Crete: 'We could be a family two centuries ago ... apart from the fridge'

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From Minoan monuments to relics of the Second World War, a family holiday in Crete is the ultimate history lesson

Disguised as dockers, two men darted across the no-go zone around the harbour and cut through the wire. They slipped on to the quayside, where enemy vessels bobbed in the dark. Their rucksacks were heavy with limpet mines. Searchlights swept the area. They wondered which ship to blow.

I put down my book and glance at the harbour, twinkling in the dusk below our rooftop terrace. My son Ben asks: "Did all that happen there?" I nod. The quay is a curve of ancient stones guarded by a medieval castle. Tonight it is filled with yachts.

The British major and the Cretan partisan crept towards the silent boats, but a German searchlight caught them. They turned and ran back to the alleys of the city and then to the mountains behind Heraklion, where they lived in caves for most of the Second World War.

"Epic fail," Ben grins and wanders back into our hotel suite. At the age of 11, he's as interested in its Jacuzzi, golden bedspreads and room-service mezze, as he is in history. But then he turns on the television and shouts: "The North Koreans have launched two warships with missile defences!"

I say: "You're watching history in the making."

He looks across. "Dad," he intones, "if they launch a missile, history will be over."

We talk like this because I've brought my two children to Crete to experience history face-to-face, outside the classroom. It's a foolishly educational mission, but this island is the perfect place. Crete has more history than it needs, stretching back to the first cities in Europe and including invasions by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, Turks, Italians and Germans. Usefully for a family trip, it has also got sandy beaches and plain cuisine.

Next morning we set off for the highlight of Cretan history: Knossos, oldest palace in Europe and legendary home of the Minotaur. It's a short drive from the concrete blocks of a modern city to the rubble of an ancient one. Today it's a green hillside among olive trees. The kids skip up the entrance steps. They were raised on Greek myths and want to find the labyrinth.

We reach a courtyard edged with two-storey buildings. Once this was the ceremonial centre of the Minoan palace, perhaps the site of the famous bull-jumping. Today it is a shadeless ruin with everything of interest roped off and inaccessible. I came here 20 years ago and you could wander through royal apartments with frescoed walls, where the world of 2000BC sprang to life. No longer. So many people visit that it has to be protected. The children spend an hour peering through glassed-off doorways, while I bore my wife with how great it used to be. Then we leave.

Mercifully they did enjoy the Archaeological Museum, which we visited the day before in Heraklion. Even more mercifully, it was being rebuilt, so only the finest of its 15,000 artefacts were on show. We spent a delightful afternoon among statues and frescoes of ancient warriors, mighty bulls, Minoan houses and snake goddesses. These were found at Knossos. Ten-year-old Sarah deciphered pictograms on a clay disc: "There's a cookie, a fish, a guy with a mohawk …" And Ben was amazed by a pair of "epic" axes.

"I don't really like art museums," he explained. "But this one is about things that happened and how people lived. It's the coolest art I've ever seen."

Leaving Knossos in a cloud of dust, we drive to a place that may impress them more. Somewhere up a winding road among vineyards we find the site of a daring adventure from the Second World War. We sit by the road and I tell the story.

Just here the British major, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and his partisans kidnapped the German commander of the island. They stopped his car and demanded to see his papers. As he fumbled they yanked him out, tied him up and hid him in the back. Leigh Fermor put on the general's hat and they drove into heavily guarded Heraklion, saluting at checkpoints and heading for the mountains. For 19 days they hid in caves and shepherd's huts, trekking towards the south coast, where a Royal Navy launch took them off. As the ragged group climbed aboard, they were offered the comforts of Blighty: lobster sandwiches and Navy rum.

The children smile politely. But for the rest of the afternoon, they make military salutes in the back of the car. Whenever we park, they leap out and bark: "Your papers!"

The first time this happens is when we stop for lunch at Margarites. It's a one-street village of whitewashed houses teetering up a hill. But almost every house is a pottery shop. Since history began, this has been a village of potters – its name comes from margara, meaning "ceramics".

"This is a holy place for pottery on Crete, there is no place like it," says George Dalamvelas, bending over the potter's wheel in his shop, Keramikos. "We think potters supplied the ruined city on the hill, in the 8th century BC. I still make some neolithic styles of pot." And he shows us cups, pourers and shakers in red clay, shaped in ancient styles. He digs the clay from the mountainside. Sarah watches him work. "In this village," George says, "there are six potters still making pithoi, the huge storage jars you see at Knossos. People like them for their gardens."

