I was born in the city of Hania 36 years ago, raised on blessed land at the westernmost point of Crete, the lovely Kissamos, birthplace of the acting great Manos Katrakis. A region of unbelievable beauty, including exceptional natural beauty, the Hania prefecture features beaches that consistently rank among the world’s finest, such as Falasarna, Elafonisi and Balos. I lived in Crete until the age of 17, when I headed up to Athens to study. The big city may have held on to me for professional reasons, but, even so, I return to my place of origin with every given opportunity.
Opening the window of my childhood’s family home I see, spread before me, the gulf of Kissamos, between two capes, Spatha and Gramvousa. The full-blue colour of the sea and sky merge in a magical way, especially during sunrise. It’s one of the few things that relaxes me, making my mind travel.
Boots, knives, Venetian shipyards
If visiting Hhania for the first time, you must begin with the Old Town and the unique Venetian Port. This natural port, featuring the renowned lighthouse, is the city landmark. The narrow alleys and extraordinary Municipal Market (Dimotiki Agora), now over a century old, offer visitors the opportunity to taste authentic Cretan flavours, travel back in time, enjoy marvelous imagery and experience scents of previous times. Heading down the market steps leads to the Stivanadika, shops selling stivania (traditional leather boots, the trademark of the Cretan male costume), sarikia (traditional men’s headgear), as well as fine hand-woven textiles, all deeply rooted in Cretan tradition. Slightly further on, the Maheradika are a cluster of shops where dexterous knifemakers forge and sell renowned Cretan knives, engraved with custom mantinades (rhyming couplets).
While strolling about the Venetian port, enjoy viewing the arsenals, gigantic Venetian-era shipyard spaces. The Grand Arsenal, nowadays hosting the Mediterranean Architecture Centre (KAM), dominates the overall shipyard space. Passing through the marina, in front of the Grand Arsenal, leads to the magical Koum Kapi district, at the back, where cafes and restaurants are open throughout the day.
You can find just about anything in Hania. Brunch is served from early in the day at Pallas, one of the city’s most elegant eateries, at the Venetian Port. For coffee, head to Barbarossa or Aroma, both attractions for the city’s younger crowds. The bougatsa (pastry filled with cream) at Iordanis, renowned around Greece, is really worth trying. The best souvlaki is to be found at Thraka, while the crepes at Krepa Tis Roxanis are amazing.
Lamb with honey at Grabousa, dessert at Koukouvayia
The city’s finest dessert is served at Koukouvayia. Head uphill towards Akrotiri and, following a stopover at the adjacent Venizelos Tombs, sit and enjoy Koukouvayia’s renowned zoumero sweet, compensating the climb up and also offering a breathtaking panoramic view of the city from high above.
In the west, returning from a swim at Falasarna, stop over at Souropo for the pilaf, meat pie, stuffed bifteki, as well as stuffed courgette blossoms, all made with proprietor Christina’s homemade ingredients. A few kilometres away, in Kalyviani, the taverna Grabousa serves snail and lamb-with-honey recipes, the eatery’s specialties, the authentic way. Stop for coffee at Vavel or Breeze in Kasteli, both seaside spots, while returning from your swim.
For all-day partying, two beach bars, Cabana Mare and Ammos ke Ilios, both in Agia Marina, a highly frequented tourism spot, are the standout places. The best-known beach bars of the Hania region, they are open from early in the day until the afternoon hours, pumping out loud music, staging parties with DJs and popular music acts.
A nighttime visit to Halkina, a music-and-meze spot, is essential. Offering live music – Cretan of course – on a daily basis, it is a major attraction for young people from early in the day.
Dance the night away
Naturally, the night continues with drinks and dancing until the morning hours at Barraki and Prassein Aloga. The two open-air bars, situated side by side, directly behind the arsenals, promise non-stop dance and entertainment all night.
The Koroniotakis bakery at the Municipal Market produces bread that offers a pleasant aroma, while, for xerotigana (syrup-soaked pastries), head to the Simandirakis family shop, backed by years of tradition. If interested in local, pure thyme honey, Eklekton, a shop run by Tasos Stathakis, is the best choice. The Cretan graviera cheese produced at the Mastorakis cheesery is renowned all over Crete.
The Grand Arsenal, an impressive building, prevails at the Venetian Port of Hania. Its impressive lighting, recently refashioned, highlights the building in splendid fashion. The Mediterranean Architecture Centre (KAM), housed at this building and hosting regular events and exhibitions, is worth visiting. If you are a cycling enthusiast, the bicycle lane running through Hatzimihali, Giannari and Skalidi streets in the centre of Hania, awaits you. If in Kissamos, a stroll from Kastelli, the town, to the port, with a stopover at the Ai-Gianni Church of Damialis, built on a seaside rock, will reward you!
Films at the open-air Kipos cinema
One can have a good time in the city of Hania, even on a limited budget. The city caters to all tastes. In summer, prices are slightly higher, but they do begin deescalating once the large wave of visitors has departed.
Located at the lovely Municipal Garden (Dimotiko Kipo) of Hania, the open-air Kipos cinema, next to the café of the same name, offers wonderful film-viewing nights under the stars. The Anatolikis Tafrou Theatre, or Eastern Moat Theatre, hosts many plays every summer. In my hometown area, the European & Mediterranean Youth Centre’s seaside Petrino Theatre in Nopigia (coastal village 5km from Kissamos) stages worthy events for culture-loving individuals. Giortes Rokkas, a festival staged at the Rokka and Kera villages every August, features prominent artists and is well worth including in your agenda.
“Live Hania to its fullest”
The sounds of the knifemakers forging their knives; scent of bougainvillea vines that blossom in spring to adorn the city’s alleys; food aromas floating out of open windows as you wander the streets; the warm smiles of locals; succession of stops for a quick shot of raki spirit; the salt of the sea; chiming bells of horses taking visitors for rides at the port; and the sound of the Cretan lyra bursting out of shops – these aspects all combine to keep bringing me back to the island, always with the same level of intensity and love.
Hania is a bustling city that never stops moving. One thing that was missing, until recently, was consideration for the needs of pedestrians. But things do seem to be gradually improving. The extended pedestrianisation of the town’s old district, as well as the development of bicycle lanes, in the city’s most central areas, have greatly improved the quality of life. Hania is a city that should be fully experienced, not merely visited, any time of the year, as frequently as possible.
Michalis Choreftakis is a journalist and writer. So far he has published two novels in Greek.