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Journey to the soul of Crete

Memorial at Preveli marking the 1941 evacuations of Allied troops from the beach below.

Memorial at Preveli marking the 1941 evacuations of Allied troops from the beach below.

Rethymno Province is a land of towering mountains, sparkling beaches and haunting history. Mike Sweet takes the Cretan road less-travelled, in the footsteps of heroes.

Greece’s greatest modern author Nikos Kazantzakis, writer of Zorba the Greek, said of his homeland: “Crete’s mystery is ex­tremely deep. Whoever sets foot on this island senses a mysterious force branching warmly and beneficently through his veins, sensing his soul beginning to grow.”

Sacred site: Arkadi monastery.Sacred site: Arkadi monastery.

Nowhere is Crete’s mystery deeper than in Rethymno Pro­vince. As wild as it is beautiful, mountain roads wind through ancient villages, secluded valleys and towering gorges, to en­chanted beaches, and (if you’re prepared to go off the beaten track) sublime isolation; it’s a province that has it all.

One road, south from Rethymno town, heads directly to the heart of this remarkable region, and then on to the spellbinding southern shore. Signposted to Spili, the road sweeps due south for a dozen kilometres, through the village of Armeni, before bending east.

A right turn before picturesque Spili (famous for its weaving and spring waters) will take you through one of the most awe-inspring gorges in Crete – Kourtaliotiko – and here, a short distance east of Plakias, are some of the province’s most idyllic and accessible beaches.

As always in Crete, history and legends – ancient and modern – walk with you along this rugged and beautiful coast. Visited through the centuries by foreign invaders, clung to by tiny, isolated communities, and used as a spiritual retreat by the faithful, this is a timeless land. Most of the landscape appears as it would have done centuries ago.

Whoever sets foot on this island senses a mysterious force branching warmly and beneficently through his veins, sensing his soul beginning to grow

Twelve kilometres east of Plakias, Preveli Monastery, dating back to the Middle Ages, stands high above a tiny palm-fringed beach. Active in organising rebellions against the Turks in the late 19th century, today the monastery is more well known for the daring exploits that took place here 76 summers ago in the darkest days of World War II. It was here in July and August of 1941 that hundreds of Allied soldiers, who had evaded capture after the fall of Crete, were spirited away by submarine to Egypt, under the noses of their Nazi pursuers.

Having been given refuge by mountain villagers, and then protected by the Preveli monks, the soldiers’ escape was the result of an extraordinary bond created between the troops and the Cretan people, who risked summary execution for harbouring them. Rethymno Province continued to be a vital escape route for hundreds of soldiers in the months that followed, and a centre of resistance until the end of the Nazi occupation.

Paximadi (wheat and barley rusks), olives and mizitra cheese: staples of the Cretan diet.Paximadi (wheat and barley rusks), olives and mizitra cheese: staples of the Cretan diet.

There are few sealed roads that run parallel to the coast east of Preveli; most pick their way north to south, branching off from the main highway that connects Spili with Agia Galini, close to the border with Heraklion Province. While the distance between highway and coast is not great, be­cause the roads traverse the mountains, beware; journey times are longer than expected.

East of Preveli, the tiny hamlets of Agios Fotini, Triopetra and Agios Pavlos can be reached easily by car, though take a map – and look out for the signs (few and far between). Triopetra is the pick with a handful of delightful seafront tavernas.

A turn off west of Spili offers the chance to savour one of Crete’s best kept secrets: the Amari. Accessed through the village of Gerakari, the Amari Valley lies cradled 500 metres above sea level, between the mighty Mount Ida and the Kedros range.

Here a labyrinth of country lanes shaded by cypresses, oaks and pines connect tiny hamlets largely un­touched by tourism. Between the villages, a patchwork of fields – of corn and cabbages, figs and apples, grapes and quinces, all nestling up to some of the oldest olive groves in Europe.

Plakias Bay, Rethymno ProvincePlakias Bay, Rethymno Province

Time spent in this Aegean shangri-la is unforgettable.

Every path in this remarkable province opens a door to Cretan history, a history so often marked by heroism and sacrifice across generations. Head a few kilometres north from the Amari and you come to another ancient monastery, Arkadi, 23 kilometres southeast of Rethymno. It was here, during the Cretan revolt of 1866, that more than 900 – mostly women and children – sought refuge.

After three days of battle against the Ottoman forces and close to being overrun, the Cretans chose to sacrifice themselves rather than surrender. Their actions brought worldwide attention to the cause of Cretan independence, and ultimately to Crete’s unification with Greece. Today Arkadi is a national sanctuary in honour of Cretan resistance.

Greece comprises some 6,000 islands and islets scattered across the Aegean and Ionian seas, of which about 220 are inhabited. Crete is the largest, its powerful natural beauty only equalled by the richness of its history.

Rethymno Province, a geographical area of some 1,500 square kilometres, inspires like no other region of this extraordinary island. Treat yourself; make your own way along its mountain paths, add your footprints to the timeless sands.

South coast luxury

Plakias was a humble fishing village in 1961 when the official census recorded its population, all of six people. Times have changed. Today it is a popu­lar resort with a wide range of bars, cafes and restaurants. Boat tours from Plakias harbour take the legwork out of getting to those idyllic isolated beaches (including Preveli), as well as offer great fishing.

Providing some of the most comfortable accommodation on the south coast, on the eastern edge of Plakias Bay, Plakias Resorts makes an ideal base for exploring Rethymno Province and its southerly interior. The hotel/self-catering apartment complex, which opened in 2013, is an oasis of calm at the eastern edge of Plakias Bay, 15 minutes’ walk from the centre of town. This is a place of tranquillity and modern comfort, delivered with simple but elegant contemporary design and excellent customer service.

Well-appointed one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments surround three swimming pools (one for families with children) in their own secluded garden. Spotlessly clean, with a daily maid service, apartments have kitchenettes and views. Superior two-bedroom apartments on the first floor, with balconies on each side, look out onto the pool and Plakias town. Three-bedroom villas, each with its own pool, are also available for those who want to splash out.

Mike Sweet was a guest of Plakias Resorts and tra­velled from Athens to Crete with assistance from Aegean Airlines. Aegean Airlines operates four ser­vices weekly from Malta to Athens, and 10 flights daily from the Greek capital to Chania and Heraklion.

Plakias ResortsPlakias Resorts

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