It’s not strange that one of the most “sea” countries in Europe has the 5th biggest island in the Mediterranean basin, one of the most beautiful ones and of course, the cradle of the European civilization. The country is Hellas and the island is Crete.
Being situated on the crossroads between three continents (Europe, Asia and Africa) and being hugged by the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, Crete is a place blessed with extreme natural (at a time very wild) beauty and of course, with rich history of various epochs. All this makes it a preferred holiday destination where there is everything for any taste.
C R E T E
Speaking about Crete, definitely we should start with the Greek mythology. Well, I said we should start but I don’t know from where and how as there are too many myths related to the island. But let us do it step-by step. Ta-ta-taaaa … The ruler of the Olympians, i.e. Zeus, was born here, in the Psychro cave in the Mount Dikti. His two children from Leto (God Apollo and Goddess Artemis) were also born here, on the two small uninhabited islands of Paximadia. As to Zeus’ other daughter, Goddess Athena, she adored bathing in the Lake Voulismeni.
Myths and legends don’t stop here. Just on the opposite. They continue and moreover, they are so romantic because they are connected with the creation of some of the nearby Cretan islands and islets. For example, the islands of Souda and Leon were created after a musical contest which the Sirens and Muses took part in. The Muses lost it and plucked the feathers from their rivals’ wings. The Sirens became white and they dived into the sea near the ancient city of Aptera. Thus the two islets were formed and they were called Lefkai (i.e. “the white ones”).
The lizard-shaped island of Dia had its story, too. There lived a giant lizard that was constantly threatening Crete. One day Zeus threw a lightning at it and the reptile turned into a stone immediately and the island was created. By the way, Dia is often identified as the place where Thiseas escaped after the Minotaur was killed. Yeap …. No doubt …. It’s time we enjoyed the amazing part of Cretan history related to mythical King Minos and the Minoan period. So, are we ready?! 🙂
According to the myth, Zeus transformed himself and obtained the form of a white bull. Thus he managed to seduce beautiful Phoenician Princess Europa (by the way, the Old Continent was named after her). Then he kidnapped her and after having crossed the sea, he brought her to the beach in Màtala. He transformed himself again there but this time he turned into an eagle. He put the Princess on his back and flew her to nearby Gortys where he made love to her. The fruit of their love was King Minos as well as two other kings of Crete, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon.
Posiedon offered the Kingdom of Crete to Minos but in return the future king should have sacrificed a sacred snow-white bull that came out from the sea waves. Unfortunately, Minos kept it for himself and instead, he sacrificed an ordinary animal from his own herd. The God got furious and punished him by casting a spell on his wife – Queen Pasiphae. The queen fell crazily in love with the bull and as a result of it the Minotaur was born. That strange creature was half-man, half-bull and was held by Minos in the Labyrinth of the Palace of Knossos.
Knossos, Phaistos, Archanes, Zakros and Malia were the first palaces to be built by the Minoans in the mid-Minoan period (2000 – 1650 B.C.). The Minoans were a Hellenic Bronze Age civilization. They were highly educated people (they were the first to use a written language, known as Linear A; the renowned Phaistos Disc in Linear A script was unearthed in the archeological site of Phaistos near the village of Moieres), brave warriors, skillful merchants, great artists and experienced sailors. Last but not least they were also cunning builders and their towns and cities were labyrinth complexes that had religious, economic and political seats. The prominent instance is the Palace of Knossos near Herklion, which was the political, cultural and ceremonial centre of the vast Minoan empire that dominated the Mediterranean region for centuries. Being in the archeological site of Knossos, nowadays we can admire the huge maze of work- and storerooms and dwellings located close to a major square. Another fascinating thing about Knossos is the murals and frescoes (both indoor and outdoor) as well as the decorations of pottery that have already been restored and preserved.
The strong earthquake of 1700 B.C. destroyed everything but fortunately, the towns and ports, and the palaces were re-built and restored due to the improved engineering in the Late-Minoan period (1650-14000 B.C.). Among the exquisite murals of that time are frescoes like “Minoan Ladies in Blue”, “Minoan Bull Leaping”, “Minoan Dolphins”, “Cup Bearer”, “The Feather Prince or the Prince of Lilies”, “Blue Bird”, etc.
