Two weeks in Crete, planning a trip - the north coast
 

Two weeks in Crete, planning a trip – the north coast

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You can see the South Coast guide¬†covered in this post ūüôā

So I booked two weeks in Crete, well, better say, I have bought my flight tickets in and out. Anything else is still on the paper. Planning a trip in Crete is not as as easy as I thought. This is a big island, much bigger than I have foreseen.

Crete is an island over 350km long and almost 100km large. It is not just the distance, but the type of roads as well. Forget about the highways. If you are planning to move around you have two options, renting a car or use the public transportation.

I was totally impressed by the bus network running through the island. The north coast has a frequent service, almost hourly and it is so easy and convenient to just grab a bus to the next destination. If you want to explore around, well, think about renting either a scooter or a car. Much easier and quicker that way.

The beauty of Crete, as in most of the Greek islands, is in the small villages and the little beaches that you find nested between mountains and gorges, with a family run restaurant cooking fresh food for you under the olive trees. It is a killer experience. Something I miss a lot when in Melbourne, this feeling of family run business with fresh food from the nearby garden.

Two weeks in Crete РHow to plan the trip

If you plan to see most of the island, be ready to change accommodation quite frequently. It is too hard to be based in just one or two places and explore from there. You will most likely spend more time travelling than actually visiting a place.

I started the plan identifying the main sites I was interested to see:

  • Knossos, I could not miss this outstanding archaeological site
  • Heraklion, to fly in/out and a good base for Knossos
  • Hania, the old town architecture is a mix of Venetian and Ottoman style, with small lanes that intersects each other creating a small labyrinth. As empty during the day as full during the night when local shops open next to the local restaurants
  • Rethimno, a small old town with a castle. Get lost again smelling the herbs used in the little restaurants
  • Spinalonga, a man made island with history back to the Venetian empire, used last century as a leper colony
  • Elafonisi, rated as one of the best beaches in the world
  • Samaria Gorge, a spectacular tracking in a canyon south of the island, with limited access to any kind of transportation, just you and your feet
  • Preveli, also know as palm beach, nested in a valley where you¬†can also visit a natural tropical¬†garden, you will be surprised
  • The villages of the south coast, accessible only via ferries or water taxi. Remote communities based on fishing, during the winter, and tourism, during the summer

Anything else…..yes, with two weeks in Crete, I planned also an excursion to Gavdos Island, the southern island in Europe, populated mostly by an¬†hippie community.

Could I plan a trip of two weeks in Crete and see all of the above?

It is a good question mark. I am always scared to put too much on the grill, however on the other side I would love to experience the most of the place I am visiting.

Two weeks in Crete – the north and the south coast

I decided to split the trip in two parts:

  • the north coast, accessible by bus, quick and easy service. I would cover
    • Heraklion/Knossos
    • Spinalonga
    • Rethimno
    • Hania
  • The south coast, accessible by ferry
    • the villages accessible only by boat
    • Samaria Gorge
    • Preveli, or palm beach
    • Elafonisi¬†beach
    • Gavdos Island

I did not decided to allocate a fix number of days to one of the other part. I am not really a person that likes to have everything planned from day 1. I love to give a bit of uncertainty. I sometime prefer to skip one of my candidate destinations if I feel I want to spend more time on another place.

Two weeks in Crete, planning a trip - the north coast

Two weeks in Crete, planning a trip – the north coast

I booked only a part of the accommodation and left the other part to be booked when travelling or when arriving in town, just asking around. Greece is still a country where you can look for a room once arrived at the bus station, plenty of options. I would suggest to book if you are there between mid/end of July and mid August. That is the peak time for vacation in Europe and Greece becomes really packed.

Exploring the North coast

You will either land in Hania or Heraklion. I decided to start in Heraklion. I wanted to see straight away Knossos, the cultural side of the trip, together with the Paliani monastery, dated back to the Byzantine period.

Start the two weeks in Crete from Heraklion

The city of Heraklion is not that spectacular, especially compared to the other major centers in the island, as Hania or Rethimno. The main reason is that it is quite modern. This is the only place in Crete where I felt like walking in a usual city and not an open door museum as you may feel anywhere else in the island. With two weeks in Crete this is not obviously an issue, plenty of options in the next few days.

The port area is probably the most beautiful part of Heraklion, with the old wall still there, between the modern buildings. From the top of the hill, just behind the Bus Station, you can unchain yourself with your sunset photography skills. It has to be said one thing. Do not expect to have clouds in the sky between June and August, which is a real pity. To have the best sky come to the Greek islands in September/October.

The cultural day – Knossos and the Paliani monastery

Once in Greece I usually prefer to rent a scooter to move around. The main reason is that I can stop wherever I want. If there is any local market, perfect, I stop and buy my lunch there. If I see a village high in the hills, I ride there to experience¬†an off-the-track community and maybe I stop for coffees in the square. It actually happened few times that eventually I did not arrive to my planned destination. But that’s ok, it’s about the trip to the destination than the destination itself, isn’t it?

In Heraklion I decided to rent a scooter and start my two weeks in Crete with a visit to Knossos. I have been many times in Greece and one suggestion I can give is: visit the archaeological sites as early in the morning as you can, possibly at the opening time.

I reached Knossos quite early in the morning but, well, it was already extremely hot, at least for me. Being an archaeological site means that you will have real difficulties to find a place in the shade. Not too many trees around. Take with you lots of water because dehydration may be a problem.

Even under the strong sun you will really appreciate this unique site. How old is Knossos?

