Tuesday 4th June
With only one suitcase to worry about we took the Metro to Newcastle Airport. Being uncertain about food on the four-hour flight we had a good meal at the airport itself. Then we had snacks on the plane, before being reminded that we had pre-ordered in-flight meals!
Arriving in Heraklion, we picked up our hire car (a Seat Mii) and drove through the dusk. The first part of the short journey was easy, mostly dual carriageway, but the roads grew narrower and steeper until Pat was convinced the final turn was taking us into someone’s rather tricky driveway. But no, there were the apartments and there was our host, George, ready to welcome us with a much-needed beer. Once we’d seen the apartment we walked back down hill to the local Spar for such essentials as a dishcloth, bottled water, something for breakfast and of course Mataxa!
Today was spent exploring the locality on foot, down to the coast and along the waterfront to the marina. The streets round about were full of souvenir shops all selling the same things. The shore was lined with restaurants and full of (mostly English-speaking) tourists. The beach was narrow and stony, the sand a fine black gravel. It looked as though the beaches further along might be a better bet but we’d take the car to go there. Beach shoes would be a necessity.
We chose one of the many sea-front bars for a light lunch, picking the only one where the “tout” ignored us until we actually headed her (in this case) way. We ate a Greek version of bruscetta that used the traditional Cretan hard bread.
It was a long way back up the hill to our apartment, so we did what most people seemed to do – called a taxi! We were glad to rest on our balcony during the heat of the day.
100m below our apartment was the road through the centre of our village, Piskopiano, which consisted almost entirely of bars and restaurants. It was very touristy, but not in an intrusive way. For our first evening we had dinner in David Vegera, one of the restaurants recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. You were given a list of every dish they provided, and you ticked off what you wanted. Inevitably we ordered too much! The food was delicious, and with our bill we were given a small complimentary dessert and some raki. This, we found over the ensuing evenings, is the habit here. We were pleased by the gesture, the value of which was reduced a little when we saw the raki being decanted from 2L plastic bottles!
We spent the morning at an open-air folklore museum, Lychnostasis, where we learned some of the history of the island. In the cafe we enjoyed proper home-made lemonade and bought a “justice cup”. Picking up picnic lunch provisions from the nearest Spar we retired to the cool of our apartment .
Mid-afternoon we drove down to an out-of-town beach and chilled out for a while. The water was warm and very salty and the current was strong. The shore is a rock ledge that must be negotiated to get into the water so it was worth watching how other people managed it. Pat still managed to get knocked off her feet while clambering out.
Another mezze dinner was enjoyed in Piskopiano.
Today’s cultural visit was to Heraklion, Crete’s capital, retracing our route from the airport. First we explored the famous Archaeological Museum where we were pleased to be offered cut-price tickets as European citizens over 63 years old. (What has the EU ever done for us?!) Fascinating though it was, going round took less time than we had allowed, not least because most of the second floor was closed.
After coffee at one of the street-side bars, Colin indulging in his fondness for Greek coffee (Turkish coffee as we would call it), we wandered through the old town and down through the market, until it was time for lunch. Again following a Lonely Planet recommendation, we ventured down an alley to a local restaurant complete with local diners. Good food and a good measure of entente cordial.
We then made our way to the Historical Museum of Crete. Colin was particularly interested in the exhibits covering WWII, not least as his father had been a D-Day dodger just up the sea a bit.
Dinner this time was in the next village to ours, Koutouloufari. Colin struggled to finish his five huge lamb chops. Pat had her usual mezzes.
On Liz’s recommendation we’d both been reading Victoria Hislop’s “The Island” in preparation for a drive over to Plaka and the ferry to Spinalonga. The drive over the mountains was spectacular, and on entering Plaka we soon found a ferry – or rather, the proprietor of the restaurant outside which we parked pointed one out to us! It turned out that there are masses of boats going across all day long and once you’re there the captains are perfectly happy to fill up their boat and take you back even if you crossed with someone else.
We spent an hour and a half walking around the island, interested in particular in its role as a leper colony, as so vividly described in the novel. It is so close to the mainland that the patients must have been tormented at being able to see the homes that they could never go back to.
After being allowed to fall into ruin for years, many of the buildings are being preserved or restored and used to house exhibitions. The hospital though is still in a ruinous state and visitors can only walk round the outside.
If the island had become rundown, however, the village of Plaka had gone the reverse way, and now appeared to be little more than a tourist centre. Still, the above-mentioned gentleman’s restaurant with its harbour-side tables proved to be a bit of a find, and its mezzes and red wine very welcome. In a side room there was some sort of party going on that involved a number of bearded priests in black dresses and tall black hats. Wedding? Funeral? We will never know.
