Whoever sets foot in Crete,” according to its greatest writer Kazantzakis, “senses his soul begin to grow”. And the best point of entry, without a doubt, is its capital, Heraklion.
Crete’s capital, Heraklion, gets short shrift from the guidebooks – “it’s the kind of place” one of them says, “that most people go on holiday to escape”. Don’t believe it.
Heraklion has wonderful Venetian buildings, a lovely harbour, terrific museums and art galleries, and the best shopping on the island. It is, also, the one place in Crete that doesn’t go into semi-hibernation during the winter.
The centre of Heraklion is a maze of pedestrianized streets and alleys – snickets they’d be called in Manchester or Leeds – full of cafés, bars and restaurants. At its heart is “Lion Square”, a popular meeting place and home of the Morosini Fountain and San Marco Basilica. On the street that leads down from the square to the boat-thronged harbor and impressive Venetian fortress is the church of Agios Titos, in which, gruesomely, a reliquary containing the saint’s head is on display. Elsewhere in the city (and within easy walking distance) the Archaeological Museum is stuffed full of Minoan wonders, the Historical Museum attracts locals and visitors alike, and the Natural History Museum, with its children’s discovery centre and plane tree cinema (yes, it’s in a tree trunk) draws kids from far and wide. On a city wall bastion to the south stands the tomb of Kazantzakis, Greece’s greatest novelist.
Within reach of Heraklion, by car or bus, are windy roads and world-famous Minoan Knossos to the south, beautiful Bali and Agia Pelagia to the west and, stretching eastward, two of Crete’s giant water parks, together with an aquarium and golf club. Further afield, you can get anywhere on the island in a couple of hours: the under-populated far east, the idyllic south coast, lofty inland mountains, the charming towns of Chania and Rethymnon.
Each period of Crete’s lengthy holiday season has its pros and cons. July/August see most of the island’s cultural, music, wine and food festivals, but also heat, crowds and high prices. May and June, with spring shading into summer, are cooler and less costly. May Day is celebrated by flowers, family picnics and kite flying and in late June bonfires and fireworks are sparked by both the summer solstice and, in all the main ports, Naval Week.