We had done Athens. Island-hopping in the Cyclades had left us weary. It was time to hunker down in a substantial place that offered rugged mountains and pristine beaches, deep gorges and sprawling vineyards, Turkish mosques, Venetian towers and Byzantine churches.
And, of course, the ruins of an ancient civilization.
So we headed to Crete.
Crete is not only the largest and southernmost island of the Greek archipelago, but also the most singular. Minoan civilization, an advanced maritime empire, flourished here 3,700 years ago, when the ancestors of Plato and Sophocles were still rooting for grubs.
Ask any native their nationality and they will proudly respond “I am a Cretan” before adding that they are also Greek. Nikos Kazantzakis, Greece’s most famous writer, was born in Crete. So was the painter El Greco. Some of Greece’s finest statesmen and warriors were Cretans.
It is Balkan terrain, mostly mountainous, breeding a harsh and insular people who are cautious of strangers yet renowned for their hospitality. Outside the touristy coast, life in the villages of Crete goes on much as it has for centuries, only now there is electricity and, for the most part, paved roads.
The island is so big (about 160 miles across) that it’s impossible to see it all in two weeks, so we plotted our itinerary carefully and rented a compact car for $25 a day that let us cover a lot of ground while stopping in areas we found fetching. We also decided to mix touristy beaches and ruins with more remote locales on the south coast, which faces the Mediterranean Sea.
Lufthansa Airlines now flies twice a week from Los Angeles to Irakleion, Crete’s capital, with a brief stop in Frankfurt. Booking this flight proved a wise choice. However, in mid-September, we found Irakleion still mobbed by mainly German and Scandinavian visitors, with the weather humid and hovering around 90 degrees.
A major trading center linking Africa, Europe and the Middle East, Crete was home from 3000 BC to 1450 BC to the Minoan civilization. The Minoans built palaces and elaborate cities, and were known for their exquisite artwork, sophisticated urban life and one of the first written languages, Linear A, which has yet to be fully deciphered.
About 1450 BC the island was conquered, probably by Greek mainlanders from Mycenae. That civilization was supplanted by Roman control in 67 BC, which evolved into Byzantine rule. Through the centuries, Arabs, Genoans and Venetians also controlled Crete, leaving their mark on local culture and architecture. In 1648 the Ottoman Turks seized the island and held it until World War I.
W e wanted to visit Irakleion since Knossos, the ancient capital of Minoan civilization, is only a 20-minute bus ride out of town and a must-see. The largest of the Minoan palaces, Knossos is where, according to myth, King Minos ruled, where his wife, Pasiphae, bore the half-man, half-beast Minotaur and where Theseus finally slew the creature in its lair. British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans excavated Knossos less than a century ago, reconstructing some of the buildings, which would be totally unacceptable archeological scholarship today. Nonetheless, the size and complexity of Knossos make it impressive.
We also set aside time to visit the city’s archeological museum, which is crammed with pottery, tablets written in Linear A and famous frescoes, including “La Parisienne” and “Saffron Gatherer,” the portrait of a boy that was mistakenly reconstructed by early archeologists as a monkey.
Once you see Knossos and the museum, however, there’s little reason to stay. Today, Crete’s capital is all traffic and concrete, crammed with industry and the shoddy development of a place that grew too fast for its own good.
We bunked down that night at the Hotel Rea, a pension in the middle of town that cost $25 a night. While friendly enough, it was noisy and overflowing with backpackers. Next time, I’ll rent a car at the airport and proceed directly to Chania, two hours west along the coast, making that my base.
Where Irakleion is urban blight, Chania is all character, with a quaint harbor and a picturesque old town on the hills above that offers winding cobblestone streets and breathtaking views.
Our hotel was the Porto del Columbo, a stately old mansion filled with burnished wood. We were told it once served as the French embassy and later became home to Eleutherios Venizelos, the revered Cretan statesman and Greek prime minister who finally brought Crete under Greek dominion in 1913.
We paid $65 per night (including continental breakfast) for a top-floor room with a harbor view. For several days we explored the northwest coast, hiking from one beach cove to the next, then renting mopeds to scoot around the winding roads. Having steeped ourselves in Greek lore before we left, we especially wanted to see the beach where the climax of the movie “Zorba the Greek” was filmed. You know, the one where an uptight Englishman played by Alan Bates begs of the Rabelaisian Greek portrayed by Anthony Quinn: “C’mon Zorba, teach me to dance.”
We found Zorba’s expanse of sand and stone about 20 minutes east of Chania on a beach called Stavros, located on the hilly peninsula of Akrotiri. At 6 p.m. it was still warm enough for a swim in the enclosed bay, with the mountain rising sheer and bare just a hundred yards behind us.
If your legs are up to it, you may also want to consider a trip to the Samaria Gorge, a full day’s hike through some of the most awesome mountain scenery in Greece.
The morning bus from the Chania Station dropped us off at Omalos, a forbidding plateau at the top of the gorge that lies roughly in the center of the island. The 10-mile hike released us, exhausted but exhilarated, at Agia Roumeli on the south coast, where we limped to the beachfront taverna and ordered frosty mugs of beer, then plunged into the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Luckily we had brought our bathing suits.
Trekkers can either stay the night in one of the bare-bones pensions in Agia Roumeli or catch the day’s last ferry to Chora Sfakion, where a bus takes you back through the mountains to Chania. Our bus was crammed with Cretan villagers and played wild swirling Greek music while the driver made daring hairpin turns, trying to impress his girlfriend who rode shotgun.
We found more authentic Cretan music at Cafe Kriti at No. 22 Kalergon St. in Chania. (Most of the other tavernas featured disco, rock or Greek pop.) The next morning we packed the car and headed for Phalasarna, a remote beach on the wind-swept northwest tip of Crete.
