Itinerary: Hersonissos – Koutouloufari – Lasithi plateau – Agios Nikolaos – Rethymno – Heraklion – Cnossos – Anogia – Panormo
Leaving for a short trip to the Greek island of Crete means getting up at 3 a.m., arriving at Amsterdam Airport at five. Given the crowds in the departure hall, this is not an unusual time for the departure of flights to holiday destinations. I don’t like holiday charters, but oh well…
At 1 p.m. local time (Greece is one hour ahead of the Netherlands) I put my bath towel on a sunbed by the pool at the apartment complex where we are staying, on the edge of Hersonissos. It’s 27 degrees and the sun is high in a clear blue sky. This is what we came for: a week of relaxation, nice weather, a bit of reading, exploring the island and tasty food.
Around us we hear a lot of Dutch, at the bar the television is on a Dutch channel and even the umbrellas by the pool are sponsored by Dutch tour operators. Crete is a real holiday island and dotted with these kind of small apartment complexes. Not really for us – we prefer to travel about and meet as few Dutch people as possible during our travels. But for a low budget week in Crete, it’s fine.
For dinner we walk up the mountainside to Koutouloufari, a small village with a variety of nice restaurants. Koutouloufari is also very popular with tourists, but it’s a lot more atmospheric than the center of Hersonissos.
Lasithi plateau and Agios Nikolaos
When we wake up the next morning it’s already 9:45 a.m. It’s warm and sunny outside, we slept so long because no light comes through the shutters. Around noon we get in our rental car and drive east. Shortly after Hersonissos a road turns straight into the mountains. The road goes up quickly and from here you have a nice view over the seaside resorts of Hersonissos and Malia below.
After a number of hairpin bends we arrive at the Lasithi plateau. This plateau is located at 900 meters above sea level, between the mountains. The plain is used as farmland and is full of olive trees, some fruit trees and small vineyards. We drive through small, quiet villages. A few houses, a chapel and some tavernas, that’s usually it. Between the many olive groves are very photogenic windmills, the six blades of which are covered with white cloth. Originally all these windmills were made of stone, but most have been replaced by metal ones. On the way we also come across one old stone specimen, which stands out nicely against the clear blue sky.
As we leave the plateau and drive through a series of hairpin bends through the mountains towards Agios Nikolaos, the sky gets cloudy. Menacing gray clouds gather. So no sun when we arrive in Agios Nikolaos and walk along the harbor. The village has a kind of small inland lake, with a series of terraces along the quay. At the harbor, where the boats that sail to the surrounding islands, are numerous cafes and restaurants. We explore the village, have a drink and then head back to Hersonissos.
The next day we drive to Rethymno, about 120 kilometers west of Hersonissos. Fortunately, we do not have to drive this distance via winding mountain roads. On the north side of Crete, a large main road (the ‘new national road’) runs from east to west, which means that we drive to Rethymno in over an hour and a half. I quickly adapt to the local driving style. The Cretans drive fast and pay little attention to traffic rules. You do not have to adhere to the lines on the road, you should preferably drive as far on the right as possible, on the hard shoulder, so that faster traffic can overtake you on the left. Of course three cars can fit next to each other on a two-lane road! Oh yes: and you just park at a ‘no parking’ sign. Seriously, here in Crete it doesn’t matter.
Because of the Greek driving style and the winding road, it’s not really a relaxed drive, but at noon we arrive in Rethymno in one piece. It takes a while to find a parking space and then we walk into the old town. Rethymno is nicely situated on a small harbour, which dates back to the time when the Venetians ruled here. However, the lighthouse in the harbor is Turkish – the later occupiers of Crete. The harbor quay is packed with terraces. Not so strange, because it is teeming with tourists here. On the edge of the old town, strategically located on a hill, sits an old fortress, from which you have a beautiful view over Rethymno, the harbor and the sea.
Rethymno is a nice town, but lacks the charm of, for example, Montepulciano (Tuscany) or Rovinj (Croatia). Late afternoon we are back in Hersonissos.
Day four of our stay on the island of Crete is a cloudy today. We take it easy and in the afternoon we stroll into Hersonissos. The busy main street is full of clothing shops, bag shops and souvenir shops. And fast food restaurants. The entertainment area is near the harbor. Here you will find nightclubs, party cafes and bars, the menus are in Dutch and you can get Dutch-style toasted sandwiches and Dutch croquettes. For some people all this may fit their idea of a ‘nice’ holiday, we hate it.
Heraklion and Cnossos
A week of sun, sure… Well no, the next day it’s cloudy again. After breakfast, we get in the car and drive to Heraklion, the capital of Crete. Just south of this city is Cnossos, where in the first half of the twentieth century a palace of King Minos was excavated. With the remains found and a little imagination of the archeologists, some (parts of the) buildings have been reconstructed, including columns painted dark red and copies of the frescoes that must have hung here. It all seems a bit fabricated, but Cnossos is nevertheless the number one tourist attraction of Crete. I say there are much more impressive excavations elsewhere in Greece.
Anogia and Panormo
The next day we are going to drive a route through the interior of Crete. For that we first have to take the main road to Heraklion. Just past the city we exit and continue on a small road in the direction of Anogia. The road winds along the mountain slopes between the endless olive groves. Now and then we pass through a small village, usually no more than a few houses and a small church. Anogia is also such a mountain village, but slightly larger. It has a small village square with cafes, where men are having coffee together. Old ladies, dressed entirely in black, sell embroidered tablecloths and sheets. Anogia is the opposite of the touristic Hersonissos: no tourists, quiet and authentic.
We continue on the road that winds further between the mountains, past hamlets such as Axos, Garazo and Perama. At the end of the route – back to the coast – is Panormo, a small coastal town with a number of tavernas around a small harbor and an equally small beach.
The last day of our short getaway the weather is beautiful and we spend the day doing nothing at all. We lay down by the pool, read a little, relax a little. The next morning we go back to the Netherlands. The weather was a bit disappointing, but we did what we came for: explore the island and relax. Apart from the party scene, Crete is a great destination to do that.