Crete island has become my breaking point, kind of stepping stone and finally a powerful booster of my intensive future travels. The largest of the Greek islands made me fall in love with from a first sight. It has left a permanent trace and turned upside down my life intentions. I know, I am probably too emotional, writing about Crete, but it has 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 have visited it four times more, 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 the regions, the typical agriculture, the legends (of course), the locals’ mentality. If you have already been on the popular Santorini island, Crete has nothing in common with it. Santorini with its white – blue houses reminds me of the North of Tunisia, where the same atmosphere could be seen. Crete is extremely colourful, but in a bit chaotic way – brown, green, orange, ochre, yellow, dark red…all those housing paints could be faced on this piece of land in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
RANDOMLY PICKED REASONS TO FALL IN LOVE WITH CRETE:
Intense historical presence at a limited piece of land
- Well preserved remains of the mythical king Minos time palace of Knossos
- Phaistos palace from the Minoan bronze age civilisation
- The legendary home of the Labyrinth with Minotaur, Ariadne thread, rescuing the hero Theseus
- Lots of fortresses from the Medieval Venetian times
- Remains from ancient villages of exotic pygmies tribes
- Amazing Orthodox churches, built 10 centuries ago
Intense cultural presence
- “Zorba the Greek” novel is written in Crete, where its author Nikos Kazantzakis was born (nowadays, his home is turned to a museum)
- The painter, sculptor and architect of 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 a kind of architectural art, with all its painters and Renaissance festival
Intense agricultural presence
From large vineyards, to endless olive forests, fields covered by huge water melons, plenty of greenhouses, producing fruits and vegetables during the whole year. 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 bush areas to thick high trees and fresh rich plants on the West. The island is also rich of high mountains (over 2000 m), fresh water lakes, waterfalls, wide valleys, spectacular beaches and …two seas.
Two very different seas
Cretan Sea and Libyan Sea embrace the island. They are very different and provide an extraordinary opportunity 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 the Libyan Sea, which washes the Southern shore of Crete and connects it with Africa. Cretan Sea offers large sandy overcrowded by tourists beaches, while Libyan Sea provides a tranquility of rarely found in Europe secluded 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 over 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 have tasted for first time a real frappe in here and remained in love with it forever.
The pebble beaches of Ierapetra are incredible by their romantic isolation. They are like specially covered by oval/round dark stones, extremely pleasant to lie on in the end of the day, when they 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 down, directly over those oval stones, staring at the full of bright stars sky and listening to the sea surf.
Just hundreds of meters away is reachable by feet any of those simple taverns, we have watched in the movies. Wooden square tables, simple chairs, all placed right over the beach, often under hooked dry trees. Tables are usually covered by plastic light blue clothing. It’s very practical. All the trash, after the dining, is collected in this plastic covers and thrown directly to the bin. This way of service keeps the table immediately available, clean and ready for the next client. Just new light blue plastic cover, fixed by clips to the table’s surface and business is moving smoothly. Greek music everywhere, mostly accompanied by the local instrument bouzouki. This simplicity and tranquility I truly appreciate, far from the modern luxury tourist attractions in the North of the island.
I realised I was meant to conquer the world exactly 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 a bit rude and brusque, also uncouth, but just because they are suspicious and distrustful to the foreigners, who are digging their noses into the local stuff. The Cretans are used to just stand the tourists and could be even friendly, but they won’t let someone to touch and change anything of their traditions and way of thinking.
The promenade of Ierapetra is a spectacular sight with the 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 as a sin in here. 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 seafood 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 ritual of preparation. The dry rusk (kind of local fat bruschetta) should be firstly sprayed with water. Not too much, just to help it soften. Then olive oil over the rusk. Freshly cut small tomato cubes (almost like paste) on the top. Above white feta cheese and any kind of herbs. Mmmmm….I am drooling, just remembering the taste.
But be prepared! 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 a very reputable one, generating huge amount of money and an impressive annual turnover on site.
Especially here in the South, close to Ierapetra, another Cretan source of income is very powerful. The locals call them 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 Western Europe. From tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants and cucumbers to bananas, clementines and oranges. Everything grows during the whole year in those Termokippi. Lots of people are occupied with that business. In 2003, when I visited Crete island, and especially Ierapetra for first time, in those Termokippi used to work mostly gypsies from Bulgaria, Albania and Romania. It’s a dirty work, tiring and not well paid.
So locals’ impression for Bulgarians was we are a nation of only gypsies. Every known to be Bulgarian in Ierapetra at that time was gypsy, so the local’s reaction and impression is understandable. That’s why when I met some Cretans and introduced myself for being Bulgarian, they have been quite shocked. The reasonable (then) question was, if I am Bulgarian why am I 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 free of visa trips and a very limited number of travellers to a distant island like Crete.
Just kilometers away from Ierapetra is the largest dam lake in Crete – Bramiana. It’s the biggest wetland on the island, keeping thousands tones of fresh water, supplying mostly the Termokippi in the region, I have already mentioned above. Old people in the area claim, an abandoned village along with its church was submerged beneath water when the dam was built about 30 years ago. During dry periods, when the water level is lower, the cross on the top of the church dome 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.
But can’t be compared with another nearby view, 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 literally breathtaking. Why is so special? From this very single point, over the narrowest part of Crete island, are visible two seas – Cretan and Libyan. If the visitor looks North, will see the Cretan Sea. In the opposite direction, you will witness Libyan Sea.
Here, at this amazing spot, I found my love and addiction to islands. There is nothing else like, where you get an endless feeling of freedom and space. 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 found my desire to travel the world. And it’s an inexplicable feeling when you realise what you want and are meant to do.
I guess it’s already clear why Ierapetra became so special to me. In addition, the next time, I visited Ierapetra, I have thrown my younger son’s umbilical cord stump in the sea waters of Ierapetra. Shocked? Then you have never heard of 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 believes her child’s future will be connected with.
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 career path, supported by their parent’s gesture. The tradition comes from pagan ages and is still pretty alive, but should admit it did not work well in my case 🙂 My elder son’s umbilical cord stump was literally thrown in a bank. The bank is still there and works quite successfully, but my son has 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.
Ohhh, I was about to miss another great story, faced in Ierapetra. The Napoleon’s house. In the very late 18-th 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 French trade interests, Napoleon planned and executed a long journey. On the way back, his ships embarked in 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 with pleasure the Napoleon’s house.
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 have warned at the start, I have so much to share about Crete, that my Ierapetra testimony was just the kickoff. And also metaphorically, Ierapetra, the Southernmost Cretan town, was the prelude and the booster of all my travel adventures and stories, which are getting enriched with every next year.