We spent about a week on the island of Crete.
The first place we stayed at, a house in
the countryside outside of Heraklion/Irákleio, was comfortable enough
on the inside,
but had wonderful outside areas: a large patio with a pool and views over the surrounding hills as far as the Aegean Sea.
The sunsets were amazing, and we took full advantage of them, sitting with a glass of wine on the patio looking out!
Our first visit was to the village of Kritsá, about an hour's drive east, in the mountains--which are never far away in Crete.
At the edge of the village was the Byzantine church of Panagia Kera, with beautiful fourteenth-century frescoes.
Kritsá itself is a town of narrow streets that run uphill and down. There are lots of shops selling local products: olive oils, liqueurs, natural sponges, etc.
At the coast nearby is the modern resort of Agios Nikólaos: not much happening there, filled with tourists and the businesses that cater to them.
Agios Nikólaos is set on a large bay, though, so our walk along the waterfront was enjoyable, admiring the clear turquoise water.
Heraklion is the largest city on Crete and
is its administrative center. Though it is clearly not a wealthy city, we
enjoyed wandering the streets of
its old town. It probably helped that it was Sunday, and so many of the streets that would have been busy with traffic were closed off for pedestrians,
and many residents of the city were out wandering around with us, strolling, people-watching, and/or having coffee or lunch at a sidewalk cafe.
Crete has had a multicultural history. It
was settled by ancient Greeks and conquered by ancient Romans. It passed from
the Roman Empire to the
Byzantine Empire, and taken briefly by the Arabs. In 1204 it was conquered by the Venetians, who kept the island until 1669, almost half a millennium.
Then it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who held it until 1898. Crete was briefly an independent state, from 1898 to 1908, but then joined Greece.
So the Venetian heritage is strong, and visible in monuments like the cathedral of Heraklion, which has a more western European look.
The Venetians built a series of fortifications, including walls around the city that are still there, and a fortress to protect the harbor.
The Venetian symbol of the lion of Saint Mark is visible here and elsewhere in the city.
Also built by the Venetians were enormous shipyards where ships were built. Some of these are still there.
The historical museum of Crete is in Heraklion, and on display there are scenes of traditional Cretan life.
The largest museum in Heraklion is the archeological museum, with the discoveries of Minoan Crete.
Long before the time of the ancient Greeks,
the island was inhabited by a people we call Minoans.
We know very little about them: "Minoan" is not what they called themselves, we don't know that,
but it is what their civilization was named by the archeologist who uncovered the first traces of it.
What has been found hints at a sophisticated civilization.
The wall frescoes show a ritual of some sort that involved jumping onto and over bulls: maybe the long-ago ancestor of bullfighting.
Representations of human figures may have been statues of the Minoan gods and goddesses, or votive offerings.
Among the most mysterious objects is the Phaestos Disk, filled on both sides with writing that has never been deciphered.
The Minoans cremated their dead and then placed them in these elaborately decorated coffers.
Many of these objects were discovered at Knossós, first discovered in 1878 and excavated for the next thirty-five years.
Here is a model that shows what the Palace
of Knossós might have looked like: a massive complex of multistoried
buildings separated by courtyards.
To give some sense of its age: it existed in this form a thousand years before the Parthenon in Athens was built!
We visited the archeological site of Knossós.
We were not at that impressed: first, we had to dodge many clusters of tour
second, because some parts of the site were "rebuilt" by the archeologist and had a kind of fake "ancient Disneyland" look to them.
This is the so-called Throne Room, nothing of which is actually ancient.
The intricacy of the complex--its various
levels, stairways, halls, loggias--may have been the origin of the ancient
legend of the labyrinth.
According to that legend, the Athenian hero Perseus, intended as a human sacrifice, was helped to escape from the labyrinth on Crete
and from the monster Minotaur (a beast half man and half bull--and the origin of the word "Minoan") by the Cretan princess Ariadne.
The frescoes in place at the archeological site are modern replicas of the originals that are in the museum in Heraklion.
We had lunch that day in the attractive town of Archánes, not far from Knossós.
Its tiny archeological museum displayed this
locally found Minoan statue of a bull.
(Clearly the bull was very important in Minoan culture, and is found in a lot of its art.)
We also enjoyed driving on small roads through
the hills in the region around Heraklion.
It is a major wine-growing region, producing mostly white wine grapes, many of obscure varietals grown only locally.