Crete occupies an important position in the eastern Mediterranean basin, amidst the three continents of the Old World. It is only 100 kms away from mainland Europe, about 175 kms away from the shore of Asia Minor and about 300 kms away from Africa. It belongs to the group of southern Greek islands, which includes a number of other smaller islands apart from Crete, Gavdos and Dia. It is the largest of all the Greek islands, with an area of 8,336 sq. kms, and is for this reason also known as Megalonisos. It is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus and Corsica. This island - the largest in Greece - separates the Aegean from the Libyan Sea, marks the boundary between Europe and Africa.
Geology of Crete
Majestic mountains rise in its centre - the White Mountains, Psiloritis, Dikti. Its plateaus are split by deep gorges and end up in fertile valleys. The scenery is constantly changing. In one place harsh and barren, in another wooded and gentle. Its villages smothered in greenery. Olive trees, orange groves, vineyards, early vegetable market gardens. Old stone farmhouses, monasteries and villages perched on mountain ridges, castles and chapels forgotten on steep slopes. Shores lined with forbidding rocks, often inaccessible, but also lots of endless sandy or pebbly beaches. Crete is renowned for the variety of its vegetation and the wildlife in its chestnut, oak and cypress forests. Not to mention its palm forests (at Vai and Preveli) and its cedar forests (at Gavdos and Hrissi). Medicinal herbs and fragrant shrubs - laudanum, dittany, marjoram and thyme - grow in rocky areas and the mountain tops are home to the "kri-kri" or Cretan goat. The main cities-ports on Crete - Hania, Rethimno, Iraklio, Agios Nikolaos, Sitia - all grew up on the north side, which is more benign topographically. Lerapetra is the only port on the south coast, on the shores of the Libyan Sea, facing Africa
This island's fertile soil and towering peaks witnessed the development of one of the most important civilisations on Earth, the Minoan (2800 - 1150 B.C.). In successive phase, the Minoans built palace-states - the famous palatial centres of Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, Zakros (1700 - 1450 BC). Their painters and ceramists show us the limits the refinement of art can reach. Their frescoes bring us close to the soul of that world, peace-loving, light-hearted, but also powerful. They bring us close to the sea and its wealth. A geological catastrophe - the eruption of the volcano of Santorini in 1450 BC - halted the Minoan civilisation at its height. But life did not cease.
Through shipping, commerce and trade with other peoples - the Phoenicians, Syrians, Egyptians - opened up new horizons. With the invasion of the Achaians and the Dorians on the island the new cities of Lato and Aptera were founded. Lato became the most important city on Crete (7th century BC). Until the Roman occupation (69 - 330 A.D.). The most distinguished centre in those days was Gortyn.
But Christianity came to the island early. During the Byzantine era the wealth of Crete was shown off in the mosaic floors of its basilicas and in half the churches of Greece. But many others had their eye on these riches. First Crete fell into the hands of the Arabs (824) for one and a half centuries (961). Handak, present-day Iraklio was founded. Then in 1204, the island passed to the Venetians. They fortified the old castles at Handak and built new ones at Gramvoussa, Spinalonga, Frangokastello, Lerapetra, Paleohora. They broke the ground for new cities (Hania and Rethimno) and built the fortifications essential to their defence. Inside the walls the cities developed with narrow, convoluted alleyways and small residential blocks, interspersed with decorative piazzas, fountains, churches and palaces, remains of which can still be seen today. Although the rebellious populace shook the island from time to time, it continued to develop both economically and culturally. Painting and literature flourished. Domenicos Theotocopoulos (El Greco), Damaskinos and other iconographers painted exquisite portraits of the Virgin and Christ. Under the vaulted gates and arched windows troubadours passed singing ballads by Hortantzis about the suffering of Erotokritos and Erophili. In 1645 the Muslim conquerors set foot on the island for the first time. In 1669 the whole of Crete fell to the Turks. Not until 1913 was the island united with the rest of Greece.
This island with its clear, warm sea, boundless beaches lined with tamarisks, splendid plateaus and mild starry nights has more to offer than its past, its gorges, unskilled peaks and climate. Today it continues to live fully and to develop, its cities particularly changing in appearance from one day to the next, in contrast to the many unchanging villages where life goes on in the same rhythm it has for centuries. There are hundreds of cafes where one can sit in the shade of a spreading plane, oak or mulberry tree and sip a "sweat" or "medium" coffee, or a glass of "tsikoudia" (raki) while playing a game of cards or "tavli" (backgammon).
There are dozens of tavernas and ouzeries serving some tasty "meze", a speciality of the area. Yoghurt and honey, sweet tarts (kaltzounia), pies made of wild greens flavoured with fennel, fried cheese (staka), rabbit stew, cheese pie from Hora Sfakion, cockles, and boiled goat. In the city of Hania, at Malaxa, at Vrisses, and other villages in the area, in Rethimno, in Iraklio and its villages, and in the whole district of Lassithi. Fish, sea urchins, octopus and cuttlefish cooked on charcoal and fried squid to be tasted at seaside tavernas. And everywhere the delectable Cretan wine. Every saint's feast day is celebrated with gusto at dozens of villages throughout the island; all Crete throbbing to the sound of the Cretan lyre and the rhythm of the local dances, the pentozali and the sousta. Meanwhile the housewives are preparing a steamed Cretan pilaff and special holiday fritters (xerotigana).
In the shop windows of bustling Heraklion, cosmopolitan Agios Nikolaos, picturesque Rethimno, and Hania, elegant furs, precious jewellery and artistic silverware attract the visitor's attention. In the shops of lovely Sitia and tranquil Lerapetra and in mountainous Anogia one is impressed by the spread out patanies, traditional local woven fabrics in dazzling colours, and everywhere one sees skilfully crafted ceramics and leather goods. In the "Stivanadika" district of Hania (Skridlof St.) traditional boots (stivania) are still made in the old-fashioned way, because though it may seem strange even today there are Cretans who still wear their traditional costume. In the marketplace of the same city, the only one of its kind, but also in similar shops all over the island, every kind of food, fruit and vegetable produced in the fertile valleys, hot houses and mountain regions, is laid out on display. Exotic avocados, Belgian endive and bananas, juicy oranges and fragrant melons, succulent figs and tasty prickly pears, delicious grapes, sweet tomatoes, tender cucumbers, fresh-watering sardines, tempting lobster, kid from the islet of Gavdos, honey perfumed with thyme, and wonderful cheeses - graviera (gruyere), myzithra (ricotta), fresh white cheese, and soft, luscious staka.
The evenings are enchanting spent next to the intoxicating aroma of a jasmine vine in an open-air cinema, seated in the comfortable chairs of a pastry shop, gathered round the table of a fish-taverna right by the sea, strolling in solitude on a remote, deserted beach, or why not, enjoying the rhythms of rock in a discotheque or bar or conversing in the spacious lounge of a luxury hotel.