My personal shopping recommendations for a Crete visit

Best guide books

Probably the best two guide books in English are The Rough Guide to Crete and the Blue Guide Crete. This last one is getting a little old (8th edition came out in 2010) but as its strong point is history and major archaeological sites it is still very usable. Lonely Planet Crete
is also worth looking into.
If you can read German Kreta Reiseführer Michael Müller Verlag is by far the most complete and up-to-date Crete guide on the market.

Kindle

If you don’t use a Kindle yet, at least for when you are travelling, you should really look into it. It saves so much carrying of books.
I got the new Kindle Oasis partly because it has a wider screen than the Kindle Paperwhite but also because I was missing my page turn buttons (from older Kindle days). The Kindle Oasis also has the advantage to be waterproof which is not a bad thing if you take it to the beach (waterproof also means sand-proof or at least washable).

Reading for Crete

Look into books by Nikos Kazantzakis, a Cretan author widely considered a giant of modern Greek literature.

Crete: The Battle and the Resistance is highly recommended if you have an interest in the history of Crete during WWII. Another must read, The Cretan Runner is the personal story written by a young Cretan shepherd who was a runner for the Cretan resistance during the war.

If you haven’t read it yet, The lsland is a nice easy historical fiction that made the former leper island of Spinalonga famous.

Maps

Nowadays the best maps are made by the Greek publisher Anavasi. A good 1:100.00 map splits the island into 3 sections: West, Central and East Crete. There are also several excellent 1:25.000 walking maps that cover East Selino and Samaria, Sfakia and the White Mountains, Frangokasello, Plakias and the eastern White Mountains, Psiloritis and Dikti.
If you’re a frequent Crete visitor you might also consider their Crete Atlas though right now it seems to be out of print.
Anavasi also publishes their maps in digital version if you want to use them with GPS or computers.

Sunglasses

Since discovering the brand Maui Jim I haven’t looked back. I use Maui Jim Peahi (the dark grey version) when I want sturdy sunglasses with a a strong protection. When I drive or need less protection I prefer the lighter Ho’okipa with the warmer bronze High Contrast Lens.

Walking in Crete: my ultimate shopping guide

I’ve been walking in Crete in all seasons for over 25 years. Below is some of the gear I currently (2018) use and can fully recommend as what I believe is the best for my needs.

Rucksack: For day walks Osprey Stratos 34 is perfect: large enough for all the gear you might need for a day trip, reasonably light and with a well ventilated back. For multi-day walks Osprey Atmos AG 65 is great and comfortable for heavier loads. Whatever rucksack you use, having ventilation on your back is important if you are going to walk in Crete in warmer weather.

For water a Nalgene bottle with a wide neck can be really useful if you need to fill water from mountain springs where you might need to dip your bottle into a narrow hole where water collects. And these bottles are virtually unbreakable.

I find a GPS to be an essential tool, certainly on more remote walks, for safety but also to prepare walks and exchange route information with others. The rugged Garmin GPSMAP 64s is my favourite.
If you want a much larger screen the Garmin Montana 610 is worth considering but is heavier and more expensive. Note that I didn’t get the more expensive models with maps (of Europe or whatever) and instead buy my Crete maps for GPS at Anavasi.
For paper maps see my recommendations higher up in the page.

For my GPS I always use the best possible rechargeable batteries (and always take spares!) which are currently Eneloop Pro AA. A good charger is also essential to make the most of good batteries.

I hate wearing hats. But they also keep the midday sun away and are useful in very bright light. I finally found a hat that was light and comfortable enough that I could wear it and forget that I had it on. Highly recommended: Columbia Bora Bora

The rough terrain of Crete will wreck lesser shoes in no time, especially in the mountains. I’ve been using heavier Meindl boots for the past 20 years, been through probably 30 pairs of soles. My favourite model is the Meindl Island MFS Active which I find very comfortable and robust enough for anything that Crete can throw at them. They may seem to cost a lot of money but Meindl will resole them (and return them back to you looking almost new) for around 60 Euro, which reduces the cost of “two” pairs considerably. Note that I tried a second resoling once but the upper eventually starts falling apart so it’s not really worth it.

