Reflections on Crete

Reflections on Crete

Heraklion sunset

As we sit here on the cusp of our ferry back to Greece mainland, I’m feeling very reflective about our month on this real Treasure Island.  I have a fancy that it will stay in our hearts and memories, evoking every sense as we recall it.

I’m finding it strangley hard to encapsulate all that we have experienced here, such has been the diversity of the miles we’ve covered and the sights our eyes have been privileged to witness. How do I put all this in words?  I don’t normally struggle!

Crete has not been just another country ticked off in our passion for exploring new lands. It somehow feels more significant than that. Not sure I can put my finger on exactly what that means just yet, although something has been birthed here.

Frangokasteli – 1371

Amidst a land that is claimed solely by history and nature and not, as we might think – tourism, I feel a huge sense of pride to have found so much essence on this fair isle.  Don’t get me wrong, we are part of a huge number of people who visit here, many who come for a very much shorter space of time than us and who are very happy to simply have the sun and sand.

Yet if you are willing, Crete invites you to look beyond the crowds, coach tours and the touristy northern coast and search deep into its soul. As there you will find an intriguing trilogy between Mother Nature, modern and ancient history and mythology; who blend together to create a Cretan adventure that will leave its mark on your heart.

Zeus’ Birthplace – Psychro Cave

Neither of us are great historians, although I defy you to be left untouched by the mythogical legends of Zeus, the Minotaur and Poseidon as their stories create the very fabric of Greek culture. And then there’s the ancient history that have left this amazing legacy for us to explore; the Minoans, who are said to be the earliest of European civilisation, a truth which is being increasingly unveiled by findings at ancient sites like Knossos.  And let’s not forget that we’re talking up to 2000BC.  This is almost beyond comprehension and yet demands a deep respect as you tread in ancient footprints.  More recent history has also left indelible scars on this land and the current generation as WW2 invasions, massacres and German occupation influences their memories.  Yet the Cretans are, like Greeks across the water, the most warm, engaging and generous of people.  In the older generation you can see history etched into the lines on their faces and, as they walk by, they seem to carry the world on their shoulders like Atlas in mythology.  What must their treasured island feel like with this throng of visitors passing by their simple homes, let alone a 7.5 metre motorhome?  Strange times indeed and we are grateful for their sharing and community spirit.

Crete is a complex partnership of mountains, that form the island’s backbone, and the forces of the sea and wind who together, continue to shape its landscape.  No matter where on Crete you travel, you always pass in a mountain’s shadow, which is strangley comforting.  And then in a whisper, you are drawn to the sparkling aqua and azure seas, as if in some futile competition. As you approach the sea’s domain, it’s almost as if the mountains have slid gracefully in surrender, creating secret coves and stunning beaches to amaze and enthral. The south offers most of these secret treasures, many only accessible on foot.  And so it is a haven for naturists who bare all without fear of intrusion.  Lagoons, long strands of sand, dunes and bays of curvaceous beauty, all with the backdrop of the magestic mountains, covered in a greenery that will surprise and delight you.

Crocodile Rocks, Agia Pavlos

Yet look a little deeper and you will uncover a different Crete, one carved millions of years ago.  Whichever compass point you look, Crete gives you a different geology lesson; uniquely shaped rock formations that tell you a tale, if you unsdertand its language.  From the crocodile rocks in Agios Pavlos in the south, to the pink sands at Elafonisi and the 50 gorges that clearly make their mark on Crete’s canvas.  The volcanic and tectonic legacy is evident everywhere, each one telling a unique tale from its past.

Irini Gorge, Agia Irini

The gorges themselves are incredibly special and as you enter the bosom of their souls, they take you into their protection and transport you to a whole new world. We walked four of the lesser known gorges as we didn’t want to share the experience with thousands of others eager to conquer the feat that is the Samaria Gorge.  Plus you simply can’t do them all and to add insult to injury, I was supporting an Achilles’ tendon strain – only in Greece eh.  So Pefki and Butterfly Gorge in the east and Imbross and Irini in the south west were our four nemeses.  Each one giving us unique challenges.  Pefki with its 300ft ascent, Butterfly with her rock climbing endeavours, Imbross, the uphill hIke through an old river bed with narrow cliffs teaming with the sound of insects and the equisit 8km Irini gorge  that snakes through the mountains with dexterity and grace to the orchestral melody of your own personal aviary.  Their architecture is astonishing and as long as you can take your eyes off where you’re walking for two minutes, you can appreciate Mother Nature’s artwork that rises above your head.

