Rugged mountains, sparkling seas, and ancient history combine with the Cretans’ relaxed nature to make this island an idyllic vacation destination. The center of the Minoan civilization over 3,000 years ago, Crete has also been occupied by Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and Turks. Historic towns such as Irákleio, Chaniá, and Réthymno, and the famous Minoan palaces at Knossos and Phaestos, give a fascinating insight into some of the most important periods in Cretan history.
POINTS OF INTEREST
A busy, sprawling town of concrete buildings, Irákleio nevertheless has much of interest to the visitor. Four centuries of Venetian rule have left a rich architectural legacy, evident in the imposing 16th-century fortress overlooking the harbor, and the elegantly-restored 17th-century Loggia, a former meeting place for the island’s nobility.
IRÁKLEIO ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM
This impressive museum displays Minoan artifacts from all over Crete. It’s most magnificent exhibits include the famous Minoan frescoes from Knossos, and the Phaestos Disk, which was discovered at the site of the palace of Phaestos in 1903. Inscribed with pictorial symbols, the disk’s meaning and origin remain a mystery. Among the museum’s many other treasures are the Snake Goddesses, two figurines dating from around 1600 BC.
PALACE OF KNOSSOS
The capital of Minoan Crete, Knossos was the largest and most sophisticated of the Minoan palaces on the island. Highlights of the site – the focal point of which is the vast Central Court – include the replica of the Pries-King Fresco, the Giant Pithoi, one of over 100 pithoi (storage jars) unearthed at Knossos, the Throne Room, believed to have served as a shrine, and the Royal Apartments.
Phaestos was one of the most important Minoan palaces on Crete. In 1900 Italian-led excavations unearthed two palaces. Remains of the first palace, constructed around 1900 BC and destroyed by an earthquake in 1700 BC, are still visible. Most of the present ruins, however, are of the second palace. The most impressive remains are the Grand Staircase, which was the main entrance to the palace and the Central Court.
The main transport hub for the east of the island, delightful Agios Nikólaos is a thriving vacation center with an attractive harbor and fine beaches, as well as an interesting Folk Museum and an Archaeological Museum. A few miles north is the well-established resort of Eloúnda, boasting attractive sandy coves and a good range of accommodations.
One of Crete’s most appealing cities, Chaniá was ruled by the Venetians from 1204 to 1669 and is dotted with elegant houses, churches, and fortifications dating from this period. Many of these can be found in the Venetian quarter around the harbor, and in the picturesque Splántzia district.
Crete’s most spectacular scenery lies along the Samariá’s Gorge, the longest ravine in Europe. When it became a national park, the inhabitants of the village of Samariá moved elsewhere, leaving behind the ruined buildings and chapels seen here today. A truly impressive sight along the Wooden Stairs trail is the Sideroportes, or Iron Gates, where the path squeezes between two towering walls of rock, only 9 feet apart. Upon reaching Agia Rouméli walkers can take a boat to Sfakía, Soúgia, or Palaiochóra to join the road and buses back to Chania.
Despite tourism and modern development, Réthymno has retained much of its charm. The old quarter is rich in well-preserved Venetian and Ottoman architecture, including the elegant 16th-century Venetian Loggia and the Nerantzés Mosque, converted from a church by the Turks in 1675. The huge Fortésta was built by the Venetians in the 16th century to defend the port against both pirates and the Turks.