If you must walk in lower, lighter shoes go for something sturdy such as the Salomon XA Pro 3D GTX (I don’t use them personally but have heard lots of good things about them).

Waterproofs: I don’t walk much in rain but often need to carry waterproofs just in case. That’s why I like to have something extremely light and also very breathable. Unfortunately combining the two doesn’t come cheap if you also want something durable. This Arcteryx rain jacket is probably one of the best on the market. My current waterproof trousers are Rab Bergen pants, light and very breathable.

Head torch: an indispensable safety item. Petzl Tikka is great for general uses and light enough to always have in your bag. Don’t forget good batteries: Eneloop Pro AAA

Binoculars: Leica Ultravid 8×20 are probably the best you can buy in the ultra light class.

Sunglasses are essential, especially in the blinding mountain light. I’ve been using Maui Jim Peahi sunglasses for quite a few years. Dark glasses with very high protection, solid and very scratch resistant and they have a good side protection so that I can even wear them in snowy condtions and hardly ever need to use my glacier googles on snow in winter. The sunglasses feel a little heavy first time you put them on but I got used to that pretty quickly.

Satellite phone: This will be overkill for casual visitors to Crete but for me it’s a form of insurance. I spend a lot of time alone inside the White Mountains where mobile phones don’t work and where having an accident would have dramatic consequences. My Thuraya satellite phone (mine is an older model than the one you can currently buy) gives me peace of mind knowing that if I need to I will always be able to call someone.

Finally walking guide books: There are three books I can recommend depending on what you plan to do. For mountains, get the aptly named The High Mountains of Crete. If you are interested in following the E4 (or part of it) across Crete get The Cretan Way and if you are looking for a good mix of walks Crete: The finest coastal and mountain walks will be your best choice.

If you’re thinking about buying gear that we’ve reviewed you can help support us in the process. Just click on any of the seller links above, and if you make a purchase, we receive a small percentage of the transaction. The cost of the product is the same to you. Thanks and we appreciate your support!

Posted in Books, Shopping, Walks | 6 Comments

Samaria 2018 opening

As of today (20th of April) the official position of the Samaria National Park governing body is that they will open the gorge of Samaria on the 1st May.

Things might change but please don’t ask me. I’ll post a new post if any changes happen.

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Finally Chania airport has a website

Good news, the airport of Chania finally has a website! It’s very new and still a little rough around the edges (some information is still sparse, photos of Chania are much too contrasty and a 176 words sentence in a description of Chania* is way over the top for internet use) but it contains all the information that someone using an airport will generally want. Well done for this!

There is one thing that makes me really sad though: it took until now to produce an airport information site, 10 to 20 years late, and we had to wait until the Germans took over the ownership and management of the airport… This does not reflect well on Greece.

It makes me wonder if we’ll need to wait for a German management of the ministry of culture until we get a functional site for Greek museums, archaeological sites instead of the pitiful stuff we are getting now.

*  if you want a laugh, the sentence in question (on the page https://www.chq-airport.gr/en/category-detailed?ctg_id=86&nd_id=471 ) is the positively Proustian “To the south, the Lefka Ori (Madares Mountains), sleepless torrieri of the city in their panoramic glory, offer protection, wild nature and the rarest herb life in Greece, as well as hidden spots off the beaten track with some dozen limestone gorges – of which Samaria Gorge is the longest, best-known and most spectacular – and craggy coastal paths along the south coast and the laidback coastal resorts of Paleochora, Sougia, Sfakia and Elafonissi; to the north, embraced by its gorgeous, long-armed capes, eucalyptus-lined avenues, and miles of waterfront promenades stretches the kaleidoscopic boundlessness of the Sea of Crete, scoring countless dialectic points in the everlasting debate and for good reason: on largest Greek island where summer arrives earlier than elsewhere in the Med, Chania, as Diane Akerman had noted back in 1948, much like as a scent does, detonates softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years, because, stubborn enough to lose its beauty and strong enough to overrun today’s unbearable callousness, it is one heck of a redolent city.”

