Get off the beaten track in Crete and head into the rebellious heart of the Greek island.

I I am standing in a narrow rectangular room in the corner of the monastery of Arcadia in the center of Crete. The space is open to the elements, but you can see where the vaulted ceiling once began. At the far end of the room, a fresco depicts a Greek Orthodox priest holding a cross in one hand and a candle in the other. He is surrounded by images of frightened women and children.

The work depicts the last moments of the lives of several hundred Cretans who hid in a room after the besieged monastery was captured by Ottoman troops on November 9, 1866. Instead of being taken prisoner, the priest set fire to the barrels of gunpowder, blew off the roof, and killed everyone inside. .

The day before, a 15,000-strong Ottoman army surrounded the monastery, attacking about 300 Cretan resistance fighters, monks and about 600 civilians from the surrounding villages. Standing in the room, I can hardly imagine the fear and panic of people crammed into a tiny space measuring about 21 x 5 m. What must have been going on in their heads? While some may have resigned themselves to their fate, others may have desperately prayed for a reprieve. Some may have felt it was better to give up.

Church in the ruins of Arcadia Monastery, Crete

(Len Williams)

I leave the room and return to the square courtyard of the monastery. The center has a Venetian-style church, cloisters around the edges, and thick walls that give it the appearance of a fortress (a handful of monks still live and work there). Although the vast majority of resistance fighters and civilians died defending the monastery, their sacrifice was not in vain; this helped stimulate international support for the cause of Greek independence.

This sobering moment at Arcadia Monastery was the first stop on a day trip through the Cretan countryside. Departing from the pretty coastal town of Rethymnon, my partner and I turned off the busy coastal highway and headed inland. Here we drove along quiet country roads that wound into the hills through villages, mostly with modern concrete buildings. Leaving the monastery, we took a secluded mountain road that offered a wide view of low-lying shrubs and rocky fields as we drove towards Eleftherna, the site of an ancient city that is almost 3,000 years old.

Arriving in a nondescript modern Eleftherna, we parked at an abandoned tavern. Much of this ancient city, which began its final decline after the 796 AD earthquake, remains overgrown and archaeologists continue to make discoveries (which can be seen in the nearby museum). To get to the acropolis, we walked along a rough stone path leading to a dilapidated tower, which once offered a view of a ridge that drops steeply on both sides. The roots of gnarled old olive trees smothered blocks of ancient masonry; further on you can visit the necropolis, ancient bridge and cisterns.

On the road through the Amari Valley in Crete

(Len Williams)

Enough history. It’s time for lunch. But while trying to leave Eleftherna’s car park, we quickly regretted agreeing to a free car rental company upgrade to a massive SUV. What seemed like a normal road from the car park to the main road on the GPS turned out to be more like a narrow lane, causing a very nervous back up the narrow mountain lane back to the car park and the other way. This experience is not unique to the Cretan interior, so inexperienced drivers may wish to tread carefully (or better yet, trust someone else to drive).

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We eventually reached Margarites, a hillside village where the central road zigzags down into the valley. We randomly parked outside the excellent Veranda Tavern and sat down at an outdoor table overlooking the olive tree-lined hills and nearby fields teeming with tomatoes, courgettes and eggplants.

View from the ridge to ancient Eleftherna, Crete

(Len Williams)

This harvest seemed to make up most of what we ate for lunch: typical Cretan cuisine, consisting of crispy and chewy zucchini fritters, eggplant moussaka, and a Cretan salad of feta cream cheese, barley croutons, tomatoes, olives, and cucumbers. soaked in olives. oil and red wine vinegar. We then wandered around Margherita, famous for its pottery shops, and were momentarily seduced by the very beautiful but expensive plates.

Back on the road, we turned around and headed south and inland into the Amari Valley. This fertile valley is located at the foot of Mount Kedros and Mount Ida (the highest peak of Crete). On the day we visited, a thick bank of clouds rolled sullenly down one of the steep walls of the valley. Small farms dotted the landscape, surrounded by olive groves, orchards, bushes and pines.

View of the Amari Valley, Crete

(Len Williams)

Like the Monastery of Arcadia, this lush valley has also been the site of persecution and rebellion. During World War II, the Nazis occupied Crete but faced determined resistance, and the valley and its surrounding mountains and gorges became an ideal hideout for partisans.

On August 22, 1944, Nazi soldiers massacred the inhabitants of nine villages in the valley, suspected of helping the resistance. A total of 164 male civilians were executed and the rest of the men, women and children were taken prisoner. Villages were looted, many houses were blown up, and the villagers’ crops were destroyed.

This atrocity is known as the Kedros Holocaust, but it is still not clear why exactly the villages were singled out. Historians suggest that it was an act of preventive terror. As the end of the war approached, the beleaguered Nazis withdrew to Chania on the coast and may have wanted to cover their flanks.

Abandoned church in ancient Eleftherna, Crete

(Len Williams)

After exploring the valley, we turned around and drove north along winding roads back to the coast. This pleasant ride provided views of hills, ravines, reservoirs and outlying villages before the sea eventually opens up below.

Visitors rightly flock to the stunning coastline of Crete to enjoy the traditional combination of sun, sea and sand. But its heart offers an intriguing and rewarding tour of the island’s landscapes, history and indomitable spirit.

Travel essentials

Get there

Are you trying to fly less?

Take the Eurostar train to Paris, then change to the TGV from Paris to Milan. From there Trenitalia will take you to Brindisi. You can take an overnight ferry to the west coast of Greece, then buses to Athens and another ferry to Crete.

Are you good with flying?

Ryanair, Wizz Air and easyJet fly daily from major UK airports to Chania and Heraklion.

stay there

The hotel is located in the heart of the old town of Rethymnon. Pepi Boutique Hotel puts you within easy access to the city’s beaches, restaurants and bars. Adults-only and with lots of character (it’s been converted into what was once one of Europe’s oldest public elementary schools), the hotel has an extensive Cretan wine cellar. When you’re not outdoors, spend time by the pool or enjoy garden views from any of the high-ceilinged rooms and suites.

More information

We rented a car through Budget in Rethymnon for £20 per day.

Read our reviews of the best hotels in the Greek Islands.

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