Heraklion, or Irakleio, is Greece’s Crete Island’s largest city and capital. It is also the gateway to one of the Mediterranean’s most impressive historical sites: the ancient Minoan palace of Knossos.
Initially settle in the Neolithic era, the city grew primarily as the port for Knossos, its much larger, much wealthier neighbor. It was later made capital of Venice’s Aegean territories, a period during which many of its existing historic sites were built. This, however, was in an era well before the city’s rampant urbanization which makes it difficult, or even unappealing to find and appreciate its Venetian legacy.
Most of this legacy is located in, around and near the Plateia Eleftheriou Venizelou, named after the politician who promoted and drove the island’s union with Greece. This and the nearby area are mercifully located in the city’s traffic-free pedestrian zone. (The only problem is that it channels the traffic to other places, especially directly in front of some of the wonderful seafood restaurants across the street from the harbor.)
The plaza built around the 12th-century, Venetian Morosini Fountain, which, located at a cross-section of two major pedestrian-only streets, forms the center of the downtown area and a magnet for outdoor cafes and people. It is also at the center of a number of the city’s most historic structures. These include:
- Loggia, a lovely, 17th-century building that served as a Venetian armory, an Ottoman Treasury, a meeting hall for the island’s nobility and is not the Heraklion City Hall;
- Saint Marks, a 13th-century church that is now an exhibition and event venue;
- Saint Titus Church, a 16th-century Byzantine cathedral that the Venetians converted into a Catholic church and the Ottomans into a mosque. While what is now a rather nondescript church was destroyed a number of times, it was always rapidly reconstructed since, regardless of the regime, it was always one of the island’s most sacred spots;
- Saint Mina Cathedral, a grand, 19th-century structure with lovely, wall and silver painting and coveted silver icons;
- Saint Alkaterini church, which now houses a museum of religious art;
- Bembo Fountain, a 126th-century drinking fountain whose sole artistic merit appears to be the headless Roman statue at its center; and
- A park dedicated to the city’s most famous resident, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, otherwise known as El Greco, the Spanish Renaissance painter and sculptor.
The harbor, meanwhile, is home to the massive, 16th-century Venetian fortress and Arsenali shipbuilding site, a cistern and several other partially excavated structures.
Most important, however, is the modern Heraklion museum building in which we spend most of our time in the city.
Heraklion Archaeological Museum
The Heraklion Archaeological Museum contains, by far, the largest and the most important collection of Minoan artifacts in the world, including finds not only from Knossos, but from around the entire island. It is laid out chronologically and thematically and provides good documentation that provides both historical context and cultural context of the objects.
It begins with a brief explanation of Crete’s position in the center of the Mediterranean and how this created a cultural melting pot. Its Neolithic settlements, which began about 7,000 B.C., evolved into a more complex social structure organized initially around towns and, by the 4th millennium B.C., around cities, with Knossos being the largest. It is, in fact, thought by some to be Europe’s first real city. And, contrary to expectation, the city was not destroyed by or abandoned due to natural disasters. It, according to the museum, continued to operate after the Santorini volcano and tsunami destroyed the second Knossos palace in the mid-2nd century B.C. The actual decline, it claims, was attributable to a large decline in trade and living standards, a return to more of agricultural economy and a gradual societal collapse attributable to the resultant power void.
But regardless of the actual date and reasons for its demise, the Minoan civilization certainly left an amazing artistic legacy.
This legacy, as displayed in the museum, begins in the Stone Age with basic tools, pottery and figurines, through the Bronze Age with painted pottery, more realistic human images and motions, religious images and even luxury goods, such as ornamental pottery and the delicate, beautiful, early 2nd-millennium Bee Pendant. It was also about this time that large palaces (including Knossos) started being built and writing emerged, as evidenced by the inscribed, clay Phaistos Disk (which, unfortunately, has not been interpreted).
Displays include not just works of art, but also examples and discussions of daily life, including tools, household utensils, diets, games and the roles of music, wine and athletics, including one of the most popular contests of the time—Bull Leaping. This sport, as portrayed in images and a bronze sculpture, entailed a contestant leaping between the horns of a charging bull, vaulting off the bull’s back and landing on his (or in some instances, her) feet.
Religion was also very important, with gods being honored with both public and private shrines. Among the more important and recurring religious symbols were goddesses (more so than gods), such as that on the gold Ring of Minos (which is thought to represent either the goddess of the sea or of the harvest passing through land, sea and air), double axes and bulls, both in the form of horns and especially, the lovely stone bull head with ivory lips and gold horns. Nor can one forget the snake goddess holding writing snakes in each hand, with a feline (possibly representing her ability to control the reptiles) atop her head.
By 1450 B.C., Knossos, which was the seat of government for the entire island, stored thousands (3,400 have been found) of clay tablet records in its archives. But, after Knossos and the centralized government that it provided, was destroyed, life on the island, as discussed above, changed. The island’s prosperity and living standards declined, towns shrank and homes became smaller. Religious rituals also changed. Shrines too became smaller and icons changed, to figures with upraised arms (such as in some a form of praying gesture?). Death rituals and practices also changed as tombs generally became smaller and people increasingly buried in fetal positions, including inside burial pottai. There were, however, some exceptions, as with some of the large, elaborately carved sarcophagi that are displayed.
