Amazing Crete

A little bit about the largest island of Greece ….

Crete is the largest island of Greece and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It is located in the southern part of the Aegean Sea separating the Aegean from the Libyan Sea, almost in the centre of Mediterranean, played an important role throughout the history.

The largest and most populous of the Greek islands, Crete, is the 88th largest island in the world and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after SicilySardiniaCyprus, and Corsica. It bounds the southern border of the Aegean sea. Crete lies approximately 160 km (99 mi) south of the Greek mainland. It has an area of 8,336 km2 (3,219 sq mi) and a coastline of 1,046 km (650 mi).

Crete and a number of surrounding islands and islets constitute the Region of Crete the southernmost of the 13 top-level administrative units of Greece, the region is the fifth most populous region of Greece. Its capital and largest city is Heraklion, located on the northern shore of the island. As of 2011, the region had a population of 623,065. The Dodecanese are located to the northeast of Crete, while the Cyclades are situated to the north, separated by the Sea of Crete. The Peloponnese is to the region’s northwest.

Humans have inhabited the island since at least 130,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic age. Crete was the centre of Europe‘s first advanced civilization, the Minoans, from 2700 to 1420 BC; the Minoan civilization was overrun by the Mycenaean civilization from mainland Greece. Later, Crete fell under Roman rule, and afterwards the Byzantine EmpireAndalusian  Arabs, the Venetian Republic, and the Ottoman Empire successively ruled Crete. The Cretan people, who maintained a desire to join the Greek state, achieved independence from the Ottomans in 1898 as the Cretan State and became part of Greece in December 1913.

The island is mountainous, and its character is defined by a high mountain range crossing from west to east; the range of the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) contains Crete’s highest point, Mount Ida. Crete forms a significant part of the economy and cultural heritage of Greece, while retaining its own local cultural traits (such as its own poetry and music). The Nikos Kazantzakis at Heraklion and the Daskalogiannis airport at Chania serve international travelers. The palace of Knossos, a Bronze Age settlement and ancient Minoan city, lies in Heraklion in Crete. There is also a smaller airport in the area of Sitia, used for domestic flights by Olympic, Aegean and Sky Express and soon to be delivered for use the new airport of Heraklion , which is going to be in Kasteli region ( central Crete. The location of the new airport will boost the economy of the south part of the island and the new road arteries and connections will give options to the future guests of Crete to explore more on the island . It will be ideal for tour – transfers, combination of arrival transfer to the desired accommodation with the visit of an archaeological site or highlight of the island

And the name shall be Crete ….

The island is first referred to as Kaptara in texts from the Syrian city of Mari dating from the 18th century BC, repeated later in Neo-Assyrian records and the Bible (Caphtor). It was also known in ancient Egyptian as Keftiu, strongly suggesting a similar Minoan name for the island.

The current name “Crete”, is thought to be first attested in Mycenaean Greek texts written in Linear B.  In Ancient Greek, the name Crete first appears in Homer‘s Odyssey Its etymology is unknown. In Latin, it became Creta.

The original Arabic name of Crete was “InCrite” but after the Emirate of Crete‘s establishment of its new capital became  Rabḍ al-Ḫandaq (modern Iraklion), both the city and the island became known as  Chandax or  Chandakas, which gave Latin, Italian and Venetian Candia. Under Ottoman rule, in Ottoman Turkish, Crete was called Girit .

Include Crete in your travel plans because :

  • It’s the largest Greek island, there is a lot of things to do, you will never feel bored
  • The water is crystal clear – amazing beaches, awarded among the best in the world, safe and with warm crystal clear waters…
  • The history of this place … Everywhere you go, from the old towns to the small villages the history is evident everywhere. And we can drive you through the sites and tell you the secrets and tips, only the locals know. ….
  • Because of the size of the island, you will never feel overwhelmed or stressed in a crowded area ….There are so many places, close to the touristic areas, to enjoy the silence of the Cretan landscape.
  • The island is not overpriced. You will find everything you need at the right price according to your needs. There are from 5 star hotels to camping places, from local busses to VIP luxurious transportation arrangements.
  • The local markets, where you can find everything….
  • The fruits and vegetable, always fresh often directly from the producers…
  • The ideal weather… The long summer and mild winter ….
  • The charming little streets of the old towns – the Venetian influence
  • The amazing views , the gorges and mountainous villages.
  • The tasty Cretan cuisine . You cannot leave Crete without tasting the local products.
  • The family wineries, with the production of awarded wine , 19 endemic varieties on Crete
  • The locals – The Cretans – the people of the island with their friendly approach will make you feel like home ….
  • It can be an adventure … Visit Crete without a plan and there will be always something to do every day … It can be just a destination for a road trip…..
  • Super safe… . Criminality rate is very low, you will never feel threatened. Add here the friendly locals, that in any case will help you and there you are ….Extra safe ..

