A semi-ranty retrospective about my time on the Greek island of Crete.
We went from Thailand to Crete to sit out the worst of the pandemic in an EU country with a tolerable climate.
We chose Crete because Maryke had been wanting to go there for quite some time and because it is quite far south and therefore we hoped that the winters wouldn't be too cold.
And we chose an EU country because, as British citizens, we were still eligible to apply for residency before the transition period of fucking Brexit expired at the end of 2021. (In the end, our applications were approved with three days to spare.)
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Crete. The food is lovely, there's spectacular natural scenery with excellent hiking trails, and the climate is pleasant, even though winter was colder than we had hoped for. The landscape and geography reminded us of the best bits of South Africa's Little Karoo and Cederberg areas, but with a brilliant blue sea thrown in as a backdrop.
There be Vogons
However, there were a few aspects to the island that puzzled me somewhat intially. I couldn't quite get my head around it until, one day, I realised that some things about Crete make a whole lot more sense if you regard it as a Third World country. (I haven't been to the rest of Greece, so I'll restrict my comments to Crete.)
A few examples: Petty bureaucrats on a power trip (they make Vogons look helpful and benign); rampant littering; leaking water mains that aren't fixed for days on end; and a driving culture of "road safety is for sissies".
Also, like many Third World countries, Crete had been colonised - several times. Most recently, it was by the Turks, who left in 1898. And the island's main sources of income are agriculture and tourism.
I like living in Third World countries, so after the penny had dropped, I relaxed, and these things didn't bother me so much anymore. Once you assume that drivers might overtake on a blind bend in the road on a moutain pass, you can adjust your own expectations and behaviour accordingly.
My Favourite Five Places in Crete
In no particular order.
This town on the south coast of Crete can best be described as a party town for older people. No night clubs, just vast range of tavernas that offer good food and lots of booze and stay open until early in the morning. I sensed somewhat of a frontier mentality - maybe because it's so remote and isolated.
It was a hippie destination in the 1970s - some of them lived in the caves that riddle the cliff-face overlooking the bay. Lately there's been an annual music and arts festival to celebrate this history, but it had been canceled due to Covid when we were in Crete.
Our favourite hang-out was Hakuna, a Swahili-themed taverna with excellent food, a good coctail menu, and a spectacular view of the bay.
This port town (population: about 13,000) is named after my namesake, the patron saint of sailors and of all of Greece.
Surrounded by hills and spread over quite a few more hills, it is Crete's very picturesque, pocket-sized answer to San Francisco. We lived here for three months.
For some reason, the people here just seemed a tad more friendly and laid-back than in the rest of Crete, and that's why I liked it so much.
Café Françoise, Almyrida
We lived in Almyrida, a seaside village near the city of Chaniá, for just over a year. Permanent population: 59. But in summer it is overrun by thousands of tourists from elsewhere in Crete and Greece as well as the rest of the world.
So, in winter it's a bit of a ghost town, and it was even more so during Greece's Covid lockdown of November 2020 to May 2021. The only establishment that stays open year-round (when it's not lockdown) is Café Françoise, run by Mira and George, and it became my local bar.
They serve a Full English than can hold its own against any breakfast cooked in Blighty. And they stock Charma, a draught beer produced nearby that is much better than Greece's mass-produced staples of Alpha, Mythos, and Fix.
It is also the best place in town for the Greek pastime of perantzada, which translates to something like "people-watching" or "watching life go by", ideally over a pint of Charma.
The Road to Chora Sfakion
Sfakia is an area on Crete's south coast whose inhabitants were famed for having resisted domination by various of Crete's foreign rulers, from the Phoenicians to the Venetians to the Turks. This reminds me somewhat of that little Gaulish village still holding out against the Roman invaders around 54 BC.
Chora Sfakion, the main town of the area, is cute and pretty, but it is the drive there that is something quite special. After having crossed the central mountain range of this part of the island, you drop down through precipitous cliffs on a switchbacky road that provides you with stunning views over the Libian sea and up and down the rugged south coast.
Zakros Gorge and Kato Zakros
Kato Zakros, on the east coat of Crete, is rather a settlement than a village or even a hamlet. Two or three tavernas overlooking a long beach and a few places that provide accommodation, and that's it.
You could drive there, but it's much more fun (and you appreciate the cold beer afterwards much more) to hike there via Zakros Gorge, sometimes called the Gorge of the Dead. It got its eerie name because the Minoans (ca. 3,500 BC to ca. 1,100 BC) stashed their dead in the caves in the gorge's cliff faces. This hike is also the last bit of the European E4 hiking route, which starts 12,000 km away in Portugal.
PS How big does an island have to be before your change the preposition from "on" to "in"? Clearly, one is "on" Alcatraz or Robben Island or the Isle of Wight, but when it comes to a place the size of Crete, most people seem to say "in" Crete.