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Crete

Island of long forgotten civilizations, place of gods and heroic characters, birthplace of famous poets, musicians and other artists as well as political leaders. This is the island of Crete, the biggest and most populated Greek island, whose inhabitants are very proud of their place of birth and call themselves with pride Cretans.

Geography and nature attractions of Crete

Crete is the biggest, most mountainous, southernmost Greek island and also the southernmost island in the Aegean Sea. It is located just about 126 km far away from another very famous island of Santorini. Due to the location the climate is typical Mediterranean, which is humid and warm. The coasts of Crete are washed by four seas - Libyan, Cretan, Myrtoan and Carpathian.

From the geographical point of view Crete is an island of contrasts - we can find majestic mountains here, flat plains, arid half deserts, lakes, waterfalls, calm and descending sea as well as wild waves breaking on rocky shores.

The shape of the island is oblong, with a length of around 250 km and width of around 60 km, where the narrowest part of the island (region of Ierapetra) has a width of only about 12km.

Argiroupoli

Crete is described as a very mountainous island as it is mainly them who is determining the morphology of the island. he most extensive mountain range are the so-called White Mountains (Lefka Ori) with a height above the sea level of 2 453 m. The highest mountain of Crete is called Psiloritis (2 456 m) and is a part of the Ida Mountains. Similar mountains in height are the Dikti Mountains, with an altitude of 2 148 m. For a better imagination how mountainous the island is, there are more than 50 mountains in the Lefka Ori mountain range, that are higher than 2 000 metres.

But Crete has much more to offer than just mountains and hills. Very famous are the Cretan plateaus of Lassithi, Nida or Omalos, which are the biggest ones and there are also many gorges and ravines. You can visit the most known and longest Samaria Gorge or the impressive caves of Imbros, Agia Irina or the Zakros ravine, which is also called the "Ravine of Death" because of the burials found in the caves along its walls. We should not forget the countless caves waiting to get visited as for example the cave of Gourgouthakas, which is the biggest cave of whole Greece or the several caves of Zeus, related to the stories of the Greek mythology.

Lake of KournasDue to accumulation of underground water, flowing from the Lefka Ori Mountains, a big sweet water lake of Kournas has been formed. The very beautiful Europe´s southernmost water area, surrounded by high mountains and olive groves, is accessible for the tourists, who can spend their time on a few small sandy beaches or enjoy the nice view over the lake and its neighbourhood from a small cafe.

There are many small islands and islets looking out of the sea along Crete´s coast. Many of them became a favourite trip destination of tourists, like for example the islands of Dia, Gavdos, Chrissi or Gramvousa.

The climate and nature of Crete

Balos beachVery typical for Crete is the mountain range which goes all over the island from east to the west and separates it into two climate zones, Mediterranean and African. However, the whole climate can be described as temperate Mediterranean. The temperatures during summer are generally around 20°C - 30°C, but can often reach also 40°C and the air humidity is higher, than the people are used to in Central Europe. On the south coast and especially in the area of the Messara plain, African climate can be felt, which has a higher intensity of sunshine and therefore also higher temperatures. The winter is mild, with low temperatures and snow just in the mountains.

During the summer months a specific phenomenon called Meltemi can appear, which is a strong stream of north winds. These winds can be experienced mostly on Crete´s north coast, however, it cannot be predicted when or where Meltemi will appear and how strong it will be. Despite the winds can be quite strong, they seldom have a destroying character.

Although the dry season is long, the nature on the island is very beautiful and diverse. Very typical for Crete are the olive trees, of which millions are growing here and where many of them still have their origin in the antiquity. The local olives are known for their quality, what is proved as the Cretan olive oil is being exported to the rest of the world. But except olive groves, there are also many vineyards, vegetable gardens and fruit orchards being planted on the island. If you decide to visit the foothill areas, it is possible that you will be amazed by the beautiful smells of all sorts of flowers and herbs.

