The Greek island of Crete was the home of the Minoans, an ancient civilisation who preceded even the ancient Greeks. The Minoan civilisation is in fact the oldest of all European civilisations and was the first to use a written language. Considering that Minoan palaces on Crete were built 4000 years ago and devastated when the Greek Island of Santorini erupted 3600 years ago, it is surprising that so much of them still remains.
A travel tip for finding a holiday destination in Crete that combines the best in beach vacations with the exploration of three Minoan palaces, is to stay in the resort of Matala. Matala was just a sleepy fishing village, that very few Non-Cretans had visited until it was discovered by groups of hippies in the 60’s. Stories, claiming that Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger were amongst those who set up home in the caves that surround Matala are probably untrue. Much more likely candidates for Matala’s famous “hippie” visitors are Donovan Leitch, Cat Stevens, and possibly Joni Mitchell. If so they would have arrived having undertaken a long journey over mule track, mountain passes to get there, as this was then the only way to reach Matala. These days the road from Heraklion airport is an easy drive by car, taxi or bus.
Just a short walk, along the coast from Matala you will come across an area of excavation where remains of a Minoan port have been discovered. This is at the beginning of Komos Beach, a beautiful place to find secluded spots for sunbathing and swimming. A few kilometres inland from here is Agia Triada, the site of the Minoan’s summer palace.
Agia Triada is situated on a hillside, looking out towards the Bay of Mesaras. It is the least visited of the Minoan palaces, making its exploration even more enjoyable. Four thousand years ago, the sea would have been closer, so the palace must have been dramatically sited, probably perched on a cliff top, overlooking the sea. Some of the finest remains of Minoan art ever found were unearthed from this site. They are on display in the Heraklion archaeological museum (see below) and include a sarcophagus depicting a Minoan burial procession.
Just a few more kilometres inland is the palace of Faistos. This is a much more popular tourist attraction and you will need to purchase a ticket to enter. The original palace of Faistos was built nearly four thousand years ago in 1900 B.C. but this was replaced by a much grander palace around two hundred years later. The leaflet provided with the entrance ticket does not make easy reading and fails to do justice to this magnificent archaeological site. The leaflet does however succeed in drawing the visitors attention to what is probably the most striking example of just how advanced Minoan civilisation was. It points out the remains of a plumbing system that included flush toilets. The irony of distant ancestors of modern day Greeks having invented flush toilets is rarely lost on tourists staying on Greek Islands!
The major Minoan site in Crete is the palace of Knosos which is situated five kilometres from Heraklion, making it the furthest of the sites from Matala. The best travel tip for anyone staying in Matala is to make the visit to Knosos part of a full day excursion to Heraklion and allow time to include the Heraklion Archaeological museum where you will be able to see the many artefacts that were dug up from the three Minoan sites you have visited.
Knosos is where Minoan civilisation grew and flourished. It was the largest and most important of the palaces in Crete. As such, you can expect Knosos to be crowded with tourists throughout the holiday season. An estimated average of four thousand per day arrive by the coach-load from every holiday resort, all over Crete. Because of this large number of visitors, raised walkways have been erected around the palace to protect it. Much of what you see is a reconstruction but it is done in a way that raises your awareness of just how magnificent the palace must have been when the Minoan kings reigned. The supposedly, mythological King Minos may have been one such king, although it is more likely that “Minos” was the generic Minoan word for king. Either way, thinking about the myth of the Theseus defeating the Minotaur at the centre of a labyrinth, hidden deep below the palace, just adds to the enjoyment of the tour.
Getting back to Matala, after the crowds of Knosos is a relaxing experience. You will probably want to chill out at a bar overlooking the sea and with the help of a beer, chased down by a complimentary glass of Raki – “Cretan Firewater” – you may even be able to visualise a treasure laden Minoan ship on its way back form Egypt sailing into the bay below.