Difference between revisions of "Crete"
Revision as of 08:07, 28 February 2013
Crete (Κρήτη / Kriti, occasionally spelled "Krete" in English) is the largest of the Greek islands and is in the Mediterranean Sea between the Sea of Crete and the Libyan Sea, south of the Peloponnese. Crete is approximately 260 km long and 60 km wide. Crete consists of four prefectures: Chania, Rethimno, Heraklion and Lasithi. If there was a beauty contest for Greek islands, Crete would surely be among the favorites. Indeed, some say there is no place on earth like Crete. This view is strongly supported by those fortunate enough to have visited the island. Crete, with a population of approximately 650,000, is not just sun, sea and sand; it is a quite distinct place full of vitality, warmth, hospitality, culture and of course an excellent infrastructure. Crete is well known for its seas and beaches but it has a very contrasting landscape. The island goes from fertile coastal plains to rugged mountains and from busy metropolitan cities to very peaceful hillside villages. If you travel throughout Crete you can clearly see remnants of Roman and Turkish aqueducts and architecture from when these people invaded the island long ago. You will also find ancient Minoan ruins around the island.
Crete is divided in four prefectures. From west to east:
Agriculture & Tourism
Agriculture is the most important industry of the island, although tourism is extremely important to the economy. The island has begun to rely on tourism more and more since the 1970s; many towns serve no other purpose, and virtually close down during the winter. There are only about 60 days of rain per year, and just about every single home and business is topped with solar panels. The west part of the island is more forested and receives more rain than the east. The entire island was once completely covered with forest, primarily cedar and pine. It has been largely deforested for firewood and to make room for the olive trees and vineyards.
There are many contrasts in this region, you can go from incredible beaches to impressive mountains, from big (and chaotic) cities to really small picturesque villages, from very dry, almost desert areas to very green zones like the springs in the center.
Travelers with Physical Disabilities
Since entering the European Union, there have been some efforts to make access for the disabled easier. However, a combination of factors has made this far from comprehensive. The major factors are the topography of the island, the nature of its most import sites, and the economy. Many hotels and other types of accommodations are in historic buildings, without elevators and often with many stairs to various facilities. This is especially true in small villages, and in the Old Town sections of cities. Getting into most public establishments (and to the toilet, once you're in there) usually means stairs.
Historic sites like the ancient ruins of Knossos will be very difficult to fully explore for those confined to wheelchairs and who have difficulty walking, although many of them (including Knossos) have significant sections that can be explored to create a rewarding experience. The Old Towns of cities (like Chania) and small mountain villages are hilly, often with steps from one area to another. Nonetheless, there are still places in most of these that can be explored. A wheelchair-bound person or one with walking difficulty will not be able to see everything, but they can still see a rewarding amount of things.
Most government buildings, hospitals, museums, and office buildings in cities and large towns have elevators and wheelchair ramps. You will also find wheelchair ramps at many restaurants and hotels in areas that cater to tourists. Virtually all of the four and five-star hotels have ramps, elevators and/or handicapped accessible rooms and facilities. Sidewalks in cities and larger towns will have ramps at intersections. Even able-bodied travelers should take care whenever crossing a street, as cars rarely stop for pedestrians in crosswalks - although they usually stop at red lights.
If you have physical difficulties with walking or are confined to a wheelchair, it is important that you research your prospective lodging carefully and ask clear questions. Ask the advice of people who live on the island or go on one of the expat forums to get questions answered. Even with the obstacles that exist, it is possible to enjoy a rewarding visit.
When Greece entered the European Union, smoking was also addressed - sort of. "No smoking" signs are required inside all restaurants, bars, and tavernas. You are entirely likely to see the owner sitting under one of those signs and smoking, as well as many of the patrons also smoking. The main tourist season is during warm weather. Virtually every eating and drinking establishment has an outdoor area. People will be smoking in those areas, but at least you are outside. Better hotels and restaurants will enforce bans, and better hotels will have non-smoking rooms.