Mountains and valleys

Crete is mountainous, and its character is defined by a high mountain range crossing from west to east, formed by three different groups of mountains:

The White Mountains or Lefka Ori ( 2,454 m – 8,051 ft), the Idi Range – Psiloritis  ( 2,456 m – 8,058 ft), the Dikti Mountains birthplace of the father of Gods – Zeus (2,148 m -7,047 ft) and Thripti (1,489 m – 4,885 ft)

These mountains and hills form valleys, such as Amari valley, fertile plateaus, such as Lasithi plateauOmalos and Nida, caves, such as Diktaion (the birthplace of the god Zeus), and Idaion (where Zeus was brought up) and a number of gorges that are definitely worth exploring .

Mountains in Crete attract the attention of both for locals and tourists. The mountains have created a barrier making the locals distinguish Cretan between highlanders and lowlanders. The mountainous Cretan have played an important role in the resistance of Crete in the history of the island. For residents of mountainous and remote, not easily accessible areas, such as Sfakia in western Crete or Anogeia, Livadia in mountainous central Crete, the aridness and rockiness of the mountains is emphasized as an element of pride and is often compared to the alleged soft-soiled mountains of others parts of Greece or the world.

Gorges, rivers and lakes

The island has a number of gorges, one of the longest natural gorges of Europe – the Samariá Gorge, the beautiful Imbros GorgeKourtaliotiko GorgeHa GorgePlatanias Gorge, the Gorge of the Dead (at Kato ZakrosSitia) and Richtis Gorge  and waterfall, the Neraidokoymbos at Lassithis area, and so many more ….

The rivers of Crete include the Ieropotamos River, the Koiliaris, the Anapodiaris, the Almiros, the Giofyros, and Megas Potamos. There are only two freshwater lakes in Crete: Lake Kournas and Lake Agia, both in Chania prefecture . Lake Voulismeni at the coast, at Aghios Nikolaos – Lassithi, was formerly a freshwater lake but is now connected to the sea, after an attempt of French experts to create a small safe port for the fishermen back in 1880ies. Lakes that were created by dams also exist in Crete, were artificially made to be used for irrigation . There are three main artificial lakes : the lake of Aposelemis Dam, the lake of Potamos Dam, and the lake of Mpramiana Dam.

Surrounding islands

A large number of small islands, islets, and rocks hug the coast of Crete. Many are visited by tourists, some are only visited by archaeologists and biologists. Some are environmentally protected and are characterized Natural Parks ( Natura project) and are under protection . Gramvousa (KissamosChania) the pirate island opposite the Balos lagoon

Elafonisi (Chania), which commemorates a shipwreck and an Ottoman massacre

Chrysi island (IerapetraLasithi), 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 southernmost point of Europe.

Climate

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. Snowfall is common on the mountains between November and May, but rare in the low-lying areas. While some mountain tops are snow-capped for most of the year, near the coast snow only stays on the ground for a few minutes or hours. However, a truly exceptional cold snap swept the island in February 2004, during which period the whole island was blanketed with snow. During the Cretan summer, average temperatures reach the high 20s-low 30s Celsius (mid 80s to mid 90s Fahrenheit), with maxima touching the upper 30s-mid 40s.

The south coast, including the Mesara Plain and Asterousia Mountains, falls in the North African climatic zone, and thus enjoys significantly more sunny days and high 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.

Geography

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.

Administration

Crete with its nearby islands form the Crete Region (one of the 13 regions of Greece which were established in the 1987 administrative reform) . Under the 2010 Kallikratis plan, the powers and authority of the regions were redefined and extended. The region is based at Heraklion and is divided into four regional units (pre-Kallikratis prefectures). From west to east these are: ChaniaRethymnoHeraklion, and Lasithi. These are further subdivided into 24 municipalities.

