It’s just my luck that in my fourth year at St Andrews, Reading Week has only just been reintroduced. Despite my dissertation looming I couldn’t resist the temptation of using the time to escape and clear my head. In early September I was browsing Expedia for good holiday deals and to my great excitement I managed to find flights and accommodation for a week in Crete for just £200. Realising it was probably the last sun I would see for seven months, I decided to treat myself.
The middle of October signals the start of winter in Crete, but with an average temperature of 23 degrees, the weather is far better than a British summer. Out of the tourist season, a dozy vibe hovers across the Island; the roads are quiet, the sun is warm, the tavernas are never more than a quarter full and the locals are winding down for winter. The locals are incredibly kind and relaxed, and more than happy to sit down to chat or offer advice as to the best spots to visit. They genuinely want you enjoy every minute of your stay on their magical Island.
And there certainly is magic to Crete. With its towering mountain range and vivid blue sea that crashes into rocky coves and sandy beaches, it’s not hard to see the mythical tales of Gods, heroes and magical creatures began.
Spinalonga was by far my favourite day-trip on Crete. The island is half an hour by ferry from the small coastal towns of Plaka and Elounda. It is a medieval Venetian fortress that acted as a leper colony from 1903-1957. Now, wandering around Spinalonga’s tumble down houses feels like walking around a recently deserted village.
Its ordinariness makes it hard to imagine it was the site of a leper colony. Perhaps that is the beauty of the place, the island allowed society’s outcasts to carry out normal lives, despite exile from the mainland. Unlike the majority of ruins in Greece, Spinalonga is special because it exists in our living history. The colony was not disbanded until 1957 and as you wander around the island you feel a closer connection to the inhabitants, easily imagining what life was like.
Many visitors choose only to explore the main streets, but I strongly suggest you brave the rocky climb to the summit. It won’t take more than half an hour and the peak’s panoramic views will be your reward. From one side you can admire Crete’s shores, from the other take a moment to gaze over the azure sea to the distant horizon. If you are interested in the Spinalonga’s history, I strongly recommend Victoria Hislop’s The Island, a fantastic novel which is set in the leper colony.
Knossos is a Minoan ruin near the city of Iraklion, said to be where the dynasty of Minos ruled. With its labyrinthine structure it is not surprising that the palace is associated with the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Give yourself at least half a day to visit the site as it is bigger than you expect. Located amongst mountainous hills, the excavation lies on multiple levels. Make sure you go right to the bottom of the site to see the ancient olive oil urns, they are perfectly preserved and could fit 3 humans in them! But best of all are the vibrant frescoes, in perfect condition, which are simply not to be missed!
Caves and Coves
One of my favourite things about Crete is that as you are aimlessly driving, a small sign will suddenly crop up pointing you to an ancient mythical cave. One hot afternoon, after driving past miles of olive-groves and sleepy hill-side villages, we discovered one of these mysterious signs and were soon scrambling down a steep mountain, to the olive tree located above the cave’s entrance. The cave’s cool temperatures were a welcome break from the Cretan sunshine. As we ventured into the darkness, and the entrance became a mere rectangle of light in the distance, I must admit that I was slightly worried that a minotaur might be hiding in the corner.
Other hidden gems, are quiet beaches like Plaka and Elounda, two small villages lining the coast by Spinalonga. The beaches are small and quiet and the sea is extremely warm, perfect for a dip. There are also small tavernas where you can drop in for a drink, ice-cream or food. For more rocky coves it is better to travel to the south side of the Island where tourism significantly depletes. But to discover these, you simply have to explore.
The food in Crete was nothing short of fantastic. In the morning we would wake up and head over to the bakery opposite our apartment to purchase pastries. They surpassed any I have had in France. Each day I would try something new: warm buttery chocolate croissants, ham and cheese twists, jam donuts, spinach and feta tarts, feta filled pastry rings. In the evening we would always order a Greek salad with lashings of olive oil, juicy tomatoes, cucumber, green peppers, olives, and feta.
We ate calamari and fried sardines at sunset, in a tiny taverna beside the sea; devoured tzatziki and moussaka under a rooftop entwined with wild flowers; and sampled joints of slow-cooked lamb and chicken that melted in the mouth. A complimentary sweet dish was always provided. My favourite was a creamy greek yoghurt topped with candied fruit and drizzled with a honey lacquer. And then would come the raki, a traditional greek spirit. (It certainly made my head spin.) I recommend visiting tavernas in the remote villages, as the prices drop by at least 15 euros and it is there that you receive a taste of the real Crete.
My week in Crete was brilliant. It is an island steeped in a rich and magical history and the landscape is gorgeous. You can hike through the mountains, lounge on the beach and then end up in a local taverna chatting to the locals. It has something for everyone, and I cannot wait to return.
Images courtesy of the author.