Monday, 2 June 2008

A week in Crete 20-28th May

This a giant Kouros (young man) some 1000 years after the Minoans (we have no Creatan pics yet!)
Coffe morning at Mesta in Hios

Crete is long and skinny (257km long) and far far the largest of the Greek islands. We pulled into the harbour of Iraklion in the evening, our travelling companions Vanvi and Sofia still with us. There were no welcoming room touts and we soon realised that getting a roof over our heads for the night wasn't going to be easy. Iraklion is a big city and the darkening streets felt gloomy and unfriendly. Finding all hotels/rooms either full or pricey we finally opted for a youth hostel, where we paid over the odds for the most dismal accommodation. The four of us sat over an equally dismal sausage kebab and considered our fall from grace. We decided to change our plans and leave iraklion first thing in the morning, without seeing Knossos or anything else that the area had to offer.

Next morning early we caught a bus to Chania, at the other end of the island, where we bid farewell to the girls and continued on to Paleohora on the South coast. There Rachel and Jim were waiting for us with a cool salad in a cool apartment overlooking the small harbour. We quickly found a lovely room on the other side of the bay (five minutes walk away) and happiness was restored.

Crete has more than its fair share of tourist resorts, but Paleohora is a two hour drive through mountains from the nearest ferry harbour and airport; too far for the average package holiday. Around it is the most rugged mountainous countryside, shot through with deep gorges that run down to the sea. Much of the coast is inaccessible except by boat. (we watched a truck loaded with beehives drive on to our boat at one tiny port, and off at the next -moving hives around to the best sources of nectar is common practice here)

Our apartments were at the end of town and we would sit on our balcony at breakfast and watch energetic-looking Northern Europeans making off to the hills with hiking sticks; on bikes; or even jogging. But we were enticed out of our bed at dawn by the sound of the sea, and go straight down for a swim. What greater luxury could there be?

We were specially interested in a place a few miles up the coast called Lyssos, because it is said locally to be the home of the Cyclops. It is only accessible on foot or by sea, so we hired a small speed boat taxi from 'Capitan Georgios' to get there. According to those who have studied the ancient greeks Lyssos would not have been Cyclop's home -that would be much further afield, probably in Sicily, but it certainly fits Homer's quite detailed description well. Ruins of a Roman necropolis add to the atmosphere of the place, and there is also the remains of an ancient greek temple. The only occupants now were a group of campers who chanted, bathed naked in the bay and set up a small shrine in the temple. We aslo ran into some hot weary people who had walked from Paleohora. Hardened walkers that they were, they didn't even stop for a swim before they headed back. (a 3.5 hour walk each way, in the heat!)

None of us wanted to leave Crete without seeing Phaestos and Knossos, archeological sites of the most ancient of the Aegean civilisations, the Minoans. And of course the famous Iraklion archeological museum. This, we decided, required a 2-3 day expedition. Jim, our sole, long-suffering driver, clearly missed his vocation as a rally car driver. Taking us through unmade mountain tracks with crumbly edges; through towns with no noticable traffic rules, all in temperatures around 30', we will be forever grateful that we somehow got to places, slightly frayed, but in one piece. Cretan roads also suffered from a dearth of signposting -strange when you consider the huge number of visitors each year. One time, we got completely lost. Instead of being on a slip road on to a duel carriageway we found ourselves on a dead-end, confronted by a large factory buidling. It was getting late, and there were only two men "drinking" and certainly not working inside. We were not allowed to leave (nor would they give us directions) until we had sat down and accepted the famed Cretan hospitality -the local firewater Reki with bits of cucumber and artichokes. We still hadn't found a place to sleep for the night, and Rachel looked as if she were sitting on hot coals. All ended well, in a small and delightful town close to Knossos.

There are geological fault lines right down Greece, all the way to Cyprus. This means frequent earthquakes, so it is rare indeed to find an ancient site where stones are still standing. Knossos is an exception: It was excavated in the early 1900s by Evans, who decided to resurrect columns, staircases and even rooves of this ancient palace. We quite liked this, although the reconstruction is educated guesswork, and you have the impression from the information boards around the site that other scholars may have preferred it if Evans had left it alone. The archeological museum is something else, and deserved of its reputation. The fabulous artifacts, going back 5000 years include the famous snake goddess and fresco of bull with dancers jumping over. The Minoans were already in decline by 1200BC, and the Myceneans (from mainland Greece) had Crete in a firm grip by then. It's unlikely then that Odysseus would have got so hopelessly lost (for seven years) on an island that was already well known

So we returned to Chania, well satisfied and said farewell to Jim and Rachel, who were going back for another week at Paleohora. Without our learned friends we would not have known that the birds that tumbled over the gorges on ragged black wings were ravens (croaking ' ; that the birds waking us up at dawn were collared doves; and maybe, just maybe, the big birds that sometimes circled above us were booted eagles. We also learned that a huge sinister-looking black lily, growing wild, was a Dragon Arum, and that insects slide down inside it's smooth trumpet, not to be released until the plant has ripened and produced its pollen, when the surface becomes rough enough for an upward climb!

Our next destination was to be Gythion, at the southern end of the Pelopponese mainland. However, ferries were infrequent and we could get no definite information that there would be one until the day before its departure. By sheer dogged determination , Andreas managed to obtain tickets, and we stayed in the harbour town of Kissamos, near Chania the night before departure. In a little taverna on the sea front Sabrina had the most delicious dish of the whole trip; rabbit and onions cooked in wine. (pushing back the meomory of the sweet baby white rabbits, with pink ears, that she's seen in a petshop in Chania earlier that day.)

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