Cities

Heraklion is the largest city and capital of Crete. Chania was the capital until 1971. The principal cities are:

Heraklion (Iraklion or Candia) (173,993 inhabitants)

Chania (Haniá) (108,642 inhabitants)

Rethymno (34,300 inhabitants)

Ierapetra (23,707 inhabitants)

Agios Nikolaos (19,462 inhabitants)

Sitia (14,338 inhabitants)

Economy

The economy of Crete is predominantly based on services and tourism. However, agriculture also plays an important role and Crete is one of the few Greek islands that can support itself independently without a tourism industry. The economy began to change visibly during the 1970s as tourism gained in importance. Although an emphasis remains on agriculture and stock breeding, because of the climate and terrain of the island, there has been a drop in manufacturing and an observable expansion in its service industries (mainly tourism-related). All three sectors of the Cretan economy (agriculture/farming, processing-packaging, services), are directly connected and interdependent. The island has a per capita income much higher than the Greek average, whereas unemployment is at approximately 4%, one-sixth of that of the country overall.

As in many regions of Greece, viticulture and olive groves are significant; oranges and citrons are also cultivated. Until recently there were restrictions on the import of bananas to Greece, therefore bananas were grown on the island, predominantly in greenhouses. Dairy products are important to the local economy and there are a number of specialty cheeses such as mizithraanthotyros, and kefalotyri.

Local products not to miss:

Olive oil

Carob

Fruits and vegetables.

Local Cheese and diary products.

Awarded wine prtoduced on the island by family wineries .

Transport infrastructure

Airports

The island has three significant airports, Nikos Kazantzakis at Heraklion, the Daskalogiannis airport at Chania and a smaller one in Sitia. The first two serve international routes, acting as the main gateways to the island for travellers. There is a long-standing plan to replace Heraklion airport with a completely new airport at Kastelli, where there is presently an air force base.

Ferries

The island is well served by ferries, mostly from Athens, by ferry companies such as Minoan Lines and ANEK Lines.

Road Network

Although the road network leads almost everywhere, there is a lack of modern highways, although this is gradually changing with the completion of the northern coastal spine highway.

There are plans for underwater cables going from mainland Greece to Israel and Egypt passing by Crete and Cyprus: EuroAfrica Interconnector and EuroAsia Interconnector. They would connect Crete electrically with mainland Greece, ending energy isolation of Crete. Now Hellenic Republic covers for Crete electricity costs difference of around €300 million per year.

History

Hominids settled in Crete at least 130,000 years ago. In the later Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, under the Minoans, Crete had a highly developed, literate civilization. It has been ruled by various ancient Greek entities, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Emirate of Crete, the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire. After a brief period of independence (1897–1913) under a provisional Cretan government, it joined the Kingdom of Greece. It was occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

Prehistoric Crete

In 2002, the paleontologist Gerard Gierlinski discovered fossil footprints left by ancient human relatives 5,600,000 years ago.

The first human settlement in Crete dates before 130,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic age. Settlements dating to the Aceramic Neolithic in the 7th millennium BC, used cattlesheepgoatspigs and dogs as well as domesticated cereals and legumes; ancient Knossos was the site of one of these major Neolithic (then later Minoan) sites. Other Neolithic settlements include those at KephalaMagasa, and Trapeza.

Minoan civilization

Crete was the centre of Europe‘s first advanced civilization, the Minoan (c. 2700–1420 BC). This civilization wrote in the undeciphered script known as Linear A. Early Cretan history is replete with legends such as those of King MinosTheseus and the Minotaur, passed on orally via poets such as Homer. The volcanic eruption of Thera may have been the cause of the downfall of the Minoan civilization.

Mycenaean civilization

In 1420 BC, the Minoan civilization was overrun by the Mycenaean civilization from mainland Greece. The oldest samples of writing in the Greek language, as identified by Michael Ventris, is the Linear B archive from Knossos, dated approximately to 1425–1375 BC.

