GREECE / CRETE Travel Guide

*The text and photographs on the blog are parts of the published article on Crete, protected by copyright and related rights: Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia, Nos. 104/2009 and 99/2011.

Greece / CRETE Travel Guide (in Serbian language): 


about beauty and the Beast

Upper monastery Moni Preveli © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Rethymno, Old port © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Hania (Chania) © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

When Greek mythology characters: Zeus and Theseus, Ariadne and Minos, Daedalus and Icarus, are found at the same place, it makes an excellent recipe for a good plot! Three stories interwoven into the story of the famous Cretan Labyrinth together make an ancient telenovela. Let us start from the beginning…

Most people who are traveling to Crete, the largest and southernmost Greek island usually arrive there by an airplane. However, there is another more interesting way to reach Crete - by car/airplane to Athens, and then by ferry from the port of Piraeus. Not only because the voyage along 300 km of the Mediterranean Sea is a unique experience. Somewhere on the high seas and if the weather is nice, with the Cycladic islands in a distance,  one may have luck to spot dolphins jumping out of the sea following the huge ferry, like in the famous Luc Besson’s movie "The Big Blue". Also, in Crete there is much to see and some distances are quite large, so a car is often the best option for touring the island.

If you have decided to sail with the shipping company "Minoan Lines", a trip from Piraeus will take about six and a half hours and you will arrive in the capital of Crete (Heraklion) in the late afternoon. The super-fast ferry passes the distance between Athens and Crete (300km) in only 6 hours, after having traversed a good part of the width of the Mediterranean Sea. 

Heraklion, view of port from the fortress © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Rethymno © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Rethymno © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

Crete is quite a big, or better to say long island, positioned horizontally in the direction West - East. It is 250 km long and only 12 to 55 km wide. Apart from Cyprus in the east, it represents the southernmost point of Europe, because south from Crete (except for a small island of Gavdos) there is the coast of Africa.
Compared to the southern coast of Crete, the north coast is more populated and more accessible by roads. Starting from the north and reaching the south, along almost the entire island there is a mountain range. In most cases, mountains end their way to the south (Libyan Sea) as steep canyons, which often makes parts of the southern Crete inaccessible and less populated.  

For example, if you wish to drive from Town A to Town B, both situated on the south coast and about 20 km apart and  between which there is no road, it is often necessary that you take the only route from Town A and drive to the north coast of Crete. Then you need to drive to the next junction turning to the road that leads back to the south in order to get to the Town B, making at least 50 kilometers more. Due to the inaccessible terrain, some small towns on the southern coast of the island can be reached only by the sea.

This considerable disadvantage for the people is inversely proportional to the natural beauty of the southern coast of Crete. Unlike the north, the south of Crete is blessed with dramatic scenery of canyons, gorges with crystal clear rivers that often empty near the beautiful sandy or pebble beaches.

One of Europe's largest canyons - Samaria, is located in the western part of Crete, in the foothills of the White Mountains (Lefka Ori). After paying a ticket of a few Euros and reporting your stay to the canyon authorities, you can spend an entire day in this 18 km long gorge. Actually, it will take you around 7 - 8 hours to walk along the entire route and reach the sea. Some agencies organize tours for hiking lovers, starting from the canyon entrance in the north. From the top of Omalos Plateau, you will first descend into the canyon downhill using 2 km long Xyloskalo stairs, and then hike for another 16 km through the canyon reaching the southern coast of Crete - village of Agia Roumeli. In this village, you’ll experience the “Town A to Town B” problem described earlier, because there is no road to the north, so you’ll have to take a boat to the nearest place on the southern coast, from where there is.

Lower monastery Moni Preveli © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

The nearest town to Agia Roumeli happens to be Chora Sfakion, the seat of "the Corsican", as I called them while visiting. If you’ve red Franco-Belgian comics "Asterix and Obelix" and their adventure to Corsica, you'll understand what it's all about. Sfakians are quite special folks. In a broad daylight of a summer day and at 40 degrees Celsius in shade, you will most likely spot them in the streets dressed in traditional costume including black head scarf, long black trousers, black shirt and knee-deep black leather boots, with the obligatory long black mustache.

