Crete, the largest Greek island, and among the most storied, is where I started my recent visit. The colorful history, legends and mystique surrounding the island are tied to many sources including that it once was the center of Minoan culture, the earliest recorded civilization in Europe. For mythology fans, the island is said to be the birthplace of Zeus. An island whose recorded history is more ancient than that of the European continent, Crete has been written about by Homer, Plato and Aristotle.
You could easily devote a week to exploring just this one island, which is home to stunning beaches, pastoral hillsides of olive trees, and magnificent gorges. I had merely an afternoon, which I spent wandering the mysterious Minoan ruins of Knossos and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
Knossos, Crete’s largest Bronze Age archaeological site, is thought to be Europe’s oldest city, and for 2,000 years it flourished as a civic, economic and religious center. Today, there’s little left of that original grandeur, but on portions of the site there are reconstructions of what the original buildings might have looked like, assembled by archaeologists in the early 1900s.
What you will see during a visit is a series of workrooms, storerooms and living spaces surrounding a central square. The highlight is the complex’s royal domestic chambers. The most complete portion of the former palace complex, these rooms provide the best sense of Knossos’ past glory and sophistication. In the Queen’s Megaron (bedroom) for instance, there’s an elaborate, playful fresco of dolphins, while in the adjoining rooms there’s a bathroom and beyond that, the Hall of the Double Axes – a large, airy, elegant room that belonged to the king.
Even without being fully intact, a visit here is eye-opening. Knossos was a remarkable place. It had at least three separate water management systems, and the first water-flushing system for a toilet. Pottery making at Knossos was also prolific, involving the creation of heavily decorated and uniquely styled vessels. The palace itself was a place of high color – its walls and pavements coated in paint made from red ochre.
The nearby Heraklion Archaeological Museum, where all the finds from Knossos have been transferred for safekeeping, helped bring all of this to life. The museum is filled with rooms of recovered pottery, statues, frescoes and more. In a sense, the museum picks up where a visit to Knossos leaves off — helping to fill in the visual gaps and presenting the site’s treasures and grandeur in full color and detail.