Archaic and Classical period

After the Bronze Age collapse, Crete was settled by new waves of Greeks from the mainland. A number of city states developed in the Archaic period. There was very limited contact with mainland Greece, and Greek historiography shows little interest in Crete, and as a result, there are very few literary sources.

During the 6th to 4th centuries BC, Crete was comparatively free from warfare. The Gortyn code (5th century BC) is evidence for how codified civil law established a balance between aristocratic power and civil rights.

In the late 4th century BC, the aristocratic order began to collapse due to endemic infighting among the elite, and Crete’s economy was weakened by prolonged wars between city states. During the 3rd century BC, Gortyn, Kydonia(Chania), Lyttos and Polyrrhenia challenged the primacy of ancient Knossos.

While the cities continued to prey upon one another, they invited into their feuds mainland powers like Macedon and its rivals Rhodes and Ptolemaic Egypt. In 220 BC the island was tormented by a war between two opposing coalitions of cities. As a result, the Macedonian king Philip V gained hegemony over Crete which lasted to the end of the Cretan War (205–200 BC), when the Rhodians opposed the rise of Macedon and the Romans started to interfere in Cretan affairs.

In the 2nd century BC Ierapytna (Ierapetra) gained supremacy on eastern Crete.

Roman rule

Crete was involved in the Mithridatic Wars, initially repelling an attack by Roman general Marcus Antonius Creticus in 71 BC. Nevertheless, a ferocious three-year campaign soon followed under Quintus Caecilius Metellus, equipped with three legions and Crete was finally conquered by Rome in 69 BC, earning for Metellus the title “Creticus“. Gortyn was made capital of the island, and Crete became a Roman province, along with Cyrenaica that was called Creta et Cyrenaica. Archaeological remains suggest that Crete under Roman rule witnessed prosperity and increased connectivity with other parts of the Empire. In the 2nd century AD, at least three cities in Crete (Lyttos, Gortyn, Hierapytna) joined the Panhellenion, a league of Greek cities founded by the emperor Hadrian. When Diocletian redivided the Empire, Crete was placed, along with Cyrene, under the diocese of Moesia, and later by Constantine I to the diocese of Macedonia

Byzantine Empire – first period

Crete was separated from Cyrenaica c. 297. It remained a province within the eastern half of the Roman Empire, usually referred to as the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire after the establishment of a second capital in Constantinople by Constantine in 330. Crete was subjected to an attack by Vandals in 467, the great earthquakes of 365 and 415, a raid by Slavs in 623, Arab raids in 654 and the 670s, and again in the 8th century. In c. 732, the Emperor Leo III the Isaurian transferred the island from the jurisdiction of the Pope to that of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Andalusian Arab rule

The Byzantines under the general Damian attack Crete but are defeated by the Saracens, c. 828, as depicted by Ioannes Scylitzes .

In the 820s, after 900 years as a Roman, and then Eastern Roman (Byzantine) island, Crete was captured by Andalusian Muladis led by Abu Hafs, who established the Emirate of Crete. The Byzantines launched a campaign that took most of the island back in 842 and 843 under Theoktistos. Further Byzantine campaigns in 911 and 949 failed. In 960/1, Nikephoros Phokas‘ campaign completely restored Crete to the Byzantine Empire, after a century and a half of Arab control.

Byzantine Empire – second period

In 961, Nikephoros Phokas returned the island to Byzantine rule after expelling the Arabs. Extensive efforts at conversion of the populace were undertaken, led by John Xenos and Nikon “the Metanoeite”.The re-conquest of Crete was a major achievement for the Byzantines, as it restored Byzantine control over the Aegean littoral and diminished the threat of Saracen pirates, for which Crete had provided a base of operations.

In 1204, the Fourth Crusade seized and sacked the imperial capital of Constantinople. Crete was initially granted to leading Crusader Boniface of Montferrat in the partition of spoils that followed. However, Boniface sold his claim to the Republic of Venice whose forces made up the majority of the Crusade. Venice’s rival the Republic of Genoa immediately seized the island and it was not until 1212 that Venice secured Crete as a colony.

