CRETE A MEDITERRANEAN ISLAND OF ENCHANTMENT
Crete is the largest and most southerly island in Greece. It is an island with an exquisite 1,000 kilometre-long coastline dotted with numerous coves, bays and peninsulas, which afford a multitude of soft, sandy beaches along the beautifully blue Mediterranean Sea.
Strategically positioned between three continents, Crete was historically a frequent target for many foreigners. The Cretan nation battled against the Venetians, then the Turks and finally the Germans in the Second World War. Crete became a Greek island in 1913 and the people are proud, honourable, hospitable and incredibly patriotic.
Crete is separated in 4 prefectures: Chania, Heraklion, Lassithi and Rethymno. The island has everything to offer: mountainous landscapes, a coast with many picturesque beaches and rocky coves, beautiful towns, charming villages, excellent food, famous archaeological sights like Knossos of the Minoan Civilization, exciting nightlife …
Crete is a land of brilliant colours, the sunshine, blossoming flowers and wild herbs. The sound of bells from sheep and goats making their way through the mountains can be heard everywhere. The island’s magic is an experience not to be missed.
The wide spectrum of the natural surroundings is constantly changing, which produces unique vegetation. There are nearly 240 varieties of plants that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Among these are the Cretan tulips, the cyclamen, and the countless varieties of orchids and palm trees. Olive, Mulberry and Eucalyptus trees are found all over the island.
Agricultural and animal farming is still the most common industries on the island. Fruit and vegetables are produced all year round, and Cretan olive oil is well known all over the world for its quality and unique flavour.
Crete is extremely interesting from an archaeological perspective. Knossos and Festos are the most recognized archaeological excavations. But there are several other smaller sites all over the island well worth visiting.
The Cretan people are very devout in the Greek orthodox religion. The numerous churches on the island illustrate this, amongst them the ancient Arkadi Monastery.The locals still preserve the bonds with their rich folk traditions and cultural heritage. The Cretan dances are danced at every opportunity and the “madinades” and the “rizitika” songs resound in every celebration. In the countryside, even in our days many old Cretan men and women wear the traditional costume and the Cretan idiom is widely spoken even in the large cities. A lot can be said about the Island of Crete, but keep in mind that the ultimate experience is to come and discover it for yourself.
Rethymno is characterised by a variety contrasts. Flourishing valleys succeed harsh, mountainous areas, and imposing, rocky shores follow endless sandy beaches.
The city of Rethymno is the capital of the Prefecture. It is perfectly situated in the heart of Crete, surrounded by long sandy beaches and rocky mountains. Rethymno city has around 40.000 inhabitants, the prefecture around 82.000.
Rethymno became a city during the Venetian occupation. The Venetians needed an intermediary port for the operation of their ships travelling between Iraklion to Hania. They also needed an administrative centre, so Rethymno became the third biggest city on Crete and an important cultural centre. The town was destroyed in 1567 when Algerian pirates conquered, robbed and burned it. The Turkish occupation of Rethymno began in 1646.
The town still retains its old aristocratic appearance, with its buildings from the 16th century. We still find arched doorways, stone staircases, narrow streets and the very beautiful Venetian harbour. Its main attraction is the Old Venetian – Ottoman quarter which occupies the headland beneath the Venetian fortress. It is a maze of narrow streets, Venetian monuments and the occasional minaret adding a touch of the Orient. The Old quarter has grown into a pretty important place for shopping and offers a wide assortment of stores selling just about everything from souvenirs to jewellery, leather, Cretan spices and pottery.
Rethymno is a city that caters to the needs of the visitor. The night life can range from very lively – in the pubs and bars around the harbour and inside the old city, to quiet relaxation in small bars right on the beach.There is always fresh fish to be found in the taverns around the harbour and there are many other restaurants and taverns outside the city in equally attractive surroundings.
Throughout the year various activities are organized which draw large crowds. The Carnival of Rethymnon is the third biggest in Greece and is normally held in February or March. From June to September the big Renaissance Festival is held and almost every night there is a performance in the Fortezza, the castle above the harbour. Another festival is held on 7-8th of November, in memory of the destruction of Arkadi Monastery.
Apart from the city, the region of Rethymno is also wonderful. There you will meet the typical Cretan landscape, sometimes wild and other times fertile, with many mountainous villages, lakes, gorges and Byzantine monasteries around. Magnificent clean sandy beaches can be visited on the north coast, at the Cretan Sea as well as on the south coast of the island, at the Libyan Sea.
The prefecture of Chania covers the western part of the island. Chania is divided into five provinces: Kydonia, Kissamos, Apokoronas, Selino, and Sfakia. The main towns of the prefecture are Chania, the capital, Kastelli, Paleohora, Kandanos and Hora Sfakion in Sfakia.
The city of Chania is the capital of the prefecture and its administrative, economic, commercial and transportation center.It has a population of over 60.000 residents and is built over the ruins of the ancient Minoan Kydonia, surrounded by the Byzantine wall, te Venetian wall and the sea.Since the ancient times, the city of Chania has faced many conquerors and the influences of many civilizations through time, evident on the city monuments.
