Hidden Treasures in Crete


 

Destination: Crete

Book: Crete by Barry Unsworth (2004)

Barry Unsworth was a prolific novelist and sometimes travel writer from England, who lived in Italy and frequently visited Greece.  Since I share his fascination with the Mediterranean and Mid Eastern countries I’ve reviewed two other books by Unsworth, Pascali’s Island (listed for the Booker Prize) and Land of Marvels. See all his books here.

Mountain Road, Crete
Mountain Road, Crete

I believe, though, that of the books I have read, his memoir of travels called Crete is my favorite.  Ken and I traveled from Athens through the Peloponnese and took a ferry to Crete for a two-night look around one summer.  We immediately realized that two nights was a ridiculously inadequate period to get even a vague feeling for this island full of mysteries and hidden treasures. The next summer we were back, and spent over a week crisscrossing the island in our rental car.

The best known Minoan site in Crete is Knossos. Unsworth explains why it is so striking. “One thing which makes Knossos different from all other Minoan sites on Crete is the reconstructions that were carried out by Sir Arthur Evans…mainly in the course of the 1920s….he used the architectural details he found in fresco fragments to reconstruct some of the buildings….”

Minoan Palace of Knossos, Crete
Recreated Mural at Minoan Palace of Knossos, Crete

Although we touched base with many of the places that Unsworth talks about in this book–seeking out Minoan ruins from the famous Knossos to an isolated Minoan mansion now surrounded by a vinyard–Unsworth and his wife discovered many places that we did not get to.  Hidden shrines to ancient gods tucked away in mountain caves, churches that have morphed from pagan to Christian to Muslim and back to Christian as the island was conquered by the Venetians and then the Turks who, along with the Byzantines, left their mark on architecture.

The island was even taken over by the Germans during World War II. Through all the waves of conquerors, the tough mountain men took to their highlands hideaways  from which they attacked their conquerors.  Crete was never an easy place to subdue.

Lassithi Plain, Crete
Buying oranges from a fierce warrior at the pass to Lassithi Plain, Crete. That’s a knife he wears at his belt with his traditional costume.

Blood feuds in the southeastern portion of Crete bred the fiercest fighters of all, from the region of Sfakia. Of the Sfakia region, Unsworth says “This is a wild and remote region where roads are few, the climate unrelenting, and the living conditions harsh. The atmosphere of abandonment and desolation one sometimes feels here is in a sense the price the people have paid for their indomitable spirit, their refusal to accept a foreign yoke.”

You would never suspect from the peaceful looking town of Chora Sfakia. This is where the boat from the end of your hike in the Samaria gorge–the most dramatic and popular hike of many dramatic paths in Crete– will take you. It is difficult to get to Chora Sfakia any other way than by boat.

Harbor of Sfakia
Harbor of Sfakia on the south side of Crete.

Although you won’t be attacked from the mountains, or in Sfakia today (unless you’re part of a feuding clan), you can run into various difficulties when traveling in Crete.

Drivers, particularly bus drivers, appear to be suicidal.  Some mountain roads are so bad that car rental companies include clauses forbidding travel to those regions. You may have difficulty deciding which of the two caves that were the “birthplace of Zeus” you want to visit.  You may despair of ever finding peaceful and hidden places if you get stuck in the overbuilt north coast resorts or string of beach towns.

We agree with Barry Unsworth that Chania is a charming town, layered with history, and a great base for exploring Crete.

 Cafe in old Chania
Harborside Cafe in old Chania

I was curious whether the charming small hotel we stayed in, the Doma, still exists in Crete, and I was delighted to find out that not only is it still serving customers, it is still run by the two sisters,  Irene Valyraki and Ioanna Koutsoudaki, who were there when we stayed in the historic home twenty years ago. Unfortunately, I don’t know which sister is in this photo with me, sitting in the parlor of the home, which once was an embassy, and was commandeered by the Germans during World War I.

