I was not one to be sentimental about heritage when I was a child.

This was, more or less, by design. My family wanted me to concentrate more on the present than the past, except of course when it came to the study of historical personages who did things of note. I wrote family tree projects with the cold lens of an academic, and the idea of ancestry became so far removed from me that it was more like examining the history of a stranger rather than analyzing myself. I was a mutt, without a past, without roots, without ancestors. For the most part this was not an issue, and my love of history was no less strong.
Which brings me to the grand epiphany I experienced in the Archaeological Museum of Crete.

There is a reason why this museum is on every “Best Thing to See in Crete” article in existence; it is home to antiquities of the most unique nature. It is one of the oldest museums in Greece, home to collections that began before the formal construction of the museum. The Archaeological Museum contains artifacts from every pivotal evolution for the Minoan people spanning the last 5,500 years, neatly placed into 12 expansive rooms on the first floor alone.

The Minoans were the first real civilization on the island of Crete, emerging from the neolithic population that first inhabited it. They were the Bronze Age powerhouse, with a formidable navy, a rich artistic tradition that went through several evolutions, and a complex and intricate religious system that archaeologists are still unearthing new details about. They were the epicenter of trade, connecting the Hellenic peoples of mainland Greece with Cyprus, Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. They weren’t just the first inhabitants of Crete, they were Crete.

Upon entering the museum on a hot July afternoon, I found myself taken by the sudden weight of how old the Minoan civilization truly is. I have been to this museum many times before, but something about this visit struck me as particularly meaningful. The stone basins that they used for ritual cleaning, the delicate golden jewelry that is carefully displayed, even the little clay bulls all on display, were made by human hands so long ago I could not completely wrap my head around it.

I forgot to breathe as I stared at the famous Bee pendant, which was unearthed at the archaeological site of Malia in 1930. It is an intricate depiction of two bees (or wasps), each curved to form a semi-circle, meeting at their heads and stingers respectively. Three gold orbs hang from each wing and their connected stingers, and a circle of gold (perhaps meant to symbolize a fruit) sits between them. The piece is beautiful, and time was clearly spent carefully accounting for each detail in the textured wings and bodies of the bees. The realization that this was made by human hands, loving, careful hands, hit me like a train. Who had worn this pendant? Whose hands first undid the clasp and hooked it about their neck? Was it a gift? A purchase? A tribute to a ruler? ‘Who were you?’ I wondered, looking at every piece of jewelry that lined the glass cases.

Then there was the Phaistos disc, discovered at the Phaistos palace ruin in 1908. It is an unassuming object, a dull brown circle with a diameter not much bigger than my outstretched hand, (5.9 inches to be exact). It’s not in the cases that line the walls, but on its own encased pedestal in the center of one of the rooms. On each side of the disc, etched symbols follow a spiral pattern into the center of the disc, forty-five pictorial signs that are repeated and grouped in sixty-one different segments, on both sides of the disc. Is it a song? A hymn? A spell? Perhaps we will never learn the truth, as the disc is written in Linear A, and is still being deciphered. The placard on the pedestal dates the Phaistos disc to the early 17th Century BC. Yet again I found myself confronted with the almost uncomfortable fact of time, and simultaneously, how a human hand had carefully and expertly shaped and carved this little mystery.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the Archaeological Museum of Crete is how much art it showcases. There is something so intrinsically human about being an artist, and I think it is a testament to the Minoans that so much of their art has survived. A marvelous sculpture of bull-jumpers mid-leap represents the first time that art depicted motion in a three-dimensional space. I wondered if the artist knew they were the first, or if they had, like all artists, assumed someone had beaten them to it.

