Crete - General Information
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea at 8,336 km² (3,219 square miles). It forms a significant part of the cultural heritage of Greece; while it retains its own local cultural traits. The largest city and capital of Crete is Heraklion.
Crete was the centre of the Minoan civilization (circa 2600–1400 BC), the oldest Greek civilization. The island is the location of significant ancient history, which provides popular modern day tourist destinations. They include the Minoan sites of Knossos and Phaistos, the classical site of Gortys, the Venetian old city and port of Chania, the Venetian castle at Rethymno and the Samaria Gorge. The Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport is located just outside Heraklion.
For centuries, Crete was known by its Italian name Candia, from the medieval name of Heraklion, Chandax. In Classical Latin it was called Creta.
The old town
Despite being heavily bombed during World War II Chania's Old Town is considered the most beautiful urban district on Crete, especially the crumbling Venetian harbour. The borders of the Old Town are the mostly destroyed old Venetian wall (and bulwarks) and this has been the cradle of all the civilizations which were developed in the area. The central part of the old town is named Kasteli and has been inhabited since Neolithic times. It is located on a small hill right next to the seafront and has always been the ideal place for a settlement due to its secure position, its location next to the harbour and its proximity to the fertile valley in the south. Nowadays it is a bit more quiet than the neighbouring areas of the west part of the district. The Splantzia quarter (next to the east part of Kasteli) is also largely untouched and very atmospheric. A plan for its future development is now being under consideration.
The main square of the Old Town (next to the west end of Kasteli) is the Eleftherios Venizelos Square ("Syntrivani"). It is the heart of the touristic activities in the area. Next to this (on the west side) lies the Topanas district, which used to be the Christian part of the city during the Turkish occupation. Its name comes from the Venetian ammunition warehouse (Top-Hane in Turkish), which was located there. The Jewish quarter ("Evraiki" or "Ovraiki") was located at the north-west of the Old Town, behind the harbour and within the borders of Topanas. The whole Topanas area is generally very picturesque, with many narrow alleys and old charming buildings, some of which have been restored as hotels, restaurants, shops and bars. This makes it a lively and colourful place especially during the warm period (April-October). In the winter, it still remains a center of activities (especially for nightlife) but in a more quiet and atmospheric way.
Finally, a very distinctive area of the Old Town is the harbour itself and generally the seafront ("akti"). Akti Tompazi, Akti Kountouriotou and Akti Enoseos (marina) all feature several historical buildings and a thriving nightlife. The main street that combines the modern town with the old town is Halidon Str..
The modern city
The modern part of Chania is where most locals live and work. It is less traditional than the old town, but there are still areas of charming beauty or of some historical interest. The oldest district (early 18th century) of the modern city is Nea Hora (meaning "New Town") which is located beyond the west end of the old town. It is a developing area, but also a very picturesque one, with narrow old lanes leading to a small fishing harbour. During the same era the district of Halepa begun to grow to the east of the city and used to be home for the local aristocracy.
Other historical buildings in the area include Eleftherios Venizelos’s House (built 1876–1880), the old French school (now property of the Technical University of Crete, housing the Department of Architecture), the Church of Agia Magdalini (built 1901–1903) , The “Palace” (built 1882, house of Prince George during the period of the Cretan independence) and The Church of Evangelistria (built 1908–1923). Part of the marine area of Halepa is called Tabakaria, where a unique architectural complex of old leather processing houses is situated. The district of Koum Kapi (the Venetians had first named it "Sabbionara", which means "the Gate of the Sand", the same as "Koum Kapi") situated beyond the walls at the eastern part of the old town, was also one of the first places to be inhabited outside the fortification walls. Initially, it was home for the "Halikoutes", a group of bedouins from North Africa who had actually settled there since the last years of the Turkish occupation. Nowadays it is a developing area with many trendy cafes, bars and restaurants on its picturesque beach.
Apart from the previously mentioned older districts of the modern part of the town, several new residential areas have been developed during the 20th century, like Agios Ioannis, Koumbes, Lentariana etc. Some part -but not the biggest- of the city centre is dominated by colourless medium-height block buildings, typical of the urbanization period of Greece (1950–1970). However, there are still some beautiful neoclassical houses especially at the eastern part of Chania and some of the neighbourhoods surrounding the centre are quite picturesque. The plan of the central area is very good, there are some nice parks and several sports grounds, the most important being the Venizeleio Stadium of Chania and the Swimming Pool at Nea Hora. The 1913 indoor market ("Agora"), a large building based on the market of Marseille, is on the edge of the old town and is popular with tourists and locals alike. Some other important sites of the newer urban area are The Court House ("Dikastiria", built late 19th century), The Public Gardens ("Kipos", created 1870), The Garden Clock-Tower ("Roloi", built 1924–1927), The Episcopal Residence (Bishop's residence, "Despotiko", built early 19th century) and the House of Manousos Koundouros (built 1909), the Cultural Centre ("Pnevmatiko Kentro"). The central largest squares in Chania are the Market Square ("Agora"), the Court House Square ("Dikastiria") and the "1866 Square".
