Road trip in Crete
Image by 1778011 from Pixabay
Exotic beaches and secret coves; fertile plains and ancient forests; dramatic gorges and ravines; ancient ruins and byzantine sites; quaint villages and vibrant, cosmopolitan towns: Covering an area of 8,336 km2, Crete is a cosmos of its own: The kind of place where you can go from swimming to hiking and from sightseeing to bar hopping, within the space of few hours. And the best way to take it all in, at your pace, at your convenience, is with a road trip in Crete. Does this sound appealing to the explorer in you?
Here are some tips and insights to help you plan your road trip in Crete.
Greece’s largest island and fifth biggest in the Mediterranean is divided into four prefectures: Chania, Rethymno, Heraklio and Lassithi: Each one boasts a unique character and manifold attractions – should you have enough time to spare on the road you would do well to visit them all. If however, as per a typical holiday’s length, you have about 10-15 days for your road trip in Crete, you might as well select to roam about in two of the neighbouring prefectures. This month’s blog will be taking you through (some of) the beauties of Heraklion and Lassithi.
Whether you arrive at Heraklion airport or port, you can pick up your vehicle of choice from Europeo Cars –Crete’s premier car rental company with guaranteed low prices, stellar customer service and a vast choice of automobiles– and start exploring.
Road trip in Crete: Heraklion to Lasithi
Head south, about 65 km from Heraklion city, towards Matala, the once-famous hippy paradise, that remains spectacular, albeit touristic. You can base yourselves at the neighbouring, scenic Pitsidia, the oldest village in the area and the place where the soldiers of Nikiforos Fokas, commander of the Byzantine army, settled when they arrived from Asia Minor. Home to a few ex-pats and digital nomads, Pitsidia sports beautifully restored houses, distinctly friendly locals and a choice of good traditional tavernas.
If you want to beat the crowds, you can swim at Kommos, a long and wide spectacular beach, one of the largest and most unspoiled in Crete, framed by dunes, with fine, soft sands and tamarind trees. Cool waters and magnificent vistas aside -the uninhabited isles of Paximadia, the Sphakianes Madares range, and Mount Psiloritis, are unfolding in the horizon- Kommos boasts marked archaeological importance: This was the ancient port of Phaistos, continuously inhabited until Roman Times; while nowadays the ruins, including a temple, a prytaneum, and a court with altars, are visible from the beach.
The adventuresome may also brave the red sand beach, 800 meters south of Matala. To get there you need to hike on a rocky trail that begins north of the settlement of Matala and crosses the hill of Kastri; yet the views and the scenery, once you get there, will recompense you: Reddish sand -as the name suggests- stunning rocks, crystal clear, emerald waters and a whimsical beach bar, serving, allegedly, “the world’s best Mohito”.
You may then continue on the east, crossing the magnificent plain of Messara which has been cultivated since Minoan times, towards Lasithi.
The island’s rugged landscape begs for exploration with a jeep or an SUV. Provided that you are equipped with an appropriate vehicle like a Kia Sportage you may venture into the gorge of Agio Farago, in Akra Lithino Cape, about 2 km westwards of the south-coast-village Kaloi Limenes and 70 km south of the capital Heraklion.
Bear in mind that this is a serpentine road, not asphalted and very bumpy, and you can only drive at a walking pace. As soon as you reach the parking lot you can refresh and replenish yourselves at the small kiosk: The last station before Africa, serving among others, freshly squeezed juices, mojitos, and delicious falafels. After that, there is a small gorge, 1,8 km in length and suitable for beginners. Surrounded by striking rocks and blooming oleanders, the mostly flat and quite manageable path leads to a gorgeous beach with fine pebbles and crystalline waters, that range from turquoise to mauve blue in colour. On the way to the beach, you will encounter the small church of Saint Anthony that dates back to the 13th Century and Goumenospilios cave. Aptly named the gorge of the Saints, Agio Farago is one of the most important centres of asceticism in Greece, with a history that coincides with the beginnings of Orthodoxy in the country. Back in the day, the hermits who sought spiritual isolation in the caves would meet once a year on Ressurection, in the large cave (Goumenospilios) near Saint Antony’s church. Each one would quietly sit on one of the 300 rocks in the cave and those who did not arrive were assumed to be dead. Nowadays, on Saint Antony’s name day in January, locals continue to gather at the chapel -albeit this congregation is distinctly more jovial in nature!
The next stops on the itinerary of this road trip in Crete are eastbound towards Ierapetra in Lasithi.
Tertsa, the last village of Heraklion prefecture, on the southeast coast, sits amidst a fertile, verdant valley with freshwater springs. The area boasts large scale cultivations of various fruit and vegetables, but Tertsa also yields its own exotic varieties, including papaya, guava, and passion fruit. The beach is rather uncrowded and unspoiled, with thick grey sand and crystal clear waters. It is vast and mostly unorganised, bar a few sunbeds and umbrellas in front of a handful of traditional tavernas.
Drive along the coast for about 5 kilometres on the east, to reach Myrtos. Though more cosmopolitan than its aforementioned neighbour, this seaside resort on Ierapetra remains quaint and charming; with a long beach with clear, blue and always calm waters and a few water sports facilities. Some of the tavernas are also good, with traditional, homemade food and lovely owners.
Should you be looking however for a taste of authentic Crete, head north from Myrtos to the beautiful, historic village of Christos (about 15 km away) and the adjacent Agia Paraskevi tavern. At more than 550 meters above sea level, tucked amidst the forest of Selakano, and surrounded by the imposing Dikti mountain and aeons old plane trees, this tavern plays the role of the village’s square. Founded on the spot where an antique icon of Agia Paraskevi, the patron saint of eyes and eyesight, was discovered, the namesake tavern is as much the local’s meeting place as it is a destination for savvy foodies from around the world. Scenic factor aside, the food here is absolutely authentic and downright delicious; cooked, old school, in the woodstove and prepared with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. The taverna’s owners are also amazing and eager to show you around. If you find yourselves there during a live session, you’re in for an experience you’ll remember forever.
If you have more days, you could continue your road trip in Crete further east to Sitia all the way to the gorgeous beaches of Xerokambos, and then head back to Heraklion, via Agios Nikolaos and Elounda. Indeed this island is full of iconic and off the beaten track attractions and makes you want to come back for more -and more. Stay tuned to our blog for more advice and suggestions about the magical place we are lucky enough to call home.