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CRETE is to Greece what Scotland is to the UK, the Deep South is to the US, or Bavaria is to Germany: a country-within-a-country, with its own traditions, unique character and history, and even linguistic idiom, but an integral part of a unified national whole.

Although, fiercely nationalistic and protective of their Greek national identity, Cretans are also extremely proud and particular about coming from Crete. And for good reason. The island, at about 12,500 sq.km. the largest in the country and the third largest in the Mediterranean, has always been just "a little different" than the mainland. The first Greek territory to establish an advanced civilization, centered around Minoan Knossos and Faestos, Crete was the last piece of what is today Greece to fall under Ottoman rule, with the conquest of Heraklion in 1669. Throughout the centuries, Cretan history is an almost never-ending stream of defensive wars and rebellions against the various conquerors the waves of history have washed upon its shores. The island's position, on the shipping routes between Europe, Africa and the Middle East has meant a constant stream of suitors, for the better part of 30 centuries, bent on establishing their control over the Eastern Mediterranean. As a result, the island is dotted with monuments and traces of both the passing of various civilizations through its mountainous terrain and of the Cretans' struggle to oust them and regain their independence. Minoan ruins, Classical temples, Venetian castles, Ottoman Mosques, and Allied and Wermacht cemeteries, make Crete a live theme park of the whole history of the Mediterranean region. If the unsuspecting visitor does not decide to take a refresher course on the history of Antiquity and the Middle Ages after leaving Crete they never will.

Besides fighting against invaders, the Cretans have also spent a good part of the last 3 thousand years painting, writing, and composing. El Greco ("the Greek") Domenico Theotocopoulos, was born in Fodele, before leaving for Italy and then Spain, to create some of the greatest art of the Rennaisance combining Byzantine austerity with Western forms in his haunting paintings of Spanish nobles and landscapes. Niko Kazantzakis immortalized the Cretan mentality in "Zorba" and portrayed a human Jesus in the still extremely controversial "The Last Temptation", which was made into a major motion picture by Martin Scorsese in 1988. Greece's two greatest modern composers were born to Cretan fathers, albeit they never lived on the island. First, Manos Hadjidakis, the composer of, among others, the score for Jules Dassin's "Never on Sunday", which won him an Academy Award in 1960 for original song in a motion picture, and which epitomizes modern Greek music to the foreign ear. Then, Mikis Theodorakis, the Greek "national composer", whose works include the scores for Sidney Lumet's "Serpico" and Costa-Gavra's "Z" and "State of Siege" as well as the sublime musical rendering of 1980 Literature Nobel Prize laureate Odysseas Elytis' poem "Axion Esti". Crete, today, is one of the most prosperous regions of Greece, largely relying on mass as well as luxury tourism for its wealth and growth. From the package holidays hotels of Hersonisos, east of Heraklion, to the ultra-luxury, self-contained resorts of Elounda, north of Agios Nikolaos, and to the basic-but-charming accomodations that can be found in the dozens of isolated beaches and bays of southern Crete, the island caters to every taste and pocketbook. In addition, a thriving agricultural sector serves as Greece's year-round vegetable garden and produces perhaps the finest quality olive oil in the world. The island is also home to one of Greece's most distinct regional cuisines, with pies of every kind and roast lamb at its core. Cretans are among the highest-life-expectancy groups in the world, and that is mostly due to their diet, which includes all the elements of the Mediterranean diet: balanced parts of vegetables, fruits, seafood, and free-range lamb, all grilled or cooked in olive oil, and washed down with generous portions of locally-produced, ancient-variety wines and raki (or tsikoudia). The combination of a 7-month tourist season, year-round sunshine and mild weather, stunning physical beauty and fascinating local culture has attracted thousands of expatriates, from across Europe and the world, that now call Crete their home.

The island's cosmopolitan north shore, tradition-bound and agriculture-based inland mountain ranges, and the stunning beaches in the south make Crete a must-visit destination.

 

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