We went to Crete for one week at the beginning of November to fill ourselves up with sunshine before the drab and dreary season starts in Germany, how could we know that the island would greet us with a cool wind blowing dark clouds across the sky and the tourists away from the beaches?
We chose the resort Hersónissos, 40 km east of Heraklion, the capital of Crete, because it’s nearly in the middle of the north coast and we thought it would be a good starting point for excursions. Hersónissos is the busiest resort on Crete with the most hotels and an active night-life, we had read about it in a guide book and heard about it from a taxi-driver, we didn’t notice it, though, as the tourist season ends at the beginning of November and the pavements were being folded up (as we say in German), some hotels and all entertainment sites were already closed. Sun Beach, for example, where - according to the taxi-driver - daily 5000 young tourists "have funs", maybe the plural seemed right for him considering the many attractions including several water slides and bungee jumping. The beaches are nothing to write home about (sadly, that’s true for the whole of Crete), they’re small and narrow and must be crammed full in July and August, I imagine people only sitting on their towels because there isn’t enough space to lie down. :-)
One day walking along the main street of Hersónissos we encountered a loud and merry group of people sitting at tables in front of a restaurant, we learnt that they were shopkeepers celebrating the end of the (successful) season. You hate mass tourism? They love it!
The resort has no tall buildings, I didn’t see a hotel with more than four floors – a Spaniard from, say, Torremolinos would only sneer derisively – in Heraklion we didn’t see a single skyscraper, Crete appears low key and modest to us. The private houses in the small towns and villages are exactly like the ones in other Mediterranean countries, i.e., simple, ugly concrete boxes with flat roofs, the Cretan variety is advanced in one respect, though, nearly all houses have a collector for solar energy on the roof, very laudable!
What did we do? We walked along the coast, had a look at the tiny harbour (the town itself isn’t pretty) and discussed the fact that every ten metres there’s a high price jewellery shop or a pharmacy, never have we seen more of both in one place!
Or we took the bus to Aghios Nikolaos, a famous resort in the east of Crete, the buses are frequent, clean, convenient, not expensive (return ticket = 5,80 € for a ride of 50 minutes), mostly on time. I like public transport when I’m abroad, where better can I watch the locals? The Cretans are small and stocky, they’re friendly towards foreigners (even at the end of the season!), don’t gesticulate, aren’t loud, traffic is civilised, honking is no national hobby; they remind me of the Portuguese without the latters’ melancholy.
Aghios Nikolaos is situated at a bay and has a small lake (now connected with the sea) where goddess Athene went for a swim – or did she? The lake and the seaside are lined with restaurants and cafés, a pleasant sight and atmosphere on a sunny afternoon (the wind subsided on the third day and the sun came out). Surprisingly, the houses here aren’t pretty, either, no elegant architecture as in Italian seaside resorts, for example.
From Aghios Nikolaos boat trips to the island Spina Longa are offered "every day", unfortunately "every day" ends on 31st October! I was disappointed, I had wanted to go there, I like being on a boat, and to see the Venetian fortress; the island was used as a leper colony from 1903 to 1957 (!), can you imagine. So we had to content ourselves with a walk along the marina and the harbour and a meal in a restaurant beside the (small) beach watched intently by some hungry cats (which weren’t so hungry any more when we left!). - This is the opportunity to point out that all the public loos I visited were clean as was the whole island.
Aghios Nikolaos has a small Archeological Museum, for me the most impressive exhibit is a pretty life size daisy made of gold, probably a brooch, estimated to be 4000 years old, influenced by designs from Ur, if you’re sensitive you can feel the breath of history here! An ornamented ostrich egg and several Egyptian idols from gravesites prove that Crete had close relations with Africa.
The highpoint, however, was our visit to Knossos, the Minoan palace built about 2000 BC, as committed Europeans we wanted to see where it all started. This is the place of the labyrinth, where Zeus and Europe lived, the Minotaur thrived on the blood of young people, Ariadne had the idea with the woollen thread and Daedalus and Icarus built their wings.
The frescoes and findings from Knossos are exhibited in Heraklion, a 10 minute bus ride away, tourists nearly always see both sites so that a reduced combi ticket is offered. I doesn’t matter in which order the tourists visit the palace and the museum, but only both together make the experience complete.
Not far from the museum is the Daedalou street (Odos Daedalou), a pedestrian precinct with souvenir shops, boutiques and jewellery shops (!), when we were at the Daedalus Gallery in the middle of the street we looked right and saw that we had hit on the meeting point of the Cretan jeunesse doree, there are five cafés, one beside the other, with tables and chairs on the pavement, occupied by twenty somethings drinking mostly nescafé frappe – I wanted to try it but decided not to carry research too far, I hate the taste of nescafé and don’t like coffee without milk and then the drink is cold! I opted for a cappuccino which is served with cinnamon sprinkled on the milk froth, it tastes good! It’s pricey, though, not only here, but also at the airport where it’s served in a cardboard cup. Eating and drinking out is expensive on Crete, I wonder how often the locals can afford to do it.
Although the young people were dressed and made up according to the latest international fashion, I noticed some young men playing with strings of beads, up to that moment I had thought that was only a toy for old Greek (and Turkish) men. This gave the scene quite a provincial touch, on the other hand this side street was the only place on Crete where I heard British and American pop music blaring out of the loudspeakers, in all other public places where one is attacked by music nowadays – shops, buses, taxis, restaurants, cafés – it was only ever Greek music.
Would we visit Crete again? Yes, why not? We haven’t been to the western part of the island which has some nice towns as well according to the guide book, maybe early spring would be a good time before the tourist season starts, we would never go there in peak season, that’s for sure. Crete is very barren, the mountains have no trees, no bushes, just patches of grass and herbs, if they’re in full bloom the landscape must be pretty.