A young man and a princess descend into the darkness. Deep in the maze beneath her father’s palace, they can hear growling. Their torches flicker. A ball of string threads their path back to safety. Once they have killed the monster that lurks here, they will sail away together, escaping the wrath of her father; but for now they advance, slowly, into the shadows.
This is the myth of the Minotaur, the monster that ate sacrificial young Greeks and lived in the bowels of the king’s palace. The real-life palace, called Knossos, was actually the political seat of the Minoan Civilization, Crete’s ancient matriarchy. Now it is an important archeological site and tourist attraction.
Before the classical Greeks, the Minoans ruled the Mediterranean – and apparently kept monsters in their basements. We toured these extensive ruins to learn about the history behind the myth. A short bus ride from the city of Iraklion (Heraklion), Knossos attracts most of the visitors to Crete. Despite the hot, exposed location, it quickly fills with tour groups. The palace has been destroyed by earthquakes, but we could easily discern the maze-like architecture. Archeologists have restored some columns and walls to give a more complete picture of the palace’s former glory.
Our tour guide – a diminutive Greek woman who had been leading tours for nearly 40 years – took us through the throne room and Queen’s chambers, which were delicately painted with blue dolphins. She pointed out the complex system of pipes and giant ceramic jugs used to store oil. Winding staircases and courtyards connected the rooms. Beautiful frescoes added color to the stone buildings. The breathtaking Bull-Leaping Fresco depicts an acrobat vaulting over a charging bull’s horns.
Most of Knossos’ vivid paintings are replicas; the originals are preserved in the Archeological Museum of Iraklion. A trip to Knossos isn’t complete without a visit to this excellent museum. All Crete’s major archeological finds are here: delicate gold filigree jewelry, mysterious tablets, pottery, and even a libation vessel shaped like a bull’s head. The Minoan priestess figurines are an arresting sight, as each woman wields a writhing snake in her hands. Although small, this museum is full of well-preserved artifacts – and is air-conditioned. Ten euros gains you entry to both the Knossos site and the Iraklion Museum. Other Iraklion museums include the Natural History Museum and the large, kid-friendly Crete aquarium.
After a day learning about the ancients, we found ourselves in urban Iraklion. With a bustling pedestrian district at its center, Iraklion is a good place to experience modern Cretan life. Although less charming than the old Venetian towns of Hania or Rethymno, Iraklion has a fresh, animated energy. In the evenings, bars around Iraklion’s central Plateia Venizelou (Lion Square) fill up with young Greeks. We ordered Mythos, Greece’s national beer, and settled in to watch the crowds. Women tottered down the cobbled streets in stilettos. Young men gathered to watch soccer games on TV. A far cry from princesses and monsters, perhaps, but still a vibrant slice of life on Crete.