Guide to Crete

Introduction to Crete

Crete is an island replete with wonders.  It really has something marvelous to offer each and every visitor.  It is like one of its own patisseries, where you are surrounded by delicacies, each more mouthwatering than the last, from simple loaves to savory pies, from honeyed sweets to sophisticated pastries.  You can feast your senses on its glorious landscapes, its fascinating past and its colorful local culture, all bathed in the delicious warmth of the Mediterranean sun.


Humankind has been enjoying the benefits of this magic island for 8000 years, since the first Neolithic peoples arrived here, probably from Asia Minor or North Africa.  But it was Minoan society which truly put Crete on the map.  From about 2500BC, the Minoans created Europe’s first major civilization.  Scattered across the island are the remains of their fabulous palaces, such as the magnificent Knossos, and their towns and villas.  Here, with the help of ever-increasing archaeological knowledge and our own active imaginations, we can experience the culture of these highly artistic, nature-loving, technically advanced people.  In the museums, we will find ourselves full of admiration for their achievements, deeply moved by the beauty of their creations and the joie de vivre they express and amazed by the skills evident in these very ancient objects.


After the golden age of the Minoans, the island was subjected to repeated invasions and occupations, starting around 1400BC and lasting until the modern era finally brought a hard-won independence.  Life for the Cretan people under each occupier was harsh.  But from the relative comfort of the twenty-first century we can look back, through the buildings, artifacts and documents remaining from these periods, and find something to admire and learn from each successive period of Cretan history.


The Greco-Roman period has left us many beautiful ruins.  One of the most astonishing is the town of Gortyna, where, amongst other buildings of great interest, a great wall formed of massive stone blocks is carved with an ancient law code.  This gives us fascinating insights into the lives of the people in the centuries just before the Christian era.


Crete is deservedly famous for its frescoed churches, dating from the Byzantine period.  From the most humble, with the haunting beauty of a mere fragment of fresco surviving, to the grandiose splendor of the triple-naved Panagia Kera where there is barely a square inch which is not covered with the most gorgeous paintings.  Simultaneously theological images of great spirituality, major works of art and early graphic novels, these frescoes offer an immiscible experience.


The Byzantines were succeeded as lords over Crete by the Venetians, who were master stone-masons.  Many edifices, from handsome houses to imposing fortresses, have survived.  The Cretan Renaissance, during this period, saw the flowering of the arts, including literature (the most famous example being the epic poem Erotocritos) and icon painting.  The arts suffered greatly under Crete’s next occupiers, the Turks, but despite this, we are left with intriguing architectural details which add spice to the overall flavor of Crete today.


But the allure of Crete is not founded only on its past.  The present is bursting with pleasures to entice young and old alike.  The physical beauty of the island is quite stunning.  Within its relatively small area it contains a remarkable variety of landscapes, such as the clear turquoise of the sea, the verdant agricultural plains, the deep, narrow chasms of the gorges, the high rocky (and, in some seasons, snowy) mountains.  Whether you prefer to travel on foot, by mountain bike, by car or by coach, you will be sure to be filled with awe and delight as you explore the island.  Just think of the photographs you will take!


Springtime offers a rich and varied palette of color with masses of flowers, many of which are endemic to Crete.  The excitement of finding yet another different orchid takes some beating if you are botanically inclined!  The birdlife of the area is no less engrossing.  Watching vultures, or, if you are lucky, eagles, soaring on the up draughts over a rocky gorge is an awe-inspiring experience.


Contemporary Cretan culture is an engaging mixture of modern life, with all its comforts and attractions, and the colors and flavors of a proud and longstanding tradition.  In the towns, you can have access to all mod cons, but in the countryside and in many villages, it’s easy to lose your sense of time.  Not a lot has changed in the lives of the country people for centuries, even thousands of years.


Local culture is still very strong, and is evident, for example, in the island’s cuisine.  Here, the people continue to take full advantage of the variety of fresh local produce to create delicious dishes with particularly Cretan flavors.  Regional specialties like honey, yoghurt, olive oil, wine and, of course, the fiery local spirit, raki or tsikoudia all take their rightful places amongst the wide range of Cretan gastronomy.