Unwinding in Sitia, Crete.
Unwinding in Sitia, Crete.
As many of you have read in my last post, in the autumn of 2011 I flew to the Greek island of Crete for a ten day timeout. Lying around soaking up the sun and the sea had never been my default travel mode. But hey, sometimes one really needs to take a break from the world.
That stay, which took in the town of Georgioupolis, the village of Kournas and the city of Rethymno, had admittedly left me hungry for more. Thus I decided to come back to Crete, pretty much a year to the day, so that I could recharge my batteries again and see more of the island.
This time I chose to stay in Sitia, a pretty port town located in the northeast of the island. Home to around ten thousand residents, Sitia has a long history that predates even the Bronze Age Minoan Civilisation of 3000-11000 BC. According to historians, Sitia was once home to the great Myson of Chenae, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. Revered as possibly the wisest of all the sages, his many quotes remain popular in Greece today.
“We should not investigate facts by the light of arguments, but arguments by the light of facts.”
Later, in the 13th century, it was The Venetians who occupied Sitia. Their rule lasted for over 450 years. During that time the town became an important military post as part of their grip on the Eastern Mediterranean. They even built a large fortress overlooking the harbour. More on that later.
As much as I love my history, none of this stuff was at the forefront of my mind as I arrived on a typically sunny September morning. Rather, I was simply ready for another ten days of sun, sand and sea. On that front, Sitia delivered handsomely.
In fact, I felt the pressures of working life in Amsterdam rapidly melt away as I cast my eyes across the gorgeous, horseshoe shaped Sitia Bay. Moreover, much like Georgioupolis the previous year, the town was largely free from crowds. One of the many benefits, I figured, of timing my visit for September when most of Europe’s kids had gone back to school following the summer holidays.
Hence I had Sitia Beach mostly to myself. Indeed it was big enough that each day’s modest collection of sunbathers could easily spread out and keep themselves to themselves. My kinda beach.
On that first day it was so ridiculously quiet I half wondered if the parasols and beds might be free. Eventually though (silly me), a local man sauntered over to collect the day fee. He was also available, at just the raise of an arm, to bring menus and place food and drinks orders. All in all it was a pretty sweet deal.
Unwinding in Sitia, Crete.
This time my book of choice was Stories I Only Tell My Friends by the American actor Rob Lowe. After every chapter, I’d take a nap, go for a swim or raise my arm for a lunchtime kebab or a fruity cocktail. Yes siree, Sitia was working out just fine.
In the evenings, after a shower back at my hotel, I’d take a walk down Sitia Promenade. This pedestrianised stretch spans virtually the entire town and is packed with restaurant after restaurant after restaurant. I remember pondering how on earth they could all make a living. Then tried to picture what Sitia might look like in July and August, at the height of the tourist season. I guess they did ok.
While eating, there were terrific views across Sitia Harbour with its glittering blue-green water and bobbing boats.
Furthermore, it was fun watching the town’s locals at work and play. One afternoon I spied a local fisherman patiently awaiting a bite, some traditional Greek music drifting out of his mobile phone. Which, judging by the wistful look on his face, was taking him far away to some happy memory or daydream.
On another late afternoon I saw some kids fishing. They were a boisterous pair, noisily bickering over the best way to go about their business. As entertaining as it was, I never did stick around long enough to find out how they got on.
One restless afternoon on the beach, I decided to stretch my legs and get my blood pumping. What started as an aimless stroll soon turned into a lengthy exploration of Sitia’s endearing old town.
With its picture perfect cobblestone lanes, black street lamps, stone arches and flaky doorways, this is the beating heart of authentic Sitia. Working my way up an ascending street, I spotted an elderly lady hanging up washing from a balcony. A short while later, there was a topless man reading a newspaper on the tiniest strip of grass outside his front door.
Some of the buildings date back to the 1870s, when The Turks replaced The Venetians and rebuilt much of the town. They called it Avniye, after Hüseyin Avni Pasha, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. However, the Greeks simply kept on calling it Sitia and the name did not survive independence.
Up in the hills, I made my way towards Kazarma Fortress. Or at least what is left of the once grand Venetian fort. They built it as a guard barracks, the town’s main point of defence. It certainly saw some action over the centuries, with a near relentless wave of attacks. First, it survived the onslaughts of pirates and various attempted invasions.
Next, in 1508, a huge earthquake devastated much of the old joint. Then, not long after it had been built back up, came the most fierce human attack of all. This is when the Ottoman Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa destroyed much of the fortress in his vicious invasion of 1538.
Somehow though, Kazarma Fortress continued to survive. Until finally, and somewhat ironically, it was The Venetians themselves who finished the place off. They basically smashed the fort up and stripped its valuables so that it would be of little use to the advancing Turks.
Today you can pay a small entry fee and stroll around what’s left of the north and east sections of the original enclosure. The highlight, for me at least, was climbing the tower, now roofless.
It was something else up there. Just me and a near total silence accompanied by a faint sea breeze. Definitely my favourite view across Sitia Bay.
A short walk from the fortress meanwhile, I came upon the most delightful cemetery. If you know what I mean. It was a small, walled enclosure with a dinky Orthodox chapel, the gravestones jammed in like sardines in a crushed tin box.
Unwinding in Sitia, Crete.
My day exploring Sitia’s old town had worn me out. And so it was back to the beach for a few days, until I finished my book. Then, feeling daring, I opted to take a day trip to… another beach. Just to mix things up.
Actually, I’d read that Vai Beach is Crete’s most spectacular stretch of sand. Situated on the island’s eastern tip, it lies just a thirty minute drive from Sitia. In addition to its spotless sands and clear water, Vai Beach sits on the edge of Europe’s largest palm forest! No wonder local authorities charge an entrance fee.
There is no doubting Vai’s incredible beauty and those who take care of the park keep it spotlessly clean. As an experience though, I much preferred my local beach back in Sitia. Here, there were just too many people and too much noise. Nevertheless, it was well worth seeing, no regrets.
My favourite part of the day is when I took a walk up the short, steep trail that provides wonderful views over the beach and bay. From up there it seemed so peaceful, the huddled collection of parasols by the forest like a carefully constructed LEGO arrangement.
On my final night in Sitia I paid a visit to what many declare is the town’s best restaurant. It’s called The Balcony, a cosy, characterful eatery set in a traditional Sitian house a few streets back from the promenade.
I arrived just after opening time to find it perfectly empty. It was just lovely inside, the stone walls decorated by framed photographs and canvases of Sitia and the surrounding region.
And yet there really was only one place to settle: The Balcony’s… balcony! Usually, the hostess assured me, you need to reserve the balcony table. But it seems I was in luck, with the next reservation not due for another hour. So I ordered a beer, perused the menu and watched the foot traffic come and go down on the street below.
The Balcony specialises in fusion mediterranean cuisine. Everything comes freshly prepared and beautifully presented. After much deliberation, I went for the delicious filo pastry parcels stuffed with beef, cheese and tomatoes. They were amazing! As were the chocolate brownies drowned in vanilla ice cream and chopped nuts. I couldn’t think of a better way to toast my stay in this fantastic Cretan town. Cheers!
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