Monday, May 19, 2008

Crete in March (Part I)

Sat., March 7

Six thirty came very early this morning, but we made it. Caught a cab with no trouble at 7 and were at the airport by 7:20 (with a stop on the way to photograph the Acropolis at dawn) for our 8:50 flight. It was uneventful (Olympic Air) and we landed at Heraklion about 9:40. The Hertz counter at the International terminal was closed, but the regular one was open and we got our green, green, green "Jive" Nissan and were on our way.

The drive to Elounda was beautiful. Arid hills, which go right down to the blue sea, were covered with red, white, yellow and orange flowers. Then we found Porto Elounda Mare!!

This is an unbelievably luxurious resort. We are in "Kos", #10 Villa: 2 stories, 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, 2 fireplaces, sunken living room, full kitchen, private garden, and our own pool. I feel like Jackie O. The off-season rate is $300 per day and in high season it's $750. I'm a bit overwhelmed.

After we unpacked, we decided on a short trip to visit Krista, a little village near our capital of Agios Nickolas. We visited the church of Panagia Kera, a tiny place and one of the finest creations of Byzantine art. A grove of pines and cypresses gives it an atmosphere of tranquility, but the best things are the beautiful frescos, "the finest in Crete." They were painted everywhere and, even with our very good guidebook, we gave up on identifying all the saints and Bible stories.

Close by was the Doric town of Lato. Here are the ruins of a town founded in the 7th and 8th centuries BC. We wound our way up a narrow and rough road and found one old man sitting by a gate. He told us the site closed at three (it was shortly after 1), and we began our climb. What a neat place!! The Dorians came after the peaceful and creative Minoans and Myceans and really began the classic Greek culture. It is very simple and elegant architecture. The town was very interesting and easy to follow with our books. We also saw kiri kiri (wild goats) clinging to the sides of sheer rock faces.

We made it back by 2:30 and figured we had better find some places to buy food before everything closes at three. We got oranges at a fruit stand, bread at a bakery, and sausage, wine and cheese at a mini mart. We came back to Elounda for a late lunch and stopped at Gleeka's place. Apparently they weren't scheduled to open till five tonight (Grand Opening), but they seemed happy to serve us. We had grilled eggplant, gyros and Greek salad with lots of wine. Gleeka brought us complementary ouzo first and before we left brought us another (for the other leg). We talked quite a while. She is newly here after a not too happy experience in Germany. We walked around the port, but I was tired, so we came home to watch our beautiful view and catch up on our sleep. We went to bed at nine.

Sun., March 8

Slept soundly until 8, breakfasted on freshly squeezed (of course our villa has an electric juicer) orange juice and rolls, then began our "Eastern Crete" itinerary.

Gournia was a typical Minoan town with narrow paved streets, small dwelling houses and a palace and temple on the highest ground. It is one of the earliest examples of a European town. Gournia was occupied from BC 3000-1100. The remains date from its heyday between 1800 and 1500 BC (late middle and early late Minoan periods).

I bought some film in the little fishing village of Paheia Ammes, and we followed the beautiful road along the coast to Sitia. We stopped several times to admire the panoramas. After the first stop, Jerry always remembered to set the hand brake before we got out.

We left the main (red) highway for a yellow road, which hugged the coast, passing the interesting Italinate monastery at Toplori. It was built in the first half of the 14th century and was much used during WWII. We didn't stop as one of the books talked about how the architecture had been changed to accommodate tourists and about how one of the two remaining monks (there had been 150) was rather "sullen."

The landscape is very barren and desolate--sharp mountains covered with stony rubble and scrub brush (herbs such as thyme) dropping right into the very blue sea. At one point we came upon a "development", Dionysis Villas, right in the middle of NOWHERE.

Then suddenly we were in the middle of a banana plantation and a beautiful palm lined blue beach at Vai. The book said the palms were a result of Arab traders leaving seeds from dates they ate. We bought some of the best bananas I've ever had and decided to wait for lunch.

We traveled south through Palekastro with a fascinating mixture of lush countryside and totally barren landscapes to the excavation site of Kato Zakros. The last curvy and rather steep stretch is interesting, leading through country that reminded us of photos of the moon. The valley, however, seemed lush, and we actually saw water on some of the rocks.

Suddenly, the road ended in front of a taverna. We parked and walked around until we found the entrance to the palace behind the taverna. We were (again) the only tourists, but there was a girl in the ticket booth who gave us two tickets (free) and told us the site closed at three (Why was she there?). This was less well preserved than Gournia, but better explained in both books. The area was inhabited from 2700 BC. The palace and ports were in existence from, 1600-1410, making it a bit later than Gournia but much earlier than Lato (Dorian). This one was destroyed by the Mycenaeans, not by the "catastrophes" (earthquakes and tidal waves) that kept destroying the rest of Crete.

