Greece ~ Crete

30 May 2024

Starting an amazing afternoon feast on a hilltop in Crete with guide/driver Dion (Dionysis!) and guide/archeologist Constas (Constantine). The Mediterranean lies in the distance.

Let's take a quick look at some basics about Crete:
  • Largest Greek island, 160 miles (260 km) long.
  • Most populated Greek island with about 600,000 people. 
  • Extremely mountainous with deep gorges.
  • Minoans — Europe's first major civilization — flourished here 3,000-1,100 BC.
  • Featured in Greek mythology, e.g., as the birthplace of Zeus.
  • Paul appointed Titus to build churches in Crete (Titus 1:5). Today Greek Orthodoxy is a deep part of the cultural fabric.
  • Tourism and agriculture dominate the current economy. 

A DIY trip across the long island seemed like a time-consuming hassle and none of my favorite small group companies (my list here) offered Crete. After years of searching, I finally came across my ideal independent itinerary: "Incredible Crete!" offered by Epos Travel in Athens. It was worth the wait, and I was able to tailor it as well.

The map above shows the resulting itinerary going west to east, with labels for places where I stayed overnight. The tour proved to be a delectable, smooth blast!

Epicurean Feasts

Never in my life have I had an entire week of such consistently delicious meals! The Epos team had found phenomenal restaurants and they ordered brilliant selections of delicious dishes that were new to me. Our meals were almost always al fresco and tended to be tasty Cretan variations on Greek recipes or unique Cretan fare. My two favorite places were both small family-run and in villages up in hills.

I rarely photograph my food but for these culinary perfections I remembered some of the time. Below are a few of the plates. The pics do not do them justice.

1.1: Feta cheese in phyllo dough with sesame and honey ~
Τυρί Φέτα σε φύλλο με μέλι και σουσάμι
1.2: Greek avocado salad, Σαλάτα Αβοκάντο
1.3: Sea bass with chickpeas ~ Λαβράκι με Ρεβίθια

2.1: Kreatotourta - Κρεατότουρτα, a traditional Cretan dish with variations in dough and filling (here with a Cretan goat cheese)
2.2: Ntakos ~ Ντάκος ~ dried bread, crushed tomatoes, olives, a Greek bruschetta
2.3: Moussaka ~ Μουσακάς ~ the delicious, classic Greek dish, but only ate it twice because I wanted to try new concoctions

3.1: Zucchini flowers stuffed with rice ~ Κολοκυθοανθοί με ρύζι
3.2: Greek salad
3.3: Kaltsounia with stuffings such as myzithra cheese, spinach and wild herbs ~ Καλτσουνια

4.1: Another pastry with various stuffings
4.2: Greek meze plate of appetizers
4:3: Meat balls ~ Soutzoukakia Smirneika ~ Σουτζουκάκια Σμυρνέικα

5: Roasted chicken skewer with mustard lemon sauce ~
Ψητό κοτόπουλο με μουστάρδα και λεμόνι ~ plus lamb chops.
6: Antikristo ~ Αντικριστό ~ roasting lamb and goat Cretan-style on the side of the flame

Among all the memorable meals, my favorite was here in the village of Kandanos on my first full day of touring. Incredible stream of delicious dishes.

Chania (Χανιά)

My week got off to a great start at the wonderful old harbor of Chania (pronounced more like "Han-ya"). Epos had recommended the perfectly located and charming Alcanea Hotel (photo on the right) where the friendly staff gave me a warm welcome to Crete.

The entire harbor was lined with nice sidewalk restaurants, and the pretty pedestrian streets beyond were filled with interesting shops, plus more cafes and hotels. This old town was more upscale and sedate than are most tourist-intensive districts (for example, more jewelry stores, fewer tattoo parlors).

Chania is probably unpleasantly crowded June-August, but this May it was comfortably busy and not jammed.

Chania was my favorite of the three larger cities in Crete, but I also really liked the old town in Rethimnon (aka Rethymno, spellings for Ρέθυμνο vary).

The old harbor of Chania sparkled at night.

By chance, my visit to Chania coincided with the 83rd anniversary of the 1941 start of the landmark Battle of Crete when, after fierce fighting, German forces eventually defeated British and other Commonwealth troops. Germany brutally occupied Crete until 1945. 

For the 2024 commemoration, the Royal Air Force's jet acrobatic team, the Red Arrows, put on a jaw-dropping display of flying skill.

Later I stopped by the large cemetery by Souda Bay to pay respects to the many fallen Australian, British, and New Zealand soldiers.

Monastery Day

One day we visited three interesting Greek Orthodox monasteries. All three have become significant symbols of Crete's religious and cultural heritage:
  • Consequently, all three are pilgrimage sites, especially Arkadi.
  • All currently have monks and remain active monastic communities.
  • All were active centers of resistance to the 2½ centuries of rule by the Muslim Turks.
  • All were at least partially destroyed by the Ottomans and have since been mostly restored. 
  • Architecturally, all have Cretan Renaissance style blending Byzantine and Orthodox monastic traditions with Venetian and Western influences.

