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Crete 1991

5/05/91 - After leaving the ferry in Iraklion I sat and looked in vain at the little map of Iraklion in my guidebook and then decided to test my orientation skills by walking to where I thought I might find the central square of the city, dominated by the fountain of the Lions, built by Morozini the Venetian governor in 1628. I sat in the morning sun for about an hour trying to decide whether I should visit the city before walking toward Archanes and the ruins of Knossos which seemed like they were about five kilometers away. Since it was Sunday the Archaeological Museum was closed but I decided to get a room in Heraklion so that I could walk to the place on the Venetian wall where Nikos Kazantzakis is buried and pay homage at the grave of a kindred spirit before taking a slow walk along the walls of the city to the Koules. From youth on, Kazantzakis was spiritually restless. Tortured by metaphysical and existential concerns, he sought relief in knowledge, in travelling, in contact with a diverse set of people, in every kind of experience. His most famous novels include Zorba the Greek (1946)); The Greek Passion (1948); Captain Michalis (1950); The Last Temptation of Christ (1951); and Saint Francis (1956). Journey to Morea (1961) had been the most important guidebook for my bicycle ride through the Peloponnese. In his book "The Saviours of God" he had written:

We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have
named this circle God. We might have given it any other name
we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light,
Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence.
We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life.
Denied burial in any Greek Orthodox cemetery, the Kazantzakis epitaph reads simply "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."
Morozini Fountain Nikos Kazantzakis Walls of Heraklion Domatio with Bath

5/6/91 -After a pleasant overnight stay in a "domatio mi banio" near the Archaeology Museum I had breakfast and then walked to the museum in time for its opening at 9:00 AM. With its amazing collection of artefacts from the digs at Knossos, Agia Triada, Kommos, Phaistos, Gournia, and Zakros, this must certainly be one of the best in Greece and unmatched in the world for its Minoan works. In a century which has seen the cracking of Linear B, Ugaritic, and other orthographic systems, the Phaestos Disk has eluded decipherment. The disk is thought to date from around 1700 BC. It is a roundish disk of clay, with symbols stamped into it. The text consists of 61 words, 16 of which are accompanied by a mysterious "slash" mark. There are 45 different symbols occurring 241 times. The symbols portray recognizable objects like human figures and body parts, animals, weapons, and plants. Since the text of the disk is so short, decipherment by the statistical cryptographic techniques employed by Michael Ventris in cracking Linear B is impossible. 

Iraklion Museum Exterior Archaeology Museum Model of Knossos Palace Pithos from Knossos
Fresco from Knossos Minoan Bull Head Snake Goddess Phaistos Disk

I left the Archaeology Museum at about noon and started walking southeast toward Archanes with the hope of being able to find a place to stay near Knossos so that I could visit the palace during the afternoon and evening light and then go again in the morning for the warmth and angle of early light. As I left the outskirts of Iraklion the road cut more deeply into the valley and I could see a small stream on the left, crossed by many old arched Ottoman bridges. I was overjoyed to find a room in a private home just north of the entrance gate for the site. The first settlement in the Knossos area was established about 7000 BCE, during the Neolithic Period. The economic, social and political development of the settlement led to the construction of the majestic Palace of Knossos towards the end of the second millennium BCE. This first palace was destroyed about 1700 BCE. It was rebuilt and destroyed again by fire, this time definitively, in 1350 BCE. The environs of the Palace were transformed into a sacred grove of the goddess Rhea, but never inhabited again.

At the entrance I walked past a bust of Sir Arthur Evans, who in March 1900 to 1931, excavated not only the palace but the whole surrounding area of Knossos. The palace complex was excavated in only five years, an extremely short time by today’s standards. Evans restored the palace with concrete, a technique condemned by modern archaeologists as arbitrary and damaging to the Minoan structure. Excavations continue and a conservation program is underway to halt the deterioration of the palace.

With the sun at my back I walked through the West Court to the site with the famous pylons of the control bastion off to my left. The huge west wall sculpture of a bull's horns is a reminder that the palace of King Minos was rich in mythological lore. Minos himself was believed to be the son of Zeus--the result of one of Zeus's many affairs with mortal women. Minos's palace and the legends associated with it befit the son of a god. Here Daedelus built a contraption so that Minos's wife, Pasiphae, could satisfy her passion for a bull. The union resulted in the Minotaur-half bull, half-man. For his efforts, Daedalus was imprisoned by Minos. Daedalus's invention of wax wings allowed him and his son, Icarus, to fly to freedom. It was at Minos's palace that Theseus, the Athenian hero, slew the Minotaur and thus released Athens from the yearly tribute of 7 youths and 7 maidens for the Minotaur's consumption. The Minotaur was housed in a labyrinth, a maze from which Theseus emerged only with the help of Minos's daughter, Ariadne, whom he promptly deserted on the way back to Athens. As the Athenian ships returned home, Theseus forgot to give the signal for success. In despair, his father, King Aegeus, threw himself into the sea that still bears his name.

