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Crete, Greece

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Did You Know…?

  • Crete is Greece’s largest island (3,189 square miles) and Europe’s southernmost point.
  • The palace of Knossos includes an example of the first flushing toilet system.
  • Domenicos Theotokopoulos — the artist, El Greco — was born on Crete.
  • The first known cultivation of olive trees occurred on Crete about 5,500 years ago.
  • The Knossos palace complex is more than a thousand years older than Athens’ Parthenon.

Calling on the Minoans

Numerous visitors to Crete arrive and leave aboard a cruise ship spending less than a day on the island. But others know Crete is large and diverse enough to occupy a visitor for several days at a stretch.

The latter group may choose the island for its beaches, the chance to be active on land or sea during the day and active in the clubs at night, and for the island’s rugged beauty. North Americans could find vacation spots with similar appeal closer to home, but the Minoan civilization, which dates back 3,500 years, belongs to Greece alone.

The best of the Minoan archaeological sites are on Crete, the heartland for the Minoans. Their culture flourished between about 2000 and 1500 B.C. During this period, the Minoans built the palaces that so impress archaeologists and laymen alike. The largest of the palaces was Knossos, in many ways more like a town, covering eight and a half square miles. Around 1450 B.C., a natural disaster or invader, or a combination, destroyed the Minoan civilization.

Controversially, the first excavator at Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans, reconstructed parts of the palace and applied paint, making it easier to imagine what Knossos might have looked like in its heyday. But there’s no disagreement that Knossos is a must-visit site for anyone remotely interested in Crete’s and Greece’s history. Other Minoan sites can be seen, too.

Many portable Minoan findings — jewelry, mosaics, pottery, statuary and the like — are in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion. Rounding out the cultural aspect of a Crete vacation are the Historical Museum, also in Heraklion; churches and monasteries of note; Venetian houses and forts (from roughly 500 years of Venetian rule), and traditional Greek villages ideal for strolling with camera in hand.

But Crete, an island of mountains and valleys surrounded by beaches and the Mediterranean, cannot be ignored as a playground, and a beautiful one at that. The terrain is suited to cycling and hiking, plus there are caves to explore and golf courses to try. However, beaches and the sea attract more attention. Available activities range from sailing to parasailing, from snorkeling to windsurfing.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Take up a challenge. Hike in and around the Samaria Gorge, Europe’s longest gorge, 11 miles.
  • Go waterskiing or windsurfing. Or, be a sailor in Cretan waters.
  • You can dive, as well, but within limits because of concerns that underwater archaeological treasures may be pilfered.
  • Eat some of the foods popular on Crete, including traditional goat and snail dishes.
  • Make your way around the island on a mountain bike. After you figure it out, the public bus service is another transport option when you don’t want to pedal.
  • Rent a car and drive (that’s the adventurous part) through the scenic Lassithi Plains, on a plateau high in the Dikti Mountains at the eastern end of the island. Also, stop at the Diktean Cave, the legendary birthplace of the Greek god, Zeus.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Visit a few island wineries and sample Cretan wines.
  • From Agios Nikolas or Elounda, take a boat tour to the island of Spinalonga, site of a Venetian castle-fort and a leper colony until 1957. It’s an unusual sightseeing experience.
  • Visit small coastal towns. One example, Matala offers boat excursions daily to islands in the bay and to Preveli Beach.
  • Put snorkeling on your calendar.
  • Relax on the water with a little sea kayaking along the Cretan coast.
  • In Khania, enjoy a romantic getaway in one of 15th or 16th century Venetian mansions that have been converted into cozy inns. The town is noted for its Venetian quarter.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Stay at the luxury resort Elounda, called the St. Tropez of Greece.
  • Make full use of the island’s golf courses. Sample the island’s spa services, too.
  • Join a guided tour of the island’s palace of Knossos and other historic attractions, including Crete’s second-most-important Minoan ruins at Phaistos.
  • Then, in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, see the famed disc of Phaistos and other portable artifacts from the archaeological digs.
  • Shop for colorful handwoven handbags.
  • Charge up the batteries on your camera, and expect striking photos taken in late-afternoon light on the island.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Greek National Tourism Organization at www.visitgreece.gr