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A look back at the tourist season 2016

Chania harbour in the evening

Chania harbour in the evening

The tourist season 2016 is winding down and by early November most charter flights to Crete will have taken the last tourists away.
It seems that most Cretans who have businesses in tourism have had a satisfying season.

Crete and Greece benefited a lot from problems in North Africa and Turkey (Greece’s main competitor which is now perceived as unsafe).
Unfortunately a poor knowledge of geography made people believe that Crete was overrun with refugees coming by boat and that idea kept a number of people away and possibly choosing other destinations such as Spain or Italy.  As far as I know there was only one single boat arrival of a few refugees in the South-East of Crete in 2016.

Total numbers of tourists were up a little (on an already record breaking 2015) but numbers don’t tell the whole story: there is an increase in All Inclusive holidays in large resorts and those bring very little benefit to the islanders.  So higher numbers don’t necessarily mean better business.
On the other hand businesses in places that cater to independent holiday makers are doing well in the West of the island because Ryanair (who has a hub at Chania airport) bring lots of independent travellers.

The trend towards later holidays continues: after a poor start in April and May business picked up in summer and the autumn season has been very busy. September and the first half of October is gradually becoming the new high season. On the other hand August was not that great for some, mainly because many Greeks who traditionally holiday in August can’t afford holidays any more.

Finally, everybody complains that any money they make is swallowed by increased taxation. I think that they have a point.

Posted in The Greek crisis, Tourism | 2 Comments

Discover Rethymnon… on Foot

Discover Rethymnon... on FootThe seventh book in the series Discover…on Foot has recently been published. It covers short walks in and around Rethymnon and follows the successful formula of former publications, with good maps, plenty of illustrations and informative text.

I think that I’ll use the Rethymnon edition as an excuse to go visit the town again and brush up on my rather superficial knowledge of this beautiful city.

Incidentally, a precursor of the excellent Discover Chania…on Foot called Fenny’s Chania is still available (but only through direct ordering from the UK) and might even get a reprint.

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Samaria gorge 2016

Because of the mild and very dry winter there has been little damage to the path that runs through the gorge of Samaria and not much water in the river. As the good weather looks set to continue it seems that the park authorities have decided to open the Samaria National Park to the public from the 15th of April.

If it does open on time the KTEL public bus service will also start running buses. Watch their time-table. The ferry company is already running a daily service between Agia Roumeli and Hora Sfakion and Sougia. Tour operators should start offering trips shortly after the opening of the gorge.

Posted in Tourism, Walks | 2 Comments

The Cretan Way – A 28-day walk by Luca Gianotti

The Cretan WayA long awaited book finally got published last week: “The Cretan Way – A 28-day walk” is the brainchild of Luca Gianotti, an Italian walking guide. Rather than trying to paraphrase what the book is about here is an excerpt from the introduction:

I have been to Crete to go walking thirty times: twenty-nine times on an itinerant journey with my backpack for about a week and once for over a month. I decided to call this spectacular route the ‘Cretan Way’, although it has previously been called the E4.
‘E4’ is the name given by the European Ramblers’ Association to the long distance footpath which crosses Europe from west to east, from Spain to Cyprus. The path is over 10,000 kilometres long, and not always waymarked or passable.The Cretan section of the E4 is perhaps the most well-known, but these days it is in decline because it represents a style of trekking from many years ago, which was more spartan and adventurous, requiring a tent and sleeping bag, and as such only some sections of it are walked. For this reason it is unlikely that the whole route has ever been walked. In fact, when I walked it in 2010 there was no evidence on the Internet of other people who had walked the entire route in one go.
Here’s the idea: to inject life back into the path, and let it shine in its own right, going beyond the European project. The name, Cretan Way, has a double meaning, in the hope that this walk will also draw attention to the Cretan way of life. Walking for a month to enter into a different world. The world of a population with its own, independent roots. A world of nature which is both Mediterranean, alpine and more. Much more.
This book is the result of the walk I did between October and November in 2010, crossing Crete from east to west. The idea came about that the Cretan Way could become one of the most loved paths in Europe, on par with the GR20 in Corsica, the Camino de Santiago, and the Via Francigena.
This is why I have tried to ensure this route is accessible to everyone by providing GPS tracks and writing a detailed description of the route which I suggest you follow carefully, especially in the sections where the path is not waymarked.

