The classic Crete
The island off the coast of Greece can be crowded, frustrating and even ugly. But its best face is found in old towns, hotels that have stood for centuries and ancient artifacts.
A dolphin fresco in the Palace of Knossos illustrates the fondness for the sea that ancient Cretans shared with their modern counterparts. (Joel W. Rogers / For The Times)
As I maneuvered my stick-shift rental Opel through a maze of Heraklion's narrow one-way streets, desperately searching for the one that would lead me to Lato Hotel — which I could see but not reach — drivers squeezed past, sitting on their horns, revving their engines.
Was it an ill wind, I wondered, that had blown me here?
Heraklion (also called Iraklion), a city of about 125,000, is, by one guidebook's description, "astonishingly ugly." They got that right. Badly damaged by German bombs in World War II, it is an eyesore of blocky concrete buildings, noisy and congested. So why had I come?
It wasn't to lie on the white sand beaches of Elounda on the Gulf of Mirabello an hour to the east or at Ayia Pelagia or other nearby magnets for sun worshipers. This was March, not yet beach season in this, the largest of the Greek islands. Nor had I come to hike the Samaria Gorge, one of the longest in Europe.
I had come mainly to see the restored Minoan palace of Knossos three miles southeast of Heraklion and to see the incredible treasures of the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
Two days would do it, and then off to Chania — arguably the prettiest town on Crete — for another two days on this visit, piggybacked with a pre-Olympics trip to Athens.
Somnolent villages still exist on the southern, less tourist-trammeled side of Crete, I'm told, but the north coast, with the island's three major towns — Heraklion, Chania and Rethymnon — is anything but quaintly ethnic. That disappeared when the number of annual visitors to this island 100 miles south of the Greek mainland reached 3 million.
Less than an hour by air from Athens and served by commercial car and passenger ferries, Crete saw tourism jump 50% between 1990 and 2000, taxing its infrastructure and choking its towns with traffic. The physical degradation of coastal resorts, with their cheap holiday packages, has been matched by the dilution of traditional island culture.
If an island vacation with beach time is your wish, there are places just as pretty that are far closer to Los Angeles and where the spellings of place names is far less confusing. (You'll see Chania as Canae or Hania, among others.) But if ancient artifacts are your thing — and you're headed to Athens for the Olympics, which are to open Friday — Crete is certainly worth a look.
Checking into Lato Hotel in Heraklion — a city that will host some of the Olympics' soccer contests — I was overjoyed to hand the bellhop my car keys and let him try to find a space on the street. The refurbished boutique hotel has contemporary décor, a restaurant and an inviting bar. My twin-bed room, done in champagne and charcoal and with a balcony overlooking the Venetian harbor, was perfectly pleasant.
For dinner within walking distance, the desk clerk recommended Fos Fonari. When I arrived about 9, there was only a handful of diners, but by 11 the restaurant was filling rapidly. A table opposite mine was claimed by a young man and five mini-clad women sharing platters of food between cellphone chats.
The chef's special salmon baked in vodka cream sauce with raisins and celery was tasty. And then I presented my credit card. Fos Fonari doesn't take credit cards, and I had no cash, so my waiter doffed his apron and led me down the street to an ATM.
Getting an early start the next morning, I snagged the last free parking space at Knossos. In summer, the crowds are huge, but in March I encountered only a few clusters of tourists, including several large school groups. As I walked the paths, I tried to envision the 1,500-room palace that once stood on the site.
In Greek mythology, Knossos was home to King Minos, who was married to Pasiphae. Her carnal caper with a white bull produced the Minotaur, a ferocious half-man and half-beast that was locked up at the palace and fed men and maidens.
When Theseus, son of Athenian King Aegeus, came to slay the beast, Minos' daughter Ariadne fell for him and helped him escape afterward. The lovers fled together, but he later dumped her.
The Knossos that visitors see today is largely a reconstruction built on the ruins of an 18th century BC Minoan palace destroyed by fire in the mid-15th century BC. The controversial interpretation of what once existed is largely that of Sir Arthur Evans, an Englishman who bought the site and began digging about 1900.
The fact that one doesn't know for sure what one is seeing doesn't detract greatly from the experience. (For example, what Sir Arthur thought was an open-air theater later scholars thought was a reception area for VIP guests.)
Although not totally authentic, Knossos is totally fascinating — from the clay bathtub in the queen's apartments to the carved stone throne of King Minos.