Just next to this statue is the famous bull-jumper fresco, depicting three jumpers, two female and one male, participating in the sport. One woman grabs the deadly horns of the charging bull, preparing to propel herself into the somersault. Her eyes shine with the confidence of an expert sportswoman, cautious but unafraid. The man is halfway through his leap, his hands spring boarding off the bull’s mighty back, his body moving on autopilot. The second woman stands behind the bull, arms outstretched in triumph, having just completed her leap. The bull remains forever in his forward momentum, ever charging, his brown and white coat standing out vividly against the bright blue background of the fresco. Out of all the frescos that once called the Palace of Knossos home only to reside in this museum, I think this is the most beautiful. There is a triumphant nature to it, not a mastery of nature but perhaps a mastery of the self; total control over one’s body is the only way to survive a bull-jump.

Only two rooms later, I found myself staring at the ‘Ring of Minos,’ a small golden ring engraved with the Minoan Epiphany Cycle. Dating somewhere between 1450 and 1400 BC, the golden ring depicts the Goddess, the primary deity that was worshipped by the Minoans for the majority of their existence. She exists in three forms: hovering in the air, on a platform that is also holding Horns of Consecration (which visitors of Knossos will recognize as the giant statue of Bull’s Horns that faces the mountains), and rowing a boat beneath a fruit tree. The goddess, and by default the Minoans, have dominion over air, land, and sea, and all who beheld the ring were meant to recognize this as fact.

When I first laid eyes on the ring, I was suddenly met with a fierce rush of emotion, and tears threatened to escape my eyes. I was taken aback by this. Though beautiful, the ring is quite small, and not the only ring on display in the case. But something about it touched me, and I was forced to quit the area before I embarrassed myself. When I visited the museum again a month later with a friend who had never been before, I was surprised to feel the wave of emotion flow over me again. Once again I left to explore the other artifacts as I let the feeling pass. I never figured out the reason why I was so affected. Maybe I don’t need to.

But perhaps the most striking thing about this museum is how much of the collection revolves around death as much as life. A sizeable portion of the museum is devoted to the Minoans’ burial practices, showcasing how they evolved as their civilization progressed. Jars specifically made to hold anointing oils for burial, tools to carry out burial ceremonies, and funerary reliefs reveal insights into how the Minoans cared for their dead. I was particularly struck by the examples of several Protopalatial, Neopalatial, and Final Palatial tombs, especially the large clay pots that housed skeletal remains of what was once a fellow human being. There is something to be said about the way a civilization cares for its dead. The Minoans, in most stages of their existence, took great care and reverence in burials. Staring at the visible skeleton that was laid to rest in one such great jar, I felt it spoke great volumes that, thousands of years later, evidence of this care still remains. I was one of thousands who came before that followed in the grand tradition of paying my respects to the noble dead.

I could write a book on all the wonders held by this museum. Several people already have. I could talk of the Snake Goddess, of the bull heads, the toys, or the effigies. I could go blue in the face exalting the historical importance of the collection in the cold and clinical academic context. Better men and women than I have long since beaten me to it. I have been to this museum several times in my life, but walking through those rooms on that hot July day, it finally became real to me that the Minoans did not exist in an abstract. The Minoan people filled their days with creating art, raising families, honoring their gods, waging war. They led the way of commerce in the Mediterranean and created a civilization rich with an art and culture worth remembering. They built homes and palaces, storefronts and temples. They built a life. Like I’m trying to. Like you, most likely, are trying to.

I still do not feel any strong ancestral tie. I do not feel as if I ‘belong’ in any place or among any people specifically. I don’t expect that to change, and I don’t know if I need it to. But what I feel instead is the commonality that spans across millennia to connect us as human beings attempting to turn our little lives into something worthy of remembrance.

And that is a tie I will cherish forever.

By Katarina Kapetanakis

I have been writing for Wine Dark Sea Villas for almost two years now, and I am shocked to discover that I have not written about the city of Chania in all that time. I’m flabbergasted. Surely, I thought to myself as I scrolled through old entries, I would have written about Chania? Crete’s oldest port city, its original capital, my first real introduction to Cretan life…surely I would have written about this beautiful town by now. Sadly, I have been remiss in my duties as vacation raconteur, a mistake that I wish to rectify immediately.