Top: Agia Triada Monastery (Μονή Αγίας Τριάδος; aka Holy Trinity Monastery) ~ built in the early 1600s, it was a center of resistance against Ottoman rule and suffered extensive damage during the Cretan revolts. Restored in the 1800s.

Middle: Gouverneto Monastery (Μονή Γουβερνέτου aka Our Lady of the Angels) ~ one of the oldest in Crete, built in the 1500s; during revolts against Ottoman Muslim rule, the monastery served as a refuge and a center of resistance.

Bottom: Arkadi Monastery (Μονή Αρκαδίου) ~ During the revolt of 1866, hundreds of Cretans, mostly women and children, took refuge in the monastery. Rather than be taken captive, they blew themselves up with gunpowder. (The room is shown in lower left photo.) This defiant act of self-sacrifice became a powerful symbol in the long struggle to overthrow Ottoman rule and gain independence for Greece.

Gorgeous Gorges

Between Crete's steep mountains you will see some especially deep, dramatic gorges. The two that were most scenic were the Kourtaliotiko (Κουρταλιώτικο Φαράγγι) and Samariá (Φαράγγι Σαμαριάς) gorges.

The steep walk down to the mouth of the Kourtaliotiko gorge was worth it to see the lagoon, oleanders, and palms (a rare species Phoenix theophrastii endemic to the Aegean) that create a rich tropical enclave surrounded by the dry, rocky terrain.

This is Hóra Sfakíon (Χώρα Σφακίων) where we had a tasty lunch and took the ferry to Agia Roumeli (Αγιά Ρούμελη) at the base of the Samariá Gorge.

The one glitch this week was miscommunication that cut short my hike up the famous Samariá Gorge. As shown above, I did get a partial glimpse of the famous gorge.

Late '60s, 1850s, and 200s BC

In the late 1960s when "hipsters" evolved into "hippies," along with drugs, rock, flower power, and communal living, some of them moved into the empty, ancient caves of Matala (Μάταλα) where Neolithic people had once carved homes out of the sandstone. In the upper right photo, notice a few of those caves in the background while we, without irony, await dinner at a posh new restaurant on the beach.

Supposedly, Dylan, Joplin, and Baez stayed here a bit. But the singer most associated with Matala was Joni Mitchell who wrote in her hit "Carey":
"My fingernails are filthy
I got beach tar on my feet...
The night is a starry dome
And they're playin' that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the Matala moon..."

You can buy pseudo-hippy t-shirts and you see the VW bug and VW van painting in the photos above, but otherwise Matala businesses do not exploit the hippy history as much as I expected.

Not far from Matala is this superbly arched bridge constructed in the 1850s for the nearby Preveli (Πρέβελη) monastery. Yes, it does resemble the 16th century Mostar Bridge in Bosnia.

This ancient Greek theater at Aptera (Ἄπτερα) dating from as early as 300 BC was restored and opened to the public in 2016. Aptera was a major city-state on a hilltop and thrived during Minoan, Greek, and Roman times.

The afternoon view from my hotel room near Plaka and Elounda.

Minoan Majesty

As a kid I was captivated by drawings of the ancient Minoans, Europe's first serious, sophisticated civilization. Since we had cattle, I was especially stunned by images of athletes grabbing the horns of a charging bull to catapult themselves over the animal! And now at last I got to visit where the Minoans once had their centuries of glory.

Here is a part of the enormous, complex of Minoan buildings at Phaistos (Φαιστός) where this mysterious disc was discovered.

The Archeological Museum in Heraklion exhibits the infamously undecipherable little disc (about 6" in diameter, 15 cm) found in the ruins of the Phaistos palace. The disc has turned into a virtual logo for Crete. It is featured on t-shirts, key chains, souvenir plates, post cards, and more. Yet, its meaning has been unknown, and its symbols belong to no known language.

Just a few months ago, however, a scholar claimed to have deciphered the symbols as representing a hymn to Astarte, the Minoan goddess of love. 💖 Well, OK, works for me.

Standing in front of the most notable reconstruction at the enormous Minoan palace in Knossos (Κνωσός).

Bulls were a major multidimensional Minoan cultural symbol seemingly representing power and fertility, yet ritually slaughtered as well. Leaping over bulls, as shown in the ancient depiction above, was an important ceremonial practice. Stylized horns of the bull, as shown above in Knossos, frequently appear in Minoan artifacts.

At the top of these five photos is a model of the remarkable building complex at Knossos constructed nearly 4,000 years ago! New excavations of Minoan sites continue to make discoveries of their range and prowess. I also think American rodeos should move up from just bull riding and add Minoan bull jumping.

I hope these highlights give you some idea of this fascinating island that is well worth exploring. Also, Epos Travel, Dion, and Costas get credit for smoothly showcasing Crete's natural, historical, and culinary wonders.