Crete has been inhabited for about the last 10,000 years. The artistic Minoan civilisation that flourished here is credited as being Europe's first civilisation. It was replaced by the Mycenaeans then the Classical Greeks, who in turn were overtaken by the Romans... then the Byzantines, the Venetians, then the Ottomans... until the island was reclaimed by Greece in 1913. All these cultures have left their marks on the landscape and in it: the island is littered with precious ruins and remains, and the remnants of many lives.
A journey along this edge of Crete is ideal for sun loving history and archaeology enthusiasts – or those just looking to learn while they bronze.
Chania is a good place to start your journey, as well as being the largest city in western Crete it's also the most charming of Crete's cities, with its crumbling labyrinth of streets built and decorated by the Venetians, then re-dressed by the Ottomans. Here winding passages open onto busy markets and shady squares served by cafes and tavernas. The old town and the harbour are the cultural highlights. Visit the Archaeological and Naval Museums and the Cathedral, then rest up in the local Turkish Bath- which is the building with the six domes.
The drive along Crete's western coast has a reputation for beautiful scenery dotted with interesting historical sites. The hills of Crete are frequently topped by ancient strongholds now archaeological sites, and Polyrinia was one of the strongest, and is now one of the most beautiful, so worth a detour to. Most of the remains you'll see are from the Venetian and Roman incarnations of the city, the cisterns were once temples and carved stones from the city's largest temple have been recycled into a church, stones from the altar being used for the modern altar also. Kissamos is the nearest modern town.
Driving though small towns like Sfinari, Keramoti and Chrisoskalitssa, surrounded by olive groves, gives travellers a chance to see what life is like for the descendants of the people who built the hilltop towns and forts.
Heading anticlockwise along the coast, you'll quickly reach Elafonissi Beach, which scoops into a long, shallow lagoon with a reef that you can cross in low tide. On the other side of the lagoon there's a little flat island which has nice beaches and pink coral – apparently the sunset here is glorious; and good news for budget travellers: you can camp here. Non campers drive on to Paleochora.
Scenic Samariá Gorge is a 16km cleft in the earth running from an altitude of 1,250m on the Omalos Plateau towards the shores of the Libyan Sea. Most people explore the gorge on foot along the well worn walking trail: it’s a steep track downwards before a stroll between the high walls of the gorge base. Walkers shying away from the incline of this track could opt for another walk on the Omalos Plateau, both plateau and gorge are home to many specimens of Crete's unique plant and animal life. Both need a full day. Catching the boat back to Paleochora is nice, but it does require that you take the bus out to the gorge in the morning.
Fragokastello is not a big town, though it's pretty, and its visitors come to see one thing then tend to shoot off to the next thing, and the thing that they come to see is the Venetian fort, which was built here in 1371. Castle-like, this fort is in good condition, partly due to the fact that other forts, castles and monuments built in the area were pillaged for the stones to keep Fragokastello Fort in good repair. The design is pre gun-powder: a bastion with four square towers linked by sheer walls decorated with interesting carvings. The inside is less well preserved but you can still tell which rooms were the kitchens and stables etc.
The next stop, Matala, has two main sights, the palace of Phaistos and the villa of Ayiá Triada, though many people may recognise it as being the town with the caves where the hippies used to live in the 70s. The villa of Ayiá Triada is the smaller, quieter site these days so best seen first, leaving Phaistos for tomorrow, and time to enjoy the views of the surrounding mountains as the sun goes down.
Phaistos was once a great Minoan city, until it was destroyed by a Bronze Age earthquake, and despite several rebuilds it was eventually shaken beyond repair. The multiple rebuilds have made excavations here particularly rich, and it's one of the best maintained and presented of Crete's archaeological sites.
Heraklion is Crete's largest city, and though it's not as pretty as some of the other towns, it's close to the Palace of Minos at Knossos site, which is where the story of the Minotaur in the labyrinth comes from – and the maze-like ruins back up mythology - and has the Heraklion Museum, home of some of the great archaeological detritus of the Minoan civilisation. Drive inland across the island via the Minoan villa at Vathypetro and spend the afternoon in the Herkalion Museum.
The Palace of Knossos deserves a whole day: as well as the multi-storey maze of corridors, rooms, courtyards and indoor and outdoor staircases, the palace has colourful frescos depicting daily Minoan life in partly 'reconstructed' sections.
Agios Nikolaos has the sea on three sides, on the lake, the port and the beach and marina, and has more than its fair share of cafes and tavernas, from the scholarly kind to the loud dance music playing kind. Spinalonga Island, a picturesque old leper colony, makes a good day trip out on the water, especially if you return via the famous fishing village of Elounda, and Agios Nikolaos' beaches are some of the best on the island, especially Amoudara, Istron and just along the coast is the famous palm forest and beach of Vai.
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