“To the Greeks, Crete seems the most authentically Greek of all the islands, because of the length of its history and its relative remoteness from the ancient centres of war and diplomacy.” So wrote Grecophile Lawrence Durell, renowned author and brother of naturalist Gerald Durrell of ‘My Family and other Animals’ fame.
Known world-wide for its great beaches, vibrant towns, historical tsites, lively night-life, outdoor activities and a culture that is at once quintessentially Greek yet uniquely its own, Crete has a thousand and one ways to enjoy your holiday. However, no visit to the island is complete without exploring the ancient history of Minoan Crete.
The ancient site of Knossos is without doubt, the most famous Minoan Crete site. When Phoenician princess Europa resisted his romantic overtures, he changed himself into a white bull and then, of course, she succumbed and he brought her to Crete. Here she gave birth to Minos who ruled the island and created a mighty kingdom. He is said to have built the palace at Knossos and underneath Daedylus built a Labyrinth to incarcerate his son, half man, half bull Minotaur. Built over 3000 years ago, it was imaginatively ‘restored’ initially by archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the 1920s.
Within its ochre, cream, red and blue walls, surrounded by beautiful frescoes and Art Deco –style angular architecture, you may hear echoes of youngsters shouting with glee as they dare each other to leap over the back of the bulls which feature so significantly in Minoan history.
Zeus, Father of the Gods, was born in the Dictean Cave (Psychro Cave). He was brought up by the nymphs far away from his father Cronos, who had a nasty habit of eating his children. You can visit the cave, close by the village of Psiro and learn a bit about the ancient Minoan cult that started here centuries ago. If you’ve a good imagination you’ll be able to visualise the baby Zeus suckling from one of the rock formations – or maybe not.
One of my favourite sites is the island’s second largest palace at Phaistos. South of Heraklion, sitting majestically on the fertile Messara plain, Phaistos Palace doesn’t have the lavish decoration of Knossos. However, rooms are still arranged around enormous courtyards and with a bit of imagination you can visualise black-ringleted regal inhabitants descending the Grand Stairway or a metalworker clanging away at the furnace.
Nearby Aghia Triada may have been a royal villa or summer retreat – whatever its original purpose it is a pleasant place for a wander though the island’s Minoan history.
Unless you’re an avid party goer you’ll want to avoid the hedonistic clubs and bars of north coast resorts but take time to see Malia Palace, not far from the town. It’s not been restored and with far fewer visitors than Knossos the setting, with mountains backing the ruins is evocative and timeless. A stunning gold pendant of two bees was found here – it’s now in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, which has a superb collection on Minoan artefacts. If you want a swim then head east right to the end of Malia beach to escape the crowds.
Aghios Nicolaos Archaelogical Museum
The popular seaside resort of Aghios Nikolaos can be very busy at the height of the season. There’s very little connection to ancient history here but the small Archaeological Museum is worth a visit if only to see the very quirky-looking Turtle Goddess of Myrtos. She’s actually an early Minoan (c.2500 BC) jug and quite charming. See below for more on this site.
On the south coast not too far from vowel-laden Ierapetra is another Minoan Crete settlement, Pyrgos near Myrtos seaside village. Like Phaistos, it’s been excavated sympathetically and people have lived here since Neolithic times. What I love about this simple site is not its ancient remains but its view across the Libyan Sea towards Africa. Perched beside one of the smooth, weather worn stones of the hill-top building, the essence of Greece seems to be encapsulated here. Cicadas zither away unseen, the scent of thyme permeates the air and as the sun crosses the sky, the call of ouzo gets louder. Finish off the day at Myrtos Beach and a enjoy a relaxing meal at one of the beach front tavernas as the sun sets on one of the most fascinating islands in the world.