This September I was lucky enough to spend 12 days in Greece. I had just recently moved to Madridfor grad school, and really needed a vacation after the stress of moving to a different country. I’m won’t lie, there was a lot of crying and sleep deprivation involved…I think even my parents lost a bit of respect for me…
The first four days of my vacation were spent traveling through Crete. I don’t know why I decided to do this. I didn’t know anything about the island — other than the fact that Zeus was supposedly raised there after his mother Rhea saved him from being eaten by his father, Cronos
Another fun fact: Remember Icarus? The guy who flew too close to the sun, melted his makeshift wings, and plummeted to his death? Also Crete!
I bet you’re beginning to understand my fascination with Greece, but I have once again digressed.
Traveling through Crete was absolutely beautiful, and it’s definitely worth the trip. When people think of visiting the Greek Islands, they envision lounging around Mykonos or Santorini. Most tourists rarely look to other islands, and that’s a damn shame.
Though I didn’t have too much time on the island, I was able to explore Chania on West side of the island, and Heraklion on the East/Center part. In Heraklion, I was only able to see the Palace of Knossos on account of my friend needing to go to the hospital.
She had an allergic reaction to bug bites she received in Italy. A word to all backpackers, don’t leave the window of your hostel open right before a rain storm. ALL of the bugs will come into your room, and they will eat you alive.
So, now that you’ve probably gotten bored of my ramblings, here are some of my favorite things to do and see while traveling through Crete:
Travelling Through Chania
As with literally every pebble in Greece, Chania has a long history. For example, it was built on the ancient site of Kidonia — a very important city accordingto Homer (the dude who wrote The Odysseyand the Iliad).
Many surviving architectural remains date back to the Mycenaeans (who may have helped wipe out the Minoans), and it was also occupied by the Venetians beginning in 1204 AD.
Long story short, Chania is old.
There’s so much to do, and I wish I’d had more time to experience it all. Nevertheless, I did enjoy my 2 days in Chania, and I definitely have some recommendations for when you’re traveling through Crete:
Explore the Old Venetian Harbor
The Old Venetian Harborwas originally built by the Venetians between 1320 and 1356. It served as a portfor Venetian military ships, as well as an important commercial point in the Mediterranean.
Today, the Old Venetian Harbor is still a hub of activity. Did I mention it’s absolutely beautiful? Yes, there’s a lot of tourists, but the sight of the harbor itself makes the crowds completely worth it.
PRO TIP: If crowds are that much of a detriment to you—which would really make a Greece trip difficult—go during the off-season. I went in early September and didn’t have too much of a problem. Later than that, and you’ll definitely miss the crowds.
Anyways, the Old Venetian Harbor is full of restaurants and shops. I even did that thing where you let fish eat the dead skin off your feet…I’ve been told that it’s actually not good for you, so try it at your own risk. It just tickled.
The Lighthouse & The Mosque
The Lighthouse was voted among the 21 most famous lighthouses in the world, and has existed for, well, ever.
It was built by the Venetians sometime between 1595 and 1601 on a natural rock formation, and originally functioned as an open flame torch.
It’s an important landmark in the city, and according to this article, “The tower is divided in three diverse parts: the base is octagonal, the middle parthas sixteen sides, and the third part is circular. The base’s construction material is of the same origin and quality as the one used for the fortification of the city by the Venetians.”
As for the mosque, it is the oldest Ottoman building in Crete. It was originally built in1645 when the Turks took control of Chania, but was partially destroyed in bombings during World War II. At its Southwest corner a minaretoriginally stood, but was never repaired.
The building stopped being used as a mosque in 1923. Most recently, it has functioned as an exhibition space…which I can attest to. There was some awesome art in there when we checked it out.
Hike the Samaria Gorge
On our second day in Crete, we decided to hike the Samaria Gorge.
The Samaria Gorge islocate in the White Mountains’ National Park, the only national park on Crete. It’s the longest gorge in Europe, and was declared a national park in 1962 due the rare, endangered kri kri—a Cretan wild goat. The gorge is on the southern side of the Chania prefecture.
PRO TIP: Before I start talking about the hike, I’m going to tell you what tour operators should have told everyonebefore they bought their bus tickets: DO NOT HIKE THE SAMARIA GORGE IF YOU HAVE BAD KNEES.
