Crete Travel Guide

Please click on the map to read more about the individual regions of Crete

Map of Cretan Districts Chania Rethymnon Heraklion Lassithi

 

It's really hard to choose among all the places and things to do in Crete. Being the largest island in Greece, the 5th in the Mediterranean Sea and the 88th biggest in the world, Crete has it all: from a coastline of 1,046 km to a 2,456 m. mountain, from rivers and lakes to exquisite gorges, like Samaria Gorge. Having all that in mind and combining them with the famous Cretan culture, food and hospitality (the Greek word for hospitality is "philoxenia" which means "friend of foreign/unknown people) it is self explanatory why the island ranked 5th best destination in the world for 2018 according to the Travelers’ Choice Awards for Destinations. As TripAdvisor says, “The birthplace of both the king of the Olympian gods and of modern European civilization, Crete is a Mediterranean jewel,” - and it really is.

HISTORY

A melting pot of cultures from Europe, Asia and Africa, Crete is where the first European civilization, the Minoan, thrived. Minoan remains and sites are found at Knossos, Phaestos, and numerous other locations throughout the island. The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion (Irákleio) contains a collection of most of the Minoan civilization's major artifacts; other Minoan remains are housed in regional museums, whereas remnants of Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, and Turkish structures found virtually everywhere are reminders of other periods of Crete’s rich history.

Stone tools found on Crete and dated to some 130,000 years ago have led to the claim that early hominids must have at least briefly settled on Crete, but the true human settlement of the island began around 6,500 B.C.. By 3,000 B.C. the Minoan civilization (named for the legendary ruler Minos) was emerging. In its first centuries that culture produced little more than circular vaulted tombs and some fine carved stone vases, but by about 2,000 B.C. the Minoans had begun to build “palaces” on the sites of Knossos, Phaestos, Mallia and Zakros. The Minoan civilization was centred at Knossos and reached its peak in the 16th century B.C., trading widely in the Mediterranean. The Minoans produced striking sculpture, frescoes, pottery, jewelry, and metalwork.

Women were equal to men and took part in religious ceremonies, athletics, hunting, theater, dance, etc. Masterpieces of building architecture, painting, sculpture and silversmithing still inspire even modern civilization. Part of the culture was the writing of Linear A and later Linear B, which recorded the Greek Language. Even today, the Phaestos disc is one of the most famous mysteries of archeology, since the decryption of its points remains a puzzle. The worship of the Mother Goddess dominated the religious tradition of the Minoans, who used as places of worship many caves and the tops of the mountains, as well as the worship of Zeus.

After Crete suffered a major earthquake that destroyed Knossos and other centres about 1,450 B.C., power in the region passed decisively to the Mycenaeans, with whom Crete was closely associated until the commencement of the Iron Age in 1,200 B.C.. About that time the Dorians, another Greek-speaking people, moved in and organized the island.

By 67 B.C. the Romans appeared and completed their conquest of Crete by converting it into Cyrenaica, a province linked with North Africa. In 395 A.D. the island passed to Byzantium (the Eastern Roman Empire); the Arabs gained control over parts of Crete after 824, but lost them back to the Byzantines in 961. In 1204, in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, Crusaders sold the island to Venice, which fitted Crete into its growing commercial empire. The native Cretans, however, never abandoned their Orthodox religion, Greek language and popular lore. The Ottoman Turks, who were already in control of parts of Crete, wrested the capital city of Candia (now Herakleion) from the Venetians in 1669 after one of the longest sieges in history. Crete stagnated under Turkish rule, and native uprisings were always foiled, including those in 1821 and 1866. The Turks were finally expelled by Greece in 1898, after which the island held autonomous status until its union with Greece in 1913.

Apart from its rich history though, Crete has a rich mythology too, mostly connected with the ancient Greek Gods, but also connected with the Minoan civilization. Some of the most important myths connected to the island, according to Greek Mythology, are:

