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Somewhere deep in Crete's mountains is the cave where Zeus was raised. As you might recall from Greek mythology, Zeus was the supreme god, the one with the unnerving ability to throw thunderbolts. He was born into what today might be called a dysfunctional family. His father wanted him dead. But his mother, Rhea, who knew a trick or two, hid her baby boy to be raised in a cave on Crete's highest mountain.


Crete, Greece's largest island, just may be one of the most perfect vacation spots in Europe because virtually all vacationer's whims can be met on this 130-mile-long chunk of sea-bound rock. And it should get even more attractive once the 2004 Olympics arrive in Greece. Football matches will be held at the 27,000-seat Pankrition Stadium in Iraklion, scheduled for completion this December.


Its beaches rival those of the Caribbean but its resorts are cheaper. The price-conscious Brits Discovered it years ago and run daily charters to the island. The island boasts 300 days of sunshine each year. Its mountains are breezily cool and inhabited mostly by goats and their herders. It also has stunning historic sites like the famed 4,000-year-old Minoan palace of Knossos. For more energetic visitors, Crete boasts one of Europe's finest mountain hikes, down the Samaria Gorge. Its seaside towns are so romantically charming, you'll be tempted to hang out at the harbor at sunset, sip cool drinks under a table umbrella and watch the boats bob.


Splayed out against an ink-dark sea, the beaches are superb-and plentiful enough to escape from all those German tourists who insist on parading around in the buff.


Athens' Parthenon is old. Built in 447 BC, it was constructed almost 2,000 years before Columbus happened upon America. Now consider this: The Minoan palace at Knossos, just outside the city of Iraklion, was built in 1900 BC, 1,453 years before the Parthenon. Archaeologists have discovered that four palaces were built basically on top of each other on the Knossos hilltop, the first in about 1900 BC.


The ancient Minoans laid terra-cotta pipes to bring water from a nearby hill, creating water pressure in much the same way we use towers. Various pressures were achieved with wide or narrow pipes. With this system, the queen had what might be the world's first flush toilet. Speaking of the queen, she and other ladies of the palace had something that today's women would recognize hair curlers, these made of ivory or clay. But the Minoans sometimes were too clever for their own good. To keep drinking water cool, they lined many of their clay pots with lead. It worked, but it also poisoned the water.


The palace also had a labyrinth, an intricate web of corridors that linked large and small rooms and even separate houses. Corridors are found in the queen's quarters and in the adjacent workers' areas. The labyrinths were supposed to confound any enemies who might get in. The labyrinth also led to the myth of the Minotaur, a fierce half-bull, half-man who ate children and had been banished there.


But now in the mountains, life is lived much as it has been for ages: Women tend to wash and cook, mustachioed men herd goats. And once in from the hills, the men can loll for hours over a demitasse of fierce black coffee sipped down to the slurry at the cup's bottom. As evening approaches, coffee is replaced by Mythos beer or ouzo, made from pressed grapes and often including star anise, coriander, cloves, angelica root, licorice, mint, wintergreen, fennel, hazelnut, cinnamon and lime blossom. Everywhere people carry the prayer beads of the Greek Orthodox Church.


But as tranquil as it all is now, you can still imagine Rhea spiriting baby Zeus off to a mountain cave where he was raised by three nymphs who gave him milk from a magic goat. It's that magic that survives to this day.


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