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October 01, 1995|DENISE HAMILTON | Hamilton is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

IRAKLEION, Greece — We had done Athens. Island-hopping in the Cyclades had left us weary. It was time to hunker down in a substantial place that offered rugged mountains and pristine beaches, deep gorges and sprawling vineyards, Turkish mosques, Venetian towers and Byzantine churches.

And, of course, the ruins of an ancient civilization.

So we headed to Crete.

Crete is not only the largest and southernmost island of the Greek archipelago, but also the most singular. Minoan civilization, an advanced maritime empire, flourished here 3,700 years ago, when the ancestors of Plato and Sophocles were still rooting for grubs.

Ask any native their nationality and they will proudly respond "I am a Cretan" before adding that they are also Greek. Nikos Kazantzakis, Greece's most famous writer, was born in Crete. So was the painter El Greco. Some of Greece's finest statesmen and warriors were Cretans.

It is Balkan terrain, mostly mountainous, breeding a harsh and insular people who are cautious of strangers yet renowned for their hospitality. Outside the touristy coast, life in the villages of Crete goes on much as it has for centuries, only now there is electricity and, for the most part, paved roads.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 8, 1995 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Crete--Due to an editing error, a photograph accompanying an article on hiking in Crete was misidentified in the Oct. 1 Travel section. The town in the photograph is Loutro.

The island is so big (about 160 miles across) that it's impossible to see it all in two weeks, so we plotted our itinerary carefully and rented a compact car for $25 a day that let us cover a lot of ground while stopping in areas we found fetching. We also decided to mix touristy beaches and ruins with more remote locales on the south coast, which faces the Mediterranean Sea.

Lufthansa Airlines now flies twice a week from Los Angeles to Irakleion, Crete's capital, with a brief stop in Frankfurt. Booking this flight proved a wise choice. However, in mid-September, we found Irakleion still mobbed by mainly German and Scandinavian visitors, with the weather humid and hovering around 90 degrees.

A major trading center linking Africa, Europe and the Middle East, Crete was home from 3000 BC to 1450 BC to the Minoan civilization. The Minoans built palaces and elaborate cities, and were known for their exquisite artwork, sophisticated urban life and one of the first written languages, Linear A, which has yet to be fully deciphered.

About 1450 BC the island was conquered, probably by Greek mainlanders from Mycenae. That civilization was supplanted by Roman control in 67 BC, which evolved into Byzantine rule. Through the centuries, Arabs, Genoans and Venetians also controlled Crete, leaving their mark on local culture and architecture. In 1648 the Ottoman Turks seized the island and held it until World War I.

W e wanted to visit Irakleion since Knossos, the ancient capital of Minoan civilization, is only a 20-minute bus ride out of town and a must-see. The largest of the Minoan palaces, Knossos is where, according to myth, King Minos ruled, where his wife, Pasiphae, bore the half-man, half-beast Minotaur and where Theseus finally slew the creature in its lair. British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans excavated Knossos less than a century ago, reconstructing some of the buildings, which would be totally unacceptable archeological scholarship today. Nonetheless, the size and complexity of Knossos make it impressive.

We also set aside time to visit the city's archeological museum, which is crammed with pottery, tablets written in Linear A and famous frescoes, including "La Parisienne" and "Saffron Gatherer," the portrait of a boy that was mistakenly reconstructed by early archeologists as a monkey.

Once you see Knossos and the museum, however, there's little reason to stay. Today, Crete's capital is all traffic and concrete, crammed with industry and the shoddy development of a place that grew too fast for its own good.

We bunked down that night at the Hotel Rea, a pension in the middle of town that cost $25 a night. While friendly enough, it was noisy and overflowing with backpackers. Next time, I'll rent a car at the airport and proceed directly to Chania, two hours west along the coast, making that my base.

Where Irakleion is urban blight, Chania is all character, with a quaint harbor and a picturesque old town on the hills above that offers winding cobblestone streets and breathtaking views.

Our hotel was the Porto del Columbo, a stately old mansion filled with burnished wood. We were told it once served as the French embassy and later became home to Eleutherios Venizelos, the revered Cretan statesman and Greek prime minister who finally brought Crete under Greek dominion in 1913.

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