Bust of Sir Arthur Evans Pre-Palatial House Knossos North Gate West Facade with Horns

The formal approach to the palace was from the West Court, which ran most of the length of that side of the palace. It was paved with large, irregular slabs of limestone and was crossed by a number of raised walkways known as causeways. There was a rather broad walkway that approached the court from the Theatral Area to the north, running between the palace and a complex that Evans called the North-West Treasure House because of the fine pottery and metal vessels found there. It continued along the west façade for a way and then split into two, narrower paths, each about 1.4 metres across—one continuing along the west side of the palace and the other heading away to the southwest. It ran past a row of three circular, stone-lined pits about 5-6 metres in diameter and 3 metres deep. Evans called them koulares and believed were for the disposal of sacred objects but when he excavated them, he found only broken pottery and other domestic rubbish from the First Palace Period. The remains of pre-palatial houses were found at the bottom.

The West Façade of the palace is made up of a number of staggered blocks of storage magazines supporting at least one upper storey. Each block had a broad, shallow niche facing the court and, in front of two of them, Evans found bases for altars. It is believed that the niches were decorative surrounds for large windows in the upper storey, comparable to the ‘windows of appearance’ in contemporary Egyptian palaces and temples. He imagined the elite of the palace standing at these windows to witness the rites and ceremonies taking place in the courtyard below.

The entrance to the palace was by way of the West Porch, a rather simple affair with a small portico supported by a single column and looking along the façade of the palace. At the rear of the porch was a small doorway that marked the start of the Corridor of the Procession. The latest version of this passageway was decorated with frescoes depicting kilted young men and young women in flounced skirts flanking the figure of a goddess or priestess. After about 17 metres, the ground drops away and much of the superstructure has collapsed but it is possible to trace the line of the corridor by the layout of the underlying basement rooms. After running south for 24 metres the passage makes a right-angled turn to the east and continues for about another 48 metres before turning north to the Central Court. There is much speculation among archaeologists concerning the early descriptions of the palace as a labyrinth but this angling meander of the Corridor of the Procession reinforces the idea. . The 1300 rooms are connected with corridors of varying sizes and direction, which is different than other palaces of the time period which connected the rooms via several main hallways.

I also read that the word labyrinth comes from the word labrys, referring to a double, or two-bladed, axe. Its representation had religious and probably magical significance. It was used throughout the Mycenaean world as an apotropaic symbol; that is, the presence of the symbol on an object would prevent it from being "killed." Axes were scratched on many of the stones of the palace. It appears in pottery decoration and is a motif of the Shrine of the Double Axes at the palace, as well as of many shrines throughout Crete and the Aegean. The etymology of the name is not known; it is probably not Greek. The form labyr-inthos uses a suffix generally considered to be pre-Greek.

Knossos West Courtyard West Facade and Altar West Porch Ceentral Court

The large Central court took advantage of the southern Aegean climate and provided access to light for the surrounding rooms. The Minoan emphasis on nature is evident in frecoes as well as architecture but archaelogists have found no indication of it having been used for the bull leaping that is also portrayed in many frescoes. Noticeably missing from Knossos are defensive walls. Though the palace walls themselves were massive, these would not have provided protection against assault. The Minoans seemed secure in their island base, confident that their navy would repel external threats. It may have taken the volcanic eruption on Thera, just north of Crete, to weaken the Minoans sufficiently for the newly emerging Mycenaean culture to overtake them. Yet recent evidence about the date of the eruption casts doubt on its contribution to the fall of Minoan civilization. Though it is evident that the Mycenaeans eventually came to control Knossos, how this transition occurred remains a subject for debate.

The palace looked so beautiful in the afternoon light that I stopped reading about it in my guidebook and began to take pictures of everything that was well lighted in the afternoon so that I could come back early the next day and take pictures of things that received their best light from the eastern sunrise.

Level Two Stairs Knossos Interior Storage Pithoi Palace Pillars
Throne Room Shield Room Cup Bearers Porch Detail of Cupbearers

5/7/91 - As soon as the sun had risen I returned to the palace and began to photograph things until the entrance gate opened at 9:00 AM. To the north of the palace I walked along the Royal Road which once ran all the way from the harbor to the palace. The square Theater lies north of the palace of Knossos, in front of the north magazines. Various enactments, probably religious in nature, may have been held here. The theatre steps seated 400 people. The so-called Little Palace, now closed to the public, is in the aristocratic neighbourhood of the town of Knossos and may have housed members of the royal family. The Little Palace was as luxurious as the large palace and served the same purpose, but was constructed on a smaller scale. Along the Royal Road were the luxury homes of the Knossos elite. As nine o'clock approached I made my way back to the Customs House or Guard's Bastion to wait for the security gates to be opened.