When we talk about the animals of Crete, we must mention the Cretan goat also known as Kri-Kri. The Kri-Kri goat is an endemic animal, as it is not living anywhere else on the planet. It can be seen mainly in the Samaria National Park, on the island of St. Theodore or on the Dia island. Besides goats there are also many sheep and donkeys living on Crete and if you look closer, you can see many insects as well.

Crete´s most favourite holiday resorts and tips for interesting trips

Crete is administratively divided into 4 prefectures (or also provinces resp. regional units). Their names are Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion and Lassithi.

Heraklion Province

Heraklion (Iraklion)The capital city of Crete is Heraklion, the biggest city and the trade centre of the island. It has many beautiful historical sites, on which the massive fortress Rocca al Mare or the small picturesque Plateia Venizelou square are dominating. Heraklion is the most important harbour city of Crete where also the international airport, named after Crete´s most famous writer Nikos Kazantzakis, is located.

The same-named prefecture of Heraklion is formed in the central eastern part of the island and represents the Crete´s busiest and most touristic region where the most visited resorts are located along the north coast (same for the whole island). In the Heraklion Prefecture the most famous and busiest holiday place made of three big resorts Hersonissos, Stalis and Malia as well as many smaller resorts like for example Kokkini Hani, Kato Gouves, Analipsi, Anissaras etc. can be visited.

The place is very rich on all sorts of touristic attractions. Close to the Heraklion city you can visit the Water City water park and enjoy a day full of fun. Another big water park called Acqua Plus is near to the resort of Hersonissos. Between the resorts of Kokkini Hani and Gournes there is a big entertainment - education ground, of which also a sea aquarium called Cretaquarium or funny Dinosauria Park are a part of.

The prefecture has many significant historical sites. The probably most famous one are the ruins of the Minoan palace of Knossos which lies on the north coast, close to the capital city of Heraklion. There are another three smaller archaeological sites of Agia Triada, Phaistos and Gortyn located on the contrary in the south, close to the Messara Plain.

Rethymno Province

RethymnoThe regional unit of Rethymno lies in the central west part of Crete and is also a very touristic and attractive area. We can find several beautiful cities here with perfectly preserved sights, what makes the region quite interesting especially for lovers of history and architecture as for example the city of Rethymno, which keeps its old look by old buildings from the 16. century, arches and fountains.

Except the nice Rethymno city, there are also many smaller sea resorts around the long Rethymno Bay as for example Adelianos Kampos, Sfakaki or Skaleta. It is quite common to travel via the province of Rethymno to Crete´s south coast for those who would like to visit the resorts of Agia Galini, Plakias or Damnoni.

The inland of the prefecture is considerably mountainous and also the highest peak of Crete Psiloritis (2 456 m), which is a part of the Ida mountains, is located here. The local mountains are hiding a lot of caves and many of them are very popular among the tourists as for example the stalactite caves of Ideon Andron, where according to the Greek mythology the highest Greek god Zeus spent his childhood and grew up.

Chania Province

ChaniaChania is the westernmost Crete´s prefecture and the same named city of Chania is the second biggest city of the island and until 1972 even the capital city of Crete. The city is very famous especially because of its historical part and beautiful harbour.

The tourism is focusing on the north coast of the long Chania Bay. Here we can find busy resorts like for example Platanias, Agia Marina and Stalos as well as less commercial, but also very attractive resorts of Kissamos or Tavronitis.

Through the province the longest mountain range of Crete known as the White mountains (Lefka Ori) is stretching. However, the most touristic lure of Chania is probably one of the longest and deepest European chasms, the Samaria gorge.

Lassithi Province

Agios NikolaosThe remaining eastern part of Crete is called the prefecture of Lassithi, which is considered to be the driest and warmest region of the island. The centre of the prefecture is the city of Agios Nikolaos, built around the beautiful sea on the northwest side of Mirabello, the biggest bay of Crete. Together with the neighbouring resorts of Elounda or Amoudara it is a favourite tourist destination.

