Updated: Mar 30, 2019
Overview: where and when? One week in Crete is not a lot. In fact, it's nothing. The largest of the Greek islands, it demands your attention and time. An island of considerable beauty, it offers a huge amount for pretty much everyone – whether it be package holiday-maker, casual tourist, budget backpacker, adventure-seeker or luxury traveller. It's a stunning land of towering mountains and extensive coastlines; fascinating historical towns; hidden villages and hamlets; historical ruins and castles; gorges and valleys, pastures and meadows. It is, as many Cretans say, Greece in miniature. Therefore, your first choice as a budget traveller is to decide which side of the island to go to: east or west. It's an island over 200km in length, but rarely more than 50km in breadth (as the crow flies), north to south. So, it makes sense to concentrate on one side, as trying to discover everything in one week would be madness. Even two weeks would be pushing it. We went to Crete over Easter, 2018, at the end of March and beginning of April. In many ways, the perfect time to go.
Flying in to Chania from Krakow, Poland (€60 return tickets, Ryanair), it made sense to focus on the west side of the island, venturing as far east as Anogia in the north and Preveli in the south. In fact, that's not even half the island. We skipped Heraklion and its surrounds, knowing that the capital would eat up a minimum of two days, and reasoning that the stress and hassle of the big city was what we wanted to avoid, so concentrated on the quieter, less developed, less crowded and more mountainous west side, which also contains some of the island's finest beaches and most stunning mountain scenery. We chose Easter for several reasons; first, to avoid the scorching heat and crowds of the high season; second, to take advantage of a quiet time in the shoulder season when prices were low; and third, to have a getaway from what had been a dreadful late winter in Poland that dragged on until late March. For the record, temperatures for the week ranged from 19-25 Celsius, and we had almost unbroken sunshine and no rain – ideal weather for hiking and sightseeing, and good enough for a bit of sunbathing. The sea at this time is a bit too chilly for most people, but I had a couple of dips – of which, more later. We stayed in two separate places during our week – both booked via Airbnb and costing about €40 a night. The prices, of course, reflected the time we went and would no doubt be much higher in high season. The first, in a village called Atsipopolo, just outside Rethymno, was a beautiful apartment in a small complex including breakfast. The second, a rustic stone cottage in a tiny village called Marediana, high in the hills above Kisamos – atmospheric and cosy – a real find. Both were comfortably in the budget bracket. What follows is a seven day itinerary of what we did in one adventure-filled week in Crete – some of the western part of the island's undoubted highlights. The West, as they say, is best. The East, I believe (in this case), is least.
Day 1: Rethymno Arriving in Chania at 9am, we had the whole day ahead of us, although the early flight had precluded any sleep (for me) so I arrived pretty tired. We had decided to hire a car for the week, and had driven from the airport. Car hire is roughly €25-30 per day. We used Justrentals, which was totally fine – no problems with the car and no arguments when we took it back. Petrol costs were a little higher than in Poland: about €1.80-1.90 per litre. Crete without a car would be difficult; the bus system is reasonably good and cheap - but only takes you from one major town to another, mostly along the coast. To get to the more remote areas, you'd need to either hitch or take a taxi - either very time-consuming or expensive. If you can drive, and want to see the island properly, it's a no-brainer to hire a car. It takes about ninety minutes to drive from Chania to Rethymno. We encountered almost no traffic – the roads were almost completely empty. Getting through Chania town was a bit complicated, but Google Maps sufficed. It would, however, let us down several times on the trip (and internet connection is never guaranteed) so a good tip is to take a paper map with you from home – preferably one with roads and paths marked on. The Comfortmap (1:150,000), which I purchased in Krakow, was an ideal multi-purpose map. Good for driving and medium-level hikes. Regarding internet connection, 3G is available over most of the island, even the remote villages, and since 2017 roaming charges in the EU are no more, so using GPS is never a problem. The drive itself was quite stunning – glistening bays of blue to our left and snow-capped mountains to out right – Lefka Ori (the White Mountains), which peak at 2452m. The snow at this time of year is rapidly melting and hiking in them is an option, but warm clothes are essential. We didn't plan to do this. When we arrived at our place, we discovered that Atsipopolo is a village in its own right rather than just a suburb of Rethymno, with a handful of bars, eateries and shops, so it made a perfect budget choice to stay, out of the centre but conveniently on a bus route to Rethymno, about fifteen minutes away.
Rethymno is an extremely pleasant town – a small coastal port with a historical centre, winding lanes, churches, mosques, charming bars and plenty of good-quality restaurants, the town only takes half a day of exploration. Probably the most famous sight is Fortezza - the fortress, which dominates the northern side of the seafront and stands guard over the town, but it's really only a shell and there isn't much to see inside other than a handsome but incongruous mosque with a fabulous dome. Still, it's one of the largest Venetian constructions left standing, and it's worth a visit for the views over the town and bay alone.
The next stop for most is the lighthouse and harbour area – from which you can get good views of the old town, and where a snack or drink may be had at one of the many dockside tavernas. Possibly not the best-quality food in town, nor the best prices (it's a trifle touristy) there are nevertheless great views. Other than that, Rethymno is really just a pleasant stroll and a place to soak up the, well, rhythm, of Cretan life, and it's a far less crowded place to do so than Chania. We ate at a lovely taverna a short walk from the centre – Mesostrati (Yerakiri 1) which felt like a village taverna in the city. No English menu caused no problems as the very friendly waitress translated the (short) list of options. I tried loukanika (grilled sausage) as a starter and lamb chops and chips for a main. Both cooked to perfection and served with a smile. A litre of red house wine accompanied, and it all came to less than €30 for two – very reasonable, and highly recommended. The atmosphere of the small place was an excellent introduction to Crete, as it was populated only by locals. The drawback to this however is that in Cretan culture (and Greek in general), it's considered okay to smoke in restaurants, even when others are eating. If you don't like this, there's not much use in complaining. Greeks are a stubborn lot. You'll just have to find a more toursit-centric place to eat. Sorry. Oh, and if you go to this restaurant on the right night, you might be lucky enough to sample some local live music - a rare cultural treat. Sadly, we missed this.