Royal Road Theater Little Palace Customs House

This time I had another look at the Corridor of the Procession and then walked straight ahead to the Central Court and stopped for a photo-op at the Bull Fresco at the North Porch. Next I walked to the loggia and light well above the Throne Room for a picture featuring a self portrait reflection in a fresco's protective glass on the right. Then I returned to the Throne room where the morning light was streaming in through the light well to give an aura of mystery to what is usually credited as Europe's earliest throne. I was alone in what I think was not a seat of power but some sort of religious shrine whose sacredness was still hovering just across a dimensional curtain. I braced myself against a pillar and was able to frame a decent picture of the Griffin Fresco.

North Porch Bull Fresco Loggia Above Throne Room Throne Room Morning Griffin in Throne room

Having raced ahead of the first visitors to spend time alone in the Throne Room, I returned by way of the monumental staircase to what Evans called the Piano Nobile. The entrance is just about at the middle of the east-west stretch of the Corridor of the Procession and led into the South Propylon. A propylon was the term used by the Greeks to describe the formal entrance to their sanctuaries and, in its most basic form, consists of a doorway with a portico, or porch, with one or two columns. In some cases, like this one, there is a portico on both sides of the door. Evans found the remains of a set of jambs at the front of the outer portico enabling him to restore two sets of three doorways with a light-well or antechamber in between. He also found a pair of column bases to support the roof of the doorway sets to the front of a space approximately 9.5 metres across and 7.5 metres deep. The size of their bases suggests the columns were probably about 4.5 metres high, and he restored them as such.

Piano Nobile Plan

Restored rooms in the Piano Nobile are used to display some of the restored frescos found in various areas of the Palace including the famous Dolphins, the so-called La Parisiennes, the Bull-Leapers, and the Octopus.

Dolphins Room La Parisiennes Bull Leaping Octopus

Before leaving the Knossos Palace I again walked down the Grand Staircase to the lower floors to visit the Royal Chambers. The Grand Staircase is located at about the middle of the east side of the Central Court and presumably was entered from it (although no trace of an opening has survived). There were at least five flights of broad, gypsum stairs, the lowest two resting on solid earth and the others on wooden beams supported by wooden columns. There was a light-well immediately adjacent on the east, which opened onto a lobby, the Hall of the Colonnades, on each of the lower floors. The walls were decorated with painted murals including bands of running spirals—superimposed by full-sized replicas of the characteristic Minoan ‘figure eight’ shields in the case of the upper hall. In addition to being practical weapons of war, such shields were evidently powerful religious symbols.

The Hall of the Double Axes was a double chamber with an inner and an outer room. The inner room contained a throne and could be closed off by eleven sets of double doors. It is probable that this was to provide privacy for some religious rituals which were not to be seen by the public. A dog-legged passage led from the Hall of the Double Axes to a smaller version that Evans dubbed the Queen’s Megaron. In this case, instead of a series of doors, the hall was sub-divided by a low stylobate about 38 cm high, supporting a pair of pillars. On top of the gypsum blocks that made up the stylobate, Evans found carbonized wood with a coating of plaster leading him to believe that it was used as a bench, one whose height he believed was designed to accommodate women rather than men. At the north end of the bench is a doorway, linking the room to a sort of portico with a light-well beyond.

The Minoans channeled drinking water from Mount Youktas, a distance of about 10km, to a water tank in the palace. They used pipes that fitted one within another, perfectly engineered to carry the water through an uneven terrain of hills and valleys. Sanitation drainage was through a closed system leading to a sewer apart from the hill. The Queen's Megaron contained an example of the first water flushing system toilet adjoining the bathroom. This toilet was a seat over drain flushed by pouring water from a jug. The bathtub located in the adjoining bathroom similarly had to be filled by someone heating, carrying, and pouring water, and must have been drained by overturning into a floor drain or by bailing.

Grand Staircase Hall of Double Axes Queen's Megaron Queen's Bathtub

I had learned of a bus that passed by Knossos on its route to other towns in the south and probably closely followed the old Minoan route from Knossos to the Messara plain in the south of the island. Vathypetro lies some five kilometres south of Archanes at the foot of the southern end of Mount Iuktas in Central Crete. The site was excavated from 1949-53 and again in 1955-6. As with the Evans work at Knossos, the remains were reconstructed and modified, making it difficult for archaeologists to piece together the original structure of the buildings on the site. The Vathypetro complex was constructed around 1580 BCE at the beginning of the Late Minoan IA period and badly damaged around 1550 BCE, perhaps by an earthquake. The south sector of the building, which includes a wine press, was rebuilt as a farmhouse and industrial centre after the 1550 BCE destruction and was finally destroyed around 1470 BCE.

