After leaving Nafplio, we flew to Crete. Our island choices were limited, as we were traveling in the off season, and Crete is a year-round island. But you know what? Crete was the perfect choice.
We started our visit in the town of Heraklion. With a population of roughly 150,000 people, Heraklion is the largest city on Crete.
Heraklion is on the waterfront but, surprisingly, there is very little to do on the waterfront, with the bulk of the shops, restaurants, and bars in the interior of the city.
I never thought I would say something like this, but the two best things to do (other than eating) in the city of Heraklion are the Heraklion Archeology Museum and the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology. The Heraklion Archeology Museum is jam packed full of treasures from the Minoan period on Crete. Robert, in particular, loved it.
We both loved the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology. It was absolutely fascinating to read about how advanced the ancient Greeks were from a technology perspective. From irrigation, to manufacturing, to entertainment, the ancient Greeks had so many amazing ideas utilizing things like steam propulsion, hydraulics, and wind energy. My own personal favorite was the wine servant robot. When you put the cup on the robot’s hand, the weight of the cup caused the hand to drop down which opened a valve that poured wine. As the wine filled the cup, the hand dropped further down, eventually closing the wine valve and opening a water valve (why anyone would add water to their wine is beyond me). Eventually, the hand would drop far enough to close the water valve too. How cool is that! Can you even imagine how advanced humanity would be today if all that knowledge hadn’t been lost?
Honestly, other than those two museums and some amazing food, I don’t think Heraklion has a whole lot to offer. But, it is close to quite a few things.
The primary reason people visit Heraklion is its proximity to the Knossos Palace, one of four excavated Minoan Palaces on Crete. Knossos was the capital city of the Minoan civilization and built somewhere around either 1950 B.C. or 1700 B.C. depending on who you believe, although people had been living in the area since 7000 B.C.
Knossos was abandoned somewhere around 1380-1100 B.C. and then was excavated in 1900 by Sir Arthur Evans who proceeded to, in our humble opinion, destroy the site.
As I understand it, Sir Arthur Evans pretty much made some guesses as to what the buildings once looked like and reconstructed them, but nobody really knows how accurately he rebuilt Knossos.
And, although the original palace was built from gypsum from a local quarry (which has some nice light reflective properties), Sir Arthur Evans used cement to rebuild and repair things. The cement has actually damaged some of the buildings and archeologists are now trying to remove it. But, it is what it is at this point.
Other than the peacocks that wander all around the site, the best part of Knossis might just be the myths that surround it. Specifically, Sir Arthur Evans decided that Knossos was the home of King Minos, who, according to the myths, built a labyrinth in Knossos to house a Minotaur (you know, that mythical creature with the head and tail of a bull and the body of a man) that just happened to be birthed by King Minos’ wife after Poseidon made her fall in love with a bull.
At some point, King Minos’ human son was killed and Minos waged war on Athens. As a result, the poor king of Athens was forced to pick out seven boys and seven girls (the girls had to be virgins, of course) every nine years to feed to the Minotaur. One would think that a mythical creature with the head of a bull would need to eat more than 14 people every nine years, but what do I know? But that might be why some retellings of the myth say Athens had to sacrifice the boys and girls every year.
A bit further afield from Heraklion, but still easy to get to, is the ancient Minoan Palace of Phaistos. It is the second largest Minoan palace on Crete. The history of Phaistos is very similar to the history of the other Minoan Palaces on Crete. It was built, it was destroyed, it was rebuilt, it was destroyed, it was rebuilt, and eventually, it was abandoned. Thankfully, Sir Arthur Evans didn’t get his hands on Phaistos and nobody has tried to recreate it — just to conserve it.
Another site that is easy to get to from Heraklion is the Palace of Malia. Malia is the third largest palace of Minoan Greece after Knossos and Phaistos. There is evidence that people lived there starting as early as 6000 B.C., but the ruins you can see today are most likely the ruins of buildings erected in 1650 B.C. The site was abandoned in 1250 B.C. and, in all honesty, there isn’t much to see these days.
Another great thing to do from Heraklion is just to get out and drive. We drove all over and the views were amazing. One day we drove to Matala Beach on the southern coast of Crete. During the summer, Matala Beach is a hippie hangout. There wasn’t much to do or see there in the off season, but the drive was stunning and the beach was pretty cool too.
But an even more stunning drive is between Agios Nikolaus and Mochlos on the eastern coast of Greece. Beach on one side, mountains on the other, and occasionally some ruins right by the side of the road.
So the upshot is, if you stay in Heraklion, get out and explore!