‘Land of contrasts’ is the king of clichés, but for Crete it is difficult to avoid, not only because of the variety of natural environments but also because of the influence these have had on the built environment and the history of the island.
The contrasts in the landscape, vegetation and people are dramatic. Crete has its ‘deserts and jungles, its arctic and its tropics’. The high mountains and upland plains are bleak and remote; the gorges in the highly erosive limestone are lush. The west provides a retreat from the more developed stretch of north coast between Heraklion and Agios Nikolaos. The south is difficult of access, scored by gorges and with the Asterousia mountains dropping sharply to the sea. The Sphakia region further west on the south coast is one of the most culturally distinct regions.
Lying between Europe, Africa and the Near East, variety also marks the island’s cultural legacy. The tour will focus primarily on the Bronze Age civilization of the Minoans. Flourishing in the second millennium BC, the Minoans created the first great palace civilization of Europe. Their art is wonderfully expressive, and its influence spread throughout Greece, Egypt and the Near East. Pottery, sealstones, frescoes and architecture reached peaks of excellence unforeseen in the prehistoric Aegean.
Mycenaean, Hellenistic, Classical Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish domination followed. The books written on the island’s World War II history alone fill a bookshelf. And yet throughout these millennia of foreign occupation and domination, Crete remained strong and proud and retained its own unique and captivating character.
Fly at c. 12.15pm from London Heathrow to Heraklion via Athens (Aegean Airlines). First of four nights in Heraklion.
Knossos, Heraklion. The capital of Minoan Crete and centre of the Bronze Age Aegean, Knossos is shrouded in myth both ancient and modern. At its peak it comprised a magnificent palace with courts, religious buildings and mansions. Excavated by Sir Arthur Evans at the turn of the century, his reconstructions not only protect the excavated remains but grandly illustrate the splendour of palatial civilization. Visit the Archaeological Museum which houses the island’s largest collection of Minoan art. Overnight Heraklion.
Gortyn, Phaestos, Agia Triada, Matala. A day in the Mesara, a rich agricultural plain along the south coast. Gortyn was the Roman capital of Crete; a famous 5th century BC inscription has details of Greek law. On a ridge Phaestos is the second largest Minoan palace. Agia Triada, interpreted as the summer resort for Phaestos, has beautifully sited and architecturally elaborate villas. Visit the charming town of Matala, a harbour of Roman Gortyn, with rock-cut tombs in a cliff nearby. Overnight Heraklion.
Arhanes, Vathypetro, Heraklion. Another pretty town, Arhanes possesses remarkable archaeological remains and one of the best excavated cemeteries on Crete, Phourni (this is a closed site and permission for access can be withdrawn). The town also has a beautiful museum. Another ‘villa’ site, Vathypetro is situated in verdant farmland overlooking the Pediadha district of Central Crete. Some free time in Heraklion. Overnight Heraklion.
Malia, Agios Nikolaos, Gournia. At Malia visit the Minoan Palace and houses belonging to the Minoan town. The Archaeological Museum at Agios Nikolaos houses a fine collection of Minoan art. The largest excavated Minoan town, Gournia’s over seventy cramped houses lie dotted about the hillside with a mini-palace at the top. First of three nights in Sitia.
Sitia, Toplou, Zákros. The museum at Sitia has a good collection of artefacts from eastern sites of the island. Positioned in the barren low hills of east Crete, Toplou monastery has a history of fierce resistance to the island’s various invaders. Káto Zákros, at the foot of the Gorge of the Dead, is an excavated Minoan palace. Overnight Sitia.
Agia Photia, Petras. Visit Agia Photia, a collection of early Bronze Age sites including a cemetery and a small settlement. Continue to the Minoan Palace at Petras. Overnight Sitia.
Knossos, Chania. Second visit to Knossos and a private visit of outer-lying buildings. Drive to Chania, the spiritual capital of Crete, a beautiful town with delightful restaurants and good craft shops. First of two nights in Chania.
Aptera, Chania. One of the most powerful Graeco-Roman city states, Aptera is a huge site with Roman ruins, a theatre and a Turkish fort. See the British war cemetery at Souda Bay. Moni Agias Triadas on the Akrotiri peninsula above Hania was founded in 1630 by Venetian nobles and has some of the finest monastic architecture on the island. Overnight Chania.
Fly to London Heathrow via Athens, arriving c. 3.30pm.
The opening of sites on Crete is arbitrary and can be influenced by the politics at the time of the tour. This may mean that at short notice not all sites listed can be visited.
Dr Alan Peatfield
Archaeologist specialising in the Minoan Bronze Age Civilisation of Crete. He obtained his PhD in Greek Archaeology from University College London. From 1984–90 he was Knossos Curator for the British School at Athens and has been a lecturer at University College Dublin since 1991. He has excavated on Crete, notably at Knossos and he writes on Minoan religion and ancient Greek combat.
Price – per person
£2,980 or £2,600 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,180 or £2,800 without flights.
Air travel (economy class) on scheduled flights with Aegean Airlines via Athens (Airbus Industrie A321 & A320); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; four lunches and five dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admissions to museums and sites; all tips for restaurant staff, drivers and guides; all state and airport taxes; the services of the lecturer and a local guide.
Lato Boutique Hotel, Heraklion: family-run 3-star hotel with small but well-appointed rooms. Good location by the Venetian port. Sitia Beach Hotel, Sitia: Large, 4-star resort hotel on the edge of the town. Kydon Hotel, Chania: 4-star hotel well located close to the old town and port.
There is quite a lot of walking and scrambling over archaeological sites and this tour is not suitable for anyone who is not sure-footed. Average distance by coach per day: 56 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'Full of interest and variety.'
'Excellent. Full and balanced. Great effort was made to get us into hard-to-see sights. Very much appreciated.'
'So much to choose from – we saw most of the main Minoan sites and others of interest. My aim was to be “educated” in the Minoan and I feel I was.'