Crete is the largest and most densely populated of all Greek islands. It is also the second in size in the eastern Mediterranean, after Cyprus. Located 160 km south of continental Greece, covering a surface of roughly over 8,000 square kilometers, it is an elongated mountainous island, whose peaks rise over 2,000 meters above sea level, bathed in numerous natural springs, boasting a varied flora with unique flowers and wild bushes thriving in the warm climate.
Crete will forever remain a mysterious island. At the confluence of three worlds, Europe, Asia, and Africa, Crete was the home of the earliest highly developed European civilization, the Cretan civilization, which bloomed during the Neolithic. The powerful Minoan Kingdom, named so after the legendary King Minos, was the very source of inspiration behind the enchanting Greek-Roman mythology. It had its fair share of both glorious and not so proud moments. Some 4,000 years ago, the Cretan civilization saw several periods of sudden flourishing, all interrupted by natural cataclysms, most likely of seismic origins. The civilization reached its peak under the Minos Dynasty who ruled at Knossos. Around the first millennium BC, the island suffered immensely when it was invaded by the Achaeans, only for the civilization to be completely destroyed by the Dorian invasion a little while later.
Crete is one of the few places on the planet that managed to preserve its authenticity. It is not sure which linguistic family the Cretans owe their language to. But one thing is for sure. The island is inhabited by truly distinctive people, proud and full of life, who do not even consider themselves Greeks. They are living the simple life, working the olive and citrus trees plantations and wineries. Perhaps the best portrait of a typical Cretan is the one outlined in Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, a Cretan writer himself. What’s more, the island is the homeland of one of Europe’s greatest Renaissance painters, El Greco.
The beauty of these landscapes, with their wild mountains, luxurious vegetation, spectacular gorges like the famous Samaria Gorges, fine sand beaches and harbors enclosed by steep cliffs, bathed by a crystal-clear calm sea, as well as the renowned archeological sites of Knossos and Phaistos, proof to the grandeur of Minoan civilization, all make Crete a touristic paradise.
Crete seemed to me the island of gods. After my encounter with the most powerful of them all, the mighty Zeus at his cave on the Lasithi Plateau, I simply rejoiced in the beauty of the surrounding landscapes unwinding before my very eyes. Our first stop was in Agios Nikolaos resort, a lovey port city overlooking the Mirabello Harbor on the northern coast of Crete, to the east of the capital Heraklion. It was a brief visit, and we only had time to visit the city’s main attraction, a small lagoon in its very center, Vouliseni Lake, surrounded by picturesque buildings and colorful flowers. The lake is quite deep and, according to local legends, it is where goddess Athena once bathed.
By nighttime we reached Hersonissos, where we stayed for a whole week. The resort is considered Crete’s finest. Its four kilometers of rugged coastline are rocky, which is why sand beaches are scarce. Nevertheless, the scenery is incredibly spectacular, with all those cliffs piercing out of the sea. At the same time, the submerged cliffs can be treacherous for swimmers who dare venture too far from the coast.
When it comes to tourism and infrastructure, Crete’s northern coast is the most developed. Besides Heraklion, Knossos, and Phaistos, major attractions are Fodele, and Rethymno and Chania, to the north-west of the island, cities where strong Venetian influences can still be felt, as Crete was under Venice’s domination for centuries.
At Fodele we visited the memorial home of illustrious painter El Greco. In his masterpiece, Raport to El Greco, master Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis brings an homage to El Greco’s Cretan childhood and youth, evoking the great Greek painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known by his pseudonym El Greco, who lived the last part of his life at the court of King Filip II of Spain.
Rethymno, the fourth largest city in Crete, is located halfway between Heraklion and Chania, and is considered the intellectual capital of the island. It reached its peak while under Venetian domination, and hit down bottom when invaded by the Ottomans. Also known as Crete’s Venice, the city is a delightful blend of modern and old. We visited the Venetian fortress dominating the city and walked around the old city center with its labyrinthine streets, mesmerizing Venetian and Ottoman architecture, filled with fishermen taverns and souvenir shops. We also paid a visit to the Venetian port, the city’s main tourist attraction, famous for its lighthouse dating from the 13th century, with its peer filled with bars and cafes.
Chania, Crete’s former capital, is the second largest city on the island, and one of the most picturesque in Greece. A fortified citadel at the foothills of the Lefka Ori Mountains welcomes tourists to what was once one of the most influential settlements during the Minoan Kingdom. We admired the port and old Venetian neighborhoods around it, the old fortress, winding streets, ruins of a past era, Venetian lighthouse, market, and the Splantzia Neighborhood. Only 36 km from Chania lie the Samaria Gorges, renowned as one of the wildest and most spectacular natural wonders on the old continent.
We reached Heraklion, the capital of Crete, after we visited Knossos. The city is quite modern, yet filled with history, with a long and tumultuous past spanning over 3,000 years. Heraklion was once an important port during the Minoan Dynasty. Also, Heraklion is the birthplace of the great modern Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. We walked around the market in the center with its Lion Fountain, or Merosini Fountain, decorated with four stone lions and glamorous basins. We visited the port and the mighty Venetian fortress of Koules, which stood to protect the city for centuries, but also served as a prison.
At night we waited for the ferry to take us back to the Piraeus Port in Athens. I felt my soul shatter at the thought of leaving this enchanting island behind. At the same time, I knew I had to thank heavens for the great privilege of having set foot on magnificent and mysterious Crete’s ancient grounds.