Chania has roots that stretch all the way back to the days of the ancient Minoans, the original inhabitants of Crete. Back then, it was known as Kydonia, the source for the word quince, (which is appropriate, considering the prevalence of the fruit). One myth establishes that the ancient city-state was founded by Cydon, a son of Hermes (or Apollo, depending on who you ask), and his wife Akakallis, who was the daughter of King Minos. Another myth states Minos himself was the founder of this powerful port. Archaeologists are still excavating parts of the old town, and have determined that this ancient city-state (for all major cities on the island were self-governing seats of power) was not only an important center for trade, but was also constantly at war with other city-states like Aptera, Phalasarna, and Polyrrinia. Kydonia even has a small appearance in Homer’s Odyssey, though the mention is quite brief.

By 69 B.C., Kydonia had been conquered by the Roman consul Caecilius Metellus, though it was allowed to operate as an independent city-state. Fast forward a few hundred years and we find Kydonia renamed Al Hanim (Arabic for ‘the inn’), during a period known as the Rule of Arabs, once the island itself was conquered and the previous Byzantine rulers were ousted. In 961 AD, the city was reclaimed by the Byzantines, and renamed the city once more to the Greek ‘Chania’. The name has stuck, despite a temporary change under Venetian rule to the Latin ‘Cydonia.’ Since then, the city has changed hands multiple times, from the Venetians to the Ottomans, from them to the native Greeks, to a brief occupation by the Nazis during World War II, and finally, back into the permanent hands of the Cretans, though the capital of Crete was moved to Heraklion in 1971 after thousands of years of turmoil. I’ve done my best to condense a rich history for the sake of clarity, but I highly encourage readers to look into the fascinating and extensive history of this beautiful port city.


Of course, my own history with this city also has its twists and turns, and my impressions of the place have led to a deepening appreciation for Chania, its people, and its impact on the island of Crete. Every time I visit, I make sure to pay at least one visit to the city. You can never actually park close to the old parts of town, (unless you’re extraordinarily lucky, that is), but the parking garages that lie just outside the borders aren’t too far away to stroll leisurely into town. You may be tempted to visit the beaches there, with soft sand and clear blue water, with strange and curious ruins dotting the coast line and the road leading into the town, the Necropolis of Chania. The path is a straight-forward, uncomplicated one into the heart of the town, where vine-covered trellises grant much-appreciated shade to restaurants. Though the smell of the food might beckon you to stay, as it most certainly does to me whenever I go, I recommend that you take one of the alleyways down to the pier before you eat. There’s time to eat later.

Pick any one of the alleyways that presents itself. As long as it leads downward, you’re going the right way. Wonderful shops line both sides of the street, from the more touristy beach shops and ice cream stores, to the markets and stores that sell gorgeous and intricately painted wooden religious iconography in the orthodox style. Maybe you’ll pick up a set of komboloi, unique to you, that you can flip over your hand as you stare out over the harbor and out into the open sea beyond. It’s perfect for that kind of meditation, after all.

The harbor itself is lined with shops and tavernas of all kinds, though perhaps it is best not to dine at these particular tavernas that tend to overcharge visitors who come from the cruise ships, knowing they have no time to wander the city streets. Once you’ve decided to eat, you’re better off at one of the delicious tavernas you passed on your way down to the harbor. There are more novelty shops along this road, perfect for finding just the right gift for that friend or relative you’ve left behind. You can’t go wrong with a postcard. But the best thing about the harbor is the beautiful crystalline water, a blue-green window into another world where colorful fish often swim amongst the rocks. There are glass-bottomed boat tours that you can take for a leisurely two-hour excursion, and even a submarine ride that can show you the ocean in ways the average tourist has probably not seen before. In all the years I’ve visited, I’ve never taken either voyage, but one day I hope to.