Doma Hotel, Chania
Sitting in the parlour of the Doma Hotel, Chania with one of the owners

Using Unsworth’s Crete as a guide, you can discover those mosques hiding under Orthodox churches, some of the hidden meaning behind the ruins of the Minoans and valuable icons in fascinating monasteries. He says of the Panagia Kira, near Kritsa, “…if obliged to choose among them, to single out one which best exemplifies the atmosphere and the spirit of devotion of medieval Byzantium, I would favor the Panagia Kira.”  And we totally agreed. This small 14th century church is crammed with wonderful art from the 14th and 15th century.

Kritsa, Crete
Postcard image of a 14th century painting from the church of Panagia Kera at Kritsa, Crete

The book starts in Chania, which was also our favorite town.  My only regret is that we used it mostly as a base, driving out each day to a different region, rather than exploring the town in depth. But having read Unsworth’s Crete, I feel that I know Chania much better.

The map at the front of the book has just enough detail to help you figure out where he is as he discusses the hidden treasures of Crete. Unsworth visits several caves that have ties to ancient Greek legends, worship and mysteries. But there are caves that served other purposes as well.

 

Matala, Crete
Hippies lived in these caves at Matala, Crete in the 60s. A few yards away, over a rise, is a nude beach.

I think Crete is underrated as a destination in Greece.  It has all the best of Greece. Fantastic ancient ruins, interesting history from Byzantine to the present, warm beaches in the south (including the ONLY palm tree grove in Europe), hiking, sailing, scuba diving, parasailing, shopping and FOOD like no where else in the country.

 beach at Vai, Crete
Only European palm trees on beach at Vai, Crete

So what are you waiting for? Once you have read Barry Unsworth’s Crete, I’m sure you’ll be itching to uncover some of those hidden treasures.

Barry Unsworth died in 2012. You can read his New York Times obituary here.  Get more information about visiting Crete here.

Note: All of the potographs here belong to the author–scans of twenty-year-old photos. 

I have included a link to Amazon (with the book cover) so that you can go directly to the on line store and purchase an e-book or print book. I am an Amazon affiliate, so any time you buy something through links on this site, I make a few cents. Thanks for your support.

 

Vera Marie Badertscher

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “Hidden Treasures in Crete

  1. Visited Crete many years ago and thought it was wonderful, thank you for the photos really enjoyed them.

  2. I expect you know Mary Renault’s novel about Theseus, The King Must Die, partly set in ancient Crete. What do you think of it?

    Thanks for sharing this book and your trip. The closest I’ve come to Crete thus far consists in studying the art of the Minoans and other eras created on Crete while at university and eating oranges from Crete while elsewhere in Europe. Your story makes me think I ought plan a visit…

    1. Obviously, Kerry, I think you should visit! We practically lived on the freshly squeezed orange juice we got a tavernas along the way, since we don’t drink coffee and at least back then tea was hard to come by. But besides that, the tomatoes grown in enormous plastic-covered greenhouses in the south of Crete were the best tomatoes I have ever eaten.
      Yes, I’ve read all of Renault’s novels I think, and remember liking The King Must Die. While she necessarily makes a lot up, she was meticulous in her research, so it helps you begin to imagine what the Minoan civilization might be like.

  3. Enjoyed this, Vera ~

    First became aware of Minoan architecture and its beauty in a design history class . Your photos and story show I’ve a LOT more to look forward to in a visit to Crete besides the palace at Knossos and gorgeous beaches.

  4. I so agree- Crete is a glorious and varied destination that deserves to be on every traveler’s bucket list! Visited in the early 1980’s and fondly remember Knossos, Agios Nicholaus, Chania.

    Not such fond memories of the illness following my mistake buying and eating grapes from a local vendor on the beach after rinsing them in the water there. BAD decision! Although only in my early 20’s at the time, I learned a lifelong lesson about how and what to eat raw when traveling.

    Your book review, commentary and pictures have me yearning for a reunion trip. I will surely read this book before I return there … oh and no fruit you cannot peel :-)

  5. I spent months in Crete in 1974-5 and the memories of being there are still strong. I loved Knossos and I spent many nights in the tavernas where the Cretan dancing and singing was beautiful. I particularly remember three tall, slim, handsome brothers dancing together in the line dancing. There was one restaurant that had incredibly consistently excellent food. Well prepared it is easy to eat the same Cretan and Greek dishes over and over. Wish I could go again. However, my Greek is a much fainter memory than the rest.

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