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Rethymnon

The province (nomos) of Rethymnon, is sandwiched between those of Herakleion to its east and Chania to its west. Lacking its own airport, this region is one for the more adventurous traveller. The rolling hills of the Amari valley are ideal for cycling, walking, or just relaxing in a landscape of sumptuous beauty. Gorges cut their way through limestone, before reaching the sea, depositing rainwater in winter and hikers in summer. Mountain villages are fabulous places to escape the heat and see traditional craftwork. And then there’s the towering presence of Psiloritis (Mount Ida), the island’s tallest mountain, which at 2,456 metres above sea level, rises a full three metres higher than that of its nearest rival, Mount Pachnes, in the White Mountain (Lefka Ori) range of Chania.

Rethymnon itself vies with Chania for the accolade of ‘most attractive city’ on the island with its Venetian architecture and winding streets, juxtaposed with Ottoman minarets and a rather pleasant modern town. It has its own sandy beach a short stroll east of the main town with a number of bars, restaurants and coffee shops, lining the road opposite. Tavernas cluster around the old-harbour, perfect for romantic evenings and a seat with a view, but the best food can usually be found a street or two back. Worth visiting in the area are the Rimondi fountain and the Venetian Fortezza (more about these two in the Landmarks section).
The city’s archaeological museum, situated at the fortezza’s eastern flank, is a favourite on the island, and the Historical Folklore Museum is also well worth a visit. A park in the new city can be a very relaxing way to spend some time, and sip at a coffee. The park doubles up as an open-plan zoo but is not worth visiting for that reason alone. If you find yourself in Rethymnon city, at the end of July, there’s a wine festival. There’s also a fabulous carnival, leading into the forty days of lent but check when it commences as Easter is a highly movable feast, and as a consequence, so too is the carnival.

Crete has such a wealth of important archaeological sites that, on the face of it, the province of Rethymnon might appear not to be over-endowed in this department, but there are enough, covering every period from final Neolithic (circa 3600 BC) to Ottoman to keep the would-be historian happy. (Read about the sites of Plakias, Monastiraki, Eleutherna and Lappa in the Archaeology section).

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Lappa (modern Argyroupolis) is another site well worth visiting for the ancient site itself (at the height of its powers during the Hellenistic period – late fourth century BC onwards) and the modern twin-layered village, with its cascading waterfalls and mills (Argyroupolis supplies the water for Rethymnon city), superb tavernas, and fabulous folklore museum, next to the Zographakis hotel, and curated by Mr. Zographakis himself, who holds the key.

Axos is another Minoan site, situated on the road between Anoghia and Bali, the latter of which acted as its port. Since one doesn’t need a passport to cross from one region (nomos) to another, note that Aghia Galini is far closer to the exceptional Minoan sites of Phaistos and Aghia Triadha than Herakleion, and Lake Kournas is appreciably closer to the city of Rethymnon than that of Chania, despite being geographically part of the province of the latter.

Rethymnon’s north and south coasts have fine beaches, and in between these lies Mount Ida. On its eastern flank at close to 1500 meters lies the Nida plateau, and just above this the cave of Ideon Andron (meaning ‘eating place for men’), where  Zeus was mythologically reared. Mountain villages such as Spili, with its beautiful Venetian fountain, spouting water from the heads of 19 lions is a fabulous place to escape the summer heat of the coastal plains.

Fourfouras on Mount Kedros’ western flank, has accommodation at the charmingly run ‘Windy Place’, and is a lovely village, as are those of the Amari valley, especially Amari itself – with its church of Aghia Anna containing frescoes dating back to the early 13th century, said to be the oldest on Crete (though the ones at Chromonastiri, may be even older) – and Thronos, which is a lovely village; both Amari and Thronos have accommodation. There are beautiful, traditional villages at Vizari, Lampiotes, and Monastaraki which as well as being the setting for the Minoan structure mentioned earlier also boasts a couple of very early churches: Archangeolos Michaelis and Aghios Georgios, complete with frescoed interiors. These villages are on the Pan-European footpath, known as the E4. While this should be one continuous walk from Kisammos in the north-west of the island to Zakros on the east coast (or vice versa), it does have a tendency to spider, and never more so than in the province of Rethymnon where at one point there are three different paths, running north, south and central.

