Aegean Sea Islands, part I: Crete

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Carolyn and I arrived in Crete--Heraklion harbor--at dawn after an overnight ferry trip from Piraeus, Athens' harbor for millenia.  The spacious and modern ferry was mostly empty, and everyone spread themselves on the floor, like having a picnic, with blankets for sleeping. 

This began our trip to the Greek Isles over the next week and a half.  In the end, we would visit four islands and ferry around dozens more.  Each island was different, though some things remained constant: clear blue waters, mostly sunny skies.

In Heraklion, we waited a couple of hours for Heraklion to awaken, visiting the harbor as the last of the clouds parted and a fishing boat entered the safe waters next to the old fortress.  We were groggy from sleeping on the ferry floor, but eventually, the Heraklion museum opened, letting us view the Minoan artefacts, including a Minoan Bull Head with gilded horns, frescoes from the Minoan Palace, the Snake Goddess, and the Phaistos Disk.

These four items are telling of the ancient Minoan culture, which existed when Egyptian influence was strong and trade between these two cultures led also to exchanges of art: many of the statues had Egyptian influences, especially in the later periods. 

The Phaistos Disk shows how Minoan civilization somehow was well ahead of its time, as the disk shows type printing of characters over two millenia before it developed elsewhere, to the best of our knowledge.  Looking at the Minoan Bull, which elaborately stored and poured fluids, and detailed jewlery also shows the advanced state of the civilization here.  This was where the bull-headed Minotaur lived, according to Greek legends.  Next to the bull was the Snake Goddess, which showed the influence of the feminine and fertility in a matriarchical society. 

Then something happened: the museum was chronological, yet the pieces suddenly became more rudimentary, as if everything the artisans and priests and kings had learned and developed suddenly disappeared.

And it did

People don't know for sure how, but the best guess is that the eruption on Santorini in 1600 B.C. caused it, though invasions by the mainland Greek Mycenaeans couldn't have helped.  Later, on Santorini, we would see the ancient caldera: yes, that was a huge eruption.

The final pieces of the puzzle were the frescoes, taken from the Knossos Palace, where we visited after the museum.  The frescoes in many cases showed ancient beauty (see photographs), but also many other frescoes showed modern interpretations by painter Piet de Jong, who worked under Arthur Evans.  Entire pieces were interpreted from minute pieces.

At Knossos, the work on Arthur Evans, a gentleman who bought the palace, became apparent, as he built cement columns and painted them, along with walls and ceilings.  Interpretation of the palace became one more of looking at how Arthur Evans saw the palace, not how it may really have looked.  We wondered where the labyrinth was where the Minotaur hid: still an enigma.

After a night in Hania, with its colorful harbor and lighthouse surrounded by mountains and sea, we traveled to small Paleohora on the southwestern corner of Crete.  For three days, we stayed at the Third Eye, a restaurant with rooms in the back.  The cuisine was excellent Greek food, all vegetarian and hearty served by a friendly bohemian Greek staff led by Botonakis, who got the restaurant name from travels to India.  This was a perfect place for us to relax, with beaches and hikes nearby. 

At night, we ate dinner at the Third Eye, continuing to catch up on our lives, which isn't easy after so many years, so many happenings over time!

In town, we bought fresh fruits and vegetables and feta cheese and breads and desserts.  On the beach, we watched the waves.  And we hiked to the town of Anidri.

Anidri was a small town up in the mountains.  To get there we hiked on a narrow road through olive groves and small limestone canyons with flowers and birds everywhere.  Carolyn got excited when a herd of goats made their way down the road.  At Anidri, we ate cake and pie under a large olive tree overlooking the Mediterranean then hiked down a different route on a small trail through another canyon to pebble beaches. 

In Rethymnon, we explored the old town and the Venetian Fortezza, with its views over the sea and flowers blooming.  Near the fort, we found some ripe mulberries so stopped to eat a few.  After this brief stay, we returned to Hieraklion and took a fast ferry to Santorini, the volcanic island, which possibly ended the Minoan culture.  From a distance, the towns of the island looked like sea gull guano dripping from the sides of the caldera, but soon the blue-domed churches and white-washed buildings became more clear and Crete was a memory still enshrouded in mystery. 
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