On a glorious morning in Crete, the breeze blew the curtains and the sea air awoke me from my slumber. Today was going to be another glorious adventure on the enchanting island. I was heading to Chania for a well-deserved three day weekend because even expats need to get out and explore more of their chosen home. Donning a light summer dress, I headed to my local bakery to pack a hearty grab bag of scrumptious pastries and grab a coffee for the drive. I had a mere two hours on the road, and all the way I was itching to discover Chania’s charms.
Chania Old Town and Venetian Harbour
Chania old town is an art lover’s paradise. It conforms to a typical Venetian vibe. With lots of Italian architecture and an abundance of old narrow streets and paths that make you feel as if you could get lost in time. There are endless curiosities dotted around the narrow labyrinth-like alleyways that branch off from the Old Town. From the ornate architecture showcased in its many historical fortifications to the alluring fashion boutiques and artisan shops. Each laneway is decorated with balconies sporting bougainvilleas and colourful signs inviting you into cafes, bars and tavernas. A very romantic setting that put me in mind of old movies where lovers would catch eyes across a crowd and the rest would become history.
The Old Town connects to the Old Port down one of the charming alleyways, and stepping out onto the panoramic harbor was a sight to behold. I emerged at the harbor on the Western side, and the first things that caught my eye were the towering ramparts of the remaining Firka Venetian Fortress, also known as Revellino del Porto. I followed it around and watched as the architecture folded into new combinations of styles and periods with each step. Revealing the dramatic historical changes Chania has seen over the centuries. To the left, my view was captivated by Chania’s own 16th-century lighthouse. Being a lover of quaint lighthouses, I found it hard to ignore and tried to make haste towards it.
I was stopped in my tracks when I reached the grand domed Yali Tzamisi Mosque, or “mosque of the sea”. Glowing with inner light and the Turkish-designed domed roofs standing out from the crowd of boxy buildings behind. I was in awe at the workmanship presented in the building’s meticulous stonework. After a brief look around the art exhibition inside where I was enamored by a gorgeous manual printing press, it was my stomach that finally pulled me away. It was time for brunch!
Always itching for a view, I lucked out when I found Pallas café and took a seat outside looking out over the harbour. The building that houses Pallas café is breathtaking and at first, I thought it was a museum. The cafe’s slick modern decor complements the traditional stonework beautifully. It was built in 1830 and was subsidised after 1986 when the Archaeological Service named the site one of the 20 best buildings found in Crete. To sit here and enjoy a morning coffee whilst I watched the sun creep along the late morning sky was divine. I was in a dream world of everything I adore. A captivating scene of perfectly juxtaposed sea and mountainscape, colourful and ornate architecture all around. Oh, and wonderfully good coffee.
Day Hopping Chania’s Beaches – Gramvousa and Balos Beach Cruise, Elafonissi beach, and Stavros beach
The next morning I rose out of bed early and remembering where I was, excitedly stepped straight out to the street in the search of pastry. Chania city is divided into a tri-section. Including the Jewish Quarter, the Old Town, and Chania City. In the latter section (a hop, skip and a jump from the Municipal Market of Chania) lies one of the jewels of the city – Iordanis Bougatsa. A family-owned bakery that has been delighting tastebuds for 100 years, and I couldn’t wait to try it for myself. Here, the bougatsa is traditionally made with sweetened Cretan mizithra, a divine soft cheese similar to ricotta. I chose one big slice sprinkled with cinnamon and ate it on the way to pick up my rental car for the day. I regretted my decision, as once I’d finished it, I was too far away to order another!
Gramvousa to Balos Beach Cruise
Crete has some of the best island-hopping cruises, as you’ll certainly discover here. The journey to Balos beach is no exception, and since it’s so easy to get to on a day trip from Chania I just had to check it out. The cruise to Balos beach sets off from the port of Kissamos, and I reached the charming region with an hour to spare before boarding the ferry. So, I took the time to wander the streets and soak up a new slice of Cretan culture. No two places in Crete are the same, but they all emit this charming old-world vibe, as though you’re stuck between centuries.
Kissamos used to be a port to ancient Polyrrinia, and it’s clear why the historic people chose this place as their territory. The place goes by many names, and you’ll see it spelled differently on signs in the area. This is a typical Greek thing that always makes me laugh. It’s as though they couldn’t make up their minds which spelling they liked better and so they just used all of them. Through the Roman and Byzantine periods, the village was constantly under attack. So the castle Kissamos was built atop the hilly province. Pirates could be seen offshore and the inland dwellers could prepare for the onslaught and protect their beautiful towns and their many treasures. Among which are the fertile lands that bless the landscape in Kissamos.
Poised between Kissamos and Gramvousa, Balos is one of those beaches that makes you feel like you’ve entered a dream world. You can drive to Balos beach and hike down from the car park where the mountain goats will give you a warm welcome. Personally, I absolutely recommend the boat excursion from the port of Kissamos that takes in the islet of Agria Gramvousa and Cape Vouxa (Trypiti). When it comes to crystalline waters, exotic white beaches, and intensely picturesque backdrops, Balos takes the cake. It truly has to be seen to be believed. Read about the full Balos beach experience here.
