Matala

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I’ve decided to stake out a base near Matala.

This area retains quite the hippie vibe from the 60’s, and I’m almost tempted to go find flowers to put on my hair.  The general vibe seems to be captured in a phrase painted on a wall ‘today is life, tomorrow never comes.’

What brought me here, though, is not an interest in visiting the old haunts of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens, as much as I like their music for a lazy Saturday morning.  What drew me to Matala is an interest in the caves that dot the cliffs.  You can walk around and explore, which really appealed to me.

I have mentioned cliffs pockmarked with caves in other blog posts. These cliffs are special because they seem to have attracted dwellers since times immemorial.  They appear to have been inhabited in the Neolithic.  Romans possibly used them for shelter (as suggested by carved beds, windows and porches);  early Christians used them as places of worship and also as tombs.  One of the caves, in fact, is called ‘Brutospeliana’.  It is said that Brutus, the Roman General, stayed there.

Nowadays, the Archaeological Service protects the caves, and they are fenced off at night.  Hippies in the 60’s came to live in them, and had to be evicted by both the Orthodox Church and the Police.  I wouldn’t have been tempted to stay overnight in the caves, but was quite glad to shelter myself from the heat during the visit.  Wandering about them was exciting, and the views (both of the caves and of the sea and the port) are stunning.   The carvings are quite interesting; some have carved niches which, when seen from a distance, resemble eyes.

If you are keen on rock climbing, the cliffs in the area are suitable for practicing the sport.  I did not go rock-climbing, but used the time to hike to nearby Red Beach, which was peaceful and beautiful.  There weren’t many people there, whilst Matala itself was quite busy.

The beauty of this area is the subject of a few stories.  An ancient myth says that Zeus fell in love with a beautiful Phoenician Princess, Europa.  He transformed himself into a white bull and mixed with the king’s herds.  The princess was somehow attracted to the bull, and rode it.  She suddenly found herself being carried by this celestial bull to Matala, where Zeus seduced her.  Europa then became the first queen of Crete.

In the next couple of days, I will have an archaeological feast: I’m visiting Roman Gortyna, the Minoan palaces of Phaestos, and Agia Triada.  I’m really looking forward to these visits!

To make the most of your time in Crete and avoid worrying about transport and accommodation, contact the experts at Karma Travel and let them take care of your reservations and make all arrangements for you.  They’re brilliant!

Frangokastello

Frangokastello, Crete, Greece

I made a day trip to Frangokastello, attracted by its legends and a sheltered sandy beach.

The fortress was built by the Venetians in 1204, soon after the Fourth Crusade had resulted in the division of territories formerly owned by the Byzantine Empire amongst the crusaders.  Crete had been given to Boniface de Montferrat, who sold it to the Venetians.  The new rulers were not popular and faced resistance from the Cretan population, and their maritime trading routes were always in danger of pirate attacks.  Hence why they needed to build so many fortresses.  This one in particular was meant to contain the attacks of fierce Sfakians and guard their ships from pirates.

The most important episodes in the history of this fortress happened more than 500 years later, though.  In 1770, a wealthy shipbuilder was betrayed here.  As a foreigner in Crete, you will quickly become acquainted with his name, as you’ll see it in streets, squares, schools and Chania airport. This local hero, known as ‘Daskalogiannis’ (Teacher Ioannis), was approached by emissaries of Queen Catherine the Great of Russia, who offered support for a revolt against the Turks.   Count Orlov was meant to provide money and backup troops to the rebel army assembled by Daskalogiannis, but they did not show up.  The Turks outnumbered the Cretan rebels and crushed the uprising.  Daskalogiannis was brought to Candia (Heraklion) where he was brutally tortured and murdered in front of his brother, who lost his mind.

