Crete island turned to be my breaking point, kind of a stepping stone and finally a powerful booster of my extensive future travels. The largest of the Greek islands made me fall in love with at first sight. The island left a permanent trace and turned upside down my life intentions. I know, I am probably too emotional, writing about Crete, but it was the spot, that suddenly revealed my addiction to islands and inspired my upcoming travel adventures. At that moment I was not even aware of it… yet.
It happened 14 years ago, when I stepped on Crete island for first time. Later, I visited it four times more, with an average stay from three weeks to a month. I have so much to say about Crete. It’s completely different than the rest of Greece, extremely rich of history and nature, but at the same time somehow capsuled in its own lifestyle and timing. I am biased, but have my reasons to be. I’ll try to structure below the Cretan wonders, which opened my eyes and made me dreaming of traveling the world.
Let me start with the fact I know Crete island pretty well – the geography, the hidden from the tourists spots, the particular charm of its regions, the typical agriculture, the legends (of course), the local mentality. If you have already been on the popular Santorini island, then you should know Crete has nothing in common with it. Santorini with its white – blue houses reminds me the North of Tunisia, where the same atmosphere could be seen. Crete is extremely colourful too, but in a bit chaotic way – brown, green, orange, ochre, yellow, dark red…all those housing paints could be found at this piece of land in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
RANDOM REASONS TO FALL IN LOVE WITH CRETE:
Intense historical presence at a limited territory
- Well preserved remains of the mythical king Minos epoch – palace of Knossos
- Phaistos palace from the Minoan bronze age civilisation
- The legendary home of the Labyrinth with Minotaur, Ariadne thread, rescued the hero Theseus
- Lots of fortresses from the Medieval Venetian time
- Remains of ancient villages of exotic pygmies tribes
- Amazing Orthodox churches, built 10 centuries ago
Intense cultural presence
- “Zorba the Greek” novel is written on Crete, where its author Nikos Kazantzakis was born (nowadays, his home is turned to a museum)
- The painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance El Greco, born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete, 16-th century (his home is a museum now and could be visited in the village of Fodele )
- Town of Rethymno, which is kind of an architectural art, with all its painters and the Renaissance festival
Intense agricultural presence
From large vineyards, to endless olive forests. Also fields, covered by huge water melons, plenty of greenhouses, producing fruits and vegetables all year round. In fact Crete could feed itself quite well.
Dramatic landscape changes
Going from the East to the West of the island, the landscape is changing dramatically from very poor desert bus scenery to high trees and fresh thick plants on the West. The island is also rich of high mountains (over 2000 m), fresh water lakes, waterfalls, spacious valleys, spectacular beaches and …two different seas.
Two very different seas
Cretan Sea and Libyan Sea embrace the island. They are very different and provide an extraordinary opportunity both to be enjoyed within a short ride. Cretan Sea in the North divides the island from the continental part of Greece. It’s warmer than Libyan Sea, that washes the Southern shore of Crete and connects it to Africa. Cretan Sea offers large sandy overcrowded by tourists beaches, while Libyan Sea provides a tranquility of rarely found in Europe secluded pebble beaches.
My very favourite part of Crete is the South East side of the island, called Lasithi. In the very South of Crete is located a small town, very dear to me, called Ierapetra. Ierapetra is a spot of pebble beaches, well preserved Medieval fortress, old fish market and plenty of simple taverns right on the seashore. Pretty far from the modern noisy and overcrowded insular capital Heraklion (locally called Irraclio), Ierapetra has the charm of an ancient village with its narrow streets (in the old town Kato Mera), slow daily life, secluded beaches and conservative mentality. My foolish memory, related to Ierapetra – I tasted for first time a real frappe in here and remained in love with it forever.
The pebble beaches of Ierapetra are incredible with their romantic isolation. They look specially covered by oval/round dark stones. It’s extremely pleasant to lay on in the end of the day, when the stones still keep the sun’s warmth, but are no longer hot and dangerously burning. It’s one of my most romantic getaways, after the sunset, lying over those oval stones, staring at the full of bright stars sky and listening to the sea surf.
Hundreds of meters away is reachable on foot any of those simple taverns, we watched in the movies. Wooden square tables, simple chairs, placed right over the beach, often under crooked dry trees. The tables are usually covered by plastic light blue clothing. It’s very practical. All the dining remains/debris are being collected and packed inside the plastic cover. Then this quickly made package is being thrown away, directly to the designated trash areas. This way of service keeps the table immediately available, clean and ready for the next client. Just a new light blue plastic cover is being placed, fixed by clips to the table’s surface and the business is moving smoothly. Greek music everywhere, mostly accompanied by the local instrument bouzouki. This simplicity and tranquility I truly appreciate. It’s pretty far from the modern luxurious tourist attractions in the North of the island.
I realised I am meant to conquer the world right here, in Ierapetra🙂 It was my open gate to the entire world, where so many places were waiting to be visited, plenty of unknown spots to be discovered and strangers to be met. By the way, mentioning strangers…If you have already visited continental Greece, you may hear the worst Greeks (by character) live on Crete island. Well…I don’t completely agree. The Cretans are really an odd bunch of people. They are a bit rude and brusque, also uncouth, but just because they are suspicious and distrustful to the foreigners. The Cretans learned to just stand the tourists. The locals could be even friendly, but they won’t let anyone to touch and change anything of their traditions and way of thinking.
The promenade of Ierapetra is a spectacular sight with a stunning 180 degree view to the Mediterranean Sea. Plenty of restaurants and bars around. Pick one and all you should order is seafood. Any other orders would be considered inappropriate. The visitor can’t skip the grilled octopus, fried squid (calamaris) or deeply cooked in sauce shrimps. All is fresh, just caught, deliciously prepared. Out of the seafood choice, I would strongly recommend Horta salad (steamed greens with fresh lemon juice).
