Crete

Knossos fresco

Knossos fresco

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, 160 miles long and 37 miles across at the widest point, located 99 miles south of Athens at the very southern border of the Aegean Sea and of the European continent. One blog post will not do justice to Crete’s many, diverse attractions but we’ll take a stab at an informative overview.

Crete was the center of the highly sophisticated, pre-Greek Minoan civilization which thrived from approximately 3,000 BCE until it vanished about 1,500 years later. Its main city was Knossos but it had settlements all over Crete, around the Aegean, and even on mainland Turkey. At its height, Minoan influence rivaled that of ancient Egypt.

Most tourism development on Crete is on the north coast of the island; some areas are densely packed with mass market facilities. The main centers are Heraklion, Chania, Hersonnisos and Elounda.

Venetian Harbor, Heraklion

Venetian Harbor, Heraklion

Heraklion is the commercial and administrative center of Crete, the major city on the island and one of Greece’s largest cities, not so much a tourist destination as a hub for air and sea traffic. It is, however, a sophisticated city with excellent dining, shopping and nightlife and its proximity to Knossos and world-class archaeological museum are reason enough to spend at least a few hours in Heraklion.

Phaistos

Phaistos

Knossos is 3 miles from Heraklion. It’s the most thoroughly restored of Crete’s Minoan ruins but the accuracy of the restoration is questionable and has a bit of a theme park feel. For less flashy but still very grand Minoan ruins, see Phaistos, about 40 miles southwest of Heraklion, and Aigia Triada, a few miles from Phaistos. Artifacts from the Minoan sites can be viewed at the excellent Archaeological Museum in Heraklion.

Venetian Harbor, Chania

Venetian Harbor, Chania

Chania is an exceptionally picturesque little city, especially the well-preserved old city with Venetian and Ottoman buildings clustered around the harbor.

On the far northeast end of the island, about 50 miles from Heraklion, is Elounda, mostly known for luxury resorts.

White Mountains (Lefka Ori), Crete

White Mountains (Lefka Ori), Crete

Crete’s interior is mountainous and cut through with stunning gorges. A serious hiker can easily spend weeks trekking about. More casual hikers should check out sections of the coast-long E4 trail, especially in the White Mountains near Chania and the Psiloritis Mountains near Heraklion. The Samarian Gorge, near Chania, is a very popular day hike.

There is a great variety of beaches on Crete, from long and sandy to short and rocky. In general, those on the north coast are more crowded than those on the south coast. Knowing when you’ll be there and specifically what you desire in a beach experience will help us suggest where to go.

During season (April-October), there are multiple daily flights from Athens to Chania, Heraklion and, to a lesser degree, the new airport at Sitia. Flights from Rhodes and Santorini in high season are also a possibility.

Cruise ships dock at Heraklion. Ferries travel from Athens to Heraklion and Chania and from Santorini and Rhodes to Heraklion.

3 Day Trips from Athens

 

Temple of Octavia, Corinth, Greece

Temple of Octavia, Corinth, Greece

The ancient site of Corinth is about an hour drive west of Athens on the isthmus that connects mainland Greece to the Peloponnese. There has been significant development there since the 8th century BCE. With ports on the Corinthian Gulf and the Saronic Gulf, Corinth controlled a great deal of trade and was very wealthy and powerful, especially in the Classical period, when the city was known for decadence. The flamboyant Corinthian Order (column) originated in Corinth and is a good reflection of the city’s character at its peak.

Ancient attempts to dig a canal through the isthmus failed but after the first try in the 7th-century BCE, a paved ramp was built so ships could be moved overland, to avoid sailing around the Peloponnese. In the late 19th century the canal was finally built, 4 miles long and only 70 feet across, too narrow for most modern seafaring traffic.

Many visitors to Corinth are interested in its biblical significance. Paul the Evangelist established a church there and visited several times. Two of his letters to the congregation in Corinth are part of the Christian Bible – 1st & 2nd Corinthians. Among the ruins are a 6th-century BCE Temple of Apollo, one of the oldest surviving Greek temples, a Roman Temple of Octavia, the Roman agora, and the Bema, a public square where Paul was judged after some of the locals complained about his preaching.

Cape Sounion, Greece

Cape Sounion, Greece

Less than an hour drive southeast of Athens is Cape Sounion, a windswept promontory jutting out into the Aegean Sea. A magnificent 5th-century BCE Temple of Poseidon commands the end of the cape. It’s a dramatic and evocative place, well worth the pretty drive from Athens along the Saronic Gulf.

Hydra island, Greece

Hydra island, Greece

With Saronic Islands day trips from Athens you visit three islands – Hydra, Poros and Aegina. If you’re short on time and really want to see more than one island in an organized, semi-escorted way, this is a good way to do it. On the other hand, you spend a lot more time traveling between islands and boarding and disembarking than you do on the islands. Personally, I’d rather have time to linger and soak up one place, and Hydra would be that place. Hydrofoils depart several times a day from Athens’ Pireaus port during the tourist season (March/April-October). The one-way trip takes about 1 ½ hours. The island is idyllic, with the pretty, whitewashed town tucked between amphitheater hills and the harbor, cobbled roads and no motorized traffic – the perfect recipe for lazy poking around and a long harbor-view lunch.