05 September 2011

Crete - An Ancient Island

CRETE – An Ancient Island

Our RCI accommodation offer was for Villea Village in Analipsi, which borders on the village of Makrigialos, meaning “Long Beach”. We accepted and arrived to find that the Greek Manager owns a small wine farm in Church Street, Tulbach! Talk about a really small world!

Crete is a large island so choose between 7 nights or 14 nights depending on your interests and tastes. If you would like to explore the entire island, choose between 10-14 nights. If your aim is purely relaxation on the beaches, then 7 nights would be perfect.

Most flights will land at Iraklion, it’s easy to reach the highway from the airport and head off towards your destination. The drive from Iraklion to Analipsi was   scenic with lots of info on sites to visit along the way. However, we choose to drive directly to our destination for a much needed siesta after a long journey.
Crete is about many things but all Cretans are positive that their olive oil is the best in the world! The olive trees in Crete produce very small olives but they produce approx twice as much as any other varieties. Cretans use approx. 25l per person per annum compared to approx 1l per person in Europe and they lay claim to being a very healthy bunch. We certainly saw many very old ladies around but the very old men were not so conspicuous! The olive groves need to be watered during summer so they have an intricate system of black pipes all over the groves with a central tap system, usually right on the road with up to 20 or more taps. We often saw the farmers stopping to change the sprinkler taps. Luckily, nobody interferes with these or steals them for their copper or lead!

Many hotels and Taverna close down at the end of October and re-open in March/April. Most are family owned, with the mother in the kitchen with daughter or daughter-in-law, whilst the sons and fathers act as front of house and waiters. During winter they tend to their olives and the picking thereof or they have some other form of income. The lucky ones most probably make enough to tide them over the winter months. So the standard of food varies considerably but is usually good and tasty, though not quite Michelin standard! 60 Taverna, in the small area we stayed in, close for the winter months so tourism is a huge industry for summer and certainly keeps the economy going.

On our first day we drove to Sitia in the East, via the scenic route into the country and down to the coast, passing through villages of Handras, Zakros, and Palekastro. The road winds through pretty valleys filled with thousands of olive trees. The villages are often so dilapidated that one wonders how people still live in them but time appears to have stood still here and life goes on in the old-fashioned way – slowly! Sitia is a pretty little town built in a semi-circle facing the sea and harbour with hundreds of Taverna all looking for customers.

The local men always sit together and drink coffee and ouzo and never seem at a loss for words. Although sometimes, they all just seem to sit and stare at life passing them by. It’s such a common scene in Greece that one wonders what the women are doing! We happened to pass an old lady peering out of her front door, balancing on her walker. We asked her if we could take a photo and she gave us a great big nod and smiled beautifully!


Sitia dates back to Minoan times, the Venetians later used it as a base and it was destroyed 3 times (earthquake, Pirates, Venetians) before being abandoned by the Venetians totally. Apparently, this town was then settled by farmers in 1869 and life appears fairly slow and evenly paced here still.


On Day 2 we drove to the village of Kritsa.  This lovely village is about 11km from Agios Nikolaos and has a population of approx 2000. There are many shops for tourists with locally made goods of Cretan weaving, pottery, art etc and it was a pleasure to wander around. There were many old ladies, all dressed in black (widows) wandering around. Many so frail, a puff of wind could have blown them away. We succumbed to buying 2 oil paintings from a lovely local couple for whom nothing was too much trouble. This village appears to rely solely on tourism to keep it going.

We also visited the Byzantine church of Panagia Kera (about 1km from the village) with its Byzantine frescoes of the 14th and 15th Century. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed.

Agios Nikolias has a very long sea frontage walk – you can park at the yacht Marina and walk and walk and walk! Past Taverna, shops, beaches. The walk still stretched as far as the eye could see when we called a halt so, if you are keen on exercise, this town would be for you. It’s a good base for touring.

On Day 3 we set off to explore the Lasithou Plateau. We drove to Malia and then up to the plateau. It’s a lovely drive, climbing and climbing until you reach this amazing plateau filled with fields of crops, fruit trees etc. At an altitude of approx 840m, winters must be fairly harsh with snow on the Dikti Mountains. This area is also the land of the windmill. Built of wire and cloth and sometimes set into stone buildings, they were built to irrigate the plateau in Venetian times. Most of these windmills are in ruins now but some are being restored by the Government. The windiest places were chosen as we found out when I nearly toppled over the edge in my attempt at a photo. A fierce, cold wind was blowing when the rest of Crete was bathed in warm sunshine.  

Day 4
We set off for the South, past Irapetra towards Ano Viannas. This area is known for its green houses and there are hundreds of these white blobs dotted around the landscape. Some are full of crops like bananas, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, chillies, cucumber while some stand empty and forlorn. We wondered how they could sell all their tomatoes but I suppose it all goes in the lovely Greek salads! No lettuce chaps – we wish South African restaurants would take the hint! Greek salad is loaded with lots of tomatoes, cucumber, onion, olives and a huge blob of thick, Feta cheese. Plus all that Cretan olive oil!

