Malia is the place for which the cliche was coined: it really is ‘a town of contrasts’. It is the busy beach resort above all others, probably the loudest and brashest on Crete. At the same time it has one of the most evocative and least-visited Minoan sites on the island, containing the remains of a palace, and in addition is one of the best coastal spots on Crete for seeing migrating birds in spring and autumn.
The summer wildlife is found in the town centre, where strips of bars and discos blare out music until the early hours of the morning, and during the day its splendid long sandy beach has holidaymakers packed onto it like sardines… or like sardines that are slowly frying in oil. Ironically, while the main beach, despite its size, is packed with bodies, there is also an excellent beach near the Minoan remains which is frequently empty as so few people make the short 2.5 mile (4km) journey to visit it.
On one side of the palace remains is the sea, and on the other side still largely hidden under agricultural land are the remains of what was evidently a big settlement. French archaeologists have been working on the site for some time, and the slow painstaking work continues, but visitors can still wander over much of the site where information boards have been placed to help you make sense of the ruins. There is also a burial site known as Chrysolakkos, with treasures found in the tombs now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Irakleio.
The main area of the site is the former palace itself, which was originally built in 1900 BC but then destroyed in 1700 BC, rebuilt, and then destroyed again in about 1450 BC in the final catacylismic destruction of the Minoan civilisation on Crete. The central courtyard is a focal point from which to try and understand the sumptuous buildings that would have surrounded you, and a prior visit to Knosos will give you some idea of what Malia would have looked like. The remains of storage areas and pits, as well as a huge administration block, indicate that the palace was as well-populated and well-stocked with provisions as any large modern town.
A few kilometers east of the site is the village of Milatos, from where signs direct you along a path to the Milatos Cave: not the usual show cave but a memorial to a massacre that took place here in 1823 during the War of Independence against the Turks. To gaze at the bones in the casket inside the cave is to understand that memories here are long. The Cretans are proud and independent people, and for them to be ruled by a foreign power is the greatest indignity of all.
Greece Travel Secrets visits the Cretan Botano herbs and spices shop near Matala in southern Crete in search of the herb man of Kouses.
Greece Travel Secrets visits the Zacharioudakis Winery near Ancient Gortina in southern Crete, and does a vineyard tour arranged by our guide from Go Crete.
Here's a very thorough and helpful city guide to Athens from the UK's Guardian newspaper, for anyone planning a visit.