History rubs shoulders with modern resorts
Crete offers stark contrasts to visitors, from nightclubs to ancient ruins
Posted: October 9, 2013
As the cold temperatures that herald winter descend on the Czech Republic with surprising speed, many might be tempted to consider a trip to somewhere that offers the prospect of warmth.
The Greek island of Crete, less than three hours away by plane, is a good choice, and anyone with even a passing interest in ancient history is likely to find a visit rewarding.
Crete was home to what is generally considered to be the first European civilization, that of the Minoans, and the red pillars at the famous palace of Knossos have been attracting visitors by their thousands for decades.
The Knossos palace was one of several magnificent developments that, from around 1700 BC, represented the pinnacle of European life at the time.
There were beautiful frescoes, grand staircases, a throne room where rituals were held, and luxurious apartments. The culture even had its own writing system, Linear A, that experts have been unable to decipher.
Much of what the visitor now sees at Knossos, which lies a short bus ride from the center of Heraklion, the capital of Crete, which lies on the north coast, was not actually created by the Minoans.
Instead, the red pillars and many other elements are there thanks to rebuilding work overseen by Arthur Evans, the controversial English archeologist who excavated the site.
Rather than leave the ruins as they were, Evans attempted to recreate much of what he imagined existed at the site, even if some of his interpretations remain disputed.
While it is unusual for such ancient ruins to be partially rebuilt, the reconstruction work Evans oversaw brings the site to life for the visitor. Instead of being just a pile of crumbling bricks, they have a flavor of what the palace must have been like in all its glory.
Among the many other Minoan sites on Crete, the two that visitors should certainly try to see are Phaestos and Malia, both of which were home to old palaces.
Phaestos, which can easily be reached by bus from Heraklion, is stunningly located overlooking a vast plain with distant mountains on all sides.
The layout of rooms, including royal apartments, is relatively easy for the visitor to decipher, and a few broken columns, again the result of rebuilding, but not on the scale of what took place at Knossos, offer a hint of the magnificence of the palace in its 2nd millennium BC heyday.
In a similar vein, Malia, sandwiched between a range of hills and Crete's north coast, yielded crypts, food silos, vast storage jars and more royal apartments to the archeologists who unearthed the site.
Just a couple of miles away lies Malia town, one of Crete's most popular resorts and a place that could hardly offer a greater contrast to the high culture represented by the former palace nearby. Even those who tend to shy away from modern tourist developments can do well to at least get a glimpse of these types of resorts.
In the case of Malia, a sleepy town transformed annually by an influx of holidaymakers, there are luridly colored venues with names like The Essex Bar, Candy Club, Big Ben and Sticky Fingers. For some, it is paradise, for others, a nightmare. The main beach, which lies at the end of roads busy with bars and quad bike-hire centers, is full to bursting with sun loungers, and is skirted by bars for those keen for a waterside tipple.
Two of Crete's other main towns on the north coast, Rethymno and Hania, could hardly be more different from garish Malia.
Each has an old town of labyrinthine streets, an impressive Venetian fortress, and a picturesque harbor, also courtesy of the Venetians.
Especially interesting are the reminders of the time, up to the end of the 19th century, when the Ottomans held sway: both Rethymno and Hania have beautiful mosques or former mosques and, in the cast of Hania, there is one building that began life as a church, was converted to a mosque, and later reverted to being a church. On one side sits a tower, on the other a minaret, albeit with its spire removed.
After a few days of relaxed sightseeing in and around the island's towns, visitors might be keen to escape and enjoy the natural delights Crete has to offer. Europe's longest gorge, which runs down to the south coast, is ideal.
Samaria gorge, which can be visited on a day trip from either Hania or Rethymno, stretches for 16km and is contained within a national park.
It is a long, slow walk down from the park entrance in the north, and rocky and uneven terrain, albeit well marked and sometimes roped off, continues for the duration.
The sheer sides of the gorge make for a breathtaking setting, so it is no wonder the area is a magnet to visitors. After a day of walking, hikers can catch a passenger ferry running to one of the south coast towns, from where buses head back to Hania or Rethymno. It makes for a long and tiring day, but for many it will rank as their most rewarding experience in this island of contrasts.
Smart Wings, the airline linked to Travel Service, is among the carriers offering flights between Prague and Heraklion.
Daniel Bardsley can be reached at