Crete is Greece’s biggest island and easily one of the most beautiful. Visiting Crete means you will get to discover breathtaking beauty wherever you go- and the little islet of Gramvousa is no exception! Renowned for its history as well as its gorgeous beach, Gramvousa is a must-see for everyone visiting Crete.
Small enough that you can explore it in a day, and beautiful enough that you will want to go back anyway, Gramvousa is an adventure and a treat. This guide will take you through everything you need to know about the tiny island so you can get the most out of this Cretan jewel. Read on to learn everything about Gramvousa!
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Visiting the Island of Gramvousa
Where is Gramvousa?
There are two islets called Gramvousa, the “wild” (Agria) one and the “tame” (Imeri) one. It’s the “tame” one that you get to visit. You will find them roughly 56 km northwest of Chania city, or just 20 km northwest of Kissamos town. Kissamos is a port town that has itineraries to Kythera island and to the Gramvousa islets.
Gramvousa is part of Crete, so it shares Crete’s Mediterranean climate. Expect hot dry summers and mild, damp winters. Unlike Crete, which is wonderful to visit around the year, Gramvousa is an uninhabited inlet and best visited during the summer. For Greece, that is from mid-May to late September.
To visit Gramvousa make sure you’re protected against the scorching Greek sun, so have abundant sunscreen, sunglasses, and a sunhat with you. Bottled water is also a good idea.
How to get to Gramvousa
As already mentioned, Gramvousa is not inhabited. Therefore, going to it is always going to be a day trip from Kissamos town.
You can go to Kissamos town by car from Chania city. The drive takes roughly 45 minutes and is quite scenic. Alternatively, you can take the bus (KTEL) to Kissamos from Chania city, which takes around 60 minutes. Once there, you will take the boat to Gramvousa from Kissamos’ port, Kavonisi.
There are daily trips to the islet on little boats or ferries, usually as part of a tour or cruise that also includes a visit to the stunning Balos beach. You can book a boat that can take you to both locations on demand once you are in Kissamos. If you are especially adventurous, your personally hired boat can also take you to “wild” (Agria) Gramvousa. However, that might be a risky option during peak season as trips fill up quickly, so consider booking in advance.
The best option is to book a cruise that will take you to Gramvousa and Balos, giving you the best of both gorgeous locations. The extra perk is that such tours include a bus service that will pick you up from your hotel to take you to Kissamos (that includes other cities, not just Chania).
Make sure you book in advance to avoid any unpleasant surprises!
How Gramvousa got its name
In ancient times, Gramvousa was called “Korykos” which means ‘leather bag’. The name Gramvousa was given a lot later, in the 19th century when the islands were the base of operation of Greek insurgents and pirates. Vousa was the wife of a pirate leader and the only person that wasn’t caught during a final crackdown on the population that removed the pirates from the island. In her honor, the islands were named Gramvousa.
The Tame (Imeri) Gramvousa is where there were inhabitants, complete with a Venetian castle. It’s a lot more hospitable than the Wild (Agria) Gramvousa which has rougher terrain. Wild Gramvousa has a lighthouse that was constructed in the 1870s.
A brief history of Gramvousa
Gramvousa has always been a site for fortification and protection of Crete, due to its strategic location. However, strong fortifications were created in the 1500s by the Venetians, when Crete was under Venetian rule. The purpose was to protect that side of the island from pirates as well as the rising Ottoman threat.
The castle that was built there was so efficient that it was never actually conquered. It was only relinquished to enemies. First, this was done in 1669 via a treaty between the Venetians and the Ottomans who took over the island after the lengthy Cretan War.
Then, it was surrendered through treachery in the second Venetian-Ottoman war, the Morean war, by the Neapolitan captain de la Giocca who took a big bribe from the Ottomans to do it. He lived out his life in Constantinople under the name “Captain Gramvousas”.
The control of the Gramvousa castle by the Ottomans was short-lived, however, because quickly it was taken over by Greek insurgents who used it as a refuge from the Turkish rule, especially as the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821. Unable to take the fort, the Turks besieged it and cut it off from all resources from mainland Crete.
