The Greeks like to say that Chania is their version of Venice. But there are no canals or exorbitantly-priced shoes and you don’t keep getting lost so its a gross exaggeration. Its narrow, winding streets crammed with wispy-clothes boutiques and jewellery dens and the pretty waterfront clustered with yellowing, Italianate buildings do have a Venetian feel, owing to the fact that they ruled Crete from 1204, and its a good place to begin your Crete experience.
The women can find the right coloured, floaty numbers as beach cover-ups and a bit of funky jewellery that they’ll probably never wear again. The men can buy a decent pair of shorts that aren’t emblazoned with palm trees or skulls and they can get their feet done. Huh?
You see, just as women of a certain age worry about exposing their thighs on holidays so their male partners fear anyone seeing their naked feet. Or they should do. Fifty year old (male) feet are eyesores. Nobbly and disfigured and covered in hard skin and not presentable in public. Therefore what you’d like to wear on a hot day – sandals/thongs/flip flops/nothing – are a no-no. You are obliged to don deck shoes or Crocs (ugh) to stop your partner disowning you, your feet get all clammy and even more unsightly.
In amongst the cafe’s in one of Chania’s backstreets we found what looked like a pet shop with lots of little fish in tanks. It turned out you didn’t buy the creatures, you put your feet in amongst them. Now, I thought I was going to Crete to eat lots of snapper, not for their offspring to eat me. But actually the sensation was quite tingly and pleasant (and a lot less painful and embarrassing than a pedicure) and afterwards I emerged with one pair of vaguely presentable feet. Well sort of.
That was a good start and Chania, connected to the rest of Crete by a new, largely empty motorway, is a great excursion point from which to explore the less populous parts of the island. We stayed in an architect-designed 3-bed villa with brunch chef (courgette pie her speciality) set in olive groves 15 minutes from the hubbub. The owner, Despina, is your willing personal concierge. On her recommendation we drove west, arriving at the wide sweep of Falassarna beach in half an hour. Everyone raved about this spot, but we gave it 6/10. It was a wider version of Sandown in the Isle of Wight and windier.
We headed inland and the road climbed through pine forests and sleepy hamlets, at any of which you can get a strong coffee and the Cretan speciality Spanakopita (spinach pie.) The road clung to the side of towering canyons, some of which you can hike down. At the dramatic Topolia Gorge there is a parking place just after the village from where you can admire the view, be seduced by the chime of a goat’s bell and a vendor trying to sell you local honey, and walk up 200 stone steps to a small chapel in a cave. A short drive from there is Milia Mountain retreat, a restored 17th century village that is now an ecolodge (which basically means no wifi.)
Back in the car a half-hour winding descent brings you to the Elafonisi peninsula. This is regularly featured in the world’s top 20 beaches. It is good because there is plenty of parking, lots of different sections – some with beach umbrellas some without – and the water sports enthusiasts, who these days seem to be mainly surfers hanging from kites, have their own separate lagoon to career about in. It is not a beach polluted by the relentless drone of chill-out music either. The water is ridiculously clear. But the pink sand for which Elafonisi is famous has mainly disappeared. On a Sunday in mid June it wasn’t overcrowded.
Another day we headed east of Chania to Seitan Limania, (Satan’s beach) so named because it is a devil to find. You go round the back of a small mountain, left at a cottage, right at a tiny church and take a twisty, precipitous drive to the top of a cliff. It is not for the faint hearted. From the small car park you descend an awkward path, clambering over boulders and across scree and make it to a divine little beach hemmed in by sheer cliffs and populated mainly by young, fit Greeks (and the odd goat.) It is the most awe-inspiring place I have ever swum. I was glad I’d had my feet done.
After the return journey we needed a good feed. And that is where Chania really delivers. We finally got to each some fish, sitting on a sun-dappled roof-terrace of the old city palazzo (Pallas) overlooking the harbour. The grilled octopus with a mash of Santorini fava beans was outstanding.
There’s enough to do in Crete to keep you happy for a week (we didn’t manage to fit in the wine-tasting, or the sailing lessons or the boat trip to remote Balos beach) and the food is actually healthier and more varied than I was expecting, even if they do stuff cheese in everything, and you end up with tanned feet. Ain’t bad for the price of a weekend in Venice.