The end of the mighty Minoan civilization has still been hidden in mystery but it’s true that most of the historians and scientists associate it with the eruption of the Theran (Sanorini) Volcano of 1627. By the way, the exact time of the volcano eruption has still been disputed. Originally it was believed that it took place in 1450 B.C. While the new theories and findings prove that the volcano erupted between 1627 and 1600 B.C. After the eruption the volcano ash caused the devastation of the Minoan Bonze Age settlement of Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini (known also as Thíra or Thera). It also reached the Cretan shores and shadowed the island for a few days. But, surely, it wasn’t the reason for the end of the Minoans. No. About 50 feet tsunamis and tidal waves hit the island and destroyed towns and cities, plantations and crops, ships and ports, killing thousands of people. After that natural disaster the Minoan fleet was fully destroyed which weakened the prosperity and safety of the Minoans. They became vulnerable and an easy prey for the Mycenaeans that came from the Hellenic mainland in the Meta-Palace or better known as the Mycenaean era (1450 – 1100 B.C.). After that the Dorians ruled the island until 69 B.C. when it became a Roman province.
And that is our επόμενη στάση (next stop) – the Roman province of Creta et Cyrenaica. It was a joint province that consisted of the Island of Crete and the northern African region of Cyrenaica. The Romans established its capital in Gortyn (also known as Gortys or Gortyna). Today’s archeological site has plenty to show to visitors but for sure, the remains of the 6th century A.D. St Titus Cathedral are amazing. (Saint Titus was the first Cretan bishop.) Not less impressive are the ruins of the Agora (market) and the temple of Apollo as well as the Roman Odeon (theatre) behind which is the so-called “Queen of Inscriptions” (the city’s laws inscribed in the Dorian dialect on stones).
After passing through the Arab period (app. 823-961) and Byzantine times (app. 961-1252) we are reaching la nostra prossima fermata (our next stop). The Venetian dominance on the Island of Crete is really prominent as the Venetians left great and precious heritage to the island during their several century presence there.
The capital city of Heraklion (the other names are Candia, Castro and Handakas) could be well described as a Venetian-style city as most of the sights are from Venetian times. Moreover, the old, historic town is inside the Venetian walls while the newer parts lie beyond them and are growing rapidly.
There is no doubt that every city tour starts from the old Venetian port where Venetian Fortress “Rocca al Mare” (or Koules Fortress) is situated with the Venetian lion carved in the wall. The promenade starting from there gives you the chance to have a nice walk along the sea or ride a bike, or do some jogging (but don’t choose the afternoon hours when heat and sun can just kill you).
The tour continues along a tiny street dotted by numerous souvenir shops. After being tempted by plenty of material mementos, you will reach the Square of Liberty (Eleftheriou Venizelou Square) where the Venetian loggia housing the Town Hall today and the Morosini Fountain with the lions will impress you greatly. On your way you will pass by the Church of St. Titus. After going down the street you will reach another impressive Greek Orthodox Cathedral dedicated to Agios Minas.
And now turn to the left and then to the right, then again left-right-left-left-right-right and voglià. You have just turned back to Venetian times. The Venetians walls that embrace the old city are now a pleasant place where you might have a walk. The quietness and peace of the place have been chosen as a resting place of the great Hellenic writer and philosopher – Nikos Kazandzakis. The epitaph on his grave realistically describes his views of freedom, i.e. “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free”.
Being on the topic of the Venetian dominance, I should mention that the heritage from Venetians is to be found everywhere on the Island of Crete. Their fortresses and strongholds are at the highest points of every city. The tiny streets remind of these in Venice. The Venetian lion can be seen in every corner of the remains of Venetian sites.
Well, this is the end of our journey. My bus will leave you here so you can reach the other stops by yourselves. In the very end, I would only say that you should not turn into Icarus and Daedalus who crafted wings to escape the Island of Crete and the capture of King Minos. No, it won’t be necessary since your heart will remain in Crete and you won’t want to leave the island once you’ve come here and seen its beauty and charm.