Island Hopping in the Ionian: Discovering Corfu and Crete
Nestled in the azure waters of the Ionian Sea, west of Greece, you’ll find the Ionian Islands - known for their lush greenery and crystal-clear waters, as well as being a haven for nature lovers and beach enthusiasts alike. Like the rest of Greece, the islands are steeped in history, with ancient ruins and Venetian fortresses dotting the landscape. While there are seven major islands in the group (plus many other small islets), two of the most captivating are Corfu and Crete. Corfu offers a perfect blend of natural beauty and culture, with its Venetian architecture and archaeological remains, Crete stands out with its mythical tales, diverse landscapes, and pristine beaches. Read on to find out more.
In this blog post, we’ll delve into what experiences await you in Corfu and Crete. Whether you're looking to relax on sun-soaked shores or immerse yourself in centuries-old tales, we’ll explain why they make the perfect choice to visit.
““Gradually, the magic of the island Corfu settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen” – Gerald Durrell.”
Step back in time
Cypress-studded hills, sandy coves lapped by blue waters, jagged cliffs, and a scattering of ancient ruins. Corfu is often referred to as the hidden gem of the Ionian Islands – and for good reason. Located just off Greece's western coast, Corfu is the second largest of the Ionian Islands and has all the right ingredients for an island getaway. From pretty harbour towns, remarkable beaches, a rich tapestry of history and culture, plus some delicious food. Over the centuries, rulers came and went. The Romans, the Goths, the Byzantines, the Normans, the Neapolitan Angevins, the Venetians, the French and even the British – all of them leaving behind a multi-layered historical and cultural legacy that’s very much evident today.
UNESCO Old Town
A great place to start exploring is the UNESCO Old Town. As you wander the narrow lanes you are surrounded by elegant buildings, dominated by an impressive 16th-century Venetian fortress. Stroll along the charming streets adorned with pastel-coloured houses with elegant wrought-iron balconies and wooden shutters. As you explore further, the alleyways open up to lively plazas bustling with busy restaurants, their tables extending onto the pavements…
The legend of Mouse Island
This charming little island, known as Pontikonisi, has earned the nickname Mouse Island due to the resemblance of the white marble stairs leading to the sea from the monastery, which look like a mouse's tail. According to the legend, Pontikonisi was named after Odysseus's ship, which crashed here and was transformed into an island by Poseidon.
Corfu has just shy of 60 beaches, from white and sandy to hidden and rocky. Take a bus up to the northeast where you’ll find the coastline dotted with sleepy coves and seafront tavernas. There are some incredible hiking trails up Mount Pantokrator, with views stretching across towards the mainland of Greece and Albania.
Corfu is also home to numerous monasteries, which are strategically located in remote and elevated areas to ensure that monks are isolated from worldly temptations. A prime illustration of this is the Paleokastritsa monastery, constructed in the 13th century which has incredible views.
Food in Corfu
Corfu's close proximity to Italy has led to the infusion of Italian cuisine on the island, which is one of its many advantages. Alongside traditional Greek dishes like moussaka, stifado, and Greek salads, you can also enjoy typical Corfiot delicacies such as pastitsada. This Corfiot version of the Venetian spezzatino is a delectable beef and tomato stew served with pasta. Fish also plays a significant role in the local diet. Some fish specialities include savoro, a spicy sauce with originates from Venice.
““I knew that no matter what door you knock on in a Cretan village, it will be opened for you. A meal will be served in your honour, and you will sleep between the best sheets in the house. In Crete, the stranger is still the unknown god. Before him, all doors and all hearts are opened.” – Nikos Kazantzakis.”
A treasure trove
Crete – the largest of the Greek islands – is a place steeped in history, culture, and myth that stretches back thousands of years. As you explore, you will be transported through time, from the ancient Minoan civilization to the Byzantine era and beyond. The island's unique blend of diverse influences is evident in its architecture, cuisine, and traditional customs. From centuries-old, white-sailed windmills in Lasithi Plateau to the wild and rugged landscape of western Crete. Myths and legends are an integral part of Cretan culture, with stories of the Minotaur and Theseus's labyrinth being some of the most famous. Visit Diktean Cave – recognised as the birthplace of Zeus – and walk the 200 steps and five chambers to the cave itself. Minoan Palace is a must-visit, too – perhaps you might even see a Minotaur lurking in the shadows…
Crete’s central hub Heraklion is brimming with cultural attractions such as the Archaeological Museum, which houses the famous Minoan frescoes of the island, and the Historical Museum of Crete, where you can admire two remarkable paintings by El Greco, a renowned Greek painter. You can shop the busy backstreets, stopping for meze in a traditional kafenion (café). Or treat yourself to a tasty bougatsa custard pastry in a café overlooking the grand Morosini fountain.
Western Crete offers a blend of untamed natural beauty, snow-capped peaks, delightful villages, and superb coastlines. Take a step back in time with a stroll through the bougainvillaea-draped streets of Crete’s ‘Little Venice’ Chania – packed with buildings that combine Venetian and Neoclassical architecture. In its maze of cobbled alleys, you’ll find small stores selling specialities ranging from herbs and spices to handcrafted leather goods. Backed by the mighty Psiloritis mountains and fringed by sandy beaches, you’ll find Rethymnon. Referred to as the "City of Scholars," it's the third-largest town on the island. Discover the old harbour, magnificent mosques and mansions, or sample tsigariasto – a dish of clay pot-baked lamb – on a terrace near the Rimondi fountain.
Food and culture in Crete
The Cretan culture is deeply rooted in tradition and hospitality, with vibrant folk dances, music, and delicious cuisine that incorporates fresh local ingredients. Crete is renowned for the long lives of its people, and its cuisine centres around plant-based dishes, fresh fish, and aromatic mountain herbs. Sfakianes pites and kalitsounia (Cretan-style cheese pies), tsikoudia or raki and century-old are specialities of the island. The most celebrated dish is the refreshing Greek salad, filled with ripe tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, and flavourful olives. Top it with creamy feta cheese and a generous drizzle of zesty lemon juice and you have yourself a tasty meal. (Chef kiss).
Inspired? Experience the above and more on our Corfu and Crete tours - Ionian Island Paradise and Captivating Crete.
Why should you visit Greece? Read our post on Fantastic Reasons Why You Should Visit Greece.
Joanne’s jam-packed travel journal includes trekking through jungles in Borneo, hiking in national parks in Canada, and learning the art of Byrek-making (a traditional spinach and cheese pie) in Albania. When she's not travelling, she’s busy blogging about motherhood, reading to her adorable twin girls and dreaming up new adventures to take them on.
Joanne Johnston | About the author
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