Crete was the centre of Europe"s most ancient civilization, the Minoan, often referred to as the "cradle" of European civilization. Little is known about the rise of ancient Cretan society, as very limited written records remain, and many are written in the undeciphered script known as Linear A. This contrasts with the superb palaces, houses, roads, paintings and sculptures that do remain. Though early Cretan history is replete with legends such as those of King Minos,Theseus and the Minotaur and Daedalus and Icarus passed on via Greek historians and poets such as Homer, it is known that the first human settlement in Crete, dating to the aceramic Neolithic, introduced cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and dogs, as well as domesticated cereals and legumes.
In Ancient Roman times, Crete was involved in the Mithridatic Wars, as Rome suspected inhabitants of backing Mithridates VI of Pontus. Marcus Antonius Creticus attacked Crete in 71 BC and was repelled, Rome then sent Quintus Caecilius Metellus with three legions to the island. After a ferocious three-year campaign, Crete was conquered for Rome in 69 BC, earning for Metellus the agnomen "Creticus". As a result, Gortyn was made capital of the island, at times together with the province of Cyrenaica.
Crete continued to be part of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine empire, until it fell into the hands of Iberian Muslims led by Abo Hafs Omer Al-Baloty,who established an emirate on the island. In 960 Nicephorus Phocas reconquered Crete for the Byzantines,who held it until 1204, when it fell into the hands of the Venetians at the time of the Fourth Crusade. The Venetians retained the island until 1669, when the Ottoman Turks took possession.
In the partition of the Byzantine empire after the capture of Constantinople by the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Crete was eventually acquired by Venice, which held it for more than four centuries. During Venice"s rule, the Greek population of Crete, most famously El Greco, were exposed to Renaissance culture. During the 17th century, Venice was pushed from Crete by the Ottoman Empire, with most of the island lost after the siege of Candia (1648–1669). This made up possibly the longest recorded siege in history.
The Greek War of Independence began in 1821 and Cretan participation was extensive; an uprising by Christians met with a fierce response from the Ottoman authorities and the execution of several bishops, regarded as ringleaders. Between 1821 and 1828, the island was the scene of repeated hostilities.
Shortly after Crete had been left outside the modern Greek state by the London Protocol of 1830, it was yielded to Egypt by the Ottoman sultan. Egyptian rule lasted for ten years, until 1840, when it was returned to the Ottoman Empire on July 3, 1840 by the Treaty of London.
Several uprisings between 1833 and 1897 were unsuccessful, while in 1898 Crete became autonomous and remained so until 1913, when it joined Greece officially on December 1, 1913.In World War II, the island of Crete provided the setting for the Battle of Crete (May 1941).
Crete is one of the 13 regions into which Greece is divided. It forms the largest island in Greece and the second largest (after Cyprus) in the East Mediterranean, with a population of 650,000 (2005). The island has an elongated shape : it spans 260 km from east to west and 60 km at its widest, although the island is narrower at certain points, such as in the region close to Ierapetra , where it reaches a width of only 12 km. Crete covers an area of 8,336 skm, with a coastline of 1046 km ; to the north it broaches the Sea of Crete , to the south the Libyan Sea in the west the Myrtoan Sea, and toward the east the Karpathion Sea. It lies approximately 160 km south of the Greek mainland.
Crete is extremely mountainous, and its character is defined by a high mountain range crossing from West to East, formed by three different groups of mountains. These are:
the White Mountains or Lefka Ori (2,452 m)
the Idi range (Psiloritis (35.18 deg. N 24.82 deg. E) 2,456 m)
the Dikti mountains (2,148 m)
Kedros (1,777 m)
Thripti (1,489 m)
These mountains gifted Crete with fertile plateaus, such as Lasithi, Omalos and Nidha , caves, such as Diktaion and Idaion and gorges such as the famous Gorge of Samaria. The protected area of the Samaria Gorge is the home of kri-kri, while Cretan mountains and gorges are refuges for the endangered vulture Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus).
Crete is divided into 4 prefectures (administrative areas). Prefecture = "Nomos (νομός)" in Greek:
- Chania / Hania Prefecture or "Nomos Chanion", west Crete
- Rethymnon Prefecture or "Nomos Rethymnou", west Crete
- Heraklion / Iraklion Prefecture or "Nomos Irakliou", east Crete
- Lassithi Prefecture or "Nomos Lassithiou", east Crete
In each prefecture there are several Municipalities. Each of them includes several towns and villages.