Approaching Vathypetro Vathypetro Room 11 Vathypetro Room 3 Wine press

While wandering around Vathypetro I met a British couple who were traveling around Crete in a rental car and they invited me to ride with them to their next stop which was the ruins of ancient Gortyna. I had not planned to visit Gortyna but it was located only about 15 kilometers from my next objective in Phaestos and would save me a lot of bus catching. On the way we passed through the little village of Myrtia which is the birth place of Nikos Kazantzakis but decided not to visit the museum built next to his father's house. Next we passed through the very modest villages of Asteroussii and Kofinas before arriving in Gortyna for a somewhat disappointing look at scattered Roman ruins.

Gortyna Overview Ruins Gortyna St. Titus Basilica Gortyna Odeon

The British couple felt badly about leaving me in the desolate town of Gortyna so I gladly hopped back aboard their car for a short ride to Agia Galina on the southern coast of Crete across from Libya. I quickly found a "domatio mi banio" and then had dinner at a harborside taverna before collapsing into bed.

Agia Galina Flowers and Shingle Beach Agia Galina from Harbor Mole Agia Galina Taverna Agia Galina Icarus


5/8/91 - I woke early from a blast of pure Grecian light streaming through the bougainvillea blooms surrounding my hotel window in Agia Galini. I have written before of the difference between traveling and hedonism but I have never really conquered the yearning for hanging around a pretty village and ogling acres of glowing girlflesh while muddling my perspective with shots of ouzo at a seaside taverna. Agia Galini is a perfect place for hedonism but it was not on my planned Cretan itinerary and its equivalents would be available back at work when I was traveling on my company's expense account. I hate covering the same ground twice but I decided to take the 9:00 AM bus from Agia Galini back through Timbaki to the town of Kamilari where I hoped to find a room that would provide me walking access to the Minoan ruins at Phaistos, Kommos, Matala, and Agia Triada.

Leaving the bus terminal in Agia Galini we rode north about a mile to Rt. 97 and then took a right turn toward Timbaki. The road is on high ground so we looked out upon the beautiful blue Libyan Sea with glimpses of the harbor of Kokinos Pirgos as we rode past a military base and its somewhat surreal juxtapositon with large numbers of orchids brilliantly lit by the warm morning light. I had thought of walking this road but on the previous day's passing I had only noticed the military base from the other side of the car and decided to take the bus to save my legs for walking around Kamilari. Shortly after passing through Timbaki we made a right turn onto what I think was Rt. 35 toward Kamilari. A person at the hotel desk in Agia Galini had provided me with the street address of a "domatio mi banio" in Kamilari where I hoped to get a room for two days of exploration. Kamilari is built on the top of three hills, 5 km west of the archaeological site of Phaistos and 2.5 km from the sea, where the resort of Kalamaki is sited. It is said to have 339 inhabitants. Its houses are mostly of two stories and built with stones. The guidebook also says that Kamilari has been inhabited since the Minoan period, and that one of the seven wise men of the ancient world, Epimenidis, lived in a small community outside Kamilari, called Metohi.

After meeting my hostess and depositing my backpack in my room I explored Kamilari and then walked to the outskirts to look down on the seaside Kalimaki and further west along the water side to Agia Galini where I had spent the previous evening. The area of Kalamaki had been inhabited during the Minoan, Hellenistic and Roman periods. South of Kalamaki is the archaeological site of Kommos, port of ancient Phaistos. Just outside of Kalimari at a distance of 4 km from Phaistos, archaeological excavations have brought to light a 1700 BCE vaulted Minoan tomb, one of the most important in the Messara valley. In this tomb, known as the "Kamilari Tomb", several archaeological findings had been found and I had seen and photographed them in the Archaeological Museum of Iraklion. Again the evidence of a carefree, lighthearted population with gender equality.

The Kamilari tholos tomb is located on a low hill near the sea and 1.9 kilometres south west of Agia Triada. The ground was leveled before the foundations of the tomb were laid and it is thought that the tomb had a stone roof. To the east of the tomb there is an annex of five rooms and north of these there was an area for offerings. It was here that the earliest pottery from the tomb was found together with some small stone vases. All the vessels had been placed upside down. Altogether 500 vases have been found in the area outside the tomb and 250 inside the tomb.