If you only skimmed through the text in italics note this sentence: …the idea: to inject life back into the path, and let it shine in its own right, going beyond the European project (in effect the E4).
This book is not just a guide to walking the E4 but the beginning of a project which will hopefully evolve into something more. That’s why there is also a web site and a Facebook page that are an extension to the book and will keep information up-to-date and give the project momentum.
This is also why the author doesn’t slavishly follow the ‘official’ E4 route (which is something invented anyway, not a traditional path, so there is really no good reason to stick to it) but makes a few common sense variations: for example the section that goes from Chrisoskalitisa to Kissamos and runs almost entirely on roads is omitted. And Crete’s most famous walk, the gorge of Samaria, which is not part of the E4 has been added to the itinerary.

The walks are clearly described with good maps for each of them (the publisher Anavasi is mainly a map publishing company) and plenty of colour photographs as well as personal thoughts and anecdotes related to each of the sections. Each section also suggests accommodation. This is especially useful in some remote sections where accommodation is very limited. the idea is for people not to have to carry a tent and sleeping bag.

At the moment the book is available online at Anavasi  and Mystis  and can of course be bought in all good bookshops in Crete. Eventually it will also be available through Amazon.

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My personal 5 ‘must see’ places in Crete

Crete has so much to offer for all tastes and so much choice can be confusing to a newcomer.

Here is my personal list of what I consider the five ‘must see’ places of Crete and why I chose them. They are not listed in a specific order.

The palace of Knossos

Often disparaged as an archaeological Disneyland for mass-tourism I still believe that the Minoan Palace of Knossos must be seen in order to get a sense of what the first European civilization might have been like. The heavily reconstructed palace makes it easier for the lay person to visualize than the more “archaeologically correct” palaces of Phaestos or Zakros.
To avoid the crowds go in winter when it is virtually empty. During the tourist season try it in late afternoon when most tour groups will have left and the light is best.

If you can, combine it with a visit of the Heraklion Archaeological Museum but if you must only choose one of the two, go to Knossos and check this amazing online book of the museum instead.

The gorge of Samaria

Crete is justly famous for its many gorges and if you are going to see only one of them (and are fit enough to walk for a few hours on rocky terrain) it’s got to be the gorge of Samaria which is the grandest of them all. True it can be crowded at times but that can be avoided (just see how to in the link above).
Getting back on the ferryboat from Agia Roumeli will also give you an impression of the wild South coast of western Crete, in itself another ‘must see’ place.

The northern tip of the peninsula of Gramvoussa and the bay of Balos

The northern tip of the peninsula of Gramvoussa and the bay of Balos

Balos Bay

The views of Balos Bay as you walk down to it have become iconic and it’s generally even better when you see it for real (provided the sun is shining). Just for that first glimpse I would recommend that you drive to it where you will have the chance to see it from above rather than take a boat to it. Your options are described at Balos beach and Gramvoussa – a visitor’s guide.
The beach is not as nice (or as big) as Elafonisi beach but the views are far superior.

Chania

Many regular visitors to Greece rate Chania as the most beautiful city in Greece. Need I say more?

Pachnes

Walking to the highest summit of the White Mountains is not something that many people do, not so much because it is a difficult walk (it’s not, at least not once the snow has melted and if take the short route) but it’s really out of the way.  Still, if you want to see the High Desert of the White Mountains, one of the more unusual places on the planet, it’s definitely worth the effort and you’ll be well away from any crowds.