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East of Rethymnon, Zoniana has a wonderful museum showing the history of Crete. Famous wax models of Dominikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) and Eleftherios Venizelos (the greatest of all Greek statesmen) feature, amongst others. Anoghia is capable of accommodating the more adventurous traveller, and is known for its crafts, such as weaving, tapestry and lace work. It’s a very pretty village, despite suffering badly at the hands of the Nazis due to its part in the capture of General Kreipe, in 1944. If you visit the museum of Alkibiades Skoulas, look out for a painting depicting these atrocities. Two other places are inexorably linked with Crete’s past under harsh Ottoman rule: The Arkadi monastery and the Melidoni cave, which are both worth a visit (read more about them in the Landmarks section).

On a more refreshing note, Rethymnon’s north coast is ideal for those who like a good swim, with beaches in abundance. Most of these lie east of the city, though Petres is an exception. For more on the beaches click on the section titled Swimming, under Chania.

Rethymnon is a nomos for the cognoscenti. It is for those wishing to escape the pressures of everyday life and spend some time off the beaten track. If this is your kind of thing, then Rethymnon is for you.

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Location - Rethymnon

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If you’re lucky, you may spot any number of exotic bird-life. Griffon vultures, buzzards, kestrals and eagles, share the sky with occasional sightings of bee-eaters and Sardinian warblers. Spili is an especially fine place to bird watch, and a trip over to lake Kournas, in the Chania nomos, may be rewarded with sightings of birds such as little egrets, graylag geese, mallards and little grebes. Not far from Spili, in the foothills of mount Kedros, Griffin vultures are occasionally seen, as they are in the Kourtalioiko gorge, which is part of the road leading into Plakias.

Sea birds include great cormorants and yellow-legged herring gulls. Finches are common, and include the goldfinch, greenfinch and chaffinch. Migratory birds include the Sardinian warbler, spotted flycatcher and African stonechat, If you're planning to go to Preveli, take your binoculars, you just might catch a glimpse of all of these, as well as beautiful golden orioles, with their yellow bodies and black wings, and warblers of various kinds.

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Here’s a list on the birds of Crete and their photos: www.cretewww.com/birds/list.htm

Most of the tourist beaches have canoes and kayaks for hire; these include: Aghia Galini, Bali, Panormos and Plakias. The Kourtaliotiko gorge is, allegedly, a splendid place to partake in this sport.

Aghios Antonios

An interesting cave as it also doubles-up as a church. It lies in the village of Patsos, north-west of Spili and was used during Minoan through Roman times as a place of worship. Minoan finds from this cave are displayed in both the Herakleion museum and in Oxford’s Ashmolean.

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Sfendoni

The cave at Sfendoni – reached via Zoniana – is 3,000 square metres, and has a path of 270 metres. There is a charge to enter, as visitors are no allowed to enter alone for reasons of safety.

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Wonderful opportunities lie in wait for the keen cyclist, with the Amari valley especially suited to this form or transport and recreation. If you haven’t brought your own bike with you, there are plenty of places - especially Rethymnon itself - where you can hire one for the day, or for the duration of your stay. There are some very long and winding roads in this region, and the level of difficulty should be obtained before embarking. The Amari valley itself is a splendid place for those who enjoy a bit of exercise in an exceptionally scenic environment, but far tougher routes are available for the more experienced cyclist. Due to Crete's mountainous nature, if one were to start on the south coast, it is uphill all the way to villages such as Selia, from where one has numerous options and some very difficult climbs indeed.

Crete is world-renowned for its mouth watering cuisine and is a food lover's paradise. Its fertile soils and unpolluted waters make for an endless supply of locally sourced fresh vegetables, fruits, cheeses, meats and seafood; not to mention the regional herbs, outstanding olive oil and honey.