Hatzimichalis Dalianis, a Greek rebel, landed in Crete in 1828 to ‘revive’ the revolutionary spirit.  A fierce battle was fought in Frangokastello on 17 May, and again the Turks outnumbered the rebels and mercilessly massacred them. Ambushes by pockets of rebels descending on Turkish troops from the nearby gorges accomplished little in denting the power of the mighty Turks.  It was a bloodbath.  Dalianis died in battle and was apparently buried by a nun in a nearby monastery.  According to local legend, on the anniversary of the battle, every 17 May there is a strange occurrence, whereby a ghost army of fallen revolutionaries returns to Frangokastello and march toward the fortress at dawn.  They are called the Drosoulites.  I can’t testify to this, because I was not there in May.  There is a debate between the traditionalists and scientists who have proposed explanations for these visions which involve winds and sandstorms in the morning mist.  Regardless of the plausible science of floating sand in a misty morning, the poetic vision of an army of fallen revolutionaries materialising on the anniversary of their epic battle is more appealing to me.

After visiting the castle, I enjoyed the sandy beach, and spent hours swimming in the sea and then enjoying a book on a sunbed under a parasol.  There are tavernas around which sell scrumptious food and fresh drinks to keep you going.

If you come to visit magic Frangokastello, contact Karma Travel to sort out your transportation and accommodation.  I heard some horror stories from tourists staying in the area.  Save yourself some trouble and consult the experts!

The Palm Beach of Preveli

I heard of the wonders of Preveli and decided that an area that offered a spectacular sandy beach with a palm forest, a gorge, and a monastery was definitely my kind of place to go explore. So off I went.
The trip started in Rethymnon, to where I had returned shortly. It did not take very long to get to the Kourtaliotiko Gorge. I arranged to be taken there and left to wander through the beautiful, steep gorge, then picked up at the end to be taken to Preveli Monastery, all thanks to wonderfully helpful Karma Travel.

The setting is, like my book promised, nothing short of ‘stunning’. The gorge’s red face is steep and narrow, and dotted with caves. There are quite a few springs, and in fact, the Megalopotamos river, which cuts through the mountains and drains at the Lybian Sea, has its source in the gorge. Legend has it that two monks once came to settle here. One of them was reluctant, and his reason for not wanting to stay was the lack of water. The other monk, Nikolaos, prayed and laid his hand on a rock. Miraculously, where his fingers touched the rock, a spring welled up. So now, there is a pretty little church with beautiful frescoes in the gorge, and it is dedicated to Agios Nikolaos.

The next leg of my day trip took me to Preveli Monastery –which actually contains two building complexes in a huge estate. The main (upper) monastery is dedicated to St John the Theologian; the name Preveli comes from the Venetian donor that funded its construction in the middle ages. I visited the beautiful buildings and an exhibition displaying religious relics and icons. The monks pride themselves in the monasteries’ active role in the history of Crete. In the 17th century, during the Turkish occupation, the monastery was allowed to remain operational, and served as a social hub, not just a religious centre. A century later, the abbot participated in an uprising and was sentenced to death, but then pardoned. In the 19th century, the monks became part of the revolutionary movement to drive out the Turks, and in the meantime managed to operate ‘secret schools’ to educate the local children. They also provided shelter for rebels and sustained them. The monastery was set on fire in vengeance, but it was rebuilt shortly thereafter. By the turn of the century, the formerly secret school had become a college, which continues to be important for the region to this day.

The lower monastery, dedicated to St John the Baptist, was the object of heavy bombing in the Second World War. The monks had provided shelter for a group of Australian soldiers, who were rescued by a submarine at Preveli Beach. In revenge, the German forces destroyed the lower monastery, which remains ruined, and severely damaged the upper monastery, which was again rebuilt.

From the monasteries, I walked along a path towards the beach. At the point where the Megalopotamos meets the sea, there is a little lagoon surrounded by a palm tree forest. In August 2010, on a Sunday morning the palm forest caught fire and burned to ashes. The wind was terrible that day, so it made the fire brigade’s task quite difficult. At one point, even the monastery was threatened by the fire, but a change in the direction of the wind saved it. The damage was extensive, but two years on, the palms seem to have pretty much recovered. I can report that they are very much alive and well!

