Crete is the biggest island of Greece and the fifth biggest in the Mediterranean. It covers an area of approximately 8.261 square km. It is 260 km (161.6miles) long, while its maximum width is 60 km (37miles) and its minimum 12 km (7.5miles). The length of its coastal line is approximately 1046 km. It is divided into four prefectures: Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion and Lassithi. The small isles of Gavdos opposite Sfakia, Chrisi or Gaidouronisi (Donkey Island) or Kalderonisi opposite Ierapetra and Koufonisia on the south east corner of the main island are also part of Crete.
Gavdos is visible from Fragokastelo. Regular boat services depart from Chora Sfakion. Some historians relate Gavdos to the ancient island of Calypso, mentioned by Homer, where Ulysses was shipwrecked and kept captive for seven years. In Biblical times it is referred as Klaudos by the Apostles, while the Romans called it Gavdos. Throughout the Venetian rule it was known as Gkotjo. During the Turkish rule, a 15 meter-tall (49 ft) lighthouse was built on one of the island’s peaks (325 meters, 1066 ft), but was later bombed during the Second World War.
Crete is a mountainous island. The three highest formations are Psiloritis, Lefka Ori (White Mountains) and Dicti, with altitudes of 2.456 meters (8058 ft), 2.453 meters (8048 ft) and 2.148 meters (7047 ft) respectively. The mountains split the island into the northern and southern part, creating numerous deep and spectacular gorges.
The longest is the Samaria gorge, otherwise known as Faragas. Samaria is what a deserted village in the middle of the gorge was called. It was named after Ossia Maria (Saint Mary), due the village’s 14th century Byzantine church, devoted to the Sacred Mary of Egypt. The gorge is situated between the mountains of Lefka Ori and Volikas. It is 18 km (11.2 miles) long starting from the village of Omalos at an altitude of 1.250 meters (4101 ft), all the way down to the coastal village of Agia Roumeli.
Its width can be as little as 3 meters (10 ft) at ‘Sideroportes’ (Iron Gates), while its maximum height is 600 meters (1968 ft). In 1962, the village of Samaria was evacuated and the gorge declared a national park, in order to protect the rare Kri-Kri (Cretan goat) and the unique flora of the area. It takes about six hours to cross. Hiking is only permitted from May to October, depending on the amount of rainfall during each winter and spring, as the river passing through the gorge can be dangerous to hikers.
A natural transversal passage between the mountains has been used to connect the main valleys of Crete. In ancient times, this passage was regarded as the centre of Minoan Crete and was chosen for the construction of the cities of Knossos, Phaestos and Gortys.
Knosos is the Palace of King Minos. It is situated around 5 km (3.1 miles) south-east of Heraklion and it covers an area of about 15 square kilometers. Knossos is the first important Minoan Palace of Crete. The palace is built on the hill of Kefala, between the two rivers of Vlichias and Kairatos. The first palace was built in 2000 B.C. but an earthquake in 1600 B.C. caused its complete destruction. The Minoans rebuilt it somewhere between 1600-1550 B.C. Alas, this new palace barely lasted a generation, as yet another earthquake, probably caused by the eruption of the volcano in Thira (Santorini), once again destroyed the Palace in 1500 B.C.
The palace was soon restored and used by the Achaean monarchy, around 1450-1400 B.C. Achaeans brought new customs to the people of Knosos. For instance, there is evidence that burial rituals changed, as copper weapons were found in many tombs. Around 1300 B.C. the Palace was destroyed again, this time from a fire started at the warehouses. It was never restored, until its discovery in 1900 A.D. by Arthur Evans. The archaeological site of the Palace of Knossos is divided into two parts. In the east wing the visitors can have a closer look to the workshops and the warehouses of the Minoan Period and then pass on to the west wing where the religious and royal rooms were suited and admire the famous Throne Room.
Festos is the second most important Minoan Palace found in Crete. It is situated 63 km (39 miles) southwest of Iraklion. It is thought to be the luxurious palace of Rothamanthi, brother of King Minoa. The Palace had to be built twice. The first palace was constructed in 1900 B.C. but an earthquake in 1700 B.C. destroyed it. It was restored in 1650 B.C. and expanded further. However, the new palace did not survive the devastating impact caused by the eruption of the Thira (Santorini) volcano in 1500 B.C. In general, Cretans rebuilt their palaces on top of the ruined ones, always improving them. Faestos is an excellent example of how Cretans used to construct their palaces and societies. It is obvious that in ancient Crete, economy was closely connected to religion, in every aspect of daily life.
Gortys or Gortina or Kortys is situated in the plateau of Messara. The city of Gortis can also be found in the Greek mythology with the names of Ellotis, Larisa and Krimnia. Homer called it Gortys. In classical times, Gortis was strong enough to choose either to become an ally with Knossos or rival it for the domination over Crete. When the Romans invaded the island, the people of Gortina became their allies. Thus, they were the only ones to survive the demolition of Crete’s most famous cities, like Knossos and Festos. Gortys became the most prominent city of Crete, regarded as the capital of the island throughout the Roman era. It was the first city in Crete to become Christian, still growing until Crete was conquered by the Arabs in 863 A.D. Later, during the Venetian era it was abandoned.
A discovery that gives us an insight to the structure of the ancient societies is that of Gortyn Laws. A scripture of legal content was found engraved in a 1.72 meter-high (5.6ft) wall in the ancient city of Gortys. Historians believe that it dates to the 5th century B.C., giving a clear view of the way this society worked. Two parts are particularly interesting. One reveals that the slaves of Gortyna where able to acquire some property under certain circumstances, something unthinkable in other cities of Greece. Another deals with the women of Gortis, who had more privileges than those in the rest of Greece. They could own and sell property, decide for themselves if they want to marry and attend the court without a guardian or other representation, rights that even the women of Athens did not have.
The Cretan climate is regarded as one of the healthiest and mildest in southern Europe. In general, temperature shifts are gradual in changing seasons. Snow covers the peaks of the mountains, but snow fall in coastal areas is very rare. In fact, snow covered parts of Fragokastelo only twice in living memory, although both times were in the last decade. During the summer, the climate is quite hot and dry.