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The island of Crete

Crete is an enigma. It has been described as the most Greek of all the Greek islands and the Cretans certainly have an intensity that is rare elsewhere. Like the terrain they are rugged, self contained and individual. Cretans are bold and unafraid. Despite the rugged and even violent nature of the Cretans there is a hospitality that amazes. It is that individuality which seems to make them more Greek than others, hence the enigma.

It is one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean and because of its size, is very diverse in terrain and in culture but there is something cohesive and individual about it that is quite specifically Cretan despite the diversity.

Her very remoteness from the mainland isolated the Cretans. This isolation, which many of the Greek islands enjoyed until recent years, meant that there are very specific traits associated with each area of the country, nowhere more than Crete however.

The island has three large towns and two airports all ranged along the northern coast; Chania, Rethymnon and Herakleon as well as the pretty town of Agia Nicolaos so it is not difficult to surmise that the northern coast is more populated and developed than that of the south where some wonderful anchorages and some good beaches are found. Matala for instance, was a hippy Mecca in the 60s and remains today as a holiday resort on the south coast. Possibly the most popular and select of the coastal destinations in Crete is however Elounda in the North, where arguably the most sumptuous hotels are situated.

Geographically a huge mountain range splits the island north/south. These include the White Mountain which reaches 2,469metres in some places and Idhi Ori the highest of which is 2456. So high in fact that parts of these mountain ranges are sometimes white with snow into the early summer. There is however also plenty of cultivable land on which the agricultural life of the island depends. Crete has a prolific and diverse agricultural heritage which makes the island more sustainable than many. As a leading producer of olives, grapes, carob, bananas, peaches, oranges, melon and tomatoes amongst other fruit and vegetables, Crete has a thriving industry. This makes Crete somewhat independent and is aspect of life is also constructively incorporated into its tourism secter, offering visitors the opportunity to experience agricultural life first hand. The are invited to witness olive production, cheese production as well as being taken to visit vineyards. There are a number of programmes offering an insight into the Cretan cuisine as well as an introduction to the Mediterranean diet which is becoming recognized as amongst the healthiest, lending their heritage to tourism without losing it.

For those who want to enjoy a more hedonistic existence while in Crete there is no shortage of sumptuous hotels and spas. The island is indeed regarded as one of the leading places in Greece with top class hotels, spas and golf with excellent dining and stunning scenery especially but not exclusively, around Elounda.

Just off the coast, also near Elounda, is the island of Spinalonga, the setting for the recent novel ‘The Island’. Although the novel is not a historical report it cannot help but pique ones interest in this island which was indeed a Leper colony until quite recently with some remains still visible of that time on the island.

During the Second world war, Crete has an important role. It was the last remaining free territory in Greece after the invasion of the Greek mainland in 1941 thus making it a strategically important point in the Mediterranean through which the last of the Greek army, the royal family and Allied troops were evacuated to Egypt. The largest airstrike that has ever so far been launched was focused on the island of Crete by the German High command on May 20th 1941. Determined to control the whole of Greece the German army began the Battle of Crete only to loose 4,000 of its troops in the first days due to the unexpectedly decisive resistance from the allied troops on the island, backed by the remains of the Greek army as well as, for the first time, huge numbers of civilians.

The three airstrips in existence at that time, held strong until, through miscommunication amongst the allied troops, the westernmost airstrip was taken by the Germans, giving them a foothold which they used to land huge numbers of troops, to take the island. The Allies could no longer resist and a successful evacuation of their troops to North Africa was staged, mainly due to local support which was unstinting.

The Battle of Crete may have been won by the Germans when they were able to invade the island but was later deemed by General Kurt Student of the German High Command, as a ‘disastrous victory’ and Crete became known as ‘the Graveyard of the German Paratroopers‘ The invasion of Crete was so costly that Adolf Hitler himself decreed that no further airpower was to be deployed in Crete.

After the invasion the resistance kicked in and these resistance fighters or Antartes, as they are known, did their job admirably smuggling allied troops in and out of the island and keeping them hidden and safe during their stay. Local support for the allied efforts on the island, was often to their own detriment, If they were caught they paid with their lives. That not withstanding, the bravery of the inhabitants was unwaivering. The Antartes knew the mountains intimately, having spent generations herding sheep and goats in them. They were able to guide the allied soldiers to hideouts that neither the Italians nor later the Germans, could find. Conditions were bleak, especially in winter when there was snow on the mountains and the passes became treacherous and living conditions, mainly in caves high up away from any human settlement must have been grim. In summer the heat was searing and food was always scarce. In spite of all the problems there was no let up in the support that the Antartes received from their fellow Cretans nor in the support given to allied troops. Often entire villages had to pay for harbouring Antartes or helping foreign nationals with mass slaughter and the destruction of all of the houses. This only seemed to harden the resolve of the Cretans to oust the invaders from their midst, something they did eventually manage to do.

Their heroic nature was legendary even at a time when so much heroism was called for and was often evident, theirs stood out from the rest to lead Sir Winston Churchill to say ‘We shall not say hereafter that the Greeks fight like heroes but that heroes fight like Greeks’.