  • The Diktaen Cave at Mount Dikti was the birthplace of the god Zeus.
  • The Paximadia islands were the birthplace of the goddess Artemis and the god
  • Their mother, the goddess Leto, was worshipped at Phaestos.
  • The goddess Athena bathed in Lake Voulismeni.
  • The ancient Greek god Zeus launched a lightning bolt at a giant lizard that was threatening Crete. The lizard immediately turned to stone and became the island of Dia. The island can be seen from Knossos and it has the shape of a giant lizard.
  • The islets of Lefkai were the result of a musical contest between the Sirens and the Muses. The Muses were so anguished to have lost that they plucked the feathers from the wings of their rivals; the Sirens turned white and fell into the sea at Aptera (which means "featherless") where they formed the islands in the bay that were called Lefkai (the islands of Souda and Leon).
  • Hercules, in one of his labors, took the Cretan bull to the Peloponnese.
  • Zeus and Europa (whose name has been applied to the continent, Europe) made love at Gortys and conceived the kings of Crete, Rhadamanthys, Sarpedon and Minos. According to the myth, Zeus, disguised as a bull, abducted Europa from Lebanon and they had an affair under a plane tree, a tree that may be seen today in Gortys. The identification of Europa in this myth gives weight to the claim that the civilization of the European continent was born on the island of Crete. Many coins were found with Europa representations on the back, showing that the people honored Europa as a great goddess.
  • According to Book III of Homer's The Odyssey, Menelaus and his fleet of ships, returning home from the Trojan War, were blown off course to the Gortyn coastline. Homer describes stormy seas that pushed the ships against a sharp reef, ultimately destroying many of the vessels but sparing the crew.
  • The labyrinth of the Palace of Knossos was the setting for the myth of Theseus and Minotaur in which the Minotaur was slain by Theseus. The labyrinth (a very large maze) was made by Daedalus at king Minos's orders, in which to retain the king's son, the Minotaur (half man, half bull)
  • Icarus and Daedalus were captives of King Minos and crafted wings to escape.
  • After his death King Minos became a judge of the dead in Hades, while Rhadamanthys became the ruler of the Elysian fields.

CULTURE AND FOOD

Traditional folk culture survives in Crete. Song forms such as rizitika and mandinades poetry are accompanied by such traditional instruments as the lyre and lute, and dances include the pentozalis, which is traditionally performed by men, the chaniotikos (sirtos) and the faster, livelier sousta, maleviziotikos and sitiakos. Pottery making, weaving and needle crafts of all kinds, wood carving, and leatherwork are still widely practiced.

Cretan authors have made important contributions to Greek Literature throughout the modern period; major names include Vikentios Kornaros, creator of the 17th-century epic romance Erotokritos and, in the 20th century, Nikos Kazantzakis. In the Renaissance, Crete was the home of the Cretan School of icon painting, which influenced El Greco and through him subsequent European painting.

Apart from music, poetry, painting and literature, Crete is also famous for its traditional cuisine. The nutritional value of the Cretan cuisine was discovered by the American epidemiologist Ancel Keys in the 1960, being later often mentioned by epidemiologists as one of the best examples of the Mediterranean diet. It is based on the use of fresh vegetables and fruits, olive oil, freshly caught fish that is either grilled or baked, and such local cheeses as graviera and myzithra. Meals typically are accompanied by homemade wine and such desserts as patouda (a nut-filled tart) and yogurt made from sheep’s milk with honey.

Taste culinary delights like fresh handmade wedding cookies, dry bread wreaths, graviéra cheese (full fat sheep’s cheese with appellation of controlled origin), sweet smelling anthótyro from Sfakia (fresh, soft, white cheese made of either sheep’s or goat’s milk), fresh stàka butter (the cream of the butter) for the Cretan gamopilafo (it means "wedding rice", rice cooked in meat broth), roasted goat or sea food delights – special ingredients blended in delicious sea-urchin salads or divine fish soups.

Indulge your palate with traditional Cretan specialties: eggs with stàka, cretan kalitsoùnia (sweet mini cheese pies), lamb served with spiny chicory, dácos (the traditional hard Cretan bread accompanied with tomato, mizithra cheese and plenty of virgin Cretan oil), snails boubouristì (popping fried snails), haniótiko bouréki (patty from Chania, a vegetable specialty) and kserotigana (honey dipped spiral pastries). Gourmet specialists will be delighted by the wide range of choices that can easily satisfy all tastes and desires.

Accompany your dinner with a glass of deep-red Cretan wine, the divine marouvás or drink after your meal an ice-cold tsikoudiá (or raki), traditional Cretan spirits distilled from pomace, with a delicate aroma of ripe grapes. The treat is always on the house, a sign of traditional Cretan hospitality. The non-alcohol lovers can have a hot soothing drink instead, the herb dittany, widely known in Crete as diktamo. Cretan cuisine is definitely an exhilarating journey of gastronomic imagination!

GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE

As stated above, Crete is the largest island in Greece, the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea - after Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus and Corsica - and 88th largest in the world. It is located in the southern part of the Aegean Sea separating it from the Libyan Sea. The island has an elongated shape, spanning 260 km from east to west and 60 km at its widest point. Crete covers an area of 8,336 km2 and lies approximately 160 km south of the Greek mainland.

The morphology of the island is very interesting, since it is mountainous, having a high mountain range crossing from west to east (like Lefka Ori and Psiloritis which are more than 2,450 m. high), lots of valleys (such as Amari valley), fertile plateaus (such as Lasithi plateau, Omalos and Nidha), gorges (such as Samaria gorge) and caves, like Gourgouthakas, Diktaion and Idaion (which is the birthplace of the ancient Greek god Zeus), as well as lakes and rivers and, of course, the large beautiful coastline.

Moreover, there is a large number of small islands around the coast of Crete, most of which are visited by tourists depending on their interests. Some of these islands are:

  • Gramvousa (Kissamos, Chania) the pirate island opposite the Balo lagoon
  • Elafonisi (Chania), which commemorates a shipwreck and an Ottoman massacre
  • Chrysi island (Ierapetra, Lasithi) which hosts the largest natural Lebanon cedar forest in Europe
  • Paximadia island (Agia Galini, Rethymno) where the god Apollo and the goddess Artemis were born
  • The Venetian fort and leper colony at Spinalonga opposite the beach and shallow waters of Elounda (Agios Nikolaos, Lasithi)
  • Dionysades islands which are in an environmentally protected region together the Palm Beach Forest of Vai in the municipality of Sitia, Lasithi
  • Off the south coast, the island of Gavdos is located 26 nautical miles (48 km) south of Hora Sfakion and is the southermost point of Europe.

Crete straddles two climatic zones, the Mediterranean and the North African, mainly falling within the former. As such, the climate in Crete is primarily Mediterranean. The atmosphere can be quite humid, depending on the proximity to the sea, while winter is fairly mild. The south coast, including the Mesara Plain and Asterousia Mountains, falls in the North African climatic zone, with even sunnier days and higher temperatures throughout the year. There, date palms, bear fruit, and swallows remain year-round rather than migrate to Africa. The fertile region around Ierapetra, on the southeastern corner of the island, is renowned for its exceptional year-round agricultural production, with all kinds of summer vegetables and fruit produced in greenhouses throughout the winter. Western Crete (Chania province) receives more rain and is more erosive compared to the Eastern part of Crete.

Crete is the most populous island in Greece with a population of more than 600,000 people. Approximately 42% live in Crete's main cities and towns whilst 45% live in rural areas. Along with the nearby islands, it forms the region of Crete, divided in four regional units (from west to east): Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion and Lasithi.

HOW TO GET TO CRETE

There are plenty of ways to go to Crete depending on the place you are staying and the way you prefer to travel.

Crete has three airports, two international and one domestic. The international airport of Heraklion, Nikos Kazantzakis Airport HER, located in the central north of the island (4 km from the town of Herakleio), the international airport of Chania, Daskalogiannis Airport Chania CHQ, located in the north-west of the island (14 km from the town of Chania), and Sitia Public Airport, which is a small community airport in the region Mponta of Sitia Municipality, on the eastern part of Crete and is located 1 km north/northwest of the city center ( it serves a few domestic flights that use small aircrafts). This means that you can check out for direct or indirect flight online, depending on the place you will be coming from and going to.

Apart from airports, Crete has many ports too, for those who prefer to travel by sea. The ports of Crete from west to east are Kastelli-Kissamos, Chania, Rethymno, Heraklio, Agios Nikolaos and Sitia. The most travelled sea routes to Crete are from Piraeus (port of Athens) to Chania or Heraklio, although there are ferries from other places too, such as Cyclades islands (Milos and Santorini), Turkey and Dodecanese islands etc.

Finally, there is also public transportation around Crete. More information about the public buses, called KTEL, can be found at https: https://e-ktel.com and https://www.ktelherlas.gr. Additionally, there are taxis and, of course, car rentals.

 

Please click on the map to read more about the individual regions of Crete

Map of Cretan Districts Chania Rethymnon Heraklion Lassithi

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