If you’re facing out towards the water, the right hand side of the pier is where an ancient and beautiful mosque lies, a remnant of the Ottoman occupation. On the left hand lies the War museum and the Nautical museum of Crete, both filled with impressive collections that will thrill history lovers. (There are, in fact, several worthwhile museums to visit in Chania, including but not limited to: the Archaeological Museum of Chania in Saint Francis Monastery, the Folklore Museum, the Municipal Art Gallery, the Byzantine/Post-Byzantine Collection, the House of Eleftherios Venizelos, and the Museum of Typography.) Of these museums, I can only really speak in great length about the War museum, a place I highly recommend for anyone who wants to learn more about the heroic Cretan resistance to Nazi occupation.

Explore the alleys leading up and away from the port. Don’t be too afraid of getting lost: you can always find your way back by heading downhill. Up in the twisting alleys, you’ll find art galleries and unique pieces, evidence of Chania’s growing artistic community. If you’re a photographer like me, you’ll find wonderful shots around every corner, from open doorways leading to vine-covered stone courtyards to cats resting in the shade, and if you want to find wonderful, handmade textiles, you’ve certainly come to the right place. Stick around the town for a night of music and fun, as there’s quite an indie scene that’s up and coming in Chania, not to mention the flourishing Jazz scene. (Don’t even get me started on native Cretan music, which you can find in abundance).

Chania has something for everyone, whether you simply want a fun day out in the sun, a day on a boat, an afternoon of exploring museums and shops, or culture. It is rich in a history that is palpable, architecture that entrances, and a people who have pride in their city. Though I’ve been remiss in sharing my love of this enchanting place, it’s better late than never.


By Katarina Kapetanakis

To look at it now, you’d never know that Gortyn, or Gortyna, (or Gortys for that matter), was once the most prominent city in ancient Crete. In fact, from the outside, you wouldn’t think of it much except as a passing roadside attraction. I can’t say I took notice of it until I felt the car slowing down, and looking up I found myself in a parking lot that was most definitely not for the beach I thought we had been en route towards. I discovered, shortly, that though the place is unassuming from the outside, the archaeological site of Gortyna is not one to be missed.

Gortyna is now a small unassuming archaeological site that had been discovered in the later 1800s, but once it spanned so far and wide that it governed the whole southern-central part of Crete, including part of Rhethymnon. It was more important than even Knossos or Phaistos was at a time, and their Great Inscription, a summary of legal code that even today is considered advanced and complex, was a testament to their importance. Gortyna was a city of firsts, it seems: it was the first prosperous and powerful city in Crete during the Hellenistic era, the first Cretan city to fall under Roman rule, (including such updates as a new circular theater, a third agora, and a hippodrome), the first city to become an anchor to Christianity when Saint Titus preached there, and more. And  yet today, a stroll through the grounds of Gortyna is less a trip back in time than it is a wander through a ghost town, where nature seems to have reclaimed the land that once was a great metropolis. Giant lizards scurried in and out of cracks and crevices while cats lounged lazily in the sun, as usual in places they probably shouldn’t have been, and in the undergrowth the hum of the insects set the perfect soundtrack to my exploration. I had no idea the importance of the place at the time, as the placards and information cards were limited. But the site had a weight to it, the sort of calm one experiences when walking through a town that was once alive. The shadows from the columns of the ancient Odeon engulfed me and whispered to me questions of who else had stepped into their shade, who had walked these halls before I had. Who had walked these worn dirt roads before me? Had the people who had built these columns, once so tall, foreseen their toppling? Had they known people would hop on and off ledges, through phantom walls into rooms that no longer existed? I thought about that as I stood in the center of what used to be a house, or maybe a store. I was never to find out.

Despite not knowing a bit of the history of the place before visiting, the heat of the day and the surroundings lent itself to dreams of when the city was in its prime, and it was easy to slip into the fantasy of wandering the streets of a busy Grecian city as the theater across the way performed its latest epic drama. I had heard that it was here Europa was finally seduced by Zeus, after he had whisked her away, and the three great kings of Crete were conceived under a plane tree that still stands.  This fine line between myth and reality is so blurred in a place like Gortyna, where the facts are just obtuse enough to make one believe that anything was possible. So much was born in Gortyna: Roman influence, the root of Christianity in Crete and Greece…why not the royal sons of Zeus? Was it so impossible?