Just down the road was Elounda, the town where Who Pays the Ferryman was filmed and Colin was keen to see it. Instead of a charming village we found a huge tourist centre and homes for the wealthy. A sign of the times, we supposed. Before heading home we visited a discount supermarket and stocked up on bottled water. It was much too heavy to carry all the way back to the car so Colin drew the short straw and trekked back to the car park while Pat sat in a shady road-side cafe with the shopping and a cold drink, keeping an eye out for his return.
One of the reasons we’d chosen Crete for our holiday was the prospect of visiting Knossos. Today was the day. After a false start we found the car park quite easily, and after buying our discounted tickets were soon in amongst the ruins. Our expectations were probably a little too high, as we found the ruins a bit of a disappointment. They were similar to the Roman ruins we have around Britain, just on a larger scale and somewhat (2000 years) older. Still, they kept us interested for the rest of the morning.
Lacking plans for the afternoon, we decided to follow part of Lonely Planet’s wine district tour, but without the wine since all the wineries that offer tours and tastings are shut on Sundays! This involved heading south into the mountains, and we had a nice drive around with some spectacular views.
For dinner we went to the nearby IndoChina restaurant Colin had spotted. Not quite the curry he’d have liked, but tasty enough. And there was fried ice cream for dessert!
We had decided to take three days, two nights, driving a circuit of the western part of the island. Our first stop was Rithymno. We parked near the castle, but rather than climb up to it we opted instead for a wander around the town itself. Pretty enough, but not particularly engaging. Still, Pat found a nice (and cheap) dress, which she’d wear that evening.
Chania, on the other hand, was more attractive. Our hotel was in the heart of the pedestrianised old town, so we had to leave our car about 500m away. Having checked in, we explored the town, then dined at a small vegetarian restaurant. Even Colin thought the food was delicious!
Night life in town was based around the picturesque harbour where buskers and balloon sellers abounded and all the shops and restaurants were open late.
The hotel breakfast was amazing. Not only were there heaps of Cretan delicacies and salads, but the waitress then turned up with four fried eggs and bacon. Colin managed about half of it.
We were staying the night in Paleochora, so the choice was either take the Lonely Planet recommended scenic route, or take better roads and go via Elafonissi beach. We chose the former, and were glad we did. Beaches in Crete, even as early as mid June, can be hot mid-day, whereas the mountains turned out to be relatively cool – and spectacular.
We paused a few times, both to have a drink at a mountain taverna and to visit and photograph the top of the Samaria Gorge. There were busloads of visitors around the top of the gorge but not many folk setting off for the descent, a half-day walk down to the sea to be picked up by boat. We did venture a short way into the Agia Irini gorge, enjoying the shade of the trees and our first sight of running water in Crete. Then it was off down some very narrow and windy roads to Paleochora.
We liked Paleochora. We were staying there on the advice of friends, and we weren’t disappointed. It is situated on a small south-facing peninsula, and its atmosphere reminded us of Soller in Mallorca – a combination of tourist resort and local town with both populations mingling and at ease with each other.
Exceedingly thirsty, our first stop was the Caravella restaurant, overlooking the sea on the eastern side. We were invited inside to look at the dishes available, and in particular the huge variety of fish, caught that day. Pat was smitten, so we booked in for dinner that evening. In between we had a wander around the town, then checked in to our hotel. We had a nice room on the first floor. Outside, our small balcony was completely shielded by a huge tree, and the air conditioning proved to be very efficient, so we were soon cool. Dinner lived up to its promise and was enjoyed outdoors, not quite on the beach (too windy) but close.
After an excellent breakfast on the terrace, we checked out and walked down to the beach on the western side for a bit of a plodge. This was the best beach we’d come across, with proper sand and a long stretch with no rocks. Walking along in the shallows was delightful. In common with all the beaches we saw, this one held rows of chairs under umbrellas that you had to pay a small fee for but there were board walks that you’d be glad of when the sand grew hot and showers at the top of the beach to remove the sand before you left.
A drink at the beachside bar and we were on the road back to Piskopiano. Colin was really getting into the Cretan way of driving, and found it much to his taste. Pat, as passenger, wasn’t quite so sure. Some might find the Cretan driving aggressive, we preferred to consider it as simply making progress. If you caught up with a car, it dived towards the verge so you only had to go partway over the double white line to overtake.
As an aside, the driving through villages is completely the opposite. Pedestrians and vehicles have equal priority, and if the former are in the way of the latter the vehicles simply wait for the pedestrians to move out of the way so they can pass.
Some fellow guests had mentioned that the village to our west, Old Hersonisos, held a Greek night every Monday, so we started the day by going down and booking a table at one of the restaurants for the following Monday, our last night in Crete.
