With its glorious harbour, bougainvillea draped houses, winding cobbled streets and rich array of museums and markets, it’s hard to tear yourself away from Chania. But beyond its fringes lies the lush and captivating landscape of western Crete which offers an array of unforgettable attractions, from the ancient to the very modern. Here are some you shouldn’t miss.
The Botanical Park and Gardens of Crete
At Fournes, a 20-minute drive or 30 to 40-minute bus ride from Chania, something wonderful has risen from the ashes of disaster. After a fire devastated ancient olive and orange groves in 2004, the Marinakis family created these entrancing gardens. Nearly 20 hectares of land were recovered and transformed into a natural garden of Eden where ornamental, herbal and medicinal plants from around the world thrive on the hillsides in the foothills of the White Mountains. 2.5 km of trails weave around the slopes guiding you through vineyards, citrus and cherry tree orchards, a herb garden, tropical gardens and many more. There are good rest areas, so you can take plenty of time to savour the tranquillity and fragrance of the gardens and enjoy a totally different Cretan experience. The trail ends at a broad, man-made lake, the home of birds and butterflies and talkative water fowl, and you might also spot some peacock, deer and a donkey here. The restaurant features traditional Greek fare made from produce grown in the gardens and a delicious meal makes a perfect accompaniment to the fresh air and splendour of the gardens.
Souda Bay War Cemetery
Just 5 km east of Chania, lies Souda Bay, a vast natural harbour – one of the largest in the Mediterranean – which sits beneath the Akrotiri peninsula. Here you’ll find one of the most striking and poignant reminders of the great ordeal the Cretans suffered during the Second World War. Bordering the bay’s western shore and surrounded by an olive grove, The Souda Bay War Cemetery is the largest Allied cemetery on the island, the final resting place of casualties of the First and Second World Wars. 1500 of the men lying here were Allied troops killed in the last ten days of May 1941 in the Battle of Crete when the Allied forces – which had been evacuated to the island after the fall of Greece – were overwhelmed by the Germans following a vast airborne attack. 18,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated to Egypt, 12,000 were taken prisoner and 2,000 were killed. The Germans soon occupied the island and were to remain until 1945.
Bright flowers bloom between the rows of meticulously-tended white headstones that stand beside the deep blue waters of the bay. It’s impossible not to be moved by the contrast between the serenity and beauty of the setting and the tragic sacrifice of those who lie here. The grave of John Pendlebery, the English archaeologist and curator of the site of Knossos, shot by the Germans in 1941 while aiding the Greeks, can be found here. Also buried here is Dudley Perkins, the courageous New Zealander who led a guerrilla band in attacks against Germans and who was killed in 1944.
A little further east from The Souda Bay War Cemetery on a high plateau with the White Mountains looming in the distance and Souda Bay far below, lie the remains of the ancient city-state of Aptera – one of Crete’s foremost ancient cities. The area has been occupied since the 8th century BC, and by the 5th century the city was one of the great commercial centres of Crete. Its heyday continued into the Hellenistic period, and it was a busy rural hub in Romans times. Earthquakes and the Arab invasion of 823 ended Aptera’s prosperity, but its long life continued well into the Christian era. In among the wild grasses you’ll find the remains of two Doric temples, a small theatre, some Roman baths, a Roman villa, some vast, vaulted Roman cisterns and the Monastery of St John Theologos. The calm and silence of the site make for a perfectly relaxing visit and as you stroll about you can take in the wide views of Souda Bay and the clear mountain air.