The tourists also like to spend their holiday in the southern part of Lassithi, especially in the big holiday resort of Ierapetra as well as in some of the smaller neighbouring sea resorts like for example Koutsounari, Agia Fotia or Makrigialos. Not very far from them a small island called Chrissi is located in the sea, which is known for its white sandy beaches and azure blue sea.

Close to the Lassithi Plateau we can find the Dikteon Andron stalactite cave, where according to the Greek mythology, the greatest Greek god Zeus was born and wherefrom here he was moved to the Ideon Andron cave to be safe.

More information about each tourist centre, Cretan cities and villages can be found in the section Crete - Resorts.

Most famous beaches of Crete

The oval shape of Crete indicates that the most beaches lie on the north and south coast of the island. While the north coast is slowly descending into the sea and has many beautiful and wide beaches, the south coast is rockier with steeper access to the water. On the other hand, the temperature of air and water is generally higher in the south because of the short distance to the African continent.

Elafonisi beachTo the most favourite beaches of Crete and its province of Chania definitely belongs the very beautiful Balos Bay with the smooth white and pink sand and shallow water, the lovely Elafonissi Beach, which is perhaps even pinker and thanks to its unique ecosystem also a part of the Natura 2000 programme or the Falassarna Beach standing out above the others because of its very clean surroundings and azure blue water, what makes it very famous among the tourists.

The visitors of the Rethymno Prefecture next fell in love with the Preveli Beach, stretching near to the estuary of a small river, which is forming a small pond here surrounded by date palms. If you stay in the eastern part of Lassithi, try to visit the popular "palm beach" of Vai, one of the symbols of Crete with many palm trees growing close to it what makes the place very relaxing for walking.

However, you can find very nice beaches and places to swim wherever you decide to spend your vacation. There is a long sandy coastline full of many beaches lying side by side stretching in the north of the Heraklion Province, as for example the resorts of Kato Gouves, Analipsi or Anissaras.

Balos beachIn fact, the see around Crete is that blue and clear, that it is possible to see very deep under water. No surprise, that many beaches on Crete are regularly being awarded by the Blue Flag.

More popular and less popular beaches can be found in the section Crete - Beaches.

History of Crete and its most significant historical sites

Crete belongs to the world´s longest inhabited regions, as the first people were living here already in the Palaeolithic period and the oldest settlements are dated back to the 6th millennium BC (Neolithic period).

Minoan civilization and the big palaces

However, historically much more significant era came around 3000 BC (Bronze Age), when Crete became home to the so-called Minoan civilization, which is considered to be the first European advanced civilization. The Minoans left us huge building complexes, all sorts of tools, wonderful works of art, new font (Linear A. Font) and a wide trading system. Right during this time, the splendid royal palaces were built, of which Knossos, Faistos, Malia and Kato Zakros are the most famous ones.

Minoan palace of Knossos

For many centuries the rests of the ancient palaces were hidden in the earth, but thanks to the archaeological excavations we can visit these places and be impressed of them even today. The biggest and most important palace was Knossos, as it was probably the political and administrative centre of the Minoan civilization. The archaeological site of Knossos, especially the palace, became to one of the symbols of Crete and is located near to the capital city of Heraklion.

The second biggest, but the oldest Minoan palace was Phaistos located in the south of the island of Crete, in a close distance to the royal house Agia Triada. A very famous artefact found in its area is the Phaistos disc. The ruins of the 3rd biggest palace Malia, including several well-preserved tombs were discovered in the east of Heraklion. The Kato Zakros palace was standing on the south coast of the island where the current archaeological research shows a very good shape of the remaining buildings.

If you are interested in Crete´s history and in European civilizations, you should visit the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, where the artefacts from Crete´s most important archaeological sites are collected. Very beautiful is a large exposition mapping the daily life of the Minoans.

Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus and also the highest Greek god Zeus

The Knossos palace is also mentioned in the Greek mythology in connection with the Minoan king Minos, who let build an elaborated secret net of blind alleys with just one right way out of it known as "Labyrinth" under the palace, where the king wanted to hide his stepson Minotaur, a monster with a body of a man and a head of a bull. Minotaur was the son of the wife of king Minos queen Pasiphae who fell in love and got pregnant with a white bull. The Labyrinth was designed and built by the genial craftsman Daedalus, what almost costed him his life as he knew the secret of the king. Therefore he decided together with his son Ikaros to escape from Crete and made for both of them two pairs of wings using feathers and wax. Daedalus warned his son not to fly very high, as the sun would melt the wax fixing the feathers, but Ikaros did not listen and flew too high. The wax melted and the wings fell apart. Ikaros fell into the water and drowned.

Crete is also closely connected to Zeus, the most powerful Greek god. The old legends say, that Rhea, who was one of the Titans, gave birth to her son Zeus right here. She had to do it secretly because her husband Cronus, who was the leading Titan and also her brother at the same time, was eating his children immediately after their birth to prevent the prophecy which said, that he will be overthrown by his son. Rhea hid her son Zeus in the Dikteon Andron cave, from where he was moved to the cave of Ideon Andron. Here he grew up and like the prophecy said, he defeated his father Cronus and became the strongest Greek god.

Mycenaean Civilization

In the 15th century BC, the Minoan civilization was replaced by the Mycenaeans, who came from the Greek mainland. They continued the former Minoan trade relations, had their own font (Linear B. Font) and focused more on safety and defence. (The palaces were built smaller, but well-fortified).

From the 6th until the 4th century BC, ancient city states began to develop themselves what lead to more and more often conflicts between them and pushed Crete for a long time under the domination of foreign powers.

Roman and Byzantine Period

Crete has always been a very interesting strategic location, as it is a junction between Europe, Asia and Africa, what influenced its history very notably. In 67 BC Crete became a part of the Roman Empire, with Gortyn as its capital city since 27 BC and remained part of it until the breakup of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. From the 5th century until 1205, with the exception of short Arabic dominance, Crete was a part of the Eastern Roman Empire or also Byzantine Empire, what stabilized the island and its economy. The Muslims were dominating Crete between the years 824 and 960. In 824 they established the Cretan Emirate with the city of Chandax as its capital city.

The city of Gortyn began to develop already during the Minoan Period, however its biggest prosperity came during the Hellenic-Roman Time, when it became the capital city of Crete. The most important archaeological site of the city is the Roman Odeon with the so called "Gortyn Law Code" carved into the stone blocks of the building. Another very famous site is the monumental Byzantine church of St. Titus, a disciple of Paul the Apostle and the first bishop of Gortyn. Another prosperous city of that time was the sunken city of Olous, which was situated under the today´s city of Elounda close to the small Spinalonga peninsula.

Venetian and Ottoman Period

After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1204 Crete became a colony of the Republic of Venice, known as the Kingdom of Candia, with the well-fortified capital city of Candia (today´s Heraklion) and remained under the Venetian influence until 1669 when Crete was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans made Chania to the capital city and ruled over the island until the end of the 19th century, when the Crete got independent on the Ottoman Empire.

The nowadays capital city of Heraklion got most of its look during the Venetian rule. Very beautiful is the old Venetian harbour with the Koules fortress and also the well-preserved city walls or the Lions Square, called after the fountain with four lion sculptures are definitely worth to see.

Chania

On the contrary the Turkish Period gave the look to the former capital city of Chania. Very nice is its old harbour, very much preferred by the Ottomans in the past, where the Mosque of the Janissaries is standing. The Turks even rebuilt the high La Laterna lighthouse in their own image, which can be seen at the end of the harbour´s long pier. However also the Venetians left a trace in the city, namely the Venetian Dockyards, also known as Arsenalia.

Wonderful sights from the Venetian as well from the Ottoman rule can be found also in the historical city of Rethymno, as for example the old Venetian harbour with the lighthouse, city park or the Rimondi Fountain.