The hike takes about 5-6 hours, and 2.5 of those hours are spend going downhill. Some people weren’t warned beforehand, and found out on the bus ride there just how difficult the hike was going to be for them (and that some of them may not be able to complete it at all).
PRO TIP FOR IDIOTS: We paid 37 to hike the gorge, but probably got scammed out of 22 of those euros. The bus ride there/tour guide of the gorge cost 10 euros, and the ferry back cost 5. We realized that we had paid my hostel owner 22 euros just to make a call and reserve our place on the bus. If you have time to figure your shit out in Chania, try to avoid this.
Now that we got that out of the way, the Samaria Gorge was really pretty. We went after a drought so there was no river, but it was pretty nonetheless.
The hikeis 16km long, and took 5 hours for us to hike. We were able to refill our water bottles throughout the hike in natural springs. There are 3 rest stops along the hike, and one of them is actually surrounded by old Venetian ruins.
We saw plenty of kri kri, and they had no fear of humans. This is actually a bad sign, because it means that tourists have been feeding them and they may no longer know how to get food on their own…so PLEASE DON’T FEED THE KRI KRI.
The hike ended at the very small town of Roumeli. We were able to have lunch there, and swim in the beautiful waters. We then took a ferry back from Roumeli to where the busses met us.
If you plan to hike the Samaria Gorge, wear slip-resistant shoes, bring food and water, don’t forget sunscreen, and remember that layers are key as you will ideally begin the hike early when it’s cooler!
I regards to difficulty level, I didn’t have too much of a problem. The hardest part of the hike was all of the downhill parts in the beginning. Due to its length, I would say it was mid-level in terms of difficulty.
Travelling Through Heraklion
On our third day on Crete, we took a 3-hour bus from Chania to Heraklion. I enjoyed the bus ride because my whole body hurt after hiking the Samaria Gorge. For some reason, all those years eating poorly and avoiding exercise didn’t prepare me for a 5-hour hike. Who knew?
We bought our bus tickets at the station, but you can also get them on the KTEL website. This is the most widely used bus service in Greece. The ride took 3 hours, and we paid 15 euros each. Overall, not bad.
It may have been the AirBnb we stayed at, but Heraklion felt much less touristy than Chania. While Chania felt small (and I hate to use the word quaint, but yes), Heraklion was very much a city.
While there, we visited the palace of Knossos (I absolutely adored it after taking aclass in college) and the archaeological museum, which is filled with artifacts found at the palace.
The Palace of Knossos & The Archaeological Museum
I guess I’ll start off with what I see as the most fun fact about the palace: it’s where mythology says King Minos hid the Minotaur and the labyrinth.
The Palace of Knossos was the seat of the Minoan civilization, and is absolutely huge. There are still a lot of questions about the palace in regards to its chronological history, however, it is clear that at some point the original palace was destroyed (burned down?) and a second was built on top of the ruins.
At somepoint in time, the Minoans abandoned the palace, and the reason why has been subject to much speculation. Some believe that the eruption of the Santorini caldera caused a tidal wave that took out the Minoans, or that the Mycenaeans either wiped them out, or integrated with them. The latter theory is supported by Mycenaean artifacts found at the site.
When it comes to visiting the palace, I recommend you go to the archeological museum first. It really gives context to what you’re looking at when you see the ruins. Without this context, visiting the Palace of Knossos won’t mean much to you.
When visiting the palace and museum, keep an eye out for certain motifs that can befound in a lot of Minoan art, namely the bull. You will see a lot of depictions of Minoan bull leaping (where the phrase grabbing the bull by the horns comes from), and horns of consecration (depictions of bull horns in Minoan art and architecture).
The snake goddess is also depicted on a lot of the older artifacts.
Well, now that you’ve read this amazingly long article, I think you’re ready to be traveling through Crete!
AFTERWORD: I firmly believe that background information makes traveling so much more interesting. This is why I take the time to add factual information into my articles. As people travel more and more, we need to be sure that we’re treating every location and culture with the respect they deserve—the best way to do this is by taking the time to learn about them.
Not only that, but reading “I went here and it was pretty” articles are horribly boring.
And empty words are evil.Homer, The Odyssey