But of course, I haven’t even discussed their own unique wonder yet.

The most incredible part of Gortyna is the olive grove. I have never before had the pleasure of walking with trees that were there long before the existence of modern civilization. Trees that are some of the oldest in existence reside here, thick and worn and bent with age, but still strong and firm. Perhaps they’re a reflection of how the people age on Crete, growing stockier and more knobby, but never weaker, never less fascinating, never less beautiful. Imagine being able to reach out and touch a living thing that existed at a time when the ruins around you once stood tall. Imagine feeling the wind blowing through their leaves, the same wind that would have brushed against the faces of the ancient citizens, perhaps as they waited for the shops to open or a show to begin. Imagine placing your hand on the same bark that someone who existed before Christ himself placed his hand. It is a surreal and beautiful experience, this testament to living history. All at once you become a part of it, and a connection is forged between you and the rubble that surrounds you, the cicadas, the cats, the once great pillars and carved legal codes. All of it is connected and alive again, standing there in the olive grove.


A landscape reflected in its people is perhaps the most beautiful monument to civilization that stands today. I don’t think even the ruins would dispute this.

By Katarina Kapetanakis

Whenever I travel, I like to take a day or so to visit the museums of the place I’m staying in. I always thought places like art museums hold the best of what humanity has to offer, and art museums that highlight the respective culture of the town or country is even more special. And in the case of Crete, it shows just how important art has always been and always will be to the Cretan people.

It’s true, Crete is not known for being an artist colony. Perhaps it should be. Towns like Rethymno and Chania have elegant artist workshops tucked away in their alleys and byways, often covered in flowering trellises with their art hanging on door-frames and windows. From the brightest colors in hyper realistic paintings of the sea, or paintings of olive trees done in an impressionist style, or stunning charcoal works of boats in harbors, these hidden gems line the walls and are stacked upon tables for those willing to look through the vast number of artworks. Sometimes you can catch the artist in their work, electric fans whirring above them, the smell of cigarette smoke wafting through their open windows and into the street. A still life all its own unfolds before you, and if you’re smart, you’ll walk away with one of these paintings or pastels or charcoal drawings that serve as a better representation of that magnificent island than any photo ever could.

The Dolphin Fresco of Knossos

These artists are continuing a long history of Cretan art. Visit the archaeological museums in Heraklion and you will see, the people on this island have been connected to art since the Minoans ruled the island. Frescoes were the most prevalent examples, such as the dolphin fresco that once adorned the wall of the Queen’s Megaron, private apartments at the palace of Knossos. It hangs now in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, where the rich blues and uncanny fluidity of them entrance visitors from all around the globe. How did this fresco come to be so blue, you wonder? Historians may be puzzled, as the color was so unusual for the late Bronze age, but any artist could tell you how and why: the island inspires bright and vibrant colors, it inspires movement, it inspires life in its art. If you doubt me, take a look at the Bull-Leaping Fresco in the first floor of the museum, a work of art that, like the Dolphin fresco, used to adorn the palace walls at Knossos. A charging, angry reddish-brown bull with horns of gold is framed against a sky-blue background, as three men take the animal by its horns and catapult themselves over it, gracefully somersaulting over his back as the bull rages on. Grace in the face of certain peril, captured in all its wondrous fluidity and color. It is life in motion, captured forever in stucco.

The Bull-Leaping Fresco

Life in Crete is vibrant. It is loud, always in motion, and always colorful. Perhaps that is why the art style has always reflected as such. It is unique, and even if Crete hasn’t been acknowledged as a haven for artists, those who come here with no expectation leave here marveling at the beauty of the world around them…as seen through Cretan eyes. It is a celebration of life.

What more can you ask of an artist?

Life in Color

By Katarina Kapetanakis