buses, traffic lights, plenty of cars and trucks, hotels, shops, restaurants, fast food and a terrific central market in the center of town. The square of Elefteriou Venizelou is a pedestrian area full of cafes and restaurants and if you wander through the tiny back streets that are mostly closed to automobile traffic you will come across some interesting shops. In the restored Venetian church of Agios Markos they hold concerts in the summertime. The archeological museum is the best on Crete and contains Minoan relics from all over the island. There is a huge fortress in the harbor built by Venetians that protected the town from invasion. Throughout the city there are examples of Venetian architecture and it is a pleasure to explore, especially in the off-season when the temperatures are cooler and they crowds have dwindled.
Nikos Kazantzakis: Greece's Greatest Modern Writer
A very special place for me is the grave of the writer Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote among other things Zorba the Greek, The Last temptation of Christ, Freedom or Death, Report to Greco and the Modern Sequel to the Odyssey. If you have not read it already, Zorba makes wonderful complimentary reading for your visit to Crete. Kazantzakis grave is on the south wall of the city. His epitaph is "I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free"
Knossos: Ancient Minoan Crete
The Palace of Knossos is a few kilometers south of the city and easily accessable by bus or taxi, but should be seen as early as possible or in the off-season. The ruins are extensive and facinating and should be enjoyed at a time when you are not suffering from the heat or trampled by the crowds. Among the ruins, beautiful frescos and giant pithoi are the remains of the world's first flush toilet.
The Best Way to See Crete
Crete is a big island that can appeal to a variety of people in different ways. I don't discourage anyone from going there whether you are a sun-worshiping party animal or a cultural minded, eco tourist looking for the land of Zorba. But if you are the latter my advice is this: Visit Crete in the off-season. Base yourself in Chania for starters and explore the interior of the island, the mountain villages and the fields and hillsides which are alive with wildflowers in the spring. You will need at least a week here. If possible, book yourself or have your travel agent book you in different towns around the island. You can even base yourself in the resort areas without running with the crowds, if it is near a part of the island you want to see. There are several guidebooks for sale on the island including a guide to the Monasteries which I recommend. Take your meals at the small tavernas in villages away from the tourists and get to know the people who are Crete's finest asset. The fancy resorts are a modern phenomenon. Who knows if they are the trend or will wind up as relics like the ruins at Knossos? The point is they have been imposed upon the island by external forces who saw Crete as a paradise on earth, well worth the exploitation. I don't condemn this because the nature of tourism is commerce and who am I to judge the needs of the package tourists or the Cretan people who prosper from the flow of dollars, pounds and duetschmarks. If sun, sea, beer and companionship is what you have come to Greece for then you will find the resorts very satisfying as some of these giant companies have created a new Greece, grafting Carribean tourist culture with the famous Hellenic hospitality. But if you are looking for the magic head for the hills. You'll find the people where the tourists aren't. As for the beaches, the island is big and somewhere there is a secluded little cove with your name on it.
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