Crete, Greek Islands – May 1999

It became immediately apparent during breakfast that a trip to Crete is useless without a vehicle of some sort.

As the rains were still in full downpour, we had to pass on the popular scooter option and elected to rent a small car. Small is the only option, as car rental in Crete is ridiculously expensive � in low season we paid 70,000 drachma (145 sterling) for five days.

Unlike their reputation, Crete drivers are not suicidal. In fact, driving in Crete is as sane as in England or France. Roads are surprisingly well maintained and as Crete is one big mountain range, the drives are remarkably beautiful.

We soon learned that in springtime, driving around is pretty much all there is to do in Crete. With few attractions spread out over the large island, most of our time was driving from one set of ruins to another.

In truth, the sites were generally disappointing and the drives incredibly interesting. All roads are extremely windy, limiting speeds and forcing passengers to appreciate the surroundings.

Once off the National Highway, small villages act as mazes, olive groves crowd the roads, and the car is constantly winding its way up or down a mountain. More often than not this is done behind an old, slow moving Datsun pickup, leading me to conclude Crete is where Datsuns come to die.

Our car also took us to the main towns, which thankfully have ample free parking. The towns are all compact, and again few attractions making walking around the main thing to do.

After exploring Irakleon, which is mildly interesting, and Sitia which is uninteresting, we found Hania and Rethmenion.

Both have incredibly beautiful Venetian centres mixed with remains from the Turkish era. The narrow streets offer endless exploring.

We found much delight in occasionally peaking into homes of the little old widows dressed in black from veiled head to rubber boot toe. The widows are a bit of a phenomenon seen all over the island, at the chance to see them in their homes proved very exciting to us.

We also explored Irapetra on the south coast, which is a complete hole, but it’s moniker as the southern-most town in Europe provides good bragging rights. Situated on the south shore on the warm waters of the Libyan Sea, beaches just outside the town offer swimming in the spring months.

Every main town has a harbour lined with outdoor restaurants, which is where we spent the majority of our time. The mild spring weather makes dining outside ideal, as it is warm enough to enjoy sitting outside, but still too early for bugs.

Dining is a long, pleasurable event topped with a free shot of Raki that the waiter will do with you if he really likes you. However, as much as the dining itself is pleasurable, getting into a restaurant is a pain.

Every restaurant displays menus with prices, but if you even glance in the direction of the sitting area let alone look at the menu, the hosts are at your side with their arms around you trying to get you into their establishment. This makes it nearly impossible to look at several restaurants and actually choose the one you want, although I must say every meal we had was excellent, making the whole process of choosing fairly irrelevant anyway.

My overall impression of Crete is that the western end of the island is definitely the place to be. Although the famous Samaria Gorge is not open in the spring, Crete is full of natural beauty.

I found the drive from Spinalonga Island to Sitia exceptionally beautiful, passing the pretty town of Agios Nikolos and affording panoramic views over the ruins of Gornia, the oldest discovered European town.

Famous Knossos just outside of Irakleon is well worth the trip, but a complete picture is only possible with a visit to the archeological museum in Irakeon.

Finally, the Lassithi Plateau, as well as the drive to get to it, is impressive. Especially when one considers how flat it is in comparison to the rest of the island, as well as how high in the mountains it is located � it’s also the birthplace of Zeus.

The guidebooks all suggest spring is the best time to go to Crete, when the flowers are in full force but the tourists aren’t.

I didn’t know what to expect from Crete, Greece’s largest island, before going. I knew the weather wouldn’t be great in early April, but for the southern most part of Europe I figured it couldn’t be that bad � after all London had been warm all of March.

I also knew Crete was somewhat distinct from the rest of the Greek islands, though how I wasn’t quite sure.

We arrived at 3am in a torrential downpour and were ushered to a stereotypical white villa.

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