In the village, we (and others) had to reverse down the main road to allow 2 trucks to pass each other. Well I have never seen anything like it – I have the photo! An inch or two between the walls on either side of the road and between the trucks.  It was crazy – the road through the village is that narrow! This is another hilltop village like so many others in Crete. Many of the houses behind the main road are basic and poorly maintained, some nearly derelict. Some have a burst of colour in flower pots of all kinds, a cat is usually somewhere to be seen, whilst a builder works away on an alteration of sorts. It appears to be a “poor” in monetary terms life, yet I am sure that the Cretans in these villages maintain their traditions and family values. A loudspeaker blaring forth from a parked van, was calling all the locals to come and buy their wares – mainly blankets, towels and other linen. The locals suddenly appeared from nowhere to surround this van, pick out what they fancies, looked it up and down, had an argument about the price and then either bought or walked away. This was such an old-fashioned sight to our eyes, being used to the modern malls that we have in South Africa. A back-to-basics shopping style! This vendor then duly drove off and headed for the next small mountain village.

We stopped at Myrtos for lunch and chose a peaceful Taverna above the beach where we could relax, watch a wind-surfer catching the wind, falling off and not giving up! Myrtos is possibly the most southerly settlement in Greece and the village's shingle beach looks out over the Libyan Sea towards North Africa. So we worried about the wind-surfer – he could have blown all the way to Africa!
We carried on to Tersa where we had a lovely swim before heading back to base camp.


Day 5
We were woken at 3.20am by a shuddering bed and building. “Don’t panic”, says the manager, it’s only a 5.5 on the Richter Scale. Thanks buddy, 0.0 would have suited me better! Cretans love the little (!!!)  earthquakes as they let off pressure and hopefully delay the bigger ones. Very alarming all the same – it truly brought home to me the terror of being trapped beneath falling rubble and not being able to breathe. The fault apparently lies about 60 miles beneath the surface of the Aegean, north of Crete.
ATHENS, June 12 (Xinhua) -- A moderate earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale jolted the island of Crete in south Greece in the early morning hours of Thursday, but no damage was reported.
According to the Athens National Observatory's Geodynamic Institute and the Thessaloniki University's Geophysics Laboratory, the earthquake was recorded at 3:20 a.m. (0120 GMT), at a distance of 385 km southeast of Athens, with its epicenter in the area of Ancient Zakros, on the eastern tip of the island, and at an estimated epicentral depth of 25 km.
The quake was felt throughout all of eastern Crete. The town of Zakros is situated near the eastern coast site containing ruins from the Minoan civilization.”
Well, after all that unwanted excitement, we decided that a beach day was called for and headed off towards Gouduras. A lovely drive with the sea on one side, the mountains on the other, beehives amongst the Cretan “fynbos”, the Kapsa Monastery perched on the hill, weird rock shapes and then the most delightful swimming cove, with a pebble beach. Crystal clear water just invites you in! We lunched further up the road in another area filled with greenhouses in a lovely local Taverna where the owner’s wife spoke only 2 words of English. Good food!!!



Day 6

We paid a brief visit to Heraklion, the capital of Crete – a busy city filled with locals. The harbour area is worth a walk (remember your water!) and the continual stream of planes fly over the huge ferries and small yachts lined up in the harbour. The Venetian influence is ever-present  with the Koules Venetian Fortress on the harbour walls, built in the early 1500's. The city appears crumbling and unkempt as do so many of the Cretan cities and towns – building maintenance does not seem to feature high on the Cretans list of priorities.

Having spent a week in mainland Greece, looking at ruins and more ruins we decided to give the Palace of Knossos a miss. However, this would be worth a visit for those who are not totally “ruined” out and is 20-25 minutes from the centre of Heraklion.

Day 7
We headed off to Chania and got horribly lost, wandering around Souda for ages! Chania is also heavily influenced by the Venetian era and is a picturesque place again set on the hillside above the harbour. It is worthy of a few days visit as the alleyways are a delight with many shops selling interesting goods. We came across a rooster (or Hen - couldn’t tell!) sitting outside of his owners door! It just sat there in the road, while we clicked away as if to say “Are you guys crazy – have you never seen a rooster sitting on his porch before?” Well, it made a change from the hundreds of cats in Cyprus! I hope he lives on and escapes both the cooking pot and the cats. With an attitude like that, he deserves a long life!

Unfortunately, it was our last day and we had to head back to Heraklion to catch our flight home so we could only sample a taste of what Chania had to offer.

Our one negative must go to the “Cretan drivers” – they must be the WORST in the world! Blind corners, double white lines, oncoming traffic – this all means – OVERTAKE.  Nerve-racking! The Guide Book that we bought stated this fact but we thought it could not be that bad – the odd fool here and there. Wow - it was a driver every couple of minutes on the main roads. Our Cape Town drivers are wonderful after that experience!


But don’t let that stop you from visiting an interesting country with lots to keep you busy or just the sun, sea and sand to wash the stress away!

© Judelle Drake

Check out:
http://www.rci.co.za/  RCI Resorts if you are a member as this saves paying in Euros’ for accommodation
http://www.venere.com/ – excellent Hotel Booking site – check guest reviews before booking!
http://www.tripadvisor.com/  for unbiased reviews on accommodation and much more



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