Crete is a remarkable island. Located in the heart of the Mediterranean basin and approximately the same distance from the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe it has both a fascinating history and a vibrant present. Crete’s own prize-winning author, Nikos Kazantzakis, said: “….Crete’s Mystery is deep. Whoever sets foot on the island senses a mysterious force branching warmly and beneficently through his veins, senses his soul begin to grow…” Does this happen to people who come here today? Many that I have spoken to say yes. “There is something about Crete that makes you feel that you know it, when you leave you sense that you have lost more than an island and are sure that you must return.”
What is there about Crete that makes people feel this way? For me the answer is simply – so very much. There is the history – and Crete’s history is unique. Where else can you see Minoan tombs and palaces, Hellenic statues, Roman cities, Byzantine churches and Venetian and Ottoman architecture. All around are vineyards and olive groves which may well have existed for over four thousand years.
Then there is the island itself. The first time I arrived at dawn in Iraklion on the ferry from Pireaus, I could see the red sun rising over a town that twinkled. High above the town was the sleeping profile of Zeus, king of the Gods. He too was a Cretan.
As you drive along the north coast you see beach after beach. Turn inland, to the south and you see mountains. Huge mountains bigger than any that I had seen before.
But Crete is a big island, often called by Greeks, ‘the Great Island.’ Why do they say ‘Great’ instead of ‘big?’ We shall find out as we explore the island through this column. Because whatever anyone ever says about Crete, there is always more, much more.
But we shall stay with the basics for now and just say that geographically Crete is 260 Kilometres long (155 miles). It varies from 56 Km to 12 Km wide and it has four mountain ranges. The biggest range is the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) in the west, south of the city of Hania. The next range going east is the Psiloritis range. Here we have the highest mountain which is Psiloritis itself (Mount Ida in English). It is 2456 metres high (8058 feet). The highest peak in the White Mountains is 2452 metres. Even this fact causes tales and stories to be told. For in the White Mountains live the Sfakians, people of the province (Dimos) of Sfakia. They are famous throughout Crete for being the bravest men of all. ‘We are nothing like the weak and lazy men of the coast’ they tell each other and all who will listen. ‘No, we are the kings of the mountains are we not?
But it isn’t all talk by any means. I have been told tales by the Sfakians of how they tried to carry great rocks up the highest White Mountain peak in order to build a cairn of five metres high. ‘For days we toiled,’ I was told, ‘we did it with our bare hands. Now no-one can ever say that we do not have the highest mountain in Crete.’ I do not doubt the story for it was told in all sincerity, but the teller seemed not to be aware that a cairn is not a part of the mountain.
Still moving east the next smaller range is the range of Diktys which reaches up to 2148 metres. High on the Diktean range is the plateau of Lasithi, a splendid place once full of the little white windmills of the water pumps scattered across its plain. As you climb from Lasithi up the Diktys mountain you will find the Diktean Cave, the birthplace of Zeus.
Further eastwards towards the town of Sitia you have to pass through a smaller, but still considerable range of mountains. But as you travel in that direction the land seems different somehow, and finally you come to the lovely town of Sitia itself with fewer tourists than central or western Crete. Keep going you will arrive in the land of monastery and Minoan Palace. The north east cape of Crete, Cape Sidero, is dominated by the monastic life and at the very centre of Crete’s eastern coast is a tiny place called Kato Zakro.
Truly you can go to anywhere in Crete and find a special place. I already have so many special places and Kato Zakro is one of them. Today it is a tiny village with a splendid beach and four or five beachside tavernas. There are a few houses there now, built probably in the last twenty or thirty years or so. There is a beachside walk to cliffs where you can wander towards the caves and listen to the tinkling of goats bells as they scramble over the cliffside. Here the view is tremendous and at dawn you can see the sun rise like a great red ball over the sea. In the evening you can eat at reasonably priced tavernas, drink half a kilo of the superb eastern Crete wine and maybe finish with a smooth raki as you hear and feel the waves wash over your soul. Is this why Kato Zakro is special. Not really, for all of this can be found all over this lovely island.
Kato Zakro is special because of the superb Minoan Palace that was discovered here in the early 1960s. Although a few houses had been unearthed by the British archeologist D.G. Howarth previously, the dig was continued by a Greek archeologist, Professor Nikolas Platon and in 1961 he unearthed a new Minoan Palace that had never been looted or robbed in any way. The palace had been built in 1600 BC was probably destroyed as were all the Minoan Palaces and towns in 1450 BC. The reason for the destruction is now considered to be the volcanic eruption on Santorini that year.
What we have here though, is the Minoan civilisations gateway to the east. Here they must have traded with Egypt, with Syria, with Cyprus and Anatolia and probably many more. The finds were tremendous – items from Egypt and Syria as well as beautiful Minoan items of jewelry, seals and so much more. And the finest thing is that you can wander here to your hearts content. Today one of the most wonderful things on view is the cistern, still full of water. In the water are the incredible and pretty large, Cretan terrapins.
So such is Crete. It is an island full of mystery and excitement. Mountains, plains and seas. A unique history that goes through four thousand years or more all around you. Full of very special places that I will take you to through this column where we can explore the stories, the sights and the history as well as the magic that makes this Crete. After that you can enjoy a Raki. Don’t you feel your soul begin to grow…?