Elafonissi Beach – Crete’s Most Popular Beach
It’s possibly safe to say that nobody ever got sick of jaw-dropping beaches, and there was a place nearby that had been on my bucket list forever. It seemed silly to be so close and miss out, so I drove an hour and a half south to the famed Elafonissi beach. Known to be one of the most spectacular beaches in Crete, there’s one simple and quirky reason – the sand is pink. The jewel-like hue is formed by billions of crushed seashells. The closer you try to look at them the more mesmerized you become as the pale pink sand contrasts strikingly with the pure aqua waters. As I walked along the dazzling shores, I came across a small rockpool that was being created by the surrounding rocks and spent a merry hour just watching the sea-life scuttle in and out of view amongst the opulent pink sand. In late summer the beach was busy. It’s deservedly one of the most popular beaches in Crete, but every face I saw just beamed with delight at the gorgeous location, or perhaps the joy at purchasing a giant inflatable flamingo. Over the water, I could make out Elafonisi island, home to even more pink peaches and an elegant little chapel. Was there ever a more perfect place in which to say your vows?
The next day I was on the road again, whistling along with the winds to Stavros beach for a spot of relaxation just half an hour far from the city center. I’d heard of the place in my research as the filming spot for Zorba the Greek, so I knew it was going to be stunning and was already full of excitement. Although, as the film is in black and white, I couldn’t prepare myself for the truly stunning colours of Stavros beach. Not to mention that the beach formed a perfect crescent, a marvel that always excites me about a beach. It’s like nature painted a picture and wanted everything to be just right. Stavros is at the very northern tip of the Akrotiri peninsula, so everything feels more wild and rugged. Stavros mountain punctuated the background like a fierce warrior and beckoned the hiker in me to climb its mighty peak, but today was a day for relaxing. I was only planning to sit on the beach and read a little, but the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean sparkling in the sun’s rays and a clear view to the bottom made me immediately run to the shore and dive in. It was bitterly cold at first, though refreshing. I swam around for a while before setting up on the sand to finally do a spot of reading. I didn’t try my hand at the famous Syrtaki dance from the movie’s closing scenes. But before my trip was over, with a few glasses of wine behind me, I’m sure I would take the chance.
Hiking the Samaria Gorge – Crete’s Most Beautiful Nature Walk
I couldn’t visit Chania without taking on one of Crete’s best offerings. Practically on its doorstep lies Samaria Gorge, one of the most picturesque and rugged pieces of Crete’s landscape, gorged through the White Mountains in Western Crete. Tramping through this epic landscape is simply jaw-dropping. It’s like walking through a giant’s back garden if the giant was a big fan of landscaping with lovely flowers and pretty streams. For the first half an hour of the hike, my mind floods with inner turmoil. ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘I’ll never make it.’ ‘It’s too hot.’ But as the minutes pass and I listen to the birds and breathe a lungful of the freshest air imaginable, I’m home. Nature surrounds me like a gentle hand, and as soon as my feet touch the cool, clear water running in little rivulets at the base of the gorge I feel alive and ready to tackle the awesome journey. You need your wits about you and a strong pair of knees for Samaria, as the 6-hour hike is practically all downhill. One of the best parts of hiking the gorge comes at the end. As I took my last few steps, the rocky terrain turned to sand, and I found myself in the welcoming arms of Agia Roumeli beach. Every hike should end with the opportunity to plunge into invigorating waters, and I let the water ease my muscles from the strenuous journey, before returning to Hora Sfakion on the ferry (You can hire a driver to drop you off and pick you up from here!). Hora Sfakion is a quaint little sea town that sees much of its tourism through port activity. From here you can reach the lazy village of Loutro, as well as Agia Roumeli, Sougia and Paleochora. It’s also the best place to catch a ferry to the incredibly remote Gavdos Island.
Dinner in Chania
I arrived back in Chania just in time for a late dinner. I’m not sure where I’d heard about Oinopoieio tavern, but if ever there’s a traditional place that’s famous for being local, it ends up on my map. After a day prancing around on beaches, I was ready for a hearty evening meal. The tavern lies in between a narrow street in the heart of Chania’s Old Town and screams tradition! Old equipment of raki making, vintage pottery on the selves, dried bouquets of local herbs. I chose a seat inside with a view of the bustling kitchen. A small, intimate-looking set-up filling the place with a rich aroma of herbs and cooked meats. I asked the waiter for his suggestions and he assuredly recommended the slow-cooked lamb. I love to eat seafood in Crete, but I’m not shy about new dishes. I went for it, and it was truly one of the best meals I’ve had in my life. The meat just fell from the bone and soaked up the sauce in an intense burst of flavour. The dessert menu had me at ‘sfakiani’ pie with honey, roasted sesame & vanilla ice cream. Simple, yummy, elegant, and effortlessly divine.
I emerged from the tavern as evening loomed, blinking into the glowing lights and smiling as the warm air made my face flush more than the wine. I felt like a bit of fresh air, so I walked the calming route through Old Town back to the harbour. The beautiful bay area was bright and full of golden hour colours. The faded reds, yellows, and blues of the multi-story buildings complemented each other warmly, framed with an incredible blue mountain backdrop. The perfect end to a fun-filled day of exploring and falling more in love with this vibrant island.