Cretan Church – great architecture

Now speaking of architecture, I have to be honest that all Crete’s design efforts goes into the landscape and not the buildings.  Whilst it is undeniable that the churches and mountain-top chapels are devine, literally, I didn’t really think much to the Cretan villages.  Krista to the east was lovely, the old town of Chania charming and the harbour towns quaint.  Although on the whole they really did disappoint me. I guess I have been spoilt by Santorini and Mykonos, so they have a lot to live up to.  I do love how the deep purple and pink bougainvillea drape seductively across telephone wires and concrete balconies, in a vain attempt to shield their plainness, although only with a modicum of success.  That said their delightful homes turned tavernas in EVERY village you pass just shows the Greek’s entrepreneurial spirit.  Partnered with the stalls on the roadside that offer the weary traveller a tempting gastronomic tease with their local honey, raki (fire water!!) and olive oil goods, they are just too good to bypass.  You want organic this is the place to come.

Goat milking for cheese making at our door!

I can’t miss the chance to share the vision of the pink and white oleanders that border the main roads, creating a corridor of colour that make an otherwise boring piece of tarmac quite picturesque.  The delicate red poppies wave in the breeze, the yellow broom brings the mountainside to life and the wild sage and thyme fills the air as you pass by.  And then there’s the goats that cling to the gorge edges defying gravity and yet are still able to yield the most wholesome milk for a sensational cheese.  I shall never again be able to eat this without accompanying it with a delicate dribble of organic honey – just a marriage made in heaven.

So what did we learn from our Cretan experiences? First and foremost, Crete is big.  Underestimate it at your peril.  A month is just not long enough to do it anywhere near enough justice.  We did well with our five centred ‘homes’ although there is so much we had to miss.

Secondly, Crete is stunningly diverse.  Whether you like hiking, snorkelling, photography, botany, beaches, buzzy towns, history or mountains – you will not be disappointed.

Wild camp at Sfinari, west Crete

Finally Crete offers 15 campsites; some of which can only be loosely described this way.  They are often small, basic although always welcoming and often with stunning swimming pools. If their signs say ACSI, it is unlikely to end up in a discount as most times their inspection has either run out and it’s an old sign or it’s just an inspection sign, which don’t offer discounts.  That said we paid between €17-26 per night with electric.  Wild camping is doable although not as profusely as on mainland Greece, yet we managed to find some stunning spots that were made in heaven or somewhere close.  That said we found that if we centred ourselves in one place, then either use our bikes or hire a car, we covered more ground.  You can get a car for about €25-35 per day, depending on the length of hire and it’s great to nip to places more quickly than with a 3.5T motorhome.  The roads are very doable, on the whole and although sometimes twisty and wiggly, travelling around the island wasn’t difficult.  Just sometimes more efficient with a car.

So what would my closing reflections of Crete be?  Come! Simple as that really. I know it’s the furthest south you can get in Europe, although please come.  Either fly and hire a motorhome from:

www.campergreece.comwww.motorhomes.gr or www.spicycampers.com

…or make the overland journey sailing from Piraeus to Hirakleon or Chania with Anek Lines. The €400 return journey was, in my view an absolute investment and the best way I could imagine to spend that money.  Crete will take hold of you by the heart, pull on your strings and offer you an experience, not a holiday.  Its richness, colour and diversity will make it so memorable that photos will not be required.  You will relive your Cretan Odyssey through your dreams.  Although here’s a few to whet your appetite.

With love and and admiration for Crete, Mrs Moneypenny.

‘Dave’ does Sfinari beach, Crete

Well, as we sit patiently for the laptop doctor to wave his magic wand over Ms Moneypenny’s computer, it’s tie to catch up on the Vlog.  In our last week on Crete  ‘Dave’ got chance to stretch his wings at Elafonisi Beach but first here’s his efforts on a marvellous hideaway called Sfinari beach.

Curious about Crete

Curious about Crete

Sometimes the longest journeys hold the greatest rewards.

What a great quote.  I can’t quite remember who said it, although I have a fancy it might have been Sally from ‘Home and Away’ about twenty years ago!  Still, no truer a phrase could be spoken about the journey, to the jewel that is Greece.

Greece may feel like a stretch from any part of Europe, least of all UK, although a reward, this captivating country most certainly is.  From mainland, to the Peloponnese, to its islands.  So much diversity.

We loved our excursion around the Peloponnese thumb on the eastern board, with our convoy buddies from Follow our Motorhome, although after a lovely month travelling together, a Cretan adventure was awaiting us and a visit from my mummy.  So with bitter sweet departures, we left Nafplio and headed towards Piraeus.  Now, after two ferries that have taken us from Spain to Greece, you could be forgiven for thinking we’d had enough of these water taxis, although when taking Anek Lines ferries, it is a joy not an endurance.  Not only is the boarding effortless, the ferries themselves are great, the staff wonderful and an upgrade to a cabin simple and cost effective.  In total we paid €400 for our sailing to Heraklion, which included our Early Booking Discount – booking before 28 February, which is worth having if you can do it early enough. We used the guys from Paleologos for our ferry connections.  You can email Aria at aria@paleologos.her.forthnet.gr

There are other ports from which you can reach Crete, such as Gythio in the Peloponnese, although they hadn’t released their timetable by the time I wanted to book.  So Piraeus it was, and actually, it was very easy to get to.  The port disembarkation points are very well signposted and the Crete ferry is at Gate 3.

