Rich in History, Culture, and Scenery
With its pristine aquamarine seas, friendly locals, an average of 315 days of sunshine per year, and 9,000-year history, Crete is an ideal place to visit or to buy a second home. This largest of the Greek islands separates the Aegean from the Libyan Sea and is the boundary between the continents of Europe and Africa.
One of Crete’s loveliest cities is Xania (pronounced “hahn-ya”). The city lies on the northwest coastline of Crete, between
the Aegean and the majestic White Mountains. It’s the second-largest city on Crete; 70,000 people call Xania
home, and that number swells significantly during the summer tourist months.
Because of its tactically favorable location, Xania has been inhabited as far back as the Neolithic Period. During the centuries of the Minoan Civilization (2800-1150 B.C.), the area thrived. Kydonia, on whose remains Xania was eventually built, was a dominant, powerful Minoan city until the 7th Century A.D. The city was eventually conquered by the Byzantine Emperor Nikiforos Fokas. Xania flourished again during the Venetian occupation (1252-1645), when the island of Crete was known as the “Venice of the East.” The Turks invaded in 1645 and remained in control of the island until the end of the 19th Century. In the early 20th Century, a revolution began in Xania, and as a result Crete was politically unified with Greece in 1913.
Crete withstood yet another invasion during World War II. This time it
was the Germans, and the 1941 Battle of Crete raged around Xania. There were massive casualties on both sides. Allied
Forces retreated and were evacuated from the island with the help of Cretans. Germany occupied Crete until 1945
when the war in Europe ended with the German surrender.
Xania lies on the northwest coastline of Crete, between the Aegean and the majestic White Mountains.
Traces of many of these historical periods remain in Xania, giving it a rich architectural heritage. You’ll see massive Venetian fortifications, for example, as well as impressive Neo-Classic mansions. There is even a legacy of World War II: The nearby German War Cemetery, about 12 miles west of Xania, was built on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. More than 4,000 graves are identified with simple stone markers.
Xania is a haven for beach lovers. Sandy beach after sandy beach stretch 13 miles from Xania west to the town of Tavronitis.
Many of Xania’s most interesting sites are in the
old Venetian quarter and harbor. Don’t miss the Naval Museum and its collection of artifacts. They are housed in the Venetian Fort Firkas, which is also the site of theatrical productions and traditional Cretan dancing during summer evenings.
Do visit Kastelli, the oldest section of Xania. The Minoan city of Kydonia is being excavated here. You’ll find some of the artifacts that have been uncovered at Xania’s Archaeological Museum, which also displays coins, pottery, and other items dating all the way back to the Neolithic Period.
Another Xania treasure is the Historical Museum and Archives, which is dedicated to Crete’s turbulent history, its invasions and rebellions.
Shoppers: Don’t miss the Xania Central Market. Situated near the harbor on what was the site of a centuries-old market, today’s bustling covered market is in the shape of a T and is modeled on its more famous counterpart in Marseilles. Its stalls sell just about everything, including baked goods, cheeses, vegetables, oils, meat and fish, wines, nuts, herbs, spices, and souvenirs. The adjacent Skrydlot features vendors of leather goods, including made-to-order sandals.
Many of Xania’s most interesting sites are in the old Venetian quarter and harbor.
Do take a stroll through Xania’s Public Gardens, laid out in the 19th Century. Besides a zoo, the gardens offer a café, a children’s playground, and an open-air auditorium that’s primarily used for local cultural performances.
Another must-see on any trip to the Greek island of Crete: the ruins of Knossos, the most important palace of Minoan civilization. Located about 5 kilometers from the town center of Iraklio, which is the capital of Crete, the palace was the seat of the legendary King Minos.
Continuously inhabited from the Neolithic period (7000-3000 B.C.) until Roman times, the palace is rich in mythical lore. Minos was said to be the product of an affair between Zeus and a mortal woman. It was here, too, that the legendary Daedelus built a contraption so that Minos’s wife could satisfy her passion for a bull. The result was the Minotaur—half-man, half-bull.
An infuriated Minos imprisoned Daedelus. While jailed, Daedelus went on to invent wax wings, which allowed him and his son Icarus to fly to freedom, although—well, you know the rest of the story.
As for the Minotaur, legend has it that he was housed in a labyrinth, or maze, at the palace. The Athenian hero Theseus killed the Minotaur to release the city of Athens from having to pay a yearly tribute of seven boys and seven girls for the Minotaur to eat. As Theseus and his Athenian ships returned home, he forgot to give his father, King Aegeus, who was waiting ashore, the symbol that he had succeeded in his mission (it had to do with the color of the sails). In despair, Aegeus threw himself into the sea that bears his name to this day.
Despite these tales of woe, King Minos had his redeeming qualities. In later times, Greeks credited him with ousting all of the pirates from the Aegean, as well as with building the first navy.
Knossos sits on a huge seismic fault and was destroyed again and again, only to be rebuilt and to re-emerge from its ruins even more magnificent than before. The city thrived during various periods—at one point, population has been estimated at about 100,000—but the golden era of Knossos ended around 67 B.C. when it was captured by the Romans.
It was discovered in 1878 by the aptly named Minos Kalokairinos. Archaeologist Arthur Evans excavated the site between 1900 and 1931. Since then, Knossos has been excavated by the British School of Archaeology at Athens and the 23rd E.P.C.A.
You can visit Knossos today and discover—as researchers at Illinois’ Lake Forest College put it—that the ruins “justify the mythological depiction of a labyrinth. Constructed in stages over various times, the palace was a huge, multi-storeyed, rambling structure that can still confound visitors.”
The majority of visitors to Knossos stay in Iraklio, Greece’s fifth-largest city. Most of the business activity of the island is concentrated here, and it is the main port of entry—by boat or via its international airport—for tourists.
In ancient times, Iraklio served as a port for Knossos, the most prominent city of the Minoan era, but the town itself wasn’t established till the 9th Century A.D. Founded by the Saracen, who were then the occupiers of Crete, the city eventually became the Mediterranean’s slave trade center. Then followed four centuries of Venetian rule. The Venetians built huge fortification walls that still stand today. They also constructed magnificent buildings that you can view all of these centuries later. Three excellent specimens of Venetian architecture include the Loggia, the Basilica di San Marco, and the Morozini fountain, in the center of town, with its four lions.
Pehaps the best thing about Iraklio
is its wide variety
You should also visit the Iraklio Archaeological Museum, which houses most findings from Knossos as well as from other Minoan palaces, such as Malia to the east, Zakros at the extreme eastern side of Crete, and Phaestros to the south.
Perhaps the best thing about Iraklio is its wide variety of charming cafes and restaurants. After you visit Knossos, you’ll want to relax in one of these establishments with a cup of coffee or tea or a glass of Greece’s traditional retsina wine.