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Crete is a great deal more than just another Greek island. Much of the time, especially in the cities or along the developed north coast, it doesn't feel like an island at all, but a substantial land in its own right. Which of course it is - a mountainous, wealthy and at times surprisingly cosmopolitan one with a tremendous and unique history. There are two big cities, Ir‡klion and Hani‡, a host of sizeable, historic towns, and an island culture which is uniquely Cretan: the Turks were in occupation less than a hundred years ago, and the Greek flag raised for the first time only in 1913.
Long before, Crete was distinguished as the home of Europe's earliest civilization. It was only at the beginning of this century that the legends of King Minos, and of a Cretan society which ruled the Greek world in prehistory, were confirmed by excavations at Knoss--s and Fest--s. Yet the Minoans had a remarkably advanced and cultured society, at the centre of a substantial maritime trading empire, as early as 2000 BC. The artworks produced on Crete at this time are unsurpassed anywhere in the ancient world, and it seems clear, wandering through the Minoan palaces and towns, that life on Crete in those days was good. The apparently peaceful Minoan culture survived a number of major disasters, following each of which the palaces were rebuilt on an even grander scale. It is only after a third catastrophe that significant numbers of weapons start to appear in the ruins, probably because Mycenaean Greeks had taken control of the island. Nevertheless, for nearly 500 years, by far the longest period of peace the island has seen, Crete was home to a civilization well ahead of its time.
The Minoans are believed to have come originally from Anatolia, and the island's position as meeting point - and strategic fulcrum - between east and west has played a crucial role in its subsequent history. Control passed from Greeks to Romans to Saracens, through the Byzantine Empire to Venice, and finally to Turkey for 200 years. During World War II Crete was occupied by the Germans, and gained the dubious distinction of being the first place to be successfully invaded by parachute. Each one of these diverse rulers has left some mark, and more importantly they have marked the islanders and forged for the land a personality toughened by endless struggles for independence.
Today, with a flourishing agricultural economy, Crete is one of the few Greek islands which could support itself without tourists. Nevertheless, tourism is heavily promoted, and is rapidly taking over parts of the island altogether. Along the populous north coast, Crete can be as sophisticated as you want it, and the northeast, in particular, can be depressingly overdeveloped. In the less known coastal reaches of the south it's still possible to find yourself alone, but even here places which have not yet been reached are getting harder and harder to find. By contrast, the high mountains of the interior are barely touched, and one of the best things to do on Crete is to hire a Vespa and head for remoter villages, often only a few kilometres off some heavily beaten track.
The mountains, which dominate the view as you approach and make all but the shortest journey an expedition, are perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Crete. In the west, the White Mountains are snowcapped right into June, Psilor'tis (Mount Ida) in the centre is higher still, and in the east the heights continue through the Dh'kti and Sit'a ranges to form a continuous chain from one end of the island to the other. They make a relatively small place - Crete is about 260km long by 60km at its widest (roughly the size of Jamaica) - feel much larger. There are still many places where the roads cannot reach.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.: Where to go
Every part of Crete has its loyal devotees and it's hard to pick out highlights, but on the whole if you want to get away from it all you should head for the ends of the island - west, towards Hani‡ and the smaller, less well-connected places along the south and west coasts, or east to Sit'a. Wherever you're staying though, you don't have to go far inland to escape the crowds.
Whatever you do, your first objective will probably be to leave behind the urban sprawl of Ir‡klion (Heraklion) as quickly as possible - having paid the obligatory, and rewarding, visits to the archeological museum and nearby Knoss--s. The Minoan sites are of course one of the major attractions of Crete: as well as Knoss--s itself there are many other grand remains scattered around the centre of the island - Fest--s and Ay'a Tri‡dha in the south (with Roman G--rtys to provide contrast) and M‡lia on the north coast. Almost wherever you go though, you'll find some kind of reminder of this history - the town of Gourni‡ near the tourist enticements of çyios Nik--laos, the palace of Z‡kros over in the far east or the lesser sites scattered around the west.
For many people, unexpected highlights also turn out to be Crete's Venetian forts - dominant at RŽthimnon, magnificent at Frangok‡stello, and found in various stages of ruin around most of the island; the Byzantine churches, most famously at Krits‡ but again to be discovered almost anywhere; and in RŽthimnon and Hani‡ cluttered old towns full of Venetian and Turkish relics.
The mountains and valleys of the interior also deserve far more attention than they get. Only the Las'thi plateau in the east and the Samarian gorge in the west really see large numbers of visitors, but almost anywhere you can turn off the main roads and find agricultural villages going about their daily life, and often astonishingly beautiful scenery. This is especially true in the west, where the Lefk‡ îri - the White Mountains - dramatically dominate every view, and numerous lesser gorges run parallel to the Samarian one down to the Libyan Sea. But there's lovely country behind Ir‡klion too, in the foothills of the Psilor'tis range, and especially on the other side of these mountains in the Am‡ri Valley, easily reached from RŽthimnon. The east also has its moments, in the Dh'kti range and in the spectacular cliff drive from çyios Nik--laos to Sit'a.
As for beaches, you'll find great ones almost anywhere on the north coast. From Ir‡klion to çyios Nik--laos there's very heavy development, and most package tourists are aiming for the resort hotels here. These places can be fun if nightlife and crowds are what you're after - especially the biggest of them, like M‡lia and çyios Nik--laos, which have the added advantage of being large enough to have plenty of cheap food and accommodation, plus good transport links. M‡lia also has sand as good as any on the island (if you can find it through the crowds), but çyios Nik--laos really doesn't have much of a beach of its own. Further east things get quieter: Sit'a is a place of real character, and beyond it on the east coast are a number of beautifully tranquil places - especially Z‡kros - and V‡i, very busy with day-trippers. To the west there's another tranche of development around RŽthimnon, but the town itself is relatively unscathed, and a rather lesser cluster of apartments and smaller hotels near Hani‡, the most attractive of the big towns. Other places at this end of the island tend to be on a smaller scale.
Along the south coast, resorts are far more scattered, and the mountains come straight down to the sea much of the way along. Only a handful of places are really developed - Ier‡petra, Ay'a Gal'ni, M‡tala, Paleoh--ra - and a few more, like Plaki‡s and Makriyial--s, on their way. But lesser spots in between, not always easy to get to, are some of the most attractive in Crete.
When to go
As the southernmost of all Greek islands, Crete has by far the longest summers: you can get a decent tan here right into October and swim at least from April until early November. Spring is the prime time to come: in April and May the island is relatively empty of visitors, the weather clear and not overpoweringly hot, and every scene is brightened by a profusion of wild flowers.
By mid-June the rush is beginning. July and August are not only the hottest, the most crowded and most expensive months, they are also intermittently blighted by fierce winds and accompanying high seas, which make boat trips very uncomfortable, and at their worst can mean staying indoors for a day or more at a time. The south coast is particularly prone to these. In September the crowds gradually begin to thin out, and autumn can again be a great time to visit - but now the landscape looks parched and tired, and there's a feeling of things gradually winding down.
Winters are mild, but also vaguely depressing: many things are shut, it can rain sporadically, sometimes for days, and there's far less life in the streets. In the mountains it snows, even to the extent where villages can be cut off; on the south coast it's generally warmer, soothed by a breeze from Africa. You may get a week or more of really fine weather in the middle of winter, but equally you can have sudden viciously cold snaps right through into March.
Title: Crete: A Rough Guide, Fourth Edition (4th ed...
Publisher: Rough Guides
Publication Date: 1998
Book Condition: Good
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