In early April, Events and Entertainment Editor, Fiona Horan, was invited by Travel Editions to join a Fam Trip to the Greek island of Crete. She reports back.
Windmills and frescoesI was delighted to join a four-night familiarisation visit to Crete, organised by Ellen Walker, the Business Development Manager of Travel Editions. This was my first visit to the island.
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, a land inhabited since Neolithic times and home to the earliest known civilisation in Europe – the Minoans from around 2700BC – whose writings are yet to be deciphered. This is a land of legend and deep, deep history, the birthplace of the Greek god Zeus and the home of the fearsome Minotaur.
- The flight time from the UK to Crete is just under four hours.
- Crete is two hours ahead of UK time.
- Currency is the Euro.
- Language is Greek.
- No visas or vaccinations are currently required.
The Minoan civilisation influenced that of the ancient Greeks, and its sudden collapse probably inspired the story of Atlantis. Crete’s strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean between Greece, Turkey and Egypt has resulted in numerous invasions – Greek, Roman, Venetian, and Islamic – that have left their mark on the culture and architecture of the island.
We flew to Heraklion airport from Gatwick with Easyjet, accompanied by Ellen Walker and then connected upon arrival with Jane Freeman, Greece Operations Manager for Travel Editions, and our comfortable coach driven by Nikos Kiriakakis – who proved to be an amazing driver, getting us up and down the high mountain roads and through narrow village streets without incident.
Our first stop, east of Heraklion, was the fertile Lassithi Plateau, which lies at an average altitude of 840m. This is the legendary birthplace of Zeus, in a cave, which can be visited. The landscape is also famous for its many white-sailed small windmills – used as irrigation pumps. This isolated area has sometimes been regarded with suspicion by the authorities as a possible seat of rebellion, and the people here suffered much under the Venetians and the Turks.
We had our first Cretan meal at Seli Ampelou restaurant on the plateau. The food was superb and this is a restaurant that caters well for groups, with easy coach parking, plenty of tables, open fire, and a lovely terrace with great views. In the afternoon we visited the 13th century monastery of Panagia Kera, in the Dikte Mountains, which has some of the best-preserved Byzantine frescoes in Crete.
The entire interior, both walls and domed roof, is painted, and the old church has a lovely atmosphere, situated in the mountains and surrounded by birdsong.
After this, we drove on to Rethymnon, on the coast of northern Crete and booked into the four-star Bio Suites Hotel, which was to be our base for the next four nights.
Margarites and rethymnonOn our second day in Crete we visited the pottery village of Margarites. Pottery is an ancient art form in Crete, and, throughout the trip, I admired the huge urns that could be seen outside houses or at archaeological sites.
The small village of Margaritas has a pottery tradition that goes back many generations. Local potter George Dalamvelas demonstrated some of the fascinating and clever designs used by the ancients to create water carriers, storage vessels and food holders, as well as jugs and cups with an unexpected quirk to trick the unwary. (Just don’t be too greedy pouring yourself wine in Crete, that’s all I can say!).
The shop and studio, Keramion, offers pottery classes for adult groups. Another lovely lunch at Taverna Farangi in the village of Kirianna followed, plus a visit to the Arkadi Monastery, which sits beneath Mount Ida, at an altitude of 500m. This 16th century building is a famous symbol of resistance in Crete. It was a base for rebellion against Ottoman rule in 1866, and was attacked by Ottoman troops. Nearly a thousand local people were sheltering in the monastery – the majority of them women and children. Under the Ottoman onslaught, the abbot took the decision to blow up the gunpowder room with everyone inside it, rather than surrender.
This act captured international attention and sympathy to the Cretan side of the conflict. Unsurprisingly, the monastery has a sombre atmosphere, but is peaceful, with roses around the church and good views from its upper cloisters. Then it was back to Rethymnon for a walking tour of the Old Town.
Rethymnon has a Venetian harbour and a long beach with a palm-lined board walk. There are several interesting museums, but the main attraction is the Old Town, with ancient buildings and streets enlivened by quirky pieces of art installed during the annual Easter festival.
A highlight was calling in on Georgos and Katerina Hadziparshos. Beyond an impressive doorway with a carved stone frame lies the bakery of a master of the art of filo pastry.
George has been making gossamer-thin pastry for baklava cakes for nearly 70 years, and is happy to demonstrate his work to passing visitors. We were all amazed as a small ball of pastry became a giant tablecloth – thin enough to read a newspaper through. We then all bought some baklava to see if the taste was as amazing as the technique. It was!
West of Rethymnon lies the beautiful coastal city of Chania, the second largest in Crete, whose turbulent history has left a legacy of interesting buildings – including much Venetian architecture. We visited the city on our third day and admired the charming Venetian harbour, the old wall, the maze of back streets, intriguing stone doorways, round windows and plentiful icecream.
We also visited several other interesting places nearby, including Aptera – a ruined Roman city high in the mountains. This was a delightful spot wreathed in wild flowers, with several structures still evident, including a small ampitheatre and huge Roman cisterns. Those Romans were impressive builders!
A minoan palace
On our last full day in Crete, we visited the Minoan Palace of Phaistos, one of the most important archaeological sites in Crete. It is an extensive site, with wonderful views over the Messara Plain below. The huge open courts and the wide stone staircases are impressive, and it was evocative seeing the giant storage jars (or pithoi) still in situ from around 4000 years ago. Jane and Ellen also took us to see the Late Minoan Cemetery of Armeni, which is just outside Rethymnon – an area not just of archaeological interest but full of orchids and other wild flowers.
We packed in so much into our short visit to Crete, thanks to Travel Editions – a taster of the wide range of experiences Crete can offer groups – not just sun and sea, but architectural and archaeological splendour, wonderful food, mountains and gorges, hill top villages, ancient churches and fascinating traditions, beautiful wild flowers, and walks and hikes of all kinds. I can’t wait to go back!
The food in Crete was generally stunning and plentiful. Vegetarians would eat well here, as many dishes don’t include meat. The cuisine is characterised by the freshness of the ingredients – just picked from the orchard or the field. Cretans traditionally eat ‘mezedes’ style. Many dishes are ordered and put on the table for people to share.
A great way to try lots of different foods and flavours!
Dishes that we enjoyed included traditional tzatziki (dip made of yoghurt and cucumber); horta (literally “weeds” – steamed greens); boureki (cheese, courgette and potato pie); cheese pies; fried cheese (gorgeous!); fava (yellow split pea puree); various superb salads made of freshly-picked ingredients, pomegranate seeds and cheese; dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), mushrooms coated and fried, as well as many local cheeses and some lovely deserts – including spoon sweets – a syrup of a local fruit, such as sour cherry, commonly served with yoghurt. I think we all went home with a souvenir jar of this Cretan speciality!
‘Crete is a place we’ve always wanted to visit – we’ve heard that the walking is good, but there was so much else that surprised us – so mountainous and un-spoilt, fantastic wild flowers, and wonderful local food! We will certainly be bringing a group back.’
Jackie and Tim Hough
‘A very useful trip! I plan for multi-interest groups and the additional information from Ellen and Jane has been very helpful. And the food has been excellent. Cretan food knocks Italian into a cocked hat!’