Powerful nature, fascinating legends and an art of living marked by the famous Cretan diet... the Mediterranean island embodies the quintessence of a beloved Greece. Mythology and peasant traditions are the thread of Ariadne's journey, marked by authenticity.
Crete is one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean, 260 km from east to west; one of the most varied too. This "Greece within Greece" sometimes with an air of Corsica about it, unveils seascapes reminiscent of the Cyclades. Its creeks and beaches are matched by wild mountain landscapes that rise to 2500 m, and the countryside alternates with palm and olive groves. The cities are in unison, displaying Italian features but also Turkish influences, inherited from two centuries of Ottoman domination. Minarets sometimes top the churches and Byzantine art adorns the buildings, bearing witness to these mixed cultures. No longer quite the West, not yet the East; an island between two worlds...
Enclosed within its Venetian ramparts, the capital Heraklion can be explored in a few hours. Inhabitants and tourists alike meet at Morosini Fountain before wandering off along 1866 street which is lined with souvenir shops, vegetable vendors and sea sponge sellers. Here, a plump housewife; further on, a bearded pope all in black... a succession of stereotyped images all the way to Agios Titos church, framed by its pot-bellied palm trees. A good place to enjoy the coolness before heading off to visit museums, Christian art or archaeological sites.
Sleepy by day, Heraklion comes alive at nightfall. In the shade of the terraces, on wicker chairs, a few men sip raki, impervious to the music resounding from the nearby alleys. For the Cretan capital is also a student city that vibrates to the rhythm of the dozens of bars livening up its pedestrian centre, on Koraï street (Odos) or around El Greco park. You still have to decipher the Greek alphabet to find your way around!
Heraklion Airport is named after the Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Alexis Zorba. A film adaptation with Antony Quinn and an instrumental by Theodorakis have made Zorba a modern myth, rivalling those of antiquity! In Knossos, on the outskirts of the capital, history and mythology merge. The legend of the Minotaur and Ariadne's thread fascinate the visitors as much as the ruins which testify to the power of the Minos kings during the Bronze Age, 3500 years ago...
Beyond this brilliant Minoan heritage, with numerous archaeological sites all around the island, Crete seduces us with its art of living in harmony with nature. The arid Mediterranean landscapes of the coast are succeeded by vineyards and olive groves that are reminiscent of Tuscany, were it not for the rocky scree or Byzantine churches dotted here and there. Further east, windmills herald the Lassithi, a high plateau set in a cirque of mountains. A handful of villages, redolent with jasmine and bougainvillea, watch over orchards and pumpkin fields. And then there is nature sublimated by giant holm oaks and plane trees.
The coast too has its share of picture postcard landscapes. For the "trendy" version, head for Agios Nikolaos, a delightful little port nicknamed the "Cretan Saint Tropez". For the "authentic" (but nevertheless touristic!) version, explore the cities of Chania (Hania) and Rethymnon, west of Heraklion. A Venetian port with colourful façades, a plump church and a tapering minaret, lively alleyways and a palm-lined promenade... the atmosphere varies between Venice and Istanbul. But the restaurants - where the famous Cretan diet is sampled - are a reminder that this is indeed Greece!
Sites and monuments
- The ramparts - with seven bastions, encircle the city to reveal beautiful views.
- The Venetian fort - built in the 16th century on the port, it bears witness to the city's Venetian past.
- Morosini Fountain - a meeting place for the locals, it takes the form of lions supporting a basin.
- The Byzantine church of Agios Titos - it was transformed into a mosque during the Turkish period.
- Agios Minas Cathedral - from the 19th century, noteworthy for its naive frescoes.
- Odos 1866 - a street transformed into a market, to buy the traditional natural sponges, honey or dittany (aromatic plant).
- Knossos Palace (5 km) - even if its renovation is controversial, the site discovered in 1900 is a must to understand Minoan civilization and the legend of the Minotaur.
- Cretaquarium (15 km) - a large aquarium with pools for jellyfish, seahorses and sharks.
- The Palace of Malia (40 km) - in the small town of Malia, an archaeological site that testifies to the richness of the Minoan civilization.
