For more than a millennium, ancient Crete was the Britain of the Mediterranean, ruling the sea, and today evocative ruins of Minoan palaces and cities dot the perimeter of the island, particularly the northern coast facing the mainland of Greece. But like all lands around the Mediterranean, tides of other cultures ebbed and flowed here, each leaving architectural vestiges. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Turks, and now summer tourists have each conquered the island, creating a country whose structures suggest the pageant of Mediterranean history.
Since these early inhabitants landed by boat, much of the pleasure of seeing Crete’s monuments comes from their proximity to the water: You can combine beaches and history as you loop around the island’s roads. Many of the ruins are indeed ruined, and visiting several Minoan sites is necessary to puzzle the pieces together. But what truly deepens the experience of seeing Crete’s Minoan and classical ruins are the myths that impregnate these sites with stories, legendary figures, and a deep sense of time: Zeus, after all, was born in its mountains, and Theseus fought the Minotaur in the Knossos labyrinth. Ultimately, as the power and culture in the Mediterranean migrated west from Egypt and the Levant, Crete pivoted civilization, becoming one of the bases from which Western culture sprang. It is a branch of the West’s family tree, very close to the trunk.
The Palace at Knossos
Knossos was the Buckingham palace of ancient Crete, the primary seat of its kings. And it’s legendary, of course, as the labyrinth in which Theseus slew the Minotaur. (When visiting, notice that unlike the flat mazes of English gardens, the Cretan labyrinth was a three-dimensional terraced structure connected by staircases.) At the turn of the last century, Sir Arthur Evans famously excavated the site, revealing the grandeur of a sprawling palace on many levels, complete with a central court for bull-leaping rituals. Today Evans remains controversial because critics say he “over-restored” sections of the palace, resurrecting murals and rebuilding its famous tapering red columns. Still, the restoration evokes the majesty, complexity, and sophistication of the palace’s aesthetic. To help you visualize it further, pick up the primer Crete Past and Present at the palace’s gift shop; it overlays transparent images of the original palace with pictures of today’s ruins.
Ayios Nikolaos Archaeological Museum
Until the main galleries at the Iraklion Museum reopen, the museum in Ayios Nikólaos offers Crete’s most complete portrait of Minoan culture. In this spacious museum, which is organized around a glass courtyard, toys, music rattles, and jugs with long, nearly avian spouts fill in details about Minoan life that are not addressed by the more religious masterpieces at the temporary Iráklion. Among the curiosities is the skull of a victorious Greco Roman, a period athlete still sporting his gold wreath. The Minoans apparently ate quite well—and ceremoniously—if we judge their cuisine by their elaborately adorned platters and plates. The island’s wealth and power came from the sea, of course, and enthusiastic, stylized depictions of seaweed, urchins, and octopuses decorate pottery and jewelry. And watch out, Jackson Pollock: The shoulder-high jugs here are decorated with what may be the world’s very first drip paintings.
Gournia is a sleeper among Minoan sites. A port city on a wide bay at the narrowest point of the island, it claimed a strategic location that assured it commercial prominence. Modest in its official status, it nonetheless succeeds in explaining Minoan life better than most other ancient sites because, somehow, its ruins are more intact than those elsewhere. Walls are taller, so you have a sense of the narrow, winding streets, and you better understand the quality of houses—domestic spaces built around a central courtyard. Unlike in other Minoan cities, bricks make a structural appearance here. Not frequented by many visitors, the complex is nonetheless well explained, with helpful signs pointing out remains of daily life.
The monks of Moni Toplou may be in the religion business, but over the centuries they learned how to use architecture to defend themselves. With its high stone walls and uncompromising square form, their building looks more like a fortress than a monastery. Inside, the monks’ cells and refectory surround a courtyard, and these spaces draw out the structure’s charm—but even they are built into the thick walls. These walls, in fact, determine the monastery’s entire layout, compressing the interior spaces so that even its church, one of the oldest and most richly appointed in Crete, is surprisingly small. Many of the paintings in the double-naved space are haunting, especially Cretan master Ioánnis Kornáros’s 1770 Lord Thou Art Great, which hangs between the two altars. A Sistine ceiling in miniature, and with a touch of Hieronymus Bosch, the oil is a captivating composite of 61 biblical scenes.