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Since cattle are not native to the island most of Crete's meat dishes are prepared with either lamb or pork. The lamb in particular is of unparallel quality and probably due to the fact that herds graze outdoors on the 1000 or so native greens endemic to the island. These nutrient rich dark leafy greens (also known as horta) grow all over the island and are also an essential part of the Cretan diet. Served simply with olive oil and lemon they appear at almost every meal in Cretan households.

Cretan cheeses are also prepared from sheep or goat milk and include kefalotyri, graviera and ladotyri. Cretan yogurt is another surprising delight; made from sheep's milk its high fat content allows for its creaminess and it is often served drizzled with honey and walnuts as a dessert. Breads are typically dense and made from either rye or barley; rusk breads (paximadi) are particularly common in Crete and are served as small rounds of barley bread twice baked (making them hard as a rock) but when served are wetted, then drizzled with olive oil, tomatoes, feta and thyme which softens them (also known as 'Dakos' or the Cretan salad).

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Many farmers in Crete have kept true to tradition and continue to produce their fare with traditional methods making for some of the tastiest and highest quality food in the country. Locally sourced olive oil is one treat that won't be missed as the Cretans use it in virtually everything they eat. Its importance to Cretan cuisine is of paramount importance and its nutritional value has long been thought to be the reason for the Cretans' incredible longevity and good health.

Finding a taverna that serves truly authentic Cretan fare can sometimes be tricky amongst the barrage of restaurants and tavernas catering to mass tourism, but there are many hidden jewels and standouts amongst the crowd.

Walking through the Amari valley is one of the great pleasures of life. But hiking opportunities in Rethymnon don’t end here. The peak of Psiloritis, the tallest mountain of Crete, is accessible from both the Nida Plateau and from Fourfouras. Gorges can be descended (or ascended). Thronos, Amari and Fourfouras are fabulous bases from which to plan walking trips. A road now links Asi Gonia with Amoudari on the Askyphou plateau at the east side of the White Mountains of Chania, should you wish to venture further west.

Gorges include the Kourtaliotiko gorge, the Kotsifou gorge and the Patsos gorge. Day trips to Omalos in Chania, to walk the Samarian gorge, can easily be arranged. especially if one is staying in the town Rethymnon itself or one of the coastal resorts.

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The E4 trail passes through the Rethymnon nomos and offers some outstanding hiking opportunities. The Amari valley is a splendid place to spend some time and a lovely area for a stroll. Difficulties of walks range from easy to to extremely tough, especially if you take in those mountains. Start at Vizari with a population of only 111 and elevation 360 meters and make your way to Lampiotes, as you walk away from the grand Kedros mountain to the smaller Samitos. From there take the road to Monastiraki (population 180, elevation 380m), westwards to Opsigias (population 45, elevation 480m), and onwards to Amari itself. You can stay in Amari or Thronos to the north-east of the valley.

Animals of all kinds announce themselves with the occasional chirp or screech; butterflies flutter by and lizards scuttle along. Heaven-sent aromas will delight as citrus fruits compete with herbs and wild flowers. After Amari head to the village of Elenes (population 74, elevation 646m), to be followed shortly after by Gerakari (population 377, elevation 680m). Like most of the Amari valley, Gerakari - renowned for its cherries - is steeped in a violent, recent history. The Nazis were at their most dastardly in this area.

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The road from Gerakari to Spili can be tackled by car or by foot, but if you choose the latter, locals driving-by may insist on giving you a lift. About half way along the road, and diametrically opposite a wonderful-looking taverna, a river passes a couple of metres under the road which could be a good spot to rest. The descent into Spili features a road that swings around the village and via a set of steps drops one into its heart.

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The road takes you out of Spili westwards to Myxorrouma, which has a similar altitude to that of Spili - 350 metres. A southerly turn takes one through the back-streets of the pretty village. Trees offering all sorts of fruit and nuts, line the road. Then it's all downhill from Spili to Plakias. You could stop at a taverna in the village of Frati which also offers accommodation. The road snakes on before reaching a junction. A sharp east turn and then a sharp turn south takes you into the Kourtaliotiko gorge, which is also drivable; about half way down there’s a picnic area and steps that lead on to a small chapel. The gorge can act like a wind-tunnel, so be prepared to be buffered, as you walk.

