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 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.
Many regular visitors to Greece rate Chania as the most beautiful city in Greece. Need I say more?
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)
A 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.
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:
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.
Amid the continuing talk of Greek crisis and all the foreign press hype about the country falling apart it is refreshing to see that local entrepreneurs are not afraid to embark on new and ambitious business ideas.
Based in Chania, Creti.co is a brand new platform offering a wide collection of holiday villas in Crete directly from owners. Their concept is similar to Airbnb but concentrates on holiday villas with pools located in Crete only.
Because Creti.co is run and owned by Cretans they are also able to visit all the properties, take their own photos and assess the accuracy of what is being offered.
The site design and functionality are excellent and highly professional. It’s a pleasure to see that very capable people are still working here and willing to go head on (albeit on a local and more specialized level) with huge businesses such as Booking.com.
I hope that they do well. And let’s not forget, the more we encourage people to not use All-inclusive holidays (in this case by offering a great, easy platform to chose villas from) the more we help the local economy.
If you drive on country roads in Crete in June you are bound to notice the spectacular Verbascum macrorum growing along the roadsides.
The plant can reach heights of up to 1.5m and is widespread in Crete and the southern Mediterranean.
To see Crocus sieberi, one of Crete’s most beautiful endemic flowers you will need to go quite high up in the mountains.
This spring crocus flowers right at the edge of melting snow. You might find it as low as 1300m in March or early April and all the way up to the higher summits (2300 or 2400m) at later times like May or June.
Your guide to finding the flower in bloom is to look for areas where snow has recently melted. With a bit of luck (actually, it’s not really luck but the right timing) you can find whole hillsides covered in crocuses.
Crete and the Cretans are known for their hospitality and the warm welcome given to visitors. Unfortunately it’s not always the case and in the recent past the monastery of Gouverneto on the peninsula of Akrotiri seems to have made many steps in the opposite direction.
The monasteries of Agia Triada, Gouverneto and Katholiko are the three best known attractions on Akrotiri.
Whilst Agia Triada is on the circuit of many organized bus tours only the more adventurous will drive the narrow road that winds its way up the hill to the older monastery of Gouverneto. Most people go there to walk to the wonderful ruined monastery of Katholiko and maybe walk down to the sea where a tiny rocky cove also has some interesting ruins.The walk that traverses the hills of Akrotiri from Gouverneto to Stavros via Katholiko is also described in a few walking guide books and attracts the occasional walkers.
A year or two ago the last 100m of road that leads to the monastery was cut off, then entirely fenced off forcing visitors to pass through the monastery grounds to access both the monastery and the path to Katholiko. Shortly afterwards signs appeared telling people what was forbidden (not inside the monastery but in the whole area which is essentially wild nature). This includes things like picnics, bathing at the sea and taking photographs.
And whilst there are several large signs telling people what they can’t do, there is not one single sign showing where the way to Katholiko starts. With all these fences it is really not obvious any more.
After hearing rumours that things had gotten worse I went today to see for myself. About two km from the end of the road there were two new signs saying ‘No buses’. Later, passing through the gate of the monastery I noticed a sign that ‘Access to the sea has been permanently blocked’. And indeed once I got to the ruined monastery of Katholiko I found that several routes into the little river bed below had been walled off. There is no logical reason for doing this except, maybe, that they can: it’s church property after all.
Closing the routes into the river bed also makes it impossible to follow the walk to Stavros and it could be quite a liability for walkers coming the other way and needing to get out of the gorge after a long walk. It is still possible to go in and out of the gorge via other routes (if you know them) but they are quite steep and could be hazardous.
Additionally all the door openings into the old buildings have been closed off with unsightly wire meshing. There is no reason that I can see for wanting to prevent people from going into them. There is nothing to take and nothing to damage.
And perhaps saddest of all: the wonderful, very tall olive tree that grows out of one of the ruined buildings (and that you can already see in a 19th century engraving in Robert Pashley’s Travels in Crete) has been cut right down to a height of a few meters. This is vandalism.
I have no idea who is behind this but the message from the ‘Holy Monastery of Gouverneto’ as it likes to call itself in its warning signs is certainly clear: F… off, we don’t want you here.
I guess the next (easy) step now is to close the gate that you have to pass through and we will have lost access to one of the most special places in the north-west of Crete.
It seems that many people are finding my previous post about Samaria opening (which was written in 2012) and asking me now what the situation is this year. I get the sense that quite a few of the people asking have not read the initial post properly because it describes a situation that doesn’t really change much from year to year. The uncertainty about when will the gorge of Samaria open is partly driven by the fact that it is (at least partly) dependant on the weather in April. And of course nobody know several weeks in advance what the weather will be.
But a little more information about 2015 opening times: the winter has been harsh and very rainy. The rain has done a fair amount of damage to the path (and that needs to be repaired before tourists are allowed on it) and currently (mid-April) water levels in the lower, narrower part of the gorge are very high. There is still a lot of snow on the mountains that will melt and add to this water.
My personal take until now (17th April 2015) that it is very unlikely that the gorge of Samaria will be ready to open by the 1st of May. But I have just talked to someone closely related to what is happening in and around Samaria and he is pretty confident that the work will be done and that the gorge will be ready to open on the 1st of May. Of course he’s not a prophet (weather factors could change the outlook) but he’s got access to more information than I do. So the gorge may well open on time. But we will probably only know for sure on the 30th of April or the 1st of May so there is no point in emailing me or posting comments asking for more information until then.
One thing looks certain though: most years the gorge of Samaria has been opened part of the way from the bottom at Agia Roumeli one, two or even sometimes three weeks earlier than the 1st of May. This is not going to happen this year.
Update on the 30th of April
The gorge of Samaria will open partially tomorrow the 1st of May but only for a short distance from the top and from the bottom.
The work is not finished yet. It may open for the walk through it on Monday the 3rd of May but this is not yet certain.
Update on the 2nd of May
The gorge of Samaria opened today!
Asphodelus ramosus, the White Asphodel or Branched asphodel, is very common in the Cretan landscape from March to June.
This tall flower (it can be well over a meter in height) is found from sea level to about 1000m.
Arisarum vulgare (also called Friar’s Cowl because of its shape resembling…a monk’s cowl) is small flower of the Arum family which can grow in large colonies.
It is not at all a showy flower, preferring to hide in moist, shady places, but if you come across it (easy as it is quite common) it’s well worth kneeling down and having a close look.