Mark Nicholls heads off the beaten track into western Crete.
Overlooking the Gulf of Chania on the Rodopos peninsula, the Gonia Monastery occupies a commanding position.
Built between 1618 and 1634 in the Venetian style, with views across the Sea of Crete and back towards the fishing village of Kolymbari, it is a magnificent setting.
Today, as you walk past the entrance fountain of the Orthodox monastery and look up to the belfry, you enter a courtyard offering inner peace and coolness from the summer sunshine.
Vines hang from trellis and there are quiet corners to sit, admire the striking architecture, and enjoy the freshness of the morning.
Yet this is an ecclesiastical fortress with a strong history of defence against invaders and fending off foreign forces; it was damaged on several occasions during attacks by the Ottoman Empire, and a cannonball from one of those assaults is still visible lodged in the monastery wall, while during World War II it was partly destroyed by bombs as the area became a focal point of Cretan resistance against the occupying German forces.
The main church is surrounded by chapels along with the refectory and storehouses but take time to walk down the steps to the crypt and underground chambers, where there are displays of Byzantine artifacts from the 15th to the 17th centuries, icons and religious regalia and other rare treasures.
To reach this spot, I’d hopped aboard one of the regular “fun train” departures that cover western Crete and meander along the coast or inland through gorges and mountain roads, pausing at landmarks, unspoilt villages, vineries and olive oil plants.
It is an interesting way to explore some of the more off-the-beaten track areas of this ruggedly beautiful landscape; a snapshot journey of a different side of Crete, and one away from the beaches and the tourist centres.
What I love about these road trains is that they take you to hidden corners of the island that you wouldn’t normally expect to see, offering a taste of Cretan life that has barely changed in decades.
This is slow paced, slow food and slow lifestyle at-a-glance, and if you like what you see, you can always hire a car and return on your own schedule.
Boarding the “Pleasures of Crete” departure near Maleme, a few miles outside Chania, it wasn’t long before we were out on the open road, trundling through Kissamos and Kolymbari – home to Diktina, one of my favourite restaurants in this part of the island – and then winding our way above the shoreline to the Gonia Monastery.
From there, we headed on to the villages of Afrata, pausing for a Greek coffee in the village taverna, and on to Astratigos.
At first glance, there may seem that there’s not much to see here. That is probably the case, almost the appeal, but stopping for refreshment in a charming taverna, taking a mid-morning snack, and looking out across the view as bougainvillea pours down from the roof and frames the scene, is all you need; it is the experience of timelessness.
The road train, of course, is on a timetable but you never feel rushed, as is the Cretan way.
Wine and olives
We eventually paused at a winery – where tasting is optional and free – but you soon discover Cretan wine is a remarkably well-kept secret. Varied, good quality and moreish, there is of course the chance to pick up a bottle or two, or indeed have it shipped home.
Within four hours of setting off, I was being dropped off at the beach to climb aboard my sunbed and spend the afternoon soaking up the sunshine after a morning exploring.
There are actually seven routes that you can take by road train from the Chania, Platanius, Maleme area – each between two and a half and four hours and costing 20 euros for the trip.
They’ll take you to different villages, through gorges, vine-growing regions and to olive processing plants, wartime sites, past flora, fauna and herbs, and offer views that range from the purely lovely to the simply stunning along the way beneath canopied carriages.
There’s the chance to savour local flavours, and what’s more Cretan than wine and olives?
At the time, I was staying at the boutique-style Mistral Hotel in Maleme for a few days. What I particularly like about the Mistral, which is popular with independent solo travellers, is the relaxed atmosphere, the flexibility in booking and duration of stay, and the ability to enjoy the hotel at your own pace and shape your own holiday.
The Mistral also offers delicious and healthy homemade Cretan cuisine to guests, has a lively bar, and runs a range of excursions to various locations across western Crete.
It’s the kind of hotel where you can spend days relaxing and reading beside the two pools, head off to the beach, enjoy shopping in Chania or explore the western part of the island by taking the local bus, the road train or wandering along the coast to Platanius or Kolymbari.
From the hotel poolside, it’s just a short walk down to the Maleme seafront where restaurants such as The Wave or Menta have shoreline frontages lined with sunbeds for use by their customers. With unobtrusive waiter service, when you feel peckish there are delicious breakfast, lunch or dinner menus. (I can definitely recommend the grilled King Prawns at Menta).
The beaches of western Crete are as varied as they are magical: from the crashing waves at Maleme to the perfection of Falasarna a few miles away, which is always a favourite with its gentle sand and warm blue waters. Elsewhere, Elafonissi is attractive, with hits pink-hued sand, while Paleochora – an hour from Maleme – offers a different perspective.
A small town packed with bars that lead down to a lovely beach, store this one away as a bolthole. As the season wears on to September, there can at times be showers – albeit brief – in the west of Crete, but local knowledge will tell you where the sun still shines, so a short drive to somewhere like Paleochora may make all the difference weather-wise.
Western Crete has a constant lure for me with its cuisine, warm seas and a coastal landscape overlooked by mountains, fissured by navigable gorges, including the legendary Samaria which is Europe’s longest.
The 16km hike downhill to Chora Sfakion is not for the faint-hearted but is a true challenge with the reward of a cold beer in the tavernas at the end.
There are, however, plenty of other accessible walks and hikes in this part of the island, which is a gem to explore on foot. The Mistral Hotel actually organises two specific walking weeks, in May and October, with guided walks of around 5 to 10 kilometres, as well as a photography week using the alluring locations, architecture and landscape as a learning curve for would-be photographers.
While Maleme itself has plenty of shops and restaurants, and there’s even more at Platanius. Chania a few miles away, is one of the most charming harbour towns in the whole of the Mediterranean. You can spend hours browsing in the shops and quirky alleys set back from the waterfront or simply watching the world from a café or restaurant beside the Venetian harbour.
Wander around and explore, dine on delicious Cretan cuisine and enjoy a Greek coffee or a cocktail at your leisure.
This is the ambience of western Crete; rugged beauty, lovely harbours and fishing villages and towns that have an eternal lure.
Accommodation: Mark Nicholls stayed at the Mistral Hotel, Maleme, where rooms – all for single occupancy – are around £120 a night, including breakfast and dinner or £817 for a seven-night stay in July. Flights are not included. Walking weeks are from May 3rd to 10th and October 4th to 11th, with a range of light to moderate walks, from £1,020 for seven nights. For more details please visit www.singlesincrete.com.
Fun train: With seven routes, departing several times a day and pick up points at the main resorts, journey times are around three hours and the excursions cost 20 euros. Visit www.funtrain.gr for more details.
Mark Nicholls is an award-winning freelance travel writer and author, based in the UK and has written for a range of national titles, specialist magazines and international websites and operated as a war correspondent in locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photographs by Mark Nicholls