Venetian rule

From 1212, during Venice‘s rule, which lasted more than four centuries, a Renaissance swept through the island as is evident from the plethora of artistic works dating to that period. Known as The Cretan School or Post-Byzantine Art, it is among the last flowerings of the artistic traditions of the fallen empire. The most notable representatives of this Cretan renaissance were the painter El Greco and the writers Nicholas Kalliakis (1645–1707), Georgios Kalafatis (professor) (c. 1652–1720), Andreas Musalus (c. 1665–1721) and Vitsentzos Kornaros.

Under the rule of the Catholic Venetians, the city of Candia was reputed to be the best fortified city of the Eastern Mediterranean. The three main forts were located at GramvousaSpinalonga, and Fortezza at Rethymnon. Other fortifications include the Kazarma fortress at Sitia. In 1492, Jews expelled from Spain settled on the island.  In 1574–77, Crete was under the rule of Giacomo Foscarini as Proveditor General, Sindace and Inquistor. According to Starr’s 1942 article, the rule of Giacomo Foscarini was a Dark Age for Jews and Greeks. Under his rule, non-Catholics had to pay high taxes with no allowances. In 1627, there were 800 Jews in the city of Candia, about seven percent of the city’s population. Marco Foscarini was the Doge of Venice during this time period.

Ottoman rule

The Ottomans conquered Crete in 1669, after the siege of Candia. Many Greek Cretans fled to other regions of the Republic of Venice after the Ottoman–Venetian Wars, some even prospering such as the family of Simone Stratigo (c. 1733 – c. 1824) who migrated to Dalmatia from Crete in 1669. Islamic presence on the island, aside from the interlude of the Arab occupation, was cemented by the Ottoman conquest. Most Cretan Muslims were local Greek converts who spoke Cretan Greek, but in the island’s 19th-century political context they came to be viewed by the Christian population as Turks.  Contemporary estimates vary, but on the eve of the Greek War of Independence (1830), as much as 45% of the population of the island may have been Muslim.  A number of Sufi orders were widespread throughout the island, the Bektashi order being the most prevalent, possessing at least five tekkes. Many among them were crypto-Christians who converted back to Christianity in subsequent years, while many Cretan Turks fled Crete because of the unrest, settling in Turkey, Rhodes, Syria, Libya and elsewhere. By 1900, 11% of the population was Muslim. Those remaining were relocated in the 1924 Population exchange between Greece and Turkey

During Easter of 1770, a notable revolt against Ottoman rule, in Crete, was started by Daskalogiannis, a shipowner from Sfakia who was promised support by Orlov’s fleet which never arrived. Daskalogiannis eventually surrendered to the Ottoman authorities. Today, the airport at Chania is named after him.

Crete was left out of the modern Greek state by the London Protocol of 1830, and soon it was yielded to Egypt by the Ottoman sultan. Egyptian rule was short-lived and sovereignty was returned to the Ottoman Empire by the Convention of London on 3 July 1840.

Heraklion was surrounded by high walls and bastions and extended westward and southward by the 17th century. The most opulent area of the city was the northeastern quadrant where all the elite were gathered together. The city had received another name under the rule of the Ottomans, “the deserted city”. The urban policy that the Ottoman applied to Candia was a two-pronged approach. The first was the religious endowments. It made the Ottoman elite contribute to building and rehabilitating the ruined city. The other method was to boost the population and the urban revenue by selling off urban properties. According to Molly Greene (2001) there were numerous records of real-estate transactions during the Ottoman rule. In the deserted city, minorities received equal rights in purchasing property. Christians and Jews were also able to buy and sell in the real-estate market.

The Cretan Revolt of 1866–1869 or Great Cretan Revolution was a three-year uprising against Ottoman rule, the third and largest in a series of revolts between the end of the Greek War of Independence in 1830 and the establishment of the independent Cretan State in 1898. A particular event which caused strong reactions among the liberal circles of western Europe was the Holocaust of Arkadi. The event occurred in November 1866, as a large Ottoman force besieged the Arkadi Monastery, which served as the headquarters of the rebellion. In addition to its 259 defenders, over 700 women and children had taken refuge in the monastery. After a few days of hard fighting, the Ottomans broke into the monastery. At that point, the abbot of the monastery set fire to the gunpowder stored in the monastery’s vaults, causing the death of most of the rebels and the women and children sheltered there.

