Many first-time visitors to mainland Europe are amazed to see cathedrals still in use after 800-1000 years. But Greece takes visitors much further back in time. The home of the mythological gods lies scattered with a wealth of ruins and relics dating back 3,000-4,000 years. The Greek island of Crete had one of the earliest civilizations dating back to the Bronze Age. The Minoan settlement employed skilled workers who built complex architectural marvels and created intricate artistic works.
The Palace of Knossos, near Heraklion (formerly Irakleio) on Crete, provides the best and most important look at Minoan society. The first palace was built around 1900 BC, but an earthquake destroyed it some 200 years later. Soon afterward, the immense structure was rebuilt and almost everything remaining dates from the second build.
A fire destroyed the second palace, around 1370 BC. Its ruins were lost to the ages until excavations began in 1878. British Sir Arthur Evans, a wealthy archaeologist so enthralled that he bought the site, led the ongoing excavations. Between 1900 and 1929, he restored sections of the palace – – starting some academic controversy that continues to this day. However, as a mere tourist, I appreciated the opportunity to see better and understand how the site may have looked in its glory. I absorbed a more powerful visual impression of Minoan Crete that could be gained from a mere outline of the foundation stones.
I took the palace tour as part of an excursion off the Celestyal Crystal. En-route via bus, our guide spoke about the history and magnificence of the palace. I soon saw what she meant! Grandeur, indeed. The enormous Palace of Knossos contained over 1,000 rooms and included an elaborate drainage system, flushing toilets, and paved roads. The Queen’s room added the luxury of an en-suite bath.
We also heard the legend of King Minos, who ruled the Palace. The myth claims he contained the famed Minotaur in a giant maze, known as the Labyrinth. But, the Minotaur demanded sacrificial offerings of youths and maidens. Eventually, the Athenian hero Theseus solved the situation, killing the beast.
Highlights of the site include the Grand Entryway, the Royal Apartments with copies of unearthed frescoes, and the Throne Room—with the original throne. Many large storage vases, called pithoi, remain, some intact. The original, still standing staircase is extraordinary. I feel I gained a genuine appreciation of the knowledge and talents of his ancient society on the outing.
Crete would love to see the Palace of Knossos designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it has remained since 2003 on the tentative list counting those being considered and worthy. UNESCO provides funds to help maintain and conserve historical treasures around the globe.
My group returned to the modern city to visit the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. It houses most of the palace’s priceless artifacts and original frescoes. Again, our expert guide pointed out significant pieces like the Bulls Head used to serve ritual wine, and two pristine figures of snake goddesses, dating from around 1600 BC. Intricately painted small vases and many more of the six-foot pithoi used store palace supplies abounded. I loved the gold jewelry, and the miniature sealing wax stampers used to imprint one’s signature.
The famous Phaistos Disc, one of the most important antiquities from Ancient Greece, contains Cretan hieroglyphics and acts like the Rosetta Stone for deciphering the language.
The museum’s second floor houses the stunning Knossos frescoes, eye-opening gems from the past. Scholars have gained many insights from these fragments of art.
After leaving the museum, a brief walking tour through the downtown area brought us to a fountain of lions, built when the Venetian empire controlled the city. We were then set free to browse other buildings and a Byzantine church or have a snack.
After delays maneuvering around tight parking and corners, the bus driver returned us to the ship. Around 5:00 pm all passengers were invited to Muses Lounge to see traditional Cretan dances by local performers. The talented individuals displayed boundless energy and entrancing passion. The men dazzled with high jumps, kicks, and spins at a dizzying pace. At the end of their performance, the audience joined in to learn a Greek Dance. I was chosen and fortunately picked up the steps rather quickly.
Crete is the biggest Grecian island, but we saw only one small corner. My guidebook suggests spending a week. It sounds like a return visit is needed!
The day ended with an after dinner themed entertainment by the onboard troupe of dancers and singers. The performers used unusual props, special effects, and costumes to portray the gods and goddesses of Greek Mythology. The show left me dreaming of Zeus and Apollo.