(The Globe and Mail ) The porous Cretan rock looks like yellow sponge pulled from the Mediterranean, but the defensive sea wall built from it has been standing for 400 years. At the wall’s furthermost point stands a tiny lighthouse, a twinkling point of light at night and a good spot, by day, to look back across the lagoon at the curving Chania seafront. The stuccoed low-rise buildings in brick red or soft yellows and blues are mostly hotels and restaurants. But there’s also a small pink mosque left from the long Turkish occupation that ended in 1913, and a row of stone Renaissance shipyards with peaked roofs built, like the lighthouse, by the Venetians who held Crete for nearly 500 years.
This part of Chania at the beginning or end of the day is a magical spot, lit by the warm low rays of the Mediterranean sun. The town faces north, the natural way of approach for armed invaders through the ages, from the 12th-century Genoans to the Nazis, who dropped 10,000 parachute troops here in 1941 to snatch the island from Allied forces.
Modern invaders – visitors like me – tend to come by air or ferry from the Greek mainland, then fan out through the mountainous interior or travel along the coastal highway that links Chania with the island’s two other main cities, Rethymno and Heraklion.
The climate is near-tropical – the Libyan coast is only 340 kilometres away – and was quite balmy during my visit in early December. Crete is about half again as large as Prince Edward Island, and within its compact landmass offers rugged mountain ranges, gorges for climbing or touring by car and beaches that dot the coastline.
You could easily spend a month or more exploring the island. I had one week, so I focused on the three northern coastal cities and the areas around them. The three are all quite different, though the whole route between them is only two hours’ journey by car – short enough to allow for leisured explorations of the island’s varied terrain, archeological riches and tasty cuisine.
Many centuries of colonialism and immigration have nurtured a multicultural fusion in Crete that at one point, after a large influx from Constantinople after the Muslim conquest of 1453, made the island “the cultural centre of the whole Greek world,” as Jan Morris writes in her book The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage. Domenikos Theotokopoulos, the painter who became famous as El Greco, grew up in Crete at that time, before decamping to study his art in Venice. The oldest and most mysterious ingredient in Crete’s cultural gumbo is the sophisticated Minoan civilization that left astonishing artifacts and suggestive ruins, such as those at Knossos, near Heraklion.
The cities all feature a mixture of colonial architectures, filled in with more recent vernacular Greek construction. The old walled areas of Chania and Rethymno vie with each other for atmosphere and charm. They’re towns for wandering in, where bougainvillea blooms hang in great swags from crumbling walls, where small unexpected squares appear at the end of arched passageways, and where cars in the narrow streets are rare – and completely banned in old Rethymno.
Chania’s old town has a feeling of cozy dilapidation, though one of its Venetian shipyards has been repurposed as a handsome new Center of Mediterranean Architecture, including a trendy bar and event space. The others are abandoned and derelict, not yet part of the usable past. Many places in the old town repeat the striking contrast: a tidy guest house with clean stucco may stand right next door to a roofless ruin filled with weeds.
The shopping streets are worth getting lost in, especially the “leather lane” along the street known by the noticeably non-Greek name, Skrydlof. A few blocks away stands the Etz Hayyim Synagogue, now a ghostly memorial for the small Jewish community that was wiped out during the Holocaust. The building was restored in the 1990s and still maintains a small library and mikveh (ritual bath), though there’s seldom a minyan (quorum) sufficient for formal prayers. Near a silent courtyard stands a plaque bearing the names of the victims, by family.
Many people make short jaunts from Chania to the nearby beaches, or head south to make the celebrated 16-kilometre hike through the spectacular Samaria Gorge. An easier and shorter way to sample the island’s gorges is to drive through the Theriso Gorge, where fabulous clumpy rock faces crowd toward the steep winding road. The lookout above Theriso faces a broad basin with terraced cultivated areas on the upper reaches and grey-green hillsides below. The calm insistent sounds of wandering goats and their bells float through the still air.
