Europe’s first advanced civilisation: The Minoan
Still with jet-lag after our trip to Ecuador, just 4 days after our return and here we go again on a plane, this time bound for another Greek island never been before: Crete. So long time wishing to come here but never found the perfect deal nor good flying times until now. And what’s best? It was a bank holiday on top, hence 3 full days to enjoy this beautiful island with countless to see and do. I’m still quite surprise about the great flight deal we got, being the way into Heraklion with British Airways. I strongly recommend you to keep checking from time to time to their offers, and if you are an executive club member and hold a good bunch of Avios, do not hesitate in using them to off-set the total cost of your flight. By doing this you will still ear Avios and tier points, and can reduce dramatically the cost as was in our case this time, much cheaper than a low-cost carrier.
It’s incredible how such a small piece of land, and island, to be home to the first advanced civilization of Europe, the Minoan, who lasted from 2700 to 1420 BC when they were taken over the Mycenaean civilization from mainland Greece. It’s with the Mycenaean that the oldest samples of writing in Greek language are found in the Knossos Palace. Then came the Archaic and Classical Period from the 6th century before Christ until the Roman rule. Thereafter is a constant period of war and continuous civilizations and rules taking over, from the double Byzantine periods, where in between Crete succumbed to the Arab rule form a century and a half, to the Venetians, the Ottoman, a state for few years before becoming a Greek province.
With such a long history and past, wherever you are in the island is full or archaeological remains, sights and historical sites. A weekend, or a long weekend as we had with 3 days in the island, was too short. Rarely we can say something like this especially when on an island, but this is the truth. We had to prioritise and crate a tour according to our time, scrapping on this occasion the whole east of the island.
As you can see, this is a guide about the island itself, and not split into different guides one for each of the cities and places visited. For islands this is the best way to have everything in one place; although with Heraklion and Chania there would be definitely too much to write about specially on the sights to see and where to go for what I will try to keep it the neatest possible way without being too detailed or we would go forever in the list.
While you can come to Crete and easily move via public transportation anywhere across the island, this will be time consuming and for some of the sites, especially the hidden off-the-beaten-path archaeological sites it might actually be impossible unless you are having your own transportation such a rental car or someone there to drive you around. Do not hesitate in renting a car, it will be the best option you can do (if you drive of course). It will cost you more than elsewhere but will save you a lot of money at the end if you are planning to visit more places in the island than just Heraklion and Chania.
When talking some notes about food, where to eat and what, and what’s best, this is another world. Cretan cuisine is of course, strongly Mediterranean, where vegetables and salads play one of the most important roles, coupled with hearty barbecues. Meats are fantastic! Goat and lamb are a must on any menu. So while the usual dishes and side dishes common from anywhere in Greece, mainland or the islands is served everywhere, this is, tsatziki, souvlaki, bifteki, giros pitta (gyropitta in Cretan), taramosalata, Greek salad (xoriatiki in Cretan) or gyros; something traditional from Crete can include Dakos, a traditional Cretan salad made of rusk with tomato, feta cheese, olives, oregano and olive oil; or horta vrasta (boiled greens with olive oil and lemon juice).
For more information about Crete check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Greece’s currency is the Euro. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Crete
- Heraklion The capital and largest city in the island is like an open-air museum. No matter where you go within the city centre, it is absolutely packed with ancient buildings and historic buildings of every era, notably the Venetian fortifications and port.
-Port Area and northern coastal area Where the most prominent Venetian era constructions are.
-Koules The Venetian Castle, also known as Rocca al Mare. Originally dating from the 10th century built on the site by the Arabs, but destroyed since by earthquakes until the 15th century when the Venetians built the fortress we see today.
-Old Shipyards Towards the south of the port, recognisable for their arches.
-San Pietro Church West from the old port, overlooking the sea, among some other archaeological remains.
-Dermatas Gate One of the main gates of the former walls giving access to the sea.
-Natural History Museum Just a little bit farther west from the Dermatas Gate, of newly creation depicting the flora and fauna of this part of the Mediterranean.
-Ramparts and walls Enclosing the entire historic medieval city. Farther east from the Natural History Museum it’s the first bastion, Saint Andrew’s, with all the others following in between sections of walls to completely encircle the city.
-Saint Minas Square Towards the heart of the old city, one of the largest squares.
-Minas Cathedral Named in honour of Saint Minas, patron of the city. It’s the main Orthodox church in the island.
-Agios Minas This small church from 1725 is the residence of the bishop of Crete.
-Saint Catherine Square Right by the northern side of the Cathedral is this other large square.
-Church of Saint Catherine Built in 1555 by the Venetians, nowadays it’s home to the Museum of Religious Art.
-Vikentios Kornaros Square The next large space towards the south of the city, east from Saint Catherine Square, home to some Ottoman and Venetian structures such as the perfectly preserved Turkish Kiosk and fountain.
-Eleftherias Square The largest in the city, at the east of the old town and by the walls and bastions on this side, contains the largest and most important museum in the island, the Archaeological, home to great treasures from the Minoan civilisation.
-Vitouri Bastion Towards the entire eastern side of the square, limiting with the large Georgiadis Park just beyond.
-Archaeological Museum One of the largest of its kind in Greece, bearing Athens of course. It houses the most complete collection of artefacts from the ancient civilisations that occupied the island of Crete, with especial attention to the Minoans. Located at the northern side of the square.
-Regional Management Office Along the centre of the western side of the square, on the avenue that opens towards the west up to the Lion’s Square, Dikaiosýnis Avenue.
-Dikaiosýnis Avenue Heading west connecting both Eleftherias to Lion’s squares.
-Lion’s Square Back within the heart of the historic city, a small square in size, node of junction with the many streets leading towards it.
-Morosini Fountain Of Venetian era creation, it gives the name to the square because of the lions sculpted in the fountain, something traditional from the Venetians.
-Saint Mark’s Basilica Now housing the Municipal Gallery, located at the northern corner of the square.
-El Greco Park A street north from the Lion’s Square, a nice landscaped garden with water features and statues.
-Saint Titos Square East from El Greco Park, is the last of the noteworthy squares within the historic city centre.
-Loggia The City Hall, built in 1628 was a meeting place during the Venetian times for nobility, thereafter used by the Turks as a government building, lastly, as the city hall and exhibitions gallery.
-Saint Titus Church In origin, the Ottoman Vezir Mosque from 1856, hence its traditional Ottoman architecture.
- Rethymno Along the north coast in between Chania and Heraklion, is home to the best preserved castle from the Venetian era in the island, its beautiful harbour and old town. This city came as a surprise to us, and stands as one of the most beautiful in the island with its unique traditional Ottoman wooden houses everywhere.
- Chania The second largest city in the island, built majority by the Venetians who took over from the Turks. It has a castle and great ancient Venetian shipyards by the beautiful and large port. Majority of the medieval walls are still standing, hidden behind the buildings. Very charming and one of the most beautiful in the island.
- Around the island There are plenty of places you could go in this island, worth to keep you going for over a week non-stop, however, listed below are the most famous and important, but remember, these are not all.
-Knosos Just south of Heraklion is home to the largest and best preserved ancient Minoan palace, also known the Minotaur Palace. This was the first advanced civilization in Europe, and Knossos its capital city. The site opens from 08.30 to 15.00 during winter months, and until 19.30pm the rest of the year. The entrance fee is 6 Euros for the palace or 10 Euros the combo ticket including the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion (really worth it!). Reduced for students and senior at 3 and 5 Euros respectively.
-Minoan Palace of Malia East of Heraklion and Knosos. One of the smallest of all the ones built by this civilization.
-Agios Nikolaos The unplanned city that we discovered on our way towards Vai Beach. While we saw the day before some postcards and I realised there was a beautiful lagoon and port, then it happened to be this place. Really pretty port area, and countless restaurants with great food and good prices too.
-Gournia Minoan Town Continuing along the road after Agios Nikolaos, you will star see the signs in the road, which then passes by the front of this archaeological site.
-Vai Beach At the easternmost point in the island, home to the largest natural palm forest in Europe, on top of the nice large sandy beach.
-Gortys Archaeological Site Near Agioi Deka village, around 45 kilometres south from Heraklion.
-Minoan Palace of Phaistos Very near Gortys, along the main road 97 heading west.
Heraklion is the largest airport in the island, very near the city centre, yet talking about largest does not mean it is big. It’s quite small with not much space for the passengers nor further possibility to extend it hence the recent plans to build a new one outside of the city. A secondary airport, Chania, also serves many European destinations. Both airports are very well connected to the low-cost carriers network when during the high season months they offer extra destinations and frequencies. So all in all it’s easy to get to Crete any time of the year.
From the airport, the bus rote number 1 goes directly to Heraklion’s city centre and the bus route 2 to Knossos, both the main routes any tourist is likely to take. A bust ticket within zone 1 (Heraklion, it’s airport and port) costs 1.20 Euros, while a zone 2 ticket (Knossos) is 1.70 Euros. You can buy the tickets at the automated vending machines in the airport or shops, but please note that if you want to buy them from the bus driver, the cost is 0.50 Euros extra.
As for visiting Heraklion, with such a very compact historic city centre within the old walls, ans such a small streets, majority of them pedestrian friendly, the best choice is on foot. Under no circumstance you will need any transportation to move through anywhere in the city; however, in order to visit any other place in the island then you will need a rental car unless you are planning on visiting the most know places of Knossos and Chania where you can easily access via frequent public buses.
Crete has an immense choice of hotels of any kind anywhere in the island. From the super extravagant and luxurious to the more modest and anything in between. Then the countless apartments, b&b and airb&b possibilities. It is very hard to struggle in finding a great deal, however this is a prime location during the summer months and prices double and triple if no more in a matter of days. At the time we came here, end of April, it was still low season and majority of hotels were reopening after the winter months with many other still closed. The deal we found was simply awesome for what we got and value for money. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms, Ebookers or TUI.
We stayed at the Themis Beach Hotel, in Kokkini Hani Area, Gouves. Few kilometres east from the airport and Heraklion itself, right there by the beach. Recently refurbished it is now a 4* property, very big, with an amazing pool meters from the beach. The majority of the rooms are facing the sea, which is great, and have a nice terrace too. The room was large, with a comfortable bed, and quiet at night, only the sea could be heard quietly. The staff was incredibly friendly, polite and caring. They made our stay truly memorable, and this applied to everyone from reception to the housekeeping, with special attention to the waitresses in the restaurant during lunch and dinner time. I agree we were few guests altogether as the property did reopened for the season its doors only a week before our arrival, so it’s easier to maintain this personal touch, therefore I cannot be sure once there are hundreds of guests at once. We booked a half-board, breakfast and dinner was great with a huge choice and good quality. We had a great time and will not hesitate in returning here in the future.
Album for the places around the island
Album for the Minoan sites