Kamilari View of Agia Galini Kamilari Tholos Tomb Kamilari Tomb Annex Kamilari Dancers

From the tholos tomb it was only a short walk to Agia Triada. Like the Little Palace at Knossos, Agia Triada is a small Minoan palace which is believed to have served as a summer residence for the King of Phaistos. It consists of two sections, one section stretching towards the north, the other towards the west. The king's apartment is behind a large terrace and includes, among other areas, the main hall with columns, an arcade, the archive room, a small room decorated with valuable frescoes and the treasury where the most interesting finds were made.
To the south are store rooms and servants' quarters. Another important finding in the area is the ruins of a necropolis with numerous graves including two vaulted tombs. The famous Harvester Vase and the Sarcophagus of Agia Triada at the Archaeological Museum in Iraklion were found here.

Agia Triada Minoan Palace at Agia Triada Harvester Vase Agia Triada Sarchophagus

Walking along the road to the beach I came upon the fenced-in ruins of Kommos which once served as the port for the palace at Phaistos. I walked around the perimeter of the ruins reading my guide book which informed me that the town was founded in MM I, and grew rapidly until MM III when it appears that the town was destroyed by an earthquake and abandoned. Middle Minoan houses have been discovered in levels below the Late Minoan houses on the hilltop. These houses are densely packed while at the bottom of the hill there is a monumental building with very large pieces of ashlar masonry. Ceramic experts examining the Kommos pottery were careful to separate out even small vase fragments that were unlike the more common ones because of shape, color, or baric (color of clay, inclusions, etc.). In this way they discovered pottery imported from numerous areas in the Mediterranean, so many individual items that those from Kommos outnumber those from any other Aegean site. This must reflect a historical reality, in which as a port town, Kommos provided harbor and shelter to ships and their crews who in turn provided the inhabitants with a variety of ceramic wares such as the Canaanite amphoras now on display in the Iraklion Museum.

Kommos Kommos Late Minoan Homes Ashlar Building Canaanite Amphorae

With a wildly grumbling stomach I moved on to another of the Phaistos port communities which also offered the possibility of tavernas. When Zeus seduced the princess Europa in the form of a white bull, he crossed the sea and brought her to the beach of Matala. There he changed into an eagle and flew her north to Gortyna where he had sex with her. Later Joni Mitchell arrived and wrote "Carey" here. The beach of this bay, in the form of a reaping-hook, is still the same. The cave houses, cut by the Cretan people from the early Stone Age, with their passages, stone beds and fireplaces, are now free of naked hippies and safely under the government's care.

Matala Caves of Matala Matala Matala

It took nearly three hours of beer drinking in the taverna to restore my strength for the walk back to my room in Kamilari but it was important for my health. A little hedonism is a necessary balance to meditative ruin walking.

5/10/91 - My intention was to atone for my previous evening's debauchery by walking at dawn to the ruins of the palace at Phaistos but my landlady provided me with a breakfast of bread and cheese before my departure and I didn't want to appear unsociable. The palace at Phaistos, like the other palaces of Minoan Crete, was destroyed three times before it was rebuilt on the ruins of the old buildings in 1700 BC. Aesthetically, Phaistos is built on the most spectacular setting of all palaces in Crete, high on a dramatic hill, overlooking the entire Messara plain framed by the Asterousia mountain range which is sprinkled with small villages to the south, and the Lasithi mountains to the east. Looking to the west you can see the blue waters of the Messara gulf just beyond the low hill of Agia Triada, and to the north the dramatic Mt. Ida with its cave where Rhea hid the new-born Zeus from his offspring-gobbling father Cronos.

The exposed levels of the old original palace which were retained by the Minoans or exposed by archaeologists paint a picture of architectural intricacy which rivals that of the new palace. The old levels are best preserved at Phaistos, more than in any other palace in Crete, and have prompted scholars to conclude that the complexity of the structures was not dramatically increased during the rebuilding of the Neopalatial period. The raised processional walkway which traverses the western courtyard diagonally in the old palace connected this area to the main courtyard after an abrupt turn at the south end of the palace. Today this part of the walkway is covered under the buildings of the Neopalatial era. The central courtyard is vast and it retains its original pavement of stones. The irrigation works under the central courtyard and the entire palace indicate an emphasis on sanitation which was a priority for all Minoan palaces. The palace of Phaistos used the small river Ieropotamos at the foot of the hill for its water supply, along with some deep wells in the palace itself. The buildings of the palace were constructed in such a way that the open areas were always enclosed on one side by a palace wall, and on the other side by a major mountain mass.

Phaistos from Upper West Courtyard Well Corridor with Irrigation North Facade w/Charring
Center Courtyard Phaistos Palace Phaistos Phaistos Palace

Being alone in Phaistos will always be included in my "Best of" days. The light, the stones, the sky, the silence unbroken, and the Minoan ghosts combined into perfection. Maybe the navel of the world was really here 1,200 years before the Parthenon and not where the later Greeks thought it to be in Delphi. As the afternoon shadows grew longer, I returned to our jointly hallucinated real world with a real road to Rethymno and a real bus to take me there.