In the last two decades there has been a profound movement of Chania residents towards the suburbs, as well as towards areas around the city which used to be rural, mainly the Akrotiri Peninsula.
Rethymno was built in antiquity , even though was never a competitive Minoan center. This region as a whole is rich with ancient history, most notably through the Minoan civilisation centred at Kydonia east of Rethymno. Today's old town is almost entirely built by Venetians. It is one of the best preserved old towns in Crete.
The town still maintains its old aristocratic appearance, with its buildings dating from the 16th century, arched doorways, stone staircases, Byzantine and Hellenic-Roman remains, small Venetian harbor and narrow streets. The Venetian Loggia today houses the information office of the ministry of culture. The Wine Festival is held there annually at the beginning of July. Another festival is held on 7-8th of November, in memory of the destruction of Arkadi Monastery.
It has a large Venetian castle called the Fortezza, one of the best preserved castles in Crete. Other monuments include the Neratze mosque (the Municipal Odeon arts centre), the Great Gate (megali porta, Porta Guora), the Piazza Rimondi (Rimondi square) and the Venetian Loggia. Today its main income is from tourism, many new facilities having been built in the past 20 years. Agriculture is also notable, especially for olive oil and other Mediterranean products.
The area climate is characterized by exceptionally mild winters, allowing palm trees to bear fruit and swallows not to migrate. Summers are dry, the heat moderated by sea breezes.
Ierapetra has had a place in the history of Crete since the Minoan period. The Greek and later Roman town of Hierapytna was on the same site as present day Ierapetra. In the Classical Age Ierapytna became the strongest town of eastern Crete and as a Dorian city in continual rivalry with the last Minoan city in the island the Praisos. Later, in the 3rd century BC, Hierapytna was notorious for its tendency to piracy and took part in the Cretan War along with other Cretan cities in the side of Philip V of Macedon against Knossos and Rhodes. Its importance as independent state ended when it was conquered by the Romans in 67 BC (the last free city in Crete) and was surpassed by the city of Gortys. The Roman conquest of Ierapetra occurred about the same time as that of Knossos, Cydonia and Lato. Today remains of the Roman harbor can still be seen in the shallow bay. In AD 824 it was destroyed by Arab invaders, only to be rebuilt as a base for pirates again.
In the Venetian Age, from the 13th to the 17th centuries, Ierapetra - now known by its present name - became prosperous again. The Fortress of Kales, built in the early years of Venetian rule and strengthened by Francesco Morosini in 1626 to protect the harbor, is a remnant of this period, although local myth says it was built by the Genoese pirate Pescatore in 1212. In July 1798 Ierapetra made a small step into world history: Napoleon stayed with a local family after the Battle of the Pyramids in Egypt. The house where he stayed can still be seen. In the Ottoman period a mosque was built in the town. Finds from Ierapetra's past can be found in the local Museum of Antiquities, formerly a school for Turkish children. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a well preserved statue of Persephone.
Present day Ierapetra consists of two quite distinct parts, Kato Mera and Pano Mera. Kato Mera is the old town on the southwestern headland. It is characterized by a medieval street layout with narrow alleyways, cul-de-sacs and small houses, creating a village-like atmosphere. The former mosque and the "house of Napoleon" can be found in this neighbourhood, as can Aghios Georgios metropolitan church (built in 1856) in the town's center. It is considered one of the most interesting churches of Crete. The ceiling of the church has many "blind" domes. Those, as well as the central dome, are wooden (mainly cedar wood). Pano Mera is the much bigger new town, with wider streets and three and four storey houses. Pano Mera is still expanding towards the west, north and east.
Ierapetra's main shopping street is Koundouriotou. In the centre the town hall, the museum and two cinemas can be found. The local hospital lies in Pano Mera. To the west is the southern headland with the fortress, a port for fishing boats and ´Navmachia´ area, where sea fights among slaves for citizens´ pleasure were taking place, during Roman period. Further east is a short beach with bars and restaurants, followed by the quay for ferries to Chrissi Island. Further on lies the main boulevard with hotels, bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. At its end a new promenade leads alongside Ierapetra Bay's long beach.
