Heraklion

Modern-day travel never ceases to entrance me, whisking us from one world to another in a matter of hours. One moment we are in the cool green land of forests and lakes, the next on the ancient island of sunshine and olives. The flight from Stockholm to Heraklion, via Athens, takes around seven hours, over the Baltics and the Balkans, and the azure Cretan Sea.With only eight days to explore this fascinating place, we wasted no time in visiting the most significant sights, already researched and marked on a map: the archaeological sites, the “most picturesque villages”, and the “best beaches” – a well-balanced tour comprising history and road-trips, hand-crafts and shopping, and savouring delicious Cretan cuisine in glorious settings.After a generous breakfast of various breads with butter and jams, cakes, eggs, fruit, fresh orange juice and strong coffee at the Lena Hotel (basic, clean and centrally situated in the old town), we collected our car from Hertz, one of many rental agencies, in pedestrianised, store-lined 25th August Avenue. We secured our little Ford in a nearby parking garage which has an excellent rotation system: visitors (both locals and tourists) leave their cars at the entrance and staff park it for you. When next it is needed, on presentation of the receipt at the window, it is brought to the entrance, and off you go. The old town is a maze of narrow streets and alleys, where finding parking is well-nigh impossible, and likely to elicit a fine if parked incorrectly. This system is well worth the €6 per day for peace of mind. 

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, 260 km in length and 56 km at its widest. Heraklion lies almost in the centre of the northern coastline, and provides an excellent base for exploration of the eastern half of the island. This port city is the administrative capital of Crete, and the largest. Although human activity in the area began some two thousand years BC, the present city was founded by the Arabs, who had taken over the island from the Eastern Roman Empire during the 9th century. Byzantine forces captured the city in 961 after a lengthy siege, slaughtered the Saracen inhabitants, looted, and burned it to the ground. It was rebuilt soon after, and renamed Chandax, and remained under Greek control for the next 243 years.

Next came the Republic of Venice, who bought the city in 1204, restored the deposed Eastern Roman Emperor (Isaac II Angelus), and built enormous fortifications which included a massive wall with a moat. The Kúles Fortress (1523-40) can still be seen today, in all its magnificent glory, at the mouth of the old Venetian Harbour. 

                           

Four impressive barrel-vaults stand at the edge of the harbour, used by the Venetians as arsenals and shipyards to mend their ships during inclement weather.  

During the 15th and 16th centuries Heraklion became the most important harbour in the Eastern Mediterranean, exporting mainly wine, raisins, cheese, honey, beeswax, silk, cotton, and salt, of which the Venetians had a monopoly. And of course olive oil – the “golden liquid” of Crete.

During this period the Italian Renaissance exerted its influence, and led to a flourishing period of art and literature on the island now known as the Cretan Renaissance.

After nearly four and a half centuries of Venetian rule, the Ottomans besieged and conquered the city during the Cretan War of 1645-69. In 1898 the autonomous Cretan State was created, still under Ottoman suzerainty, but with Prince George of Greece as High Commissioner. The city was renamed Heraklion (“City of Heracles”), and, with the rest of Crete, was incorporated into the Kingdom of Greece in 1913.

The nucleus of old Heraklion is not very large, and easily explored on foot. Highlights include the colourful market, a vast covered space filled with a multiplicity of stalls with mouth-watering displays of delicious baked goods, fruit and vegetables, fish, meat and poultry, nuts, sweets such as halva, nougat and Turkish delight, and the principal products of Crete: honey, wine, olives and olive oil. The aromatic scent of herbs and spices mingle with the aromas of coffee and baking bread and pastries – a feast for all the senses.  

A quick break with a cappuccino and slice of baklava fortifies one for further exploration. 

The market is approached via another pedestrianised street filled with stalls selling shoes, souvenirs, sweets such as Turkish delight and halva, clothes such as white cotton garments and embroidered blouses, table linen and slippers, herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes, honey and olives and all their by-products imaginable, from soaps and candles to cosmetics and gifts. 