Crete straddles two climatic zones, the Mediterranean and the North African, mainly falling within the former ,as such, the climate in Crete is primarily temperate. The atmosphere can be quite humid, depending on the proximity to the sea, while winter is fairly mild. Snowfall is common on the mountains between November and May, but rare at the low lying areas - especially near the coast when it only stays on the ground for a few minutes/hours. During the Cretan summer, average temperatures reach the high 20s-low 30s (Celsius), with maxima touching the upper 30s to mid 40s.The south coast, including the Messara plain and Asterousia mountains, falls in the North African climatic zone, and thus enjoys significantly more sunny days and high temperatures throughout the year. In southern Crete date palms bear fruit and swallows remain year-long, without migrating to Africa.
Dining out on Greek Food
The locals tend to take their main meal after midday 13.00 onwards.
When eating out they take their food seriously and at night rarely go out before 21.00 and then taking their time over a leisurely meal usually with a large group of friends and family.There are still many tavernas where you can go into the kitchen and choose your meal straight from the pot!
Here are a few suggestions for some local dishes:
Tzatziki – a dip made from yoghurt, cucumber and garlic, very refreshing and excellent with fried vegetables or fish.
Taramosalata – a dip made from fish roe blended with bread, onion, olive oil and lemon juice. Wonderful with fresh crusty bread.
Skorthalia – mashed potato with a difference. A dip of potatoes mashed with olive oil and garlic usually eaten with fish in batter.
Meletzanasalata – aubergines mashed with garlic, parsley, and mayonnaise.
Saganaki – a slab of hard cheese floured or in batter and fried. Eat with a few drops of lemon juice squeezed over. A firm favourite with the kids.
Tiropitakia – mini cheese pies.
Feta Cheese – usually served with a Greek salad but may also be eaten as a starter on its own sprinkled with oregano and a little olive oil. Feta is made from sheep or cows milk and is white, creamy and a little salty to taste.
Kolokithia Tiganita – courgettes thinly sliced and fried. Accompany with Tzatziki.
Meletzanes Tiganita – aubergines thinly sliced and fried. As above.
Kolokithakia Vrasta – baby courgettes boiled and served as a salad.
wonderful when dressed with a little oil and lemon juice. Best in the spring, early summer months.
Horiatiki Salata – Greek salad consisting of: shredded lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, onions, feta cheese, sprinkled with oregano and dressed with olive oil. Usually eaten with the starters but can be ordered to accompany the main meal. Later in the summer the lettuce is often replaced by shredded cabbage.
Dining out on Greek Food……………….
Soups – not a huge item on the menu. In fish tavernas try the fish soup or home made chicken soup when available with egg and lemon.
Moussaka – the most well known and popular dish in Greece and found in most tavernas. Layers of minced beef, aubergines, and potatoes, topped with bechamel sauce and sprinkled with cheese.
Souvlaki – there are two versions. The large souvlaki with pieces of pork or beef threaded on a skewer with pepper and onions or the smaller one of meat on wooden sticks with no vegetables, both cooked over a charcoal fire. The smaller version is known as Souvlaki Kalamaki and is usually available in grill bars or pitta bars.
Yemista – stuffed green peppers and tomatoes, usually with rice, parsley, mint, onions and a little mince. If you want it without the meat ask for “horis kreas”.
Gouvetsi – Lamb slowly cooked in the oven, in a rich tomato sauce with small shaped macaroni.
Dolmathes – Vine or cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, parsley, onions sauteed in olive oil and sometimes served with egg and lemon sauce.
Pastitsio – Layers of macaroni, mince, topped with bechamel sauce and grated cheese.
Keftethes – Meat balls usually cooked in a tomato sauce and served with rice.
Stifado – Chunks of beef stewed with whole baby onions.
You do not always have to go to a fish taverna for seafood. Most tavernas will have one or two seafood dishes on the menu.
Most fish are served with the head in tact “the best part” according to the locals. At first glance at the menu you may think fish is expensive, but remember, it is priced by the kilo, so when you choose your fish it will be weighed and priced accordingly.
Generally a whole fish is grilled and served with an oil / lemon dressing.
Dining out on Greek Food……………….
Astakos – Lobster or more often crayfish usually found in fish tavernas.
Kalamari – Squid deep fried, tender and succulent, can convert the most hardened meat eaters.
Octapothi (octopus) – Soupies (cuttlefish) – Garithes (prawns) – Grilled over charcoal and served with oil / lemon dressing.
Methia – Mussels usually found in a risotto or on their own in a wine sauce.
Greeks do not generally end their meal with a dessert. They are more likely to enjoy a Greek pastry in the late afternoon with a coffee.
You will always find a selection of Greek pastries on the menu.
Baklava – chopped nuts rolled in filo pastry soaked in a honey syrup.
Kataifi – the same filling as Baklava but rolled in shredded pastry.
Galaktobouriko – a semolina based custard filling topped with filo pastry, syrup and cinnamon, baked in the oven.
Yaourti me meli – Yoghurt topped with honey and sprinkled with chopped walnuts. Be warned, in Greece this is considered an aphrodisiac!
Photos by Andy_Crete