Day 2: East of Rethymno
Our second day, we decided to make full use of our hire car and do a drive along the coast to the east of Rethymno and then up into the beautiful mountains that tower above. This trip took about eight hours, and involved quite a bit of navigation (Google maps not always being 100% reliable on some of the country roads), so our paper map came in useful. Our first stop was Panormos, about half an hour along the E75 highway from Rethymno. It's just a small fishing village, very sleepy but with a couple of decent tavernas and one or two quiet places to stay – Captain's House, right by the harbour, has the best location in town, and has its own restaurant. Perhaps because the beaches here don't amount to much, there aren't too many people around at this time of year. There doesn't seem to be huge amount going on either, but that's half the attraction, and it's a lovely place to stop for a coffee by the harbour.
Our next stop was Bali, 9km further east, which like it's Indonesian namesake, boasts some fine beaches. The comparisons probably end there though, certainly in late March, because if you go, you'll have the place completely to yourself as we did. It's a resort set around a series of pretty coves, and is strung out a little bit – the village 'centre' being about 2km from the end of its last beach. Livadi (Paradise Beach) is the first one, and has an extensive stretch of gritty sand with a row of bars and tavernas behind. Varkotopos and Limanakia beaches, further along, lead to a rocky outcrop, beyond which there is barely any development at all. The place gets quite crowded in season, so that would be a good place to escape the crowds. All of the beaches have safe swimming, and there are plenty of tavernas and bars strung out along the coast. If you fancy a leg-stretch, a great place for a view out over Bali is at Moni Ayios Ionnis (free) a tiny, part-ruined, part-restored 17th century monastery which contains some interesting frescoes. The place is utterly secluded and beautiful.
20km further east, we turned south off the main coastal road and up into the mountains to Anogia. The views from the top of the climb are stunning and it's worth getting out to take pictures. We passed through Axos on the way – a lovely Cretan village, with old women chatting on the streets, men playing cards and children playing with the sweet smell of orange trees in the air – this area is replete with them. Nearby Sfentoni Cave, its interior spectacular with stalactites and stalagmites, is another local attraction. You have to be on your mettle to navigate the small country roads in this region, and getting anywhere takes longer than you think, due to extremely windy, steep and narrow roads. Anogia, on the edge of the Psiloritis National Park (Psilitoris is Crete's highest peak at 2456m and was still snow-capped) is a pretty mountain resort and would make a great base for walking trips on Crete. The island is actually a walker's paradise, and for most reasonably fit walkers, the terrain would present no serious challenges. At this time of year especially, when the blazing heat of the sun is absent, a walking trip would be a very good idea, and the paths are pretty well-marked. The presence of snow, however, could be problematic.
Although Psiltoris and its surrounding range looked highly inviting, we hadn't time to attempt the climb, and hadn't planned for it, so made do with taking a look around Anogia and having a spot of lunch. We found a splendid spot called Aetos in the upper part of the village, which had a wood-fired grill and lovely terrace looking out to the mountains. Souvalki, roasted lamb and goat were all on the menu. Anogia's winding streets and sleepy character belie a tragic history; during WW2, Nazis destroyed the village and killed the majority of its menfolk as reprisal for the kidnapping of one of its generals. The village looks in reasonable shape with pretty traditional houses, but many aren't more than sixty or seventy years old. The village is also famous for its woven and embroidered handicrafts – though none were to be seen at this time of year.
We had reached late afternoon and still had a couple of major sights to see – both of which were another hour away, heading west along the very slow country roads. The views were lovely though and the drive didn't seem a chore. First we got to Margarites, a very pretty village about 25km south-east of Rethymno, famous for its ceramics. Perched on the edge of a ravine, and commanding fantastic views of the coast below, Margarites is one of the best places we went to to sample village life on Crete, and we were also lucky enough to wander its quiet streets when only locals were there for company. Some of its houses are decorated with cups, plates, dishes and other crockery, making it a colourful and characterful place - well worth a visit. The nearby Monastery of Sotiros Christos, free to visit, is surrounded by delightful gardens and is filled with a cornucopia of flowers and plants, even featuring the odd peacock.
Our final stop for the day, which we reached around 5.30pm just as the sun was beginning to set, was Arkadi Monastery. Perhaps the highlight of a very good day, Arkadi. It should cost €2.50 to get in, but there didn't seem to be anyone around to collect our money – in fact the whole place was pretty much deserted – which made the experience of being there all the more magical. Arkadi is effectively a national shrine to Crete's 19th century struggle for independence from its Turkish oppressors.
But it's the monastery's striking architecture, setting and silence which is memorable, and once you've had a look around the fairly small grounds and buildings and inside its cloister, the best thing to do is take some atmospheric shots (sunset is a good time), sit down and take in the atmosphere; it really is lovely – and if you're lucky enough to be free of crowds – quite special. Our drive back Rethymno took about 45 minutes, and we just about got back in daylight – and a pleasant evening meal at To Pigadi, an excellent taverna in the atmospheric alleys of the old town, where a leg of lamb and carafe of house wine ended the day on the right note.
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This is the first part of a three-part guide to western Crete. To see the other parts, go here: