|Land of Daidalos and
Ikaros. Of Minoan vases and famous frescoes. Shining and starlit, with its black baggy
Breeches and fringed kerchiefs. Romantic Crete, with its sea, rocks and gleaming
plateaus. Crete, land of full-bodied wine and pungent tsipouro. Sleepless Crete,
land of endless feasts under star-studded skies. Crete, scented with wild fennel
and fresh basil. Dizzying Crete, of the warlike dances. Crete, home of El
Creco, Kornaros, Kazantzakis and Prevelakis. Crete, whose door is always wide open
to both East and West. The dream of Crete, where a person might soar in flight.
Crete, ” the island of Miracles”.
– the largest in Greece – separates the Aegean from the Libyan Sea, marks the boundary
between Europe and Africa. Majestic mountains rise in its centre – the White Mountains,
Psiloritis, Dikti. Its plateaus are split by deep gorges and end up in fertile valleys.
The scenery is constantly changing. In one place harsh and barren, in another wooded and
gentle. Its villages smothered in greenery.
Olive trees, orange groves, vineyards, early vegetable market gardens.
Old stone farmhouses, monasteries and villages perched on mountain ridges, castles and
chapels forgotten on steep slopes. Shores lined with forbidding rocks, often inaccessible,
but also lots of endless sandy or pebbly beaches.
Crete is renowned for the variety of its vegetation and the wildlife in its chestnut, oak
and cypress forests. Not to mention its palm forests (at Vai and Preveli) and its cedar
forests (at Gavdos and Hrissi). Medicinal herbs and fragrant shrubs- laudanum, dittany,
marjoram and thyme-grow in rocky areas and the mountain tops are home of the “Kri-Kri”
or Cretan goat.
The main cities-ports on Crete-Hania, Rethimno, Iraklion, Agios Nikolaos, Sitia –all
grew up on the north side, which is more benign topographically. Ierapetra is the only
port on the south coast, on the shores of the Libyan Sea, facing Africa.
This 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.). In successive
phase, the Minoans built palace – states –the famous palatial centers of Knossos,
Phaistos, Malia, Zakros (1700-1450 B.C).
Their painters and ceramists show us the limits the refinement of art can reach.
Their frescoes bring us close to the soul of that world, peace-loving, light-hearted, but
also powerful. They bring us close to the sea and its wealth. A geological catastrophe –
the eruption of the volcano of Santorini in 1450 B.C. – halted the Minoan civilization
at its height.
But life did not cease. Though shipping, commerce and trade with other peoples- the
Phoenicians, Syrians, Egyptians – opened up new horizon. With the invasion of the
Achaians and the Dorians on the island the new cities of Lato and Aptera were founded.
Lato became the most important city on Crete ( 7th century B.C. ).
Until the Roman occupation (69 – 330 A.D.).
The most distinguished centre in those days was Gortyn.
But Christianity came to the island early. During the Byzantine era the wealth of Crete
was shown off in the mosaic floors of its basilicas and in half the churches of Greece.
But many others had their eye on these riches. First Crete fell into the hands of the
Arabs (824) for one and a half centuries (961) . Handak, present- day Iraklio was founded.
Then in 1204, the island passed to the Venetians.
They fortified the old castles at Handak and built new ones at Gramvoussa, Spinalonga,
Frangokastello, Ierapetra, Paleohora. They broke the ground for new cities (Hania and
Rethimno) and build the fortifications essential blocks, interspersed with decorative
piazzas,fountains, churches and palaces, remains of which can still be seen today.
Although the island was shaken from time to time by the rebellious populace, it continued
to develop both economically and culturally.
Painting and literature flourished.
Domenicos Theotocopoulos ( El Greco ), Damaskinos and other iconographers painted
exquisite portraits and arched windows troubadours passed singing ballads by
Hortantzisabout the suffering of Erotokritos and Erophili.
In 1645 the Muslim conquerors set foot on the island for the first time. In 1669 the whole
of Crete fell to the Turks. Not until 1913 was the island united with the rest of Greece.
This island with its clear, warm sea, boundless beaches lined with tamarisks, splendid
plateaus and mild starry nights has more to offer than its past, its gorges, peaks and
climate. Today it continues to live fully and to develop, its cities particularly changing
in appearance from one day to the next, in contrast to the many unchanging villages where
life goes on in the same rhythm it has for centuries.
There are hundreds of cafes where one can sit in the shade of a spreading plane, oak or
mulberry tree and sip a “tsikoudia” ( raki) while playing a game of cards or “ tavli
There are dozens of tavernas and ouzeries serving some tasty “ meze “, a specialty of
the area. Yogurt and honey, sweet tarts (kaltzounia), pies made of wild greens flavored
with fennel, fried cheese (staka), rabbit stew, cheese pie from Hora Sfakion, cockles,
boiled goat. In the city of Hania, at Malaxa, at Vrisses, and other villages in the area,
in Rethimno, in Iraklio and its villages, and in the whole district of Lassithi. Fish, sea
urchins, octopus and cuttlefish cooked on charcoal and fried squid to be tasted at seaside
tavernas. And everywhere the delectable Cretan wine. Every saint’s feast day is
celebrated with gusto at dozens of villages throughout the island; all Crete throbbing to
the sound of the Cretan lyre and the rhythm of the local dances, the pentozali and the
sousta. Meanwhile the housewives are preparing a steamed Cretan pilaff and special
holidays fritters (xerotigana ).
In the shop windows of bustling Iraklio, picturesque Rethimno, and Hania, elegant furs,
precious jeweler and artistic silverware attract the visitor’s attention.
In the shops of lovely Sitia and tranquil Ierapetra and in mountainous Anogia one is
impressed by the spread out <<patanies>>, traditional local woven fabrics in
dazzling colors, and everywhere one sees skillfully crafted ceramics and leather goods. In
the “Stivanadika” district of Hahia (Skridlof St.) traditional boots ( stivania ) are
still made in the old- fashioned way, because though it may seem strange even today there
are Cretans who still wear their traditional costume. In the marketplace of the same city,
the only one of its kind, but also in similar shops all over the island, every kind of
food, fruit and vegetable produced in the fertile valleys, hot houses and mountain
regions, is laid out on display. Exotic avocadoes, Belgian endive and bananas, juicy
oranges and fragrant melons, succulent figs and tasty prickly pears, delicious grapes,
sweet tomatoes, tender cucumbers, fresh- picked greens from the hillsides, snails, mouth
– watering sardines, tempting lobster, kid from the islet of Gavdos, honey perfumed with
thyme, and wonderful cheeses – graviera ( gruyere ), myzithra ( ricotta), fresh white
cheese, and soft, luscious staka.
The evenings are enchanting spent next to the intoxicating aroma of a jasmine vine in an
open- air cinema, seated in the comfortable chairs of a pastry shop, gathered round the
table or a fish – taverna right by the sea, strolling in solitude on a remote, deserted
beach, or why not, enjoying the rhythms of rock in a discotheque or a bar or conversing in
the spacious lounge of a luxury hotel.