Older and more conservative “Men in Black” are not so enthusiastic about the onslaught of tourists to Crete. While visiting the archaeological site of Festos, I noticed one of them in his late 50s, fully dressed sitting in a touristy café, clearly enjoying the attention of tourists passing by. Nevertheless, in spite of being extremely polite while asking for permission to take a photo of him, I received a curtly uttered response: ohi (no). 

Although they tend to look kind of menacing, some British travel books have gone even further. In one of the Crete guides published some ten years ago they suggested that foreign tourists visiting Chora Sfakion are not recommended to go off the roads, claiming that at the foot of the mountains locals still practice shooting live targets. 

Hora Sfakion
Old photo of a Sfakian young girl and men, in their traditional costume

On the Crete’s southern coast, one should not miss two places. One of them is Preveli beach situated 30 km south of Rethymno, hidden at the end of the Kourtaliotiko Gorge (or Astomatos Gorge). Coming from the north, after some 15 kms you will find yourself on a winding local road which suddenly enters the canyon. Followed by a strong wind, a drive along the dry riverbed slowly leads you to the open plain between mountains, before it climbs up again and reaches the southern coast. One beautiful Ottoman stone bridge with swans and ducks on the spring beneath it, and the abandoned "ghost village" with lower monastery Moni Preveli, are located just 2 kms before the local road climbs steep and at its very end gives you a pleasure of the magnificent views of the open seas.

Reaching the southern coast, some 200 meters above the sea and about a kilometer from the upper monastery Moni Preveli there is a plateau, a parking lot on a cliff where you are supposed to leave the car, before heading to the Preveli beach.

Ottoman bridge in Kourtaliotiko Gorge © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

After taking hundreds of steps down the hill (do not forget that you have to climb all those steps on your way back), accompanied by the great panoramas of the Libyan sea, you will eventually reach the mouth of the river that runs through the Kourtaliotiko Gorge and empties into the sea near Preveli beach. At the very end of a steep canyon, a green river twists and enters the sea forming a sandy beach at its end, situated both on the river and on the sea coast.

If you wish to explore the canyon, you could rent a paddle boat and start your own expedition going upstream the canyon’s forest with palm trees and other greenery. Due to the presence of water, the contrast between bare mountain tops and its lower much greener parts somehow resembles a landscape of an African oasis. 

Preveli Beach © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Preveli Beach © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

While turning the pedals of your short distance river transportation, along the way you will notice small river turtles coming out and returning back into the water, dragonflies flying around, as the surrounding landscape slowly changes into dense forests of reed and tall palm trees. After some 800 meters, there is a big white wall of rocks blocking further entrance into the canyon. You can park your pedal boat here, tie the rope to one of the poles of reeds that emerge from the water and continue walking. At its last part, the Kourtaliotiko Canyon is only around 3.5 kms long, but is not halfway passable. However, if you are visiting Preveli, hiking a small part of this gorge could make a real enjoyment of your daily stay at the beach.

Back to the beach itself, on its left side you will notice a tavern in "Robinson Crusoe" style where you can have a drink or a snack. On the other side of the beach, a small olive grove (and several brightly coloured sun beds) hides a miniature stone church.

Kourtaliotiko Gorge © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

In the eastern part of Crete’s southern coast, at the end of a minor gorge lies Matala. Small place has a registered population of just 123, followed by a few pensions and apartment buildings, so that major influx of tourists are visitors who come here on daily basis, to the beautiful beach.

There are just a few restaurants in Matala, partly situated on stilts by the beach, a couple of cafes and shops, and that's all. Although there is a road coming from the island’s capital, the beach seems a kind of isolated from the rest of Crete, especially at dusk when daily tourists return back to their coastal resorts.

