Crete has many layers of history. It is steeped in ancient Greek mythology, famed as the birthplace of Zeus and home to the Minoans which was a highly developed civilisation some 4000 years ago. Crete has been appropriately named the cradle of western culture. The palaces of Knossos, Phaistos, and Malia, the seats of the Minoan Kings, denote the pinnacle of this intriguing civilisation. Sites from classical Greece, Byzantium, ancient Rome, Venice and the Ottoman period all the way through to the Second World War. Without a doubt, for those who enjoy history, many interesting holidays could be spent delving into the rich history of Crete.
Crete has such uniquely contrasting landscapes throughout its 300 km length that there is always some vista to thrill the senses. There are vast dramatic snow covered mountains, sandy tree lined beaches, flat fertile plains and fabulous deep gorges. There is an abundance of water, fruit, vegetables, seafood and wine, as well as some of the finest honey and yoghurt in the world. The mild Mediterranean climate is ideal for holidays and as such offers the opportunity to swim in the sea for 8 months of the year. The rich mountainous countryside lures those who are interested in exploring on foot, whilst the historical aspect of the island entices many to visit the variety of beautiful castles, monasteries and archaeological sites, some of which are 5000 years old. Most importantly, there is always the warm friendliness of the Cretan people who may well invite you to share a drink with them. Crete may become for you, as it has for so many previous visitors, a special and endearing place to be visited time and time again.
Crete is one of the most southerly parts of Europe, lying to the south of the North African cities of Tunis and Algiers. With over 300 days of sunshine each year it enjoys the record for Europe, yet in the summer months the intense heat is eased on the north coast by the breezes of the “Meltemi”. In Spring there is a virtual explosion of wild flowers which makes the island a sight to behold and a joy to the senses. The start of the break up of the long dry months begins in October and November signifying the beginning of winter yet even the winter months can often have periods of lovely bright and warm sunny weather.
Geography and Natural History
Crete is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean with a land mass of approximately 8,331 sqm. It is 255 km long and varies between 12 and 56 km in width and there is one place in eastern Crete where one can see both the Cretan and Libyan seas. The island is divided into four administrative regions, known as Nomos, Chania in the West, Rethymno and Heraklion in the Centre of Crete and Lassithi in the East. The magnificient landscape of Crete is very mountainous with great gorges, caves and high plains. There are four mountain ranges, the Ida mountains in central Crete (2,456 metres high), the Lefka Ori or the White Mountains (2,452 metres high) in the west, the Dikti Mountains (2,148 metres high) and the Sitia Mountains (1,476 metres high in the east of the island.
There are endless opportunities to go walking and trekking in the mountains, most of which are covered in a variety of trees and shrubs, and have verdant high plains and plateau with fabulous vistas.
Aside from the majestic and awa inspiring mountain ranges of Crete, the variety of its wonderful coastline is equally stunning. Out of the total length of its 1047 km coastline, there are 155 km of beaches, most of which lie on the north coast, while in contrast, the South coast is a haven of little bays and small sandy coves ideal for swimming. On the north coast there are vast glorious sweeping bays, the most striking of which are Kissamos, Souda, Almiros, Malia, Mirabello and Sitia. The beautiful Bay of Souda is the largest natural harbour in the Mediterranean.
The most spectacular of the Cretan gorges is the famous Samaria Gorge, which at 18 km long is the largest gorge in Europe. From somewhere in the region of a total of 3,000 caves, the cave on Mount Ida and Mount Dikti have become the most famed for their rich archeological discoveries.
Cretan flora and fauna is well known for its vast variety. The great changes in climate and geology over millions of years have had a profound effect on the island’s plants and animals and as a result of this, today there are many varieties which can only be found on the island of Crete. One is welcomed by the picture postcard mediterranean vista of endless blue sea and the mesmerising silver green hue of olive trees, where once there were towering Cypress trees and pine forests. Crete attracts many people who are interested in plants and they come to see the rich variety of flowers, herbs and trees.
The Cretan population of 600,000 has retained its very distinctive values and traditions throughout a long, long history of many different outside influences as well as retaining a warmth to visitors and a willingness to change. Some years ago, the Catholic Archbishop of Athens, L. Petit, described the inhabitants of Crete in the following way. “A truly admirable people, that despite 4000 years of turbulence, has kept its national identity and pure language, displaying courage mixed with a sense of independence which borders on stubborness, supreme liveliness, fertile imagination, colourful and descriptive language, great spontaneity and a laid back approach to life, a love of adventure, a fierce need for freedom along with an enduring desire to express their individualism.
As there are no natural mineral resources, there is no industry on Crete worth mentioning. More than half the population are farmers, who work the land or breed sheep, goats, pigs and fowl. Tourism on the other hand creates the largest source of employment and offers the best opportunities for personal initiative. When you visit Crete you may well want to join one of the many festivals, beloved by Cretans who love to get together to celebrate with traditional music and dance and to which guests are always welcome.
Christenings and weddings are still big events, and sometimes the joyful enthusiasm of the gathering reaches such proportions that the men fire their shotguns into the air. The wine harvest is in the early autumn and followed by spontaneous celebrations at the many family distilleries, because the production of the local firewater, raki, offers a good opportunity for a party. Christmas, Easter and Maria’s Ascension Day on the 15th August, are very important days in the calendar, as the people still care deeply for their religious traditions. In the summertime there are plenty of celebrations, as well as rural festivals in various villages during harvest time.