- El Greco Park - in the heart of the old town, a resting place dominated by the statue of the famous painter
- The pier - gigantic, a place where the locals stroll at the end of the day.
- Rethymnon Beach (70 km from Heraklion) - one of the longest sandy beaches in Crete (16 km), for sunbathing.
- Archeological Museum - in 2014, it developed new scenography, highlighting the objects (jewelry, pottery, frescoes ...) of Minoan culture, especially from Knossos.
- Museum of Christian Art - in a Byzantine church (Agia Ekaterini) it features a beautiful collection of icons.
- Historical and Ethnographic Museum - ancient maps, bronzes, weapons, paintings (including two works by El Greco)
- Lychnostatis Museum (30 km) - near the seaside resort of Liménas Chersonissou, an open-air museum dedicated to folk traditions (wine press, weaving workshop...).
- 25 March - national holiday, in commemoration of the 1821 revolution that liberated Greece from Turkish occupation
- April - Easter, with processions. Please note that the Orthodox calendar is not the same as the Catholic calendar.
- 1 May - Cretan national holiday, in memory of the martyrs of Arkadi Monastery (1866)
- July - celebration of the Cretan regime in Rethymno. Tastings, shows...
- July/September - Heraklion Summer Festival, with concerts and performances in the open-air theatre
- 15 August - Feast of the Virgin, with processions
- 25 August - Feast of the patron saint of Heraklion
- 28 October - "No" Day, a celebration of the rejection of the Italian ultimatum in 1940, with parades.
- Off Agios Nikolaos, the island of Spinalonga can be explored in a caique (small fishing boat). Crowned with a Venetian fortress, it is one of the most beautiful islands of Crete. The last citadel to fall under the control of the Ottomans, it was transformed into a leper colony until only 60 years ago. Overwhelming!
- In the wine village of Archanes (10 km from Knossos), you can admire the neoclassical houses and churches of the Cretan Renaissance, before tasting the wine of the Boutari estate and Cretan cuisine at the table of a tavern: herbal pasties, smoked aubergines, sheep's cheese with honey...
- Walking enthusiasts, head for Samaria, in the southwest of the island. In the 16 km long gorges (classified as a national park) you can enjoy the unspoilt landscapes and walk off the excesses of the day before, with an easy hike which still lasts 4 hours...
- Cretan salad - a must, a mix of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, olives and feta cheese
- Tzatziki - yoghurt to which cucumber, crushed garlic and mint are added. Excellent with a simple piece of bread
- Mezze - a set of appetizers to be nibbled with bread: marinated olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, grilled eggplant, tabbouleh, hummus, cheese...
- Dakos – dry bread rubbed with garlic, spread with tomatoes, olives and feta cheese
- Octopus - eaten in salads or grilled.
- Squid - usually offered fried or grilled
- Fish - sole, sea bream, red mullet or sardine, fish (grilled or fried) is a must in Cretan cuisine.
- Moussaka - minced meat cooked in the oven, mixed with eggplant and topped with béchamel sauce
- Dolmadès - vine leaves, stuffed with rice, onions and minced meat
- Souvlaki - pork or beef brochettes
- Keftédès - meatballs, flavoured with mint and oregano
- Pitas - a Cretan speciality, a kind of meat or cheese-filled pasty.
- Snails - the Cretans love them, cooked with herbs, fried in oil, garlic...
- Feta - cheese made from goat's or sheep's milk. To enjoy with a salad of raw vegetables or fried.
- Mizithra - a cheese made from sheep's milk
- Baklava - a desert of Ottoman origin, consisting of layers of filo pastry with dried fruit and flavoured with orange blossom
- Gadaifi - an oriental dessert also called "angel hair", in the form of vermicelli. You can add honey, nuts...
- Wine - as everywhere in the Mediterranean, the drink par excellence, with excellent grape varieties, mainly reds.
- Ouzo - the emblematic alcohol of Greece with an aniseed flavour, in the style of our pastis
- Raki - a brandy consumed in Crete (which here is not aniseed). It is reminiscent of Italian grappa
- Coffee - drunk "Turkish" style, i.e. with the grounds, except that here it’s called "Greek coffee".