Chania, Crete

For me, Greece has three potential appeals; classical history, the seaside, and traditional culture. Chania has all three but is a massive winner on the last item. There is a reasonable beach in town, and archaeological sites in the area. But, with its extensive warren of an old town and large picturesque (Venetian) harbour, Chania is rich in… well… ‘Greekness’.

I accept that doesn’t help in some ways, (it’s useless, Ed) but hanging out in Chania, drinking, eating, just strolling about in shadowy narrow streets, all adds up to a magical place. The buildings, the language, the harbourside restaurants, the sparkle of sunlight on crystal water, have a healing quality perhaps. There’s something in the Greek mix that drains away life’s stresses and cares. Consider how often Greece has been used as the idyll for romantic comedies in the movies.

We spent two weeks in Crete, and Chania was our first stop for five nights. Everywhere we went, I was, as usual, struck by how nice people are. Of course, business owners have good reason to be nice. They want our custom. But I think it’s more than that. The locals are, generally speaking, kind, generous, and welcoming by nature. Spiritually, they reflect the beauty of their land.

Ooh. I’ve gone all moist. Blame the raki. Anyway. To business.

We stayed in Townhouse Eleni, a very nice a traditional stone cottage in very old, narrow streets. The accommodation included two floors and rooftop terrace, a wood burner, three bathrooms, two showers, fourposter bed. It’s in a great spot, in a residential part of the old town, just outside the centre, near the eastern side of the harbour. It would have been perfect. The fly in the ointment was that the house opposite was being nosily renovated. And when the street is only seven feet wide, that’s noisy. The sound penetrated the walls so much that, on the first day, I thought we had very clumsy burglars. Thankfully, they weren’t working all the time, as it was Easter weekend. One afternoon, they downed tools and stood on the scaffolding to listen to me playing classical guitar.

On this note (see what I did there?) By the way, if you’re thinking of taking a guitar on holiday, I can recommend it. We were away for two weeks. It cost about £100 as hold luggage, but it was worth it as I played for about an hour most days. Come to think of it, hotels could rent an acoustic out for, say, €20 a week? They’d be making money in no time. No playing early or late in the day so as you don’t bug the other guests.

Chania’s harbour, with its 16th century lighthouse, is the star of the show. It’s one of those places where ambling around and soaking up the atmosphere is the main ‘activity’. Naturally, the body needs sustenance to help it cope with such a strenuous programme.

The old town oozes charm and you find yourself stopping every hundred feet to take a photo. It’s pedestrianised by default as cars were not a twinkle in Henry Ford’s eye when this town came to be. The streets and back alleys have emerged organically over the centuries. Down one street we found a solitary minaret with Arabic script on the stonework. The old town is where you’ll find the restaurants, bars and arty gift shops that cater for tourists. There is a more modern town backing away from this with clothes shops galore. Chania’s medieval (and earlier) past dominates the town physically. It is what strikes the visitor. An hour away by car, Rethymnon also has a decent old town, but it is dominated by newer growth and the the traffic is heavy.

The beach is okay but it isn’t particularly striking. There is the sandy bit and a wet bit so it passes definition as a beach. Maybe I’d have liked it more if the sea had been warmer, but it was April only a few hench characters braved it for a swim. Buildings along the promenade behind the beach are modern, and unattractive. There are lots of great beaches around, Souda and Maleme for example, but you would need a car to get to them. We picked up a car at the end of our stay to travel to other destinations. It’s cheaper than taxis if you’re going any distance. We paid €25 a day with Athens cars. They are based near the airport but they came and picked us up from our accommodation. I can recommend them.

There are loads of restaurants. In a back street off the harbour, Veneto is a superb Italian and we went twice. The pizzas were spot on. House wine was €5 a glass, and it was a big measure equivalent to two large glasses in the UK. Kritamon, unpretentiously (ahem) calls itself a ‘wine restaurant’. Most restaurants sell wine, but hey, it was nice plonk. My wife had the lamb with rice, which was quite splendid. I had grilled pork, and it was very tender with first class crackling. For dessert the crispy baklava was to die for.

On Easter Sunday, we had breakfast and dinner at Kavouras. Every restaurant around the harbour was roasting a lamb on a spit. It’s the only day of the year they do this. The religious tradition stems from the idea of Jesus being the sacrificial Lamb of God. Like any of the harbourside eateries, Kavouras is in a great location with plenty of tourist footfall, however they don’t exploit this and rip people off. Prices are reasonable, the food is excellent, and they throw in freebies like cake and ice cream, and shot of raki or two. Our evening meal of, roast lamb, homemade chips, and one litre of house wine cost €37 for two people. There was more than we could eat.

We dined in more places, obviously, and were never disappointed. As for bars, we frequented a few. Boheme was flashy and cool, a little pricey, but it’s a class joint, set in a lovely courtyard location with shady trees. A friendly cat came over to say hello, and that completed the mellow vibe.

Chania Sailing Club has a lounge café/restaurant with outside seating. The terrace is perfect for sunsets and has a view right down the length of the harbour. It’s at the far end where the sea wall starts and you can walk to the lighthouse from there. I say ‘perfect for sunsets’. Without sunglasses, you’d have to pull your jumper over your head.

The harbour dates back to the Venetian period and a lot of Chania’s history is evident in its architecture. There is a mosque on the quayside, minus its minarets. There are quite a few derelict buildings around, ripe for renovation. Some were destroyed in WWII as the port came under heavy attack. The turbulent past is the backcloth for Chania’s charming present.

Its rich culture was very evident over the Easter weekend. On Good Friday, the mournful tolling of bells across the town lent an atmospheric, funereal soundtrack. On Saturday evening, local Church communities paraded through town dressed in black. At midnight, Church bells and fireworks marked the beginning of the celebrations. Whilst Chania is a tourist destination, it is a genuine, Greek town in its own right.

Should you go?

We went to three locations in Crete over the fortnight and, as a town, Chania was my favourite one. I’d say I even preferred it to Parga, with which it has many similarities. I love sitting by a pretty harbour, admiring old buildings, and strolling round with nothing to do but relax.

We were there in the third week of April. So early in the season accommodation is cheaper and there are perhaps fewer tourists, however there were many Greek visitors as it was Orthodox Easter. Strangely, a significant number of Americans appeared on Easter Sunday. I don’t know where from. I wish I’d asked them now. Of course, you are taking a chance on the weather in April. We got lucky, and it was fine. Hot enough such that we lay on the beach one day. A fleece was useful in the evening in case there was a breeze. That’s how we like it. Crete gets very hot in the summer months, too hot for me, but it’s a matter of personal taste.

To answer my question above. Yes, and I’d happily go back. This time we’d hire a car and get about more.

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