Upper & Lower Villages
Except for the major port cities and towns, settlements near the coast were built on on the hills above the water. This practice dated to ancient times, and the purpose was for residents to be able to see pirates and other invaders from afar. They could then rush to the sea to challenge them or flee higher up in the mountains. Today, there are many settlements right on the water that began to develop as tourism exploded in the 1960s and 1970s. These new, lower villages are called "kato" (κάτο) while the old upper villages are called "epano" (επάνο). Most towns and villages, especially along the coast, will be in two sections - the upper and lower. When asking for directions, let them know if you are going kato or epano.
Crete was the center of the Minoan civilization, a sophisticated Bronze Age culture from 2600-1150 B.C.: the island bears witness to their achievements in the form of palaces, tombs and sacred sites. This civilization was so sophisticated that they even had a large navy. The Minoan decline was likely initiated by a by tsunami waves from the eruption of a huge volcano in Santorini, Greece in 1450 B.C. Towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, the Minoans were superseded by Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland. Thereafter, Crete very much followed in the classical mainstream of Greece and - much later - Rome.
Crete was invaded by Romans from 69-330 A.C. and this period of time plus the Byzantine era actually brought much wealth to the Island. The beauty and wealth of this time can still be seen today by mosaics and monuments around the island.
Crete was the site of an airborne invasion by German troops, and a spirited resistance by Allied (mainly British, New Zealand and Australian) troops and the people of Crete during the 1941 Nazi invasion of Greece. During this invasion many Cretans were executed for initially resisting the Germans and the cities of Chania and Heraklion were bombed so heavily that you may still see the destruction even today.
Crete history is very much related to famous myths like when the King of Crete, Minos, refused to sacrifice a bull to the Greek gods. Poseidon in turn forced Minos's wife to fall in love with a bull which created the mythical beast, the Minotaur.
The spoken dialect of Greek in Crete is similar to the one of the mainland Greece but it has some differences . The true Cretan dialect is spoken in pure form only in remote villages, although most native Cretans do know the dialect.
The language used in Crete is Greek, although in main cities and touristic areas people have no problem understanding English. Even in small villages you usually have no problem for basic things like shopping or eating. Education is good on the island, and English is taught from the first grade. Additionally, tourism is important, so many people will speak English. The island welcomes a large number of tourists from around the world, especially northern Europe. Therefore, many in the tourist industry will speak other European languages. The menus in tavernas that cater to tourist are usually in several languages - Russian, French, Italian, English, and German.
The island has three significant airports:
There are daily flights from Athens airport by Olympic Air , Aegean Airlines  and Athens Airways (Which take about 45min.) to Heraklion and Chania. Sky Express operates flights from Athens airport to Sitia. During the months of July and August Astra Airlines  flies from Thessaloniki to Heraklion and Chania.
From April till early November charter airlines fly directly to [Heraklion] and [Chania] from many European airports.
Flights going from Heraklion and Chania to Thessolaniki take about 90 minutes. The airport at Heraklion also has daily flights to Rhodes which takes 1 hr. There are daily flights between Athens and Heraklion.
Hiring a car is easy, as long as you have your driving license with you. Check, though, that the insurance is comprehensive, and make sure when you take the car that all previous marks on it are recorded so that you don't get charged for these! Insurance on hire cars doesn't usually cover the underside of the car, or damage to tires. Gas stations often close around 9PM, particularly in villages. Most gas stations expect you to pay cash - they serve you, so you can choose for them to fill the tank or put in gas to a cash value. On the National Highway, there are service stations, but they are often 30 miles or so apart - make sure you fill up with gas before bank holidays and Sundays when you may have more difficulty finding an open station. In Crete you will find most international car rental companies like
and some local like
Be careful when driving in Crete, as Cretans haven't got used yet as of driving in a more-than-one lane road (national roads were recently upgraded near Iraklion to two-lane roads) and will easily drive in the middle between the lanes, trespass the double-line or flash the headlights to drive you into safety lane for them to pass. Stop signs are rarely respected by locals, and the best way to avoid accidents is to reduce speed to the point that you could easily stop the car and avoid collision whenever you approach a crossroad. Stay on the safe side legally in order to maintain your rights in case of accident. Despite the fact that most roads (including the new National Highway) are full of twists and turns through mountains, Cretans usually drive aggressively, fast, and on the edge of safety.