Autonomous Cretan State 1898–1908

Following the repeated uprisings in 1841, 1858, 1889, 1895 and 1897 by the Cretan people, who wanted to join Greece, the Great Powers decided to restore order and in February 1897 sent in troops. The island was subsequently garrisoned by troops from Great Britain, France, Italy and Russia; Germany and Austro-Hungary withdrawing from the occupation in early 1898. During this period Crete was governed through a committee of admirals from the remaining four Allies . In March 1898 the Allies decreed, with the very reluctant consent of the Sultan, that the island would be granted autonomy under Ottoman suzerainty in the near future.

In September 1898 an outbreak of rioting in Candia, modern Heraklion, left over 500 Cretan Christians, and 14 British servicemen, dead. As a result, the Admirals ordered the expulsion of all Ottoman troops and administrators from the island, a move that was ultimately completed by early November. The decision to grant autonomy to the island was enforced and a High Commissioner, Prince George of Greece, appointed, arriving to take up his post in December 1898.  The flag of the Cretan State was chosen by the Powers, with the white star representing the Ottoman suzerainty over the island.

In 1905, disagreements between Prince George and minister Eleftherios Venizelos over the question of the enosis (union with Greece), such as the Prince’s autocratic style of government, resulted in the Theriso revolt, one of leaders of which being Eleftherios Venizelos.

Prince George resigned as High Commissioner and was replaced by Alexandros Zaimis, a former Greek prime minister, in 1906. In 1908, taking advantage of domestic turmoil in Turkey as well as the timing of Zaimis’s vacation away from the island, the Cretan deputies unilaterally declared union with Greece.

With the break out of the First Balkan War, the Greek government declared that Crete was since then part of the Greek territory. This was not recognized internationally until 1 December 1913.

Second World War

During World War II, the island was the scene of the famous Battle of Crete in May 1941. The initial 11-day battle was bloody and left more than 11,000 soldiers and civilians killed or wounded. As a result of the fierce resistance from both Allied forces and civilian Cretan locals, the invasion force suffered heavy casualties, and Adolf Hitler forbade further large-scale paratroop operations for the rest of the war. During the initial and subsequent occupation, German firing squads routinely executed male civilians in reprisal for the death of German soldiers; civilians were rounded up randomly in local villages for the mass killings, such as at the Massacre of Kondomari and the Viannos massacres. Two German generals were later held responsible and after a trial were executed for their roles in the killing of 3,000 of the island’s inhabitants.

Tourism

Crete was one of the most popular holiday destinations in Greece. 15% of all arrivals in Greece come through the city of Heraklion (port and airport), while charter journeys to Heraklion seven years ago made up 20% of all charter flights in Greece. Overall, more than two million tourists visited Crete some years back, when the increase in tourism was reflected in the number of hotel beds, rising by 53% in the period between 1986 and 1991.

Today, the island’s tourism infrastructure caters to all tastes, including a very wide range of accommodation; the island’s facilities take in large luxury hotels with their complete facilities, swimming pools, sports and recreation, smaller family-owned apartments, camping facilities and others. Visitors reach the island via two international airports in Heraklion and Chania and a smaller airport in Sitia (international charter and domestic flights starting May 2012) or by boat to the main ports of Heraklion, Chania, RethimnoAgios Nikolaos and Sitia.

Popular tourist attractions include the archaeological sites of the Minoan civilisation, the Venetian old city and port of Chania, the Venetian castle at Rethymno, the gorge of Samaria, the islands of ChrysiElafonisiGramvousaSpinalonga and the Palm Beach of Vai, which is the largest natural palm forest in Europe.

Archaeological sites and museums

The area has a large number of archaeological sites, including the Minoan sites of KnossosMalia (not to be confused with the town of the same name), Petras and Phaistos, the classical site of Gortys, and the diverse archaeology of the island of Koufonisi, which includes Minoan, Roman, and World War II era ruins (nb. due to conservation concerns, access to the latter has been restricted for the last few years, so it is best to check before heading to a port).

There are a number of museums throughout Crete. The Heraklion Archaeological Museum displays most of the archaeological finds from the Minoan era and was reopened in 2014.