We look for pithoi makers but find none among the medieval doorways of the village. So we drive home to the villa where we are staying, on the western end of Crete. We pass the skyline of Mount Ida, where Zeus was born in a cave, and swap Greek myths out loud. Ben's favourite is about Zeus's father Kronos, son of the sky god and earth mother, who ate his children in fear that they would rebel: all except Zeus, hidden in a cave on Crete.

History lessons over for now, we retreat to the Villa Zoneras in the foothills of the White Mountains. We can see their snowy ridges from its garden, beyond a landscape of olive groves and white farms, rippling grasses and yellow flowers. The villa is new but the set-up is traditional: a handsome house of cream stones, red tiles and green shutters surrounded by palm trees and pines. Inside, it is Middle Eastern in style: a great stone arch divides the ground floor in two, a curving fireplace fills one corner. I have seen such rooms in Jordan.

But I don't bother the kids with this. For now they can splash in the villa's pool pretending to be Ninja Turtles. We adults cook chicken in thyme from the hills and sample the local hooch – a bottle of ice-cold raki, left in our fridge by the owners, who make it themselves. Elsewhere in Greece you sip ouzo, but on Crete it's the drink you would find in Turkey. As night draws on, we build a crackling fire and Ben plays tavli, or backgammon. Sarah clicks the worry beads she bought in Heraklion. They groan only a little when I say that all these things date from when Crete was a part of the Ottoman empire. We could be a mountain family two centuries ago. Ben laughs: "Apart from the pool and the fridge."

At midnight the stars are like sparks in the mountain air. We try to name them and my wife finds a star-gazing app on her phone. She points it at the sky and it draws constellations between the stars: Sagittarius the centaur, Orion the hunter, Gemini the twins – ancient Greek legends through a modern-day lens.

It's time to head for the mountains, the wild heart of the island. One morning we drive towards the peaks. The road dwindles to a twisting lane and climbs. The twists get sharper, the drops more dizzy. Herds of sheep and goats leap among jagged trees and orange rocks. Their bells and the wind are the only sound. We pass turnings and hamlets not on our maps. Finally we are so lost that I knock on the doors of isolated houses, where guard dogs bark and owners eye me warily.

Our destination is the village of Xiliomoudou, said to have Crete's loveliest church. By sheer chance we find it. At the summit is the Taverna Lemonia, a wooden chalet with views over valleys and crags and distant white villages. Way below is a tiny Byzantine chapel, Agios Nikolaos, the one we've come to see.

Leonidas, the taverna owner, phones the keyholder of the church. Charlotte, his helper, pours coffee. "In this village they live like 200 years ago," she smiles. "Come outside and see." In the yard she shows us the shed where Leonidas makes olive oil, with millstones that a donkey turns. Beside it is a trough where the villagers tread grapes to make wine and a still where the skins are fermented into raki. There's a windmill where Leonidas grinds flour and a workshop where he makes traditional musical instruments. He's hammering away as we wander in, a big man with a mane of white hair. In this place, history has no end. The children are finally entranced.

We drive down to the church. It's a tiny building of pink bricks and lancet windows, surrounded by trees full of oranges. Their scent follows us inside, where walls of deepest blue are painted with mysterious frescos dark with age – saints and scrolls and cities, with the rich reds and golden haloes of medieval icons. A single candle burns in a brass holder, as other candles have done here for 700 years.

I walk out to the sunshine and the rushing of wind in the leaves. Ben and Sarah are playing tag. The keyholder is waiting, an old lady in black. We smile and chat. Her son, she says, has lost his job in the recession affecting Greece. People are moving back from cities to villages. It is history, changing the world again. I offer her a fee for showing us around, but she proudly refuses. As we walk towards our car, she hands my wife a gift: a shining spray of orange blossom, fresh from the ancient trees.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS

Getting there

Jonathan Lorie travelled as a guest of Pure Crete (01444 880 404; purecrete.com) which offers rental of traditional village houses and villas in the foothills of the White Mountains. A week at Villa Zonera in Vrisses costs from £686 per adult and £586 per child, based on a family of four sharing, including flights from Gatwick to Chania, in the west of the island. Chania is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Bristol, East Midlands, Leeds/Bradford, Prestwick and Stansted, and from Gatwick by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com).

Crete's main airport, Heraklion, is served by Monarch (0871 940 5040; flymonarch.com) from Birmingham, Leeds/Bradford and Gatwick; easyJet from Bristol, Gatwick, Glasgow, Luton, and Manchester; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle.

Staying there

The Lato Boutique Hotel in Heraklion offers double rooms from €81 (£68) and family rooms from €121 (£102) per night, including breakfast (00 30 2810 228103; lato.gr).

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