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A few hundred metres further on, there is a sign offering modest accommodation and food near the gorge's mouth. A little later you arrive at the village of Levgogia an interesting option if you fancy staying in this area. Close to the Preveli monastery you will eventually reach Plakias, some three and a half hours after leaving Spili.

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From there on you can walk to Rodakino, though the road is not ideal for walking, being quite narrow at times, with cars oblivious to the walker. Winds can exacerbate this problem, and it may be difficult to stop oneself from tacking, so be very careful along this stretch. A couple of kilometres before reaching the first of the two Rodakinos (Ano), there is the option of coming off the road, and heading inland. A dirt track runs parallel for a kilometre, before heading along a winding path, which takes you up to a chapel, at its crest of it’s hill. It’s quite tough going, and the gorge on the other side of the hill, is not easy to walk, but this too is on the E4 trail, and will deposit one at Alones, from where one can head to Velonado and on to Argyroupolis.

From Plakias to Kato Rodakino will take approximately three hours, should you decide to continue along the road.

Adapted by Stelios Jackson from his own work which has appeared on other sites.

The best place in the Rethymnon nomos, to see pottery being made, and perhaps acquire a few pieces to take home, is the village of Margarites, some ten kilometres south of Rethymnon.

Rethymnon’s north coast is ideal for those who ideal for those who like a good swim, with beaches in abundance. Most of these lie east of the city, though Petres is an exception. The golden sands of Georgioupolis, whilst officially in the province of Chania, is considerably closer to Rethymnon, and can easily be reached by car or bus.

Beaches to the east, start with Rethymnon’s own sandy beach, but Perivolia beach is only a couple of KMs east, and Platanias a couple of kilometres further. Further along the coast, a very long stretch of sandy coastline can be found at Adele. Bali has three lovely beaches and plenty of places to eat and drink. Panormos, a charming fishing village just a few kilometres west of Bali is similarly a nice place to while away the afternoon or to relax for a fortnight.

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South coast resorts include, Aghia Galini, where the facilities are excellent, though it can get overrun in the height of the season (relatively close by is the beach of Aghios Georgios, which can be quite secluded). Plakias and Damnoni have a number of coves and bays around here, as well as a nice stretch of coastline with bars and tavernas in the village of Plakias itself. There's also the lesser-known Rodakino, which is the beach from which the kidnapped Nazi General Kreipe was spirited away during the second world war by British and Greek resistance fighters, including the late, great Patrick Leigh Fermor.

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Preveli has a beach and two monasteries of which only one is currently accessible at Pano Preveli (Upper Preveli), while the other at Kato Preveli (Lower Preveli) was ransacked by the Turks in the 1820s. This best time to visit Preveli is in spring before the tourist season gets properly under way, and when the Kourtaliotis river deposits its fresh water into the Libyan sea.

Rethymnon is famous for its weaving and stitching; in fact a particular type of stitch is known as “Rethymnian”, with the cloth drawn upon before stitching commences. Both Zoniana and Anoghia are famous for their weaving, as is Spili. Anoghia is possibly the most traditional place in Crete to find hand woven materials, made on looms which can be traced back several generations.

It has been said that the Anoghia’s special preoccupation with weaving dates back to the second world war when women took up the art due to the deaths of their husbands, murdered by the Nazis. In addition, Anoghia has a small wool factory. Embroidery and lace making is still practiced (to perfection!) in a number of the Amari Valley villages. For basket-weaving, visit Mixorrouma, a short distance outside Spili, where this tradition continues. The Historical and Folk museum of Rethymnon houses a fabulous collection.

On the face of it, Rethymnon has relatively few ancient sites compared to those of the other three Cretan nomoi; certainly far fewer than its more easterly neighbours, Herakleion and Lasithi. There is an advantage in this: most sites here are rarely visited, giving those with the sense of historical adventure, the ideal opportunity to see some ancient places in their own time, and at their own pace. These sites are Minoan through Roman.