A fournos produced delicious scents that proved irresistible, and an apple “croissant” (actually a rectangle), and spinach and cheese pies provided a welcome lunch beneath the mulberry trees. Nearby is the Turkish pump house and quirky Bembo Fountain, created in 1588 from a Roman sarcophagus and statue.

                                     

In the centre of this delightful mall is a circular space surrounded by shaded tavernas and ice-cream parlours, and another popular rendez-vous, the Morosíni Fountain This Heraklion landmark was built in 1628 by the Venetian governor Francesco Morosini, and intended to improve the city’s water. Beside the fountain are glass slabs beneath which the remains of the medieval water pipes can be seen. 

The Loggia was where the Venetian nobles used to meet. now restored, it serves as the town hall. 

My first attempt to enter the magnificently decorated Ágios Títos Church, which was converted from a mosque into a church in 1923, was thwarted by an elaborate funeral. (Irreverently, My Big Fat Greek Funeral sprang to mind.) Later I was able to savour a contemplative moment in the side chapel which houses the gold-encased, much-revered skull of Saint Titus.                                                       

I abandoned the thought of lighting a candle for my loved ones when I witnessed a verger extinguishing and tossing other worshipers’ candles into a wooden kist seconds after they had left the church.  

The Ágios Márkos Church is now used for concerts and exhibitions. Opening times proved erratic, but eventually I was able to see a fine exhibition of folk musical instruments from all over the world, strings – both bowed and plucked (including a Swedish nykelharpa), woodwinds, and percussion instruments. 

    

The best of the highlights in Heraklion has to be the Archaeological Museum. No other museum in the world has as many items from Minoan times, each of which tell the story of everyday life at Knossos over 3,500 years ago. There are clay model ships and houses, beautiful jewellery, much of which is wrought in gold and studded with precious and semi-precious stones, rock crystal necklaces and rings, seals and coins, pottery utensils and tiny containers for cosmetics. On the upper level is a collection of frescoes, restored to enable viewers to make out the content: The Prince of the Lilies, The Cupbearer, The Ladies in Blue, and The Dolphin.  

                                                                         

This excellent museum is very user-friendly, beautifully laid out in chronological order with labels and information boards in Greek and English. It begins with household items from Neolithic and Bronze Age times on Crete (6000-1900 BC). The famous golden double bee pendant from Malia is the star attraction in Room II, and copies thereof can be bought in the jewelry stores in the city. 

  

Room III represents aspects of life, the economy and administration dating from the establishment of the first palaces at Knossos, Phaistos and Malia (1900-1700 BC). Included are fine examples of the polychrome Kamares ware, such as the “royal dinner service of Phaistos”, tiny blue and green glass containers, and miniature clay cups that may have been children’s playthings.    

Rooms IV and V present the consolidation of the palace system with the construction of new palaces and villas (1700-1450 BC), along with the development of maritime trade. A significant item is the Phaistos Disc,

the earliest known example of the Linear A Minoan text, as yet undeciphered.  

                                     

Room VI is devoted to daily life, sports and spectacles, and includes the ivory bull-leaper figurine and the well-known bull-leaping fresco from Knossos, from whence originates the English expression, “to take the bull by the horns”.

Rooms VII and VIII present Minoan religious practices, with exhibits such as ritual vessels from significant sanctuaries, gold signet rings depicting epiphany scenes, and the well-known “snake goddesses”.  Rooms IX-XI present the final phase of the palace at Knossos (1450-1300 BC), with finds from local cemeteries, Kamilaris and Phaistos. Here clay tablets with the Greek Linear B script can be seen, which provide vital information regarding the palace administration and finances, as well as finds from the tombs of illustrious personages.  Rooms XII-XIX are dedicated to the world of the dead and beliefs regarding the afterlife, and a special exhibition which presents the creation of the Greek alphabet. The remaining rooms cover the Cretan city-states and their sanctuaries from the Classical Period to Roman times (5th century BC – the 3rd century AD), massive pithoi (storage jars), the evolution of Cretan coinage, and the cemeteries of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. There are burial offerings, funerary statues, and the magnificent Sculpture Collection.  

