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A panoramic view of Knossos. Click to enlarge (all photos)

A panoramic view of the Palace of Minos at Knossos. Click to enlarge (all photos)

If you’re a hiker, a beach bunny, or an armchair archaeologist there are many must-sees on Crete: trails, sandy beaches, and excavations everywhere. For the rest of us dabblers, one of the must-sees is the Palace of Minos at Knossos (“Knossos” for short), a hilltop ruin near Heraklion that was first inhabited in 7000 B.C.

The current pile dates back only as far as 1450 B.C., when it was inhabited by Minoans, led by King Minos, who in mythology built a labyrinth to hide the Minotaur. The Minotaur was perpetually lost in the labyrinth, which was, as the current thinking goes, Knossos. But all this part you can Google for yourself. Or read Homer.

Though usually wary of load ’em and lead ’em bus tours, the logistics of this trip made that very thing a good idea, so we boarded a bus full of British and Scandinavian tourists and headed for the hills. Our onboard guide was Lisa, a Dane who had married a Cretan thirteen years ago and could now lead tours in all the right languages.

She was fascinating. During the two and a half hour ride, she told us to note the tiny church-shaped boxes at the side of the road, each marking a person who had been killed at that spot. She acknowledged that most of them had been riding motorcycles and scooters without a helmet, since the law only requires that the driver has a helmet in his/her possession, and not on his/her head. A passenger does not need one at all. She wasn’t too kind about Greek auto drivers either.

We had noted – you ought to know this – that Cretans live well into their 90s if they’re going to die of old age. (Google the Mediterranean diet.) But because of the highway/helmet thing, the average life expectancy in Crete is a mere 65.

She also noted that Greek drivers had also accidentally killed a great many animals – sheep and goats – who had wandered into the road. Rather than fences, the powers-that-be planted oleander bushes, lovely to humans, repellent to critters, along the side of the road. Perhaps thorn bushes at head-level would encourage helmet-wearing?

Lisa got talking about Greek weddings, too. The typical Cretan wedding has about 2,500 guests, since both families, the entire bridal party, and even the priest invite their entire family and everybody they know. (Gosh, wouldn’t that solve a lot of guest-list problems?) There are humongous wedding halls for this purpose. The wedding gift is always the same – a little envelope containing about 30 Euros ($40) per guest. The caterer gets about ten Euros and perhaps the hall costs another five Euros (again, per guest). So, if the bride has not gone wacky with the price of the gown, the couple actually makes a profit on the wedding. Isn’t that brilliant?

(Later, they will have to go to about 2500 weddings and christenings with their own little envelopes in hand, so it all comes out even in the end.)

A Cretan father, Lisa told us, has a duty to teach his son two things. One is how to shoot straight, often practiced on road signs at night after father and son have shattered all the pottery in the back yard. The other is how to flirt. This is not actually about sexual seduction, but about selling yourself to people. The hawkers outside restaurants here are practicing the same skill, she said. She said her nine-year-old son was already heaping compliments upon her forty-ish girlfriends.

To a question about the Greek men’s reputation for infidelity, Lisa suggested this was more talk than action, and that, basically, Greek men are committed to make sure all women are “taken care of.”

Oh, what about Knossos? Here we had Miltos, a wonderful registered Knossos guide who led us around the five acres of ruins. What I loved about Knossos was that a British archaeologist named Sir Arthur Evans had actually bought the site in 1900 (AD) and began excavating. As he went along, he also built reproductions of various parts of structures, rebuilt some of the broken oil jugs, erected some identical columns and painted them to original dark red, carted original frescos off to the museum in Heraklion, and repainted copies in the same spot. So there are bits of restoration everywhere, surrounded by the original 4000-year-old rubble, with outlines of the estimated 1500 rooms that made up the palace.

So it’s as though Colonial Williamsburg had left a few original settlers’ houses around to decay, so that one gets an idea of both the antiquity and what the reality would have been.

Still in its original form is the complex plumbing system – the king and queen each had a gravity-powered flush toilet – that still works to drain occasional rain from the ruins. In lieu of glass in his windows and doors, King Minos used leather hides, scraped very thin to be nearly transparent. Also quite astonishing: the original five-foot high clay vessels used for storing wine, oil, and grain. They were so heavy, especially when full, that the outsides are studded with little handles, for many hands were needed.

When Evans was done with his restoration, he gave the land back to Crete. If you possibly can, dear readers, the best way to see Knossos would be with a guide and a small group, at about eight in the morning before the crowds arrive and the place gets hot. The second best way is the way we did it. Visiting independently involves faraway parking and a long queue for tickets. Just saying.

On the way back to Chania, Lisa told us about the traffic-surveillance cameras by the side of the road that Greece had installed to slow drivers down. If you speed, the camera takes your picture and mails it to your home address, and then you pay your ticket. Though this works well enough elsewhere, the independent Cretans saw it as way too Big-Brotherish, and kept using the cameras for target practice. The chief of police kept putting up new ones, insisting this system was going to work.

He kept trying until his wife got a photo in the mail: the chief speeding, with his girlfriend by his side. The system has now been abandoned.

By all means, go to Knossos. But be sure to go with Lisa. Knossos has the rocks, but Lisa has the dirt.

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