Try a villa in the land of the mighty Minoans

Crete was thriving when Moses was a boy, it even sent ships to besiege Troy. David Ryan spent a holiday there, living in the past
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The Independent Travel

In a waterside café in Chania, on Crete's north-west coast, we plan our day to the accompaniment of the blue Aegean slapping against the medieval quayside.

This Venetian port, dominated by the Lefka Ori (White Mountains – they are snow capped for five months of the year), was once the island's capital and is, for me, by far the most attractive of the cities along Crete's developed north coast.

Anya, my wife, and daughter, Annelie, are bound for the Old Town's labyrinth of art, craft, jewellery and leather shops while the chaps (son Tim and daughter's boyfriend, Tom), are to go with me to the Maritime Museum. I asked our waiter where it was. "Just there," he piped, motioning at the whitewashed Firkas, an old Venetian fort and one-time prison, with a Turkish name, that stands opposite the lighthouse at the harbour's mouth. "I did my national service in the navy," he volunteered.

Crete, strategically placed for Asia Minor and North Africa, has a proud maritime tradition. The Minoans built a vast trading empire 3,000 years ago when rugged, altitudinous Crete was a semi-tropical paradise, its raised spine covered by rich forestry, a land of plenty. The Minoans are said to have contributed 60 of the 1,000 ships launched by Helen of Troy's face.

So, did our friendly waiter join the Greek navy and see the world? "Actually, I spent 18 months selling tickets in that museum," he admits, nodding at the Firkas where, in 1913, the flag of modern Greece was first flown on the island.

The museum's solid Second World War section describes a battle in which complacent British commanders allowed German paratroopers to gain a foothold, then an airfield, and then victory. I was halfway through reading Antony Beevor's Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, so I soaked all this up eagerly. Although the Germans took the island the battle destroyed Hitler's airborne force which was never used on this scale again. The subsequent occupation also proved costly. Though the regular Cretan regiments had been trapped in the invasion of mainland Greece, this was a society of blood vendetta and fiercely proud mountain clans, with guns, who made great allies but truly terrible enemies.

Back at our villa, the ladies soaked up the sun while the boys recuperated from information overload by divebombing the pool. This was one of three new self-catering properties, overlooking the town of Kalyves, about 25 minutes' drive east of Chania. Stelios, our air-conditioned three-bed home for the week, had breezy balconies, cool tiled floors and a master bedroom with a terrace with bracing views across Souda Bay to the Akrotiri.

Anya and I first came to Crete as rucksack-burdened newlyweds more than 25 years ago. This was a long way from those budget B&B days. And, guess what? This was better. Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

Next morning, I was back on the history trail. Just over an hour east of Chania is Heraklion, and the palace at Knossos, where the legends of King Minos, Icarus, Daedalus and the labyrinth, Theseus and the Minotaur all played out when Moses was a boy and Athens and even those well-hard Spartans bent the knee to the mighty Minoan kings. The Bronze Age palace, a network of more than 1,000 rooms on a six-acre site, was probably finally abandoned after a devastating fire around 1,400BC. The site was rediscovered in 1878 and the land was purchased in 1900 by a wealthy Englishman, Sir Arthur Evans, who set about a systematic excavation and restoration that revitalised the ruins but was criticised for using inappropriate modern materials, such as concrete, and for guesswork in re-creating the five-storey palace's famous murals.

Cretans are no longer complaining, though. The site is now the island's biggest tourist magnet. Crete welcomes about two million visitors annually and half that number pitch up at Knossos.

But you don't have to go to Heraklion for Minoan ruins. In the hills above Kalyves, the sprawling city of Aptera is gradually being excavated. Admission here is free but there are no guides, so mug up before you go. In its heyday, Aptera was probably a royal palace overlooking Chania which would have been a thriving port even then. It had an outlying settlement of some 5,000 free men supported by 15,000 slaves. Temples, treasure stores, burial chambers and a small amphitheatre have been unearthed and it was at the last that Tim and Tom (they even sound like cartoon mischief-makers) thought it would be good to chuck their rugby ball around in what was, quite possibly, the first display of oval-ball expertise to grace this stage.

From the villa garden, with Beevor's book perched on my chest and an ice-cold beer in hand, I looked out at the blue bay, then back to a grainy mono photo of the almost identical perspective back in May 1941 – only this showed smoke belching from stricken Royal Navy ships under Luftwaffe attack.

This battle has to go down as a bizarre British military cock-up on a par with Singapore for stupidity if not scale. London had broken Berlin's secret Ultra codes and knew the Germans were coming, but they failed to roll up the airborne landings in the crucial first 48 hours.

At the top of Souda Bay is a cemetery with the neat, white headstones of more than 1,500 Allied servicemen, many of them no older than Tim or Tom when they died. Further west, near the old Malema airfield, more than 4,000 Germans lie buried. Could any of them have guessed that this island, 185 miles long with a fierce terrain and even fiercer fighters, would one day be a tourist playground?

Compact Facts

How to get there

David Ryan travelled courtesy of Thomson holidays ( 0871 231 5595). It offers seven nights at Kalyves Villas, part of the Villas with Pools Collection, on a self-catering basis from £515 per person based on four sharing. Departing 4 May 2010 from London Gatwick Airport, the price includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and all taxes and charges.

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