Good morning everyone! Today, I am pleased to be bringing you into our trip to some of the islands and locations in Greece. The country of Greece has over 150 islands so it’s common to hear folks misspeak and say they visited all the Greek islands. On our trip, we were lucky enough to visit five different Greek islands as well as a lovely port on the mainland. Greece is a beautiful country filled with friendly people. Even in the midst of the current global pandemic as well as the deep recession that the country is currently experiencing, everyone we met was so nice and welcoming.
Our first stop was in Crete and we sailed into the Heraklion port that morning. Of all the islands we visited, we spent the most time ashore in Crete.
Heraklion is the administrative center of the island of Crete. While I wouldn’t call Heraklion a beautiful city, there is plenty to do and we probably could have spent a long time weaving through various stores. But I am a history nerd and when in Greece, we don’t prioritize shopping. Or beaches! I’m afraid I have to tell you this now – if you’re here to see picturesque Greece, you’ll see a little, but you won’t see things like on the travel sites because those are not the things that drew me to Greece. This country was such an important chapter in human history, and I was there to see what traces those people left behind.
And on the first day of our cruise, we started at the Palace of Knossos.
The archaeological site of Knossos (generally indicating the labyrinthine ruins of the Palace of Knossos) is one of the most important historical sites in the world. It is considered the oldest archaeological site in Greece. The history here stretches back not for a few centuries, but for thousands of years. Arthur Evans – archaeologist and founder of the team who unearthed Knossos in 1900 – estimated that Neolithic people first arrived at the hill in ~6500 BCE. Over eight thousand years ago.
That is such a long time in human history that our lives feel like a blink. Incredible.
Neolithic finds are common in Crete but evidence suggests that the area around Knossos was settled multiple times during the period, growing steadily until there was a drastic rise in population at the end of the Final Neolithic period.
What we see today at the site are the remains of Minoan civilization from the Bronze Age, approximately 2000 BCE. While not as old, these are still impressive.
The structures at Knossos are unfortunately open to the elements, although most of the moveable findings have been relocated to the the Heraklion Archaeological Museum and replicas have been placed at the site. Much of the palace was built of wood and limestone, both of which decay over time and with the elements, so a considerable amount of the raised structures are replicas
Multiple finds at the site point to reverence of bull, evoking the Greek myth of King Minos and the minotaur. Frescoes of dolphins were also found at the palace, as well as scores of well preserved household essentials, statuettes, and even a fine, well-preserved “Draughtboard”.
It’s wonderful to walk among such ruins, and the views at the site are wonderful. That said, it’s also a very crowded location and it’s still an active archaeological site, so while there was no work going on while we were there, there were an awful lot of people. In addition, there are steps to traverse and there’s a very limited amount of shaded area. Due to crowds and COVID restrictions, we weren’t able to enter the throne room.
At the time, I was disappointed but in retrospect, I think I’m okay with it. Other than its age, one thing that makes Knossos stand out as an archaeological site is the amount of artificial recreation that has been done there.
All the standing columns at Knossos have been replaced, as the originals were made of wood and decayed. The new ones – brought in to emulate what parts of the site would actually look like – are made from concrete. While these recreations and the original stone layout of the city are interesting, the real treasures were found within the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
To get to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, you have to go back to the city of Heraklion. There’s a fee to enter the museum and during COVID you are required to wear a mask and show your proof of vaccination to enter. Inside there are more than twenty different rooms filled with artifacts.
For myself, I am constantly amazed at the skill and intricacy of these items. Pots are painted in such detail and the miniatures produced by the Minoans are amazing. In modernity, we’re so accustomed to relying on machines to do the kind of detail-work that ancient peoples did by hand. It’s so easy to be congratulatory about how far we’ve come, but the ancient peoples did so much, too. We often underestimate how advanced these civilizations were in their own way.
There were so many artifacts in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Some of the my favorite were unpublished finds, so they cannot be photographed or shared online – you’ll just have to go to Crete to see them for yourself! The museum was filled with these – my husband had to keep stopping me from photographing them because they were so incredible, I was mesmerized and almost missed the signs. Beautiful pieces, though. Definitely one of the more exciting museums I’ve been in as a historian and an admirer or ancient cultures.
There are a lot of places to shop in Heraklion as well, if that’s something that interests you. Our tour guide took us down Daedalu Street, which is a popular shopping street starting at the Astoria Hotel and stretching down to Eleftheriou Venizelou Square where the Morosini Lions Fountain is surrounded by a collection of cafes.
It’s a lovely place to spend an afternoon or get a treat and do a little shopping. We chose the Heraklion Archaeological Museum instead of this, but I’d probably spend a bit more time in the square and down its adjacent streets the next time I was in Heraklion.
Not too far from Eleftheriou Venizelou Square is the old Venetian dock. Crete has gone through a number of changes since the Bronze Age when the Minoans settled at Knossos. The island has been held by various forces including both the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire. It has only been a part of Greece in recent times since 1913.
What remains of the Venetian docks are interesting. There’s beautiful brick work and shapes in the architecture – these are a far cry from the docks that are built today. Crete in general feels like one age folded over another, leaving behind pieces of each age like a monument to the island’s history. It’s fascinating to see the way everything has come together to see the island as it is today.
Crete is certainly an island worth visiting if you’re touring around Greece. There are so many things to do, and we didn’t even venture past Heraklion. There are other historic cities on the island, many more museums, and beautiful beaches as well.
Next week we’ll step into Rhodes and see some of the sites there… some of which I wasn’t expecting until we arrived!
Have you ever been to Crete? If so, what was your favorite part? If not, would you like to go to this Greek Island? Let me know in the comments!