You need to have your wits about you while driving. Obstacles to look for are the ubiquitous quads rented out by tourists during the season, and motorbikes of all descriptions. In rural and mountainous areas (which is almost everywhere), there can be goats, sheep, donkeys, and stray dogs on the roads. Police periodically set up checkpoints, and will wave you over. Mostly they are looking to ensure your car is properly licensed and insured. Pull over, be polite, and speak your own language or English. If you are caught, drunk driving is severely punished - be smart.
Cretans drive on the right side of the road, which is excellent for most tourists. If you come from the UK or another left-driving country, you should take even more care. Parking is a challenge - especially in cities. You are better off finding the center, and parking in a pay lot and walking (most cities and towns are easy to walk around). In cities like Herklion, you can easily receive an expensive parking ticket even if you park on the curb where many other vehicles are parked. Driving in cities and towns is also a challenge - the roads are narrow and it can look like a free-for-all.
Taxi services are another way to get around Crete, but can be quite expensive. They are, however, very accessible and you will find taxi stands in the center of virtually all villages, towns and cities. Greek taxis all work under the Greek State and the Taxi driver must always charge by the meter price which he must turn on as soon as you get into the cab. Taxi drivers are perhaps the most aggressive of drivers on the island.
There are 2 taxi tariffs in Greece: Tariff 1 is day hours ranging from 5:00am to midnight and Tariff 2 is night hours ranging from midnight to 5:00am.
Most major road signs in in both English and Greek. Usually, the Greek sign is first, followed by an English sign.
Public transportation is fairly frequent and timetables  quite trustworthy. Bus drivers usually divert from their marked routes to enter little villages if asked to do so. Bus services along the north coast and towards the south coast are excellent, reliable, frequent and cheap.
Most of these Bus services are run by Kino Tamio Eisproxeon Leoforon, KTEL, which are groups of families which individually run their own bus companies. This, in turn, creates a much more homely environment for Cretans and tourists and these families provide excellent service and show off their great deal of pride.
Cretan buses stations are very simple for the most part except for in Heraklion which has two major Bus stations (one for buses going in town and one for KTEL run buses).
Crete has many ferry connections for example: You can go from Pireaus to Heraklion with Minoan Lines, to Chania with ANEK Lines or Hellenic Seaways, to Ayios Nikolaos and Sitia with LANE Lines. LANE also operates routes from Ayios Nikolaos/Sitia to Rhodes and other greek islands. In the summer, there are daily catmarans (hydrofoils) from Heraklion to Santorini. The trip takes about 2.5 hours. Hellenic Seaways and SeaJets offer these sailings. You can also go to Crete by ferry from the Peloponnese (Gytheio) and Kythira island. This ferry lands on the west part of Crete, in Kissamos port.
The main ports in Greece that ferries come into are in Heraklion, Chania, Rethymno, Sitia, and Kastelli-Kassamos. Since there are no roads along the southwest coast there is a ferry line, with connections between Paleochora, Sougia, Agia Roumeli, Loutro and Hora Sfakion (Sfakia). There is also a connection with the islet of Gavdos, Europe's southernmost point (Cape Tripiti).
Crete is a large island with much to see and do. To see the highlights of the entire island will take about two weeks. To explore all that in more depth would take a good month. Distances (and driving times) from one highlight to another can be long.
Crete is famous for its tasty and healthy cuisine. The Cretan Diet, which is also called the "Mediterranean Diet," has been attributed with great health benefits and nutritional value. This healthy diet had relied heavily on fresh vegetables and fruits in season and fish, with meat served usually only once a week or on special occasions like weddings and festivals. Today, Cretans eat meat fairly regularly as well as processed foods and sweet confections
A good tip is to join any of the hundreds of traditional festivals in villages which offer food like barbecued meat, fried potatoes, salad, stuffed grape leaves (dolmades), wine. There is usually live music and dancing.
Olives & Olive Oil
The island of Crete is covered with olive trees. Virtually every family has at least some trees. The olive harvest season occurs in November and December, and every single member of the family helps with the harvest. Most villages have an olive pressing factory. Some villages even have very old presses with huge stone wheels that have been preserved for cultural value. Today's olive press factories are modern, but it is still possible to stop into one during the season to see the liquid gold being produced.
