Far from Athens and the centers of Greece, lies the large island of Crete. Distant and often off the standard tour map, Crete has been neglected by both tourism and economic growth. This island is rocky and transportation is mostly limited to an aging bus system. Distance from the mainland has also affected the island economy, which is mostly lagging behind in infrastructure and industry.
Arguably the home of Europe’s first civilization, Crete holds one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. The old citadels of the Minoan civilization predate Rome by thousand of years, while the Egyptians began building their first pyramids. Excellent nature, along with vivid history makes Crete much more interesting than the standard Hellenistic tale you will hear upon the rest of Greece.
The most famous of this history is the story of the Minotaur, King Minos and the grand palace of Knossos. Here is where the story has become perplexed. A standard intercity bus from Heraklion takes you to the unusual pit stop of Knossos. Surrounded by empty souvenir shops and dusty roads, there isn’t much left of the great Minoan kingdom. Further into controversy is the “Palace” that stands there, hastily excavated and put together by Arthur Evans. The story in short is that an archaeologist liberally put stones together into a maze-like castle and connected the tale of the Minotaur to gain credence for his deed.
Whether the Palace of Knossos truly is the Palace of Knossos or even if the stones were placed in the right order, may very well be besides the point. Besides controversy, the stones and art remain extremely old and ancient. Walking through the maze like palace is a wonder of its own, although may not quite be what most visitors expect. But for so little trouble and a must-see excursion, Knossos offers more than a bargain (check for national free days).
Heraklion’s history is more modern than ancient (at least compared to the history of the Minoans). The city has roots stretching millennia, but was mostly developed during Venetian and Arab rule. Much of the architecture today can be seen as linked to the fact that the island remains underdeveloped. Plain boxy and run down buildings mark most of the city, while the central area remains slightly gentrified yet nonetheless “real.” A main street stretches from the Lion Fountain down to the sea, lined with some Venetian landmarks, but mostly empty souvenir shops.
Nonetheless, crowned by the Venetian fortress, quietness, the sea and stark reality, Heraklion is probably one of the best places to see in Greece. An ancient island with massive walled fortifications and old palaces are mixed in with the daily lives of ordinary people. People who don’t do anything with tourism. Local buses lead through beautiful scenery, and tourists remain low in numbers. There is something truly remarkable about this place. Ignore the negative stereotypes in the tour books and make your way to Crete.