When the Romans had their day in Crete, Gortyn (located near the modern-day Ayioi Dhéka) served as their capital. As elsewhere on the island, each successive civilization to inhabit the city built upon the last, and what the Romans contributed was the notion of civic space. The scale of the structures is imperial, with an imposing praetorium (the governor’s palace) on the south side of the site and an acropolis, theater, and the sixth-century basilica of Ayios Títos on the north; a low aqueduct runs between. It’s often said of the Romans that they weren’t inventive, but for the basilica the architects pulled out every trick in the masonry handbook—squinches, keystones, hemispherical vaults, domes. Note that the town has no city walls: As masters of the Mediterranean, the Romans had no one to fear.
The second largest of the Minoan palaces after Knossos, Phaistos commanded the southern side of the island and was excavated without any of Sir Arthur’s flourishes. The layout reveals the same kind of dense, layered complex, again with a bull-leaping arena. But it also shows that the Minoans lusted for space: Basement rooms maximized storage and each was a Fort Knox of olive oil. Without the embellishments of Knossos, traces of rich material come into focus. Alabaster and marble clad elements of the buildings, including simple benches, giving the ruins a sense of scale and human presence. Twelfth-century murals of saints, all in halos, cover the interior of a stone Byzantine chapel, underscoring the change in subject from the extroverted Minoan world of bull dancing to the much more introverted world of Byzantine religion: Men exchanged loincloths for priestly robes; artists celebrated piety rather than athleticism.
Look past the tacky beach hotels and restaurants that mercilessly exploit the lovely, curving beach at Mátala and you’ll see a huge piece of geology slipping into the sea at a slant, a little like the Titanic going under. People in skimpy swimsuits climb on the rocky face and poke their heads into the holes that pock the formation. Back in the glory days of hippie-dom, when Crete was still difficult to access and the living nearly free, this tilting cliff accommodated love-soaked youth. Before that the caverns were Roman graves, their benches beds for the dead. Package-tour pollution has taken over this popular and populous beach town, but the cliff itself is a impressive piece of natural architecture. Take a dip in the water after your climb and your toes may discover remnants of submerged marble columns.
The Venetian fortresses on Crete’s shores once kept the Mediterranean safe for the fleet—and Venetians themselves protected from the restless, rebellious natives. On the Libyan Sea, near the Lévka Mountains, the garrison at Frangokástello still stands in lonely magnificence, having managed to escape the undignified encroachment of trinket stands. The architecture is macho and no-nonsense, with four geometrically rigid corner towers connected by imposing ramparts. Not much of the interior has survived the centuries, but the shell remains proudly intact and is best viewed from the graceful spit of sand that separates the two crescent beaches at the front of the fortress. There, a friendly taverna with tables under a grove of olive trees completes the picture-perfect setting.
Despite being nearly leveled during World War II, Khaniá is Crete’s most beautiful city. It starts at the sea, where a huddle of colorful buildings surrounds a port that looks like a piazza made of water. The city’s history is layered, but it was the Venetians who left the most lasting urban impression here, with a jetty, lighthouse, and crenellated ramparts. (The town’s archaeology museum, housed in a Venetian monastic church, plumbs the depths of Khaniá’s past.) Restaurants are wall-to-wall around the port, but in the middle of the bustle is the serene Janissaries Mosque, which dates from Crete’s Turkish period. Its perfectly hemispherical dome sits atop a perfectly cubic base, a minor masterpiece of geometric purity; today it’s an event space and an exhibition hall for temporary shows.
Iraklion Archaeological Museum
This major repository of all objects Minoan is closed for renovations for the forseeable future, but around the back, in the museum’s underbelly, there’s an inconspicuous temporary gallery with three or four masterpieces that single-handedly demonstrate Crete’s early and high degree of civilization. Among the amphorae, Bronze Age utensils, gold burial jewelry, and colorful frescoes, a bare-breasted goddess wearing a flounced skirt holds writhing snakes in her outstretched arms. Nearby, a libation vase in the shape of a bull’s head—carved from steatite and realistic down to the red jasper eyes, white muzzle, and golden horns—shows the skill and vision of Minoan artists. The objects here are few, but they serve as a Rosetta stone for a culture that lies primarily in ruins.