 

Fauna

Crete is isolated from mainland Europe, Asia, and Africa, and this is reflected in the diversity of the fauna and flora. As a result, the fauna and flora of Crete have many clues to the evolution of species. There are no animals that are dangerous to humans on the island of Crete in contrast to other parts of Greece. Indeed, the ancient Greeks attributed the lack of large mammals such as bears, wolves, jackals, and poisonous snakes, to the labor of Hercules (who took a live Cretan bull to the Peloponnese). Hercules wanted to honor the birthplace of Zeus by removing all “harmful” and “poisonous” animals from Crete. Later, Cretans believed that the island was cleared of dangerous creatures by the Apostle Paul, who lived on the island of Crete for two years, with his exorcisms and blessings. There is a natural history museum, the Natural History Museum of Crete, operating under the direction of the University of Crete and two aquariums – Aquaworld in Hersonissos and Cretaquarium in Gournes, displaying sea creatures common in Cretan waters.

Prehistoric fauna

Dwarf elephantsdwarf hippopotamusdwarf mammothsdwarf deer, and giant flightless owls were native to Pleistocene Crete.

Mammals

Mammals of Crete include the vulnerable kri-kriCapra aegagrus cretica that can be seen in the national park of the Samaria Gorge and on ThodorouDia and Agioi Pantes (islets off the north coast), the Cretan wildcat and the Cretan spiny mouse. Other terrestrial mammals include subspecies of the Cretan marten, the Cretan weasel, the Cretan badger, the long-eared hedgehog, and the edible dormouse.

The Cretan shrew, a type of white-toothed shrew is considered endemic to the island of Crete because this species of shrew is unknown elsewhere. It is a relic species of the crocidura shrews of which fossils have been found that can be dated to the Pleistocene era. In the present day it can only be found in the highlands of Crete.  It is considered to be the only surviving remnant of the endemic species of the Pleistocene Mediterranean islands.

Bat species include: Blasius’s horseshoe bat, the lesser horseshoe bat, the greater horseshoe bat, the lesser mouse-eared batGeoffroy’s bat, the whiskered batKuhl’s pipistrelle, the common pipistrelleSavi’s pipistrelle, the serotine bat, the long-eared batSchreibers’ bat and the European free-tailed bat.

Birds

A large variety of birds includes eagles (can be seen in Lasithi), swallows (throughout Crete in the summer and all the year in the south of the island), pelicans (along the coast), and cranes (including Gavdos and Gavdopoula). The Cretan mountains and gorges are refuges for the endangered lammergeier vulture. Bird species include: the golden eagleBonelli’s eagle, the bearded vulture or lammergeyer, the griffon vultureEleanora’s falconperegrine falconlanner falconEuropean kestreltawny owllittle owlhooded crowalpine choughred-billed chough, and the hoopoe.

Reptiles and amphibians

Tortoises can be seen throughout the island. Snakes can be found hiding under rocks. Toads and frogs reveal themselves when it rains.

Reptiles include the Aegean wall lizardBalkan green lizardcommon chameleon, snake-eyed skinkmoorish geckoTurkish geckoKotschy’s geckospur-thighed tortoise, and the Caspian turtle.

There are four species of snake on the island and these are not dangerous to humans. The four species include the leopard snake (locally known as Ochendra), the Balkan whip snake (locally called Dendrogallia), the dice snake (called Nerofido in Greek), and the only venomous snake is the nocturnal cat snake which has evolved to deliver a weak venom at the back of its mouth to paralyze geckos and small lizards, and is not dangerous to humans.

Sea turtles include the green turtle and the loggerhead turtle which are both threatebed species.  The loggerhead turtle nests and hatches on north-coast beaches around Rethymno and Chania, and south-coast beaches along the gulf of Messara.

Amphibians include the European green toadAmerican bullfrog (introduced), common tree frog, and the Cretan marsh frog (endemic).

Sealife

Apart from terrestrial mammals, the seas around Crete are rich in large marine mammals, a fact unknown to most Greeks at present, although reported since ancient times. Indeed, the Minoan frescoes depicting dolphins in Queen’s Megaron at Knossos indicate that Minoans were well aware of and celebrated these creatures. Apart from the famous endangered Mediterranean monk seal, which lives in almost all the coasts of the country, Greece hosts whalessperm whalesdolphins and porpoises.  These are either permanent residents of the Mediterranean or just occasional visitors. The area south of Crete, known as the Greek Abyss, hosts many of them. Squid and octopus can be found along the coast and sea turtles and hammerhead sharks swim in the sea around the coast. The Cretaquarium and the Aquaworld Aquarium, are two of only three aquariums in the whole of Greece. They are located in Gournes and Hersonissos respectively. Examples of the local sealife can be seen there.