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Sites worth visiting include those at Monastiraki in the Amari valley where a rare example of a Minoan structure (dating from around 1700 BC) is a short distance outside the village of the same name. Finds here suggest a close relationship with Phaistos. Armenoi (or Armeni) - some 8km south of Rethymnon and 2km north of the modern village of the same name - has a very important Minoan cemetery, with tombs cut into the hard rock. The site from whence the bodies came has yet to be discovered, although it must be reasonably close by.

Much like its archaeological sites, Rethymnon is not renowned for its wealth of fortifications. On an island boasting dozens of castles and forts, only Rethymnon’s fortezza really springs out at one. It is such a wonderful example and so beautifully situated, that it makes up for the lack of others in this nomos.

Established as a fort during the late Byzantine period, the hill where the Venetian castle now stands, had been occupied since the at least the 3rd century BC. Designed by Michel Sanmicheli in 1540, the fortifications were to take 30 years to complete. In 1558 the people of Rethymnon realised that they needed further defence against piratical raids, but the request for a fortress to be built on the hill now known as Palaiokastro, was denied by their Venetian overlords.

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This allowed the corsair Ulutz Ali, to sack the town on July 7th 1571. shortly after fortification had been completed and was to lead to the Venetians rather belatedly building the fortezza we see today. The work was started in 1573, completed in 1580 and named Castel Vecchio; however, 66 years after its completion the fortress was overwhelmed by Ottoman forces who took 45 days to overwhelm the city. A treaty was signed on November the 13th 1646, and Rethymnon, like Chania had done the previous year, fell into Ottoman hands.

Gerani Cave

Crete / Rethymnon
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Ideon Andron

Crete / Rethymnon
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Marathospilios

Crete / Rethymnon
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Melidoni

Crete / Rethymnon
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Tafkoura

Crete / Rethymnon
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According to Michael Llewellyn Smith in his wonderful 1965 book ‘The Great Island’, Crete has in excess of 4,000 churches or chapels, scattered across its length and breadth. An incredible figure for an island which is only the fifth largest in the Mediterranean, but a thorough tour of the nomos of Rethymnon, may leave you wondering of there aren’t at least as many here, alone. St. Paul visited the island in the first century AD, and was not impressed, writing an epistle to Bishop Titus, that the 'Cretans are all liars' and 'sloth bellies'. Under both Venetian and Ottoman occupation, the Orthodox Christians, tended to live away from the coastal plains, and in the more mountainous regions.

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Cretan icon painting was much sought after, especially in Venice, so a fair number of this school ended up at quite an early age in that city, and of course, the most famous of them all, El Greco (Dominikos Theotokopulos), earned his nickname by travelling to Spain. Look out for the inscription NIΨONANOMHMATAMHMONANOΨIN. This means 'clean not just your face, but your sins' and is palindromic, i.e. it reads the same left to right as right to left. Whether one has religious beliefs or not, it’s well worth visiting one or more of those listed below; if for nothing else, the sense of the spiritual, which may well transcend the religious.

There are a handful of animals native to Crete but no animal is more famous (or dear) to the Cretans than the Kri Kri mountain goat. Originally thought to have been transported millennia ago from Persia, the Kri Kri is now considered to be native. It is no surprise to anyone familiar with the Cretans that they identify so much with the tough, independent spirit of this animal. Now a protected species, Samaria gorge and a couple of tiny Cretan islands have been declared habitat sanctuaries for the goat. As for native mammals to the island there are only two – the Cretan Shrew and the Cretan Spiny Mouse - neither of which are likely to draw huge numbers of tourists to the island but are nevertheless part of the island's historical wildlife.

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There is a wine festival each year, in Rethymnon, ordinarily in late July. Also, whilst strictly speaking the Dourakis winery is in the Chania nomos, its position in the village of Alikambos is close enough to the border with Rethymnon for it to be easily accessible. There are 17 wines are produced here (including one of each organic red and white) seven white, eight red and two rose. Visitors to the vineyard and winery are able to receive expert advice from trained advisors, in the wine-tasting cellar.

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