white mountains

The White Mountains (Lefka Ori) are the dominant feature of Western Crete

Crete is very much a late-spring-to-summer destination. Hardly anyone travels there in winter.

I just did.

The largest of the Greek islands is one of Europe’s best-known holiday destinations. It draws massive crowds of young people each summer, usually heading for the big resorts and looking for sea, sun and many kinds of fun. They are probably outnumbered by the sizeable amount of more discerning visitors, especially families, visiting the island between Easter and September to seek its natural beauty, fascinating history and perhaps a little peace, away – but not too far – from the hustle and bustle of the 21st century…

So, what brought me to Crete so late in the year? Work did. We are busy preparing next April’s début of our new tour “Exploring Crete: Archaeology, Nature & Food“. As for all our tours, the process of preparation is both extensive and intensive, and as always, it includes hands-on reconnaissance missions to ensure that everything is as well-prepared as can be. Thus, I spent a week travelling the length and breadth of the island, testing walking and driving routes, checking out accommodation and food options as well as archaeological sites, and making or renewing local contacts.

throne room

The 2500-year old (give or take) “Throne Room” at the Palace of Knossos

Over the last 15 years or more, I have spent a lot of time in (or on) Crete, including many long spring or summer stays, usually for archaeological research and now and then for leisure. I have also, rarely, had occasion for winter visits, but never for extensive ones. However. those visits taught me that Crete is not quite the same all year, which always struck me as a good thing. So, this December voyage was a new experience to me.

My impression? Extremely positive. Granted, my judgement may be a little biased, as I fell in love with the island on my first visit in 1995 and have never fallen out of it. What I found on this occasion was a much quieter Crete than what one would see during the main tourist season – but a truly warm, welcoming and intimate one, a very real place inhabited by immensely hospitable people.

Crete is blessed with a Mediterranean climate, so although the weather in early December was somewhat blustery from time to time, daytime temperatures still rose over 25°C (that’s 77°F)! From that point of view it is a mystery why the island’s tourism season ends by October. Admittedly, January and February (and sometimes March) tend to be harsher, but still usually include stints of extraordinarily clear and warm weather, characterised by a crisp Aegean light, ideal for photography.

zakros gorge

A view of Zakros Gorge (“Gorge of the Dead”, as the Bronze Age Minoans buried their dead in caves along its sides) in winter

Due to its size, and perhaps also its location between Europe, Asia Minor and Africa, Crete is a highly varied island, with landscapes ranging from the starkly beautiful, wild and arid East, via the heavily cultivated and extraordinarily lovely plains and hill country of the Centre, to the lushly forested slopes of the West, but also including the near-alpine mountainous spine along its entire length. For the connoisseur, trying different seasons should add another dimension: The flower-laden spring and balmy summer are well-known, but the colours of autumn and the atmospheric winter add to the full panorama. Importantly, the island is a wonderful place for walks, short and long, in its mountain ranges, through its gorges and along its wild coasts. Good weather minus the summer heat makes autumn and spring ideal for exploring this aspect, but winter, too, has great potential.

Most archaeological sites (including the intriguing Bronze Age Minoan palaces, but also Classical, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman monuments) and museums (with some of the most significant collections of prehistoric art worldwide) remain open throughout the winter. At this point, one needs to quote the great British writer, Saki (Hector Hugh Munro), who quite correctly wrote “The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally” (a line sometimes misappropriated to Winston Churchill).

Lissos Chapel

A Byzantine chapel at Lissos, one of the most beautiful archaeological sites in West Crete, built upon, and incorporating, much earlier remains

Much of the common tourist infrastructure is closed off-season, including many summer hotels, water-parks, seasonal restaurants and pretty much the entirety of the sun-fun-and-cheap-beer resorts. For my recce trip, that was not really a drawback, as those mainstream offerings are of little interest to me personally and of limited relevance to the upcoming Peter Sommer Travels tour.

In some ways, the winter closures actually worked to my advantage. The main cities, Iraklio (Heraklion), Rethymno and Chania, are vibrant with their own life throughout the year; and in towns and villages throughout the island, the occasional taverna remains open. The difference is simply this: what is open now is what the locals use all year – the real Cretan experience. For a tour recce that is rather useful: as the glut of tourist-geared restaurants serving the summer season is mostly packed up for the cold season, what remains is a ready-made selection of authentic places serving local cuisine of a quality that satisfies the in-the-know islanders. Needless to say, our tour will benefit directly.

The same applies to accommodation: the beach hotels may be closed, but many of the traditional town and village hostelries do operate, including most of the recently budding agrotravel sector, beautiful and highly characteristic establishments in renovated town houses or villages, often in truly breathtaking locations and concentrating on experiences with a genuine local flavour. Again, some of these will add a very special note to our Exploring Crete trip.

Another side effect of being there off season was the amount of people everywhere engaging me in conversation and making me feel welcome. Cretans are a friendly lot at any time, and tend to be genuinely curious about their visitors. With so few tourists around in winter, the locals simply had more time to chat, although many of them are busy with the olive harvest about now. Topics included the weather (predictably enough), history, recommendations such as places to visit, restaurants or local specialities, a bit of politics here and there, and various other matters.

Crete Village

Winter view of a village in East Crete – we are staying there!

If you can’t join us on Exploring Crete (but you should consider it), and you are looking for somewhere truly special to go off-season, consider Crete. You will discover a place different from any other: truly authentic, genuinely hospitable, very varied, deeply steeped in history, unforgettably beautiful and immensely rewarding to your own explorations.

For help with the Cretan recce, I would like to express my gratitude to the current Curator at the British School at Athens branch at Knossos on Crete.

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