Friday, 13 May 2016

Five unsung gems of Europe Part 5: Crete

Crete is a beautiful Greek Island in the Mediterranean Sea not far from Athens. It is often overlooked by the hordes of sun-seeking tourists who descend on more popular islands such as Mykonos. Crete exceeded all my expectations, both in beauty and friendliness! It is a short overnight ferry ride from the port of Piraeus.

A wonderful mountain view from a Cretan village.


We left Athens on a huge inter-island ferry full of cars, trucks and passengers. The ferry was packed with backpackers determined to stay up all night and party around the pool area! We had a cabin below that I had booked from Australia. It was fairly small but clean and reasonably comfortable, much better than the reclining chairs upstairs that others chose! The view leaving harbour was beautiful, but not as beautiful as when we arrived in Heraklion. The sun was just rising and the dawn revealed a beautiful harbour and fortress.

Venetian Fortress at the Old Port entrance.

Overlooking the sea and harbour, Heraklion has the prettiest aspect of any Greek island. Our hotel was the shortest walk from the centre of town, which is full of outdoor cafes and small shops - all bustling with young and old. There are many lovely embroidery and craft shops in between the lovely local coffee shops.

There are many restaurants also to choose from, but I particularly liked the ones outside where you sit watching the passing parade. One had beautifully placed bicycles with flowers placed on them. Another was set up inside a boat decor with the waiters and waitresses having to dodge the traffic with trays as they crossed the main road to deliver our food! The food on offer is superb and has that Mediterranean style that is so famous!

Our favourite outdoor bicycle themed café!

Close to the town and within easy walking distance on the edge of the city harbour at the old port, is a Venetian fortress, the Castello a Mare. It was built in the 1500's by Venice and armed with 18 cannons on the ground floor and 25 on the pathway leading to the roof. It has been restored and has many rooms complete with cannonballs and some cannon remain there also.

View over the harbour to the fortress and ferry berth.

View from the Fortress of the boat marina.

Palace of Minos at Knossos

The next day was the highlight of the trip for me, a visit to the famous Minoan Palace of King Minos! If you know your Greek history, you might know this location as the place where Theseus fought the Minotaur in the labyrinth!

I had told my family about how wonderful this palace would be, and I think they were greatly surprised to find my prediction right! The Minoan culture goes back to 1500BC and the palace has frescoes well known world-wide for their great beauty and these paintings show great details of everyday life in ancient times.

The Minoans were also known for their first use of paved roads and their use of a sewage system before Roman times and the palace was designed around this wonderfully inventive water system.

Restored fresco in the palace.
Colourful pillars used throughout the Palace ruins.

The famous beautiful dolphin fresco on the inside walls of the palace. 

The paved road predating the Roman roads used throughout the ancient world.
Top tip: Hundreds of tourists descend on the palace throughout the day, so I made sure we were there early to escape some of the crowds from the many buses that come from the big centres for the day.

North to South Crete

After this, we travelled from the Northern part of the island to the coastal South by hire car. We ascended steep winding mountain roads that seemed to climb into the heavens. They gave equally heavenly views, but I was a bit worried looking down steep cliff faces at times!

Here is an island population that survived terrible hardship during the invasion of Germany during WW2. The liberation of the island by British, Australian and Canadian troops is remembered as if it's yesterday. During our trip by hire car around the mountain villages, we were very much welcomed by the local villagers.  From the steep mountain sides, during WW2, the Cretans were able to strike and terrorise the Nazi invaders and quickly withdraw to their defensive positions high up in the mountains.

Unique Memorial to the fallen from 1943 is placed high up in the mountains in a secluded spot.

Coastal views in the south of the island.
On reaching the coastline, we celebrated with a beverage or two and then made our way slowly back to our accommodation in Heraklion, stopping off in a few small villages for exploration and more food highlights!

Have you ever visited the Greek Islands and if so, which one did you like the best?