Nothing prepares you for the 1,500 rooms of pre-Classical Knossos

Crete has more than plate-smashing and wet T-shirt competitions.
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The Independent Travel
As late as the 1960s, Crete was impoverished and inaccessible. You went by train from Victoria to Athens and then took the overnight boat from the port of Piraeus to the old Venetian capital, Heraklion. You travelled in aged buses crammed with livestock and vegetables destined for some local market. And you slept in peasant cottages. The object of the exercise was to tramp around Sir Arthur Evans's flamboyant reconstruction of the magnificent Minoan palace of Knossos, and other less-known pre- Classical sites.

The thuggish Colonels who ruled Greece between 1967 and 1974 put an end to all that. To buy the loyalty of the rebellious and democratically- inclined Cretans they presented the islanders with a motorway along the northern shore. It runs from Heraklion, with its pocket-sized international airport, to Haghios Nikolaos in the Bay of Mirabello, 80 miles west. Endless ribbon development followed. But now Crete can't fill its downmarket hotels and rooming houses. Once again it is looking to sell its complex history to those serious travellers who want more than plate smashing and wet T-shirt contests.

There are several world-class hotels. I stayed at the Elounda Mare complex just outside the undistinguished but unspoilt fishing village of Elounda, five miles from Haghios Nikolaos. Spyros Kokotas, who built these two luxury hotels is an architect by training and an archaeologist by avocation, and it shows. His gentle, three-storey buildings are strongly influenced by the labyrinthine Minoan palaces, with their endless small, shaded rooms, unexpected flights of stairs leading to colonnades and courtyards. The public rooms are decorated with fine antique chests and painted wooden panels, and the walls contain carved stone, Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish, rescued from decaying buildings. In the courtyard are marble Islamic gravestones, all that remains to remind one that, until a relatively benign form of ethnic cleansing of a century ago, the population was 40 per cent Turkish.

When the hotels' luxury palled, I made for Elounda proper, two miles from the complex. I have been fond of this working harbour since I first came across it back in 1958. Then its two 1930s hotels, the Aristea and the Kalypso overlooking the harbour, seemed the height of luxury. Today they seem spartan but spotless and friendly.

An evening here can be spent drinking raki (home-brewed grappa) and eating meze with the local fishermen in a zany Venetian fortress in the middle of the medieval square harbour. It is connected to the shore by a rickety bridge. Then pop in for a night-cap with Sue Baldwin, a bookseller from Dorset who has sold up and moved here to open Eklekytos which, is ... well, eclectic and only slightly self-conscious. It is a second-hand cum antique book shop specialising in Hellenica at a very moderate price.

A 15-minute boat ride from Elounda harbour is the stunningly beautiful abandoned island of Spinalonga, which neatly encapsulates the violent history of Crete. It was heavily fortified by the Venetians who held out here against the Turkish invaders until 1715, 46 years longer than they did on mainland Crete. Just under two centuries later Spinalonga was used as a refuge for the final thousand or so Turks who stayed on after Turkey ceded control of the island to Greece. The Greek administration turned it into a leper colony, supposedly to make life impossible for the Turks, who duly left for Asia Minor.

Less than 40 years ago lepers were still dumped on the island and left to fend for themselves. They farmed and fished, married, gave birth and eventually died in a grotesque community of the damned. Then the colony was closed and the survivors taken to hospital. Today the ancient village is falling ever more deeply into decay. There is a feeling of deep melancholy about the place. But no sense of horror or disease. You could happily picnic or paint here, leaving the children to swim or explore as they please.

But the real reason you are in Crete is to see the remains of the great palaces, destroyed 3,400 years ago. From Elounda the most enjoyable way to do so is to hire a car for a couple of days (beat the agent down to pounds 30) and belt back in the direction of Heraklion down the Colonels' motorway.

It is half an hour's drive to Mallia palace and the recently excavated site opens at 8.30am. It is quiet at that time and you can spend an easy hour or so wandering alone among the endless "throne rooms" and the two great oblong courtyards, which clearly filled some ceremonial purpose. In the spring, frogs croak among the stones. In the autumn you hear the cicadas winding themselves up for the day. And you will have time for an isolated early morning dip on the sandy beach beyond. (Be warned, however, by midday the beach is a circus.)

Drive on and you will be in Heraklion by mid morning. Start at the charming Archaeological Museum perched above the city's Venetian walls. It is astoundingly rich, simply laid out and pleasantly old-fashioned.

The palace of Knossos is only three miles away. And nothing you have seen on later Classical sites, all severe white marble pillars and elegant temples, will prepare you for this collection of 1,500 rooms: the royal chambers with murals of ritual bull jumping, of dolphins and elegant courtesans, the tiny courtyards, the great flights of ceremonial stairs and that mighty central court. Evans's gloriously kitsch reconstruction is extensive, colourful and, to use a euphemism, imaginative. But the effect is astonishingly evocative and I love it. I am even prepared to put up with the army of tourists who infest the place.

Spend the evening on the Heraklion waterfront and stay overnight in any of the small pensions overlooking the great Venetian harbour. Set out bright and early for King Minos's own palace, at Phaistos, 45 miles away across the mountains. Recently excavated, it sits on a low hill dominating the southern coastal plain. As at Mallia, reconstruction is minimal. Instead you have this great flattened hilltop with all that remains of a palace - the bases of walls of endless rooms, corridors and that inevitable central court.

Turn east and drive along the winding road to the port of Ierapetra, from which Napoleon set out on his way to Egypt. It will take you at least four hours of tough driving through working villages, where herds of goats are more common than tractors even today. At Ierapetra you cut inland for the final 25 miles to Elounda. You should arrive in time for a cool drink on your private terrace before wandering down to the waterfront for locally caught lobsters.

How to get there

Until the end of March, Olympic Airways (0171-409 3400) has a special offer on mid-week Heathrow-Athens night flights of pounds 141, including tax. Those under 26 who can travel before 15 April can qualify for a pounds 116 Heathrow- Athens fare on Virgin Atlantic, booked through STA Travel (0171-361 6161). From the Greek capital, Olympic charges an additional pounds 86 return to Chania, pounds 96 to Heraklion.

What about direct charter flights?

Numerous companies operate flights and holidays to Crete, but most charter flights begin in late March/early April. For example, Sunvil (0181-568 4499) has departures in late April/early May to Chania costing pounds 287 including flights and accommodation in self-catering apartments.

Who to ask

National Tourist Organisation of Greece, 4 Conduit Street, London W1R 0DJ (0171-734 5997).

What to read

The Cadogan Guide to Crete, (pounds 9.99) published this week.