Furthermore, you can pick your car up and return it at many hotels on the north coast between Chania and Malia, or in Plakias on the south coast.
The fact that Crete is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean and how long and wide it is, you'll be told on hundreds (if not thousands) of boring websites about Crete.
Let us therefore rather have a look at some other things that you do not come across everywhere, but which may be worth knowing for your holidays in Crete. Especially if you do not plan to spend them (the holidays) only in your hotel and on the beach, but if you intend to explore the island with a rental car and to get to know the country and its people.
Crete lies at the southern edge of the Hellenic Continental Plate (Yes Sir! We have our own continental plate!). This plate is unfavorably positioned exactly between the African Plate which drifts to the North since a few million years, and the Eurasian Plate which is more stationary. The Hellenic Plate thus gets into dire straits.
What sounds so pragmatic from the geological point of view has in practice far-reaching consequences. The southern continental shelf of the Hellenic Plate was pushed up from the sea. This way an island with a whole series of massive mountain ranges arose which today is called Crete.
The two highest mountains in Crete, Mt. Timios Stavros in the Ida mountains and Mt. Pachnes in the Lefka Ori, are both more than 2,450 meters high. But both of them are just a few kilometers away from the sea, and they consist from nothing else but the sea floor that was pushed over and above the surface. Therefore fossil sea creatures such as mussels, snails, sea urchins, etc. can be found at every turn even high up in the mountains.
The mountain ranges of Crete divide the island into several microclimate zones which are rather independent from each other. In general, the island's West is more green than the East because all the mountains collect the rain which gather from the West. So in every valley the vegetation is composed in a different way than in the neighbouring one.
This disparity of vegetation has substantial influence on the success of agriculture in the respective valley, and so it is also of influence on the people who live there. The Amari Valley south of the port town of Rethymnon is for example said to be very fertile, and the inhabitants are said to be much more jovial than in other areas of Crete.
In contrast, the town of Ierapetra on the eastern south coast is said to have been a pirates' nest in the ancient world: Just because of destitution because not much of rain ever arrives there. A similar situation currently exists at the Horn of Africa resp. in Somalia.
Nowadays, huge areas of land West of Ierapetra are however covered by greenhouses. There is an artificial lake which ensures the supply of water for the local agriculture, and Ierapetra today covers a major part of the demand for fruit and vegetable for the entire country of Greece. This is how times are changing.
Another reason behind the cultural diversity which can be found in Crete is in its recent history. In the course of unbundling the Turkish and the Greek Nations, Crete went from 1898 until 1908 under the administration by the Great Powers of those times: Italy, Russia, Great Britain and France.
The island was divided into 4 competence districts, and the 4 prefectures that exist today are still much the same. In the languages of the 4 former defensive forces there are for this reason very individual names still in use for many places on the island, e.g. in French "La Canee" for Chania, and in Russian "Xersones" for Hersonissos.
A much bigger mark on today's culture in Crete was however left by the Republic of Venice as the island belonged to it from 1204 until 1645. The Carnival at Rethymnon is up to the present day one of the most important events in the course of the year, although the district of Rethymnon was not at all supervised by the Italian defense force but by the Russian one.
The 4 prefectures from West to East:
The port town of Chania is the capital of the prefecture of the same name. It has in the neighbouring bay of Souda the largest natural port in the Mediterranean, and on the Akrotiri peninsula it has an international commercial airport.
Aside from this, there is another town in the same district which is the port town of Kastelli Kissamos, located on the north coast as well.
The next one is the prefecture of Rethymnon with its capital of the same name, the port town of Rethymnon on the north coast.
The second town in this district is named Spili, and counting less than 1,000 inhabitants it is the smallest town in all Crete. But it has an episcopal see which includes a seminary, and it has a post office, a pharmacy, a grammar school, even a high school and many other institutions. Because Spili is the center of the southern half of the district of Rethymnon, and its commuting area is of corresponding size.
The prefecture of Heraklion attaches in the East to the district of Rethymnon. Its capital is Heraklion which is also the capital of the island. It is again located on the north coast and its port is the one with the biggest goods turnover in Crete. Some kilometers East of the town there is the island's biggest international commercial airport.
In the southern half of the district of Heraklion there is the town of Mires ("Moires") which is the island's second smallest town. Counting about 6,000 inhabitants, Mires is the economic and administrative center of the Messara lowlands.
Few kilometers away there are the ruins of the town of Gortys which was the island's capital during the time of the Roman occupation. Several different sources speak about 40,000 up to 80,000 inhabitants. One source even states 300,000 inhabitants, but that was probably a sticking zero on the keyboard because artificial fertilizers were first invented some 2,000 years later.
The easternmost prefecture is named Lassithi, after the high plateau of the same name which is framed by the Dikti mountains in the South, and the Selena mountains in the North. It includes 3 towns, however all of them are in the East and rather far away from Lassithi.
The district capital is named Agios Nicolaos. It is located on the west bank of the Mirambelou bay and has even three ports. By the eastern edge of the north coast there is the small port town of Sitia with the island's third commercial airport which is mostly being used for domestic flights.
The third town in the prefecture of Lassithi is the above-mentioned port town of Ierapetra. According to the number of inhabitants, Ierapetra is indeed the biggest town of the district, but it is located on the south coast and therefore outside of today's transport routes which gear to the north coast and to the mainland of Greece.
This was not always the case. In ancient times and mainly after the blooming time of Athens, the shipping routes between Italy and Egypt run along Crete's south coast, and several ports there have been important trade terminals. The island's capital of Gortys had one of the most important ports in the eastern Mediterranean at Matala on the bank of the Messara lowlands, and another one was South of Gortys in the bay of the today's village of Lendas.
Aside of the historic influence, there is a number of pre-historic ones as well. They can however not be fixed accurately as long as it not possible to read the writings that have been found during excavation works.
In other words: As soon as the archaeologists manage to decrypt the Linear A writings that have been excavated so far, the Minoan civilization will turn from a pre-historic into a historic civilization, which means into one of the oldest historic civilizations ever.
Until then, Crete will remain the island where Zeus, the father of the gods, was born, and where the inhabitants are up to the present day able to discuss for hours in which of the caves he was hidden from his father Kronos and raised. She remains the island where Zeus later abducted the beautiful young lady Europa from Asia Minor, for this purpose turning himself into a bull and in this shape still appearing everywhere in Crete up to the present day.
And she remains the island of King Minos and his wayward stepson, the Minotaur in his labyrinth, and of Daedalus and Icarus who escaped from captivity on home-tinkered wings from wax and feathers.
After during the years from 2002 until 2004 the 6,900 years old Celtic sun observatory at Goseck in Saxony-Anhalt was entirely excavated, Crete does not any longer rank as the cradle of civilisation in Europe. But the myths that the island preserves are for sure the more beautiful ones.
Text by Ingo H. Dietrich
Photos by Sabine Klingsporn, Rolf König, Matthias Konopka, Holger Nordhoff & Ingo H. Dietrich
For more about Crete, see http://www.cretanet.com.
You can ask for more information about renting a car for your holidays in Crete also by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.