Olive oil is used in copious amounts for cooking and in salads, although most restaurants use sunflower or similar oil for cooking fried foods like french fried potatoes.
Olives themselves are commonly served as mezes with raki. They are an ingredient in many salads, and an olive paste is often served with bread.
Honey & Yogurt
There are also bee hives all over Crete, and many families make their own pure honey. Yogurt, much thicker and creamier than commercial yogurt in the Unites States, is often served as dessert with honey drizzled on it.
Feta cheese is a Greek product protected by a protected designation of origin in the EU. To qualify to be sold as true feta in the EU, the cheese must be made in a certain manner in a certain area (parts of mainland Greece and the island of Lesvos). However, it is produced and used extensively in Crete as it is elsewhere in Greece. It is served on salads, in particular the ubiquitous Greek salad. It is an ingredient in cheese pies and spinach pies, called "spanakopita." It is also and ingredient in the traditional Cretan "dakos," a hard bread rusk, soaked with olive oil and topped with crumbled feta, chopped tomatoes and olives. It is also served in bite sized portions drizzled with a bit of olive oil and served as one or more mezes (appetizers), usually servied with raki or tsikoudia.
You will also find a very good variety of delicious locally produced Cretan cheeses, such as:
Snails cooked in various ways (one of the most traditional dishes of Crete), Smoked ham (apaki) and smoked sausages (loukaniko), traditional mountain goat or lamb cooked in various ways, cretan pilaf (chicken and lamb risotto served with goat's butter), souvlaki (pork meat, lamb, chicken or fish on skewers).
Dakos (Greek: Ντάκος - Cretan rusk with tomato, feta cheese, olives, oregano and olive oil), Horta vrasta (boiled greens with olive oil and lemon juice). Xoriatiki Known as the Greek Salad, Sheperd's Salad Salad with a east style twist, Salata Marouli Romaine Lettuce Salad, and Lahano Salata A traditionally tart cabbage salad are other types of Cretan salads.
Kotosoupa A chicken based soup with a lemon sauce Fakkes Tomato soup in a lintel base Fasolatha A hearty been soup in a tomato base Nisiotiki A hearty seafood soup
The Cretans themselves eat out late, after 10 or 11 PM, and often in a group. They prefer dinner in a good taverna, a small local restaurant offering the local cuisine. Most dishes are fresh from that day. The menu is only for tourists, Cretans ask the waiter for specialties, and have a look in the kitchen or in a 'vitrine', glass display case. Dinner is usually outside during the warmer months.
Fresh fish becomes more and more rare, and is expensive, priced by its weight. Restaurants and tavernas by law have to display if the fish that they offer is fresh or frozen. Thus, always ask your waiter to show you the fish and weight it in front of you before you order.
Tsatziki Famous cucumber dip that can go well with almost anything Taramosalata Cod roe-based dip Kalamari Deep fried squid Skorthalia Greek garlic mashed potatoes Gigantes Lima beans in a tomato sauce (can be spicy or not)
Bifteki Greek hamburger patties Souvlaki Sticks of meat served in or without a pita bread Fricasse Lamb and garden beans in a creamy lemon sauce Pilafi Greek style rice Psari A way to prepare Black Grouper or other types of fish Moussaka Famous eggplant casserole Greek people seldom have breakfast. They do enjoy a copious lunch.
There are options of cheap Greek fast food Called "gyropitta" by Cretans (mainland Greeks call it "giros pitta" as two separate words, and their definition is somewhat different as a single mainland Greece "giros pitta" is usually too small to replace a decent meal, instead of Cretan Giropitta which is bigger by far, having almost a serving of french fries added and with bigger pitta). As always, there are tourist-traps among those. Prefer those that locals do.
Tsikoudia is the predominant alcohol drink produced and consumed by the locals. This drink is also known as Raki and is made from the left over distilled wine. Tsikoudia alcohol precentage varies a bit, usual average is 20%-45%. It has a grapey taste and is usually served with some "meze" (accompaniments) like hard cheese, olives, cucumber or cold cuts. While "raki" is Turkish in origin, this is what the Cretans call it, and you are apt to be looked at strangely if you ask for tsikoudia.
