Don’t be deceived by first impressions - Heraklion, Crete’s funky capital, offers world-class sightseeing and real Greek atmosphere
For most visitors, Heraklion is a place to pass through on the way from the ferry or the airport to the beaches. But now that easyJet flies here direct, it’s becoming a short break destination in its own right.
At first sight, Heraklion isn’t the most enchanting spot in Crete. But persevere, because it has a lot going for it, including a truly amazing slice of the ancient world, a breathtaking museum (due to reopen this year), and a clutter of relics of its Venetian heyday. And there’s no better place on Crete to experience life the way that Greeks live it. After the day-trippers have left, you’ll be outnumbered by locals in its tavernas and cafés.
Choosing your base
For atmosphere, base yourself in the historic centre, where tumbledown 19th-century buildings with sagging wrought-iron balconies lean on newer postwar blocks. On a budget, stay at the family-run Mirabello Hotel
(doubles with shared bath/WC from €40), only a minute’s walk from Lion Square and 400 metres from the ferry port. Moving up a notch, Lato Boutique Hotel
(en-suite doubles from €85) is brand new and has designer aspirations.
With money to burn, go out of town to Amirandes
, Crete’s newest luxury hotel. Ten minutes east of the airport, Grecotel Amirandes
is a collection of split-level villas with private pools, a semi-private beach, reflecting pools and fountains, five outstanding restaurants and a spa. If you stay here, you’ll probably want to spend most of your time relishing its opulence, with occasional sightseeing forays.
The hub of the old town is Lion Square, more properly known as Plateia Venizelou, where stone lions support the Morosini Fountain (named after a 17th-century Doge of Venice). Cluttered with café tables, it has had a facelift recently, though the renowned fountain is still dry more often than not. Start the day here with an early breakfast of yoghurt and honey or rizokalo (rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon) and freshly squeezed orange juice.
Then plunge straight into the ancient world of the Minoans, at the 4500-year-old ruins of Knossos. You need at least half a day to make the most of the painstakingly and colourfully restored ancient palace (home of the legendary Minotaur), so try to get to Knossos as soon as the site opens, to dodge the crowds who bus in from out-of-town resorts (and to avoid the heat of the afternoon sun). It’s about three miles from the centre of Heraklion – there are frequent buses but a taxi will cost about €5.
For lunch, carry on to Archanes, in the vineyard-covered hills about six miles south of Knossos. Tavernas surround the village square – my favourite is I Agora (Plateia Archanon), a typical Cretan mezedopoleion (meze being the Greek version of tapas: lots of little dishes to eat with ouzo, wine or beer). You can order a big platter, or while away the afternoon ordering dish by dish.
Back in town, Heraklion’s markets and museums can easily take up another morning. Walk south from the southern corner of Plateia Venizelou, across Plateia Nikos Fokas, to Odos 1866, Heraklion’s market street, where you’ll see local traders kick-starting their day with a traditional Cretan eye-opener: a cigarette, a cup of poisonously strong, thick coffee and a shot of raki, Crete’s native firewater.
Stalls here sell everything from buckets of wild snails to dozens of different kinds of olive, local cheeses (it’s a good place to shop for a picnic) and the myriad different herbal tisanes for which the mountains of Crete are famed – dikti (dittany), camomile, and lots more. You’ll find a natural remedy here for whatever ails you, from bronchitis and sleeplessness to infertility. “Better than Viagra!” is one herbalist’s boast. Stalls and shops open around 08:00 and close by 14:00 at the latest, Monday to Saturday.
Heraklion’s Archaeological Museum, with its amazing collection of relics of Europe’s oldest civilisation, is being renovated and won’t reopen until later this year (2009). Until then, there’s a small temporary exhibition that’s worth a look. Also worth a look (if only for the two paintings by Cretan-born Domenicos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco) is the Historical Museum. It’s at the west end of Sofokli Venizelou, and this waterfront boulevard is the top spot for dinner, with views down to the sea and the Koules, the massive Venetian fort that still guards the harbour.
Locals reckon Parasies, opposite the museum (Plateia Istorikou Mousio), is the best place in town for grilled lamb, chicken and pork. Share a grilled sheep’s head if you really want to go local, or try kokoretsi, made from organ meats wrapped in intestines and grilled – this is no place for vegetarians. More veggie-friendly is Kounies (Sofokli Venizelou 19), a recent addition to the Heraklion scene and catering to more modern tastes with dishes that include its own signature salad of fennel, avocado, lettuce, mushrooms and pine nuts – a refreshing change from the universal ‘village salad’ of feta cheese, tomato, onion and cucumber. For seafood, Ippokambos (Sofokli Venizelou 3) is the place to be.
For a slap-up, final night dinner, book a table at Loukoulos (Korai 5), renowned for its Mediterranean-fusion cooking, which puts a modern spin on the local diet, with locally-sourced organic vegetables, breads, olive oil, Cretan cheeses, lamb, goat and seafood. Like the rest of Heraklion, this is an aspect of Crete that most visitors to the island don’t experience. They don’t know what they’re missing.