After 10 hours, we arrived on the island and despite a four day retreat at the Blue Palace Hotel, on the east coast in 2010, we really felt like it was a brand new experience for us.  Leaving Heraklion, which I have to admit, is not pretty, we headed for the hills to a wild camp spot someone had pinned – I tried really hard to love it.  Given that I measure my love for a place by how many tears I shed, there was no shedding on our arrival day. I comfort myself in the knowledge though that an uncharacteristic change in the weather and my travel weariness didn’t help matters and certainly added their shade to my first impressions.

It just wasn’t working for me, even in the mountains!  The wild spot disappointed us, as it turned out to be a car park in a wine-region town, where the buses manoeuvred and so with wild abandon and a curious spirit, we headed for a reservoir we’d seen on the map.  Alas our attempts were thwarted as the sat nav routed us through roads that Scoobie would simply not fit through.  So with frustrated hearts, we decided to head for the campsite that we were due to call home for the first half of my mum’s visit.

Now we have been seriously spoilt with our wild camping and even the sites we’ve visited on mainland Greece, with so many spots reaching our Top 10 list.  So I think expectations were high as we stepped onto Cretan soil.  Although because there are not too many motorhomes who have headed out this far (certainly in comparison to other parts of Europe), recommended wild spots are hard to come by and there are only 15 campsites on the Island.

Camping Sisi, on the northern coast, 45 minutes east of Heraklion, is actually a little gem, once I’d got over my tiredness tantrum.  It’s a rustic site that actually needs some investment, although comes with views to die for, with a picture-postcard setting sun and a fantastic over-sized swimming pool, all for €20 per night.  It’s a fifteen minute walk into Sisi town, which is a cute, if not a tad touristy, with restaurants hugging the cliff edge waiting to entice you with their fish delights.

What stands out to me more and more as we begin grounding ourselves in the Cretan way of life, is how this island appeals to every sense and every type of interest.  From hikers to cyclists, artists, botanists and historians and perhaps even the odd geologist and ornithologist to boot.

How can I begin to convey to you what we have experienced so far?  Well let’s give it a go.

As a starting point, Imagine if you will the azure blue seas that protectively surround the island, hypnotising you with their sparkle from the glistening sun and that wave with white horses in the infamous afternoon winds.  Picture rolling hills dwarfed by snow capped mountains, offering a tapestry of grapevines and olive trees that would feel at home in the heart of Tuscany.  Secret alluvial plateaus hidden behind the mountain’s border reveal an authentic Cretan culture that is steeped in agriculture mastery with vegetables and fruits aplenty for the eager cook.  See in your mind’s eye diverse rock formations along the coast, deeply penetrating caves that go far into the earth’s core and see how rivers carve their way through the 30 gorges that lure into their midst giving you a taste of a geological history where volcanoes ruled the land.  Now get the smell of toffee as you walk along the coastal paths taking you back to a childhood memory that is combined with wild sage, thyme and mint that grow in abundance along the verges.  In May, spring is still dominant and she offers the artist a kaleidoscope of colours that somehow seem to outdo the rainbow’s spectrum; with fuchsia pink and white oleander that frame even the National Road, making a stretch of tarmac look beautiful; cornflower blue blossoms that grow like weeds and purple trees that look like they should live in Japan.  Yellow broom dots the hills, breaking up the greenness of the olives and red hibiscus throw their passionate hue to the keen photographer.  And we cannot forget the craggy granite outcrops that are home to the chapels and monasteries calling their flock to take the pilgrimage up the mountain to worship underneath the blanket sky.  And at last the inference of mythical and ancient times that will intrigue every historian as they seek to discover their lineage and ancestral core, whether through the gods or through the Minoans who carved their very existence into the countryside and our very own modern civilisation.

Each day we explore, we see and feel a new wave of love and appreciation for this stunning island that I feel will seriously challenge my superlatives and most definitely puts a question mark over the quote,

‘You only get one chance to make a first impression’

We are learning how to navigate its regions and challenging roads, being selective about our choice of exploration.  As our first week comes and goes with the speed of a diving hawk, we are starting to unwrap the secret joys of our very own treasure island and what it offers our curious, adventurous spirits.  So stay tuned to our Cretan Series of blogs and the ebook, which will closely follow, as we share its delights to entice you to journey south towards its shores.

Karen x