Fortezza Fortress (Rethymno)On the Paleokastro Hill, above the city of Rethymno, the ruins of the biggest Venetian fortress on Crete - Fortezza Fortress are proudly standing. The fortress was built in the 16th century to defend the region against the attacks of the enemies. It had a shape of a star and strong walls with several bastions. Unfortunately, during the Ottoman and later also the Nazi occupation, the fortress was heavily damaged and only its walls together with rests of foundations of some buildings inside the fortress remained preserved until today.

Church of Four WitnessesThe Cretans are known for their self-esteem and indomitable desire for freedom, therefore we can find several historical memorials of their resistance against the Ottoman domination around the island. Probably the biggest symbol of Cretan resistance against the Turks is the Arkadi Monastery, located close to the city of Rethymno, where 943 Greeks, mostly women with children as well as monks and fighters died on 9th November 1866, when they were seeking refuge in the monastery during the war. After a lost battle the Greeks decided rather to sacrifice themselves by blowing up barrels with gunpowder than to surrender to the Turks. Another similar memorial is the Church of Four Martyrs in Rethymno, which is dedicated to the four Cretans Aggelis, Emmanuel, Georgios and Nikolaos, wo rather died than to convert to Islam in 1824.

It is considered to be something mysterious about the Venetian Frangokastello Fortress, located in the Sfakia region on the southwest coast of Crete, as a group of human shadows known as „Drosoulites“ ("dew shadows") can be seen on the coast and near to the fortress every year in the summer on the anniversary day of the Battle of Frangokastello on 17th May 1828. It is believed that the shadows belong to the Greek patriot fighters who were killed by the Turks.

Modern history

Crete became independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1898 when the Cretan State was established and since December 1913 it is an official part of Greece. Since that time we can talk about the modern history of Crete.

Crete was also heavily hit by the fights of the World War II. when the Battle for Crete took place on the island in April 1941. Although the Cretans fought brave for their country, the Germans were able to conquer Crete and occupied it until 1944.

RethymnoToday, Crete is an indivisible part of Greece. In 1981 it became a member state of the European Union and since 2001 it is also a part of the Eurozone. Although agriculture and trade are very important economic spheres of the island, Crete is primarily strong dependent on tourism as it is one of the most favourite holiday destinations in the world. Every year, tourists from all over the world come to enjoy the lovely beaches, clear sea, a lot of sunshine or the very interesting island´s history in form of many well-preserved sights.

The visitors are also attracted by the option to visit the beautiful and almost iconic volcanic Greek island of Santorini, located around 200 km north of Crete where daily boat cruises are going.

If you are interested in historical sites of Crete, please look on the section Crete - Sights. More tips for interesting trips can be found in the section Crete - Trips.

Crete - Culture and Traditions

The Cretans are very friendly and hospitable people, who like to meet each other and to have fun. They generally put a big importance on the family and good relations, perhaps also because of their quite wild past and because they know how important the freedom and independence are.

It can be a little surprising, that Cretan culture is also represented by weapons. They say, that every family on Crete and every Cretan man owns a gun. However, the gun fires are shot mainly as a happy fire during the celebrations and special occasions, as for example the weddings. Nevertheless, the ownership of the weapons does not change anything on the fact, that Crete is a safe country.

ArgiroupoliThe Greek, that is spoken on Crete, has a distinct accent as well as a specific vocabulary from the Greek of the mainland. Traditional Cretan songs are sung and unique Cretan dances are danced during celebrations and festivals.

If we talk about the literature and movies, you can maybe remember the name of Alexis Zorbas. His real name was George and he was the model for the main character of the famous novel of Nikos Kazantzakis Zorba the Greek. The movie adaptation of the movie from 1964 made the novel worldwide famous and showed its viewers really beautiful nature sceneries of Crete. The leading role of Alexis Zorbas was played by the actor Anthony Quinn and the famous scene in which Quinn's character dances the "Sirtaki Dance" was filmed on the beach of Stavros.