Well, just imagine that Knossos is considered to be the oldest city in Europe, with settlements dated to 7000BC and the first buildings dated back to 1900BC. That will give an idea.

Are you interested to more history of the site. Have a look to the Wikipedia website, a real good source for that.

How long will you stay in Knossos?

It is very subjective. I have spent roughly 2-3 hours. You can rent¬†an audio guide that will take you through an informative path and that’s the way I like to explore historical sites. In saying that you can spend much less….or much more. I reckon that 1.5-2 hours is probably an average time.

After Knossos I needed a break in a local restaurant with a fresh salad, fish and a very cold refreshment.

Next destination was the Paliani monastery, around 20km west of Knossos (you almost need to come back to Heraklion to go the Paliani Monastery valley, see map below).

It was founded on the¬†roots of a great myrtle tree (still there, you will see it on the back of the main church) in the 668AD and it is considered to be one of the oldest monastery in Crete. The monastery was burned down and rebuilt few times according to the oral tradition, but¬†it never died. I had a short chat with a local which told me how the monastery is actually lived only by nuns and unfortunately the average age is getting older and older as the new generation does not commit to a life¬†under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I understand the new generation more than the old probably however it’s a pity to to see traditions disappearing with the time.

What can you do at the Paliani Monastery?

The best thing is just wondering around trying to be the most discrete you can be. The church inside is beautiful with a collection of ancient icons that are just spectacular. The all monastery is built around this church and on the back you will find the myrtle tree over 1000 years old.

The people from the local community come here to help the old nuns in the daily life. Meanwhile the younger nuns still work in the backyard at the own vegetable gardens.

Once you leave the main gate, take the path on your left and walk up the hill for a 360 degrees view of the area and monastery.

Spinalonga and the east side of Crete

Unfortunately two weeks in Crete is not a long time. Visiting the east coast is a trip by itself. It takes a long time to travel there and even more time to move from town to town.

Spinalonga and Ag.Nikolaus were two places in my list of sites I want to see in this first trip to Crete, with the idea to come back one of the future summers to explore more this area.

Two weeks in Crete, planning a trip - the north coast

Two weeks in Crete, planning a trip – the north coast

Ag.Nikolaus is a small harbour village built on a hill. The bus station is right on the top and once you are there, it’s an easy walk down to the centre where you find plenty of accommodations. There is also an inlet that creates a small lake where the main square is. Perfect location for a dinner.

It’s a lovely town, which is probably coming out from the financial crisis. You can see there was time with more rich people walking around, you see that from the shops in the two main streets, where you can find jewelries and fur coat shops, quite unusual considering the mild temperature of this island.

Here you can rent a scooter or a car in one of the few shops facing the sea. They tend to be opened when they have customers around, otherwise they may be at the cafe, therefore stay there for few minutes waiting in case it is closed, and someone will soon show up.

To go to the Spinalonga island you can either drive the scooter/car to the mainland little pier and take a boat or there are plenty of tour packages you can buy in Ag. Nikolaus.

As usual I decided to rent a scooter. Along the trip I stopped in few town and villages to have a look and buy some just baked bread, so delicious!! This is an area where the top Greek politicians have built the own summer residences so expect a luxurious side of the country connected by top quality roads. Drive till Plaka, a tiny village facing the island (see map below). From there it’s a 30 minutes trip by boat

What to expect from the island?

It is currently inhabited, therefore do no expect shops or accommodations there. The history is quite unique. Originally it was not actually an island, it was well connected to mainland. The Venetians however decided to separate it from Crete with an incredible amount of work as you can imagine. As a island it would have been a perfect vantage point for defense purpose and a castle was also built

It went through a turmoil sequence of occupations and it was lastly used as a leper colony. You will see how the village was built around the main hospital center. There is an interesting walk through with information written in several languages

Rethimno & Hania

Why both cities should be in your bucket list?

Because they are a unique example of architectural mix of Venetian and Ottoman style. In both cases we are talking about the old center. Walk through the small lanes in the early morning for a unique experience, you will be almost alone. Walk later in the evening to enjoy a long night shopping, eating and drinking

Food is another experience not to be missed here. I love the traditional Greek cuisine however here they have added a twist, they have modernized it with new ingredients some of the typical Greek receipts. What is the result? Just amazing! Spend every single night in a different restaurant and try whatever they suggest you. You will not be disappointed.

Two weeks in Crete – What about the South Coast

Oh yes, this is another part of the island you should not miss. Access is mostly via the sea and the small piers, very fascinating.

Read more of the guide to the South Coast of Crete¬†ūüėÄ

Travel & Photography Tips

  • Do not plan too many things, the island is really big
  • If in Heraklion, have a walk on top of the hill behind the bus station, a great place to make few photos of the sunset on the city
  • When visiting Spinalonga take an ND graduated filter. You will need it. The sun is pretty strong and, due to the access limited only during the day, you will not be able to have the perfect light of a sunset/sunrise
  • Try to visit both Rethimno and Hania very early in the morning, at sunrise if possible. Otherwise the small lanes will be way too crowded to even install a tripod
  • plan your buses on the KTEL website
  • when leaving the Paliani Monastery, take the walking path up hill on your left side. You can enjoy a 360 degree¬†view, including the monastery itself
  • if renting a car or a scooter, pay double attention to the local traffic!!


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Stefano Ferro
Stefano is a cycling, movie and life style photographer with a big love for landscape & travel photography. When in Melbourne, his hometown, you will see him cycling around at sunset or sunrise looking for the best spot for a photo of this beautiful city. It is quite amazing how much photography gear he can pack on his bike :o

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