What are your 5 favourites? I’d be very interested to see what you think (in the Comments section)

Posted in Places, Tourism | 5 Comments

Sfakia – A history of the region

Sfakia - A history of the regionA new book about the history of the district of Sfakia has just been included in this website’s list of books about Crete. This book offers much more than the history of Sfakia, as it gives an account of Crete from the prehistoric period up to the civil war following WWII, and sets the district’s rich history within the context of events that occurred in the broader area, both in Crete but also in the eastern Mediterranean. The book focuses on Sfakia during periods when the region was at the centre of dramatic events on the island, such as some of the bigger uprisings against the Ottoman Empire, as well as on other eras that have made Sfakia such a unique place in Crete.

The book is intended for two main audiences. First, we wrote this for the regular visitors to Crete and the district who want to learn more about Sfakia’s past. Second, we had in mind the many Cretans and Sfakians of the diaspora, and especially those of the second and third generation, who do not have access to the source materials that we used or who have difficulty reading Greek. We have been aware of this dual need, since we have been frequent visitors to Sfakia for many years and have often been asked questions about the history of the area by tourists and Cretans who live abroad.

Ten years ago Peter Trudgill and I decided to research and write a book that would address this need, without realising how big the task was going to be. After eight years of research and writing, one year seeking a publisher, and another in production with Mystis Editions, we finally have in our hands a hard copy of the book that we dreamed about some ten years ago. The book was officially launched in Sfakia on the 3rd of October and in Chania on the 5th of October.

Although this is a long book, some 300 pages plus an extensive bibliography and index, we believe that it is easy to read and not a dry academic text. We believe that this book will make a serious contribution towards the better understanding by regular visitors to Sfakia of its people, their past and their traditions, which have all been influenced by the region’s extraordinary past, and will thus encourage them to visit the district more frequently and with a deeper appreciation of the area. Similarly, we hope that the more recent generations of Sfakians of the diaspora will be inspired by the achievements of their ancestors against great adversity, as outlined in this book, to visit the land of their ancestors.

George Dalidakis

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Samaria gorge visitors trends

The National Park of Samaria has just closed for the season 2015 and visitors statistics are out. It seems that the recovery in the number of visitors to the gorge of Samaria suffered a small setback this year. The visitors statistics covering the last 35 years make for some interesting reading:

Samaria gorge yearly visitors between 1981 and 2015

The main thing that you notice is that there are even less visitors today as there were in 1981, even though there were far fewer people visiting Crete (there are 5 to 6 times more tourists  visiting Crete now than there were in 1981)

Note the steady increase over a period of 10 years to reach the peaks of the early 1990s:  that’s easily explained because visitors to Crete also increased substantially. But then follows a long drop of over 50% even though numbers of tourists keep increasing (maybe not every single year but over the period it definitely increases).

Essentially it means that walking in the gorge of Samaria has become FAR less attractive to today’s average tourist than it was 20 or 30 years ago.  Why is that? Here are a few thoughts that may explain why a walk through the gorge of Samaria has lost so much in popularity.

  • High cost: the entrance fee of the national park has remained at 5 Euro for over 10 years but if you add it to the cost of ferry tickets needed to get back to the road head (which have gone up a lot recently) and the cost of the bus journeys involved, a trip to the gorge of Samaria can easily cost 30 to 50 Euro per person depending on where you are starting from. Tourists possibly have less disposable income than they did 10 or 20 years ago.
  • Too busy: despite visitors numbers having dropped so much Samaria has maintained its old reputation for being very overcrowded which is off putting for many people.
  • Less interest in organized tours: far more people rent cars than they did 20 years ago. If you have a car you might lose interest in organized tours – and ‘doing’ Samaria with a rented car can present logistical problems.
  • Less interest in walking: could tourists coming to Crete have less interest in walking than before? I don’t think so but maybe a lot more people who come to Crete are not at all interested in visiting Crete but instead just want to go to some resort in the sun where they can spend their holiday by the beach.
  • Been there done it: many people who keep returning to Crete have done the walk through the gorge and are not interested in doing it again.

If you can think of some other reasons please note them in the comments.

Posted in Tourism | 22 Comments