We decided to have lunch at the taverna where we had parked (with one other, apparently the total town). The only other people there were locals. We sat at a table just feet from the sea and ate: souvlaki which we had seen cooking on an outdoor grill, tzatziki, Greek salad and calamari with bread and wine. Wonderful. (Jerry in the photo above).

We had filled up with gas at Sitia; so, with a full belly and a full gas tank, we headed west. There were two ways to go--the yellow roadway on which we had come, or the white (minor--some would say donkey path) road. Of course we picked the OBT way, a dirt and stone trail on which we only saw one other (very surprised) vehicle.

It was quite a trip, but we made it back to a yellow road (scenic) and then back via Sitia. On our way through Agios Nickolas, we saw a tiny church with the doors open and we went in. It was about 12x12 but filled with beautiful icons. Quite a treat. Home to our own palace where we had a snack (during which the maid came to check and make sure everything is OK--it is). Now we have to plan tomorrows and Knossos.

Mon., March 9

Another beautiful day. My spring clothes are very comfortable, although the Cretans are still wrapped in layers of woolen duds. It's lovely to come home at the end of the day and to write this journal while looking out over our lighted pool and the blue Mediterranean.

We drove back to Heraklion to get to the palace at Knossos (1600-1400 BC). Here the architectural apogee of the Golden Age of Minoan culture can be seen. The palace extends over five acres and had 1300 rooms on 4 stories. Eight thousand people lived there at the time of the catastrophe of Santorini in 1450. This is purported to be the scene of the Minoan labyrinth where King Minos kept the Minotaur until Theseus killed him. This was much more extensively renovated than anything we've seen so far and apparently the reconstruction has occasioned much controversy. All of the frescos and artifacts have been removed to the museum at Heraklion. Some have been recreated at Knossos and concrete has been used to hold stones together throughout the palace. I'm glad they did it, because it gives a much clearer picture of the site.

From Knossos we drove south through Arkhanes and fields and fields of olives and grapes. There were some excavations here, but they were closed on Monday, so we enjoyed the scenery and went over a very OBT road until we rejoined a red road to Kastelli.

We stopped at the Angarnthos monastery founded in 960. The newer church had wonderful icons including one of the "Mother of God Suckling the Child." We don't understand what the aluminum "tags" hanging from icons are.

We also don't know why the roadside shrines have unusual personal items in front of the icons.

The books talked about the town of Thrapsano where the main street is lined with potter's workshops and the winding lanes and old Turkish houses have hardly changed for centuries. We drove through and saw the workshops, but it seemed very strange, with no people, stores, tavernas or anything. On the outskirts of town we found a shop and bought a plate and a bowl.

The road led into Kastelli where we lunched at the taverna Irini (rainbow) in a neoclassical building built in 1910. We had a great meal of taramosalata, grilled octopus, moussaka and the old goat had old goat.

We came home and walked around the grounds.

Note: at the supermarket, the CD's were various Greek music, Frank Sinatra (40-year-old photo) and Tina Turner.

Tues., March 10

It was a bit overcast when we got up and had our fresh OJ, baklava, chocolate filled croissant, coffee and tea, so we decided to go into AN and visit the Archeological Museum, the most important one in Crete after the one in Heraklion. It was built in 1970 to house the rich new finds from eastern Crete. It was very well set up, with exhibits arranged in chronological order from Neolithic (6000-2100 BC) to the end of the Greco-Roman period (550-400 BC). It was very interesting, and my guidebook identified the contents of each room, case-by-case.

By the time we emerged, the weather had cleared and it was sunny and warm. We decided to explore the town. It is a very Mediterranean place, with the beautiful Gulf of Mirabello to the east and the picturesque lake Voulismeni (one of only 2 fresh water lakes in Crete) adjoining the harbor. One of the guidebooks says, "It soon becomes clear that water is not the main attraction...AN is quite simply a magnet for the trendiest of Crete's tourists--the one resort on the island which is reminiscent of Mykonos."

We, however, appear to be the only tourists here. We were the only ones at the Museum (they had to turn the lights on for us). The season doesn't start for another 10 days, and the Tourist Office wasn't even open (although the sign outside listed our hotel as the most expensive in the area). We walked around and looked in shops and restaurants. The one really nice "Museum Shop" was closed so we'll try that again.

We finally found the church for which the town was named. It was outside of the town on the grounds of the Minos Palace Hotel--a beautiful new place where workmen were frantically trying to get it ready for the season. We got a key for the church at the front desk (after surrendering our passport as hostage).

It was a beautiful little place and one of the oldest churches in Crete with the only example of the ornamental frescos from the period of Iconoclasm (726-843) when figural representation was banned in churches and the only painting was ornamental. It was overpainted with figures in the 14th century, and we also saw graffiti carved by visitors in the 18thcentury.

No comments: