Planning a trip to Greece’s largest island? Here are some interesting things you should know about Crete to make the most out of your visit – and to impress friends and family with your insider knowledge and insights.
On the southernmost corner of the European continent, due to its sheer size and favourable climatic conditions, Crete is like a mini-universe in its own right, with a highly diversified landscape, epic food, fascinating history and a wealth of charming traditions.
Between exploring indented coastlines with exotic beaches, hiking on high mountains with magnificent gorges and ravines or visiting scenic towns, quaint villages, world-class monuments, and inspiring museums, you’ll never get a moment’s boredom on Greece’s largest island. But to take it all in its best to be forearmed with insights and information. Here are some amazing things you should know about Crete, to plan a visit that’ll leave you with fascinating tales to tell.
More than one island
Fancy a spot of island hopping? Then one of the things you should know about Crete is that it includes several small islands off its Aegean and its Libyan coasts, like Chrissi, Gavdos and Elafonisi in the south, and on the north Gramvousa and Theodorou – both easily accessible from your base at the Oscar Suites & Village in Agia Marina-Platanias, and totally worth the boat trip there!
The oldest civilization in Europe
The history of Crete can be traced as far back as the 7th millennium BC, more than four millennia before the rise of the Minoan civilization which started flourishing around 2000 BC. The island is first mentioned as Kaptara on cuneiform tablets from the Syrian city of Mari, which date back to the first half of the eighteenth century BC, while the name Crete appears later in Homer’s Odyssey. Knossos, one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world, is in fact the oldest city in Europe – and a sight that’s guaranteed to mesmerize young and old alike.
A protagonist in World War II
Minoan mysteries aside, history buffs will also be interested in finding out about Crete’s role in World War II. On May 20, 1941, thousands of Nazi paratroopers descended on the island in the largest airborne attack of World War II. Most of the Allied troops had already left Crete, so the Nazis anticipated a swift and easy surrender. They didn’t however count on the civilians’ bravery: Everyone – big and small – ran to the nearest scene of action armed with makeshift weapons. In unison, these fighters managed to decimate half of Hitler’s 8,000 elite paratroopers within the first 48 hours. In fact, the Nazis suffered more casualties on the first day of the battle of Crete than they had suffered since the beginning of the battles – and this was a major turning point for WW2.
Europe’s last leper colony
One of the wildest things you should know about Crete is that it was home to one of Europe’s last Leper colonies. Just off the coast of the uber-popular resort of Elounda, the tiny island of Spinalonga was converted by the Greek authorities into a leprosy colony between 1903 and 1957. Once dubbed the “island of the living dead” – at its heyday, it had nearly 400 inhabitants – Spinalonga started to attract some – morbidly curious – travellers in the 1980s. But it was not until 2005, when Victoria Hislop’s rose-tinted portrayal of life on the colony in her blockbuster novel, “The Island” and the hit TV series that ensued, put this small, barren islet firmly on the tourist map. With its medieval citadel, restored colourful storefronts and secluded beaches, Spinalonga is not only post-card pretty but also worth exploring for its historic merit.
Crete’s olive oil is liquid gold
A paragon for longevity and taste, Crete’s extra virgin olive oil is the foundation of the world’s healthiest – and arguably tastiest! – cuisine and a staple in Cretan’s everyday life. In fact, while the average person consumes 1 litre of olive oil per year, the average Cretan consumes some 30 litres! And they’ve probably been doing so since time immemorial. The systematic cultivation of the olive tree is traced back to early Minoan times – when the olive tree was considered a sacred gift from the gods. If you’re visiting with the kids, and want them to have an educational experience, one of the things you should know about Crete is that it’s home to perhaps the world’s most ancient olive tree: 30 kilometres west of Chania the monumental olive tree in Vouves, has a diameter of 4,67 m. and a perimeter of 12,5 m. and is estimated to be 4.000 years old. Declared a protected natural monument in 1997, the tree still produces olives – and it produces honours too: Wreaths made from this olive crowned the victors of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, and the 2008 games in Beijing.
It snows in Crete
Given that most associate this island with the iconic sea-sun-fun triptych, one of the most surprising things to know about Crete is that snowing is actually quite common on the high mountains in the winter. Seasoned ski lovers from around the world, these days rendezvous in the snowy peaks of the White Mountains, Dikti and Psiloritis from mid-January to mid-April for ski mountaineering – mountain climbing and skiing rolled in one sport which is not for the faint-hearted.
The Venetians stayed in Crete for more than 400 years – and their legacy can be traced in the culture, art, and food throughout the island. Poetry, music, iconography, and architecture flourished on Crete during this time and splendid examples of the so-called Cretan Renaissance can be found nowadays in several churches, monasteries, private residences and public buildings in Chania, Heracleion and Rethymnon.
Likewise, the Cretan Lyra – a Medieval Byzantine instrument – is still extremely popular among Cretans and usually accompanies the mantinada – a short rhyming, often improvised poem, whose name comes from the Venetian term matinada, meaning morning song. Mantinades celebrate love, friendship, and the island itself and are sung in traditional fairs or even in impromptu sessions at the local kafenion; but they can also be sad and chanted at funerals.