Crete, the infinite island

J.P.
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The story

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The great plains full of orange trees have given way to hazel trees and valley. In front of us is the entrance to the Agia Irini gorge: two tall, ocher-colored mountains frame a deep gash, with bright green pines clinging to the ground with all their might in these vertiginous heights. The bottom of the valley is carpeted in pink, with hundreds of laurels blooming on all sides. As we venture forth the gorge becomes deeper, the walls steeper. Under the gradually thickening green foliage, the light plays gently with the branches of the cypresses.

All along the way, the gorge oscillates between brute force and wild charm. Though perhaps less spectacular than the Samaria Gorge with its enormous walls, Agia Irini is more intimate. Not a soul, not a sound here, apart from the birds’ song that fills the air. At the end of the path, a small tavern has set up its chairs in the shade of the old olive trees. The Cretan patron serves steaming coffee while remarking on all the gorges spread across his region. Each has its own personality, of course; like all the corners of Crete, where no place resembles another and every new place is a surprise.

Crete, largest of the Greek islands, with its fantastic gorges, its 35 million olive trees, and its thousands of goats, is a vast territory waiting to be explored. It is easy to lose oneself in its immensity, all the more so as the "Cretan quarter of an hour" is real: you will quickly let yourself simply be carried by the time that passes, not rushing the discovery. As you follow the paths that lead through the island, the turquoise sea is followed by wooded mountains and tiny villages with busy harbors. A little detour off the main trail is enough to wander into territories you would think are still unexplored. On the pink beach of Elafonissi, when the sun begins to disappear on the horizon and the sand reddens, one is alone in the world with the sea spray and the noise of sea gulls.

On the island of King Minos, the past mixes subtly with the present. One finds it in the fallen palace of Knossos and the tombs of Phourni, each intact for thousands of years. But it also lives in the multitude of small charming villages scattered across the island. One always ends up discovering a new one, as if frozen out of time, along the roads. Loutro is the most perfect example, with its tiny bay and its cluster of white houses nestled between two barren hills.

Stop for a while in the hamlet of Milia clinging to the mountains near Kissamos. Around this tiny, fierce village, farmers work the land with respect. Here, you can taste the local products that come directly from the producers, under the chestnut and mountain arbutus trees. But this famous Cretan diet, with its fresh and often raw ingredients, is found everywhere on the island, on the wooden tables of the numerous local tavernas. Naturally, it is accompanied by a raki, or one of regional Cretan wines, as varied and changing as the island itself.

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When to go?

Crete is welcoming in all seasons, but it is in September that we love it the most. In the lingering summer you can still enjoy the beaches and the island’s local energy, but without the profusion of visitors that are here during July and August. And above all, the beginnings of autumn coincide with a rare and moving event: the hatching of hundreds of baby sea turtles of the Caretta caretta species. Three Cretan beaches, including that of Chania, are famous for these nocturnal happenings and the race of small turtles towards the sea. A fantastic and unforgettable spectacle.

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How to get there?

The capital, Heraklion, is well served by direct flights from a number of major European cities. More patient travelers can opt for the sea route and take a ferry from the Athenian Piraeus or a couple of other Greek ports. Once you are there, rent a car to be able to get off the beaten track and explore the mountainous and more secluded parts of Crete.

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Experiences

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In the labyrinthine leather district of Chania

Step back in time with a visit to one of the last surviving tanneries in the Tabakaria district of Chania. Salt, lime, olive oil, pigments, tannins: discover the subtle beauty of the traditional craft which has thrived here for over a century.

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Become an olive oil expert

Olive oil alone symbolizes the Cretan diet and perfumes the natural soaps of the island. Let the passionate craftsmen show you what it takes to become a real expert in the gathering of olives, the extraction of their nectar and the making of typically Mediterranean products.

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Explore the ancient ruins at nightfall

The moment the gates of the site close to the public, slip among the ruins of the palace of Knossos with our guide. Explore this archaeological treasure of Minoan civilization while the silence and the light of the setting sun cover the pediments and colonnades.

Our address book

Gramboussa

Exceptional views

Creamy goat cheese, puff pastry lamb, rabbit wrapped in lemon leaves... Le Gramboussa, situated on the island after which it is named, serves simple and delicious dishes. On its large shaded terrace, you eat in front of the turquoise waters of Kissamos bay.

Kaliviani, Kissamos, +30 2822 022707

Taverna Dionyssos

The king of zucchini

In this family tavern in Mirthios, zucchini plays the lead role. Seated here among the olive trees above the sea, you can taste the best stuffed zucchini flowers in Crete. They are picked fresh early in the morning and served with a delicious herb-scented rice.

Mirthios, Plakias, +30 2832 031005

Alekos

Custom-made meals

In this simple and pretty taverna in the center of the village of Armenoi, there is no menu. You walk right into the kitchen to make your order and the chef cooks dishes customized to your taste: local sausages, giant salads or pork seasoned with stamnagathi herbs.

Armenoi, Rethymno, +30 2831 041185

El Mondo Bar

The patriarch

Existing for more than thirty years, this is one of the oldest bars in the harbor of Chania, and surely the one where the most dancing happens. Here, you dance to the end of the night carried by the music and the good humor of El Mondo’s DJs. Also worth a mention is its bric-a-brac decoration, full of messages left by visitors.

35, Kondilaki Street, Chania, +30 2821 088044

Maistrali

The locals’ favorite

The famous Greek eau de vie – the tsipouro – has the status of a true local cult. So much so that the little taverns where they serve it accompanied by a mezze have taken up the name „tsipouradiko". We like the one at Maistrali, relaxed and off the beaten track near the port of Rethymnon.

27, Leoforos Kefalogianni Emmanouil Street, Rethymno, +30 2831 042502

Eukalyptos

In the shadow of the ramparts

A chill café during the day and a cocktail bar popular with Cretan youth at night, Eukalyptos has a setting unlike any other: it is located between the Venetian walls of Heraklion. Sit at the outdoor tables to sip a coffee or a cocktail in the shade of huge sweetly fragrant eucalyptus.

49-51 Georgiadi Avenue, Komeno Benteni Park, Heraklion, +30 6949 333833

The village of Anogia

Arts and mythology

A place that is exceptional in more ways than one: Anogia is nestled on Mount Psiloritis at an altitude of 750 m. From there, your view stretches over a mineral landscape, marked by the mythological cave of Ideon, where, according to myth, Zeus spent his childhood. Lightning struck the small village during the Second World War when the Turks and Germans ravaged it. The past seems to be tied to the village’s strong character: its inhabitants are full of energy and pride in their culture. To discover what their passion is all about, go there during the Yakinthia festival, which takes place every summer and is dedicated to music and theater.

Anogia

A historic beach

Caves, hippies and turtles

The Bay of Messara, on the south of the island, is home to the fishing village of Matala. The history of its beautiful beach and its use throughout the ages is quite intriguing. In Neolithic times, its limestone cliffs were dug out to serve as dwellings. Christians later transformed them into funerary chambers, and in the 60s the hippies settled there. Today, swimmers share the beach with the sea turtles. Talk to the volunteer teams that protect turtles to get to know more about these wonderful sea creatures.

Messara Bay

From West to East on foot

A long hike

Crete hosts one of the longest hiking trails in the world: the European E4 trail, which stretches from Portugal to Cyprus, extending over 10,000 km and 11 countries. Take it from Kissamos, where the trail is well marked all the way to Kato Zakros. This Cretan section of the trail traverses the island through extraordinary landscapes. You walk from isolated beaches to mountains dotted by chapels and wooded gorges, stopping in the small villages scattered along the way.

From Kissamos