Who’d have ever thought Crete would be so cool? A total keeper, despite being populated by a bunch of Cretans. (OK, cretins don’t have anything to do with Cretans. In fact, according to Dictionary.com, the word “cretin” comes from Provençal word meaning Christian, “hence, one who is human despite deformities.” Glad we cleared that one up.)Picture this: you’re out to dinner your last night in Rethymnon, a beautifully preserved town on the north coast of Crete. You’re at this great little Greek restaurant right on the Venetian Harbor when suddenly a stunning orange full moon appears above the horizon. It’s magical, even better than the otherwise amazing site 10 hours later or so as we left Rethymnon by the early silvery light of that same full moon. Some things you just have to see to believe, particularly if we didn’t get any good pictures!
While Crete’s history is particularly notable for being the home of the Minoans (more on that below), Rethymnon was largely built by the Venetians in the 16th century as a midway station between the two major cities of Chania in the west and Heraklion in the east. While the Ottomans conquered Crete in the mid-17th century and ruled it until well into the 20th century, the town is still far more Venetian than Ottoman.
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands with a pretty central location: while 60 miles from the European mainland it’s also just 110 miles from Asia and 175 miles from Africa. Importantly, Crete is the home of Europe’s first advanced civilization, the Minoans, who flourished between about 2600 BC and 1400 BC. So we did a day trip to the ruins of Knossos, just outside the main Cretan city of Heraklion and considered Europe’s oldest city.
Not a lot is known about the Minoans, in part because we have never adequately deciphered their writing, known as Linear A and Linear B. According to legend, King Minos ruled the Minoans from his palace in Knossos and had a labyrinth built to keep his son the Minotaur who had the body of a man and the head of a bull. Oh yeah, and he ate Athenian youths in his spare time. After several of these sacrifices the Athenian founder-hero Theseus, son of King Aegeus, volunteered to slay the Minotaur. When his father thought he’d died in the process (he didn’t), he threw himself into the sea and drowned, thus giving us the name of the Aegean Sea.That’s what we know, then, about the Minoans. They built big palaces (though, because the word “palace” comes from the big houses on the Palatine Hill in Rome, they weren’t called that at the time), ruled many of the islands in the region, and were the prototypical Greeks. An amateur British archaeologist, Arthur Evans, excavated Knossos and led the rebuilding of pieces of it to demonstrate what it may well have looked like some 4,000 years ago. While it was ungodly hot while we were there, it’s pretty cool to be able to tour Europe’s oldest city.
The other big highlight for us in Crete was beach time, not too surprising given the late July heat. One beach in particular, Preveli Beach, is touted as one of the great beaches in all of Greece, number 14 in Lonely Planet’s list of things to see in Greece; not just on Crete, but in all of Greece. For the life of us, we couldn’t figure out why it was so highly rated.
The first day we tried to find it we failed and ended up instead at the insanely beautiful beach in Shinaria, up the coast a bit. You could get an umbrella and two beach chairs for the whole day for about $3.30. With a restaurant that charged less than $15 a person for a fabulous meal … and that plied us with free raki (an anise-flavored Turkish liquor that, when served cold after a meal, all but guarantees great memories of the meal) in the hopes that we would return and spend more money. When we got to Preveli Beach, then, and were seriously disappointed we hightailed it back to Shinaria. The raki had worked.
Mark & I loved Crete, and I think I can speak for Dan & Laura in saying they did too. It’s the kind of place we could easily imagine coming back to for a month or so, exploring the beaches, seeing if we could enjoy the Minoan ruins without the life-threatening heat, and enjoying some of the best tomatoes in the world.