Oliver Cross: Ancient ruins and vengeful gods on the island of Crete

There are plenty of ruins to visit in Crete.
There are plenty of ruins to visit in Crete.
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THEY DON’T tell you this in the tourism brochures, but Crete, where I was last week, is one of the few places in Europe where it’s OK to smoke in public.

Waiters in open-fronted bars and restaurants routinely offer you an ashtray even if you’re sitting nowhere near a window, and smoking is done with a flourish, the addicts making extravagant hand gestures and exhaling their poison in great plumes or even smoke-rings. They’re celebrating the fact that there’s no pressure to adopt the furtive, abashed style of smoking usual in Britain and if I were to take up smoking again (which I won’t) I would do it in Crete.

And here, in no particular order, are some other notable aspects of the island.

WORKING AGED: In the Cretan countryside, old woman seem to be constantly at work, while old men spend much of their time in coffee shops. In a mountain village, we saw one ancient woman, barely able to walk, shuffling across the road with a hoe over her shoulder; another was puttering along on a decrepit moped with a Zimmer frame fixed to its back. Presumably, both were getting ready for their next tasks.

HARD TIMES: Our middle-aged tour guide went completely off-script during a lecture on olive oil production. She suddenly started denouncing the politicians who were, she said, more responsible for the collapse of the Greek economy than the bankers.

She was furious at the accusation that the Greeks had brought the crisis on themselves by not working hard enough. “We work harder than anybody else in Europe,” she insisted – and actually (see previous item) I believe her.

She pointed out that the island’s many unfinished apartment blocks, abandoned when the credit ran out, were mainly being built not by speculators but to by parents trying to provide first homes for their children. The established pattern of life had been shattered, she said, and the crisis wasn’t over yet. Things would get worse.

Then, perhaps remembering that she was licensed by the Cretan tourism board to emphasise the islands positive aspects, she said that financial ruin didn’t matter so much when you had blue skies and beautiful seas and so many olives and other fruits that starvation wasn’t an option.

ANCIENT WONDERS: The Minoan palace of Knossos is one of the world’s most accessible treasures – about a 10-minutes ride from the bus station of Crete’s capital, Heraklion, and with no rules preventing you tramping aimlessly around it. I find it difficult to read ruins but it I can see that the palace, an immense structure dating from around 4,000BC, must have had a huge influence on the making of Europe.

Even better than the palace, though, is the Heraklion archaeological museum, which has a huge collection of Minoan artefacts, many looking like they were made yesterday.

The star exhibit is a ‘marine- style’ jug from around 1,500BC showing dolphins and other sea creatures against a background of seaweed and sponges. It is an astonishingly well-executed and lively piece and I like to think that its anonymous creator, having long-since joined the immortals, is now looking down on the admiring crowds at the Heraklion museum and saying “I did that jug – see the octopus, that was me, that was.”

ANGRY GODS: Greek myths make perfect sense when you find yourself in the middle of the most ferocious electrical storm you’ve ever encountered, as we did in Crete. Thunder, lightening and raindrops as hard as shotgun pellets seem far more likely to be the result of a dispute between the gods than the workings of a benevolent creator, particularly if you aren’t far from Mount Olympus.

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