In response, the inhabitants turned to piracy to survive and Gramvousa became a pirate hub which greatly affected the trade routes between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. The inhabitants became organized, building churches and a school in their settlement.
When the Greek state was founded, its first governor Ioannis Kapodistrias had to deal with the piracy issue. In 1828 he sent a fleet of ships, including British and French ones, to crack down on the pirates, which ended the period of piracy and removed the pirates from the island.
Gramvousa has become associated with the indomitable spirit of resistance as well as that of wild piracy and remains a powerful landmark for Cretans.
What to see and do in Gramvousa
For such a tiny islet, there are a lot of things to see and do!
Explore Gramvousa’s nature: Gramvousa is a NATURA 2000-protected region, thanks to the astounding and unique range of flora and fauna on the islet. There are more than 100 species of bird and 400 species of plants just on Gramvousa. In Gramvousa’s caves the Mediterranean seals take refuge to reproduce and the endangered sea turtle Carreta Carreta comes to forage.
Because of the state of protection, you aren’t allowed to roam freely all over the island. There are designated pathways for you to explore it though and take in the beautiful variety of its plant life and photograph its stunning vistas, including a view of the famous Balos beach.
Explore Gramvousa’s shipwreck: Near the port of Gramvousa, you will find the shipwreck that has become part of the islet’s identity and history. This is a relatively modern shipwreck that happened in 1967. Fortunately, there were no casualties as the captain had ordered the ship to anchor near Gramvousa to avoid bad weather.
That wasn’t enough and the ship beached, flooding the engine room with water and forcing the sailors to abandon it. Ever since, the ship has remained there, slowly rusting away and creating an otherworldly site for you to explore.
Visit the Venetian castle: Reigning over the islet, right over the western cove where the port is, you will find the castle of Gramvousa, with its fortifications still impressively intact. Built in the 1500s, the castle could hold 3000 fighters and you can access it from an impressive set of stairs leading to it.
You can explore it all and enjoy the gorgeous, sweeping view of the island and the sea around it, to give you an idea of how commanding the fortress’ position was. Inside you will also find the church of Panagia Kleftrina (“Our Lady of the Thieves”) which is preserved to this day.
Lounge at the beach: Gramvousa’s beach is simply gorgeous. It is sandy, with aquamarine waters contrasting beautifully with the land. There are a few trees to provide you with shade, though it’s wise to bring your own beach gear for that! The waters are crystal clear and the unadulterated, authentic surroundings offer an excellent chance to relax and recharge.
Go snorkeling: Thanks to its virgin nature, Gramvousa’s beach, and the seaside is a great spot for snorkeling. If you are a fan of the sport, make sure you bring your gear to enjoy a wide variety of sea life and gorgeous underwater views of the area.
What to be aware of while in Gramvousa
Because of its NATURA 2000 protected status, there are some rules and regulations to follow while being in Gramvousa.
You can’t stay the night: You are not allowed to camp anywhere in the area or stay overnight.
You can’t pollute in any way: You can’t leave any waste behind. That includes cigarettes and food remains or wrappings.
You can’t take anything from the island: It’s forbidden to take anything from the beach, the castle, or the surrounding natural areas with you as a token or memento. Not even a pebble! Everything should be left as is.
You can’t smoke while on the island: It’s not just the cigarette butts that will be left behind, but the ash and the smoke which can disturb the habitat and wildlife on the islet.
You can’t light a fire anywhere on the island: No camping means no starting of fires of any type, for any reason.
You can’t wander around freely: To keep from disturbing the activity of various animals on the islet, you can only explore the island on certain paths that have been clearly drawn out and designated for that purpose. Stepping out of those paths is forbidden.
Where to smoke/get food: The boats you’re visiting will provide you with food and spaces to smoke without issue, so make sure you use those amenities. Some will also rent you sun umbrellas which you are obliged to return to the ship, which makes sure you leave nothing behind.