Rossos in Knossos

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Saturday, April 8, 2006

I was up long before the sparrows to catch this one - the SS Ierapetra from Rodos to Criti - finding once again that a 4.30am departure always puts you on an odd footing for the rest of the day, especially when bouzouki Mike has been strumming and wailing all night. Still, I made it aboard and promptly fell asleep on the floor so maybe his caterwauling was a blessing in disguise.

With the sun shining late the next morning I had a chance to see a string of small Greek isles on the remainder of the twelve hour voyage to Crete. Most seemed quite barren and unpromising but many had quaint little villages around a small port so we diligently stopped at each one to let passengers on and off. It's quite an ingenious system this network of island ferries. The boats have been large and modern so far and all have run like to clockwork (although I hear this isn't always the case in peak season). It's a little pricey, but a very pleasant and efficient way to get around.

As Crete hove into view I was on deck scoping out the safety gear, making a mental note to locate the metal 'fire plan' club before departure on the next ferry in case of fire. I don't know what it really is or how it is used but I'll get some respect wielding that in case of an emergency!

After a refreshing sleep in a mercifully quiet room I was ready to face Iraklio, the capital of Crete, which is Greece's largest island. The centre of town is pretty modern and pleasant, fenced in by large walls on a couple of sides and the port on another, but amongst all the new chrome and stainless steel architecture I started to notice a faint smell and large piles of rubbish heaped on street corners... Odd.

Still, I was on a mission so off I went to Knossos, one of Greece's most celebrated ancient sites.

Crete was the base of the ancient Minoans, a crafty race of proto-Greeks that flourished for a millennia from around 2,000BC. From their prime position they dominated Mediterranean trade during this time and had highly evolved political, economic and social structures, as evidenced by the colourful finds at Knossos and various other ruins on the island.

The picture above left illustrates what Knossos may have looked like in the 'New Palace' era and the three pictures above right pretty well sum up Knossos today. The New Palace era ended in about 1,450BC when earthquake, fire or volcano irreparably damaged the heart of Minoan politics and culture. Some believe a super-eruption on the volcanic island of Santorini to the north, with subsequent nuclear winter and massive tidal waves was the cause of the demise. Whatever happened, they never really recovered and the Mycenaeans took over a few hundreds years later.

The Throne Room and the Queen's Room are the highlights of the 20,000 square metre palatial site. Colourful frescos grace the walls (the dolphins in the Queen's Room were my personal favourite) and various pots, pithoi (handled vases), bowls, benches and stone thrones also feature heavily in the only two enclosed rooms I saw here. Advanced architectural features include liberal use of wooden structural beams to reinforce masonry, and implementation of lighting wells - nice one to the Minoan architects for employing such devices some 3,500 year ago!

Walkways and roped off areas abound, connecting courtyards and patios with stairs and unearthed chambers; but if you're really unfortunate they will be restoring major sections of the site and you won't get to see them. This was the case with the Queen's Room but as no-one was working at the time, I helped myself around a barrier and had a look anyway. Thank goodness I did because it made my day.

Copies of the world-famous frescos can be found in most parts of the central palace complex but I'm not sure whether they are placed faithfully to where the originals were actually found. The originals are now housed in the Archaeological Museum downtown and unfortunately what they have been replaced with are pretty poor duplicates, which don't do Knossos any justice.

The highly decorated pithoi are almost as numerous as the frescoes and are probably the most unusual aspect of the palace. Some stand over six feet in height and must have weighed an enormous amount, hence the multitude of handles found running down their length. Basically functioning as big jars, they could have held oils, wines or grains, but science has been unable to determine exactly what after all this time. They crop up in the strangest of places so keep an eye out for them if you visit.

Everything unearthed at Knossos was excavated by a chap called Sir Arthur Evans between 1900 and 1930. Later stages of the excavation also comprised of significant 'restorations' which are of dubious archaeological integrity according to many scholars who have subsequently analysed the ruins. Anything as old as this that wasn't made out of huge sandstone blocks (like the Pyramids) is not going to be in good shape now, so what you see at Knossos is recreation with a liberal dose of creative licence. And if I had to take sides I'd say the restoration detracts from the experience - you have no idea what is real, what possibly could have been and what is a purely a figment of Evans' fantasy.

If you haven't worked it out I wasn't greatly impressed, and if I had to pay the standard 10 Euro for the privilege instead of the 3E I paid as a student I would have been less than amused. Still, it would have been an amazingly advanced civilisation in its time so credit where credit is due. Those crazy Minoans...

Back in town later that day and I was able to check out some of the Venetian influence in this neck of the woods. The Loggia in central Iraklio is a classy little number that acted as the gentlemans club of the 17th century. It's been faithfully reconstructed and the architecture is well worth some study. A variety of other Venetian monuments dot the city including a the Fort at one end of the old Harbour, an arched Arsenal nearby, the famed Lion Fountain in one of the central Plateias and the city walls themselves. However we've probably seen enough old stones recently to skip adding these ruins to the collection.

In search of food and I came across a market area just south of the city centre. The bounding rabbit didn't look meaty enough to take my fancy (although his furry paws made me think twice) but soon enough the faint smell of refuse rose again to quell my appetite. I don't know if Iraklio's garbage men have gone on strike but huge piles of trash are everywhere and stray animals have come to feast on the spread, leaving escaped pieces of litter blowing in the gusting winds all over town. I would have though the locals would be screaming blue murder but they walk nonchalantly by without giving it a second thought. Bizarre.

My hunger couldn't be ignored for too long however and in the narrow laneways behind the boutique shopping street I found some very funky bars and restaurants that could fit right into big name entertainment cities around the world. Due to trading and tourism income, Iraklio has the highest average per capita income in Greece and this is reflected in the nightlife (maybe not in the garbage collection though).

After a great value three course (for the price of one) meal I headed to the pink bar above and got talking about the meaning of life with barman Manuel over beers and a couple of free shots of Vodka. The only thing we could come up with was that I should come back in a month's time when the weather is better and the women are wearing less, so then I could really see the meaning of life. Sounds like a good compromise!

After that he sent me to the Ice Bar to see a 150,000 Euro set of toilets and see if a good DJ was playing. He wasn't and the toilets were a bit highbrow for my taste, but Tito's Church across the way looked inviting with its stained glass windows, mood lights and palm trees so I popped in there for a bit of a look. I may not have gained spiritual ascension in this trip yet but at least Iraklio worked out quite well.

Next entry -> big battles in heavenly Hania

Words from the Wise #98

"Yet verily these issues lie on the lap of the gods."
Homer - The Iliad

I suspect the lack of garbage collection is another of those issues...
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