There is no town here, just a cluster of no-name concrete pensions whose rooms run $20 a night. Bring drachma, as these are small places that don’t take credit cards or even traveler’s checks in some cases.
They double as restaurants and serve up a mouthwatering array of home-cooked meals: stewed chicken; locally grown vegetables sauteed with olive oil, herbs and tomatoes; just-caught fish baked with oil and lemon. When we were there last year, dinner for two was about $20. The pensions make their own yogurt, a creamy concoction that is superb with fresh honey and the yellow Casaba-like melons grown in nearby greenhouses. Too bad so few places have filter coffee. Powdered Nescafe is king here; some eateries also offer syrupy Turkish coffee.
By day, we lazed on the beach or bodysurfed (Phalasarna was one of the few Cretan beaches we found with waves), and by late afternoon we gathered at the open air, thatched roof taverna for the day’s highlight: watching the sun set.
All night long the waves crashed reassuringly below us. The room was simple but clean, with a modern shower and good water pressure. In the morning we hiked through olive groves to ancient Phalasarna, where we found the scattered remains of a Mycenaean city built 24 centuries ago.
It was eerie to wander through the spiny underbrush, past crumbling pillars strewn helter-skelter by time, through the foundations of houses that once contained vibrant life. Now only the occasional sea bird circled overhead.
We marveled at how Crete gets more stunning as one leaves the overdeveloped northern coast. The beach settlement at Elafonisos on the southwestern tip of Crete--about 15 miles as the crow flies from Phalasarna--only reinforced that theory.
Elafonisos takes its toll on your car’s suspension however. The paved road ends about 12 miles short of the beach, so the last stretch bumps along a dusty dirt ribbon of a road that tantalizes you with occasional glimpses of a cerulean blue sea.
The beach is renowned for its pink-hued sands, which take their color from pulverized seashells. There also are extensive sandbars that allow visitors to wade out hundreds of yards. Splashing through the warm, thigh-high water, I felt I could walk all the way to Alexandria, Egypt.
Once again, there are only three pensions in Elafonisos. We stayed at Pension Elafonisi, where a beaming mother-daughter team brought us carafes of homemade amber wine redolent of honey. They would take no payment. From our promontory overlooking the ocean, we watched the sun go down and a luminous full moon rise, then wandered into their kitchen to see what was for dinner.
Again, the food here is home-grown. We savored small fried fishes, sauteed nippy greens and vegetables stuffed with seasoned rice. In our $20 room that night, the wind whistled us to sleep, and we woke next morning to the sound of sheep bells as the balky animals made their way down a nearby hill.
On the way back to Chania, we passed stone cottages and sun-drenched meadows. I swore I could smell figs ripening on the gnarled trees. Stopping for breakfast at a tiny cafe in Elos, a mountain town famous for its overhanging chestnut trees, we feasted on fresh orange juice, coffee and just-baked tiropita --a turnover made of sheep’s cheese and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
My belly full, my senses lulled, I pondered Kazantzakis’ famous words about Crete and concluded that he was right.
“Crete’s mystery is extremely deep,” Kazantzakis wrote in his memoirs. “Whoever sets foot on this island senses a mysterious force branching warmly and beneficently through his veins, senses his soul begin to grow.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Getting there: From LAX fly to Irakleion, with connecting service on KLM, Delta, TWA, Continental, American or Northwest. Lowest advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at $1,290.
Where to stay: In Irakleion, the Hotel Rea, 1 Kalimeraki St.; telephone 011-30-81-223-638. For budget travelers: about $20-$25 for a double room.
In Chania, Hotel Porto del Columbo, Theofanous and Moschon streets; tel. 011-30-821-50-975. About $40-$50 for room with a harbor view.
Pension rooms in Phalasarna and Elafonisos can be booked ahead of time in Chania through one of many small tourist agencies. Try Panagiotis Kalomirakis in Chania at 011-30-821-91623. Average $15-$20 for a plain but clean room with a double bed.
Where to eat: In Irakleion, try To Psaria, a fish taverna at 25 Avgoustou.
In Chania, the tavernas set back from the harbor offer better values than those on the water. For breakfast I recommend Meltemi, at Angelou 2, where you’ll find good strong coffee and sweet pastries plus a superb view.
In Elafonisos and Phalasarna, the families that run the pensions offer tasty, home-made food for about $10 per person.
Getting around: Every good-size town in Crete has tourist agencies that rent cars and mopeds, sell ferry tickets and will arrange one-day bus trips to tourist sites such as the Samaria Gorge and Elafonisos.
Museums: The Archeological Museum in Irakleion, 1 Xanthoudidou, is well worth seeing when combined with a trip to the Knossos site. The museum is open Tues.-Sat. 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Sundays 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission fee is about $6 regular, $4.75 seniors, $3.75 students.
The Palace of Knossos is about three miles southeast of Irakleion. Take No. 2 local bus from the city bus stop adjacent to the east bus station. The site opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. or 7 p.m. weekdays, depending on season, and at 3 p.m. on weekends. Cost: same as Archeological Museum.
Reading: “Crete: The Rough Guide” by John Fisher and Geoff Garvey, (Viking Penguin Books, $14.95); “Report to Greco,” a memoir by Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis (Simon and Schuster, $12.95). I enjoyed “Freedom and Death” (Faber & Faber, $16.37) and “Zorba the Greek” (Simon and Schuster, $9.95) both by Kazantzakis and set in Crete.
For more information: Contact the Greek National Tourist Organization, 611 W. 6th St., Suite 2198, Los Angeles, CA; tel. (213) 626-6696.