“And that,” said our English guide, pointing directly in front of her, “is the oldest paved road in the whole of western civilisation.”
Here I was in Knossos, exploring the remains of the palace dating back to 2000BC that was once the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilisation and the road in question led to the port.
Considered Europe’s oldest city, Knossos is full of character, but visitors still need a little imagination to understand exactly what it was like in its prime, when 100,000 people lived in and around its perimeter.
What is less well known is that some of them were Jewish, as inscriptions now found provide evidence there was a Jewish community originating from Egypt, during the first century BC.
The valuable advice I had was to first visit the nearby archaeological museum in Heraklion, the capital, to understand more about the way of life of the Minoans.
Although the museum is modern and well-organised, it’s so bursting with artefacts found in Knossos that it can be problematic knowing where to look first.
I loved the contemporary-looking jewellery and the colourful frescoes, but it was the bull’s head carved in stone that appealed the most. It was used as a vessel for holding liquid during religious ceremonies and is so beautifully contoured that it seemed ageless.
I had arrived six days earlier with my husband and immediately realised we had totally underestimated the size of this
It was obvious that even if hiring a car, it would be impossible to see many of the attractions in just a week. This gave us a wonderful excuse to spend more time at our base, the luxurious Porto Elounda Golf & Spa Resort, a well-run establishment with its own private beach and two beautiful boats anchored in the bay that can be chartered by guests.
The hotel is part of the Elounda Hotels and Resorts founded by Spyros Kokotos, a well-known Greek architect. Interestingly, for the past few years, its sister hotel next door – the Elounda Peninsula – has opened especially early in the season for a large party of French-Jewish clients who bring their own rabbi and celebrate Pesach here against this beautiful setting.
On a cooler morning, we took the half-hour walk to the village of Elounda. A line of cafés and restaurants overlook the bright turquoise sea and it was here, talking to a friendly local, that we found out about two important historic sites nearby.
The first is the remains of a sunken city, Olous, a powerful trading centre from 500 BC, which is mostly visible to snorkelers and divers. The water was so clear we were able to peer down and make out the layout and streets without donning flippers.
A short ferry ride brings visitors to Spinalonga, now famous thanks to Victoria Hislop’s book, The Island, in which she brings to life the sadness of the leper population who were forced to live out their existence in exile.
There has been a Jewish link to Crete throughout its history, primarily because of its position away from the mainland and proximity to Egypt, North Africa and Palestine, meaning it was influenced by important trade routes.
Under its many occupations, the Jews of Crete were a distinct thread of continuity, until many emigrated in the 19th century, leaving just one community in Chania, the second city.
Then in 1944, when Greece was occupied by the Nazis, the Gestapo rounded up the entire Jewish population of about 300 and put them on a boat – with the end destination of Auschwitz.
They never arrived, for the British torpedoed the ship and all were tragically killed.
This tragic act could have ended a centuries-long Jewish association with Crete, but then along came Nicholas Stavroulakis, a scholar and academic born to a Turkish-Jewish mother and a Cretan-Greek Orthodox father.
In 1974, armed with a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Stavroulakis returned to his grandfather’s house in Chania, and made it his mission to restore the synagogue.
As he said at the time: “Not only had the Jews all been killed, but our very history was being erased. To my mind, it had to be saved at all costs.”
He worked with spirit and energy to restore the building and the tiny community. He passed away last year, but the Etz Hayyim Synagogue still holds weekly Shabbat services. The reborn mikveh is fed by a minor spring, and in a small hallway is a simple shrine with plaques poignantly bearing the names of the Jews of Chania, who perished in 1944.
Lucy’s travel tips:
Lucy stayed at Porto Elounda Golf & Spa Resort (portoelounda.com), where prices start from £181 per night and Yotelair Gatwick Airport (yotel.com). She visited Heraklion Archaeological Museum ( heraklion.gr/en/ourplace/archeological-museum/archeological-museum.html) and Etz Hayyim Synagogue (etz-hayyim-hania.org).