The landscape, with the palm forest, the lagoon, and the beach with a backdrop of steep cliffs is gorgeous and I very much enjoyed spending the afternoon on a lounger under a parasol and diving into the sea as I pleased.

If you want to visit lovely Preveli and would like to replicate this itinerary, I would strongly recommend approaching Karma Travel to organise your transfers (not least accommodation if you choose to stay overnight in the area). I couldn’t just rent a car myself because I’d forgotten to take my drivers’ license with me, but the road is beyond bumpy and the section where we went across the gorge had me gasping a few times. I can’t imagine to have driven myself! Very grateful to my driver for the day.

Kato Zakros


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A long, winding road takes us downhill from Zakros, through rugged pebbly terrain.  About halfway through, the skyline turns into a series of mountains.  I can see the red face of Zakros Gorge peering through the foreground cliffs.  Surely, a hike I’ll want to do, but not today, because today I’m riding a car with friends to go to an archaeological site by the beach.

When we finally reach the beach, we stretch our legs a little, then stop by a small cluster of tavernas where we have a large glass of ice-cold fresh orange juice.  I don’t know what is in Greek oranges, but such a sweet and tangy taste is impossible to replicate.  I make a mental note regarding the need to find a stall that sells Greek oranges when I get back to London.

We can now see the remarkable ruins of a Minoan palace just past the tavernas, and we decide to get in.  We’ll return to the tavernas and the beach later, when the archaeological site closes past midday.

This site was first discovered by a British explorer, I’m told.  David Hogarth started excavating the edges of the settlement surrounding the palace in the early 1900’s, but tragedy befell his team, and they left.   In the 1960’s, a curious man, Nikolaos Platonas, found a few ceramic pieces in the collection of a friend, and thought that their refinement could only have been attained by a royal atelier.   The idea became a bee in his bonnet and he did not give up despite all sorts of difficulties.  He apparently pock-marked the area, excavating the gorge, then different spots across a vast area.  The search revealed that some caves in the gorge had been used for burials, and he unearthed a few treasures before he finally hit jackpot when he verified that his hunch was right.  It took thirty years to complete the excavation that revealed this magnificent site.

The discovery was awe-inspiring.  The village and the palace remained untouched.   Ceremonial vessels made out of quartz, fine faïence pieces, urns made of ivory and objects made out of obsidian, marble and alabaster came to light.  The site seems to have been abandoned suddenly due to a volcano eruption.   It’s not a case of petrified corpses going about their daily activities, but of an entire small city’s population that somehow fled in advance of a natural disaster.  Tools in workshops were left, with semi-processed material lying around.  In people’s homes, cookery utensils, pots and pans were left.  In temples, libation vessels remained.   Astonishingly, archaeologists found a small cup of olives which were somehow preserved almost intact by grace of the soil covering them for 3,500 years.  Wine and olive oil presses found in the site attest to the value these industries have had for Cretans throughout millenia.

If you would like to visit this amazing archaeological site, contact Karma Travel!  They will be happy to organise any travel services you need, from guided tours, to car rental, transfers and accommodation in this area to the east of Crete.

Balos

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‘Wake up early and go!’  So I was told, and I obeyed.  The reasoning was that I would find crowds in Balos.  Well, coming from a big city, I expected masses of people. I don’t know if I simply was lucky and they decided not to come on the same day as me, but I would not say the beach was crowded!   Nevertheless, starting early meant that it was not so hot when we got there, and the wonderful day spent at Balos was well worth getting up early whilst on holiday.

Past the tiny village of Kalyviani, you drive along a rough dirt road, following the slope of Mt Geroskinos.  The views going up are simply spectacular, and make up for the bumpy ride!  Then, you get to a car park where you’re likely to have to negotiate a parking space with a kri kri (mountain goat), especially if it’s early.  You get off the car, gather your bits and pieces, and trek down to the beach.