Some of the finest Greek music has come out of the privations of those years as some of Greece’s finest literature has come from Crete. Notable amongst authors is Nicos Kazanzakis who’s novel ‘Zorba the Greek’, well known from the screen adaptation starring Anthony Quinn, is perhaps one of his best known works. His work met opposition from the church as he challenged received views on religion which was a point of controversy leading to an attempt to excommunicate him in 1955. In response to his condemnation by the Greek Orthodox Church, he replied "You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I" When the film of his novel ‘The Last Temptations of Christ’ was shown some years ago in Greece, riots broke out in cinema’s and screens were slashed, as it was deemed to be blasphemous. He lost the Noble Prize for literature, by one vote, to Albert Camus who declared that Kazanzakis ‘deserved it a hundred times more than myself’His epitaph reads ‘I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.’

His books are a rewarding read, offering an insight into the Greek psyche and a strong philosophical view of the world.
Of course one cannot ignore the role of ancient history in Greece as it surrounds one immediately on arrival, especially in Crete as the Cretans are a VERY old people! The first human habitation on the island has been estimated at 7000 BC although the first organized society is thought to be that of the early Minoan period from around 3000 BC. The Minoans were one of the first civilizations of the Mediterranean. The name comes from Minos the name of a king or perhaps the title of the ruler of the day, it is not clear. However Minos seems to have been one individual in particular in legend who ruled Crete. That said the Minoan era lasted centuries and was divided into a number of sub-periods which were delineated by the change in style of the pottery that has been discovered of these periods, spanning 3,000 BC to 1100 BC. Knossos, is well known and is one of the most important sites of Ancient Greece. It is just outside Herakleon and was discovered in the mid 20th century by Heinrich Schlieman and Sir Arthur Evans. They declared it one of the most notable palaces from the Minoan period.

Here myth and history intermingle to a bewildering degree as we are fairly certain of the existence of King Minos but he and his wife were also the stuff of legend involved in all sorts of scrapes with the gods and with mythological figures. Fact and fiction mingle in all things from here.

The initial indications of the Minoans lead us to believe that they were well organized but live in a society with no hierarchy. Their burial system showed no discrimination, everyone being accorded the same rights and perhaps rites, as others. Later however, as they developed and became more affluent a hierarchy developed of aristocrats, freemen and slaves. A legal system, later to be studied by other Greek states when forming their own system, was developed. It was based on a financial penal system with no capital

punishment found. Here the crime was seen to be greater as the social status of the victim rose.
As with all affluent and powerful societies the Minoans left a good deal in terms of art. Wall paintings and sculptures, gold jewelry abounded as the role of women became more prominent. Building was rife with Villas appearing and towns were linked by a paved road system. The Minoans traded heavily with North Africa and the East for copper, tin, ivory and gold rather than with other Greek states

During this time of rapid development, the palace at Knossos was built by king Minos. Here legend becomes a strong element in the history. The famous Labyrinth was said to have been constructed by Daedelos ( though there is a theory that the labyrinth was actually a natural underground system of tunnels) to contain the Minotaur, the offspring of a union between the king’s wife and a white bull, sent by Poseidon as a sign of favour in a dynastic dispute with his brother. He was supposed to sacrifice the bull to Poseidon but he liked it too much to do so and kept it. His wife Pasiphae liked it too. So much in fact, that she fell in love with it. She ordered Daedelos, who was good at that kind of thing, to construct a cow shaped structure into which she clambered to consummate her relationship with the ‘Bull from the Sea”.

The resulting Minotaur was kept in the palace until it grew too large and fierce, at which time it was taken to the labyrinth for safe-keeping.

Because of a dispute, Athens was indebted to Minos and duly ordered to periodically send seven young men and seven young women to feed to the Minotaur. Thesesus offered himself as part of the third party. He arrived in Crete and Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, fell in love with him and gave him a ball of string with which he found his way out of the labyrinth having slain the Minataur.

Rather ungallantly he then took Ariadne and left her in Naxos on his way back to Athens where she struck up a relationship with Dionysis who instructed Artemis to kill her.

Theseus was hit by a raging storm on his return to Athens resulting in the loss of his mainsail, which he replaced with a Black one. His agreement however had been that should he be returning victorious he would raise the white sail that had been lost. His father on seeing the black sail assumed that his son was dead and jumped to his death in despair.
Whether myth or history, the stories are all convoluted, rather violent and full of such intrigue.
The Minoans were the most influential civilization of their time, making settlements in Rhodes, Kythera and bringing their culture to most of the Aegean. However their demise was sudden although the reason is not clear. Many put forward the theory that the eruption in Santorini with its subsequent Tsunami as well as the accompanying change in weather conditions would have been sufficient to wipe out the Minoan civilization. The rise of the Mycenaeans at the same time makes this seem improbable but it is most likely that the eruption weakened an already decadent and dying society sufficiently for the Mycenaeans to invade and take control. So a combination of factors, as is most common, lead to the downfall of the Minoans in Crete where a new era flourished under the Mycenaeans.

The remains of the Palace at Knossos as well as the ruins at Phaestos, where many of the richest and finest finds have been discovered, are well worth seeing.

While you are in Crete you might also like to take a trip along the longest gorge in Europe, the amazing Samara Gorge some 15 km long with a width that varies from a few metres in some places to 15 metres in others. Impressive and some say oppressive it is one of the natural wonders that make up the fascination of Crete. Huge, unique, overbearing, craggy and grand, it epitomizes for some the entire island.

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