Exploring Crete

Exploring Crete

by Lauren Bernasconi
Stripes Europe

Named the “Island of a Hundred Cities” by Homer, Crete is one of the most beautiful and vivacious Grecian islands. A place of rich cultural background, the island’s inhabitants trace their heritage to Europe’s first civilization, the Minoans. Cretans view themselves as the keepers of an amazing timeline of history, welcoming all who wish to enjoy its splendor. Exploring Crete’s many small towns and large cities is sure to provide a timeless experience at an incredibly inexpensive price.

For those who like to relax

Sunny Malia, Crete

Malia: Easily Crete’s most touristic place, the beaches of Malia near Heraklion offer a resort-like atmosphere for those who thrive in crowded places. The town showcases some of Crete’s best nightlife, as well as the third-largest Minoan palace on the island. For those who wish to relax in quieter areas away from the main beach, Potamos — at the east of the port of Malia — is a perfect sandy escape.

Siteia Beach: For a bit of water fun to go along with relaxing, the beach at Siteia is a safe area that offers a number of water sports, including jet skiing, surfing and water skiing. This child-friendly beach is often noisy and crowded, but fishing boats can be booked for an afternoon trip if you want to escape the masses.

Island of Imeri Gramvousa: Northwest of Kissamos and opposite the Cape of Gramvousa, Imeri Gramvousa is the ideal place for those wanting to mix some history in with their relaxing. Excursion boats continuously make the trip from mainland Crete to the west bay of this island, arriving below an imposing Venetian fortress that was once the home of pirates. Legend tells of buried treasure to be found somewhere on the island, and a famous wreck abandoned near the coast welcomes more adventurous visitors.

For those who like history

Knossos Palace: One of Crete’s most well-known sites, the Palace of Knossos represents the administrative center of the Minoan civilization. While its use during the Bronze Age is still relatively unknown, its importance as Europe’s first civilization is well documented in its rich collection of monuments and artifacts. The myths surrounding King Minos, the minotaur and the labyrinth, as well as Daedalus and Icarus, find their roots in this spectacular site. The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion holds and documents many of the treasures dating back to the Minoan civilization.

The ancient city of Gortyn

Gortyn: In the province of Heraklion, the ancient city of Gortyn dates to the Neolithic period and is the site of a late Minoan country villa. During the Roman occupation, Gortyn was named the capital of the Roman colony of Crete and the Cyrene islands. Along with its earlier acropolis and necropolis, Gortyn has a number of Roman ruins, including baths, a theater and a spectacular Praetorium, at one time the seat of Crete’s Roman governor.

Heraklion: Once the formidable fortressed city and Arabian pirate hideaway known as Candia, modern-day Heraklion is the capital of Crete. Heraklion traces its history back to the medieval era, and its famous fortress was built by the Venetians to protect against invaders coming from the sea. Originally called Rocca al Mare, the fortress is now known by the Turkish name Koules and boasts one of the largest city walls in Europe.

For those who like the outdoors

Mountains: Dominating the Cretan landscape, the mountains of Crete are separated by the Dikti range in the province of Lassithi, the Ida or Psiloritis range in the center of Crete, and the White Mountains or Lefka Ori in the province of Chania. The highest peak is located within the Psiloritis range, named Timios Stavros and rising to 2,456 meters. Other well-known summits are the Asterousia range (the southernmost range in Greece), the Minoan sacred mountain known as Mount Yiouchtas and the Talean range.

Melidoni Cave

Caves: Countering the towering peaks of Crete’s mountains are more than 4,500 caves and sinkholes. During Crete’s early history, the Dictaean and Idaean caves were sacred sites, and, according to legend, Zeus’ birthplace. In the Byzantine era, these caves were used to house saints, including Saint Paul, Saint Gerasimos and Saint John Xenos. During the revolutions and quests for independence, Crete’s caves served as shelters. Modern areas that are great for caving include Mount Stroumboulas near Heraklion, the Geopark of Sitia, the Geopark of Psiloritis and Melidoni Cave.

Gorges: Created by the melting snow from the caps of Crete’s mountains, numerous gorges can be explored by those willing to brave their trails. Known as one of the biggest and most famous gorges in Europe, the Gorge of Samaria, in the province of Sfakia, is open to visitors during summer. It passes through a dense forest of cypresses and pines before narrowing into small passages between immense vertical walls, known as gates, and ends at the village of Agia Roumeli by the sea. The trail can be walked in five or fewer hours, but it is generally recommended to spend at least six to eight hours in order to enjoy the gorge’s immense beauty.

Tips for traveling in Crete

Climate: The southern coast experiences warmer winters and summers than the northern coast. The temperature is generally milder than most Mediterranean locations, with the summer sun lasting from April to October and a mild winter from mid-December to the end of February. The summer weather is comfortably cool due to the sea breeze and Etesian winds, with the hottest months being July and August.

Resorts: Many all-inclusive resorts with access to beaches, amazing food and potential guided tours can be found in Crete for remarkably inexpensive prices. If you want a vacation without much planning, these resorts can be a great way to get the most relaxation for your money.

Food: The Cretan diet is representative of Mediterranean cuisine. Serving large portions at low prices, local foods often include Greek classics. such as gyros and moussaka, using a multitude of locally produced cheeses, olives, honey, yogurts and breads. Crete is one of the largest producers of olive oil, a healthy alternative to other oils.

Traveling: Crete is a large island that can take hours to cross, so you’ll need a rental car for exploring. Some of the roads can be a little rougher, but by traveling around on your own, you’ll be able to see many of the island’s charming small villages and locate a multitude of unmarked historical and natural sites. 

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