CRETE - CULTURAL CROSSROADS
Cretan Minoans gave Europe its first taste of civilization - never mind their art, evidence of flush lavatories have been found in the ruins.
Serious culture vultures and determined nature fans will find more than enough to see and do in Crete. They'll need at least a fortnight, or several visits, for taking in comfortably the layer upon layer of history, art and architecture piled up and spread over an island - by far the largest in Greece - boasting three mountain ranges, 1.000 miles of coastline, plains, canyons and 1.500 different types of wild flowers.
Cretan Minoans gave Europe its first taste of civilization - never mind their art, evidence of flush lavatories have been found in the ruins. They also bestowed the first Greek myths - Crete was the birthplace of Zeus. Distinguished sons of the island include El Greco, Mikis "Zorba the Greek" Theodorakis and the sage Epimenides, who warned "all Cretans are liars" - which, if he was lying, means they're all honest, but if he was lying then he was not an honest Cretan...
The Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis described the island's "extremely deep sense of mystery" and noted that "whoever sets foot on Crete senses a mysterious force branching warmly and beneficently through his veins." This remains true in large swathes of the island - mainly the villages of the interior and the towns on the western and eastern coasts. But much of the long and once beautiful northern coast has been trashed by tourism of mass destruction and visitors whose bodies seek the sun, whose veins crave a force no more mysterious than lager - lots of lager.
You won't be able to avoid the summer's madding crowds in Heraklion, the island's capital - which has an international airport and a massive harbour crammed with cruise ships - but this is where two of Crete's most visited sites are to be found. The Archaeological Museum has 20 halls displaying the world's finest collection of Minoan pottery, gems and frescoes along with antiquities tracing the island's history from 5.000 BC to 400 AD. One visit isn't enough. A few miles out of town is the spectacular Palace of Knossos, excavated and reconstructed in 1908 by an Oxford museum curator. Nobody can be sure what this labyrithine building looked like or how it functioned 4.000 years ago. But, guesswork or not, what we see todaz is a breathtaking monument to Mediterranean civilization. After the Acropolis in Athens, it's the most visited site in Greece, with more than a million admissions annually.
Other major - but smaller and unreconstructed - Minoan sites are Phaistos, Agios Triad and Malia, where the ruins of a 1.900 BC palace rest a few miles from one of Crete's wilder 2003 AD party zones. When you've seen the best of Minoan Crete, go west to enjoy the Venetian and Turkish charms of Rethymnon Old Town and the equally elegant but much larger Chania.
The island's second city, Chania, shelters beneath the peaks of the White Mountains - a range of comprising 30 summits and 50 gorges, many of them walkable. The most famous and busiest is the stunningly beautiful 18-mile Samaria gorge, which is Europe's largest. Weather permitting, it's open from early May to late October. A national park, it's the place to see rare flowers and herbs, eagles, buzzards, griffon vultures - and thousands of other nature lovers. Put a full day aside for tackling the entire walk, wear strong boots and take water and food - there aren't any tavernas down there.
For Roman ruins - yes, they were here too - go to Gortyna, where the Roman's Cretan capital citz is now an olive grove. If you're spellbound by Greek myths head for eastern Crete and the Dhiktean Cave on the high Plateau of Lassithi in which it's said Zeus was born. The cave is reached by expensive mule rides or a steep and slippery one mile climb.
Round off your stay with an excursion to Gavdos. Tiny (population now 55, down from 7.000 in the 13th century) and unspoiled, this island is 24 often choppy miles from Crete and is Europe's southernmost point. Get there by ferry - when the sea isn't too rough - from Chora Sfakion on Crete's southwest coast. It has beaches and, if the ferry can't take you back to Crete, tavernas with rooms. Crete stands at the trade and cultural crossroads that linked North Africa, the Middle East and Europe, but sleepy Gavdos offers nothing now but the exquisite culture of a hot and quiet beach.
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM IN HERAKLION
The Museum was founded in 1883 by the "Philekpaideutikos Syllogos of the Friends of Education", under the presidency of Joseph Chatzidakis. Initially, when it was still simply a collection of antiquities, it was housed in two rooms near Agios Minas. This space, however soon proved to be too restricted to hold the precious objects, that daily grew in number especially after the proclamation of the independence of Crete in 1898. The collection therefore had to be moved to a large sector of the old Turkish barracks. At the same time attempts began to be made to build a proper Museum and to find a suitable plot of land for the purpose. Eventually, preference was given to the area formerly occupied by the monastery of Agios Frangiskos. The building that was erected was demolished in 1937, however, since it was not proof against earthquakes, and its place was taken by the present Museum.
The rooms were opened to the public after the Second World War, with the material classified chronologically. The building has recently been extended.
The Museum houses ancient objects discovered at the most important archaeological sites in Crete: Knossos, Phaestos, Malia, Tylissos, Gortys, Agia Triada, Mohlos, Gournia, Zakros, in a great number of tombs, in the caves of Kamares, the Idaean cave, the Diktaean cave, the cave of Eileithyia and so on.
The most interesting and best preserved of the finds are exhibited in the 20 rooms of the Museum. Minoan art is nowhere better represented, and this makes the Museum unique and has made it known the whole world over The exhibits are classified into the following main categories:
Vases - Belonging to the Vasilike style, the polychrome vases from the Kamares Caves, the vases of plant and marine style and those of the palace style are especially notable.
Sarcophagi - The clay sarcofagi were widely used during the post-palatial period. The dead were laid inside them in contracted position. They are of two types: those in the shape of a chest or a box with four feet and a lid, and those in the shape of a bath. The motifs painted on them are decorative or are taken from nature (schematised flowers, fish, octopuses) or have religious significance (double axes, sacred horns etc). The ship depicted on one of them may symbolize the journey of the deceased to the other world. The one from Agia Triada, made of stone, is unique.
GoldsmithĘs work - Gold and ivory jewellery and ornaments in general. Miniature magic pendant with representations of an open palm, a snake, a snail, a scorpion and a spider, perhaps to ward off the dangerous serpents and insects. Bull's heads and small lions from Agia Triada. The famous piece of gold jewellery showing hornets or wasps sucking at a drop of honey from the honeycomb, a gold pin with a flower at the end of it, gold leaves and earrings from the cemetery of Chryssolakkos near Malia. Gold rings with religious scenes etc.
Frescoes - From the large and the small palaces, villas of the wealthy classes and mansions. Mural paintings combined with reliefs form a category of their own.
Miniature sculpture - Clay figurines and others made of stone or precious materials. Figurines and other dedications from the cave of Eileithyia at Inatos in South Crete. The figurines are connected with human fertility: loving couples, pregnant women, and women suckling their babies.
Stoneware - Mainly vases made of marble or semi-precious and precious stones. Those which come from the sacred treasuries of the palaces at Knossos and Zakros are outstanding. A special category is formed by the stone utensils used in religious ritual which carry various representations in relief.
Metalwork Household utensils, tools, weapons and ceremonial axes - An important collection of bronze weapons and tools. Bronze dagger blades from the tholos tombs of Messara and the cave at Trapeza.
Seal stones - Particularly interesting seal stones from the pre palatial tombs at Messara, in a variety of shapes. Some of them are plastic, in the shape of quardruped, birds and so on, and in different materials, mainly ivory and steatite. In most cases, they have two faces to produce seals but in the case of the seal stone from Fourni, Archanes there are fourteen. Some seal stones came to Crete from Egypt or Asia like the Babylonian cylinder seal (exhibit 1098) from the period of King Hammurabi (1750BC).