Tsikoudia usually is a "goodbye gift" from many restaurants, that serve it along with dessert or fruit right after you ask for the bill. Most restaurants and tavernas follow this tradition. The quality (and alcohol content) of raki varies quite a bit. If you find a restaurant or taverna with good raki, it is perfectly acceptable to ask the owner if he will sell you a liter to take home.
Tsikoudia and raki production is strictly controlled by alcohol taxing laws, who permit production for a single 48-hour period each year, for which authorities issue licenses for distilleries operation. Many families make their own, but the majority is distilled in factories scattered across the island to which locals bring their grapes.
If you happen to fall within the period (August through November) and you are into local fiestas, try to visit a "rakokazano" which is local a tsikoudia distillery. This could be an experience to remember. Arrange for returning to hotel beforehand. Usually "rakokazano"'s are located away from tourist vacances, deep into the mainland near vineyards. Due to the nature of the event, tsikoudia production escalates to a fiesta, where freshly produced raki is tested, between feasts of unpeeled oven potatoes with oliveoil or lemon and salt, lamb meat and wine. You are not expected to be sober after visiting one of those, but usually a local has to invite you along (and drive you home afterwards).
Although not as popular as in the mainland or the North Aegean islands Cretans also enjoy drinking Ouzo which is an alcoholic drink made by distillation of grapes. It looks milky when water is poured in, but it doesn't contain milk or derivates of milk! During the distilling process it is made with ginger, cinamon, aromatic seeds, plants, and fruits which give it a distinct taste.
Apart from local spirits, a great variety of wines are produced locally and sometimes from local ancient grape cultivars, and can escort supper or dinner. Most restaurants would serve varieties of local wines or even the restaurant owner's own production as "barrel wine."
Youth can enjoy their booze at dancing bars, which are open till late along the coast line near tourist places, like in Malia and Hersonissos (30km from Iraklion) or Platanias (25km from Chania).
Types of Lodging
There are hundreds of various types of lodging possibilities on the island. Representative examples of each type are listed in each category. Credit cards are generally accepted at most of the mainstream properties. Many properties will offer a discount if you pay cash. Some private homes may have a PayPal or similar method of payment, and the currency is often in that of the owner's native country (UK pounds, for instance). Very small hotels and "rent rooms" may accept only cash. Almost all properties will be happy to assist with sightseeing questions, tours, and can help arrange for a licensed guide for certain sites.
Apartments & Aparthotels.
There is a plethora of these types of accommodations, ranging from a a single apartment you can rent directly from an owner to more sophisticated aparthotels. The latter usually have cooking facilities in the rooms/suites, a small restaurant (breakfast often included) and bar, laundry facilities, a swimming pool and free WiFi.
These range from simple two-star to lavish five-star properties with all the amenities and facilities you would expect of a world class hotel. There are city hotels, business hotels, and beach resort hotels. There are also a number of all-inclusive resorts with all the bells and whistles to keep visitors on the property. The latter are promoted heavily in northern Europe as part of package holidays that include everything, including air fare. Should you choose one of these, it is highly recommended that you rent a car and venture out into the countryside a least a couple times during your stay in order to experience the unique culture found in small hidden villages and not in the crowded/touristic places.
Villas & Private Homes
You will find numerous villas and private homes available for rent all over the island. These range from small one-bedroom "cottages" to very lavish multi-bedroom villas with swimming pools and hot tubs. Some are offered privately by owners, and some are developments of two, four, or more detached villas. There is a large full-time and part-time expat population (mostly from northern Europe) on the island. Some full-time residents rent out their homes during the tourist season. Many part-time residents will rent their homes during the time they are away. These villas invariably come fully furnished and with all the dishes, linens, towels, etc. that you need for a week or two. Many will have free WiFi.
You will see "Rent Room" signs just about everywhere you go. These are rarely advertised on the Internet, and you usually can only make advance reservations if you have someone local make the arrangements for you. When you see a place you might like, just go in or phone the number on the sign. Always ask to see the room before you seal the deal. These are usually simple rooms for sleeping, although many will have basic cooking facilities (microwave, hot plate) and a mini fridge.