Chania bears its scars of invasion beautifully, from its Minoan beginnings through Roman, Byzantine, Turkish and Venetian occupations, all of which can be experienced at the museums of archaeology, history and the naval museum. The beautiful, colourful horse shoe shaped Venetian harbour gives way to a labyrinth of narrow streets offering a glimpse of walls, towers, minarets and domes hinting at its layers of history. Step back into the Turkish quarter, shabby and crumbling in places, where little workshops show the skill of the lace maker, knife maker and leather sellers in the tight warren of streets. There are beautiful open roofed tavernas offering excellent local food and live Greek music late into the night. The covered market or Agora is a fabulous place to pick up local herbs and spices and soak up the local atmosphere as the store keepers vie for your trade. Chania is a stimulating and fascinating place to explore, with excellent bars and restaurants and a lovely warm atmosphere.
Rethymnon like Chania is only a 40 minute drive from Villa Kerasi and well worth the journey. Whilst a substantial seaside resort, it has a beautiful Venetian harbour Forteza, strengthened over the years as a result of a number of sackings by the famous pirate Barbaroussa, where the young and old alike enjoy the bars of the harbour and the excellent fish restaurants. Rethymnon also enjoys a reputation for intellectual life and enjoys art and cultural festivals throughout the year including the wine festival in July followed by a weeklong Cretan music festival. The town is dominated by the nearby Ida Mountains where you can enjoy the views of Crete’s highest mountain at 2,456 metres, mount Psiloreitis. Legend has it; Zeus the Greek God of Gods, was raised in a nearby cave. In more recent history, the Ida Mountains were one of the main places of refuge for the Greek and allied resistance fighters of World War 2, amongst the peaks and valleys where Byzantine churches hide in cherry orchards.
The Palace of Knossos
The Minoan Palace at Knossos is Crete’s premier visitor attraction and lies close to Iraklion about an hour and 20 minute drive from Villa Kerasi. Excavation began in 1900 by the English archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, where the fantasy of the labyrinth became rooted in fact with every discovery. Legend would have it that Prince Theseus fought and conquered the bull headed Minotaur in the labyrinth beneath the palace of King Minos. The palace has a marvellous display of the Kings Throne room, bulls head vases and vibrant fresco’s the greatest of which is the bull leaping scene which is housed at the nearby Iraklion museum. It is a fascinating palace where the ancient world comes to life and where you can speculate as to the catastrophic events of 1450 BC that destroyed Europe’s oldest civilisation, the Minoans.
The Minoan City of Aptera sits high on a hill above Souda Bay and is only a 20 minute drive from Villa Kerasi. It is work in progress and is still being excavated with up to 50 archaeological students working there. The City has a fascinating history and once boasted a population of 20,000 inhabitants, mostly wealthy merchants. The City state of Aptera was looted by the Turks and much of its treasures are displayed at the Museum of Istanbul. It is believed to have been a centre of musical expertise and legend would have it that it was named following a musical competition between the Muses and the Sirens. Devastated at losing the competition, the Sirens feathers fell into Souda bay, forming small white islands. Aptera was the ancient Greek word for wingless. The view from the City is magnificent across Apakoronas, (you can even see Villa Kerasi) and towards Marathi on the Akrotiri.
Imbros gorge/Askifos plateau/Horia Sfakia
Crete is criss-crossed by deep canyons from the mountains in the north emerging on the south Coast, the most famous of which is the Samaria gorge. The smaller and less spectacular Imbros gorge is only a 30 minutes drive from Villa Kerasi and is an excellent walk where you will barely see another tourist, unlike Samaria gorge which can be busy. The drive itself to Imbros village is fascinating and following the route of many allied soldiers fleeing to the south coast to be evacuated following the invasion in 1941, through the Askifos plateau. The walk itself is about 3-4 hours and relatively easy. At its narrowest point the gorge is a slit through black branded rock several hundred metres high but where you can touch both walls with outstretched arms. At the end of the gorge, about 1 km from the sea, a tavern offers refreshing drinks. Also for about 5 Euros, you can endure a white knuckle ride in the back of a truck, clinging on through hair pin bends to be dropped off back in Imbros village. Alternatively walk the extra kilometre to the sea side town of Horia Sfakia, where you can cool you feet in the Libyan Sea and enjoy excellent food at the handful of tavernas whilst waiting for the bus to Imbros.