The beautiful city of Chania managed to keepits original colors and historical character, despite the fast-growing tourist industry. It is considered the city of Justice and Freedom and its rare beauty justifies its characterization as the “Venice of the East”. Chania was a crossroad between the East and the West for many centuries, and for this reason it was claimed by its enemies and suffered the presence of many conquerors. The old city of Chania has preserved its cultural heritage and traditional architecture and to successfully combine it with its modern lifestyle.
A walk in the narrow streets of the old city offers nostalgic images from the past. The piqturesque Venetian port provides pleasant promenades through picturesque streets and attracts many visitors throughout the year. There are also many bars and restaurants by the seaside for every taste. The districts of the city outside the walls still preserve their Venetian nobility. Narrow passages surrounded by elegant houses built in different istorical periods offer visitors pleasant walking routes.
The city of Chania is also characterized by a rich cultural life. A plethora of cultural events are organized every year (exhibitions, festivals, theatrical and musical performances, ect.) The city has an airport and the port of Souda, the largest natural port of the Mediterranean.The prefecture of Chania offers a wide variety of tourist services and activities. With its endless sandy beaches, wild gorges, caves, endemic plands and animals, vast olive and orange groves and a combination of wilderness and sea, it offers something exciting for everyone.
The Lefka Ori mountains rise behind Chania and drop to the Libyan Sea in Sfakia and contain many gorges and canyons for the nature or hiking enthusiast. The sandy beaches and clear waters of Falasarna, Paleohora and Georgioupolis offer pleasant bathing. The Minoan, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish archaeological sites attract those seeking cultural and historical information.
The combination os sea and mountain and mild climate offer sport lovers a wide variety of activities throughou the year. The White mountains offer mountain climbers many challenges. For paragliders there is a suitable mountain top for everty wind direction. Chania is also a true paradise for hunters and fishermen.
Heraklion is the capital of the region and the economic centre of the island. Today Heraklion is the top choice for tourist destinations in the Mediterranean thanks to strategic geopolitical position connecting three continents and many different cultures.
The prefecture has many cultural and historical features to offer. The finest collection of Minoan artefacts in the world and the sites of one of history’s greatest civilizations as well as the numerous Byzantine churches and Venetian castles and fountains.
In the last hundred years alone, Heraklion town has seen huge changes, which can be quite easily followed, in buildings and streets that reflect the changing fortunes of Crete. The ‘old town’ areas of the city, established from mediaeval times, now offer visitors some fantastic walks in the heart of the city.Heraklion is surrounded by a formidable medieval wall, which was used to protect it from enemies. Owing to this, the city enjoyed the reputation as a well-fortified state in the Mediterranean basin. It stood up to a siege from the Turks for 21 years, but was finally seized in 1669 after its betrayal by a Greek-Venetian engineer who informed the invaders of the walls’ weaknesses at east and west bastions. It is possible now to walk along the top of these walls and enjoy a view over the city. You may reach the Grave of the Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), where it is written: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing; I am free”.
One of the main sights of Heraklion is the Venetian fortress at the harbour gate. I was originally built by the Venetians and called Rocca al Mare, but is now known by its Turkish name, Koules. It has a mixed history; for centuries it was used as protection against invaders, as were the great city walls and ditches. These are among the longest city walls in Europe. With its huge dark hallways and cells, the fortress was also a prison to many Cretan rebels and those who broke the rules imposed by successive occupiers of Crete. Nowadays, the harbour itself is home to brightly coloured fishing boats and busy taverns selling fresh fish.
The Crete Golf Club is the only 18-hole golf course on the island of Crete and one of the most impressive courses of the Mediterranean, which holds a unique challenge and a pleasant experience for both golf players and visitors all year round. The Crete Golf Club is located approximately 24 km east of Heraklion Airport and 7 km south of the famous summer holiday destination of Hersonissos.
The course has been built to international PGA standards. The Crete Golf Club has a desert-style layout, it is meticulously maintained and at the same time, it provides an ideal venue for international tournaments.
The Prefecture of Lassithi covers the Eastern part of Crete with ca. 77 .000 permanent residents. It is washed by the Cretan Sea at the North, by the Carpathian Sea at the East and by the Libyan sea at the South. The prefecture has four provinces: Mirabelo, Lassithi, Ierapetra, and Sitia. The major cities are Agios Nikolaos, Ierapetra, and Sitia.
Agios Nickolaos is the capital city of the prefecture.This lovely town retains a traditional, quaint and tranquil fishing town lifestyle, which hasn’t lost any of its charm despite the vibrant tourist industry. The history of Agios Nikolaos begins in ancient times when it was the port for Lato, a powerful city during Hellenistic times. The harbour was still used during Roman times and the first Byzantine period although its importance had diminished. After this, it disappeared from history only to reappear in 1206 when the Genoans built the fortress of Mirabelo and gave its name to the town and bay. An earthquake destroyed the fortress and no trace of it remains. In the sixteenth century, the Venetians gave the town its current name, taken from the chapel of Agios Nikolaos on the peninsula of Limena. During the Turks’ rule the town was uninhabited and only after 1870 did people move here, mainly to escape from Turkish persecution.
