The Enamored Greek Island of Crete, a part of the world that has risen from the depths of conquest and adversity many times over, has transformed to a land of endless feasts, legends and dreams where the fine art of unpretentious hospitality is religiously practiced.
Crete has an unparalleled character and atmosphere, which cannot be compared to any other part of Greece. A drive along one of its bountiful coasts will reveal a countryside that is constantly changing. In one place harsh and barren, in another wooded and gentle. Its villages perched on mountain ridges, adorned with olive trees, orange groves, vineyards and Cypress forests, while the hillsides are speckled with old stone farmhouses, and monasteries. Shores are lined with forbidding rocks at one glance, only to be transcended to beaches blessed with miles of sand or pebbles.
Overview of the Island
The island is divided into four prefectures: Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion and Lasithi. Although the north coast is where most vacationers flock, due to the presence of larger resorts, great nightlife and a modern infrastructure, the islanders have not let this beautiful region go spoiled. Exploring the south side of the island allows one to experience the epitome of traditional life and a far more authentic experience.
With over 1,000 Kilometers of extensive and diverse coastline it’s possible for beach goers to enjoy endless locations blessed by warm, crystal clear water. On the north coast, west of Chania one beach in particular stands out; it stretches from the town to just outside Kolimbari. Closer to the eastern point of the island is the famous Elounda Beach, near the town of Agios Nikolaos. On the west coast, one has the sandy beach of Falassarna and, further south, Lafonissi. It is best however, to rent a jeep, grab a map and explore this vast island (260 km by 60 km) as the ancient have done for thousands of years.
Crete Brief History
This largest, and most southerly of all the Greek Islands enjoys a unique blend of diverse cultural influences, separates the Libyan and Aegean Seas, and marks the boundary between Europe and Africa. The island?s fertile soil and towering peaks witnessed the development of one of the most important civilizations on Earth, the Minoan (2800 – 1150 B.C.) A geological catastrophe, the eruption of the volcano of Santorini in 1450 BC created a huge tidal wave that swept away most traces of civilization and halted the Minoan civilization at its height. However, shipping and commerce with the Phoenicians, Syrians and Egyptians continued to broaden Crete?s horizons.
The Romans then occupied Crete in 67 BC, bringing Crete into the Byzantine Empire (325 AD to 824 AD) and thus the introduction of Christianity. But many others had there eyes on the riches. First Crete fell into the hands of the Arabs (824AD) forming the present-day capitol Heraklion, and then in 1204, the island passed to the Venetians. From this occupation appeared the cities of Chania and Rethemnon, with their fortified walls, narrow alleyways, small residential blocks, decorative piazzas, fountains, churches and palaces, remains that can still be seen today.
After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453), artists and scholars from all parts of the former Byzantine Empire fled to Crete. Arts and Sciences flourished again, with the biggest representative of this renaissance being the painter El Greco. (Domenicos Theotocopoulos) Heraklion then falls to the Turks in 1669, with the occupation lasting until 1878, and then eventually Crete unites with Greece in 1913.
Legacy of Legends
Over the centuries Cretans have had an uncanny ability to harmoniously blend nature and myth captivating the spirit of man. The myth of Icarus can best demonstrate this point. Dedalus was a famous Athenian architect that Minos (king of Knossos) invited to Crete to build a Labyrinth. When Dedalus finished, Minos jailed him in the Labyrinth. Dedalus however, built two sets of wings using wax and feathers, one for himself and one for his son Icarus, and they flew off Crete. During the flight to Athens Icarus, happy from flying, decided to challenge the sun. He flew too high and the sun melted the wax that kept his wings together. Icarus fell in the Aegean and died.
Today only the legend of Icarus remains (and the island of Icaria named after him), however there are numerous bona fide sites to be explored when visiting Crete. The most famous archaeological site on Crete is Knossos located in Heraklion, which contains the ruins of the Minoan Palace built in 2000 BC, which were excavated in 1900 and partially reconstructed. There is also the palatial site of Phaestos, which unlike Knossos, has not been reconstructed with the ruins uncovered and left untouched in the places they were found.
Another important site is the Arkadi Monastery located in the prefecture of Rethymno. In this monastery, on November 18, 1866, about a thousand people preferred to die by blowing up the powder arsenal than fall into the hands of the Turks. Its high walls are reminiscent of a fortress, and the church, which has a baroque face, is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Crete.
Freedom or Death
Cretan hospitality is truly a unique experience, allowing for one to taste such “meze” as yogurt and honey, sweet tarts (kaltzounia), pies made with wild greens flavored with Fennel, fried cheese (staka), rabbit stew, cheese pie from Hora Sfakion, cockles, and boiled goat. Along the seaside an array delicacies either fried or grilled over charcoal can be found, from calamari to octopus.
For the Cretans every day is a feast to be celebrated with gusto; Cretan wine flowing and the sound of the lyre echoing through the hillsides driving the pulsating rhythms of such local dances, as the pentozali and the sousta. Such enchantments could not be found on the deck of a cruise ship or on the grounds of an all-inclusive resort, but over a glass of “raki” you might discover the essence of life and the sanctity of dreams.
Nikos Kazantzakis, Greece’s greatest modern writer and legend sums it up best with the epitaph on his grave located on the south wall of the city; I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.
Copyright 2000 Delmar Enterprises Ltd. July 18th 2000
Written by, Basil Boziotis