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Urban mini-break (Διακοπές στην πόλη)

Posted Apr 18 2011 12:00am
Hania wouldn't spring to mind for a 24-hour mini-break. Most of our tourists come to Hania for a two-week holiday, which gives them plenty of time to tour the area. A fortnight is a good amount of time to spend in either Western Crete or Eastern Crete, but not really enough if you want to experience the whole island; you'll need about 3-4 weeks to do that successfully. Most tourists hire a car which is necessary if you don't want to spend all your time in one place; most of our tourists do not stay in the town at any rate, for obvious reasons - Hania is a summer resort town with very good beaches, so some form of transport is needed.

Hania is most well-known for this kind of holiday...
... but there is also an urban side to Hania that too.

Transport is a major obstacle facing the 24-hour traveller to any island destination. Hania can only be reached directly by air from Athens (and some limited flights from Thessaloniki) or with an overnight ferry boat. Most of our 24-hour visitors are from the mainland here on business; they may fly in and out of Hania on the same day, usually a weekday. But there is also another class of frequent short-term visitors to Hania: many mainlanders come to Hania for the weekend to attend scheduled memorial services for a loved one. During such a weekend, Saturdays are usually devoted to urban forms of entertainment before Sunday's memorial service where the visitor will also catch up with their extended family at church and most probably have a (usually home-cooked) meal with them.

the ferry boat
Here's a typical program followed by our urban Greek 24-hour visitors to Hania (which, coincidentally, was the second town in Greece's modern history to become urbanised after Syros). Through this guide, you will get a good idea of how life flows in the town centre. The best season for this kind of trip is when it isn't too warm (October-May), because it involves a lot of walking in the urban part of Hania. The area is generally flat and undemanding. Wear cotton layers that can be removed easily; Hania is hot throughout the year, but in the cooler seasons, it can feel very cold, especially in the early morning, after the sun has gone down, and when you're sitting in the shade.


As soon as you arrive in Hania: Either you've just jumped off the ship or you've arrived at the airport. Either way, don't linger at your arrival points any more than you need to - the town may look like it's asleep at this time, but there is a special morning ritual followed by most visitors to Hania. Get yourself into the town for your first taste of Hania: bougatsa. You will be surprised at how busy Iordanis is so early in the morning; your cheese pie breakfast will come with a good dose of people-watching for entertainment. Don't go looking for variety in the menu of a bougatsadiko: it serves exactly what its name suggests - only bougatsa! Have it with just a glass of water; bougatsadika do serve coffee too, but don't be tempted to have one here because ---

DSC03375
Some time after you have bougatsa: --- you will want to experience the new outdoor cafe scene in Hania. Coffee was once a long drawn-out affair at an expensive (but not necessarily luxurious) cafe, where the cost of the coffee felt almost like paying rent to hire the best seat near the old Venetian harbour. The economic crisis was not the only thing to put a stop to that; coupled with the smoking ban imposed on all public indoor places including those that serve food, and the rising rental costs of properties on prime sites, the locals have started to move away from their past haunts and now often sit outdoors, Parisian-style, in one of the many businesses that have sprung up to provide this need. You'll be surprised at how many bar stools you encounter on the footpath. In this way, the smoking ban is avoided; secondly, because of the outdoor (covered) location and the (uncomfortable) bar stool, you will spend just enough time having your coffee, before you move on, ensuring the business owner that there will be a good turnover of customers. These fantastic outdoor cafes have livened up the town in their own way - they are open most of the working day, including some that are open after-hours, they keep people moving about in the less touristy parts of the town, and they add their own cultural dimension to urban life in Hania. Don't worry about the weather keeping you indoors - it's never really too cold to sit outdoors in Hania (and if it is too cold or wet, let's just say it was your bad luck to choose that particular 24-hour period, a bit like the weather at the moment, which rang in the start of Holy Week)


Morning walk: The bougatsa and coffee will keep you going for a little longer before you need to rest or 'stock up' again. Since you will already be in the town centre, make your way to the eastern part of town for some more people-watching which will be combined with some brilliant sightseeing: walk eastwards from the Agora (down go in there just yet; everything in its own time!) and make your way to Minoos St, the place where Saturday's street market* (λαϊκή - la-ee-ki) is held. Foodies will delight in seeing the range of fresh local seasonal fruit, vegetables and dairy products, mostly sold by the producers themselves. Greek street markets are not limited to farmers' markets: traders of all kinds sell a wide range of goods at the laiki where clothes bargains are to be found. The prices are low and the atmosphere lively, making the laiki a perfect place to round off your morning's entertainment. Buy a koulouri from Hania's famous bagel lady (who is usually to be found across the Agora, as well as the laiki) to munch on while you browse the stalls; save your appetite for a more substantial meal, which you will remember well after your return home.

My favorite place to eat out is the Agora. Old-fashioned food, served in the old-fashioned way, with no menu card - even if you don't know what it's called, you can just point to your favorite dish on the display. For tourist who want an itty-bitty something to remember Hania by, there are plenty of offerings to choose from.
Lunch at the mall: The laiki will probably take up all your morning (and a good part of your money, if you're into knick-knacks and bargains, so it's a good idea to budget both your time and money because you want to save both for a leisurely browse through the Agora, Hania's central market. It's located in the heart of the town and is actually where all distances in and out of Hania are measured. The Agora is where you'll find some of the permanent stalls of Cretan food producers, as well as the most popular souvenirs and other tourist trappings, which we all need to provide us with tangible reminders of our holidays. The Agora is also a popular place for locals to buy meat and fish. You will get a good idea of how the locals shop for their food by looking at the fresh products available here. By the end of your tour, you will also probably be hungry, so now is the time to stop and rest at a mayirio in the Agora, which serves solid traditional instantly recognisable Greek fare at very good prices (much cheaper than a taverna). Refresh yourself here with something to eat and drink, because the day isn't quite over yet.. 

