Crete’s geography is constantly changing. In some locations it is harsh and barren, in others it is wooded and gentle. Its villages are smothered with green olive trees, orange groves, vineyards, and early vegetable market gardens. Historic stone farmhouses, villages and monasteries perched on mountain ridges, forgotten castles and chapels cling to its steep slopes. Its shoreline is lined with forbidding rocks, often inaccessible, and endless sandy or pebbly beaches and calm seas with charter sailing yachts that ply the waters. This is definitely one of the lesser known and most unique and unspoiled areas of Greece.
Chestnut, Oak and Cypress forests provide a variety of vegetation and wildlife. The palm forests at Vai and Preveli and the cedar forests at Gavdos and Hrissi supply Medicinal herbs and fragrant shrubs – laudanum and dittany. Marjoram and thyme grow in rocky areas and the mountain tops are home to the “kri-kri” or Cretan goat.
The main cities and ports on Crete – Hania, Rethimno, Iraklio, Agios Nikolaos, Sitia – were all founded on the north side, which is topographically more benign. Ierapetra is the only port on the south coast, on the shores of the Libyan Sea, facing Africa.
There are literally hundreds of tavernas and ouzerias serving tasty “meze”, a specialty of the area. Yogurt and honey, sweet tarts (kaltzounia), pies made of wild greens flavored with fennel, fried cheese (staka), rabbit stew, cheese pie from Hora Sfakion, cockles, boiled goat. In the city of Hania, at Malaxa, at Vrisses, and other villages in the area, in Rethimno, in Iraklio and its villages, and in the whole district of Lassithi. Fish, sea urchins, octopus and cuttlefish cooked on charcoal and fried squid to be tasted at seaside tavernas.
The ubiquitous and delectable Cretan wine is everywhere. Every saint’s feasting day is celebrated with gusto at dozens of villages throughout the island; all Crete throbs to the sound of the lyre and the rhythm of the local dances, the pentozali and the sousta. Meanwhile the housewives are preparing a steamed Cretan pilaff and special holiday fritters (xerotigana).
In the shop windows of bustling Iraklio, cosmopolitan Agios Nikolaos, picturesque Rethimno, and Hania, where elegant furs, precious jewelry and artistic silverware attract the visitor’s attention. In the shops of lovely Sitia and tranquil Ierapetra and in mountainous Anogia one is impressed by the spread out patanies, traditional local woven fabrics in dazzling colors, and everywhere one sees skillfully crafted ceramics and leather goods. In the “Stivanadika” district of Hania (Skridlof St.) traditional boots (stivania) are still made in the old-fashioned way, because though it may seem strange even today there are Cretans who still wear their traditional costume. In the marketplace of the same city, the only one of its kind, but also in similar shops all over the island, every kind of food, fruit and vegetable produced in the fertile valleys, hot houses and mountain regions, is laid out on display. Exotic avocados, Belgian endive and bananas, juicy oranges and fragrant melons, succulent figs and tasty prickly pears, delicious grapes, sweet tomatoes, tender cucumbers, fresh-watering sardines, tempting lobster, kid from the islet of Gavdos, honey perfumed with thyme, and wonderful cheeses – graviera (gruyere), myzithra (ricotta), fresh white cheese, and soft, luscious staka.