Crete: Land of sunshine and mythology

Few people would travel to Athens without seeing at least one of the fabled Greek Islands, and Crete ranks among the most visited.

Why? It offers infinite variety. It’s the land of mythology’s Daedalus and his son Icarus, of the Minotaur and the labyrinth, of feasting beneath star-studded skies, of countryside scented with wild fennel, of majestic mountains, deep gorges, and fertile valleys. Its festivals see Cretan men in traditional baggy breeches and fringed kerchiefs, and its dances echo graceful movements from an ancient past.

The Minoans ruled most of the Mediterranean until about 1400 BC, when they abruptly disappeared. Earthquake? Volcanic eruption? The why and how are still hotly debated among historians, but the majority believe the Minoans were destroyed by the volcano that created the island of Santorini.

They left many legacies, not the least of which is Knossos Palace, an enormous, 1,200-room edifice which covered 20,000 sq. metres, plus housing for 100,000 people.

According to legend, a labyrinth beneath the palace was home to the Minotaur – a creature half man and half bull – who had to devour 14 youths each year to survive.

“We know very little about the Minoan religion,” I was told by tour guide Nikos, “but scholars believe the legend of the labyrinth grew from the palace’s enormous size. Any man would get lost inside.”

That ancient civilization knew a thing or two. Knossos shows some striking architectural and structural features, and complex drainage and water supply systems.

Excavations in the 19th century revealed dramatic painted walls and pillars, and uncovered a wealth of magnificent artifacts, now displayed at the Archeological Museum in Heraklion, Crete’s largest harbour city.

Remains of ancient civilizations are found all around the island, even alongside modern resorts on the northern shores. But Crete has much more to offer than its history. The seaside villages of Platanos, Maleme, and Kolimbari are delightful, as are the freshwater springs at Falarsana. And the Samaria Gorge, longest in Europe, is a “must see.”

In the pretty harbour town of Heraklion (home to the Olympic’s soccer events) there’s nothing more pleasant than a stroll along the old port. If you like shopping for jewellery, you’ll love the designs of Crete, worked in gold, silver, and precious stones. Woven fabrics in dazzling colours, skilfully crafted ceramics, and leather goods are also excellent buys.

And eating doesn’t get any better than a snack of creamy yogurt and honey at a roadside stall, or sampling tasty mezzes at a taverna . But when you’re ready for something more substantial, take your tastebuds on an adventure and try goat, cockles (a tiny shellfish), cuttlefish, squid, and many other delicacies cooked over the ubiquitous charcoal grill.

After discovering everything this island has to offer, you’ll be creating your own mythology.

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