Richness is not always about money. It’s about abundance. And when it comes to a richness in history, culture, beautiful nature, and enriching experiences, arguably one of the wealthiest destinations in the world is Crete. Another thing you’ll notice on your first visit to Crete is that the people have a well-placed sense of pride in who they are. Crete is surely part of Greece but in its own way is 100% uniquely Cretan. The fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean is over three thousand square miles with countless villages that can trace their origins to the dawn of civilization. Most would say that its most beautiful city is Chania which makes the ideal location to discover all that this beguiling island has to offer.
There are countless small villages and three main cities in Crete including Heraklion which is the largest city, capital, and business hub. Others who visit the island will enjoy Rethymno which is also along the northern coast and a beautiful tourism destination as well. What’s been deemed the Venice of the East and is truly a must-see destination in Chania. It is a thriving city with modern areas where locals go about their everyday lives and its Old Town which is one of the most popular tourism destinations in Greece, and with good reason.
What to do in Chania
The Old Venetian Harbour is the most popular location for tourists in Chania with its seawall, a picturesque quayside, and the iconic 16th-century Venetian Lighthouse. The harbor front is quite long, about a mile or so, beginning at the Firkas Naval Fortress, a central plaza with a water fountain and various cafes and shops. There are repurposed dockyards, more ancient buildings and churches, and another icon, the Yali Mosque or seaside mosque from the days of the Turkish occupation. During the season, horse carriages take tourists along the port and tours through the old city. In the evenings, the waterfront becomes a romantic setting as lights twinkle off the water as couples dine by candlelight while overlooking the view.
For more on the history of Chania as well as its fantastic dining scene and posh accommodations, see Just Luxe’s Part Two of our Exploring Chania Guide.
Behind the waterfront is a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone passageways where just wandering and getting lost in the winding alleyways is an adventure unto itself. There are tavernas serving seafood fresh from the ocean along with a savory menu of local cuisine. Through the winding walkways, visitors will enjoy exploring the shops or finding their way back to their first-rate boutique hotel.
Chania is a living and thriving city and not just for only tourists. The Central Market is a must-visit location where you can see and sample hundreds of products sourced from around the island such as olive oil, honey, indigenous herbs, and the local spirit, raki. Just beyond the market are broad walking streets which are more of an open-air mall with modern stores with everything from fashion to electronics and home décor.
An authentic item that makes the perfect gift or souvenir is a Cretan Knife that you’ll find at the Armenis Knife Shop in Sifaka Street in Old Town. These are just any typical knife. Knives are an essential part of Cretan culture and a symbol of manhood. Even today, especially in rural parts of the island, men carry the traditional knife for utility, as a tool, and yes, for protection. Beyond its strength and purposefulness, these knives are a work of art with craftsmanship and detail to be admired. This little shop has been in the same spot for four generations with the manufacturing techniques passed down from father to son and where you can still pass by and see them making the knives in their workshop.
Chania makes the ideal base to explore Crete from day visits to beaches and villages along the coast or further south for their renowned walking adventures through gorgeous gorges and canyons. Nearby Chania offers plenty of options and adventures as well. Let’s Crete offers a range of tours from beach hopping and boat tours to private islands to horseback rides along the beach and paragliding.
Once out of Chania the first thing you’ll notice is olive trees, more olive trees, and then more olive trees with literally millions of trees and groves around the island. The fall is the most exciting time of the year to see the olive harvest with groups collecting olives from trees with their branches weighed down with their ripe fruit. Most of the groves on the island are family-owned, passed down for generations. Olives and the harvest are such a part of the Greek culture that island law states that family members must be given off two weeks per year if requested for the harvest.
Once the olives are harvested, filled sacks are brought to one of several olive mills around the island such as Melissakis Olive Mill. Massive machines first wash the olives and remove any dirt, leaves, and stems, then they go to another machine that will grind the olives with pits into a pulp. The pulp is then separated and the oil, water, and leftover pulp are extracted. From there the oil is tested for quality and put into containers. The mill will then settle on the price for the oil which is then paid to the farmer as well as a supply from his harvest given back. The entire process is quite fascinating.
Wine in Crete
Along with olives, Crete has been producing wine for more than 4,000 years. The popular Cretan white varietal is Vidiano which is a very drinkable wine with notes of citrus and peach and medium body and acidity. Muscat of Spina, Cretan of Assyrtiko, and Malvasia are also ideal for island cuisine due to their bouquet and light body, and medium acidity. Viticulturists also grow foreign varietals, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc, and blend with indigenous fruit creating new blends that are gaining in popularity.
Manousakis Winery is a large producer located about 30 minutes outside of Chania with vineyards that stretch along the mountainside-facing coastline. The winery producers 150,000 bottles per year with a range of wines from Vidiano, to grenache, rose and, sparkling. The most notable wines are their Vidiano along with their Nostos Mourvédre, a premium dry red wine made for cellaring and ideal for pairing with a rack of lamb. An afternoon at the winery is a delightful way to indulge in their great wines while being surrounded by their citrus trees on their tasting terraces while taking in the views of the surrounding mountains.
