In the short drive from Chania airport to the town centre, my taxi driver beeped his horn at least five times. Not to alert other drivers of his presence or as a rude outburst, but simply to say hello to the other people on the road.
“It’s only a small town”, he smiled, “Everyone knows everyone else.” It certainly seemed that way, as the people in the cars coming the other way smiled, tooted and waved in response.
With a population of only 50,000 people, though, Chania manages to cram a heap of history inside its city limits. For example, as I took a seat at a bar later that afternoon, I found myself looking across at an Ottoman mosque, from within the Venetian harbour, having just minutes earlier visited the French-inspired market and Greek orthodox cathedral.
With a background that also includes a Byzantine era and ancient Arab rule, it seems that Crete has been influenced by most world cultures. Perhaps it’s this richly varied history that makes the place so welcoming nowadays.
As I looked at the menu in the bar, the waiter arrived at my table and greeted me like an old friend before bringing me a beer, all the while chatting with the other guests and staff – and finding time to share a joke with passers-by as he invited them in for a drink.
Later that evening, I enjoyed a meal that would have been large enough to sate the Minotaur. Endless plates of hummus, vegetables, grilled meats and warm breads from Tamam restaurant came to our table; at one point I’m sure the waiter contemplated bringing another table for all the food, but decided against it as it would have blocked the narrow cobbled streets! We duly noted that, when your meal is so large that it obstructs others’ passage, it’s probably time to stop ordering…
As you eat, watch out for the dusty wind as it whips through the town – it can be quite disruptive. However, the locals manage to give even bad weather a fun spin; because the wind comes up from Africa, it’s known as ‘Gaddafi’s Revenge”!
Suitably glutted, I returned from the restaurant to my home for the night, the Hotel Doma. Even my accommodation boasted a rich, multi-national past: it’s a former Austro-Hungarian consulate, housed within a neoclassical mansion. The hotel staff certainly treat you like nobility, too.
But that’s not to say that the place rests solely on its historical laurels; the top-floor suite offers freedom enough to match the grandiose history, with a rooftop terrace that runs the entire length of the building. Think less ‘balcony’, more ‘private patio’, complete with separate sitting space, plus a table and chairs and two sun-loungers. You’ll probably need a sit down after walking from one side of the terrace to the other.
In the morning, the Doma comes into its historical, traditional own. The breakfast room, decorated with hundreds of old photographs of bygone times, provides a lovely spread with views over the road to the gorgeous coastline.
While out and about, be sure to order a ‘Greek coffee’ (served throughout the country), which will help to blow the cobwebs out. The traditional drink brings to mind a tasty black sludge that packs a really caffeinated punch. But phrase your order carefully; don’t get confused and call it a Turkish coffee, similar as they are – the Greeks are friendly but they are proud too!
However, there’s nothing wrong with a little national pride; especially for an island whose very identity encompasses so much international influence anyway. And, after a brief walk through the beautiful city of Chania, with its Turkish hammams, Marseille-style ‘agora’ market and most importantly its incredibly welcoming Cretan people, and you’ll see why they are so proud.
Written by Simon Willmore