  The old Venetian harbour of Hania - no doubt, it's one of the most romantic corners of the Mediterranean.

The Venetian port and the old town: Once you realised how good - and cheap - the food was at the mayirio, you probably ordered a lot of food and now feel as though you overate. Don't worry, you're about to work that off all those extra virgin olive-oil calories you just gained. Exit the Agora through the back entrance (ie facing north), and you will find yourself on a narrow commercial street. Turn left and keep crossing the road to continue walking north, so that eventually you will arrive at the old romantic Venetian port. This is where the rest of your afternoon will be spent, walking along the cobbled paved streets to admire the view and the cosmopolitan atmosphere that the port conveys. Both locals and tourists alike sit at the many bars, cafes and tavernas that line the promenade, simply taking in the glorious sight of the lighthouse as it stands in the middle of the harbour. You won't do that until you have explored all the side streets on the western side of the port, which tell the history of the gentrified origins of the old town of Hania. Then you'll move onto the eastern side which looks shabbier than where you just came from - but it is also the most multicultural part of the town, a particular characteristic it retains throughout its urban history, well before the Ottomans occupied it: look out for the two minarets in the area which are still standing. If you can't be bothered walking, you can take a short cruise (from 30 minutes to 2 hours long) round the harbour - the pleasure crafts are docked on the west side.


koum kapi kazimi hania chania After an evening out at Koum Kapi, you'll never want to leave Hania.
Late afternoon: It's time for another drink - a coffee, or maybe something stronger. Although you may be tempted to take it on the harbour front with a view to the lighthouse, why not try one of those bars/cafes you saw on the side-streets during your stroll? The coastline of Koum Kapi is also one of the most vibrant places in the town most of the day; it's Hania's upbeat spot that the tourists don't know very well, located on the eastern side away from the port. Hania is now a smoke-free zone in public places, so choose where you sit wisely; if you want to sit outside to smoke, that jacket you were carrying round with you all day might now come in handy, although most places will have outdoor seating available in covered areas, and during the cooler months, they also provide outdoor heating.

DSC02501 DSC02472 The food shown here does not look spectacular; it could be served anywhere in Hania. The difference is the atmosphere: Galatas is a pictuesque village not far from the town centre. Locals equally distribute themselves among the few shops (a kafeneion, a taverna and a cafe) located on the main square next to the village church, in a very ambient environment.  Village tavernas (like the one below in Omalos) often contain a sense of charm about them, even if it borders on the tacky. But the food is usually never tacky.
koutroulis omalos
Early evening: Lunch was filling, but we are accustomed to eating three meals a day. It's probably time for that third meal, and the choice is huge. Feel like something simple? Try an ouzerie (tsikoudadiko, as we prefer to call them in Hania) at the harbour (near the former mosque), for a small selection of simple mezedes and a nip of the local firewater, tsikoudia (aka raki). Another simple meal is to be found in souvlaki (at the town's newest souvlatzidiko, Thraka, in the town centre), Greece's national street-food, a very transparent kind of junk food. Most tavernas do the famous Greek calamari, which is reasonably priced (try some at Bakaliarakia, located within walking distance south just out of the town on Zimbrakakidon St), which go well with fried potatoes and a salad. If you're feeling like something more special, the choices are endless, and so are the locations, as long as you are prepared to drive out to some of them: why not go to a taverna in a nearby village (like Galatas) for a feel of life in Smallsville? Most village eateries also serve souvlaki as well as more substantial dishes, but be prepared for a more limited menu.

cretan lyra player lemonia hiliomoudou hania chania Cretan music has a distinct regional twang to it, and it's well-known and fairly popular all over the country.
Evening: You're here for 24 hours, so if you aren't about to jump back on a ship or plane to return to Athens (and you don't have a memorial service to attend the next day, which means that you really need to sleep and rest before sprucing yourself up early in the morning to attend church), find out (through billboards in the town or the local newspaper, Haniotika Nea) where a Cretan singer or band is playing for a bit of locally grown music. They play not only at weekends, but also at festivals, saint's namedays, and during the week if they are here for a special occasion. The Cretan lyra mesmerises even those who aren't fans of Greek country music, simply because it is unique and unforgettable. That kind of entertainment will last until the wee hours, so make sure you get yourself back to your port of departure safe and sound, which will most likely be the airport, leaving with the first morning flight out of town.

red sky at night sailor's delight This surreal sky was photographed in the town centre at the stadium.
But you'll probably be back soon, because you know you just did it all too quickly...

*The location of the laiki changes according to the day: Monday-Ai-Yiani suburb, Wednesday-Pahiana suburb, Thursday-Nea Hora suburb (they are all within walking distance, but if you have only 24 hours to spend in Hania, you're better off catching a cab), Saturday-Minoos St (near the city centre); on Tuesday and Sunday, there is no laiki. To get back to the Agora after the laiki from the different locations, you'll need to catch a cab from Ai-Yiani and Nea Hora; from Pahiania, it's quite easy (just walk north), while Minoos St is located very close to the Agora.  


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