Off the Cretan Track
From the moment you get off the plane at Chania, the Cretans let you know that life on their island is lived at a leisurely pace, where if things are late or not done, so be it. It is an attitude easy to relax into. Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, 150 miles long and between 10 and 40 miles wide, with spectacular and varied scenery, from a coastline of golden beaches to dramatic cliffs and gorges. Crete under the Minoans (2800-1150 BC) was a place of peace and prosperity, a time of vast palaces and beautiful pottery – of which there is still much evidence. But the story from then on was one of conquerors and conquered. The Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Venetians…all invaded and all left their mark in architecture and tradition.
We stayed in small village called Megala Chorafia, l2 kilometres (7 1/2 miles) from Chania, where the company we travelled with, Pure Crete, have a number of locally-owned village houses and farms which are clean, comfortable and, above all, traditional. With its stunning backdrop of the White Mountains, the village is an idyllic place to appreciate Greek hospitality.
Chania is probably the prettiest town on the island. A former Venetian port, it has an attractive harbour with lively, wall-to-wall tavernas. In the maze of narrow back streets there are shops selling local crafts, of which the leather goods are extremely reasonably priced.
The museum in Halidon Street houses a variety of exhibits, especially from the Minoan period. And do not miss the amazing covered market with its display of fresh, local produce.
There is no better place to taste true Greek food than in the village tavernas – like that in Megala Chorafia to which people are prepared to travel some distance. It epitomises Cretan hospitality, with excellent hosts and traditional dishes: spicy meat balls, stuffed vine leaves and the deliciously sweet baklava. You will have plenty of opportunity to exercise, for Crete is a place for walkers. There are archaeological sites like Aptera, dating from Minoan and Roman times, which is within walking distance of Megala Chorafia. The walk to tackle is in Samaria Gorge on the southern coast. The gorge is a 16 kilometre (10 mile) hike on rocky terrain and is mostly downhill – but fairly steep and hard on the legs and knees if you are not used to walking. That said, it is absolutely beautiful, with a wealth of plant and animal life. The steep sides are a floral display of Cretan ebony, while the Cretan cyclamen thrives in the woodland and orchids grow among cistus bushes and peonies. Migrant birds such as the orphean warbler and redstart and the occasional vulture are there if you look hard. Small churches and the abandoned village of Samaria half-way down heighten the feeling of isolation in the gorge, while legendary stories of Zeus and golden- haired maidens add to its magic. The place which delighted us most was Lake Kournas, near Georgiopoli, which we found by chance as it is not signposted from the main road. Nestling at the foot of the mountains, it is relatively free of people and the clear fresh water is a haven for swimming. The non-tourist side of Crete is refreshingly simple and unspoiled.