There are three major cities in Crete, all of which lie on the northern coast. Furthest east is Heraklion (Irakleio), the capital of Crete and its largest city. Moving westward, almost in the middle of the northern coast is Rethymnon (Rethymno), a medium-sized city with a lot of character and a beautiful Old Town. And furthest west is the town of Hania (Chania), which is easily the most picturesque but also the most shaped by tourism.
Because of my Kazantzakis research and because I have a good friend in Irakleio, I began there. When I landed late that night, my friend Georgia promptly took me to her favorite 24-hour loukoumades joint (loukoumades are lovely Greek doughnuts, usually served covered in honey!). Georgia is one of my fellow Fulbrighters. She ran the half marathon with me in Prague, and is now conducting nutritional research in Crete. Georgia is Greek-American, and it shows: she’s a simply fantastic hostess! I’ll be basking in her hospitality again in just a few days, as her Greek-American family is hosting me for Easter on the island of Evia.
Irakleio has been stereotyped as a gritty, grimy and undeniably Cretan city; and, in fact, that’s exactly how I’d describe it. Actually, in some ways, it reminded me of a much smaller version of the city in which I studied abroad in France—Marseille. Both cities are grubby, stark and grungy, but have a wonderfully bold flavor all their own.
To be fair, this isn’t Irakleio’s fault. Much of what would have been picturesque was bombed away in World War II. Nowadays, there’s the sea, and a few mountains in view, but otherwise it’s all urban sprawl. Even I barely took any pictures.
Irakleio is nothing if not a functional city. It seems to be proud of its grit, in a wonderfully Cretan way. Here, you won’t find as many tacky tourist shops (though, to be honest, they certainly are ubiquitous in Greece in general); and if you don’t know them personally, taverna owners will treat you just like anyone else–they’ll give you a sneer to make your tzatziki curdle, and then bring you absolutely amazing Cretan food. This is a city that doesn’t hide behind appearances. What you see is what you get.
While totally genuine, I’d say that Irakleio has, in general, less to be genuine about. Its main tourist attractions are centered on the nearby archaeological site of Knossos, which isn’t even in the city. Most of the wonderful Kazantzakis memorabilia is situated in Irakleio itself, but I won’t kid myself into thinking that a substantial portion of the population is interested in his writing these days. As a whole, there is a definite spark to the city, but it’s tough to tell if that comes from Irakleio itself or simply the proud, fiery Cretan personality it has grown up with.
Georgia has three aunts in Rethymno, so we headed west together for Palm Sunday weekend (“Count the Goats” score on the bus ride over: 86). We stayed with one of her aunts, a lovely little idiosyncratic woman who insisted after a hard rain that we remove all the snails from the driveway so we wouldn’t crush them with the car. She took to calling me “my wonderful Kate” even though I barely had a chance to talk to her, and only stayed at her house for one night. I absolutely adored her.
Rethymno is a must-see. It’s smaller than Irakleio, but managed to escape from WWII damage and now boasts an delightfully charming Old Town, made up of narrow winding streets and fantastic tavernas & cafes, all bustling with locals. Though beginning to cater to tourists more, it retains authenticity by maintaining a proud, daily local life. Getting lost on its winding Old Town streets was a pleasure!
Being on the coast, the waterfront areas of Rethymno are gorgeous; palms line the main beaches, and the old Venetian harbor is small but lovely. And speaking of Venetian influence, the town’s ancient fortress is magnificent! At this point, I have seen a lot of fortresses, and this one is by far my favorite. It’s huge and also exhibits some Turkish influence, on top of being positively brimming with wildflowers this time of year.
Again, Rethymno would not be the same without its lively local scene, but those locals still have to walk past the same dinky touristy places every day. The local spirit is currently thriving, and though I fear the town will cater more and more to tourists in the coming years, I sincerely hope it stays that way for a long time.
Rethymno has all the Cretan flair of Irakleio without the grit. The locals are friendly, the food is great, the town is beautiful, and still Rethymno retains a miraculous combination of pride and humility which one might expect of a city in Crete, an island with proud traditions and a dark history of oppression. It’s a wonderful city, and a must-see on any trip to Crete.
I took the bus over by myself (“Count the Goats” score was 46, but the trip was shorter and I did fall asleep for a little bit…) for a two-night stay in Chania, having heard it touted several times over as Crete’s most picturesque city. It was! But it was also packed with tourists, the likes of which I haven’t seen since I visited Delphi in October. I spent most of my stay reading, eating, wandering, and doing some shopping for friends. It was lovely but I wouldn’t have wanted to stay longer.
Beautiful, touristy Chania is Rethymno’s prettier, more vapid sister who still gets all the attention (with Irakleio as the ugly-but-still-beloved grumpy cousin). Chania’s beautiful old harbor and narrow, twisting back streets certainly are picturesque, but at least for me, the tacky shops lining them were a major turnoff. Don’t get me wrong; I do think Chania is worth a visit. But make it a short one, unless you plan on buying a whole new wardrobe of cheap clothing with the Greek flag on it.
Chania’s old harbor is absolutely breath-taking. Colorful old buildings line the waterfront, a beautiful old lighthouse guards watch over the end of the harbor, and the famous mosque of the Janissaries (who were among the most fearful tormentors in the history of Crete) gives a unique flair to the waterfront. There’s no denying Chania’s reputation as a highly picturesque city.
I had a couple of fantastic traditional Cretan meals in Chania, but the effect was diminished by restaurant owners standing outside saying “Where you from?” and signs saying “TRADITIONAL CRETAN MEALS!” all over the entryways of even the seemingly humble tavernas. Only one of the places I tried offered a chance to avoid this phenomenon and eat excellent food–a taverna called Portes, which served the most incredible marinated gavros! I highly recommend it.
Chania has an average dose of unique character, partly because of the beauty itself and partly because I found some interesting traces of Turkish influence. Many of the menus I glimpsed offered dishes with a slightly middle-Eastern vibe to them, and I lunched on a fabulous dish called giaourtlou, which is lamb stewed with a red sauce and served with mint, yogurt and pita bread. However, whatever other traces of unique character Chania had have been buried by the presence of a Starbucks and the proliferation of kitschy gewgaws for sale.
Finally, I headed back to Irakleio (101 GOATS! I named them all things like Patches, Lucky, and Penny, but then Cruella Deville showed up and slaughtered them all for Easter this weekend). After a lovely last meal with Georgia and Peter and two hours’ nap, I got to the port at 4:30 AM for my ferry to Santorini.
…Where I am now! I will post more on this later, but Santorini is truly one of those bucket list kind of places. After here, off to Evia for Greek Easter!