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Destinations: Crete in a day

HERAKLION, Greece -- (This article is part of the “Destinations” series which highlights things to see and places to go for Team Aviano members.)

Think of everything that says, “Greece,” in your mind’s eye. Socrates and Aristotle, the Parthenon, the epic tales of Homer, and how you can’t even begin pronouncing “Η Κρήτη είναι φοβερό” all exemplify Greek culture.

Now, except for the fact you probably don’t know the Greek alphabet, just forget all of the above.

The island of Crete and mainland Greece have only been together since the mid-1800s, so differences abound between them. Greece had the ancient Greek civilization and Crete had Minoa, which is an even more ancient civilization. While the Greek mainland has a diverse cultural path, Crete holds firm to their traditions.

Luckily, discovering those traditions only takes a couple days. The rustic, hillside mannerisms of locals contrasts the bustling life of Heraklion, the capital of Crete. Travelling between the hills and the urban jungle doesn’t take all day either.

Capitalizing on the differences ensures you will have a new experience on every excursion, but Knossos, the capital of what was once Minoa, is certainly the place to visit no matter what. The relatively-unknown Minoan civilization pre-dates the Greeks and some say even the Egyptians. The legend of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth originated there in Europe’s oldest city, Knossos.

But I won’t get ahead of myself; let’s talk about how to get to Heraklion, where you’ll begin. I’d suggest hitting up Athens first for a few days, then taking one of the overnight ferries from Athens to Heraklion. You will get a better feel for Greece as a nation, and you won’t break your budget by taking two separate trips.

The overnight ferry will land there around 6 a.m., which gives you plenty of time to plan out your day. So grab some eggs and staka, a traditional clotted cream, for breakfast and get to planning. Knossos should be at the top of the list as number one. Afterward, you can head back into the city.

Public transportation, taxis and tour groups are a few ways to reach the Knossos ruins near Heraklion, and the ride shouldn’t be more than a half hour regardless.

The ruins feature the palace which contained the rulers of Knossos and their families, employees and lower nobility. As such, the tour winds easily through well-explained portions of the large palatial grounds. Visitors can delve into the text of multiple displays around the site or simply peruse the bolded portions, depending on their level of interest.

I strongly suggest a tour from one of the on-site guides if you didn’t come with a tour. Without one, the palace showcases a fine example of ancient architecture, but it doesn’t do justice to the Minoans or their impact on the world.

Our guide was a tad eccentric, drawing connections between the Minoans and Atlantis, but the information grounded in conventional knowledge was enlightening and engaging. After all, a lot of European culture stems from here in some way or another.

I could go on about the culture, but if you follow my same route of travel, you will learn more yourself. Knossos only takes two to three hours out of the day, so head back to the city and grab some grub.

Cretans. Love. Dakos. The appetizer consists of dried bread briefly soaked and topped with tomatoes, feta and what I believe is the contents of a whole spice rack. Afterward, check out the menu. You won’t be able to pronounce any of it, so I’m here for you.

A plate of Gamopilafo, a lamb or goat pilaf, with Sofegado, stewed vegetables, is more than filling. Follow up with almond cake, Amygdalopita, if you have a sweet tooth. Then, find your way to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum for part two.

If the Knossos archaeological site is down the street, you can safely assume the archaeological museum nearby has an in-depth collection of relics from there. At the museum, you can learn all about the legend of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. If that isn’t your fancy, the Minoan religious practices predate Abrahamic and some Eastern religions.

Minoa doesn’t pique your interest? Well, you can learn about their shift to Mycenaean civilization or go back further and learn about the Neolithic people of the island. Other topics include the invasion by mainland Greece and the trade between Crete and Egypt, which led to some scholars tying Crete to Atlantis. Seriously, there is a lot to learn here.

With your brain bursting with conspiracy theories, we can hit the town to share your well-educated guesses with locals. You’ve already had some traditional food, so I suggest going somewhere where Greek tradition blends with foreign cuisine.

Curry Dakos? Sure. Almond cake with Turkish coffee? I’m down. Whatever you do, grab a glass of Cretan wine before you leave. Cretan wine is arguably the oldest-continuously produced wine in Europe, so what you have at the table resembles beverages of 3,000 B.C. Minoans.

If you still have time to spare, taking a walk around Heraklion is a great way to end the evening. Heraklion had been ruled by Arabs, Romans, Italians and Turks before Greece gained control, so the city features eclectic and numerous landmarks.

There you have it. Crete in a day. Head back to Athens on another overnight ferry and fly out that morning, you’ll have dinner at home, no problem. If anything, you will be planning your next trip in the summer to visit the beaches, spas, and mountainside B&Bs. Like I said, “Η Κρήτη είναι φοβερό,” Crete is awesome.