My fellow travellers described the beach as ‘a piece of paradise’, and with good reason.  The beach has fine white sand beaches and clear, light turquoise waters that glisten in the sun.   Cliff walls as a backdrop, and an island with a Venetian fortress in the distance (Imeri Gramvousa) make it picture-perfect.  Dive or snorkel into the clear waters, and you’re in for a treat.

As if this was not enough, there is a lagoon with crystalline waters where even children can jump in and play, as it is not too deep, yet not shallow either.

The island off shore, Gramvousa, has had an important role in Cretan history.   Its Venetian fortress was built to protect ships on the way to and from Venice.  It was also an armoury, and it was so fiercely guarded that the Turks could not capture it along with the rest of Crete in 1645.  It remained Venetian property, although it was eventually abandoned.  At some point, it became a pirate base.  Then, in 1821, the Cretan revolutionaries took hold of it.   During the war of independence, it was taken by the Turks, who used it to blockade and siege the island from this vantage point.

The locals say that pirates hid their treasures in caves around the island, so go look.  You never know where legend meets the truth…

If you are keen to go treasure hunting, or just want to see this treasure of a beach protected by the Natura 2000 Programme, contact Karma Travel!   They can organise a car rental, transfers, or boat tickets to get you there.

 

Spinalonga

Spinalonga, Crete, Greece. Karma Travel. creteisparadise.wordpress.com

I have never read Victoria Hislop’s “The Island”, but my friends are fans of the novel and the TV series it inspired, so when they learnt I was going to Crete, I was told to go to Spinalonga and report what the island was like.

Spinalonga is a small island near Elounda in the east of Crete.  To my friends’ delight, I was able to take pictures of a scenery exactly like that portrayed in the movie, as one proud local informed me that a street has been reconstructed to mirror the scenery of ‘The Island’.  I must say it is not hard to imagine why someone would obsess about this small island and write novels about it.  It is such a fantastic site!

Spinalonga is an artificial island;  the Venetians carved it into an island off the Kolokitha peninsula for military purposes.  They needed a stronghold in this area, and built a fortress which they wanted to be off shore to protect a nearby port.  It was them who named it ‘Spina lungha’, which means ‘long thorn’.   They built fortification upon fortification, first to defend it from pirates, then from the Ottoman Turks.  Their military prowess proved effective in so much as the island remained a Venetian stronghold even after the Ottomans had taken over Crete in 1645.  The Ottomans finally conquered it in 1715.  In the meantime, the fortified island had effectively defended Venetian trade routes and had also become a haven for Christians fleeing persecution by the invaders.   The tables turned in 1866, when the island became a refuge for Ottoman families fearing reprisals by Christians.   The last Turks left the island in 1903.

It was decided that their empty houses could now be used to contain a leper colony -one of the last leper colonies in Europe, which was functional until 1957.   The island then became a slum where outcasts who were suffering from what was then considered an incurable disease were sent to die.  The conditions of lepers improved with time; hospitals were built, and medical staff were sent to care for them.  Then, a cure was found and a leper island was no longer needed, so the island was again vacated.  The last inhabitant left from this rather sad period was an Orthodox priest who stayed behind to comply with the tradition that required a commemoration of a person’s funeral to be held at intervals of 40 days, 6 months, 1 year, 3 years, and finally 5 years.   The priest was able to leave the island in 1962.

The site and its poignant history are so compelling that the Greek Archaeological Service is laboriously trying to maintain the ruins.  A cemetery for lepers still exists and can be visited, and you can wander around ruins of churches and houses, as well as the remains of the ancient Venetian fortifications.

If you would like to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site, contact Karma Travel.  You will need boat tickets and some tips, which they can helpfully provide you with!

Chrissi Island

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I heard of a beautiful beach with rolling white sand beaches and sand dunes sprinkled with purple shells, which would make a gorgeous retreat for a romantic getaway, and the description tempted me.

This time, I was not looking for romance, but wanted to go and explore. Chrissi Island has a wide variety of marine wildlife,  so I was keen to go and watch. It is said that around 54 different species of fossils can be found here, too, if you are keen on snorkelling. The fossils are trapped in volcanic rocks under the sea, and the opportunity to go underwater was unmissable.

From the moment you set foot in Chrissi, you will be mesmerized by the gorgeous scenery, with mountains covered in cedars as a backdrop to the golden sand and the light aquamarine water. You may decide to walk in the woods around the island, or choose to swim in the crystal-clear turquoise waters. I chose to do both. Regardless of your choice, I must say that, the soft smell of cedar and the fresh oxygen will give you a sense of liberation, like you’ve left your ordinary world far behind. Luckily, this little paradise of an island is protected. Chrissi is protected by the Natura 2000 Programme, as an ‘area of intense natural beauty’, and has been designated as a wildlife refuge.

If you want to visit this gorgeous place, contact Karma Travel! From mid-May till late October, they will be able to book you on an excursion to this uninhabited island.

Extraordinary Olives

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Olives are truly everywhere in Crete.  You’ll be offered them as entrées or mezedes, you will find a wide variety of them in markets, and you will walk amongst olive trees almost everywhere if you venture to the countryside.  Olive oil will have been used to prepare most of the food you will eat in Crete, and you will find shops dedicated to selling crafts made out of olive wood, and cosmetics and toiletries made out of the wonderful oil.

Olive oil was once considered sacred.  It was used to anoint kings and athletes in ancient Greece. Olive oil was the fuel powering the ‘eternal flame’ of the ancient Olympic Games, and victors in the Games were crowned with olive leaves.

Records deciphered from Linear B scripture prove that as far back as 3000 BC, olives were grown commercially in Crete. In fact, they may have been the source of wealth of the Minoan civilisation.

Fossilised remains of olive trees have been dated 37,000 years old in Greece, and curiously, they were found along with the fossilised larvae of the white fly that continues to plague the trees to this day.   The trees are so hardy and resistant that they can live on for ages.  In fact, one olive tree in Crete has been proven to be at least 2,000 years old using ring analysis.

Olives are harvested in the autumn and winter.  They can be picked at different points in their ripening process, whether green or black, or somewhere in between.  When green olives are picked, it is usually done around September. If they are allowed to turn black, they will normally have been picked between November and January.   the methods for harvesting them range from shaking the tree to using nets, to electric tools.  Where the terrain is mountainous, or the olives are meant to become ‘table olives’, which need not be damaged, then they are collected by hand.

Olives are naturally bitter, so do not be tempted to grab them straight off any tree you come across in your walking.  The taste is truly terrible, and they are really hard!  Once picked, they need to be washed thoroughly to remove a protein that makes them bitter, and then they are cured with salt, lye or brine to make them edible.  Different types of curing will result in different tastes and even consistencies.

If you would like to visit Crete during the olive harvest and want to see the process of curing the olives and also the artisan production of olive oil in the traditional ways, contact Karma Travel!  This can be a true foodie’s dream journey!

Sweet…

Greek walnut baklava

My sweet tooth had a field day whilst travelling in Crete.

At cafés and bakeries, you find fabulous local sweets and cakes like baklava, loukoumadhes (small dough balls served with honey and cinnammon), kataïfi (honey-soaked rolls of angel hair pastry filled with chopped walnuts), rizogalo (rice pudding) and yummy galaktobourekos (a custard-filled pastry).

These desserts are as good as they are because of the quality of the locally sourced ingredients.  Golden olive oil, brittle, fresh walnuts, and fragrant honey from the Cretan mountains, which can have notes of thyme or other wild herbs are the basis of these crispy and sticky delicacies.

