ABOUT HANIA & WEST CRETE

  

Crete is shrouded in myth, blessed with natural beauty and brimming with historical sights, Crete is simply captivating. With such a wealth of variety, Crete really does have something for everyone.  The minute you set foot on this fascinating island, you feel you want to see so much more. Western Crete is in many ways the most exciting part of the island. For the beach lover, there is a huge choice of picturesque sandy beaches, some offering a wide range of water sports, whilst others are so remote you can simply be on your own for the whole day. Tourism began in a small way over three decades ago and during the years the island has never lost its appeal or identity.  The tourist invasion has failed to overwhelm most of the island's timeless charm. Just as the many invaders over the centuries who were drawn to the island as yet, pirates or tourists alike have been unable to conquer the fiercely independent Cretan spirit. Some resorts however, have become inevitably far too busy and lively for most, and thankfully these are confined to a few district along the north eastern coast.


In the west walkers will enjoy the island’s many scenic routes, especially in spring when the craggy shoreline and interior lands are carpeted in flowers.  For those of you less energetic hire a car and explore with some spectacular drives, either across Crete's rugged interior, if your up to it, where every bend in the road opens up a new landscape, or along the breathtaking and ever changing coastline which will simple take your breath away. The west is dominated by the jagged, treeless peaks of the the White Mountains 'Lefka Ori', which has often been covered by snow until June. Not forgetting the most spectacular gorges and where mountains drop dramatically to the Libyan Sea on the islands south coast. These mountains were for centuries the home of the Cretan resistance and to foreign occupiers of the island. Many of the remoter villages were accessible only on foot until the second half of the 20th century, and a traditional way of life lingered longer in the mountains than in other parts of the island. 

 

The west also has Crete’s two most charming towns, Hania and Rethymnon, along with some of the best beaches found on the island, ranging from rugged inlets and secluded coves to sweeps of long stretches of golden sand or bustling bays.If you're seeking rest and relaxation you'll soon unwind into the gentle pace of life on Crete. Perhaps you just want to sit under vine covered pergola at some traditional taverna, or maybe you prefer to go in search of ancient and historical ruins, if so Crete is overflowing with them, particularly as the island is professed as being the birthplace of the legendary God Zeus.
 

A visit to the Minoan Knossos Palace which is the islands most important archaeological site is a real treat however, not in the height of the season when queues are very long indeed.  A must for everyone is a leisurely stroll through the old Venetian heart of  Rethymnon. Or a wander through the old capital of Hania, passing the Turkish fountain and the unfortunately now, crumbling renaissance archway along with ancient Minoan stonework. Whatever you are looking for in a holiday - there's something for everyone on Crete. 

 

The island is an excellent natural environment with rich plant variety giving it some of the most interesting flora in the world. There are many species and subspecies of plants approximately 1,800, (as many as Great Britain) although, the island of Crete is thirty five times smaller. Around one hundred and ninety three species are endemic, which means that they are found only in Crete and nowhere else in the world. The rich flora of the island is due to its geographical position, mild climate, mountains which are separated from each other with meadows, small plains and many gorges. All resulting in various habitats with differing micro-climates which affect each area's flora. The stony slopes of gorges, with moisture and sun are the perfect shelter for many plants growing in crevices of stones where soil is retained. Whilst the wetlands cover the smallest area of all other zones. It comprises of springs, coastal swamps, small rivers, estuaries, natural and artificial lakes, and dams.
 

If you're up to it, then no trip here is complete, without a visit to the Samaria Gorge National Park. Put on your walking shoes and soak up the majestic views as this 16 km long canyon takes your breath away.

 

Hania was Crete’s capital, until 1971 when Heraklion took over. Hania still bears the scars and trophies of centuries of growth and occupation. The Venetians had the strongest and most influence on the town, leaving their distinct architectural mark on the picturesque harbour and the narrow back streets, although there are still remains of the Ottoman era, with imposing domes embellishing the harbour front. Hania is today an exciting city with a fascinating mixture of sophistication - with designer shops, bars, clubs and stylish restaurants, situated beside the simplicity of the local market and tourist shops, gyros grills and local fish tavernas along with older narrow streets full of Cretan cafés and alfresco tavernas - plus traditional dancing setting the atmosphere at night. 

 
The rugged Akrotiri Peninsula to the northeast of the town is a favourite area. Now home to many of the city's wealthier residents living in modern designed houses placed along the rocky coastline with sandy coves. Although this select area soon peters out as you travel further to the northeast corner of the peninsula where you reach the seaside village of Stavros nestling in the shadow of Zorba's Mountain made famous by the film Zorba the Greek. The peninsula's lanes criss-cross each other leading to other sandy beaches such as Kalathas, Tersanas and Ayios Onoufrios with its colourful fishing boats, on the other side tiny yet delightful beaches of Loutraki and Marathi. 

 

On the eastern side of the wide sweep of Souda Bay and below the peaks of the White Mountains is the rural utopia of the Apokoronas region. The whole area is a pure delight, especially in the early spring when the profusion of flowers transforms the landscape. Small villages with there easy going pace of life abound such as Vamos, Gavalohori and Kefalas together with their beautifully restored houses are typical examples of the islands past.  Full of classic small seaside villages such as Almyrida and Kera and the town of Kalyves which has its own lengthy beach.  Other attractions in the locality include the most famous archaeological site in western Crete, Aptera, and Lake Kournas, the island's only freshwater lake, which now has a number of tavernas on its shore and pedaloes for rent, yet remains a delightful spot. Not forgetting Yeorgioupolis the areas largest (if you can call it large) resort.