At the end of the 1960s, Matala was "rediscovered" by European hippies. In one part of the beach you can still see graffiti written in a typical hippie-style, in English: "Today is life - Tomorrow never comes." Long before the hippies, in the "Iliad" Homer wrote about the ship of king Menelaus, the husband of the beautiful Helen, who stopped here on his return from the Trojan War.

What makes this beach of sand and small pebbles even more interesting is a cliff that surrounds it on its right side and ends steeply into the sea. Visible traces of holes - caves that cover the hill, were once a part of an ancient Roman cemetery. In the later period, it served as a hiding place of the first Christians on the island, and more recently for hippies who vacationed here. Today, the empty caves and its labyrinths of interconnected corridors are climbed by many curious tourists.

Matala © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Matala © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

Perhaps you did not know that the word "labyrinth" was actually created in Crete. Before the arrival of the Greeks, some 4000 years ago the islands Santorini and Crete were the home of the European’s oldest civilization - the Minoans. Their capital was at Knossos (Palace of Knossos), in the northern part of Crete, just a few kilometers from the present capital Heraklion. The civilization they created, architecture of their palaces, wall paintings and their way of life were so modern and full of optimism, and while walking through the excavations and looking at the remains of the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion you may ask yourself what the modern age  has actually devised (except for the energy sources)?

At the beginning of the 20th century, Knossos was discovered by an English archaeologist Arthur Evans. Based on many fragments found, he considerably managed to reconstruct the site, in a way that is rather unacceptable in the modern archaeology (e.g. repainting columns in its original red, white and black colours). Nevertheless, returning the ancient city its vivid colours has helped 21st century tourists to get the major idea of how the palace looked like and how these ancient people lived. What neither Arthur Evans nor anyone else has so far managed to decipher is the Minoan script - Linear A.

Heraklion, Palace of Knossos Archaeological site © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Archaeological Museum, Heraklion - The most famous Minoan fresco "Bull leaping" © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Heraklion, Palace of Knossos Archaeological site © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

It is here we are getting back to the legend, an ancient telenovela…
During the greatest period of prosperity of the Minoan culture, the wife of the legendary King Minos (the son of Zeus and the goddess Europe), had an affair with the snow-white Holy Taurus, a deity that Minos received as a gift from mighty Poseidon. Few months later, she gave birth to a monster half-bull, half-man - the Minotaur. Angry king Minos ordered a labyrinth to be built underneath the palace, where the monster was imprisoned. Due to some old, unresolved problem with the Athenians (who once unsuccessfully tried to conquer the island), each year the Minotaur was given a sacrifice from Athens - 7 young Athenian young men and 7 maidens, whom he devoured.

In order to break this cruel tradition, the young Athenian prince Theseus, son of King Aegeus, together with a few friends, decided to sail to Crete and kill the Minotaur. Although Aegeus had begged his only son not to, Theseus had eventually promised his father that black sails with which they had set off from Athens will be replaced by white ones  on their return home, in order to send a signal that the task was successfully completed and all the crew was well.

Although their arrival in Crete was a secret, there was someone who didn’t miss it - King Minos's daughter Ariadne who fell in love with Theseus. The Athenian prince promised her eternal love, and that he would take her with him to Athens if she only showed him the way through the maze and back. Ariadne’s magic thread and a sword helped Theseus to enter the labyrinth, kill the Minotaur and return safely. However, the promise was not fulfilled, so the event opened the way to Theseus’s tragoidia – tragedy, an evil fate.

On the return home, Athenians were celebrating the end of the successful trip and forgot to put up the white sails instead of the black ones. In the late afternoon, wrongly interpreting black sails aboard the ship of his son Theseus approaching the Cape Sounion, the saddened king of Athens, Aegeus threw himself from the cliff in the big blue sea, so the sea was later named after him - Aegean.

