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Crete: food, culture, history and more ...

Sheila Johnson steps into magnificent gorges and ancient Greek history on the island of Crete ...

SHEILA JOHNSON steps into magnificent gorges and ancient Greek history on the island of Crete ...

“A ferret's toe – eferisto,” explained our holiday rep, is the way to say “thank you” in Greek.
We later discovered this works best when applied with a strong Welsh accent, like our rep’s. It didn’t work quite so well with an English one.

It was was our first day on Crete and we were in the harbour town of Rethymno by the Aegean Sea. Our hotel was just across the road from the beach.

The religion of the island is chiefly Greek Orthodox and we saw many beautiful buildings full of illustrious gold icons.

We chose to go to a small evangelical church which had much simpler décor. We received a warm welcome, especially from the few expats living in the town.

We were also relieved to find that one of the local ladies was able to translate the talk which we received through headphones situated at the back of the church.

The Palace of Knossos, in the capital Heraklion, is one of Crete’s busiest tourist attractions. Its columns and structure pre-date 1700 BC, the year it was destroyed by an earthquake, and therefore pre-date ancient Greek and Roman buildings.

It is believed to have been a ceremonial or administration centre for the Minoan people. A model of Knossos in the local archaeological museum gave some indication of the size and complexity of the original structure.

Hania is the island’s other main city, with its remnants of Venetian and Turkish architecture. Unfortunately we only had time to pass through it, but we did visit the Venetian fortress at Rethymno which dominates the harbour there.

Much of Crete’s beauty is in the higher mountainous areas of the island. We enjoyed walking through the breathtaking scenery of the Samarian Gorge with its magnificent mountains which still have snow-filled ravines, even in the heat of summer.

The gorge is 10 miles long and treacherous in places, more suitable for the experienced walker or the very fit. We only managed a small part of it. Imbros Gorge at just five miles long and not so steep, is more attainable.

Another way of enjoying the more mountainous parts of Crete is to take a trip by 4x4 or bike. If you’re biking around the island don’t be surprised when you are offered a mountain bike for a fairly simple road trip; the roads aren’t safe on anything less!

Travelling through the more mountainous regions of the island you will often spy goats and sheep precariously grazing on edges of precipices. You will visit little villages where avocados are the main source of income.

You will also discover ancient Greek mosaics in the middle of nowhere with only a small fence around them.

As you travel further south, there is an opportunity to take a swim in the Libyan sea.
East of the island, just across from the mainland port of Elounda, is the small now uninhabited island of Spinalonga. It wasn’t always the case though.

From 1903 until 1957 it had a sad history as a leper colony, made famous in Victoria Hislop’s novel The Island.

During that period about 1,000 male and female leprosy sufferers were exiled here.

At first they simply lived in the old ruined Venetian fortress or in the abandoned houses that the Turkish Ottomans had left behind. They had no electricity and little food.

In the 1930s new buildings were erected and a small bazaar was set up outside the main gate. It was here that the leprosy sufferers could buy food using their small state allowance.

A doctor came and a small hospital was established. There were also a few priests living on the island. They generally offered more support than the hospital where the care was only ever rudimentary.

After 1948 when a groundbreaking treatment for leprosy was developed on the island, sufferers were able to be reintegrated into society. The last person finally left in 1957 and Spinalonga has been uninhabited ever since.

There is so much to discover on the island of Crete. A Scottish couple from our hotel who were on their fifth visit, told me why they kept returning: “It’s the food, the culture, the history and the scenery. It’s everything really.”

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