From the palace of King Minos to the 16th century Venetian fortress on Spinalonga, the Cretan architectural landscape is a monument to its ancient and turbulent history. In the Bronze Age, Crete was the hub of Europe’s earliest civilization and a successful maritime empire. Its sophisticated Minoan palaces can still be visited today. Later, the island experienced a series of external rulers from the ancient Romans to the Ottomans. Today visitors can enjoy an architectural cornucopia as they explore Crete’s fascinating past.
No trip to Crete is complete without a visit to the palace of King Minos, the site of the labyrinth said to have housed the incarcerated Minotaur, a half-bull, half-man creature who fed on the flesh of human sacrifices. Legend also tells of Theseus and Ariadne, the lovers who conspired to slay the beast; and the architect of the labyrinth, Daedelus, and his ill-fated son Icarus who flew too close to the sun. Excavated at the turn of 20th century by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, Knossos is testament to the wealth, power and influence of the Minoan civilization. Although highly controversial, Evans’ reconstructions enable visitors to envisage the scale and luxury of the palace, rebuilt in 1700 BC and occupied until c. 1450 BC.
Beautifully and strategically positioned overlooking the Messara plain, the palace of Phaestos is another striking example of Minoan architecture. Excavated at the same time as Knossos, Phaestos was only minimally reconstructed and as a consequence, visitors need to use a little more imagination. Located three kilometres west is Agia Triadha, a site of even more mystery to archaeologists, and no less fascinating or enticing than Phaestos itself.
Malia may have a reputation in the 21st century as a party resort for British teenagers, but don’t let that stop you paying a visit to the third largest Minoan palace on Crete. Located between the Lasithi mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, Malia palace is a peaceful ruin, and easier to navigate and comprehend than its sister sites. The famous gold pendant of two bees, which can be seen at the Archeological Museum in Iraklion, was one of the many treasures discovered here.
The fertile flatlands of the Messara plain are host to these sprawling Roman ruins of Gortys. Agios Titos stands out immediately, rising above the remains of the forum. This husk of a sixth-century church was built under the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, and is one of the earliest examples of a Christian church in the Aegean.
The centerpiece of the stunning Venetian harbour in Chania is one of the world’s oldest lighthouses. Built in the14th century, and restored in the 19th century, the lighthouse now draws visitors in Chania, who enjoy taking a stroll around the habrbour and can climb up the lighthouse before dark. Drink it all in as you pass by the 17th century Mosque of the Janissaries, and the reconstruction of a 15th century Minoan ship.
Work began on this impregnable Venetian fortress in 1578, constructed to defend the gulf and Elounda bay. It is easily accessed by boat, and visitors can roam the island freely, exploring the ruins and small museum. From the top of the fortress, you can look down on the chilling sculpture by contemporary Greek artist Costas Tsoclis entitled ‘You, the last leper’. Transformed into a leper colony in the 20th century, sufferers of the disease were isolated and kept in primitive, often brutal, conditions until 1957.
Another 16th Venetian fortress, this impressive structure rises up from the Old Town. One of the largest of its type, it was built in response to a series of pirate raids in the 1560s and 1970s, only to fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1645 in less than 24 hours. Visitors can freely roam around the fort. For the most stunning views of the sea, visit at sunset. If you’re here during the Renaissance festival in August, you’re likely to catch music and theatre performed in the heart of the crumbling ruins.
If you decide to walk the Imbros Gorge and make a day trip of it, you could find yourself in Frangokastello on the south coast of Crete, looking towards the African continent. The castle dominates the hamlet, which also boasts a beautiful (and relatively quiet) beach and a small harbour with a few good tavernas. The castle is a striking 14th century Venetian construction, built in the 1370s to deter pirates. Its deceptively solid-looking walls are all that survive. In the 19th century it was occupied by Hadzimihali Daliani, in an offshoot of the Greek War of Independence against the Turkish occupation. Daliani and his troops held the castle, but were massacred by Turkish forces. Busts to their memory have been erected nearby.
This working monastery is situated 25 kilometres southeast of Rethymnon, in the foothills of the Psiloritis mountain range. It was originally founded in the 11th century, and is striking for its iconic Venetian façade of 1587. In the 19th century, the monastery was the site of a fierce battle between Cretan guerillas and Turkish soldiers in the struggle for Cretan independence. In 1866 the abbot, according to local histories, ordered the ammunition store in the monastery to be set alight, and the subsequent explosion killed hundreds of people. Today, the scars of that explosion still mark the building, although most of the monastery remains intact. In World War II the monastery played host to resistance fighters again, and the monks received clandestine parachute drops on behalf of the guerillas.
The ruins of the Monastery of Agios Ioannis lie in the fertile valley of the Megalopotamos River. A 16th-century construction, what is known as ‘lower’ (or ‘Kato’) Preveli was abandoned in order to move to a site of greater safety further uphill. The original church can still be seen, despite having been set alight under the Turkish occupation in the 19th century. Like Moni Arkadhi, the ‘upper’ Monastery played a pivotal role in the centuries of Cretan resistance, sheltering Allied troops in Word War II who were evacuated by submarine from the beach below in 1941. It occupies a glorious position looking out toward the sea and the Paximadhia islands. The monastery is said to hold a fragment of the Cross of Christ.
On the way to the charming village of Kritsa, pay a visit to Panagia Kira and the archeological site of Lato, located 9 kilometres inland from Agios Nikolaos. Panagia Kira is host to the finest set of Byzantine frescoes in Crete. The church dates from the 12th century, and its exterior has been newly restored. The frescoes inside are from the 14th and early 15th centuries. Under Venetian rule, Cretan artists had access to all the learning of the Italian Renaissance, and their paintings are breathtaking as a consequence. Further examples can be seen in the Benaki Museum in Athens. Homer mentioned the city of Lato in the Odyssey, and visitors can explore its sprawling ruins today. The fusion of Minoan with early Greek influence make this site well worth a visit, as do the stunning views up to the Dhiktean mountains and down to Agios Nikolaos. It also receives fewer visitors than the better-known sites, and makes for a more peaceful destination during peak season.