At the museum exit there is a very disappointing shop, with barely any items apart from a few children’s books. It was suggested that the souvenir stalls and bookshops in Heraklion provide a sufficient supply of such material. But there is a pleasant little cafeteria where, apart from the usual strong coffee, they make freshly pressed fruit juices in a variety of combinations to order. These can be enjoyed out on a shady veranda overlooking the harbour, the cicadas singing in the trees.

It then made perfect sense to visit the ruins of the Palace at Knossos the next day, leaving our car in a dusty olive grove nearby, “for free”, courtesy of the nearby taverna, where we felt obliged to have lunch afterwards. And thence in the heat of the Cretan sun to enjoy two fascinating hours with expert guide Katarina, whom we found hovering near the ticket office. A combination ticket bought at the Archaeological museum ensured free entry to the Knossos site.  

The €80 private tour fee was worth it, as Katarina enabled us to make sense of an otherwise unfathomable mass of ruins, learn their history, and hear the stories of the people who once lived and worked there.  

Reconstruction was first begun by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in 1900, and took over 40 years to complete. Katarina believes that the unaltered ruins of other palaces on Crete are better, but I was grateful to have some inkling as to what the place looked like thousands of years ago. [Timeline at the end of this article.]  

The brick-red columns on some of the buildings give visitors an idea of the colours and splendour of this once magnificent complex.

The palace was the centre of government, administration and culture on Crete from 2000 to 1450 BC. It consisted of around 1,400 rooms which included a “chapel”, treasure chambers, a throne room, private quarters for King Minos and his queen (including an en suite bathroom), storerooms for oil, wine and grain, workshops for a potter and stonemason, and tower-like structures that may have been watchtowers and customs offices.

Some buildings were as many as four storeys high. The central courtyard was once the arena for ritual games and magnificent processional gatherings. The “theatre” in the northwest corner could seat around 500 people, although the reason for such gatherings has not been established.  

I was particularly impressed by ingenious Cretan architectural techniques such as the installation of cyprus wood between the stone layers in order to “cushion” the building during seismic events. Equally impressive were the ventilation system for intolerably hot weather – stone pillars alternating with open wooden doors, and the “skylight” which provided light and functioned as an air shaft to release the rising heat from the bed chambers beneath. Katarina informed us that the climate here was cooler in ancient times, and the area more verdant, with a river flowing below the palace complex. This was hard to imagine as we watched the harassed, sun-scorched Northern European tourists, whose fretful infants competed with the mewing of peacocks in their olive-grove sanctuaries.

As for the illusive Minotaur and his labyrinth, the entire palace, with its twisting passages and hallways, is today interpreted as being the Labyrinth. I always pity Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, whose shrewd advice, sword, and a ball of string, enabled Theseus to locate and slay the Minotaur within the labyrinth, and find his way back out again; he then abandoned her on the island of Naxos as she lay asleep.

Archaeological finds have revealed that childbirth, cancer, and broken brittle bones due to insufficient calcium, were some of the causes of death for the Minoans. But all we could do was wonder at the sophistication of this complex compound, constructed, and vibrant with life and ritual, so long ago.

That evening we tasted the delights of our first Greek evening meal at a taverna recommended by Maria at the Hertz office near the sea front: meze of fava bean hummus, dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with rice and minced vegetables) and deep-fried zucchini,  followed by grilled sea bream. 

         

I had forgotten about the charming Greek taverna custom of a complimentary dessert or fruit and raki after a meal, so this came as a delightful surprise. 

Alternating city-culture with trips through the countryside is always a successful combination when exploring a foreign land. And so the next day we set out on the “Discovery Tour No.4”, suggested and marked on our excellent Marco Polo Guide book map. To this “beautiful surroundings of the Costa Touristica” route we added the town of Sitia as our furthest eastern destination.  

