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Crete, Greece’s Southern Guardian and Gateway

The National Herald

The city of Chania. (Photo TNH/File)

Geographically, Crete is the largest island in Greece – it is also the most southern border of the country. The island was home to one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world, and to the most passionate defenders of modern day democracy and freedom. The spirit of Crete is eternal and you can sense it as soon as you arrive. Its vast size conceals the fact that it is an island, and the towering mountain ranges make it seem to go on forever. A week is often not long enough to truly explore Crete and all its far-reaching corners. It takes several hours to drive the length of Crete, and passing from one end to the other, the landscape, history, and culture transform continuously.

Dating back six-thousand years, Minoan civilization is an integral and rich part of Crete's history and foundations. Receiving its name from the famous King Minos, Minoan culture has contributed captivating stories to the collection of Greek myths. The island is most known for the tale of the Minotaur, the cursed creature with the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull. King Minos was forced to care for the Minotaur after his wife was tricked by the Gods and became pregnant with the creature. To protect the town's people from the violent and hungry Minotaur, King Minos ordered a labyrinth to be built, where it would be trapped for the rest of its days. To feed the Minotaur, King Minos would sacrifice young Athenians as revenge for the death of his only son at the hands of the Athenian state. Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, would ultimately go there and slay the Minotaur, putting an end to its destructiveness.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s reproduction of the “Ladies in Blue” fresco excavated before 1914 at Knossos, Crete. The original is in the Archaeological Museum of Herakleion.

It is these stories that blur the line between history and myth, fact and fiction, that give depth to life on Crete. We can physically see the grandeur of Minoan civilization through the palace ruins they have left scattered throughout the island. The Palace of Knossos on the outskirts of the city of Heraklion is the most impressive, telling of what life was like at the height of Minoan power in 1600 BC. You are still able to walk through intact structures and along tall imposing walls that once housed our ancestors. A partial fresco of a red leaping bull covers one of the exposed walls and reveals the colors and details of the architecture that embodied daily life. What it must have been like to walk through the palace and pass by the throne room, which is still intact today and is regarded as the oldest throne in the world! Built as an attached piece of the wall, this grand throne has survived through the ages, much like the legacy of the Minoans and their power in Crete.

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Samaria Gorge, Crete. (Photo by TNH, File)

As was common in the ancient world, civilizations rose and fell. But while the Minoans were no longer the power in Crete, their spirit lived on. Into the modern era, Cretans were presented with the same challenges as their neighbors on the Greek mainland. Oppressors and tyrants came with force expecting the island to be placed in their hands, but this was not the case as far as the Cretan people were concerned. At the onset of WW2 Italian forces tried to attack Greece after Athens refused to capitulate. They were pushed back into Albania. German soldiers then invaded, but were met with resistance that was not expected, the first of its kind encountered by the Nazis. As the Germans attacked Crete from the air, the Allied soldiers as well as civilians organized to defend the island. It is recorded that this was the first civilian population to organize a full scale resistance against the Nazis during the war. Throughout Europe, no other place showed the passion or determination to protect their land, as did the brave people of Crete. Alongside soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, and England stood mothers, fathers, and families armed as well as they could be and ready to fight.

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Aradena village in Sfakia, Chania Crete. (Photo by Eurokinissi)

When Allied forces retreated to the southern coast of the island to evacuate, it was the Cretans who charged the German troops descending in parachutes, attacking the bearers of Nazi ideology. Despite having outdated weapons – or none at all – the Cretans were not deterred and seemed to lack fear in the face of death during the attacks. A deeply innate and pure love of their land demonstrated by the people of Crete in those days and during the rest of the war inspired the world.

There is truly much to protect and defend in Crete, whether it be priceless historic artifacts or the natural beauty that can only be found there. From east to west you pass three different mountain ranges, with deep valleys and gorges. In between are villages that still embody the relaxed old way of life before most of the population moved to the major cities.

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Chora Sfakion Port. Photo: TNH File

Along the over 1000 km coastline of Crete, the beaches change with their surroundings. Some are hidden at the base of steep otherworldly-looking cliffs, while others are a calm pink sand paradise. The southern coast is more wild, distinguished by vast expanses of mountains and lush forests, while the northern coast is where the three major cities – Chania, Rethymno, and Heraklion – are located, each exhibiting the marks of their history in the form of architecture and design. Venetian castle ruins and lighthouses are signature sites in Chania and Rethymno, along with their buzzing seaside promenades with shops and restaurants.

Crete checks all the essential boxes as a place someone must experience in their life. When one admires the artifacts and ruins of the last six-thousand years, or explores the gorges and beaches that grace almost every corner, it is a trip that will not be forgotten. As the mythological birthplace of Zeus, the King of the Gods, Crete has held on to its aura of distinction through the trials and tribulations of time. Life is fully celebrated there with emphasis on music and dancing, both traditional and modern, and unique wholesome food that originated in the nearby villages. Although a proud part of Greece, Crete sometimes feels like its own little nation because of its special customs and mannerism that cannot be found on the mainland. Perhaps it is the rich and dramatic history that was lived here, or the landscape that resembles something from a dream, but once you have been to Crete you will keep coming back.