Rethymnon: a touch of class in Crete
- Recommended for:
- Beach, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range
Looked at one way, Rethymnon could almost be an eastern sheikdom; from another angle, it's more Miami. But head out of town, in to the hills, and it could only be Crete
Minarets, mosques and palm trees – can we be in the exotic Middle East? Not quite. A looming Venetian fortress, strings of octopus drying outside harbour taverns, and an archaeological museum stuffed with Minoan relics give the game away.
Rethymnon is Crete’s third largest town and like its rival, Chania, it combines old-world charm with beaches, outstanding scenery, and just enough culture to add interest without making you feel guilty for staying on the beach. For foodies and lovers of chic boutique hotels, it’s the business, with some of the best restaurants in Crete and a plethora of stylish places to stay in cleverly restored townhouses dating from its medieval Venetian heyday.
Rethymnon scores over Chania because it has its own beach right in town – and for a town beach, it’s outstanding, with a broad sweep of adequately clean sand and plenty of loungers and umbrellas to rent. It starts just east of the fishing harbour and behind it runs a long esplanade that’s one solid row of restaurants, café-bars and ice cream shops, lined with palm trees and, towards its eastern end, big resort hotels. On summer evenings, you can join four generations of locals – babes in arms, too-cool teens, black-dressed grannies and aged patriarchs – for the sunset volta (stroll) along this promenade.
The palms look appropriate, but they were replanted quite recently. In the 1930s, the ‘modernising’ military dictator General Ioannis Metaxas decided that the palm trees that graced the boulevards of most Greek towns were an unacceptable relic of the Turkocratia (the Ottoman occupation) and had them all cut down. Here, and elsewhere, they were replanted in the 1990s.
Metaxas also banned the nargileh (hubble-bubble water-pipe) for similar reasons, but it, too, is making a comeback. Sample a puff of fruit-flavoured tobacco at one of the trendy cafes around the Rimondi Fountain, a landmark at the hub of the old Turko-Venetian quarter.
But before you do that, you’ll need a place to stay. The Mythos Suites Hotel is tricky to find, hiding behind ancient walls on a tiny square at the corner of Karaoli and Dimitriou, a minute’s walk from the waterfront, but this miniature haven is well worth seeking out. ‘Like staying in a doll’s house,’ is how one guest describes it - but it’s a very stylish doll's house. The rooms, carved out of a clutch of age-old buildings, have beamed ceilings and stone arches, and surround an inner courtyard with a plunge pool that is incredibly appealing in the summer heat. All the rooms have mini-kitchens, which is a boon, and at around €100, it’s well priced.
In a similar price bracket, Palazzo Rimondi is almost too style-conscious, going for an Elle Deco look behind the walls of a 15th-century townhouse, also with a pocket-sized courtyard pool. Just a few steps away, seven colour-coded luxury suites make up the AVLI Lounge Apartments, above the finest restaurant in Crete (also called AVLI, with a marvellous locally-sourced menu and a stupendous wine list). A suite here starts at €200, and the service is immaculate. No pool, though.
If you do need big-hotel frills such as a pool, spa and room service, Aquila Porto Rethymno is the city’s top-ranking resort property, a complex of 200-plus rooms overlooking the beach. With easy access to the old quarter, the beach, and out-of-town sightseeing, it offers the best of all worlds. Shop for off-season rates in spring and autumn, when you can sometimes pick up a double here for as little as €80 (high season rates jump to around €180).
Settled in, resist the lure of beach and pool for a while and explore the old quarter, beneath a beetling Venetian fortress that overlooks a small fishing port lined with cheery, tourist-oriented tavernas. Inside the walls of this huge fort, a domed mosque adds to the town’s oriental mystique. Below, a pointed minaret marks another Turkish relic, the 17th-century Nerandzes Mosque, recently converted into a concert hall and music college. Just outside the fortress, the town’s archaeological museum, within one of the old bastions, has finds from archaeological sites nearby, but isn’t all that fascinating.
Take at least one day out to venture into the mountainous hinterland south of town with a rented car. The Arkadiou Monastery, on the slopes of Mt Idi, is a monument to the Cretan freedom fighters of the 1866 rebellion, who held out against the Turks within its massive walls, then blew up their own gunpowder store rather than surrender. Further south, the Amari Valley, with its meadows full of wild flowers, is a spectacular drive that can end with a visit to the Idaian Cave, the vast grotto that, according to the myths, was the birthplace of Zeus. If you’re feeling really energetic, you can climb to the summit of Mt Idi, the highest peak in Crete at 2456 metres. Marked walking trails lead to the summit from the Nida plateau, but it’s a tough eight-hour hike to the top and back and is only for fit and experienced walkers.
Back in town, you’ll pay extra to eat at one of the ever-popular tables by the harbour at fish restaurants such as Vasilis (Nearchou 10) or Knossos (Nearchou 40), which serves great grills and salads from around €12, but Rethymnon has no shortage of alternative places to eat – try Alana, at Salaminas 15 in the old town, for Cretan dishes such as rabbit stifado.