Traveler: Danielle Gervalis
When: May 2013
Overall Experience: Greek Islands bring to mind deep blue waters, steep cliffs and stark white buildings dotting the landscape, and maybe even a raucous nightlife. Crete might not be the party central destination but it holds its own in regards to beautiful scenery.
For history buffs, the significance of Crete can not be overstated. Its home to the Minoans, the earliest known civilization in Europe, an advanced and resourceful society. In more recent times, the island’s citizens demonstrated their scrappiness and put up a fierce resistance against the invading German troops during the Battle of Crete in WWII. In fact, in April of 1944 a few Cretans in Special Operations, led by Patrick Leigh Fermor successfully kidnapped Nazi General Karl Heinrich Kreipe, impersonated him to get through 22 separate check points and whisked him off the island to Allied headquarters. That takes some gusto!
With all of those legendary sagas, Crete is an exceptional island to visit to get your fill of charming beach towns, friendly people and trigger your inner archeologist.
This quaint seaside town is a worthy place to stop, rest, eat and explore. It’s a convenient jumping off point for other excursions and only an hour ride from the main airport. There are a few museums you can check out, including an Archeological Museum and Folklore Museum, highlighting traditional Cretan lifestyle. However, the best thing to do in Ag Nik, as the locals call it, is to meander around the town and stop in at the different cafes for coffee, cocktails and snacks. You can also hike through the hills and along the beaches. The town has quite a few suggested routes which you can view here.
Spinalonga Island has a confusing and interesting history. The official Greek name of the island today is Kalydon. However, it wasn’t always an island. During the Venetian occupation in the 1500s, it was dug out from the peninsula and a fort was built to defend from pirates and other invaders. The fort changed hands over the years with battles from the Venetians, to the Ottomans and then finally to the Cretans in 1903.
From that time until 1960, it was a leper colony, making it one of the last active leper colonies in Europe. Today, it’s a popular tourist attraction. You can take a short ferry ride from the mainland to explore the pebble beaches, abandoned leper colony and fortress.
Known as the center of the Minoan civilization and the earliest European city, evidence of human activity at Knossos dates back to 8,000 BC. You may remember stories from Greek mythology about King Minos and the elaborate labyrinth that was built underneath his castle. The labyrinth was designed by the genius Daedalus, who had a son name Icarus, who has his own Greek tragedy of drowning in the sea after flying too close to the sun.
In any case, that labyrinth contained the terrifying Minotaur, the half-bull, half-man son of King Minos’ wife and was kept alive by human sacrifices, just like the Hunger Games! The Minotaur was eventually killed by Theseus, the son of Aegeus, namesake of the Aegean sea, who then fled with his lover, King Minos’ daughter Ariadne. Don’t feel bad if any of this doesn’t ring a bell. The helpful guides are very excited to talk about it!
With all the myths surrounding this place, it can be easy to forget this was an ACTUAL palace complex with a surrounding city of 100,000 people around 1,700 BC. Excavations began in 1900 led by Sir Arthur Evans. Debate continues if the restorations are historically accurate or just interpretations of what it should look like, however most experts agree reality is somewhere in the middle. You can see the site and decide for yourself for around $20.
One of the most incredible rooms at the complex is the throne room. Decorated in frescos featuring griffins and a ritual washing basin. Scholars speculate that the throne room was used for ceremonial and religious sacrifices for the goddess who would receive them here.
Continuing through the site, you’ll find more frescos depicting the bull, a nod to the ancient Minoan sport of bull jumping where males would vault over the bulls horns. Additionall, notice the uniquely shaped columns painted in red and black. The columns are made from Cyprus trees making them smaller at the bottom and wider at the top, to prevent the tree from sprouting once installed.
There are many rooms to see and imagine what life was like here thousands of years ago. The pottery can be found in frescos and dots the open and interior spaces with different, intricate designs.
It gives you a sense of the complicated culture and society that thrived here. Even with the heat, you’ll feel a nice breeze drifting through the site because of the foresight to build the palace on top of a hill. You’ll also need to be careful where you walk due to the extensive fresh water irrigation and drainage systems. The Minoans were pioneers in these technologies and experts will probably spend lifetimes trying to learn more about them. In fact, they’re still trying to decipher their ancient system of writing, Linear B. Maybe if you visit you’ll be able to crack the code?
You can’t come to a Greek Island and not at least dip your toes in the Aegean Sea. It can be refreshingly cold in the summer heat and the smooth pebbles will feel lovely on your feet. If you’re not staying at a beach front resort, you can check out a few of the best public beaches like Tymbaki and Matala which are conveniently located near Heraklion.
Enoy your travels to Crete!