 

To the west of Hania, you find the better known resorts, the most north westerly town on the island is known as both Kasteli and Kissamos, and is truly Cretan in atmosphere and appearance. With its paved waterfront filled with small tavernas serving freshly caught fish and seafront bars.  Slightly further west, the harbour, now the departure point for sailing to Kythira and the Peleponnese and here is where you would catch a boat on an excursion to Gramvousa Island, and the famous Balos Bay the former was in ancient times the port for Polyrrinia, an important Dorian hillside town which prospered well beyond Roman times.
 

East of Kasteli the coastal plain extends towards the Rhodopou peninsula with a wealth of quieter beaches backed by agricultural hamlets. At the foot of the peninsula Kolymbari is a further typical seaside village, with its own 17th century monastery and a row of appealing fish tavernas ideal for a waterside lunch. The far west of the island has much to be explored with numerous historic villages and the spectacular wide sands and excavations of the ancient city at Falasarna, not to mention the almost tropical lagoon at Elafonisos. 

 

As with each area of Crete the south west coastline has its very own special charm and character with some of the most dramatic views. It is without a doubt better to approach the south coast from Rethymnon, with its rugged terrain especially as you pass through the small but stunning Kourtalioti gorge, emerging to see a remarkable sight of mountain sea and coastal plain. Heading down towards Plakias, now a popular coastal resort growing all the time.  This once tiny settlement, built at the turn of the century by the local fishermen of Sellia, had only a handful of houses until 1970. When it became popular because of its large sandy beach. From here the meandering road winds its way around the coast through villages with little more than a kafenion, shepherd's and their sheep and the ever present village ladies dress in black.

  

From Sellia onto Rothakino, one of the prettiest of villages, a track from here leads down, past a small house where fresh cheeses are usually drying on the roof, to a small shingle beach called Koraka with a few tavernas scattered around. What is now a pleasant lunch stop was where a British submarine once crept in to smuggle away General Kreipe who was dramatically kidnapped by the partisans during the German occupation in 1944.

 

Further along the coast the road dips toward Frangokastello where, in addition to splendid beaches backed by impressive sand dunes, the shell of a medieval castle, built to deter raiding pirates, stands squarely on the shoreline. Continuing on past the foot of the very scenic Imbros Gorge which would have been the alternative route from Vryses in the Apokoronas region however this once hair raising drive, was not for the faint hearted, today a new 'wider' road with less hairpin bends (these have been made into viewing points) has been built, albeit this road can still be quite manic in the high season, leads you to Hora Sfakion. Famed over many centuries for some of the most fiercest fighters in all of Crete, where the moustached locals still proudly wear their traditional black shirts and high leather boots.

 

In the afternoons this little village comes alive with coaches and ferryboats arriving and returning weary walkers from their walk down the Samaria Gorge, and then I might add drive all the way back up again on the very winding road up the mountain up to the top of the another Gorge at Imbros!

 

The first 12 km of 16 km of the Samaria Gorge is a protected National Park and is regarded as the most spectacular and beautiful gorge in Europe. On three occasions in 1980. 1984 and 1989 it has been awarded an A Class diploma by the Council of Europe for the purity of its environment. The entrance of the gorge is near Omalos, in the mountains 43 km south of Hania, from there it drops about 6,000 ft to the sea at Ayia Roumeli. Because winter rains and melting snow in early spring make it prone to flash floods the gorge is only open to the public between May and October. At a comfortable pace and with time to enjoy the wild natural environment and fabulous view the walk takes approximately 5-7 hours. There's a great variety of landscape, at times provoking a feeling of man's insignificance in the face of nature this no more so than at the 'Iron Gates', barely 2 metre wide rock walls tower hundreds of feet above you. The reward at the end of this fairly demanding walk is a beautiful beach and crystal clear waters at Ayia Roumeli the only way out of the gorge is then by ferry boat. If you are contemplating walking the gorge, early May would be best when the temperatures are not too high and the weather is pretty much settled.

 

The Imbros Gorge is shorter only about 4km  if you allow yourself 3 hours it's a fairly gentle walk. Much less demanding than Samaria albeit, it's still spectacular with an abundance of flowers and birds, especially in spring and early summer. There are signs to the start of the gorge at Imbros village and the gorge ends at Komitades.

  

You can of course go eastward from Plakias where a short and not so hairy drive where a minor detour takes you to the lovely coves and beaches of Damnoni, Amoundi and Schinaria. The village of Lefkoyia is only a short drive away. Midway between Lefkoyia and Asomatos a well signed and paved road turns off and leads to the beautiful Monastery at Preveli which is perched high above the coastline. Firstly you descend the valley following the river Megapotamos which flows throughout the year. You will firstly come across The Monastery of Ayios Ioannis also known as, Kato Moni Preveli which stands in a state of ruin, this was the original 16th century monastery of Preveli. You can still make out the roofless cells of the monks and the church which was dedicated to John the Baptist which still remarkably has its roof intact. After this was set on fire by the Turks in the 19th century it was abandoned and the Abbot  decided to seek safety further up hill. Surprisingly still remaining at its entrance is the fountain which produces water at least to quench the thirst. 
 

 
A Venetian bridge spans across the river next where you can park and from this point, for the more adventurous of you, walk to the famous Palm beach at Preveli. Only about 30 minutes walk away on a marked pathway which clambers steeply down to the beach at the end of the Kourtaliotiko gorge. Once there you find a spectacular coast and palm tree cove, divided into two by the estuary that flows into the sea. Boat trips also leave Plakias for a less taxing journey.
 

Another 2 km further on and you reach the celebrated Monastery of Preveli. Famous world wide as a refuge for the stranded allied soldiers during the Second World War most by submarine from Palm beach below. Prior to this the monastery had a turbulent history like most monasteries in Crete it was looted and robbed of is precious possessions and frequently served as a sanctuary for Cretan rebels.
More about Moni Preveli in World War Two

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