In Rethymnon, for example, I followed a recommendation from my guide book, which said to visit Yiorgos Hatziparaskos, whose shop is tucked away in a hard-to-find side street, but was well worth finding.  He makes baklava and kataïfi the traditional way, and like the book said, they are to die for!

If you want advise to find the best baklava in Crete, or would like to take a cookery class to learn to make it yourself, ask Karma Travel!

Dance!

Cretan Dance

Cretan Folk Dance

Do not be surprised if, whilst musicians are playing the lyra and laóuto in the taverna where you are eating, someone just jumps up and performs a dance on their own, completely oblivious of everything else. Call it ‘making a spontaneous statement to the world’! It happened once when I was having dinner, and I was told that, for Cretans, dance is an expression of their mood, a way to express delight, but also to work off anger or to express sadness, and so it’s perfectly normal to stand up in the middle of dinner and just dance.

Equally, someone may pull a few friends to their feet, possibly not without a fair bit of good-natured jostling and coercion. In a moment, an unspoken message passes between dancers and musicians, a line forms, and everyone begins to move in time to the rhythm. This dance is called Sirtós, and there are a few variations all over Greece and Crete. For example, there is a variety known as Haniotikós, named after the city of Hania. Cretan dances tend to be predominantly the domain of men, but both men and women take part in the Sirtós, all joined hand in hand and taking their cue from a leader. The steps are small, the movements delicate, and the line moves slowly in an open circle. If this happens in the middle of dinner and you’re tempted, you are welcome to join in! (If the mental image reminds you of a certain movie, it may be because this dance inspired the composer Mikis Theodorakis to devise a Syrtáki especially for Anthony Quinn, in the film ‘Zorba the Greek’.)

A dance which inevitably requires men and women is the Soústa, which takes its name from the noise made by the dancer’s feet rubbing together. This is a dance that represents a promise of love, and so it’s often performed at weddings. I thought this was rather sweet!

There’s also the Pentozális (quite famous in Crete), which is an all-male dance, and rather impressive. The men link up in a line, clasping shoulders or hands: at first, their upper bodies remain rigid and only their feet move. Then, the first dancer in the row will suddenly slap his heels, break away from the line, and begin to leap high into the air; the next in line will follow, and so on. It’s said that this vigorous dance originated during the Minoan period, and indeed it may have been a kind of war-dance. Legend says it was performed by the Couretes, guardians of the baby Zeus in the cave on Mount Ida! The acrobatics in it are said to graphically picture the fierce, extrovert and untamed spirit of the Cretan mountains.

If you would like to see a performance of traditional Cretan dances, or would like to be informed of festivals where you can appreciate traditional dances, contact Karma Travel!

Extraordinary Food

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Expect beautiful, healthy food made from fresh ingredients and prepared rather simply. Cretan food is amazing, and truly, it is all about the fresh fish, straight out of the sea, the just-picked plump and crisp vegetables, fresh and fragrant wild herbs sourced from the hills, and the golden olive oil used to prepare it. Uncomplicated and delicious!

I learnt that the average consumption of olive oil in Crete is 25 litres per person per year. It may sound like a lot, but it’s just so good that it’s easy to understand once you tried it. It is also used in many things, from salads to desserts like crispy and sweet baklava.

Be sure to try the traditional Cretan Rusks, traditional bread which is dried and baked several times until it is crispy and gold, and is served topped with grated tomato, olive oil, a bit of Feta cheese and oregano. It’s the perfect starter!

There was a night when I was not particularly hungry and thought a salad and a plate of ‘mixed mezedes’ should do. Well, the portions were so generous that three people could have happily shared! The meze selection was amazing, too. I had courgette flowers filled with soft cheese, dolmades, red peppers stuffed with rice and minced meat, croquettes, breaded sheep’s milk cheese sticks, calamari, gorgeous olives and artichokes.

Oh, the life!

If you want advise on Cretan cookery lessons, places to eat, or special places where you can go in Crete to savour local specialities, consult with Karma Travel!

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