The scenic coastal highway (E75) runs from west to east along Crete’s northern coastline, and soon after leaving Heraklion, we passed the well-advertised CretAquarium. A little further along we paused at the holiday village of Sísi, and enjoyed strong cappuccinos at a taverna right on the shore.

                                   

Once a fishing village, Sísi lies on a long fjord-like bay, and has several little beaches, one sand, the other two pebbles.

Most of the northern coastline is highly developed, abuzz with towns and tavernas, high-rise apartments and hotels, and beaches with a disconcerting forest of umbrellas. Many of the seaside towns are now rather tired and tacky, with funfairs, bars, and shops selling not-so-cheap beach tat. We learned to avoid settlements with small motorised trains hauling sweating sunburned tourists from one overpopulated sight to the next, as these immediately signaled feverish touristic activity.

September is a good time to visit Mediterranean Europe, after the schools and universities have resumed and the sun is passed its zenith. But we found the tourist areas on Crete still quite crowded, and temperatures hovering in the low 30’s. This was apparently unseasonable for this time of year, even though Crete retains summer temperatures longer than anywhere else in Europe. But dry heat is more manageable than the torpid humidity of equatorial lands, and air-conditioned interiors, and the cooler breezes in the mountains, made it good timing, also for swimming in the sea. Crete is very mountainous, with three ranges running its length which include the White Mountains and the Psilorítis. We soon found ourselves high up in winding passes flanked by olive groves humming with cicadas. Now and then we saw one of the many roadside shrines, standing alone in front of the olive groves, or a tiny church atop a distant hill.

                                   

Soon after Sísi we drove through Neápoli and Kastélli (Kissamos), the latter a traditional Greek village with several old Venetian villas with faded green shutters, vine-covered verandas and wrought-iron gates and railings. Wild geraniums spill riotously into the narrow streets, and large pots around the tavernas overflow with flowers. 

Every village and town has a church at its centre, surrounded by tavernas with coffee- and raki-sipping customers.  Elderly gentlemen, each with a magnificent brush mustache, could be seen smoking and chatting in the shade of a gnarled fig tree. And every village has its black-clad widows, thin, bent, with toothless grey heads covered. The poverty in some areas is manifest, for in spite of the apparent agricultural activity, not everyone eats as amply as those in the countless tavernas. Incomplete multi-storey villas can be seen all over the islands, signifying the harsh times that have befallen Greece in recent years.

An avenue of eucalyptus trees lines the narrow road to the next village, and here, as everywhere on Crete, we negotiated the reckless speeding of ancient pick-ups and motorbikes. 

More switchback passes led us through mountain and valley villages, passed small vineyards crammed onto every available plateau, and tiny cemeteries shaded by ancient olives. At one point we were brought to a halt by a herd of jostling sheep, their bells tinkling in the otherwise silent hot and dusty air. The hills are criss-crossed with drystone walls, presumably to corral these simple animals. Their intrepid goat companions cannot be thus contained, and could be encountered roaming the rocky inclines in small goat-eyed gangs.

Around the next corner, through an avenue of cypresses, stands the Moni Aretíou Monastery; an isolated place indeed for uninterrupted prayer and contemplation. 

Far below, in a vast blue bay, lies Nisí Spinalónga, an island that served as a leper colony from 1913-57. Here the outcasts lived in a village they had built themselves inside an old Venetian fortress.

                               

Further along the coast we came across a hidden gem not encountered in my prior research: the seaside village of Pachiá Ámmos.

                               

Here, at Zorba’s, in the shade of the tamarisk trees, we savoured a meze platter for two: delicious moussaka, battered prawns and zucchini, col’ slaw, cheese balls in puff pastry, hummus made from fava beans (not chick peas: “Greek hummus”), feta-and-zucchini balls, tiny sausages encased in pastry, meatballs, and a generous Greek salad with chunks of creamy feta and tiny black olives.

