Heraklion is Crete’s main city and has a population of over 120,000. Most people arrive here and base themselves in one of the hotels within or on the outskirts of the city. There is an international airport and an enormous harbor full of ferries and cruise ships and the Palace of Knossos is one of the few places that visitors to Crete have ever really heard of if they were paying attention in ancient history class.
The city is built on the side of a hill overlooking the port and it’s a climb to the center of town with a fully loaded backpack and worse if your suitcase does not have wheels. Mercifully there are taxis below and the bus station is also in the port area where you can leave your bags and wander around in the town above until you know where you are going.
The Palace of Knossos, discovered by Sir Arthur Evans in 1894, is a few kilometers south of Iraklion and easily accessible by bus or taxi, but should be seen as early as possible in the summer, or visited in the off-season. The ruins are extensive and fascinating and should be enjoyed at a time when you are not suffering from the heat or trampled by the crowds since it is one of the busiest sites in Greece and the single most important reason that tourists come to Iraklion, if not all of Crete.
Among the ruins, beautiful frescos and giant pithoi are the remains of the world’s first flush toilet. Knossos is one of the few archaeological sites that has been restored in the Art Deco and Art Nouveau style due to the restoration of the frescoes by Piet de Jong. In many guidebooks de Jong’s restoration work is said to be “not without controversy” but few mention what that controversy is. The restoration of the frescoes brought to light the question of how much is a true representation of the ancient artist (sculpturer, architect etc) and how much is the imagination of the person doing the restoration and his culture and age.
When ancient sites, frescoes and art that are in scattered fragments are reassembled, there is plenty of room for personal interpretation based on how much remains of the original work. Archaeology is a new and evolving science and it may take awhile before they get it totally right and people are still wrestling with this question. Regardless, Knossos is certainly worth a visit, in fact if you visit Crete without going there your friends who have gone to Crete may look at you strangely. See my Guide to Knossos
Crete is a big island that can appeal to a variety of people in different ways. I don’t discourage anyone from going there whether you are a sun-worshiping party animal or a cultural minded, eco tourist looking for the land of Zorba.
But if you are the latter my advice is this: Visit Crete in the off-season if possible which means any month but July-August. Base yourself in Chania for starters and explore the interior of the island, the mountain villages and the fields and hillsides which are alive with wildflowers in the spring. You will need at least a week here, just exploring the area around Chania. If possible, book yourself or have your travel agent book you in different towns around the island.
You can even base yourself in the resort areas without running with the crowds, if it is near a part of the island you want to see. There are several guidebooks for sale on the island including a guide to the Monasteries which I recommend. Take your meals at the small tavernas in villages away from the tourists and get to know the people who are Crete’s finest asset.
The fancy resorts are a modern phenomenon. Who knows if they are the trend or will wind up as relics like the ruins at Knossos? If sun, sea, beer and companionship is what you have come to Greece for then you will find the resorts very satisfying as some of these giant companies have created a new Greece, grafting Caribbean tourist culture with the famous Hellenic hospitality. But if you are looking for the magic head for the hills. You’ll find the people where the tourists aren’t.
As for the beaches, the island is big and somewhere there is a secluded little cove with your name on it.
A very special place for me is the grave of the writer Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote among other things Zorba the Greek, The Last temptation of Christ, Freedom or Death, Report to Greco and the Modern Sequel to the Odyssey. He has also written numerous travel books and philosophical works. Colin Wilson wrote that if Kazantzakis were Russian he would be considered one of the world’s greatest writers.
Well he wrote that in the early sixties when few people knew of him and since then Kazantzakis has become one of the world’s greatest writers by the millions of people who have read his books in translation. If you have not read it already, Zorba makes wonderful complimentary reading for your visit to Crete. Kazantzakis grave is on the south wall of the city. The museum of Kazantzakis is located at Myrtia, close to Villa Mantilari.
His epitaph is “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free”
Though a national hero, Kazantzakis was excommunicated by the Greek church which is why his grave is on the wall and not in a cemetery.
Villa Mantilari Wine Estate
21st Km Heraklion Kastelli
Peza Area, Crete
Tel.: +30 6974757474