The narrow lanes of Rethymno’s sand-coloured old town border on the massive Venetian fortress that dominates the city’s northern shore. Like all of the island’s strongest fortifications, this one was built when the Venetians felt most vulnerable to Turkish invasion. It was overrun by the Ottomans only a few decades after its completion and eventually filled up with dwellings. Restoration work in the 20th century clarified and repurposed some of the old interior structures, including a two-storey artillery magazine that is now an art gallery.
In the old city itself, a late 16th-century loggia and partially ruined fountain stand where the Venetians nostalgically laid out a square meant to evoke in miniature the layout of the Piazza San Marco. The building was converted into a mosque after the Turks took over, was brought back to its Venetian form in 1999 and is now a shop for museum replicas – an amusing case of an original structure being restored in order to sell acknowledged fakes. A few streets away, the Neratze mosque, which flaunts an elaborate Venetian doorway, has been remade into a concert space, one of the few in the world with a minaret.
While I was gawking at another Venetian doorway – the oldest in the city, it turned out – an elderly woman poked her head out and insisted I come in. The room inside had three large tables in it, probably three metres square, around one of which the woman’s husband, George Paraskevas, was stretching a huge thin sheet of filo pastry. He has been making filo this way, his son Hatziparaschos told me, since 1946. “You can read a magazine through it,” he said, crumpling a 15-centimetre square in his hand and letting it drop on a table, where it smoothly regained its shape. “If that was commercial filo, it would be in a thousand pieces now.”
That evening, my partner and I ate at a restaurant called Raki Ba Raki, a superb “small plates” spot that made many creative variations on the traditional Cretan fare you find in many island restaurants. At the end of the meal, we had some apple strudel made with the lightest, softest filo I have ever eaten – which turned out to be from the tiny factory I had stumbled into earlier that day.
The Tessaron Martiron, a big Romanesque church at the edge of the bustling modern part of Rethymno, offers a great example of how some traditions here renew themselves. The painted Byzantine icons that cover the interior look remarkably fresh, with good reason: they were mostly redone in the mid-1980s in the traditional style. In a smaller church near my hotel, a woman sat on a scaffold refreshing the icons in similar fashion, while a man outside scooted by on his bike, crossing himself three times without slowing down.
Heraklion is the biggest and busiest of the three coastal cities, and the least easy to treat as a portal into the past. As in many Mediterranean towns, there’s a lot of living done in the street. The chairs in front of the cafés face out for people-watching, and during my visit, an anarchist sit-in at the neoclassical town hall turned that part of the street into an informal seminar space for changing the world.
Joggers flock to the fragmentary Venetian sea wall, which is wide enough for an asphalt road leading to the imposing fortress, now closed for renovations. The Italians’ ingenuity still makes itself evident daily, in the 7,000 litres of water that reach the municipal gardens from an underground Venetian cistern, and the smaller torrents that spout from the four lions’ mouths of the Morosini Fountain via a Venetian aqueduct whose source is 19 km away.
Five km south of the city is Knossos, the celebrated Minoan site, which changing archeological standards have made seem like a ruin of a ruin. Sir Arthur Evans, the gentlemen archeologist who excavated the site in the early 1900s, spoiled its integrity with didactic amateurish recreations of what he thought the place might have looked like in its prime. The excellent archeological museum in Heraklion gives a better and more vivid account of the Minoans, through mind-blowing items such as the decorative thin-walled Kamares pottery that was being produced here 4,000 years ago.
Cretan cuisine has been celebrated as among the world’s healthiest, in part because of the leading role reserved for local vegetables, herbs and olive oil, extracted from olives that have been cultivated here since Minoan times. Everyone here cooks with what’s fresh, including the many varieties of stewed local greens, found on menus all over the island. If there’s no fresh catch in Chania, forget about ordering fish at most seafront restaurants – frozen is just not done. One special treat, which I found at a stall in the arcades of Jesus Gate in Heraklion, is the small plump banana grown on the island, whose taste and texture are subtly different from the big Cavendish bananas found in Canadian groceries.
Crete also has infinite varieties of raki, the grape-based firewater made all over the island and offered gratis whenever you order a meal or book into a hotel. Consider it a symbol of the friendliness of these island people, who have had such long experience in receiving visitors, welcome and not.