Crete

Crete’s story begins almost 5,000 years ago, with the mysterious Minoans. The prehistoric equivalent of a modern superpower, the Minoans built vast palaces, from which they controlled the rest of the island and an empire further afield (the famous “Linear B tablets”, written in a primitive form of Greek, provide vivid evidence of their obsessive bureaucracy – no literature, just lists and lists and more lists). Whether the Minoans were peace-loving types, living under the benign influence of a Mother Goddess, or hardline imperialists remains a matter of dispute. What is left of their power bases can be seen at Gournia and Phaistos, stunningly beautiful sites.

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Venetians controlled Crete for several hundred years, making it a wonderful melting pot of Italian and Byzantine art. The best place to catch a glimpse of this is the church at Kritsa (near Agios Nikolaos), which has a wonderful array of 14th-century frescoes.

Knossos, originally a Minoan palace, was excavated and imaginatively restored in the early 20th century by Sir Arthur Evans, who rebuilt the place in concrete and “completed” its damaged frescoes. It is best enjoyed as a monument to British taste of the period, and to Evans’s vision of an unspoiled, primitive Greek society – complete with weird snake goddesses and bull-leapers.

Thrace, mainland

Thrace, in the north-east, is home to Muslim villages, and in towns such as Xanthi you can hear Turkish in the street, among the Ottoman houses. The inhabitants here were exempted from the exchange of populations with Turkey in 1923. Until the beginning of the last century the first language of large areas of Attica and Euboia in northern Greece was Arvanitika, a form of Albanian, which has been replaced by modern Albanian, spoken by recent immigrants. From the past you can see the ruins of Venetian towers, Crusader castles, Catholic monasteries, Ottoman seraglios and fountains. And in the heart of Athens there is a mosque and madrasa close to Monastiraki station. If you come to Greece for the classical sites, spare a glance for its more recent cultural heritage.

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