Trip completed in February 2017
At just over 3200 square miles, Crete is the fifth largest Island in the Mediterranean, with a population of 600,000. It became part of Greece in 1913 but retains a strong local identity shaped by millenia of history.
Crete is the mythological birthplace of Zeus, and the actual birthplace of the Minoan civilization which flourished long before classical Greece. Due to its geographic location at the intersection of the West and the East, this Island of the Minotaur was coveted and conquered throughout history by many powers, most prominently the Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans. The synthesis of these layers of history creates a unique and vastly rich cultural identity.
The Island is best known as a destination for mass tourism which overruns the Island’s mediterranean (North) coast during the summer months, and for the famous minoan temple complex of Knossos. However, leaving the coast for the inland regions leads to three majestic mountain ranges which remain snow-capped much of the year : The Dikti range at Lassithi, the Ida range in central Crete, and the Lefka Ori (White Mountains) at Chania. Panoramic roads reveal high plateaus, mountain villages and monasteries. leading to the hills of Southern Crete, carved with canyons grottoes and gorges, and sloping toward the South coast and the Lybian sea. That is the Crete we love and wish to share with you, an untamed, beautiful and timeless land of brilliant light and gorgeous landscapes, warm hospitable people, the sweetness and freedom of living in a blessed land.
Spili is a mountain village (altitude 430 meters) of 800 inhabitants, located about thirty kilometers from Rethymnon in the province of Agios Vassilios. We stopped there for the night while driving through the mountains from the North to the South coast. During the tourist season it’s worth a 15-minute stop to admire its magnificent Venetian kefalovryssi fountain (head fountain) featuring 19 lion heads.
Whereas the fountain is beautiful and its water potable, it’s not the only point of interest in the village.
During the off season a stay in Spili guarantees interaction with the villagers,
mostly farmers, ranchers and traders. The village is extremely photogenic and offers traditional style houses and flower gardens, as well as magnificent views of the surrounding mountains, each a paint erly image in color or black and white, depending on one’s sensibity. The daily life of its inhabitants is a source of inspiration for all photographers. You may,as we did,
have the good fortune of encouintering a philosopher/restaurateur eager to remake the world with you in an evening ‘s conversation over dinner. Here one
must take the time to connect with
the place, let it express itself, tell its story. Walk around and let your imagination wander. Spili however offers two faces.
You might also encounter here an abandoned house, there an imposing building whose construction was abruptly halted, construction equipment left in place with only details such as flat tires and
accumulation of dust hinting they’ve been there for several years : The stigmata of t
he Greek crisis. A bit of an apocalyptic disaster movie, but it can inspire a multitude of photographs and stories.
We chose tranquility by renting a small apartment in the beautiful village of Kamilari, five kilometers away from the nearest town, Matala, as our base from which to explore Southern Crete. Kamilari is a typical village of 289 inhabitants that has existed since the Minoan era. For lovers of ancient civilizations, a beautiful Minoan vaulted tomb, discovered in 1959, is just a hundred meters away from the village.
In Kamilari, there are two squares, three churches, a few taverns and three cafes. The kind of village where we love to soak up the atmosphere and take our cameras out for a stroll.
The village is spread over three hills and offers wonderful views in all directions. The beauty and diversity of Crete stretches out before the eye : To the north the Psiloritis, to the northwest, the city of Timbaki; in the west, the Bay of Messara; to the south, the chain of Asteroussia; to the east, the plain of Messara. Surrouding villages are visible on the flanks of the Psiloritis, as well as in the plain. And on clear days, of which there are many, the silhouette of the White Mountains (the most western chain in Crete) is visible to the West, as well as the small island of Gavdos to the South. If you enjoy photographing breathtaking landscapes in a poetic and contemplative atmosphere, Kamilari is for you.
The inhabitants are mostly farmers, so during the off season this village displays the authentic face of Crete. A stroll through its picturesque streets is likely to yield visual discoveries that blend exotic elements, an invitation to pay attention to framing, to angle of view, to the play of light and shadow, reflections on floors or walls, contrasts of earth and sky. It’s also a rendez-vous with picturesque atmospheres that can range from meditative to odd, sweet, and even at times disturbing. So many tales and impressions to recall and retell
Matala is a seaside village of about 100 people that dates back to the Neolithic
era, when caves were dug into the surrounding cliffs. During the Minoan period Matala was the port for the city of Phaistos. In the 1st and 2nd century AD the
cliffs were transformed into funeral vaults by the Romans. Then Matala became
a fishing port. In the sixties it turned into a destination for «flower children» including Cat Stevens. The bohemian spirit still flourishes there through the presence of modern day hippies.
Today Matala lives mainly on tourism, but during the off season the beach surrounded by white chalk cliffs is a remarkably beautiful site that feels remote
from the hustle of industrial civilisation, and brings the past to life.
We chose the late afternoon just before sunset for our walk there. The cafés that
line the beach, closed at this time of year, and the sun setting on the sea suggested poetic compositions focusing on light and reflections, lulling us into a sense of eternity. Words can’t convey the beauty of the light bathing the chalk cliffs, offering endless photographic possibilities ranging from the lyrical to the abstract. At this twilight hour in February, Matala became a place outside time where we remained facing the sea, an inexhaustible source of inspiration. At night the cliffside caves are illuminated, making them even more beautiful to photograph.
