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Awake early, I step onto the balcony. The air is exquisite. An immense vista reaches over the hills, and there’s a cacophony of crowing and quacking and barking as a new morning moves across the sky, sweeping away the last of the night.
When the sun comes blindingly into view, straight away it’s warm enough to sunbathe. Every day it’s hot, hot, hot as Crete bakes under cloudless blue skies all summer. Our favourite place on the island is right beside our own pool, under a parasol with a cool drink.
Crete is Europe’s most southerly point, as near to Libya as to Athens. Yet the island stays fertile with millions of olive trees arranged in neat dark green tufts over the hills, and leafy grape vines, fragrant orange groves, purple bougainvillea draped over white walls, and pink oleander growing wild.
It takes hours of driving to get from one end of the island to the other, so you must choose whether to stay in the green west or the drier east. Both are stunningly beautiful, and each has its appeal, although the best beaches are in the west.
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But the greatest advantage of the west is Chania. The narrow lanes of its fortified old quarter, most not wide enough for a car, rise from a lovely harbour, making this one of the prettiest little cities in Greece, or the whole Mediterranean.
Tall Italianate houses are set back around the U-shaped curve of the Venetian quayside. The ground floor of every building has become a bar or restaurant with tables set out on the flagstones looking across the harbour. Each evening, they bask in wonderful sunsets as scores of swallows swoop low over the water or squeal between the rooftops.
The best of the waterfront restaurants is Amphora, specialising in Cretan cooking that’s distinctively different from Greek. For one thing, there are numerous vegetarian dishes, such as the hefty boureki (courgette, cheese and potato bake), exquisite kalitsounia (sweetened cheese pastry), melitzanokleftedes (aubergine patties) and, most delicious of all, kolokothikeftedes (courgette and cheese patties).
Allow around £15 per head for a good 3-course meal with wine. As you ask for the bill, you’ll be given complimentary sliced fruit … and a free tot of raki, Crete’s 40° firewater.
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Although Chania does have sights to see – the citadel, the archaeology museum, the covered market – the greatest pleasure is simply to wander in the tangled, picturesque lanes.
Many are lined with enticing little tavernas and shops, some selling tourist knick-knacks, others with better merchandise. If you’re looking to buy, there’s a huge selection of imaginative gold and silver jewellery. For around £5, you can pick up crochet bags and beadwork, local rugs and kilims and authentic Greek bath sponges. Don’t miss narrow Skridlof Street, a traditional leatherworkers’ lane where bargains include high quality handmade goods.
Along Kondylaki Street, a sign points down a side alley to the Etz Hayyim Synagogue. Hidden in a delightful courtyard, the small stone and wood interior has its bimah on the west wall facing the ark at the other, and a tiny veiled enclosure for women (though there is mixed seating now). A door leads out to a second courtyard, once part of the synagogue building, in which lie the graves of four 18th and 19th century rabbis. Steps lead down to a vaulted mikveh, restored and usable.
Reopened in 1999, this beautiful synagogue is what remains of the Jewish community that settled at Chania some 2400 years ago and lived there up to the night in 1944 when all 263 were killed at sea after being taken away by the Nazis. The exhaustive restoration was masterminded by Nikos Stavroulakis, now in his seventies, who heads an unusual little Jewish community whose members are mainly non-Jews.
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There is a lot to see on the island, and the air-conditioned hire car included in our package proved essential. The north coast has miles of sandy beaches, as well as a string of port towns with handsome quaysides. Biggest surprise of all is the dramatic scenery, awesome mountains rising from one end to the other of this long narrow island.
Crete’s great unmissable is Knossos, the vast archaeological site of the 4000-year-old palace of King Minos. The Minoans, Europe’s oldest civilisation, were long thought to be purely mythical. Now, several of their buildings have been reconstructed. Vivid restored frescoes show youthful athletes, maidens in revealing dresses, and images of bulls – which the Minoans worshipped. Combine it with the museum of Minoan culture in nearby Heraklion to get a powerful sense of a refined – if brutal – Mediterranean world that was flourishing at the time of the Exodus.
Continue further east to Aghios Nikolaus – or “Ag Nik” – the postcard-pretty fishing village with its delightful inner harbour, now jammed with tourists and surrounded by ice-cream bars and restaurants. Up the coast is the 5-star VIP hideaway, the Elounda Beach Hotel, arranged like a village in seafront gardens. It’s worth booking ahead (tel. 28410 63000) to have lunch there, especially at the beachside Argonaut restaurant. It’ll cost about £70 for two.
And take at least one trip across the high mountains to the quieter south coast resorts like Paleochora. On the way, get out of the car to absorb the immense views, and look out for eagles and the wild mountain goats called kri-kri.
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The most popular excursion in Crete is a trek down one of the mountain gorges. Tour buses flock daily to bring an unlikely crowd of ill-shod walkers to the head of the spectacular Samaria Gorge. They face a difficult 10 mile hike, taking most of the day, to reach the other end. Easier is the 5-mile Imbros Gorge: it’s less crowded, and has amazing scenery.
Unknown to tourists is the wonderful – and driveable – Therisso Gorge. Starting just south of Chania, this narrow ravine is threaded by a tiny, well-paved road, almost traffic-free and edged by wild flowers. Huge butterflies flew around us, the ceaseless scratching of cicadas filled the air, and from high on the cliffs came the clonking of goat bells.
Leaving the gorge, the road switch-backed steeply up into barren mountains. At the village of Meskla, we stepped from bright sunshine into the darkness of a tiny vaulted church, not much bigger than a garden shed. Gold-painted icons and votive offerings leaned against walls covered with unrestored 14th-century frescoes. There was not a tourist in sight.
This indeed felt like the real Crete. We left it in peace, and turned back downhill through Fournes, where orange trees grow in the village and all around. But the swimming pool was calling. It was time to return to our favourite place on the island.
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