I spent the past holiday weekend in Crete, which is the southernmost Greek Island and the fifth largest in the entire Mediterranean Sea. The island certainly seemed bigger than that and the scenery, mixed with the people and the amazing food made for a great weekend. Crete was the last part of Greece that I had yet to visit and leaves me with only three Travelers Century Club destinations in Europe left. I had a really awesome time in Crete and the best memory I will take was how full of surprises Crete was.
Crete was kind of like a subcontinent in and of itself, it had snow capped peaks, nice beaches, awesome farmland and great cities with beautiful harbors. I was particularly surprised by the snow capped peaks. The highest mountains get to nearly 9000 feet and I was told the snow will melt by the time the summer gets into full gear but still it was a bit of a shock in mid April to see snow capped mountains in the Mediterranean.
Although this was still the low season and many things were closed, especially the famous hiking gorge on the south of the island, the island beamed with energy. We started out by flying into Heraklion which is the capital city and a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon strolling around the winding roads of the center and ending up in a coffee house where seemingly every single young Cretan would be sitting drinking a coffee drink and smoking cigarettes. I am not exaggerating either, there must’ve been 50 of these coffee houses in the center right near the old fountain and every one of them was jammed with people sipping lattes and inhaling cigs 3 at a clip.
I was also surprised to see what a presence Starbucks had on the island. As if they haven’t infiltrated enough foreign countries, they are now firmly entrenched on the island of Crete with at least 5 stores just in Heraklion. Regardless, my first order of business upon arrival was to get a gyro stat. That didn’t take long to crush a phenomenal gyro and side of feta before heading out to explore the ancient Minoan Palace ruins of Knossos.
The palace, built between 1700 and 1400bc is about 130 meters on a side and since the Roman period has been suggested as the source of the myth of the Labyrinth, an elaborate mazelike structure constructed for King Minos of Crete and designed by the legendary artificer Daedalus to hold the Minotaur, a creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus.
The location of the labyrinth of legend has long been a question for Minoan studies. It might have been the name of the palace or of some portion of the palace. Throughout most of the 20th century the intimations of human sacrifice in the myth puzzled Bronze Age scholars, because evidence for human sacrifice on Crete had never been discovered and so it was vigorously denied. The practice was finally confirmed archaeologically. It is possible that the palace was a great sacrificial center and could have been named the Labyrinth. Its layout certainly is labyrinthine, in the sense that it is highly confusing. If it weren’t for the helpful signs and arrows pointing your way, you’d have no clue what was going on! The ruins themselves are pretty cool and well worth a stop in you’re in Crete and probably the most important archaeological site in Crete and possibly the Greek islands.
After Knossos we made our way west to the awesome city of Chania, which is the second largest city on the island of Crete. Despite being heavily bombed during World War II Chania’s Old Town is the most beautiful urban district on Crete, especially the crumbling Venetian harbor. The borders of the Old Town are the mostly destroyed old Venetian wall and this has been the cradle of all the civilizations which were developed in the area.
The harbor of Chania is perfect for strolling around and has a very relaxed atmosphere. It is a perfectly circular harbor with restaurants dotting the water and of course the usual guys trying to get you into their restaurants by offering the freshest seafood in Crete-how can it be the freshest when the guy next to you says the same thing!
The harbor at Chania is reminiscient of two things I think. First, it reminds me of Rhodes where the alleged site of the Colossus lies with the Venetian wall and lighthouse and the harbor itself reminds me of the main harbor in Northern (Turkish) Cyprus-which the name currently escapes me. Again, a very nice place to be and spend some time. The whole island is just so relaxing.
Crete was a perfect way to spend my Easter weekend since I couldn’t be home in the States and I have heard that it really gets started in Crete next weekend when the Greeks actually celebrate Easter themselves. Oh, one more thing, you must rent a car in Crete or you’re in a lot of trouble because the island is so big and everything is a drive.