Back on the island of Crete, having learned that the Minotaur was killed, furious king Minos ordered a death of the labyrinth architect, Daedalus. Fearing his destiny, together with his son Icarus, Daedalus decided to escape the island. He made wings for his son and for himself using bird’s feathers and wax. You probably remember the rest of this famous story, young Icarus who flew too high and the proximity of the sun melted the wax of his wings, so he fell into the sea and died. Daedalus managed to land safely in Sicily.

Heraklion, Palace of Knossos Archaeological site © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Heraklion, Archaeological Museum - "Festos disc" © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

The combined ticket for the Archaeological site of Knossos and Archaeological Museum of Heraklion (8 kms from Palace of Knossos), costs 15 Euros and it is worth every penny: wall paintings of colourful lilies, jumping dolphins, blue monkeys, guys in sarong somersaulting bulls, and a parade of elegant young women with a long black, curly hair, painted in extremely bright colours with dominance of red and black; King Minos’s throne (the oldest ever found in the world), vases with octopus whose tentacles seem as they are about to revive, sea stars and flowers, and the first baths in the world made of clay; snake goddess and golden earrings in the shape of bees; sarcophagi in vivid colours and a multitude ax with colourful handles - the symbol of Minoan kingdom...And all of it at the  time when in the continental Europe people still lived in shacks of mud.

Festos Archaeological site © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

Except for Knossos, there are few other archaeological sites in Crete where the remains of ancient Minoan civilizations were found. In most of them there is not much to see, except in Festos located 12 kms from the Matala beach, and in Malia, 40 kms east of Heraklion.

The capital of Crete is Heraklion (Greek: Iraklio, from "Heracles" - Hercules), located on its northern coast. It is the largest city on the island with 116.000 inhabitants. Besides Heraklion, there are two other major cities on Crete, both in the northern part of the island - Rethymno (Rethymnon) in its central part, and Chania (Hania) in the west.

In the past, island of Crete was ruled by the Venetians and the Turks, so the architecture of its old towns creates a combination of architectural styles of these two invaders. In addition to the fortresses (the largest ones are in Rethymno and Heraklion), remains of old minarets and Turkish mausoleums, Cretan town houses have typical Ottoman upper floor wooden details. They are often built next to Venetian stone fountains, loggias (Venetian administration buildings) and Venetian villas, some of them refurbished into boutique hotels. The best way to see Crete’s major towns is by taking a walk along its narrow cobbled streets, passing by its pastel and bright coloured painted old houses. 

Hania © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Rethymno, Ottoman style house © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Hania, covered market © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Hania, covered market © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

Hania has a large covered city market very much like the one in the cities of the East, beautiful waterfront with the Maritime Museum, the lighthouse and the white carriage with horses mostly rented by tourists, and holds a reputation of the most beautiful town in Crete. Although similar to Hania, in many ways (and in my personal opinion) Rethymno seems more authentic than sometimes quite touristy Hania. While walking along the streets of Rethymno, you will notice some old workshops such as those manufacturing and selling old string musical instruments that originate from the East (Cretan Lyra), and climb the Venetian fortress.

On your visit to Heraklion make sure to visit an excellent Archaeological Museum and both old and new parts of the town. Passing by old Venetian fountains that adorn most of the small town squares, you can enjoy Greek/Turkish coffee in taverns with wooden and wicker stools, sometimes situated next to the old Ottoman mausoleums (turbe), that now remain empty and serve as coffee shops.

Some of the most interesting examples of architecture in Crete are those of churches and monasteries. A large number of the island's churches neither resemble Orthodox ones on the Greek mainland, nor do they have similarities to the white Cycladic style. White stone Church of Saint Titus in Heraklion, for example, looks more like Italian Catholic basilicas of Venice, Kotor or Dubrovnik (the Adriatic coast), so does the church patron Titus, of a Latin name. Some of the Venetian churches in Crete are still Catholic, although most of them became Orthodox.