And here comes my very very favourite, but super simple Cretan meal, called Paximadia. I can eat Paximadia daily. It’s a humble rusk, which requires a ritual of preparation. The dry rusk (kind of a local fat bruschetta) should be firstly sprinkled with water. Not too much, just to help it soften. Then olive oil above. Freshly cut small tomato peeled off cubes (almost like paste) on the top. Over the tomatoes, white feta cheese and any kind of herbs. Mmmmm….yammie.
Be aware! The local cuisine is amazingly delicious in the restaurants and especially in the simple taverns, but also quite expensive, compared with the continent. The tourists are not the only source of income on the island, but the very reputable one, generating huge amount of money and an impressive annual turnover.
Especially here, in the South, close to Ierapetra, another Cretan source of income is very powerful. The locals call it Termokippi. In English it’s easily translated like Greenhouses. Plenty of greenhouses around Ierapetra. A huge part of the fruit and vegetable production is exported to the West of Europe. From tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants and cucumbers to bananas, clementines and oranges. Everything grows in those Termokippi all year round. Lots of people are occupied with the business. In 2003, my first Crete island visit, in those Termokippi used to work mostly gypsies from Bulgaria, Albania and Romania. It’s a dirty work, tiring and low paid.
Because of the Termokippi case, the Cretan impression of Bulgarians was for a gypsy nation. It’s funny, but quite normal opinion, because every known to be Bulgarian in Ierapetra at that time was a gypsy. That’s why when I met some Cretans and introduced myself like a Bulgarian, they were quite shocked. The reasonable (then) question was, if I am a Bulgarian why then I am not a gypsy. Well… I laughed a lot and it took me some time to explain the reality, pretty far from their impression. In 2003 Bulgaria was not a member of the European Union yet, so no visa free trips, but a very limited number of travellers to a remote island like Crete.
Some kilometres away from Ierapetra is the largest dam lake in Crete – Bramiana. It’s the biggest wetland on the island, keeping thousands tons of fresh water, supplying the Termokippi in the region. The mature people in the area claim, an abandoned village, along with its church, was submerged beneath water when the dam was built 30 years ago. During dry periods, when the water level is lower, the cross on the top of the church pops up over and erects as a scary ghost in the middle of the dam lake. I have never seen it, though. Must be a spectacular view. Whatever secretes Bramiana keeps, it’s truly beautiful, with lots of birds and greenery, peaceful, offering stunning sceneries.
Bramiana could be compared with another stunning view, revealed while hiking Ierapetra’s mountain. The nearest villages are Kato Chorio and Episkopi. On the top of the hill, there is a chapel named Profitis Ilias. The view from the cliff, where the chapel was built, is really breathtaking. Why is it so special? From this very single point, over the narrowest part of Crete island, two seas are visible – Cretan and Libyan. If the visitor looks at North, will see the Cretan Sea. In the opposite direction is Libyan Sea.
Here, at this amazing spot, I discovered my love and addiction to islands. There is nothing else like that. Only on islands I get this endless repeatable feeling of freedom and space. Then, watching at both seas, ahead and behind, I felt alive and able to achieve everything I want. Exactly at this point, where two seas conjoin, I unveiled my desire to travel the world. It’s an inexplicable feeling, at the moment when you suddenly realise what you want and what you are meant for.
I guess it’s already clear why Ierapetra is so special to me. In addition, the next time I visited Ierapetra, I did something significant. I threw my younger son’s umbilical cord stump in the sea waters of Ierapetra. If you are shocked, it means you never heard before about this old tradition. In South East Europe we are used to keep the baby’s umbilical cord stump, after it dries and falls in about a week after baby delivery. Usually the mother goes and secretly throws that stump to a place, where she wants her child’s future to be connected with. It’s kind of a spell, but a nice one for the kid’s destiny.
For example, You want the baby to become a banker. Then the umbilical cord stump should be secretly thrown in, over or around a bank. The belief is, it helps the baby to follow an exact life path, assisted by this particular parent’s gesture. The tradition comes from the pagan ages and is still pretty alive. I should admit it did not work in my case 🙂 My older son’s umbilical cord stump was literally thrown in a bank. The bank is still there and works quite successfully, but my son picked the career of Sports Manager. The younger one’s, as mentioned above, was thrown in Libyan Sea, near Ierapetra, with the idea of becoming a traveler and to wander the world. What he really doesn’t like nowadays is…to travel. He already picked a career in Game Design.
Ohhh, I was about to miss another great story, linked to Ierapetra. The Napoleon’s house. In the very late 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte, who later had become The Emperor of France, was heading back to Europe, after his campaign in Egypt. Trying to belittle the British influence and to defend the French trade interests, Napoleon planned and completed a long journey. On the way back, his ships embarked at Ierapetra’s harbour. The house, where Napoleon is believed to have stayed for two days, is turned to a museum. The locals are very proud of that event and will show you the Napoleon’s house with pleasure.
I am afraid this article is already too long. I’ll stop it now, but next time will tell you more about the beautiful city of Sitia and the nearby wild beach of Vai, with the only natural palm forest at Crete island. And, of course, the legend, related to this chaotically grown palm trees. In another article, I plan to reveal how to explore the deserted Chrissi island, about one and a half hour by boat from Crete, on the way to Libya and why Chrissi is so unique and desired.
I warned at the start, I have so much to share about Crete, that my Ierapetra testimony was just the kick off. And also metaphorically, Ierapetra, the Southernmost Cretan town, was the prelude and the booster of all my travel adventures, which are getting enriched with every next year.