The second floor of the museum is devoted largely to the incredible art found in Knossos. Frescos are particularly well represented, many of which portrayed royalty, royal life, nature or religious symbols. There are also ceremonial items (including some lovely bronze shields) and a few architectural elements and sculptures, including the limestone carvings of an eagle (representing Zeus) and a falcon (Hermes). Other small section display Minoan coins and some of the art left by the Romans, including some wonderful mosaic floors, who occupied Crete from 67 B.C.
One section also tried to speculate on the nature of King Minos, the legendary first king of Crete and occupant of Knossos who was, by various characterizations, either a:
- A visionary and fair leader who led and created a wealthy nation, authored the first Cretan constitution, created the region’s first naval power and dramatically reduced, if not totally eliminated the ongoing threat of piracy;
- Vicious tyrant who extracted exorbitant forms and amounts of tribute, including Athenian youths; or a
- A demi-god who was the son of Zeus and Europa who kept, cherished and made human sacrifies the Minotaur, a half bull, half human who, upon his death, became judge of the shades in the underworld.
Although he appears in both quasi-historical accounts and totally fictionalized ones, reality became so conflated with legend that nobody really knows whether he actually existed, is just a myth or something in between. Since no reliable historical records exist, nobody will ever know for sure. But as speculated, the predominant opinion was that he did exist, probably exhibiting some of the better and some of the worse attributes attributed to him, but has, since his death, became both a legendary hero, and legendary villain.
Kastella, one of a number of harborside restaurant with similar menus. This one drew us in with a combination of its personable maître d’/server and an explanation of the ultra-fresh whole fish called Fagri (aka, according to Google, Dorade Royale, white snapper and pink seabream), a delicious firm-textured fish with a more earthy taste than Gilthead Seabream. We began the meal with two appetizers; snails (tougher and less tasty than those with which we are familiar) baked in an olive oil/butter garlic and rosemary sauce, and boiled shrimp olive oil and lemon. Wine was a 2017 Santorini assyrtiko from Strataridaki Vineyards. The extravagant complementary dessert consisted of a chocolate soufflé, vanilla ice cream and vanilla panna cotta—plus a small (roughly four shot carafe) of grappa. Excellent food, excellent service and a wonderful complementary ending. The one drawback (which applies to all the harborside restaurants: the incessant noise of motorbikes, cars and trucks diverted away from the city’s pedestrian zone and the planes whose takeoff path takes then right over the harbor.
Liggo Thaleffa, another harborside seafood restaurant at which we had two rather disappointing dishes: the seafood salad that was short on shrimp and octopus and long on canned tuna (in olive oil). The fried cuttlefish in white wine sauce was okay, but less than I had hoped. This meal’s complementary dessert consisted of round, fried Greek donuts with honey with vanilla ice cream, watermelon and of course, a healthy-sized carafe of grappa.
Paralia, where we began with a plate of fried whitebait before moving on to two main dishes: grilled Gilthead Seabream (the same Dorade Royale that we had the previous night) with olive oil and lemon, and shrimp saganaki with feta in a mildly spicy tomato sauce. (We have had better versions of each dish, including the seabream on the previous night.) Complementary dessert consisted of watermelon , cherries and, a dish that was better than we had previously, fried Greek donuts with honey, sprinkled with cinnamon and served with vanilla ice cream. Beverages began with a rather disappointing bottle of 2017 Creatan Oneirikon “Dreamlike”, a blend of 60 percent native Malvasia and 40 percent Santorini
Assyrtiko, along with the customary complementary, high-octane after-dinner drink, this time a small carafe of spiraki.
Peskesi, a wonderful, authentic Cretian restaurant whose farm grows and raises most of its food and whose recipes are have been passed down through generations. Dinner began with a complementary plate of beetroot puree with garlic, olive oil topped with toasted grains that we ate with their very good homemade bread. We ordered two dishes: Joyce had feta and sun-dried tomato sausages (with peppers and onions and mustard) and I had baby lamb baked in parchment that was covered with yogurt and baked a little longer before being served. We finished with a complementary dessert of finely-ground semolina with honey, cinnamon and almonds. Every dish was delicious and the service was attentive and helpful. Since I decided to go “hard” with alcohol (small carafes of multi-varietal raki followed by triple distillate), Joyce had a carafe of dry, aromatic white wine.
Hookah Bar, which the Greeks call a Shisha Bar. I had a hankering for a hookah fix ever since we saw one, but couldn’t find when we wanted it, in Athens. This time we made sure that we could find this one when we wanted it. We enjoyed an apple-flavored smoke along with a glass apiece of Cretan wine.
·The GDM Megaron was quite close to the archeological museum and the center of town….not that there is much charming about the town. Also right by the bus station to go to the palace ruins and by the ferry terminal. Breakfast is one of the best ones we’ve had in Greece with lots of choices, tasty fresh fruit, eggs, cereal, charcuterie etc. It was a great hotel to use as our base.