‘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 Crete’s cultural legacy. The tour will focus 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, the art and influence of the Minoans 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 volumes written on the island’s Second World War history fill a bookshelf alone. And yet throughout 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 Gatwick to Heraklion via Athens (Aegean Airlines). First of five 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 early in the 20th century, his reconstructions not only protect the excavated remains but illustrate the splendour of palatial civilisation. Visit the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, which houses the island’s largest collection of Minoan art.
Malia, Gournia, Agios Nikolaos. At Malia visit the Minoan Palace, the third largest and most provincial on the island. At Gournia, excavations of the Minoan town reveal over 70 cramped houses dotted about the hillside with a mini-palace at the top. Some free time at Agios Nikolaos. It is hoped that the archaeological museum, closed for restoration for some years, will reopen in early 2024 (tbc).
Arhanes, Heraklion. The attractive town of 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 sometimes be withdrawn at short notice). The town also has a beautiful museum. Some free time in Heraklion.
Gortyn, Phaestos, Agia Triada. 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. Fifth and final night in Heraklion.
Rethymnon, Chania. Drive West to Rethymnon. The imposing fortress overlooking the city was built by the Venetians between 1573 and 1580 as an outpost against the Ottoman empire. The remarkable Minoan cemetery of Armeni – containing over 200 chamber tombs is considered a key archaeological site of the Late Bronze Age. Continue to Chania, the spiritual capital of Crete, a beautiful harbour town with delightful restaurants and artisanal shops, where the following three nights are spent.
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. View the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Souda Bay. Return to Chania for a walking tour of the old town. Some free time.
Chania. The newly renovated Archaeological Museum of Chania opened in 2022. It houses around 3,500 archeological objects, including findings from excavations in several areas of the city that have taken place during the last 50 years. 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. Third and final night in 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 Christina Hatzimichael-Whitley
Lecturer at Cardiff University specialising in the Aegean Bronze Age. Born in Greece, she has travelled extensively in the Aegean and excavated in both Greece and Cyprus. Her teaching at Cardiff includes Greek art and archaeology from the Bronze Age through the Classical to the Byzantine period, and Modern Greek. She holds degrees in art and archaeology from Thessaloniki (BA), Toronto (MA) and Cambridge (PhD). She is assistant director of the Praisos Project in eastern Crete, which has included a systematic survey and excavation of the Classical city of Praisos.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £3,380 or £3,080 without flights (£3,110 in November). Single occupancy: £3,610 (£3,590 in November) or £3,310 without flights (£3,320 in November).
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, three 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. 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.
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.
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'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.'