A late winter break in Crete

It was always going to be a bit of a gamble taking a trip to the Mediterranean this late in the season, weather wise, but the lure of a cheap, out of season holiday proved too much of a temptation.

 
So it was that I took a last-minute decision to whisk the family off to the usually sun-scorched island of Crete, to take advantage of the mid-term school break, although there were few anxious glances at the weather forecast for the week ahead.

Tantalisingly it looked good, up until the day we were due to arrive, when the little sun symbols on our phones disappeared behind an ominous bank of grey cloud.

At this stage of the year the bright blue skies of the Greek islands are flecked with cloud and sudden bursts of rain showers, so it was with some trepidation that we finally took off for the four-hour Ryanair flight to the island’s international airport at Chania.

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Crete usually gets about 10 days of rain in November so we convinced ourselves that we would turn this into a sightseeing trip as opposed to a beach break, and for the first couple of days we busied ourselves having a look around the city of Rethymon, where were staying and rented a car to see some of the other sights this fascinating island has to offer.

Rethymon, which was our base for the week, is a lovely laid back city and with its beautiful Venetian harbour at its heart, proved an easy one-day distraction.

Here we took walks out along the piers stretching out into the sea and took in a tour of the Fortezza perched on its hilltop location overlooking the city.

Having passed through the hands of several invaders over the centuries the fortress displays a beguiling mix of influences and its great battlements overlooking the sea were a readymade playground for Sam (8) and Molly (5).

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The Venetian harbour in the Old Town of Rethymon…

We stretched our walk back into town and out further along the coast to the west of the city where the long stretch of beaches is usually jam packed in the height of the summer season. Now, we had them pretty much to ourselves, apart from some local families making the most of the school break, and some noisy seagulls.

It made for a brisk walk along the shore and even though the waves, whipped up by the wind coming in from the north, were lashing the beach the kids still insisted on getting in for brief, if slightly chilly paddle.

The following day, with more grey skies and a smattering of drizzle in the air, we picked up our rental car and headed up into the interior, about 60km out of town where we found the still, clear waters of Lake Kournas.

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Hora Sfakion on the South coast…

The only freshwater lake on the island, Lake Kournas is normally home to turtles, goldfish, frogs and other exotic wildlife, although the only natural inhabitants we met was an aggressive flock of geese that chased us along the shore. Still, we made the most of our visit by taking a paddle boat out into the middle of the lake where we got completely drenched in the rain, much to the amusement of the locals.

Although we were enjoying ourselves, when we woke up on the third day to more overcast skies and even heavier rain, the novelty had well and truly worn off and we were all longing for a break in the weather and some bright sunshine to brighten up the holiday for our last few days.

Casually chatting to a local taxi driver in the café I had made a temporary home for the week I learned that if had any chance of seeing some sun we would have to drive 40km through the middle of the White Mountains that cut across the spine of the island.

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The beach at Plakias, South coast…

Here, on the south coast I was reliably informed, I would find my beach nirvana.
And so, that afternoon we set off on what should have been a drive of less than an hour to the other side of the island but which took twice as long as we stopped to take in the epic scenery along the way.

We found ourselves amid fantastic gorges where the road plunged thousands of metres down into the valley as sheer rock faces rose high above us. Mesmerised, it was late in the evening by the time we finally climbed over the last range and burst upon a scene of pure sun-shining gold.

There, laid out ahead of us, were the bright blue waters of the Libyan Sea, glistening in all their glory in the heat of the late afternoon sunshine.

We had finally found our sun. It appears that the mountains that rise up sharply across the centre of Crete act as a barrier to the wetter northern European weather fronts as they move south at end of the autumn, leaving this part of the coast bathed in sunshine for much of the day.

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The eerie caves at Melidoni…

Even though it was quiet, with few tourists about, the taverns were still open and you could grab a cold beer and lie back on the warm sands while lapping up the sun.

Following our discovery, we spent much of the rest of the holiday making the daily pilgrimage over the mountains to the south where we enjoyed the quite beaches, warm waters and the company of relaxed locals taking it easy after their hectic summer season.

With an average of 26 to 28 degrees every day, it proved a calm and idyllic last few days and we even made some more fascinating discoveries along the way.

On the route through the mountains there is a small town called Askifou where the relics of the island’s recent troubled past remain in a fascinating amateur museum.

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With Andrew at the war museum in Askifou.

 

During World War Two, German parachutists landed on the airdrome at Malame where they defeated the New Zealand, Australian and British soldiers garrisoned on the island.

The retreating Allies fought their way back over the mountains to the tiny seaside town at Hora Sfakion where they were eventually evacuated by the Royal Navy. However, along the way they abandoned much of their equipment and arms as they fled and it was this detritus of war that a local farmer, George A Hatzidakis, and his family gathered from the fields and farms in the valleys below the town of Askifou.

Here, we posed with his son Andrew amid his unique collection which offered a tangible real sense of the island’s recent history, and even though this land is arguably more famous for its mythological legends, it is here that you can really reach out and touch the past.

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Last of the autumn sun…

With the dark skies returning on our last day we took another venture into the island’s interior where we discovered another reminder of its dark past.

The caves at Melidoni, about 37km from Rethymo, have proved a popular tourist attraction for hundreds of years although it became more infamous in 1824 when, during the revolution against the ruling Turks, some 250 unarmed villagers, including women and children were suffocated when the entrance was sealed and fires set following a three-month siege.

Their bones still lie here, in a stone sarcophagus as it happened to be Halloween night it proved to be a particularly chilling journey into the cave’s gloomy interior.

Even though our last day had turned wintery it prepared us for our return trip to Ireland and having been blessed with even the few days of sunshine it had all been worth it.

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