Beware the Minotaur!
Oh, Wednesday wanderlust! Thinking about El Greco yesterday made me realize how long it’s been since our last visit to Crete, which is criminally underrated as far as Greek vacation spots go. It’s a different kind of island destination than Mykonos or Santorini—you’ll want to spend more than a day or two here, because there’s a whole lot of unique stuff here you can’t even get in mainland Greece. I’ll talk about some of the food and cultural stuff tomorrow, so for now, I’ll show you around what there is to see!
Of course, it is a part of Greece, but Crete has always been a little bit different from the mainland. That’s always been true: you might not know it, but there was actually a Cretan civilization before there was a Greek one! Archaeologists think the civilization that developed on Crete around 3000 BCE—they called them the Minoans, after the legendary King Minos, whose labyrinth and pet Minotaur were conquered and slain by the hero Theseus somewhere on Crete—was the first culturally cohesive “society” in all of Europe! One of Crete’s coolest and most-visited sites is called Knossos, which was the capital of these ancient peoples. People have been living at the site, which is just a quick car ride away from Crete’s largest modern city, Iraklio, since the stone age, and it’s believed that the site was a thriving city of tens of thousands of people, more than a whole millennium before Rome was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. The site is shockingly well preserved, and some of it has actually been painstakingly restored in full color, which makes it all that much easier to walk through and put yourself in the shoes of the very first Greeks. To put it in perspective, when Knossos was becoming a bustling metropolis, Stonehenge might have been about as old as the Eiffel Tower is to us. This is the place where history and mythology almost blur into one—you can probably count on one hand the number of places like it in the whole world
But just because Crete’s the oldest of the old, that doesn’t mean it’s all ancient palaces and statues. Iraklio is the fourth largest city in all of Greece, and the island’s second biggest city, Chania, has a fascinating history as the commercial hub of Venetian Crete and also as a political hotbed were much of the struggle for Cretan and Greek independence was fought. The whole island is replete with unique art, cultural, and archaeological museums, big and small, so whatever your exact tastes are, there’s plenty there to get your attention. There’s even some beautiful nature preserves, highlighted by the incredible Samaria Gorge National Park. There might not be another island in the Eastern hemisphere that has such a diverse set of things to do or see. You can stop by for a day or two and see all there is to see around Iraklio or Chania, but if you ask us, you really should rent a car and plan to stay for a while. It’s not the Athenian Greece that most people picture, but something for the more nuanced world traveler. You really won’t regret it.