Some of the fish that can be seen in the waters around Crete include: scorpion fishdusky grouper, east Atlantic peacock wrasse, five-spotted wrasse, weaver fishcommon stingraybrown ray, Mediterranean, pearly razor fishstar-gazerpainted comberdamselfish, and the flying gurnard.

The loggerhead sea turtle nests and hatches along the beaches of Rethymno and Chania and the gulf of Messara.

Flora

The Minoans contributed to the deforestation of Crete. Further deforestation occurred in the 1600s “so that no more local supplies of firewood were available”.

Common wildflowers include: camomile, daisy, gladiolus, hyacinth, iris, poppy, cyclamen and tulip, among others. There are more than 200 different species of wild orchid on the island and this includes 14 varieties of Ophrys Cretica –  Crete has a rich variety of indigenous herbs including common sagerosemarythyme, and oregano. Rare herbs include the endemic Cretan dittany. and ironwortSideritis syriaca, known as Malotira (Μαλοτήρα). Varieties of cactus include the edible prickly pear. Common trees on the island include the chestnutcypressoakolive treepineplane, and tamarisk. Trees tend to be taller to the west of the island where water is more abundant.

 

Environmentally protected areas – Natura Parks

There are a number of environmentally protected areas. One such area is located at the island of Elafonisi on the coast of southwestern Crete. Also, the palm forest of Vai in eastern Crete and the Dionysades (both in the municipality of SitiaLasithi), have diverse animal and plant life. Vai has a palm beach and is the largest natural palm forest in Europe. The island of Chrysi, 15 kilometres (9 miles) south of Ierapetra, has the largest naturally-grown Juniperus macrocarpa forest in Europe. Samaria Gorge is a World Biosphere Reserve and Richtis Gorge is protected for its landscape diversity.

Mythology

Crete has a rich mythology mostly connected with the ancient Greek Gods but also connected with the Minoan civilisation.

According to Greek Mythology, The Diktaean Cave at Mount Dikti was the birthplace of the god Zeus. The Paximadia islands were the birthplace of the goddess Artemis and the god Apollo. Their mother, the goddess Leto, was worshipped at Phaistos. 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 (“featherless”) where they formed the islands in the bay that were called Lefkai (the islands of Souda and Leon). Heracles, in one of his labors, took the Cretan bull to the Peloponnese. Europa and Zeus made love at Gortys and conceived the kings of Crete: RhadamanthysSarpedon, and Minos.

The labyrinth of the Palace of Knossos was the setting for the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur in which the Minotaur was slain by TheseusIcarus 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

Crete has its own distinctive Mantinades poetry. The island is known for its Mantinades-based music (typically performed with the Cretan lyra and the laouto) and has many indigenous dances, the most noted of which is the Pentozali. Since the 1980s and certainly in the 90s onwards there has been a proliferation of Cultural Associations that teach dancing (in Western Crete many focus on rizitiko singing). These Associations often perform in official events but also become stages for people to meet up and engage in traditionalist practices. The topic of tradition and the role of Cultural Associations in reviving it is very often debated throughout Crete.

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 (Greek Ερωτόκριτος), 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. 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.

Cretans are fiercely proud of their island and customs, and men often don elements of traditional dress in everyday life: knee-high black riding boots (stivania), vráka breeches tucked into the boots at the knee, black shirt and black headdress consisting of a fishnet-weave kerchief worn wrapped around the head or draped on the shoulders (sariki). Men often grow large mustaches as a mark of masculinity.

Cretan society is known in Greece and internationally for family and clan vendettas which persist on the island to date, Cretans also have a tradition of keeping firearms at home, a tradition lasting from the era of resistance against the Ottoman Empire. Nearly every rural household on Crete has at least one unregistered gun. Guns are subject to strict regulation from the Greek government, and in recent years a great deal of effort to control firearms in Crete has been undertaken by the Greek police, but with limited success.

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