Then we explored the village, its main square and its narrow streets. In the
village of Matala at night the past flirts with the present, awakens our imagination, our taste for the theatrical, or even sharpens our gaze to uncover the marvelous within the ordinary. We ended our evening with a seafood dinner at the restaurant La Scala with its panoramic terrace that overlooks the sea and its views of the cliffs –all in all a memorably romantic evening.
Phaistos is the second most important Minoan palace after Knossos. The ruins found on the hill of Phaistos indicate that the site was occupied as early as 4000 BCE in the Neolithic period. At the time of the first palaces (2000-1700 BC), the population had reached a certain level of prosperity, it’s therefore likely that the palace was built to ensure better control of the fertile plain of Messara. It then became a political and administrative center. The site is less known and less frequented by tourists than Knossos, on the Northern coast of Crete near the capital, Heraklion. Yet Phaistos is more authentic, its ruins have not been victimized by misguided restorations, as those in Knossos have been. The only visible signs of interference are the consolidations done to prevent stones from being dislodged. The royal apartments have been restored with gypsum from the ancient quarry of Hagia Triada. This stone, which was used for the construction of Minoan palaces, becomes shiny in sunlight to set the buildings aglow. Here the imagination is set free to wander and to be inspired by the beauty and poetry of this Minoan palace. The Phaistos site, a vast labyrinth at first sight, lends itself to a multitude of compositions.
Kommos is situated on the shores of the Libyan Sea and borders the plain of Messara. Its geographical location makes it a probable port for both Phaistos and Agia Triada during the last two thousand years before our era. But the history of the site does not stop there: Vestiges dating to the Greek and Roman periods have also been unearthed, including temple ruins. Unfortunately, probably as a result of the Greek economic crisis, the site was closed to the public at the time of our visit (we got in anyway) and appears to be abandoned. The deep blue sea in the background intensifies the splendor of this place, it’s well worth a stop for a stroll and some photos.
Gortyn was occupied as early as the Neolithic. The site grew in importance during the Minoan era, then temples for Athena and Apollo were built there during Roman times, when it becomes a regional capital. Plato declared it the richest city in Crete. Today most of the ruins visible on the site are Roman. Those include the remains of the basilica of Agios Titos. Saint Tite was a companion of St Paul, and the founder of the Christian Church in Crete. The relics of this saint were kept in Gortyn before being transferred to Heraklion, thus bringing the city notoriety. Apart from its historical appeal, Gorthyn is extremely photogenic if only for its superb statuary. A journey back in time, it lends itself to the full scope of photography from closeups to panoramas.
Ierapetra is the southernmost city in Europe and the largest in southern Crete, located on the shores of the Libyan Sea. Time is suspended in Ierapetra, and the days begin late in this city of about fifteen thousand inhabitants. Ierapetra already existed during the Minoan period, it later became Greek, then Roman after they conquered and destroyed it in 67BC. The remains of the Roman port are still visible in the shallow waters of the bay. In 824 AD the city was again destroyed by the Arabs and later rebuilt to serve as a base for pirates. During the Venetian period, from the 13th to the 17th century, Ierapetra regained its prosperity. The Kales Fortress was built in 1626 to protect the harbor.
Ierapetra today consists of two distinct neighborhoods, Kato Mera and Pano Mera. Kato Mera is the old town on the promontory to the southwest. Kato Mera is filled with narrow streets, cul-de-sacs and small houses, a medieval village atmosphere gives it a unique charm. A walk in these alleys is a photogenic journey in time. There you will find the mosque, as well as a building labeled "Napoleon's house". Indeed legend has it that Napoleon, en route to his Egyptian campaign stopped at Ierapetra and stayed with a local family. However we’ve been personally assured by the most prominent Napoleon historian that it’s only a legend, Napoleon never set foot in Crete. Nevertheless this little house, which appears ready to collapse at any moment, is interesting to photograph and since tourism is one of the top sources of income for the city it’s normal that the legend should be maintained. In fact a little further on the pier you’ll find a café and a restaurant named so as to evoke Napoleon.
Pano Mera, the new town, offers as much photographic interest as does the old town, with its ubiquitous background of mountains and the Lassithi plateau.
Between the new and the old town, the jetty with its bars and restaurants feels like a seaside resort of sixties vintage, a little outdated and bathed in a beautiful light that provides a unique, almost sepia coloration.
Ierapetra is a city best visited out of season (paticularly since temperature here rarely drops below 20 degrees Celsius, and the city enjoys 340 days of sunshine a year) in order to soak up the authentic local atmosphere and to expérience its slow pace.
We strongly recommend setting some time aside to roam with no other purpose than discovery. Encounter small towns and villages, and stop there on a whim or the moment’s inspirations. Ranging in size from small towns to hamlets, they’re usually a mix of ancient and modern ruins. Concrete skeletons bearing witness to the economic crisis, but also large flamboyant houses, showcases of kitsch that we find so ugly that they, paradoxically, become beautifully photogenic.
