“I’ll have a Greek Salad, please”, I asked. “How about a Cretan Salad instead?”, replied the waiter. “It’s a Greek salad with extra vegetables, a dash of herbs and our own goat cheese”.
Cretans, much like their culinary interpretation of a salad, are Greeks with a twist. The island’s rather unique path through history certainly has something to do with that.
More than 5,600 years ago, the island of Crete birthed the Minoans. Minioans were highly literate and Europe’s first advanced civilization, but these days they are best known for the legend of King Minos and the Minotaur labyrinth. As advanced as they were, the Minions were eventually overrun by the Mycenaeans, the first ancient Greeks.
Long after that, just a few decades before the birth of Christ, came the Romans, taking more than three years and heavy losses to conquer the island. When the Roman Empire collapsed, Crete became part of the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern portion of the once great Roman Empire that still endured. The Byzantines ruled over Crete till the beginning of the 13th century (with an interlude in the 9th century when the island was conquered by the Arabs).
Next came the Venetian Empire. At that time, the Venetians were a powerful force that extended far past a sinking city. They ruled Crete for over 400 years, and their fortifications can still be seen throughout the island.
In 1669 Crete fell over to the Ottoman Empire. The religious and cultural tensions between Greek Orthodox and Muslims endured for centuries, eventually leading to the creation of an independent Cretan State in 1898. It wasn’t independent for long, as in 1908 Cretans unilaterally declared they were now part of Greece. The Greeks were not entirely convinced but eventually warmed up to the idea and formally welcomed Crete to the Kingdom in 1913.
Today’s Cretan rich culture and architecture show traces of all these civilisations. It’s also a large and economically important island (Heraklion is Greece’s fourth largest city) that lives off from much more than just tourism. If you’re still not convinced it’s a worthy visit, there’s also plenty of spectacular beaches and mountains.
Probably the best way to get to know Crete is to rent a car. If you’re brave. Apparently sidewalks haven’t been invented yet, so many streets are filled with pedestrians with no other option than to walk in the middle of the road. Double white lines have been invented, but seemingly for aesthetic purposes only: when driving on the roads that connect the island’s towns, stay well to the right.
The sketch below depicts our voyage through the island. My mom gave me a sketch book for my birthday, convinced I needed to improve my drawing skills. Clearly she was right.
Heraklion was our first stop, fresh off the boat from Naxos. It’s not a beautiful city by any stretch of the imagination, but it feels authentic. People are as diverse as the architecture. Local Cretans going on with their lives, Greek mainlanders on holidays or working the high season, tourists from all over the world.
Rethimno (or Rethymno or Rethymnon or Réthymnon or Rhíthymnos, depending on who you ask) is a costal town 80 km (50 miles) east of Heraklion. The old Venetian fort and alleys are beautiful, but the modern part of town is overwhelmed by restaurants and souvenir shops. The beaches closest to town are a cacophony of beach chairs and bouncy castles, however you won’t have to walk far to find the nearly empty beaches where turtles come to bury their eggs. If you manage to wake up at 5am you just might see the baby turtles hatching their eggs and marching off to the sea (we didn’t manage to wake up at 5am).
Another 70 km (43 miles) west lies Chania. Its Old Town is often considered the most beautiful district in Crete, and rightly so. The old Venetian lighthouse and harbour are mesmerising at sunset, but be prepared to fend off a profusion of selfie sticks.
The southern coast of the island is much less developed than the northern one. Getting there is a narrow and winding affair, but the amount of tourists decreases with every turn of the road.
Our final stop was in Zaros, a mountainous region dead center in the island. Best known for its spring water (you’ll find bottles of Zaros water anywhere in Crete), it is one of those well kept secrets with half a dozen Bed & Breakfast places and an equally small number of visitors.
The island was the wrong one, and so was the country. Slung over my shoulder I had a camera instead of a rifle. Still I felt like a young Corleone in exile while walking those lonely hills.