After riding back through Timbaki and Agia Galini we crossed the Elektras River and started a groaning ascent into the mountains. Below Melambes (570 meters), at a place called Kouroi, there was a temple dedicated to Elektra, hence the name of the river Elektras. I took a quick snap of Mt. Ida from the village while we waited for a few of the 570 Melambes residents to board the bus. Our next stop was Akoumia (pop. 690) but no passengers were waiting and nobody wanted off. I woke from a nap in Spili (pop. 800) just in time to take a snap of the newly restored cathedral and then again in Myxorrouma (pop. 394) with its interesting stone houses and a surprising amount of vegetation. Finally after two hours of slow, sleepy, bumpy bus riding, we crested a hill and looked down on what I at first thought was an unpleasant third largest city of Crete.

Mt. Ida from Melambes Spili Cathedral Myxorrouma Rethymno from the Bus Window

The buildings around the bus station were crowded and dirty but I soon found myself at a very pretty harbor area near the Porta Guora gate with the setting sun lighting the facades of what I think are Venetian (1210-1645) and Ottoman (1645-1897) era buildings. My Lonely Planet book provided me directions to Olga's Pension where I was able to rent a room for the night and received directions to the Rimondi Fountain with its water spouting lion heads. Using the fountain as a directional reference point I found a friendly looking taverna near the pirate ship Barbarossa on the Venetian Harbor waterfront and ate dinner as the sun descended to the west. The glowing lighthouse at the end of the harbor mole made me want to take some night photos so I first headed along the coast to the west where there was some high ground from which I could take an overview of the harbor area and then walked to the end of the mole to look back at the city.

Venetian Harbor Rethymno Harbor Pirate Ship Barbarossa Rimondi Fountain
Evening in Rethymno Rethymno Harbor Rethymno lighthouse Rethymno Waterfront

aka Chania

5/10/91 - I woke in time to have breakfast and catch the 8:30 bus west to Hania. The national highway 90 runs close to the coast for the first part of the trip. Much of this coastline is devoted to package tourism, intensifying on the approaches to Georgioupolis where we crossed the Almyros River. The eucalyptus tree lined river forms the small harbor of Georgioupolis next to about three miles of sandy beach laden with pasty northern European bodies getting an early tan. After picking up passengers in Georgioupolis we turned inland to Platanos where I got off the bus to visit a tholos tomb that I had read about. The tholos tombs at Platanos were in use from EM II until MM II and tomb A is the largest tholos tomb to be uncovered in Crete. Originally there were three tombs and to the east of tombs A and B there were rectangular buildings. North-east of the third, destroyed, tomb there were rectangular buildings which had been used as house tombs. With only a half hour until the next Hania bus I took a few photos and then hurried back to the bus station where I waited with a Cretan couple. The road returned to the shoreline of Souda Bay at the town of Kalami where we could see across the water to the peninsula on the other side as we made our stop at the Souda Ferry Port. Leaving the ferry slip we drove into Hania which is very reminiscent of Rethymno with its Ottoman and Venetian buildings. From the Hania bus station I used the map in my Lonely Planet to make my way through past a fish market on the Plateia 1866 to Zambeliou Street and an old rooming house called George's Pension where I was able to get a room with a balcony facing out upon the old Venetian Harbor and its lighthouse. Odo Zambeliou, which dissects Halidon just before the harbor, was once the main thoroughfare. It is a very narrow street lined with craft shops, hotels, and tavernas where I quickly made a selection and had my lunch.

Almyros River in Georgioupolis Platanos Tomb A Platanos Tomb B Platanos Bus Mates
Kalami on Souda Bay. Souda Ferry Port Plateia 1866 Hania Harbor View

Hania is the site of the Minoan settlement of Kydonia, which was centered on the hill to the east of the Venetion Harbor. Little excavation work has been done, but the finding of clay tablets with Linear B script has led archaeologists to believe that Kydonia was both a palace and an important town which met a fiery end in 1450 BCE along with all of the other Minoan settlements. The city became Venetion at the beginning of the 13th century and the name was changed to La Canea. The Venetians spent a lot of effort constructing massive fortifications in a vain attempt to protect the city from the Turks who took Hania in 1645 after a seige lasting two months. The Great Powers made Hania the island capital in 1898 and it remained so until 1971, when the administration was transferred to Iraklion.