Knossos, also known as Labyrinth, or Knossos Palace, is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and probably the ceremonial and political center of the Minoan civilization and culture. The palace appears as a maze of workrooms, living spaces, and store rooms close to a central square. Detailed images of Cretan life in the late Bronze Age are provided by images on the walls of this palace.
The city of Knossos remained important through the Classical and Roman periods, but its population shifted to the new town of Handaq (modern Heraklion) during the 9th century AD.
The great palace was built gradually between 1700 and 1400 BC, with periodic rebuildings after destruction. Structures preceded it on Kephala hill. The features currently most visible date mainly to the last period of habitation, which Evans termed Late Minoan. The palace has an interesting layout - the original plan can no longer be seen because of the subsequent modifications. The 1300 rooms are connected with corridors of varying sizes and direction, which is different than other palaces of the time period which connected the rooms via several main hallways. The 6 acres (24,000 m2) of the palace included a theatre, a main entrance on each of its four cardinal faces, and extensive storerooms (also called magazines). The storerooms contained pithoi (large clay vases) that held oil, grains, dried fish, beans, and olives. Many of the items were created at the palace itself, which had grain mills, oil presses, and wine presses. Beneath the pithoi were stone holes used to store more valuable objects, such as gold. The palace used advanced architectural techniques: for example, part of it was built up to five stories high.
The centerpiece of the "Mycenaean" palace was the so-called Throne Room or Little Throne Room, dated to LM II. This chamber has an alabaster seat identified by Evans as a "throne" built into the north wall. On three sides of the room are gypsum benches. A sort of tub area is opposite the throne, behind the benches, termed a lustral basin, meaning that Evans and his team saw it as a place for ceremonial purification.
It is another palace of the Minoan civilization built around 1600 BC. Its ruins (a maze of walls and courtyards) are second only to those at Knossos. The site of Phaestos is preserved in its natural state. The unique clay disc from Phaestos (dating from 1600 BC) is one of the most valuable exhibits in the Museum of Herakleion since it is one of the oldest examples of hieroglyphic writing ever found and it is believed to record a hymn to the goddess Rhea.
Gortys is an archaeological site on the Mediterranean island of Crete, 45 km away from the modern capital Heraklion. Gortys, the Roman capital of Crete, was first inhabited around 3200 BC, and was a flourishing Minoan town between 1600-1100 BC. Placed in the valley of Messara in the north of the Psiloritis mountain in the current position of the settlements of Metropolis and Ten Saints (Hagioi Deka), and near the Libyan Sea.
There is evidence of human occupation in Gortys as far back as the Neolithic era (7000 BC). Many artifacts have been found from the Minoan period, as well as some from the Dorian (circa 1100 BC).
Gortys had excellent relations with Ptolemy IV of Egypt, and had a new flourish on the Roman period. As it had allied with the Romans, it avoided the disaster that happened to many other Cretan cities, when invaded by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus in 68 BC. Gortys continued to rise under Roman rule, and became the capital of Crete and Northern Africa.
The city was destroyed in AD 828 by invading Arabs. One of the first Christian temples was built here and the remains of an important Christian cathedral of Crete can still be seen today. This cathedral, dedicated to St. Titus, the first Bishop of Crete, was erected in the 6th century AD. Built with large isodomic stones, this cathedral keeps its intended height only in the areas of the Holy Bema and in pastophoria. The church structure is a cruciform with a dome which is based on four pillars.
The myth of Europa and Zeus
Classical Greek mythology has it that Gortys was the site of one of Zeus' many affairs. This myth features the princess Europa, whose name has been applied to the continent, Europe. Disguised as a bull, Zeus abducted Europa from Lebanon and they had an affair under a plane tree (platanos), a tree that may be seen today in Gortys. Following this affair three children were born, Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon, who became the kings of the three Minoan Palaces in Crete. 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.
Gortys and The Odyssey
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 Gortys coastline. Homer describes stormy seas that pushed the ships against a sharp reef, ultimately destroying many of the vessels but sparing the crew.
It is one of the oldest sites, dating from 3000 BC and it is the best preserved Minoan town in Crete. However, it was a town of workers with their workshops surrounded by a small palace.
Chrissi Amos Island
Chrissi (Golden) or Gaidhouronisi (Donkey Island) is an uninhabited island some twelve kilometers off the coast of the town of Ierapetra. It is five kilometers long and on average one kilometer wide. The island is renowned for its white beaches, sand dunes and forest of pines and junipers. The western tip of the island has some remains of past settlement: a few Minoan ruins and a 13th century chapel dedicated to Agios Nikolaos (Saint Nicholas). It was inhabited into Byzantine times. The main sources of wealth were fishing, salt export, and the export of porphyra (Tyrian purple), a scarlet dye made from shells. After the Byzantine period the island was abandoned, although later it was used as a hideout.