                                 

An elderly British couple who had retired to this remote spot fifteen years before, engaged us in conversation, and informed us that the previous winter had been colder than in the UK. Impossible to believe, in the scorching heat of the Cretan midday sun; “Mad dogs and Englishmen…”

Once we had passed through Sitía, a small harbour town in the southwest corner of Korpos Mirambellou (Mirabello Bay, in the Sea of Crete), we turned south along another “Discovery route: quiet villages between the Aegean and Libyan Seas”. There, beyond the pomegranate trees and prickly pears, laden with autumn bounty, and high on another lonely plateau, we came upon the remains of the ancient city of Presós.  

                                  

Dating from the 12th century BC, and reached on foot up a steep hill, there is not much left so see. It was here that the Etocretans hid from the Greek Dorians who migrated here at that time. But more impressive than the ruins is the utter silence and solitude of this place, the dry air scented with wild thyme and lavender, and magnificent views over spectacular mountain scenery.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sun set all too soon, and we carefully negotiated our way back to the E75 highway and Heraklion. Night driving on Crete is hazardous, with drivers taking alarmingly dangerous risks overtaking on blind rises and corners, regardless of the double lines.

The next day, after rising to the sound of church bells and a housewife in the nearby flats beating her carpets, we set out on another road-trip: an exploration of the Lassíthi Plateau. Here the iconic white-sailed windmills can be seen, a familiar sight from travel agents’ brochures and posters.

                                         

Few of these windmills remain today, as most have been replaced by motorised pumps. Lassíthi is the most fertile plateau on Crete; it is around 10 km long and 5 km wide. 

                                     

The main attraction is the Diktéon Ándron stalactite cave, which we did not visit, but enjoyed the legend. It was here, above the village of Psychró, that Zeus was said to have been raised by goats. His mother Rhea feared that his father Kronos would see him as a rival, and devour him as he had Zeus’s other siblings. The cave was a place of worship from as early as the 2nd century BC. 

Not far from our turnoff south from the E75 highway we came across another unexpected gem: the pretty village of Mochós. A narrow road led us into an attractive central space surrounded on all sides by tavernas, deeply shaded by ancient mulberry trees. It was difficult to decide at which taverna to have our morning coffee. We settled on Radamanthys, named for the wise king of Phaistos, a brother of King Minos. Here a friendly Ukrainian waitress brought a platter of complimentary cookies along with our coffee, and regaled us with local gossip in quirky English.  

On one side of the square stands the church of St. Mary, the cool dim and highly ornate interior redolent with the scent of warm wax and incense. Inside are three old Byzantine icons dating from the 15th century: St. George, St. Panteleimon, and Evangelismos of Theotokos (dedicated to the Mother of Jesus). As I stood there in wonder, worshipers popped in to kiss an icon and utter a quick prayer.                         

     

On another side there is a small shop hung about with marvelous embroidered linens – tablecloths, runners and napery, brightly-coloured carpets and ceramics, all impossible to resist. 

The village gardens were ablaze with flowers: zinnias, chrysanthemums, hydrangeas, marigolds and roses, and pots of crimson geraniums. 

We passed massive orange pumpkins ripening on garden walls, trees laden with apples and pears, and roadside stalls selling honey, olive oil and raki. In the valley farms there were fields of runner beans, cabbages and tomatoes.

Later, around another terrifying bend, we encountered an eye-catching sight: a taverna festooned with strings of bright red tomatoes and massive orange pumpkins ripening on empty olive oil cans and rickety chairs. There was no question as to where we would stop for lunch.

                                       

Marianna Onasis in Mesa Potamoi, presided over by a proprietress of the same name, has been a family-run operation for exactly forty years. “Where are you from?” was the regular question upon entering any establishment, not that the answer was always heeded. But Marianna was interested in South Africa, and told us of relatives and friends who live there. Marianna and her husband “Onassis” agreed to pose for a picture, the latter sporting, Odysseus-like, a flowing grey beard and moustaches.

                                  

After a delicious meal of pork slovaki (kebab) and dolmades, we continued on our way. Up narrow cliff-edge passes and down hairpin bends, passed clusters of pastel-hued bee hives, more shrines and the odd donkey, and along the E75 back to Heraklion.

For CRETE PART 2 see here

 

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