I tried not to like Hania, really.
It’s unfair how some places get all the glory. Neighboring towns in Crete watch wistfully while Hania (or Chania, both pronounced HA-nee-uh) lands feature after feature in travel magazines and destination sites. It has the largest Venetian Harbor, the cutest old town, a lively cultural scene, and an American military base nearby that keeps money and visitors flowing year-round.
I tried not to like it. For at least five minutes, anyway, before I became completely bewitched.
How could I not? It’s charming. It’s picturesque. It feels energized and low-key and old-world and modern all at once.
After all, this was April, one of the two best months of the year to visit (the other is October, both bracketing a packed tourist season that likely changes the character significantly.). Spring was literally in the perfect, sun-drenched, 75-degree air.
Lest you doubt, here is a guide to getting to know Chania. Become enchanted in any of 5 ways:
1) Feast on Venetian Harbor eye candy
Narrow candy colored buildings surround all three sides of a harbor filled with transparent blue water. Glass bottomed boats shuttle tourists to nearby reefs, but are they really necessary? Grab a seat on a wooden bench for the best vantage point of both aquatic and human life flowing by.
For me, the most enigmatic aspect of the harbor is the play of light throughout they day, where no two moments are ever alike. Have you seen the moon rise over Chania? You really must.
2) Get lost in the Old Town
Narrow streets and a hodgepodge of architecture, from Venetian mansions to Ottoman mosques to the jewel of the Jewish quarter, the Etz Hayyim synagogue, all translate into a photographer’s dream. Getting lost is easy; making your way back to reality is hard.
Within it all are high-end artisan shops and galleries (in the northwest), a fair share of tacky tourist shops (in the southeast), museums (history, architecture, folklore, naval), trendy lounges, organic restaurants, restaurants in old palaces, restaurants in alleys, restaurants in old warehouses, restaurants hidden in courtyards, and many, many more restaurants.
3) Visit an icon and leave with a full stomach
I’ve refrained from talking much about Crete’s impressively healthy and delicious gastronomy because it deserves an article of its own, but it seems impossible to talk about Hania without mentioning the bougatsa (boo-GHAHT-za) from Iordanis.
As luck would have it, on our way to the island we saw that Aegean Air was featuring Chania in their inflight magazine. Four famous locals were interviewed about what they like to do when they return home, and each said they make a beeline for Iordanis!
Bougatsa is pie filled with cheese in a flaky phyllo dough, and Iordannis is famous for sprinkling sugar on top of theirs, which is sold by weight. They are also famous for the freshness of their pies, which arrive within the half hour from the company’s main location by the ferry port.
To be candid, to me it tasted like the tyropita– also a cheese pie – found throughout other parts of Greece, whenever it is freshly made. (Locals would likely be up in arms over this description, pointing out that the bougatsa cheese is more melty as opposed to crumbly, or slightly milder.) But I wasn’t complaining. I happen to like Greek cheese pie as much as I enjoy experiencing what locals glorify about their home town, so it was win-win.
4) Become intrigued by the local cast of characters
Despite the restaurant hawkers at the south side of the harbor that seem bent on ruining the evening stroll of every passing visitor (“Excuse me! May I ask you a question? Where are you from? Do you like fresh seafood? You will not find better seafood! Excuse me! We have four stars on TripAdvisor! A little respect, please! I am talking to you! Why do you walk away?! I am still talking!”), most of the other residents are people worth spending time with. There’s the smart couple that runs the restaurant, the hardworking women from the women’s cooperative, the fun-loving staff from the hotel, the young caretaker of the synagogue, the famously grumpy lady from the bougatsa shop, the rug salesman who spends his time drinking strong coffee at a neighboring cafe, fisherman by the seawall, and the giggling teenagers that cling together in packs.
Then there’s the old man who owns the cafe at the quietest end of the port, across the alley from the dreamy Alcanea Boutique Hotel, where we stayed (more on that later). He has a penchant for classical music and opera, and board games. Few patrons frequent the cafe, but when they do, they are locals who also seem to like board games. No matter; he obviously lives humbly, probably in the very building where the bar is located, surrounded by dusty antiques. When he leaves to visit the market on his bicycle, he closes up shop, but when he is home, it is open. Why complicate life with timetables?
5) Visit “Zorba the Greek” locations, and much more
Many of the scenes from Zorba the Greek were shot in Chania, and several in the surrounding countryside. We followed a tip and drove out to nearby town Stavros, without being disappointed in the least:
Of course, we also could have visited the famous Samaria Gorge (the “Grand Canyon of Crete”), or the pink sand beach of Falasarna and the world-famous sandbar of Elafonissi, or medieval monasteries, or miles of olive groves filled with wildflowers (again, April!)…. Sometimes, getting out of a city is the best way to become transfixed with it.