Embracing History: A Travel Lesson from Crete
I just got back from Greece.
It kind of felt like the center of the world. Then I thought about it more and realized, it kind of is. After all, “Mediterranean” means “middle of the Earth,” and Crete is smack-dab in the middle of that middle. Zeus was born on Crete. King Minos imprisoned Minotaur in his labyrinth at Knossos on Crete. That’s about all I knew about the history of the island before arriving.
Cretans today have a reputation for being stubborn and hard-headed. They drive motorcycles without helmets and cars without seat belts, going 150kph on a two-lane highway, passing in both directions simultaneously. There are no police in sight. Nobody really cares what anybody else does or doesn’t do. Crete is to Greece what Texas is to the United States; if it were its own country, nobody there would complain.
The first sight I visited on Crete was the Eastern Orthodox Arkadi Monastery. I was blown away, and if you know anything about the place, you’ll know I just made a terrible joke…
Everyone was blown away at Moni Arkadiou (as it is called in Greek). When the Ottomans invaded in 1866, Cretans refused to surrender. Instead, they blew up barrels of gunpowder, sacrificing themselves and taking the enemy with them in the ultimate act of resistance.
I drove to the southern coast, to another monastery called Preveli, perched on a cliff high above the Libyan Sea. The drive there felt like something out of a James Bond opening sequence. There was no one chasing me, but it certainly felt like there was. Suffice it to say, I was wearing my seatbelt.
When the Third Reich stormed Crete in 1941, monks at Preveli Monastery harbored Allied soldiers and facilitated their escape. My first attempt to enter the monastery was denied. The monks were taking a siesta. The Cretan gatekeeper told me to return at 3:30PM, looking anything but apologetic. Later, inside, I tried to imagined what it must have been like during WWII. Same sea, different goats.
So, why are modern-day Cretans so recalcitrant? It should be obvious by now—they’ve been bullied for centuries. When I started to read more about its history, the island become 4-dimensional for me. Understanding the history of the place (or trying to) brought it to life. The pervading attitude of the locals suddenly made perfect sense.
It makes even more sense when we remember that Crete’s history of resistance starts way before the Ottomans. The Minoans fell in 1450 BCE by either earthquake or conquest? The debate rages on. Then it was the Mycenaeans, followed by the Dorians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Venetians…
Crete’s history is ridiculous!
Why hadn’t I learned any of this before I came? I was too worried about picking the best beach (I settled on Balos on the Gramvousi Peninsula, and it did not disappoint), or the best restaurant in Chania. I didn’t care how history had bestowed Cretans with such bravado; I only cared if the local car rental agency, Just Rentals, was a better deal than Avis. I didn’t care about the abbott who lit the fuse at Arkadi, or the lone survivor of the blast (a young girl who, rumor has it, lived to a ripe old age), I only cared about getting a cool photo of the ruins.
The history sections of guidebooks tend to be the last section anybody reads. Careful with that. It’s unfair to ourselves and to the places we visit to be ignorant about the past. You don’t have to become a historian or read 1000-page hardbacks before your trip. You just have to be curious and willing to learn. It’s okay to not understand. What’s not okay is not caring if you don’t. Leave the not caring to Crete.