Heraklion © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Hania, Venetian fountain © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Rethymno, boutique-hotel in an old Venetian house © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

Somewhere off the road between Rethymno and Hania, one of the monasteries - Moni Arkadiou, should be on your primary list. Most Cretan monasteries that have survived are built in the time of the Venetians, in the form of a large rectangular complex fenced with high walls that surround the church and inner courtyard.

When you enter the narrow passage of the Moni Arkadiou, the first thing that could come to your mind is old Mexican or Italian "spaghetti" western. An area of rectangular ochre houses that surround monastery, with the wooden beams incorporated into the outer part of the house, yellow dust and colourful pots with carefully cultivated flowers, resembles very much an oasis in the Mexican desert. A stone church and a tree dried up to its roots add the charm to the panorama that only misses a "gringo" with his horse tied to the building.

Contrary to the exterior, the interior of the church looks very modest. However, one detail of its history remains important for every Cretan. During the Turkish occupation, the church served as their warehouse for gunpowder. In 1866, there was a great revolt against Turks, and local peasants, both fighters and rebels, as well as many village residents and refugees hid inside the church. At the moment when the conquest of monastery by the Turks was inevitable, rather than to surrender, led by a local Kostis Giamboudakis they set fire to the gunpowder in order to destroy Turkish supplies, killing themselves but also a lot of enemy soldiers. 

Moni Arkadiou © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Moni Arkadiou © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Moni Arkadiou © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Rethymno, Monument to Kostis Giamboudakis © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

The monastery very similar to this one is situated in the northeast of Crete, and it certainly should not be missed if you are on your way to the famous Vai beach. In its complex, the monastery Moni Toplou has an old stone windmill, which houses a millstone for grinding grain, as well as the museum exhibition of old maps and weapons.

Not far from the monastery, 12 kms of easy downhill drive through the barren terrain, where small short-legged wild goats (Kri-Kri) complement the rugged landscape, at the end of the island path lies Vai - the only palm tree plantation in Europe, next to the Vai beach. Speaking in kilometers, you are much closer to Africa here than to Europe, so the palm grove should not be a surprise. The nearest larger town - Siteia lies about 40 km from Vai, so the visitors come here on a day basis, on the beach.

The sandy beach of Vai, situated in the middle of a palm grove was created to become a little tropical paradise for tourists. In the right part of the beach there is a cafe, and a little further there is a restaurant at the foot of the hill. A few minutes' walk the stairs up the hill will take you to a small viewpoint, which offers a great view of the whole Vai. Behind the hill, there is another, less crowded sandy beach, not less beautiful but without palm trees that surrounds it.

Vai beach © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Moni Toplou © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

 On your return from the full-day trip to Vai, stop in the picturesque town Agios Nikolaos situated partly on the small hill and partly at its foot. The center of the town is located on a small "lake", a part of the sea that had penetrated into the land, which seems quite attractive.

They say that apart from the south, the west coast of Crete is the only other part of the island that could compete for the title of an indescribable natural beauty. After you pass the small town Kissamos Kasteli, there are no more paved roads that lead to the north of the Peninsula Gramvousa. If you continue driving about 15 kms more, you will reach the cliff where, on your left, far below you can spot a small Island of Balos connected to the mainland. The tiny island with its turquoise lagoon marks the furthermost point of the northwestern Crete and can be reached by quite a number of stairs. Going south, you could reach some other famous beaches such as Falasarna (Phalasarna), Elafonisos and Paleochora. Driving from one to another you will not pass more than a dozen kilometers, but the local road is quite winding and requires a careful drive.

Gergioupoli © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Sun beach, Malia © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved


If there is a competition for the best Cretan beach on its north coast, a long sandy beach near the town Gergioupoli would probably be one of the winners.  Well visited Sun beach near the village of Malia, with several swimming pools, its water slides and inflatable toys, remains quite a small paradise for smaller children.