We then had a walk down to the seaside, and Pat had a quick plodge at the nearest beach. Part of the reason for going down was to find somewhere nice (think Shirley Valentine) for our penultimate dinner on Crete. The Nautica seemed to fit the bill. The proprietor wasn’t pushy and chatted to us about a visit he’d paid to Newcastle to deliver a piece of jewellery to a doctor at the RVI. We had a drink there, then the waitress kindly ordered us a taxi back up to our apartment.
Lunch was again a picnic of Cretan pastries and fruit, following which Pat left Colin to chill out while she explored the top part of the village above our apartment and then had a swim in the pool.
George had laid on a BBQ in the evening, which we joined. There was masses of meat but Pat had to make do with “potatoes from the oven” and Greek salad, so he only charged her half price. The company was good; someone had brought along a guitar, so Colin was invited to sing a few songs as well.
When looking at possible places to stay in Crete, Colin had come across some apartments called White Houses in the village of Makry Gialos, on the south-eastern coast. The village sounded delightful, so today we drove there to suss it out. The village itself was indeed delightful – very pretty, with a nice beach and pleasant looking bars and restaurants, and the White Houses were right on the edge of the lovely little harbour. If one was content to stay in a single spot, Makry Gialos seemed perfect. However the coast to the west of it, which we’d driven along to get there, was uninspiring. A rose amongst thorns was our conclusion.
So we headed back for another picnic lunch, then gravitated to the large and very nice swimming pool – Pat for a swim and Colin for a beer. In the evening we went back to David Vegera, then strolled along the road to Koutouloufari for some very nice daquiris, watching the cats scrounging food from the restaurant opposite.
Pat had spotted signs for a Museum of Cretan Rural Life just round the corner from us, so we decided to pay it a visit. What a find! Occupying an old olive mill, it was very well laid out, with all sorts of exhibits from days gone by.
By the time we’d finished it was getting on for lunchtime, so we did our usual and took a picnic lunch back to our apartment. Once past the heat of early afternoon we drove down to our favourite beach to chill out for a while. Dinner was a repeat visit to Kosta’s, just at the bottom of the hill.
The sky was actually cloudy, albeit no cooler, so we decided to walk down to Hersonisos and look for a few souvenirs and presents. All we found were a couple of drinks at one of the bars, but by the time we’d walked back up at least we’d had a bit of exercise.
At dinner time Colin opted to save two taxi fares by driving down to Hersonisos , finding a space in the free car park not far off the sea front. Dinner at Nautica was all we expected. Our friendly proprietor had saved us the perfect table. He made up a plate of delicious vegetarian dishes for Pat while Colin enjoyed a huge mixed grill. The meal was served by the proprietor’s Dutch wife and their daughter. Afterwards we drove back up the hill to Koutouloufari for the customary cocktails.
For our last day we’d planned a trip to Agios Nikolaus, coming back via the famed Lesithi Plateau. AN was mostly as we’d expected, except a lot hillier and home to many luxurious motor yachts! We walked round the sea front to the Lake, then settled down for drinks at the Blue Lagoon, which was where much of The Lotus Eaters (BBC serial from the ’70s) was shot.
The Plateau exceeded our expectations. The route up into the mountains from Napoli seemed to climb forever, and we couldn’t believe it when we suddenly came over the top and saw the plateau beneath us. In the middle of all these arid mountains was a fertile plain where nearly all of Crete’s farming takes place. Blocking part of the view was an enticing looking restaurant, and it was lunchtime. Mezzes it was, then.
Our route took us round part of the plateau, and then it was back over the mountains and home.
For our last dinner it was a short walk along to Old Hersonisos for the Greek evening. Our table was right by the square, so we had a ringside seat for the dancing, and easy access when we were hauled up for a couple of dances ourselves. The dancing was excellent, and the standard of musicianship, particularly from the bouzouki and lyra players, was extremely high.
Our last day. We took our time packing, then chilled out by the pool until it was time to go into the village and find something to eat. We settled for another restaurant in Koutouloufari, which did pizzas (Colin fancied one). Pat’s grilled vegetables were delicious, the pizza only average.
We dropped the hire car off without problem at Heraklion airport, and duly caught our flight. Not, however, without long queues at every stage.
A pre-booked taxi got us home a little after midnight (2am Cretan time).
We liked Crete, and could see us going back there sometime. Good points not covered above included English being widely spoken and written, excellent mobile phone reception everywhere, mostly very clean toilets and (Colin says) the driving. Not so good were the moussakas, made with zucchini rather than aubergines, and the barely cool milkshakes.
June (or perhaps September as well) is definitely the time to go, when the temperature is generally no higher than 30C and the island is less crowded than in peak season. Plus there’s less danger of being compulsorily “upgraded” for free to a larger car. A city car like the Mii is quite large enough. Several times we had literally a couple of inches width to spare, and once Colin had ended up scraping and marking a wing mirror on a telegraph post. With no access to T-Cut it was down to our cleaner at the apartment to fix it with one of her liquids!