Religion in Crete
Crete and Greece for that matter, are people with a strong faith and religion. The Greek Orthodox church has a presence throughout the island and is an integral part of their way of life. Around the island, you’ll see churches, of all sizes, some small little chapels, and others grand and massive cathedrals. And there are monasteries as well with monks and sisters who dedicate their lives to the church from an early age.
On the outskirts of Chania is the Stavropegic Monastery of Chrysopigi. It is set high among the White Mountains and opens to visitors for mass or to explore and take in the views with the sisters who are hospitable and obliging to take guests on a tour. The buildings are stunning with beautiful craftsmanship and architecture and gorgeous fresco ceiling paintings, stone carving, and tile work.
What is equally as impressive is that most of the work has been completed by the sisters who you’ll see going about their chores each day as a dedication to their faith. There are religious icons paintings all over Crete and here in particular they are spectacular with incredible details and beauty there to glorify the lives of the saints. Beyond the beauty of the monastery, the views over the coastline and of Chania are stunning as well. It really does feel like a piece of heaven there.
Outdoor Adventures in Crete
For those looking to add a bit of outdoor adventure with their exploration, hiking and nature walks around Crete are a must. Tourists come from all over Europe to hike, trek, and even mountain climb at places around Crete. Its most popular trek is the Samaria Gorge, a World Biosphere Reserve which takes about five hours as it winds through stunning terrain and mountains to a pristine beach and the sea.
Less than an hour from Chania is a pleasurable hike with a lot to see. The Starvos trail takes about two hours and passes through the Gouverneto Monastery and around the rocky and windy north face of the island. There are plenty of interesting sights to see as well, both natural and man-made. The first is an ancient monastery where just behind is a massive cave to explore. The views are stunning along the well-marked yet steep trail and, where you’ll see mountains gorges, and the rocky coasts along the sea.
Further along, you’ll reach the ruins of the Monastery Katholiko which is the oldest monastery in Crete and days back to the 11th century. You almost feel like Indiana Jones exploring these ruins, and caves and imagining these structures’ grandeur when they were in operation. Many hikers will continue on to the beach below at Stavos while others will use this as the point to head back. All along the way, the views are breathtaking of the sheer cliff walls, flora and fauna, and your constant companions of goats that seem to defy gravity as they scale these steep and most perilous cliff walls.
Exploring the Crete’s Mountains
To understand the ‘real Crete’ you’ll have to get away from the cities and into the countryside. There’s a certain authenticity that you experience once you drive into the mountains and far away from the coastline and the city lights. You’ll begin to see the small villages, with a church at its center, and tavernas and then olives, avocado, and orange trees. Here the people go about their daily lives with many as farmers and shepherds who live a much simpler and pure way of life.
Don’t expect happy, talkative, and overly friendly people. This is not their way; they will look you in the eye and shake your hand and then provide you with warm hospitality, but their nature is much more reserved if not leery of strangers. The farmer’s life is not an easy one, up early each day, cultivating crops. Others are shepherds, who tend to their sheep or goats and then move them from one location to the next, their hands are wide, strong, and leathery and their faces weathered from days in the sun.
And when it comes to the food, it is something special. In the mountains, the fare changes from the seafood of the coast to heavier meals with mutton, potatoes, and a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes drizzled with oil and vinegar. It’s delicious, simple, fresh, and healthy food, for them, this is not a farm-to-table gimmick here, this is how they have lived for thousands of years.
Unchartered Escapes takes guests on a jeep safari into the White Mountains to places that most tourists, or locals for that matter, will never see. The views along the way go from impressive to stunning as each elevation offers bird’s eye views through the valleys and along the coast. The destination is high in the White Mountains via private roads used only by shepherds who look suspiciously at anyone who passes. You’ll get to see how they live, in the simplest of accommodations in stone huts with a simple bed. There is no electricity here so a kerosene lamp lights the night. Outdoors is a propane stove is there for cooking, nearby is a place to milk the goats each day and to make goat cheese. During the summers, the shepherds stay in the mountains and go to town just a few times per week to sell the milk and to stop by their home for a hot meal and to visit their family before heading back into the mountains.
For more on the history of Crete as well as its fantastic dining scene and posh accommodations, see Just Luxe’s Part Two of our Exploring Chania Guide.
Crete and Chania in particular have been travel destinations from the dawn of civilization. The treasures from yesteryear have blended over the millennium into a place that is unique and unforgettable where the old and the new make for an ideal destination for today’s traveler to discover again. To learn more about Chania and as well as to plan an unforgettable holiday in Greece, visit Discover Greece.
Image Source: World Atlas