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If you’ve got even a passing knowledge of history and/or Greek mythology, you’ve probably heard of the Minotaur, the monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull, imprisoned in a labyrinth by Minos, king of Greece's island of Crete, and fed human sacrifices. Obviously the bull-headed thing is a little bit of a stretch, but on this island you can visit the spot where this legend may well have originated. On Mount Kefala, a couple of miles outside Crete’s capital Heraklion, lie the ruins of the remarkable (and yes, pretty mazelike) six-acre palace complex of Knossos.
So you’re wondering what’s so remarkable about it, right? Greece is pretty much crammed with ancient ruins, after all. But it pretty much doesn’t get more ancient than this. Knossos predates – by a lot – classical ruins like the Parthenon; this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a remnant of a Bronze Age civilization at least 4,000 years old. It’s hard not to feel at least a little awestruck while wandering corridors, stairways, roads, and rooms like the “throne room,” which holds an alabaster seat that might’ve been a ruler’s throne or might’ve been meant for a statue. There are colorful frescoes and mosaics galore, too – actually, there was a bit of controversy about that when archaeologists were uncovering the site in the late 19th century, because here and there they had contemporary artists, er, “touch up” and embellish ancient artwork that was mostly fragmentary (like the bit of business in the snapshot above, actually). They also stabilized some of the structures with cement, which these days would be a huge no-no in archaeology but is thought to have helped keep more of the complex from crumbling into dust. And by the way, if you make it here, don’t forget to also pay a visit to the museum in town, which houses a lot of objects found at the site and others around Crete.
And finally, in case you're wondering about how comfortable it is to visit Greece in these difficult times for the country, word is that while the situation can be a little tense and strike-prone in parts of Athens and other large mainland cities, out here on the islands it seems pretty much same-old, same-old (and in any case, they're smart cookies and well aware how much more they depend on tourism than the mainland does, and all the more so with the drop in visitor arrivals lately).
For more info on Crete and Knossos: VisitGreece.gr, ExploreCrete.com.
Photo: Flickr/Eliza Minea