We were looking for a pleasant seaside village to spell us from driving for a few days and one that doubled as a good launch pad for the Samaria gorge hike. Sougia fit the bill!
On arrival, after lunch, of course, our first venture was to hike over the hill to visit the ancient Greek ruin of Lissos.
Aside from a Roman mosaic floor, there is not a lot of structural antiquity to see at Lissos, but there is a lot to imagine of this city of 1000 years or more (it was abandoned in late antiquity). The famous and ancient spring still provides refreshing liquid for parched throats. Building stones dot the landscape and pottery shards litter the ground. Unfortunately we had too little time to explore deeply before our arranged boat ride back arrived! I would like the chance to visit again.
We continued our drive as far as we could west to the beautiful beach of Phalasarna that faces unobstructed open sea until Tunisia. After a great swim playing in the small, warm and immensely clean waves we slowly made our way south all the way down the western coast until we arrived in the late afternoon at another spectacular beach, Elafonsi.
The roads in western Crete are two-laned, generally windy and often cut sheer profiles without gaurdrails. There is little traffic and the major hazard tends to be complacency or the occasional tourist bus on a blind curve. Passing is a skilled privilege, especially in a underpowered Hyundai. The engine light came on this day. We ignored it.
We traverse small village after small village that look like the peasant villages I visualize from family childhood travels in the 1970’s. Typically a few old men are chatting at the coffee bar, nursing their Greek coffee, while widowed women dressed in black are out doing chores. The roads go right through the center of each town and often narrow to a single lane for short periods. Between villages we see fields of mostly olive orchards or vineyards.
Elafonsi is a national park and rightfully so. Set on an unusual peninsula it possesses a signature pink sand that follows the edge of the water and contrasts beautifully with the blue water and darkly colored rocks.
It was on a recommendation from the hotel owner in Hania that we found ourselves in Ravdoucha for a night. We drove west from Hania to the next northern extending peninsula and wound down to the end of the road where we found the lovely Taverna & Studio “Rock On The Wave”. Just four rooms, a taverna and a beach, it was perfect. We enjoyed a great swim along the rocks (to the left of the picture) that included some shallow sea caves. This was followed by lunch, reading and dinner. The owners are a friendly young couple, hospitable and very hard working. Like in all of Crete, the food and wine are local and delicious. We were offered an entire jar of home made marmalade with breakfast!
We took a day trip from Hania to visit the village of Stravros on the northern point of the Akrotiri peninsula, site of the final scene of Zorba the Greek and the “hilarious disaster” (above) – a great movie if you have not seen it. Lunch and a swim was had in the little village of Marathi located on the other side of the peninsula. Back in Hania we continued to enjoy ourselves.
Hania is a very ancient and delightful port town located on the north coast of Crete, west of Heraklion. Full of small windy streets and a clean harbor the city remains largely reminiscent of the Venetian period in architecture and yet possess markings of its entire storied history and the fascinating story of Crete.
On the hill across the harbor (pictured), bronze aged peoples settled thousands of years ago. The indigenous and highly evolved Minoans made the same hill their home approximately 3000 to 1450 BC. Post Minoan Crete was to be followed by 3500 years of foreign occupation and rule, beginning with the Mycenaeans (1450 – 1100 BC).
Then followed the Dorians (1100 – 400 BC), Hellens (400 – 50 BC), Romans (50 BC – 300 AD), Byzantine (300 – 800 AD), Arabs (800 – 1000 AD), Byzantine (1000 – 1200 AD), Venetians (1200 – 1669 AD) and the Ottomans (1669 – 1898). Unification with modern Greece finally came after the Ottomans in the late 19th early 20th century.
While there were periods of prosperity and near autonomy during some of the occupations, life for Cretans was more often harsh and oppressive, especially under the rule of the Venetians and the Ottomans. Most recently Hania and Crete suffered harshly again with the German invasion during WWII. Evidence of the bombings of that time can still be found in Hania (also pictured across the harbor!).
As varied and complex as it’s mountainous geography and geology, so is Crete’s history as a people.
The plan was to visit the Heraklion archeology museum, rent a car and move on to Hania (leaving Knossos until our return), which we did.
And yet we discovered the heart of Heraklion was interesting, historical, approachable and very much worth a casual day. Still, the museum is the highlight, without question. If you go to Crete, do not miss it. The beauty, quality and state of preservation of the Minoan artifacts rivals any museum in the world, … really!
Heraklion had another surprise for us. A hip dining scene oriented around locally grown, organic food and environmental sustainability. This turned out to be our favorite restaurant on the entire trip (https://www.facebook.com/peskesi)!
Moving onward from Santorini we took the late afternoon hydrofoil to Heraklion, Crete, but not before a last swim at our little spot in the caldera.
Renting a car we set about exploring the island for the day. The main destination was the ancient Minoan ruins of Akrotiri located on the southern end of the island. Santorini’s current geological shape came into being in 1628 BC when the entire center of the island blew up in a volcanic eruption, forming the caldera we see today. The city of Akrotiri was buried in ash, leaving itself in excellent condition, just like Pompeii, but ~1700 years older. Though a small town (the main square is pictured above), the site of Akrotiri was inhabited for many centuries before the eruption, serving as an important seafaring trading post. No evidence of bodies has been found and so the current theory is the people of Akrotiri got out while the getting was good.
The dating of the eruption has very recently been moved back about 100 years to 1628 and has understandably caused a fairly severe disruption in the accepted history of the Minoan civilization, especially on Crete. Previously it was thought the eruption was likely to coincide with the Minoan palace destructions on Crete that took place at the height of its civilization. No more. Other reasons must be found.
After our explorations we made our way back to Oia for a swim at what became our favorite little spot and took in the sunset.
We arrived to Santorini the day before by hydrofoil, caught the bus to the town of Oia, which is located on the northern tip of the main island, and secured a great room with a view of the caldera. The prior day was a long day of travel so this day was spent exploring Oia and taking casual hikes down to the sea for our first swim and seaside dining.
Santorini is one of those places that one just must visit.