Crete is home to the oldest civilization of Europe. The Minoan civilization predates that of the rest of Europe by a good few hunderd years. The temples and palaces they built were the basis of many myths and are still one of the most impressive archeological sites.
Iraklion, the capital of the island, will probably be your point of entry. It is connected to many European capitals by direct flights and boats leave to Athens and Santorini on a regular basis.
Sights you will have on your to do list include Hania the second town of the island, the Knossos a visit to some of the Venetian castles (Imeri Gramvousa, Frangocastello e.g.) and the town of Agios Nikolaos with its great beaches nearby.
Iraklion is the biggest city in Crete with a population in excess of 120000. It concentrates most of the economical activity of the island, and is the main port of entry to Crete for the majority of visitors. The Iraklion airport received last year approximately 15% of the total tourist traffic of Greece.
History is very much alive in Iraklion just like in most Greek cities. The central square while surrounded by cafes, stores and restaurants, is dominated by the fountain of the Lions, built by Morozini the venetian governor in 1628. The Town Hall, is today housed in the Venetian Loggia, a building from the same era.
At the end of the central market is a coffee house, housed at the “Koubes” a fountain built by the Turks when they converted the nearby church of the Saviour to the Valide mosque. All around the old part of the city ,a visitor can walk following the old Venetian walls that meet at a bastion, called “Koules”, that dominates the old harbour of the city .
The visitor to Iraklion should definitely visit the archaeological site at Knossos and the Archaelogical Museum of Iraklion that houses most of the Minoan findings in Crete. Special attention should also be paid to the Historical museum of Iraklion that houses findings from the early Christian era to today and the Museum of Natural History.
Hania is one of the nicest towns in Crete, with wonderful houses, parks and squares and a well designed town-plan. The Public Market is an impressive building, in the town center, built at the beginning of the present century (1911) and houses grocery stores, butchers’ shops, a fish market and vegetable shops. The Public Gardens, next to the Market, are ideal for those in search of shade and tranquillity. Northeast of the gardens is the beautiful neighborhood of Chalepa where the residences of Prince George and Eleftherios Venizelos were.
The old city has preserved to a great extent the distinctive atmosphere and charm of the Venetian and Turkish periods. Entire Venetian, Turkish and Jewish quarters are saved, with well preserved buildings in the narrow picturesque streets. One of the most significant buildings is the large Venetian church of Aghios Frankiskos which today houses the Archaeological Museum of Hania.
The old city leads at the harbor, where many Venetian and Turkish buildings are preserved. At the entrance of the harbor, at its northerst point, is the renovated fort “Firkas”, built on 1629, that today houses the Maritime Museum of Hania as well as a summer theatre, where drama performances are presented. Opposite the Firkas fort, is the magnificent Venetian lighthouse, built on the 16 century and restored by the Egyptians. The harbor is protected by a Venetian breakwater, built of huge stones. At the center of the breakwater are the ruins of a fortress.
West of Hania, at a distance of 4.5 km, is the hill of Profitis Ilias, where the memorial and tomb of Eleftherios Venizelos and his son Sophokles are located. Hania can be the starting point for a tour to the western Crete, a part of the island with magnificent natural beauty. There are lots of places worth seeing , within driving distance (two to three hours) , the most famous being the Samaria Gorge. This is a National Park of Greece that starts at the village of Omalos, at an altitude of 1227 m. and ends after a walk of approximately 18 Km to the beach
Knossos, was where the first Minoan palaces were created about 2000 B.C. They show some concentration of power into the hands of a central authority. This concentration led to a sudden political, cultural, economic and religious reorganization of life. Knossos, Festos, Malia, Zakros, Agia Triada and other smaller palaces and villas were created in the same time period. It seems that there was co-operation among the palaces since no signs of competition have been found.
The palaces forced a hierarchical organization of the society with the king at the top of the pyramid. An important role in the maintenance of this hierarchy was played by religion.
From the myths that have reached us, we may conclude that the king was presented to the people as a representative of and communicator with the deities. Minos had the reputation of a just king who imposed fair laws given to him by these deities.
The palaces were not only the homes of the king and his family. They have sections devoted to the deities, rooms for ceremonies, for ceramic and seal production and large storage sections for merchandise and agricultural products. The palaces had an organized administration. Many inscriptions which have been found list the offerings of the people. Commerce with Egypt and the East was under the control of the palaces.
The technical innovations that were developed to support the basic needs of the first palaces are simply amazing. The sewage system was very complex and it remained the best in the western world until the Roman era (almost 2,000 years later!).
Stone pipes led the water into a central sewage system, with pipes decreasing in size in order to increase water pressure and drive out obstructions. In Knossos, the Minoans channelled drinking water from Mount Youktas, a distance of about 10km, to a water tank in the palace.
They used pipes that fitted one within another, perfectly engineered to carry the water through an uneven terrain of hills and valleys. Similar systems existed in the other palaces. The palaces as well as the houses outside the palaces are multilevel; the lower level often did not have windows because it was used as a storage area.
The old palaces were destroyed three times between 1900 and 1700 B. C. The last time they were almost completely levelled by an earthquake and the Minoans found it pointless to try to repair them. All the palaces were rebuilt from the beginning after levelling the remains of the old palaces.