A famous central landmark of the town is Agios Nikolaos lake, known as “Voulismeni”. According to Greek Mythology, the goddesses Athena and Artemis bathed in the lake that is supposedly bottomless.
It is an especially charming location with many open-air cafes and restaurants along the bank. Small fishing boats bob gently alongside ducks and geese on the lake and add character and atmosphere to this relaxng location.
Lassithi attracts many tourists. Mass tourism is served by places like Vai, well-known for its datepalm forest, Agios Nikolaos and the island of Chrissi. More off-beat tourism can be found in villages on the south coast like Myrtos, Makrys Gialos or Makrigialos, Xerokambos and Koutsouras. To the east of the village of Elounda lies the island of Spinalonga, formerly a Venetian fortress and a leper colony. The Dikteon Cave or Dikteon Andron is one of the most important and famous of the 3,000 caves in Crete and in Greece. It is in the impressive Dikteon Cave, rich in stalagmites and stalactites, that Zeus was born according to legend. This is why the Dikteon Cave was already famous in antiquity, dedicated to the worship of the greatest of the gods.
The windmills of Lassithi
It is the most significant group of windmills preserved on Crete. It occupies the northern entrance to the Lassithi plateau and is the landmark of the whole area. Today 24 windmills are preserved out of the original 26, 7 of which extend to the south of the road that enters the plateau while the rest are built to the north of it. All the mills belong to the one-sided type of windmill, that grinds in a standard position, always on the same direction of the wind. Windmills of this type are preserved on Crete and on Carpathos but the Cretan ones are generally more carefully built and more elegant.
The group of windmills has been declared a work of art since 1986. The mills belong to individuals and some of them have been restored while others still remain half-ruined.
The climate of Crete is probably the mildest in Europe. The strong north-westerly wind, the meltemi, moderates even the hottest months of July and August. Rainfall is rare during the summer months. Autumn is Crete’s mildest season, when temperatures are often higher than in spring. The mountains that run across the island act as a barrier to the weather, often creating different conditions in northern and southern Crete.
Crete is the home of a rich variety of flora that contains, among many hundreds of others, 130 species of wild flowers and herbs which are unique to the island. Among these are dictamo (Organium dictamus), a herb made famous by Aristotle for its medicinal value. Another unusual feature is an evergreen variety, Varietus cretica.
Spring is the best time to enjoy the flora of Crete, after the generous winter rainfall. The fields are ablaze with red poppies and the air is heavy with the scent of orange and lemon blossoms. Dry scrub predominates the landscape in the summer, and oleander and osier bloom in the ravines. During winter, anemones are abundant.
The rarest Cretan plants grow in the ravines or on the steep mountain slopes, such as in the Faragi Imbrou (Imbros Gorge), near the Kalergis Mountain Refuge, and on the Oropedio Spiliou. These include Ebenus cretica, Linum arboreum (flax), Campanula pelviformis (bellflower), Staechelina arborea, and Petromarcula arboreum. Plants flourishing on the plains and high peaks include: Tulipa bakeri and Tulipa saxalitis (tulips), Anchusa caespitosa (alkanet), Scabiosa alborincta and Scabiosa minoana (scabious). The Cretan palm (Phoenix theophrastii), unique to the island, grows along the beach at Vai. Rare plants found along the shore include: Pancratium maritime (sea daffodil), Centaurea pumilio (knapsweed), Anthemis tomentell and Anthemis filicaulis (chamomile).
The fauna of Crete is as varied as the flora. The unique Cretan wild goat (Capra aegagrus-cretica) has a distinctive and impressive appearance. Protected by the government, the agrimi or “kri-kri” is found in the Lefka Ori, in the Samaria National Forest, and on the islets of Dia, Thodorou, and Agii Pandes.
The Cretan “prickly rat” (Acomus mimus) is also unique in the world. Other interesting mammals include the Cretan marten (Martes foina-bunites), the Cretan badger (Melesmeles-arcalus), and the Cretan wildcat (Felis silvestris agrius).
Several kinds of lizard inhabit the island. The brightly coloured Balkan green lizard can grow to be over one metre in length. There is one poisonous snake, although locals claim that St. Titus drove all poisonous snakes off the island.
The bird life on the island is extensive. The Cretan golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetus) and the lammergeyer (Gypaetus barbatus), a sub-species unique to Crete, are distinctive among the birds. The mountains and ravines are home to griffon vultures. Warblers and swallows are common and goldfinches are occasionally seen. Migratory birds make Crete a stop-over each spring on their way from Africa to Europe and on the return trip each autumn.