Loutro is a beautiful resort on the south coast made the prettier for the fact that there are no roads to it and therefore no traffic. It can only be reached on foot on a narrow coastal path from Horia Sfakia or by ferry from Aghia Roumeli and Horia Sfakia. It is a delight approached either way and resembles the Cyclades islands with white cubist buildings housing tavernas, bars and village rooms. It is believed that the captive St Paul en route from the holy land to Rome could not enter the ‘haven of Crete’ at the ancient port of Foinix (Loutro) and was later shipwrecked in Malta.
Elafonisi and Chrysokaliatissas Monastery
A fascinating white knuckle drive across the mountains will deliver you to one of the most beautiful beaches on the island at Elafonisi. The sweep of the bay and lagoon has stunning white and pink sands and has shallow crystal clear water from where you can swim out to the nearby island. Although remote, it is such a glorious place, it can get busy in the height of summer. About 6 km from Elafonisi and en route to the beach is the Monastery of Hrissosakalitissas. Its blue barrel dome can be seen for miles as it sits high on a rocky outcrop some 90 steps high. It started life out as a monastery cave but in the 19th century was home to two hundred nuns. It now has two occupants, a nun and father Nekatorious who provide philoxonia to the weary traveller.
Samaria gorge is the most breathtaking scenery arguably in the whole of Greece and is Europe’s deepest canyon. This makes it a Mecca for casual walkers and school parties alike and can get rather busy at peak times, best to get there early and preferably when it opens at 6am to avoid the crowds. It is a 16km walk which should, with the aid of sturdy shoes be complete in 5-6 hours. The head of the gorge descends dramatically 600 metres down a series of steps and if you dare look up, Mount Gliylios at over 2,000 metres glares down between the cypress trees. The most dramatic section of the walk is at the sideroportes or iron gates where a wall of rock over 300 metres high closes in on a gap of 3 metres. The gorge eventually pushes you out some 2 km from Agia Roumeli where a short boat trip will land you at Horia Sfakia for the perilous bus journey through the White Mountains to Omolos and/or Chania
The botanical gardens of Crete are at the foot of the White Mountains near the village of Skordalou, about a 50 minute drive from Villa Kerasi. The village boasts the oldest olive trees in Europe, but in 2004, the whole of the area was devastated by fire destroying over 6,000 olive trees, all over 400 years old and bringing financial devastation to the village. Phoenix like from the flames; came the idea of the botanical gardens to bring tourism and financial stability to the village and the garden was born. It now covers over 20 hectares and has over 150 species of fruit tree, herbs and vineyards offering a unique insight into the flora and fauna of the region. It is about a 2 hours walk around the gardens and it hosts a very impressive restaurant with incredible views from the balcony.
Looking out from Villa Kerasi across Souda bay, sits Akrotiri where Chania airport is situated some 35 minute drive away. The peninsula is home to the tomb of Eliftheros Venizelos, Crete’s greatest revolutionary leader who defied the four great powers and Turkey in 1897 by raising the Greek flag.There are several excellent beaches and resorts, the most famous of which at Stavros was the setting for the final scene in the film Zorba the Greek where, Zorbas Mountain mine collapses. The mountain rises proudly from the bay opposite the beautiful sweeping beach. Marathi beach can be seen from the villa and has excellent fish restaurants and a beautiful warm shallow bay to enjoy a leisurely swim as can the beach at Kalathos.Akrotiri is also home to three famous Monasteries Agia Triada, Gouvernetou and Katholiko where pilgrims undertake homage on foot, all of which have survived despite the atrocities of the occupying Turks.