Crete & Santorini
The Minoans are best known for their huge labyrinthine ‘palaces’ - the greatest of which, at Knossos, was supposedly where Theseus slew the Minotaur. Knossos and all of the Minoan sites we visit have their own unique and characteristic charm and elegance, demonstrated in a lively and free artistic expression, and an obvious delight in realistic decoration.
Begin on the beautiful, tiny island of Santorini, ‘Pompeii of the Aegean’, buried suddenly during the cataclysmic eruption of Thera - which signalled the ‘beginning of the end’ of Minoan civilization. In Crete we continue to trace the story of the Minoans, whose writing, organization and ambition had a profound influence on the development of ancient Greece, and thus the western world.
- Enjoy special access to the Minoan palace complex of Malia,with its great courtyards, crypts and circular granaries
- Wander the recently re-opened city of Akrotiri, the ‘Pompeii of the Aegean’ — buried and preserved by the eruption of 1500 BC.
- Elegant sites, wild-flowers, expert guides and the warm waters of the Mediterranean... Who could ask for more?
- Ancient Greek
- Special Access
Our flight touches down in Santorini, the southernmost island of the Cyclades. After checking in to our gorgeous hotel, we relax and prepare ourselves for the next few thrilling days of sightseeing.
We begin our first full day on the captivating island of Santorini at the Prehistoric Museum in Fira, housing a selection of dazzling wall paintings from the Minoan buildings at Akrotiri, as well as a large number of artefacts found in various island excavations. Don’t miss jugs depicting elegant birds, dating from the Middle Cycladic period of 1800 to 2000 BC, and the statue of the golden goat, discovered in Akrotiri in 1999.
This afternoon we continue to Akrotiri itself. Destroyed by a catastrophic volcanic eruption in around 1500 BC and buried in ash, the city is reminiscent of Pompeii, and has retained some impressively well-preserved houses. The drainage systems, complex buildings, and magnificent wall paintings still in place indicate a once prosperous society, with many successful trade links. We admire the delightful ‘Fresco of the Monkeys’ and the ‘House of the Ladies’, with its striking central light well.
After a delicious breakfast we journey up winding roads to the ancient city of Thera, located on a ridge of Messavouno Mountain, some 360 metres above sea level. The site has been under excavation since 1904, and findings from the city have contributed immensely to our understanding of Minoan culture and history. We imagine the people whose lives were centred around Thera’s 800-metre long main street; who attended performances in the city’s enormous theatre; and who worshipped Hermes and Heracles within the walls of the sacred grotto.
This afternoon we visit Panagia Episkopi, a Byzantine cathedral containing many beautiful frescoes, before an exhilarating catamaran ride takes us to our next destination: historic Heraklion. We arrive in Crete’s largest city in time for an independent dinner.
The fourth day of our holiday begins with a trip to the world-renowned Palace of Knossos, a majestic complex erected in Greece’s Bronze Age era, and the largest Bronze Age site in the country. The intricate, multi-storeyed layout of the palace has led to its connection with numerous myths and legends, including that of the Minotaur and the labyrinth. We take in the royal quarters, with their decorated Throne Room, as well as noting the axe stands within the House of the High Priest.
We continue on to the Minoan manor house and outbuildings of Vathypetro, the surviving remnants of a settlement that stretched across three hills. Here we observe an elaborate shrine as well as a wonderfully preserved wine press – one of the oldest in the world.
Following this we return to Heraklion to spend time at the exceptional Heraklion Museum, with its exquisite jewellery and brightly-coloured wall paintings. Within this peerless collection of artefacts from the Minoan age is the iconic bull’s head ‘rhyton’, or ceremonial drinking vessel, brought here from Knossos Palace.
We enjoy a morning at the important Greco-Roman site of Gortyn in the verdant Messara Valley, a gem of the archaeological world since its discovery in 1884. Thought to have once been populated by over 300,000 people, the site is best-known for its collection of 5th century stone blocks, inscribed with the law codes of classical Greece – the oldest and most complete example of coded ancient Greek laws ever found.
We resume our adventures with the Minoans at the magnificent Palace of Phaistos. Famous finds here include thousands of documents, some inscribed with the earliest known occurrence of the still undeciphered writing of the Minoans – a script also known as ‘Linear A’. We leave the columns and courtyards of Phaistos to visit Ayia Triada, a grand but ruinous Bronze Age villa that has yielded more examples of Linear A tablets than any other site of its kind.
Our day starts with a trip to the Palace of Malia, a huge Minoan complex just north of the Lasithi Mountains, significant not only for its size, but also its strategic port, skylights and grand facades. We then proceed to the well-preserved late Minoan town of Gournia, one of the few sites in the region to have been fully excavated. The remains of Gournia cluster around cobbled streets on the side of a hill and are crowned by the now-ruined palace. Traces of some 50 houses are in evidence here, as well as a court and cemetery.
This afternoon we have the option of a boat trip to the haunting and evocative island of Spinalonga, location of a former leper colony, which was still in use right up until 1962. It is believed that the island was cut off from the mainland by occupying Venetians in the 16th century in order to strengthen their defences.
This morning we are treated to an encounter with the picturesque ruins of Chamaizi, best known for the unique oval-shaped Middle Minoan building which is located on the summit of the hill here – the only one of its type discovered to date. Following this we have the option to journey by fishing boat across the turquoise Gulf of Mirabello to the tiny island of Mochlos, on which an important Minoan town once stood – a hub of trade and industry. A number of pit graves and tombs have been unearthed here, and the excavations, begun in 1908, continue to this day.
This afternoon is free for us to enjoy our spectacular surroundings at our leisure. Stroll along the splendid coastline, doze in the sunshine or plunge into the warm and welcoming waters near our hotel.
This may well be our last morning in Crete, but the discoveries aren’t over yet. Before we make our journey to the airport, we drive to stunning Sissi to visit the excavations on Kephali Hill, where the Minoan’s earliest known mortuary activity is thought to have taken place.
Alas, it is now time to say good bye to the Minoan world, and our fabulous group, as we make our way back home.
- Expert Guide Lecturer
- Tour Manager
- Local Travel - Private a/c coach
- Entries & Tips - Entry to all sites in program; tips included
- Field Notes
- Hotels - Bed & Breakfast