Crete is the largest island in Greece and the home of some of Greece’s most epic legends. It’s also stuffed full of world-famous archaeological sites and museums, wildlife-rich ecosystems, pretty towns and secluded beaches. Certain areas have gained a rowdier reputation (Malia, we’re looking at you), but it’s only a small part of the island’s rich offering. Planning an idyllic Greek getaway? From the birthplace of Zeus to a leper island, here are a few interesting facts about Crete.
Interesting facts about Crete
1. Zeus was born in Crete
According to Greek mythology, the gods don’t just spring out of anywhere. It all started with Chaos, who created deities such as Erebos and Night, who created more deities, who eventually created Earth (Gaia) and Sky (Ouranos). They created Cronus, who ended up castrating his father. Cronus became leader of the Titans and married Rhea, but received a prophecy that foretold he would be overthrown by his offspring. So he did what anyone would do and swallowed every child he created.
By the time Rhea gave birth to Zeus, she’d had enough of Cronus bumping off all of her chidren. So she hid baby Zeus in a cave on Mountain Ida, in Crete, to save him. He was raised by either wild animals or mythical nymphs.
2. People have been living in Crete for thousands of years
Greek gods aside, Crete’s history dates back thousands of years. Early records date back to the Minoans, a Bronze Age Aegean civilisation that started around 2000 BC and ended with the Greek Dark Ages. They left behind numerous building complexes, sophisticated art and writing systems. The Mycenaeans, Dorians, and Romans all followed.
3. Crete was (possibly) home to Europe’s oldest city
The Palace of Knossos is frequently referred to as the oldest civilization and city in Europe. Located south of Heraklion near the coast of Crete, the Minoans built the complex, which stretches across 150,000 sq. ft. (14,000 sq. metres). British archaeologist Arthur Evans and his team excavated the site in the early 20th century. They also discovered two ancient scripts and the first-ever form of written Greek (Mycenean Greek).
4. Raki is a right of passage
Raki is a traditional Greek drink made with a minimum alcoholic concentration of 37%. Nicknamed the ‘nectar of Crete’, it’s more than a drink but a symbol of friendship and unity. Most people offer it to visitors at home, enjoy it as an aperitif after a meal or share a couple of glasses over a hearty discussion at a cafe.
5. Joni Mitchel lived in a hippie colony in Crete
Matala, a sleepy fishing village in Crete, became an unlikely hotspot for a growing community of backpacking hippies in the 1960s. Before their arrival, most locals had never seen a tourist on the island before. The community made nomadic homes inside the manmade neolithic caves carved into the sandstone cliffs.
One of its most famous residents was Joni Mitchell, who lived here for a few years. Matala makes a regular appearance in some of her songs, with lines like “under a starry dome…beneath the Matala Moon.” It was here that she also immortalised free love in her 1971 song ‘Carey‘, while looking over the beach and lapping waters. While the community is long gone, you can still explore the caves.
6. Cretans consume a lot of olive oil
They take olive oil seriously in Crete. The island is home to one of the oldest olive trees in the world, estimated to be as old as 4,000 years. The perimeter of its trunk measures a monumental 12.5 metres (41 ft) and it’s still producing olives to this day.
Olive oil is an important part of the local diet too. While the average person consumes around one litre of olive oil per year, the average person living in Crete consumers up to 30 times as much!
7. Crete was home to the world’s last leper colony
Just off the coast of Crete is an island called Spinalonga. When Cretans evicted the Turks from the islet in 1904, they transformed it into a leper colony. By 1913, anyone from Greece afflicted with the disease was sent here. Once diagnosed, the authorities would seize their property and assets, revoke their citizenship and wipe their identity. They were deported to the island to die. At its peak, there were 400 people living on the island.
The treatment for leprosy was discovered in the early 1940s, but the Greek state kept the colony in operation until 1957, until a British expert visited the island and denounced the state for failing to provide proper treatment.