Crete, like all regions in Greece, is soaked in history and culture, myth and legend. After all, this is Zeus’ birthplace we are talking about. Crete is an extraordinary destination that offers ancient history, rich traditions, flavoursome foods, intoxicating drinks, dramatic landscapes and some of the most breathtaking beaches in the world.
Crete’s dramatic landscapes
Crete, one of the 13 regions or prefectures of Greece, is the largest of the Greek islands and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. It lies approximately 160 kilometres south of the Greek mainland and spans 260 kilometres from east to west, with a total area of 8,336 square kilometres. At its widest area it is 60 kilometres, but narrows to only 12 kilometres in the region close to Ierapetra.
Crete boasts a sun-drenched coastline of over 1000 kilometres in length. Crete’s endless beaches surprise visitors with intimate and isolated coves, and is abundantly fertile with natural aromatic herbs, wild flowers and olive groves covering the plateaus of Lasithi, Omalos and Nidha.
The island’s rugged mountain ranges are full of hidden caves, such as Diktaion and Idaion, where ancient Cretans once worshipped Zeus. Crete is also famous for deep gorges, such as the Gorge of Samaria. This is a protected region and home of the Kri-Kri or Wild Goat, literally “Agrimi,” which first appeared in Crete thousands of years ago during the Minoan civilization. Also, the endangered vulture Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) makes its home in Cretan mountains and gorges. Numerous rivers flow through this varied landscape, such as Ieropotamos River (which literally means “holy river”) on the southern part of the island.
To the north Crete meets the Sea of Crete (Kritiko Pelagos or Κρητικό Πέλαγος) and to the south encounters the Libyan Sea. The Myrtoan Sea lies to the west and to the east there is the Karpathion Sea.
The major Cretan cities
Heraklion, or Iraklion, is the largest Cretan city and the region’s capital. It is also the fourth largest city in all of Greece. This is where the major archaeological museum has its home, and like all big cities, it boasts numerous tavernas, cafés, shops and business. Heraklion’s International Airport – which is named after the famous Cretan writer and philosopher, Nikos Kazantzakis – is Greece’s second busiest airport and Heraklion’s busy port sends ferries to numerous destinations.
Chania is the more romantic Cretan city, with its evocative Venetian appeal, thanks to that part of its history. Most of the action of interest to tourists takes place in the older town of Chania along the picturesque harbour and port, where there are traditional hotels, tavernas, cafés and shops. Behind the Venetian façade there are numerous narrow streets that lead to the modern city.
Rethymno was built way back in antiquity and boasts one of the best preserved Venetian towns in Crete. It is truly aristocratic with stunning architecture, a beautiful port, and long stretches of beach. The philosophy school of the University of Crete is situated here.
The Cretan climate
The Cretan climate is friendly all year round. Traditionally, travellers make plans to visit Crete during the months of April through to September, which is the most popular period for tourists wanting that burst of summer sun and warmth. But since even the winters are friendly in Crete, more and more travellers are opting to visit during the months of October through to March, when Crete is not so crowded.
Crete’s location means that it sits in two climate zones – the Mediterranean and the North African. Mainly, Crete enjoys a Mediterranean climate, with mild winters and hot and humid summers. Winters are fairly mild and while snowfall is common on the mountains between November and May, it rarely shows in the coastal areas. A Cretan summer will generally enjoy temperatures from the high 20s-low 30s (Celsius), with maximum temperatures reading the upper 30s to mid 40s.
Ancient and modern Crete
Crete’s history dates back to prehistoric times. The first Cretans settled on the land during the Neolithic period, around 5700 and 2800 BC. They farmed and raised livestock, were hunter-gatheres and lived in simple houses. The Minoans settled in Crete in around 3000 BC. They built one of the most advanced civilizations in Greece and in Europe. Today, the Minoan palaces in Knossos are Crete’s major attractions and are one of the places one must see on a visit to Crete.
Many other civilizations passed through Crete – the Mycenaeans, Dorians, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and the Ottomans. Crete was finally reunified with Greece in 1913.
Today Crete continues to show off its volatile and varied history with influences from past civilisations seen everywhere from the museums and archaeological sites to contemporary cuisine and culture.
Getting to Crete
The best way to get to Crete is to fly to Athens and then by boat or air (Olympic and Aegean Airlines fly regularly from Athens and Thessaloniki to Chania and Heraklion. Of course, it is also possible to fly direct to Crete and there are a number of charter flights to choose from. Travel overland by car will have you board a ferry boat to Greece from Brindisi, Ancona, Bari or Venice and from a ferry to Crete from Piraeus harbour, which is south of Athens. But there are many other routes to Crete and once there local travel is rather friendly as there are frequent buses, especially along the more popular north coast.