For the youngest, in Crete there are three large water parks and CretAquarium, an aquarium building built in a shape of a stylized ship, located about 20 km east of Heraklion (there are road signs on the highway leading to it). You can enjoy yourself watching the flora and fauna of the Mediterranean, sharks and large stingray, moray eels and scorpion fish, starfish, sea urchins and octopuses, lobsters, anemones and fluorescent jellyfish, among others. 

A half hour drive from Hersonissos, a small town much preferred for young tourists (famous for its bars and loud music), up to the mountain and through its "gate" lies the Lassithi plateau. Its “entrance” between two hills, is easily recognized by the remains of old windmills. Before you even approach the plateau, along the road you will notice resting places and restaurants in the style of what makes this plateau famous - windmills. The length of the road that circles around the plateau is 27 km. There is not much to see unless you decide to visit the Diktian Cave, in the hills above the village Psychro, where according to a legend, the supreme god Zeus was born.

Old windmills, Lassithi plateau © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Lassithi plateau © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

Due to a considerable distance from the Greek mainland, Cretans are somewhat different from the other Greeks. Apart from a few customs, there are some dishes and food itself that are specific only to this part of the country. In bakeries and supermarkets, in addition to ordinary types of bread you can buy bags of bread chopped into small slices, dehydrated as toast, that (among other) are one of the ingredients of the Greek salad - after a while, hard bread soaks the liquid from the tomatoes and olive oil, softens and becomes very tasty. This type of bread can be found in supermarkets in Athens and the rest of Greece, where it is labeled as Cretan bread.

Bakery in Rethymno © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Lassithi plateau, watermelons cooled in a village fountain © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

Among other things, Crete gave birth to a considerable number of the world famous Greeks, both those from the legends and the real ones. In addition to the supreme god Zeus, there are also legendary King Minos, Daedalus, Icarus and Minotaur. At the beginning of the 20th century, Crete was a place of birth of a well known Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, much admired politician that was exiled for his participation in a military coup. The Greeks apparently forgave him for his political sins, because in this country many institutions are now called by his name (including the international airport in Athens).

One should not forget Nikos Kazantsakis and his novel "Alexis Zorba", translated in English as "Zorba the Greek", which later became a movie of the same name (starred by Antony Queen). The film was shot on the island of Crete, in the beautiful green lagoon of the Stavros beach, at Akrotiri Peninsula (15 km north of Hania). If you visit the beach, you might have a drink at a bar-restaurant named "Zorba's".

Stavros beach, Akrotiri Peninsula, where "Zorba the Greek" was filmed © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

However, the most famous Cretan is surely Domenikos Theotokopoulos, or more popular - El Greco ("the Greek”, in Spanish). Back in the 16th century, only 3 km from today’s Heraklion - Rethymno highway a talented young man from a small village Fodele sailed to Venice and then to Spain, later to become one of the world's most famous painters - court painter to the Spanish king. His house-museum in the former Spanish capital Toledo is quite a touristy place, as well as the Toledo Cathedral with his most prominent work of art:

In this forgotten village with the coast and highway only 3 kms away, situated at the foot of a rather small mountain ravine famous for its tangerine plantations, you will be able to experience the time that has stopped. At the end of the village besides a tangerine orchard, you will reach a renovated stone house with a flat roof, the birth house-museum of El Greco. The villagers here are very relaxed - who cares to open the house-museum on time (9 AM) because there are some tourists who came to Crete from a far away! We waited until 9.45 AM, and then moved on.

However, at the moment as I write this article, I cannot think of a better and more peaceful place for a morning coffee than a small cafe built in the same rural style, next to El Greco's house. Above the simple wooden tables and chairs, a large carob had widen its branches heavy of yields, and made an arch of a rather generous shade. And the only noise you can hear are crickets...

Fodele, Birth house-museum of "El Greco" © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved
Cafe in Fodele © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved

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Hania © 2006 Ivana Dukčević. All rights reserved