Nowadays the island is protected as an "area of intense natural beauty". Especially in summer, the island attracts many tourists. As camping is forbidden on the island, only day trips are possible. Visitors are not allowed to roam freely over the island, but only on designated paths and some beaches close to the eastern tip of the island. There is a small tavern at the ferry landing. 700 meters to the east of Chrissi Island lies the rocky islet of Mikronisi (Small Island).
Matala is a little village with a beautiful beach. To the one side of the beach is a cliff with artificial caves created in the Neolithic Age. In the 1st and 2nd centuries the caves were used as tombs. In the 1960s the caves were occupied by hippies which were later driven out.
In 1578 the Venetians fortified the island for protection against the Turks and continuous pirate raids. They created blockhouses at the highest points, as well as a fortification ring along the coast of the island that closed out any hostile disembarkation, rendering Spinalonga an impregnable sea fortress, one of the most important in the Mediterranean basin. Following the Turkish occupation of Crete in 1669, only the fortresses of Gramvousa ,Souda and Spinalonga remained in Venetian hands. Many Christians found refuge in these fortresses to escape persecution.
At the end of the Turkish occupation the island was the refuge of many Ottoman families that feared the Christian reprisals.
In 1903 the Turks left the island and it was subsequently used as a leper colony, from 1903 to 1957. It is notable for being one of the last active leper colonies in Europe. The last inhabitant, a priest, left the island in 1962. This was to maintain the religious tradition of the Greek Orthodox church, in which a buried person has to be commemorated 40 days, 6 months, 1, 3 and 5 years after their death. There were two entrances to Spinalonga, one being the lepers' entrance, a tunnel known as Dante's Gate. This was so named because the patients did not know what was going to happen to them once they arrived. However, once on the island they received food, water, medical attention and social security payments. Previously, such amenities had been unavailable to Crete's leprosy patients, as they mostly lived in the area's caves, away from civilization.
Today, the unoccupied island can easily be accessed from Elounda and Agios Nikolaos. Boat trips only take 15 mins (from Elounda) and since there is no accommodation on the island, tours only last a few hours.
The gorge is in the prefecture of Chania in southwest Crete. It was created by a small river running between the White Mountains and Mt. Volakias. There are a number of other gorges in the White Mountains. While some say that the gorge is 18 km long, this distance refers to the distance between the settlement of Omalos on the northern side of the plateau and the village of Agia Roumeli. In fact, the gorge is 16 km long, starting at an altitude of 1,250m at the northern entrance, and ending at the shores of the Libyan Sea in Agia Roumeli. The walk through Samaria National Park is 13 km long, but you have to walk another three km to Agia Roumeli from the park exit, making the hike 16 km. The most famous part of the gorge is the stretch known as the Iron Gates, where the sides of the gorge close in to a width of only four meters and soar up to a height of 500 m.
The gorge became a national park in 1962, particularly as a refuge for the rare kri-kri (Cretan goat), which is largely restricted to the park and an island just off the shore of Agia Marina. There are several other endemic species in the gorge and surrounding area, as well as many other species of flowers and birds.
The village of Samaria lies just inside the gorge. It was finally abandoned by the last remaining inhabitants in 1962 to make way for the park. The village and the gorge take their names from the village's ancient church, Óssia María (Saint Mary).
A "must" for visitors to Crete is to complete the walk down the gorge from the Omalos plateau to Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea, at which point tourists sail to the nearby village of Hora Sfakion and catch a coach back to Chania. The walk takes 4-7 hours and can be strenuous, especially at the height of summer.
Local tourist operators provide organized tours to the Gorge. These include bus transportation from your hotel to the entrance (near Omalos village), and the bus will be waiting for you to disembark the ferry in Sfakia (Hora Sfakeon) to take you back. If you are on your own, you can make a one-day round trip from Chania or from Sogia or Paleochora. Note that the morning buses from Sogia and Paleochora do not operate on Sunday. The ferries leave Agia Roumeli to Chora Sfakeon (East-bound) and to Sogia/Paleochora (West-bound) at 18:00.
There also exists a "lazy way" - from Agia Roumeli to the Iron Gates (more or less an hour of non-challenging terrain) and back.
- Visits to the National park are allowed from May 1 to October 15.
- Park visiting hours are 07:00 to 15:00 daily. From 15:00 to sunset, visitors are allowed to walk a distance of only two km within the park, either from Xyloskalo or from Agia Roumeli.
- Within the park it is strictly prohibited to camp, stay overnight, light fires, or swim in the streams of the gorge.