Crete, the largest of the Greek islands and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean, is located 318 kilometers south of the port of Athens, Piraeus. Bounded by more than 1,000 kilometers of coastline, it combines dramatic mountains with deep rocky gorges and pleasant golden beaches.
Europe’s southernmost tip, its southern coast, stretches towards the Libyan Sea, looking towards Africa, while cultural influences from Asia Minor can be felt from the period it passed under Turkish rule. Thanks to its fertile soils and warm, sunny climate, the local economy is based on agriculture, with tourism coming a strong second. Crete’s ancient archaeological sites, centuries-old port towns and beaches attract visitors from all over the world.
Included within the Samaria National Park, this spectacular 18km long gorge is on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List. From Xylóskalo, just outside the mountain village of Omalos, the gorge descends to 1,250 meters to reach the Libyan Sea Agia Roumeli on the sunny south coast of Crete. The Taraios River, which dries up in summer but floods in winter, runs the length of the gorge with high rocky cliffs on either side. The stony path is quite difficult and not recommended for people with knee problems, but it is a must for sporty visitors to Crete. On the busiest days, up to 3,000 people pass through the gorge. The walk can take four to six hours depending on how fit you are. It is open to visitors from May to mid-October.
The palace of Knossos
A pre-Hellenic Bronze Age civilization and the first naval power in the Mediterranean, the Minoans were named after the legendary king Minos. Knossos, near Heraklion, is believed to have been the palace of King Minos. This monumental residential complex is centered on a huge courtyard, where it seems they organized “Bull-Leaping”, an activity that involved walking up to a bull, grabbing it by the horns and running at it. Knossos was abandoned around 1450 BC. Archaeologists aren’t sure why – maybe it was a devastating earthquake after the volcanic eruption in Santorini, or maybe Crete was ravaged by invaders. Whatever the cause, the Minoans disappeared completely. Heraklion
View of the port of Heraklion
Heraklion (Heraklion) is the capital of the island and the obvious base for visiting Knossos and exploring central Crete. Like many of Crete’s finest coastal towns, it acquired its current layout under the Venetians, who ruled from 1204 to 1669, a period that saw a significant cultural flourishing on the island, producing artists such as El Greco, from Fodele, near Heraklion. The famous 20th century writer, Nikos Kazantzakis (author of Zorba, 1946) was also from Heraklion and you can see his tomb inside the old city walls. Heraklion has an airport (five kilometers east of the city). served by regular routes from the port of Athens Piraeus. The port of Heraklion is a popular port for cruise ships traveling in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
The temporary exhibition here at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum is fascinating and when the new museum (under renovation, completion date uncertain) finally opens, with 23 rooms, it will be truly world class. The exhibition features finds from archaeological sites across the island, including prehistoric, bronze, Roman and Greek treasures. Pride of place goes to the Minoans, with their magnificent frescoes depicting the proud and slender young men and women in vivid hues of terracotta-red, ocher yellow and cobalt blue.
Chania (Hania, Chania) is the main city of Western Crete and was the island’s capital until 1971, when it moved to Heraklion. Overlooking the Aegean and the White Mountains, covered in snow in winter, the appearance of the old town dates back to the centuries spent under Venice (1204-1645). Chania is a great place to explore on foot. A path of romantic, pastel-colored alleyways built within the ruins of 16th-century defensive walls, the town extends over a pretty fishing port. The market square, built in 1911, is worth a look for fresh seasonal produce and gifts such as Cretan cheese and honey. Chania has an airport (12 kilometers north-east of Akrotiri) and is served by regular services from the Athens port of Piraeus. It makes a nice base for visiting the beaches of Elafonisi and Balos, and hiking the Samaria Gorge.
Venetian Fountain in Rethymnon
Midway between Chania and Chania Heraklion, the beautiful old town of Rethymno consists mainly of Venetian-era buildings, although there are some evidences of the year spent under Turkish rule (1669-1898) such as the towering minaret. Many historic buildings have been converted into small boutique hotels, shops and taverns, and the long, sandy beach east of the old town makes it easy to combine cultural tours with a few hours of swimming and sunbathing. The mountains behind Rethymnon are home to rural villages and some excellent agritourism centers. The area is a good base for visiting nearby attractions such as the Samaria Gorge and Mount Psiloritis.
Along the northern coast of eastern Crete, about 65 kilometers east of Heraklion, Agios Nikolaos (Agios Nikolaos) is home to Crete’s most popular modern resorts. Bordered by beautiful beaches, it sits on the slopes above Mirabello Bay, close to the amazing hotels and villas of Elounda. Highlights of a visit here include a walk along Lake Voulismene, with its numerous beachside cafes and restaurants, as well as a boat trip to Spinalonga Island, the location of the Greek TV series born from the book The Island by Victoria Hislop. Near Agios Nikolaos, you can also visit the Diktean Cave with its stalactites and stalagmites, or head out into the mountains to the charming village of Kritsa where local artisans sell traditional arts such as leather goods, ceramics and handmade carpets. On the way to Kritsa, stop by the small 13th century church of Panagia Kera (Our Lady of Candles) to admire the wonderful Byzantine frescoes.
Palm Forest Vai Crete.
On the secluded east coast of Crete, the magnificent golden sands of Palm Beach (Finikoda) are backed by a dense grove of towering palm trees. According to local legend, the palms grew from stone stones washed ashore by Saracen ships in the 9th century. Whatever their origin, palms certainly flourish in the Mediterranean climate of Crete, with relatively mild and wet winters and completely dry summers of subtropical heat. The beach is lined with blue sunbeds and straw umbrellas, and tourists will find a cafe and basic water sports facilities here. At the southern end of the beach, a rocky ledge with a viewing platform offers excellent views of the coast and is perfect for taking photos. The nearest major resort is Agios Nikolaos 96 kilometers away on the north coast.
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