Visiting Knossos Palace: Exploring Greece and Crete's History
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History of KnossosThe Palace of Knossos is one of four original palaces built 4,000 years ago, which acted as the cultural and spiritual hubs on the island. I arrived with the throngs of people to view this amazing complex during the stillness of a hot July day, the sounds of the cicadas and peacocks offering a counterpoint to the various languages of tour groups from far off countries. At first glance the Palace seems disjointed and unimpressive; a smattering of large hewn stones atop a small mountain.
But as you make your way across the upper flat portion, you begin to realize the depth that the Palace goes to, the complexity of not only the construction of a 22,000 square meter project, but the idea that, even back then, there was a sense of proper architecture, order, and a desire to live life in connection with ones surroundings.
Exploring KnossosFor example, the King and Queen of Minos and their respective rooms were built to allow air to flow through upper clerestory openings, taking advantage of the cool evenings (as the Crete heat would rise and dissipate) and undoubtedly keeping the ruling couple cool during the hot days. The Minoans had sewage systems, running water, and toilets in every house, even central heating, over 1,000 years before the other Greeks. It was believed that a gigantic volcanic eruption took place in the middle of the island of Santorini, followed by a series of massive tidal waves that ravaged most of the Mediterranean coasts and all but wiped out the Palace. So while you stand here, you are standing on a lost civilization, obliterated by Nature herself.
It amazes me that you can walk down staircases created four millennia ago, see the clay plumbing pipes, and vessels and vases that have withstood the test of time for so long, some partially reconstructed, some still in their original form. Parts of the walls have been rebuilt, and frankly anything pretty much over three feet tall is not original. Though there was much discontent during the 1920s when it was decided to commit to this partial rebuilding of the Palace (it violates the true and organic nature of the historical context, they say), it definitely does help give an idea of the size and scope of the place, and the probable colors and decorative motifs used during the Minoan Empire.
As was true then, and is true today, we seek to beautify our world, to enhance it for the betterment of society. Sure the Palace has visible storage areas, pedestrian thoroughfares, and living quarters for royalty and commoners, but it was done with a certain flair.
Of particular note to me were the winemaking capabilities of the Cretans, the bathtubs, and all the needs for a working society. There is an amphitheatre, which many believe is the oldest in Europe. These are ultimately not the remnants of a forgotten society, but a stepping stone to our current world since all that has come before us has an impact on our lives today. And that's the lesson of Knossos. You innately understand that, though 4,000 years have passed, the needs of a society to be remembered, to build not just an architectural marvel, but to construct a society which includes the arts, spiritual and cultural enterprises, is frankly no different than today.
You can tour the Palace on your own, spending as much time as you wish (all signs are in Greek and English) or hire a private guide who will give you a two-hour history intensive tour, as I did. One is not necessarily better than the other; however a guide will give you insight you won't have, and answer your questions.
If you forgo a private guide make certain you do some research in advance, to understand the how and the why of the place you are in. The Palace is a modern day museum -- a place to ponder how much has changed in the last four millennia, and yet how similar life's fundamentals remain.
If You Go
Getting ThereFrom Heraklion it's a 30 minute via taxi or rental car, and there is a Knossos Palace city bus that will also get you there. In addition tour buses offer full day excursions which include the Palace as part of a longer itinerary. Arrive as early as possible to beat the heat and the crowds and bring water with you as there is little shade. There's a small gift shop, where you can purchase a walking guide. There's also a cafe at the Palace and a few other eateries across the street. The food is average, and a little pricy, since they thrive on tourists.
There's not much else nearby so this is really a destination visit. If you hire a private guide the cost is about 150 Euro and it's best to hire them in advance via a reputable travel agency.
The Palace opens at 8 a.m. and closes as early as 3 p.m. and as late as 5 p.m.
Read more about Historical travel in Greece
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Michael Cervin is the author four Moon travel books, and two travel blogs He is the contributing travel writer, and restaurant critic for the Santa Barbara News Press. Notable publications include Decanter Magazine, Westways, Wine Enthusiast, Skywest, The Writer, Wine & Spirits, Food & Beverage World, and more than 80 others. Michael Cerwin also contributes to NPR, and is a regular travel expert on the award-winning Around the World Radio, and The Big Blend's Vacation Station.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author