Spotlight On: Crete

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If you like your islands wild, mountainous and dramatic, Crete will be right up your alley (or rather gorge – more of this later). This is a very mountainous island – the highest peaks are some 2456m high. That’s almost twice as high as Ben Nevis. Even in late spring you can see a sprinkling of snow on the tops. In summer, though, it’s hot and the summer is unusually long, thanks to Crete’s position. It’s one of the southernmost islands in the Mediterranean and so the best times to go are really spring and autumn. Avoiding the high season you don’t just miss the dizzyingly high temperatures, you miss the crowds too.

In fact, with the exception of a few tourist hot spots, out of high season you should be able to avoid the crowds altogether. This is a big island and some parts are rarely visited. There is one hotspot, though, that there’s simply no avoiding. You absolutely must go to Knossos. The Palace of Knossos was the centrepiece of Minoan Crete, a civilisation both ancient (the first palace was built around 2000BC) and unique. This is a people who left behind no weapons (except for ceremonial ones) and whose towns and palaces were entirely unfortified. There is much evidence that they had a great love of gardens and nature, were considerable artists, revered beauty and treated men and women equally. Utopia? Atlantis? Both have been suggested.

The marvellous wall paintings are reproductions and the originals are in Heraklion Museum along with many extraordinary Minoan artefacts – well worth a visit. However, the reproductions and the “restoration” work done by Arthur Evans at the very start of the twentieth century do give a very real sense of what this palace (and indeed town) was like, even if his rebuilding efforts are rather frowned on nowadays.

Knossos was the mythical home of King Minos and the setting for the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. You can see where the idea of the labyrinth came from – Knossos is a maze with lots of different levels and more than a thousand rooms. The Minotaur itself was no doubt based on the Minoan love of bull leaping – teams of young men and women who vaulted like acrobats over the backs of bulls. Legend has it that it was the great craftsman Daedalus who created the maze to contain the monster and he was imprisoned here himself so he could never give away its secrets. To escape, he created the wings that allowed him to fly – though his son, Icarus, fatally flew too high and the sun melted the wax that held the wings together.

This is a big island and different areas have very different characters. So, if you want luxury hotels, nightlife, loads of high-end restaurants, bars and shopping, head to the region east of the capital Heraklion, especially around the Gulf of Mirabello. I stayed here at the Daios Cove resort (see my Spa of the Month for August for more details) for a fabulous three days. This is also the area closest to the capital, Knossos and all the museums.

If you’ve come to Crete to get away from it all, though, head west. The western end of the island is far less populated, more rural and has fewer visitors. If you’re after nightlife this is not the place for you. But if you want empty beaches, soaring eagles, green mountains and dramatic gorges, this is the place.

The main town here is Chania (or Hania or Xania!) and it’s indisputably the most beautiful town in Crete. It actually used to be the island’s capital though that honour passed to Heraklion long ago. It still wins hands down on charm, though. This is partly down to its complicated heritage. There are Minoan remains here but there are layers of Byzantine, Ottoman and Venetian architecture, too. The vast harbour was built by the Venetians and is now encircled by bars and tavernas, museums (pop into the Exhibition of Traditional Naval Architecture for a reconstructed 1500BC Minoan ship) and stalls. It shimmers in the heat as you watch the world go by over lunch and it’s just as attractive when lit up at night. (In fact, this is the only place in western Crete with anything like nightlife.)

Beyond Chania, the further west you go, the quieter and more rural it gets. The coastline is very beautiful, often dramatic and with some perfect beaches and little fish tavernas at the edge of the turquoise Aegean – Elafonisi and Falasarna being a case in point. There’s more to Falasarna than the beach, though. Ancient Falasarna was originally a Minoan settlement but what you see now is of a much later date, around the seventh century BC. It was a harbour but it has moved inland due to earthquakes over the centuries – this part of Crete is now thought to be 8m higher than in Minoan times.

The locals will tell you – and no one can actually know this for sure – that this was the place where the Antikythera Mechanism was made, otherwise known as the world’s first computer. It was found in a shipwreck off the coast of the nearby island of Antikythera and was submerged for more than 2000 years. It was found at the turn of the 1900s by local divers and consisted of a series of bronze gears and wheels encased originally in wood. It is now thought that this was an orrery – built to predict the movements of the five planets known to the Greeks at the time as well as the sun and the moon, eclipses and quite possibly the schedule for the Olympic Games. It would seem to rely on the fact (some 1500 years before Copernicus and Galileo) that the sun was at the centre of the solar system. Quite simply, as the Smithsonian Institute in Washington summed it up: “Nothing as sophisticated, or even close, appears again for more than a thousand years.”

This is a very rural area and everything you’re likely to eat is fresh out of the water or picked that morning. Besides fish, local specialities include olives and olive oil, of course, and every village makes its own. Crete was, apparently, the first place to domesticate bees and the local honey (pine or thyme depending on the bees’ elevation up the mountains) is particularly good. Local sheep and goat yoghurt and cheese can be found in every corner shop. It’s all very healthy and no doubt a contributory factor to Crete having one of the world’s longest lived and healthiest populations. Well, it’s either that or the ouzo…

What you do get at this end of the island is an authentic, slower pace of life and perhaps that’s another factor in the local longevity. And then there’s walking. Being such a mountainous island once you’re out of your car you’ll need to put on your hiking boots. One of Crete’s most famous walks is the Samaria gorge. It’s a dramatically beautiful place next to a river part of the way (good for soaking sore feet), and highlights include the abandoned village of Samaria, an ancient church and spectacular cliffs. It’s not, though, a hike for the faint hearted – it’s 17km long (Europe’s longest gorge) and quite difficult in places.

And a place to relax after all this? I stayed at Youphoria Villas overlooking Kissamos Bay and the Aegean and they certainly live up to their name. Described as “Cretan contemporary living” there are just eight of them positioned over the hillside for total privacy and exceptional comfort. Every luxury you can want (coffee machine, private pool, BBQ) is on hand along with a real elegance. The generous terraces with seating, dining and sunbathing areas – all with the most stupendous views – are almost too difficult to leave and you can even get the villa manager to arrange deliveries of veggie boxes and meals from local restaurants.

This is such a tranquil spot. Not only are there the sea views, but you are surrounded by a positive forest of olive trees. The only sounds are the birds, the goats’ bells and the occasional chime of the bell in the chapel just up the hill.

Youphoria? You bet.

Youphoria have one, two and three-bedroom villas on the hillside above Kissamos Bay available from 300 euros per night. They also have very spacious and private beachfront villas from 500 euros. For more information, visit www.youphoriavillascrete.com.

For more information about Crete, including what to see and do, including ideas for alternative tourism, visit the official tourism site at www.incrediblecrete.gr.

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