We walked through Kalamaki, its long beach lined with small bars and restaurants, an idyllic place where it’s so pleasant to just walk around, to have a seafood lunch overlooking the sea of Libya, but also to discover the town itself where architectural aberrations contrast with the natural beauty of the site.
Tympaki, a flagrant example of disfigurement by the modern world, is also worth a mention as a place to photograph the creative energy of chaos.
Then there’s Kokkinos Pirgos, a seaside resort and farming village all at once with a distincly anachronistic feel, in the same vein as Kalamaki. Bordering the beach is a long string of closed bars and restaurants, some of which give the impression of being permanently abandoned. Agia Galini’s fishing port and its village with white facades clinging to the hillside is also very photogenic. And Sivas, which despite its tourist appeal has retained the charms of a traditional Cretan village, is well deserving of a stop for dinner and a stroll.
But to discover a real Cretan village nestled in the mountains you have to set aside all guides and trust fortune. We followed a name glimpsed on a road sign that, for some reason we did not try to understand, appealed to us, and decided to go there. This is how we discovered the small village of Galia, its narrow streets and its single, unmarked café where we drank the best ever Cretan raki (homemade of course) and enjoyed authentic Cretan hospitality. Within the single-room establishment in a typical Cretan house were seated a dozen older local men with archetypal Cretan features, playing cards and whiling the afternoon away. The only female presence was Maria, the owner. All were highly amused to see a tourist couple land in their midst, in February no less. There ensued many rounds of raki offered by one or another, along with peanuts and raisins to moderate the effects, and a photography session. Kind Maria did not let us départ without a complimentary bottle of her delicious raki.
Cretan cuisine differs significantly from Greek cuisine, and is renowned for being the healthiest in Europe. An essential condition for savoring true traditional Cretan cuisine is avoiding tourist restaurants. Look for taverns frequented mostly by locals. You can enjoy these different specialties cooked with local products such as olives, grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheeses, kid goat, pork, lamb, fish and seafood.
The Cretan regime has ancient roots dating back to the Minoan civilization. Cretans appreciate meat, especially pork, mutton, lamb and kid goat, and even snails, but all in moderation. Spicy sausages and meat pies are just a few examples. Islanders, of course, also benefit from the wealth of harvests at sea, especially in May and October. The basic diet of the Minoan civilization was similar to today's with a focus on tasty dishes using olive oil, green vegetables, cooked salad (horta), fruits, honey, olives, whole grain cereals (mostly barley), dried vegetables and legumes. Beans are mostly eaten as meze (appetizer). The "dako" is probably the national Cretan dish. It is a barley rusk softened in water and dipped in oil then covered with tomatoes, herbs and Myzitra or feta cheese - a simple but extraordinary dish. The traditional kouneli (rabbit) stifado, simmered with small onions, fried or roasted and served with baked potatoes, occupies a special place in the history of Crete. Sheep, lamb, kid or goat are often cooked with fennel or artichokes, wild mountain herbs (horta), tomatoes or a sauce made with eggs and lemon.
"Staka" is another Cretan specialty and is often served alongside meat and rice. It is a cream (tsipa) that is slightly salty and must be kept in a cool place.
There is a bounty of fish and seafood including shrimp, octopus, squid and of course many varieties of fish including the skaros, or parrotfish, which has a firm white flesh and a crispy skin.
Numerous cheese are made locally. The ubiquitous ones are Myzitra (made from sheep's milk, goat's milk or a combination of both) and Anthotyro, a soft, soft cheese that is close to mozzarella.
Among the sweets we’ll mention kserotigana, strips of dough that are fried before being soaked generously in a syrup made from honey, and sprinkled with crushed nuts. However, local fruits might be your best choice – in particular the incredibly delicious Cretan oranges.
And let’s not forget about Cretan olive oil, which is one of the best in the world.
Crete is also an ancient wine region. While foreign grapes such as Syrah, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were planted in the last century and made for the bulk of Cretan wine production, there has recently been a resurgence of native grape varieties such as vilana, kotsifali, mandelaria, very old liatiko, romeiko, dafni and plito. These make for delicious wines with flavor profiles that differ from the more mass-market varietals. Don’t hesitate to discover them, either by booking a tasting in a vineyard (most of which are in the North) or simply at a restaurant.
A few recommendations: If you want to discover the authentic face of Crete it’s imperative to plan your visit during the off season, as the island is overrun with tourists at other times. We went in February and the weather was wonderful. Do check ahead regarding lodging and eating establishments in the areas you want to visit, as some don’t open until the start of tourist season, mid April. We recommend a route focused on the South of the island, we fell in love with it largely due to its still untamed character. Renting a car is also essential, particularly if you want the ability to improvise. Guides will point you to appealing monasteries or lakes (the central mountains are full of beautiful lakes, Lake Kournas in particular is a marvel not to be missed), but to get in touch with the population and discover real Cretan villages it’s best to wander off the beaten path. Be careful though if you’re not used to mountain roads, as they can be steep and narrow. And don’t try to pack too much into your stay, enjoy the slow pace of time on this island where life is sweet.