My first objective was to see the ruins of ancient Kydonia in Ayia Aikaterini Square which has been excavated for several decades. The excavations in the square revealed part of a Minoan town with four or possibly five houses around a square. House 1 has been the most thoroughly excavated and this was built in LM IA and destroyed by fire in LM IB. The two wings of the building cover 212 square metres and it has 14 rooms. Among the rooms whose use has been identified there were a Minoan Hall, a kitchen, workrooms and storerooms in which a large amount of pottery was found. I spent most of the remaining afternoon in Hania's Archaeological Museum and the Naval Museum before heading for the old Venetian Harbor to take pictures.

Ancient Kydonia Ancient Kydonia Hania Archaeological Museum Hania Naval Museum
Hania Harbor Hania Harbor Hania Hania Lighthouse

Samarian Gorge Journal

5/11/91 -I had heard of the Samarian Gorge from some German girls that I had met in a taverna on the Hania waterfront. They had found what they believed to be the most inexpensive way to get to the trailhead near Omalos. About 5:00 AM we climbed into the back of a two and a half ton military truck to pass through the Therissiano gorge. We drove through a village called Perivolia and then entered the beautiful Therissiano gorge, which has a total length of about six kilometers. The road follows a stream, occasionally crossing from one side to the other, and the landscape, full of planes, locusts, olive trees and bushes, is an amazing feast for even very sleepy eyes.

In July, 1821, a military force of 5000 Turks led by Lati Pasha was crossing this gorge, determined to get to Therisso and stifle the revolt of the locals. When they reached the south end of the gorge they were attacked by 300 Therissians led by the Halides brothers, whose name was later given to one of the main streets of Hania. The battle was in many ways reminiscent of the famous Thermopylae battle, some 2300 years earlier, in which Leonidas and his 300 Spartans got killed as they were trying to hold back a much larger Persian army. This time, however, the invaders were defeated, and they soon retreated after suffering heavy casualties. The Turks then gathered reinforcements, returned to the village, and burned it to the ground. Such acts, of course, increased the hatred in the hearts of the Cretans and they fostered even more rebellions, which eventually led to Crete being declared an autonomous state.

Leaving Fournes I am able to make my way to the opening at the back of the truck so that I can catch a picture as we rise up out of the orange groves into the mountains toward Lakki. The landscape after Lakki is no longer “human.” There are no orange groves and no cultivated lands, nothing to remind me of how we tame nature. The road climbs suddenly through steep mountain slopes with tall cedar trees and thick bushes, and as it climbs it offers a spectacular view of the valley below through the open back of the truck. By the time that we reach the Samaria trailhead on the Omalos plateau we are shivering with the cold as we look across to the peak of Mt. Gigilos.

At 18 km (11 miles), the Samarian Gorge is believed to be the longest in Europe. It begins here at the Omalos plateau carved out by the river that flows between the Lefka Ori and Mt. Volikas. Its width varies from 150 meters to 3 meters and its vertical walls reach 500 meters at their highest point and it is home to beautiful flora and fauna and dramatic rock formations. As I started down the steep, well railed switchbacks called Xyloskala, I soon left the sunshine behind and walked into pre-dawn darkness. Shortly after I arrived at the bottom of the gorge, the sun rose high enough to reveal the crystaline little stream that seems incapable of being responsible for carving the gorge.

Fournes Lakki Samaria  Map Samaria Start
Plaka Descent into Darkness Bottom of Gorge Crystal Clear Water

I had hoped to see one of the elusive wild goats called kri-kri but I mostly just heard them in the rocks as they evaded me. Finally I got a shaky telephoto image of a lazy one who waited for my camera click to escape into the side of the gorge. The ruins of Samaria were a good spot for lunch and I was soon joined by the German hikers. There are several churches and chapels, including the church dedicated to Saint Maria of Egypt and dating back to 1379. I continue on through the narrow passage called the Iron Gates where the gorge flattens out as I approach the abandoned village of Old Agia Roumeli.

Kri-kri Saint Maria of Egypt Ruins of Samaria Flora
Approaching Iron Gates Iron Gates End of Gorge Old Agia Roumeli

I walked along the beach at Agia Roumeli while I waited for the boat to arrive and then boarded to share the craft with many who were wishing one another well for having survived the walk. Apparently there is nothing like a near-death experience to remind people of how much they mean to one another. We had a quick stop in a place called Loutro and then went on to Chora Sfakio where we could catch a bus back to Hania.

