Will really work up a thirst of the nerves!
APRIL, 2017 | At the start of April 2017 we ventured to the largest of the Greek islands, home to varied civilisations from up to 9000 years ago, and constantly inhabited all the way through to today. At the very start of April you may be forgiven for thinking this island uninhabited though! The official season for Crete is April to Mid-October, however many of the resort towns don’t really open until after Easter every year, a festival not to be missed if you can align your travel dates for this time with some unique local customs such as burning effigies of Judas at church bonfires and letting off firecrackers and fireworks aplenty. These irksome closures made our initial search for a good Guinness a little incomplete we felt, but watching the waking up of the resort town we stayed in (Hersonissos) over two weeks was quite an eye opener. Some resorts went from completely closed one day, under construction the next (including painting, repaving etc) to open on the third day. The Cretans sure know how to work up a thirst…
We worked up a thirst of the nerves. With our resort being a little sleepy, and a whole island of ancient civilisations’ histories to explore, we hired a car and set out to be gently menaced by the local driving. Hiring a car was cheap, all insured and the easiest we’ve yet seen on the (first name basis only…) paperwork, so far so good. We clipped a wing mirror in the narrow streets of the capital Heraklion and got sent down overgrown dirt jungle tracks including stream crossings that Google Maps was adamant were “roads” even though these ran adjacent to actual paved roads and highways. Our hire company however, thankfully followed the Crete motto of “This is Creta, no problem!”. The drivers however had their own brand of road rules, such as stopping in the middle of the road to have a chat with a mate, or turning suddenly without indicating and of course pulling out onto busy roads with no regard for those already on them. Thats isn’t to say they aren’t a friendly bunch though. There are no people more welcoming than the Cretans; whatever their driving may be otherwise indicating, they really do seem to love to welcome visitors to their lovely island home.
In fact there is a culture specific to Crete of welcoming visitors acknowledged in Cretan businesses and especially households. This culture is called “Filoxenia” (φιλοξενία) and the idea is that a household must welcome any visitor who knocks at their door by offering food and drink. Even if it is a mortal enemy, they must be fed and watered before they are sent away. Whilst Crete served an excellent Greek lager: Mythos, the “welcome” drinks we more typically encountered in bars and restaurants were Raki (spirit made from grape skins that have been pressed from wine) or Ouzo (aniseed flavoured spirit). Another drink of local choice was “village wine” and is not to be missed! Village wine is wine made by the villagers in the village, or sometimes in the neighbouring village if your village’s wine license has expired… It’s basically government sanctioned moonshine for personal use, but some cafes and family owned tavernas can be found serving it from their own small personal vineyards. It’s generally available in two flavours: red or white and tends to be slightly sweet and served chilled.
As to Guinness there are Irish pubs scattered around throughout the resort towns, although not observed (by us) in smaller local villages. Many of these Irish (and British) pubs even had staff with Irish and British accents serving the drinks, no doubt they like us fell in love with Crete and did not want to leave. Whilst the Guinness was not the best we’ve had, the other local beverages more than made up for this deficit and the local culture of welcoming visitors with libations was greatly appreciated after a day’s nerve-racking explorations of the island by vehicle. If Crete sounds like a place you’d love please read on for our top picks to do/ see/ taste during your stay. If you’ve fell in love with Crete before we’d love to hear your picks too in our comments section.
Until next time, Yamas (Γεια μας)! (Cheers) Erin and Ryan.
Our Top Picks for Crete Include:
This hippy beach town on the south coast of the island was once frequented by Joni Mitchell in the height of the era of hippy culture. It retains its hippy vibe today, especially in the Hakuna Matata Bar – sit upstairs for 180 degree views of the beach below. The main beach is home to catacomb caves dating back to Roman times which you can explore on foot/ free-climbing (!) for an entry fee of 2 Euro. These caves were lived in by the hippies of Matala in the ‘60s & ‘70s. We stayed in a room (not a cave sadly) hanging off the cliff face on the side of the main beach in the family owned La Scala hotel and restaurant which has THE best views of the beach below. Another beach not to be missed is the Red Beach, accessible only by foot, a steep rocky hike of about 1km from the town. Is Matala missable? Put it this way: we initially went for just a day trip, but bought toothbrushes and stayed two nights.
The Crete Aquarium
This is a family owned wildlife sanctuary that covers two ground floor apartments. So you guessed it, it looks very underwhelming from the outside. But DO go in! The aquarium has a range of turtles, tortoises and exotic fish of course but the real stars of the show are the reptiles which roam around or are thrust into your nervous arms by the enthusiastic staff. Pictured is Scrub who demands attention and pats if ignored in favour of the myriad snakes being hung around your neck. Great fun and a good cause, the delightful residents of the aquarium are either exotic pets that had to be given up by their former owners or rescued from the wild.
(The Palace of Knossos and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum)
If history is your thing Crete won’t disappoint. The palace of Knossos from the Bronze Age Minoan civilisation (1900 BC) is quite a large freestanding complex of outdoor ruins. Private guides are available at a charge and are probably worthwhile if you really love history as the sign posted information otherwise available is scant and poorly translated in parts. We recommend visiting the museum first to see the many artifacts found at Knossos (and other historical sites around Crete) to gain a more complete picture of the island and it’s civilisations’ histories. Plenty of attention and detail is given to the Minoan era and the museum is beautifully laid out and very informative. The museum is located in Heraklion and whilst you are here it is worth nipping down for a brief walk down through the old town and around the harbour which is a beautiful example of the Venetian era of history in Crete, when in the 1500’s the Venetian merchant rulers built harbours and town centres across Crete that reflected their architectural tastes and great success and prosperity.
Cretan Safari Tour
Our guide for this whole day Land Rover tour up the internal mountains of Crete to the productive tableland of the Lassithi Plateau and its many (more) traditional villages was another English expat who’d fallen for Crete and lived there for over a decade. From him we were learned many charming stories of Cretan history, hospitality and traditions. On this tour in the small traditional villages we visited we got to try (again) Raki and Village Wine. There are also traditional Cretan foods on the lunch table and a chance to see some traditional Cretan artisanal crafts at a crafts village. This tour also got us to the birthplace of Zeus: near the village of Psychro (Ψυχρό) in the gorgeous Diktaian Cave of well-lit stalactites and mites. Our only regret was that we took this tour after we had done much of the island driving ourselves: our guide cleared up a lot of the things we wished we’d known before driving in Crete, such as the local “road rules” and exactly what all the thousands of little shoebox sized churches by the side of the roads mean… (hint: road-related fatalities!)
If you’d like to read more about any of the places we have stayed, ate, drank or partied, check out the Reviews link in the main menu at the top of the screen.
Have you been to Crete? Got any cool tips for us we might have missed? We’d love to read them, please add them in the comments below!
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