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Europe: Crete

Hanging out in Chania

by Matt Thomas

When deciding on Chania (the C is silent) for this year’s late summer trip, I was looking for good weather, a beach or two and plenty of quality local places to visit such as museums, churches and perhaps a bustling old town. I had never been to Crete before and as the no.1 for history amongst the Greek Islands, and with Chania being it’s most vibrant town, it was there I headed for 5 days just after the August bank holiday.

chania harbour photo, crete photo, travel writing matt thomas, travel and talk

Arriving by lunchtime my first stop was a walk round the ancient Venetian harbour, built in 1320-1356. My stroll took in seafront tavernas, the lighthouse and harbour walls. It does have a nice edge to it, and is full of historical character combined with sunny, warm Mediterranean charm.  By a distance the best beach in town is Nea Chora which is a leisurely 10-15 minute stroll from the old town harbour.  The water is a wonderful turquoise and crystal clear; and given the mid 30 degree heat provides much needed cooling off.

I kicked off Day 2 at the well curated Municipal Art Gallery which is excellent value at 3 Euros entry. This value is reflected at all sights and generally speaking food, drink and accommodation, perhaps in part due to the level of competition, is reasonably priced. The Art Gallery spans 3 gloriously air conditioned floors and houses exclusively modern Greek Art and cleverly presents works on similar themes next to each other which are well sign posted – keeping the visitor informed.

chania old town photo, crete photo, travel writing matt thomas, travel and talk

The thing to do in the Old Town is not to have too much of a plan and cruise around. You’ll find backstreet restaurants hiding around the next corner, and all manner of great photo opportunities. The streets are not overly manicured and you will find bits of graffiti on the walls giving a modern edge to the near 700 year old paths.

The Archaeological Museum is no longer housed in the Old Town and is now in the Halepa neighbourhood. I took the decision to get there via a slightly sweltering 40 minute walk around past the Mosque, numerous more seafront cafes and restaurants, Koum Kapi Beach and the Museum of Ancient Ship Building which I didn’t visit but looked intriguingly vast. As one carries on from the Venetian Harbour, the seafront cafes do feel more authentic – as it’s more locals sipping coffee watching the ships come in, than tourists eating and drinking at the harbourside tavernas.

Generally speaking, museum wise, my interests lay more in History and Art than Archaeology, however the new Archaeological Museum is only 4 months old and is superb. The exhibitions sprawl over two outstandingly presented floors. The lighting is excellent and relaxed classical music accompanies the visitor. No expense has been spared on high tech either, with a particularly well done display on the earthquake of 365 AD. Among the other highlights are several well preserved mosaics and sculptures of ancient luminaries.

Onto Day 3 and this was something of an old school museum day. Given the last date on the visitor book at the Crete Hisorical Archives was 2020 this gives an idea of how few people visit. It’s small, appropriately stuffy, pretty much just a hallway and one other room and gives a brief history of the Island, primarily from a military and political standpoint. There is also a room dedicated to Eleutherios Venizelos, a Cretan native who was Prime Minister of Greece (1910–15, 1917–20, 1924, 1928–32, 1933). For me it was something of a must visit.

The Folklore Museum, I will admit, felt like something of a gap filler, but it is excellently done. The displays showcase what Cretan homes looked like in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The attention to detail is outstanding throughout its collection of furniture, embroidery, utensils, raki (a local spirit with something of a kick) making tools and farming equipment. There are also great mock ups of countryside scenes including model houses and farms all crammed into a 6 room space. The museum is 50 years old and run with some dedication by a mother and son – who told me he has never left Crete. He also shared that out of season (November-March) there is little else to do than sip coffee and pass the time.

chania old town photo, crete photo, travel writing matt thomas, travel and talk

The Maritime Museum, as has been my experience of Museums on this theme around the world, is very detailed and takes some getting around but again is great value at 4 Euros. The highlight for me being the 2nd World War displays.

Keen to see a bit more of the Island,  on Day 4 I headed to much vaunted Elafonissi and it’s famed pink sand beaches. To quote Lonely Planet, “this symphony of fine pink-white sand, turquoise water and gentle rose dunes looks like a magical dreamscape… azure water…prismatic rainbows…” You get the idea. Now don’t get me wrong it is a beautiful place and certainly worth a visit but come on. Yes the sand is pink in places but you have to look pretty hard for it. The water, I wouldn’t disagree is fantastically clear and perfectly cool. The thing to do here is wade across the inlet away from the 15 Euros sunbed area, which depending on your perspective are part of a great day at the beach or something of a tourist hell hole, and find a quieter spot as far down as you wish to go and while away the day with a book and top up your tan.

elafonissi photo, crete photo, travel writing matt thomas, travel and talk

I  enjoyed the bus journey to Elafonissi almost as much as my time at the beach. The journey goes some way to showcasing Crete – going through canyons and past small churches which are seemingly in the middle of nowhere, tiny villages and tavernas and many stands offering local goods such as honey, olive oil and raki. When I think of Greece, this is what I imagined. The thing to do here would be to hire a car so you can really explore the island and all her nooks and crannies. There seems a lot to discover.

greek orthodox church photo, crete photo, travel writing matt thomas, travel and talk

Onto my final day and I had left something that I was very much looking forward to and was not an insignificant part of why I chose Chania. The Greek National Football Museum (free to enter but please leave a tip or buy a unique replica shirt), if you are a football fan of any level, is a must and might be the best thing you will do in Chania. Something of a labour of love for Nikos, the affable and friendly owner who is also the Chairman of the Greek Supporters Association, the museum is packed with all sorts of football memorabilia, not only from Greece, but also shirts from such greats as Pele, Cryuff, Raul and Zidane. Inevitably Greece’s victory in the European Championships of 2004 dominates but there is something for everyone. For England fans there is a David Beckham shirt from 2001, Gazza from 1997 and Tony Adams from 1994. I spent about an hour in there and kept finding little surprises that I hadn’t seen before. I plan on doing a separate article on this excellent museum so I’ll leave it at that for now.

greek national football museum photo, crete photo, travel writing matt thomas, travel and talk

And that was more or less all she wrote. A brief note here to say that the much heralded Greek hospitality is alive and well. Service is very good and everyone is friendly and welcoming. The weather is all but guaranteed as well. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable trip.

Stay at: I stayed at the Rodon Hotel which was a 10-15 minutes bus journey to/from town depending on the time of day. The pool made the stay –  which given the heat I found to be something of a necessity. The hotel was absolutely fine and it was very pleasant to be in a quiet spot out of town, but for convenience sake I would probably suggest staying a bit closer to town to save on travel time in and out.

Eat at: The best restaurant I ate at was Los Tholos, I found it meandering around the backstreets. It’s set in a beautiful natural cliff on two levels and along with tasty moussaka you get some complimentary watermelon and raki after the bill.

Drink at: Chania is not a town if you want a boozy night out. The culture is more sipping coffee in cafes and eating at local restaurants.
The best spot in town (by a distance I thought) is The Van Bar in the Old Town which offers great value local beer and cocktails accompanied by the ubiquitous friendly service and a soundtrack of soft rock and power ballads.