Agia Roumeli Mouth of Samarian Gorge from Boat Loutro Chora Sfakia

5/12/91 - I woke early in my Hania room and then caught a bus back to Souda in time to catch the first ferry of the day to Piraeus where I quickly got on the subway to return to Athens. At the train station in Athens I struggled hard to explain my intentions to find the easiest way of paying a quick visit to Thermopylae before continuing on to Litohoro for a climb of Mt. Olympus. With many tickets in hand, I rode the train north along the eastern coast of Greece to the town of Lamia. From there I was able to ride a local bus for 18 km to the roadside monument dedicated to King Leonidas and the 300 Spartan hoplites who died here delaying the march of Xerxes and the Persian army in late August of 480 BCE. After this engagement, the allied navy at Artemisium received news of the defeat at Thermopylae. Since their strategy required both Thermopylae and Artemisium to be held, and given their losses, the allied navy decided to withdraw to Salamis. The Persians overran Boeotia and then captured the now-evacuated Athens. However, seeking a decisive victory over the Persian fleet, the allied Greek fleet attacked and defeated the invaders at the Battle of Salamis in late 480 BC. Fearing to be trapped in Europe, Xerxes withdrew with much of his army to Asia, leaving Mardonius to complete the conquest of Greece. The following year, however, saw an allied army decisively defeat the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, thereby ending the Persian invasion. There is small monument built of lapis Lacedaimonius, a dark green stone with light green flecks, is said to be the site of the Spartan last stand at Thermopylae. On it is the epigraph written attributed to the poet Simonides of Ceos:

Traveler, take this word to the men of Lakedaimon:
We who lie buried here did what they told us to do.

Ferry tp Piraeus Arrival in Piraeus Subway to Athens Thermopylae Overview
Hot Springs King Leonidas King Leonidas Rear Themopylae Plaque

I was back in Lamia in time to catch the 5:00 PM train to Litohoro but it was nearly seven when I arrived at the train station and almost dark by the time I was able to take a mini-bus to the town's central square. I didn't feel like searchinLitohoro After Darkg for a room at this hour of the evening so I registered at the Hotel Markesia, found a cheery taverna, took a much needed shower, and hit the sack early so that I would have my wits about me for climbing Mt. Olympus the next morning.

5/13/91 - Over breakfast at the hotel I met a man who was planning on driving his rental car to the Mt. Olympus Trailhead at Prionia so I quickly agreed to buy his breakfast in return for a ride. From the approach road you can quickly see that the mountain that we call Olympus is really a complex massif of many summits including the famous: Skolio, Mytikas, Stefani, each higher than 9500 feet. Mytikas in greek mythology is the meeting point of the Gods, Stefani the home of Zeus. Proximity to the Thermaic Gulf means that Olympus acts as a magnet for moist air masses so that by the time we reached Prionia, clouds had descended to cover the peaks and the weather seemed threatening. On this first day I had only planned to climb to a refuge at 6,200 feet so I wandered around the trailhead exchanging "yasus" with some Greeks who were loading pack mules for taking supplies up to the refuge. In less than an hour a huge thunderstorm came over us and I was glad to have the shelter of a little taverna that had once been a sawmill.

Morning on Olypus Massif Prionia Trailhead Beginning Bridge Prionia Taverna

After weathering the storm in Prioria, I was finally able to take to the trail at about 9:30 AM. After walking over the bridge across a little stream the climb begins with some broad "stairs" crossed regularly by small logs to slow down the flow of water and reduce erosion of the soil. About a mile later the trail begins to curve along the contours of the ridge and I encountered the first of many pack mules happily walking down the path with empty saddles after having delivered their loads to the refuge. The ascension to the refuge at about 6900 feet stretched for 3.7 miles and took me about 2½ hours. The way isn't challenging, but is sort of a wearisome trudge with only a few openings for seeing out of the forest. The trees are, however, a welcome protection from the heat at lower altitudes and the morning shower had left coolness in its wake. I was happy to see the refuge come into view and saw that it had essentially been built on the treeline so that the peaks of the massif were unscreened.

5/14/91 - The way stays wearisome as a consequence of the boulders and loose rock, but not dangerous. I wa gaping around a lot while catching my breath and it took me at least 2½ hours to the top of Skolio. I thought that I had reached the treeline at the refuge but after a long walk on the scree below Stefani I again started walking through some stunted evergreen trees until I reached the real treeline at about 8200 feet. The way to the 9,550 foot peak of Skolio is sometimes a narrow ridge of rock behind Stefani but the wind was gentle enough to dispell any developing horror. Upon emerging onto the open top I can look across at the less accessable peaks of Stefani 9544 feet and Mytikas at 9570 feet. For those who climb, you know that it is useless to speak of these moments. For those who don't, words are equally useless, but I hope that you can click on the the pictures to see them in a larger size.

Upward Bound First Mule Encounter Rare View of Litohora Olympus Refuge
Stefani from Refuge Stefani, Skolio, and Mytikas Skolio Mytikas from Skolio

I arrived back in Athens shortly before dark and checked into a hotel near the Plaka. Then I took a long goodbye walk through Syntagma Square to again attempt to freeze the image of the this wonderful city in my consciousness until I could come back to see it again.

Syntagma Square Plaka Plaka Scene Acropolis from Plaka