Listed in The Times top tours to Greece in 2019.
The tour concentrates primarily on the Bronze Age civilisation of the Minoans, the first great palace civilisation of Europe, which flourished in the second millennium BC. Wonderfully expressive and beautifully composed, Minoan art had influence throughout Greece, Egypt and the Near East. Pottery, sealstones, frescoes and architecture reached peaks of excellence unforeseen in the prehistoric Aegean.
‘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 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 and bountiful.
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 is one of the most culturally distinct regions.
Lying between Europe, Africa and the Near East, variety also marks the island’s cultural legacy. Mycenaean, Hellenistic, Classical Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish domination followed. Some fine Roman remains are seen on this tour, and the bulky splendour of Venetian fortifications are prominent in the larger towns. The books written on the island’s Second World War 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. 12.00 noon 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 19th century, his reconstructions protect the excavated remains and grandly illustrate the splendour of palatial civilisation. The Archaeological Museum 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. Built along a ridge, Phaestos is the second largest Minoan palace, while Agia Triada, interpreted as the summer resort for Phaestos, has beautifully sited and architecturally elaborate villas. Overnight Heraklion.
Arhanes, Heraklion. Another pretty town, Arhanes possesses remarkable archaeological remains and Phourni, one of the best excavated cemeteries on Crete (this is a closed site and permission for access can be withdrawn). The town also has a beautiful museum. Some free time in Heraklion, a lovely and lively harbour town within massive Venetian ramparts, a maze of pretty squares and narrow streets. The Museum of Christian Art is recommended. Overnight Heraklion.
Malia, Agios Nikolaos, Gournia. Leave Heraklion and visit the Minoan Palace and houses belonging to the Minoan town at Malia. The Archaeological Museum at Agios Nikolaos houses a fine collection of Minoan art. At Gournia, the largest Minoan town excavated so far, over seventy cramped houses lie dotted about the hillside with a mini-palace at the summit. First of three nights in Sitia, a town in the east of the island.
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, 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. Visit Agia Photia, a collection of early Bronze Age sites including a cemetery and a small settlement. Free afternoon in Sitia. Overnight Sitia.
Knossos, Chania. Moving today from the east of the island to the western half, stop midway for a second visit to the ever-fascinating site of Knossos. See also some of the outlying constructions here. Drive to Chania, the spiritual capital of Crete, a beautiful harbour town with good restaurants and 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 Chania 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. There is some arbitrariness about the opening of remoter sites in Crete and it may be that it will not be possible to visit one or two of those listed.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £3,160 or £2,970 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,400 or £3,210 without flights.
Flights (economy class) with Aegean Airlines via Athens (Airbus Industrie A321 & A320); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 5 lunches and 4 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. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
There is quite a lot of walking and scrambling over archaeological sites, so this tour is not suitable for anyone who is not sure-footed. Average distance by coach per day: 56 miles.
Are you fit enough to join the tour?
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.
'I think this was one of the best tours I have been on with you. I had wanted to re-visit Crete for years and I loved every minute of our time there - in the company of delightful, friendly people. I feel that I have learnt a lot and was so pleased to get around all the sites.'
'This was an extremely enjoyable tour and I learnt an anormous amount about Crete, the Mionan culture and the geography of this very beautiful island!'
'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.'