KOUMOI RETHIMNO-SAINT GEORGE DAY

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Vosakos monastery

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Dikteon Cave

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Can mere mortals debate the birthplace of a God?  Well, there is a debate about the birthplace of Zeus.  I have come to visit Dikteon Cave (otherwise known as Dictaean Cave) because other than the cave I visited in Psiloritis, this is said to be the ‘true’ birthplace of the God.  So I had to come and see what is so special about this, that makes it the most famous amongst the other 3,000 caves in Crete and 8,500 in Greece.

In ancient times, this was a place of worship and pilgrimage, as offerings found here attest.  Today, it’s still visited by travellers from all over the world, who, like me, are curious and awe-struck at the beauty of the cave.

The Dikteon Cave is  impressive,  rich in stalagmites and stalactites.  You walk down following a structure with protective railing, so the visit is hardly a spelunking adventure.  Nevertheless, the place is beautiful, and I must say that the lighting brings out the beauty of the rock formations even more.

At 1025m, the Dikteon Cave dominates the Lassithi Plateau and the whole of East Crete.  It is situated in the Dicte mountain range, and faces north.  The nearest village is Psychro, so proud locals also call it the Psychro Cave.  From this town, I have followed a paved path lined with oak trees. I was offered a donkey ride up to the cave, but declined.  At the end of the path, just before the cave entrance, I had to stop and catch my breath after a long uphill walk.  The panoramic view of the whole plateau was very worth a pause, and I suddenly realised how lucky I was to be standing on that spot and drawing in this blissfully refreshing mountain air, perfumed with thyme, sage and other aromatic herbs.

If a Goddess had to pick a fabulous secluded and secretive place to give birth to the one she knew would be the ‘Father of the Gods of Olympus’, this would be the place.  I’m sure this was no accidental choice!

The Dikteon Cave consists of five chambers large and small. The most impressive sight is the lake at the lowest point, surrounded by massive stalactites and stalagmites. At the lake, there is the ‘Mantle of Zeus’, a stalactite which hangs over the lake like a chandelier.  This shape, looked at with mythical imagination, resembles a cloak.  At the back of the lake, there’s a small chamber of the cave, in which it is said that the Father of the Gods was born.

If you would like to visit this ancient mythical place, please contact Karma Travel. They will be able to sort out all your travel needs, from transfers and accommodation to guided tours and advise on how to make the most of your time and experience authentic Crete at its best!

Elounda

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

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!

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.

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.

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!

Incredible Crete!

The Cretan spirit known as Raki

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Raki (also known as Tsikoudia) is a Cretan distilled spirit.  You will be offered it after meals by hospitable taverna patrons, often even for free, along with dessert!  What’s not to like?

The best raki, I’m told, is homemade. It’s brewed to be shared with friends and family in Crete.  Many families have their own still, or share a distillery with their (often large) extended families.  Raki is made in the autumn, once the grape harvest is done and vines have been pruned.

Some Raki makers will add wild herbs such as thyme or rosemary; others will sweeten the clear liquid with honey, making it a rich golden colour. This sweetened, very palatable blend of Raki and honey is known as “Rakomena”.
The locals claim that the spirit promotes a long and healthy life, and also aids digestion.  For these and I’m sure other many benefits, such as sheer merriment, an enhanced capability to befriend people, and to understand and speak Greek, raki is a ‘must try’ drink. Yammas!!

Contact Karma Travel if you would like to visit a distillery, or want tips on where to get the best raki in Crete!

Elafonisi Beach

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If you want more information and need to book transfers or accommodation, contact the experts at Karma Travel!

The Island of Crete, Greece – See for yourself, feel for yourself

Agiofarago

Agiofarago

In search of tranquility, I went to Agiofarago. This is in the Heraklion prefecture (southern coast of Crete), between the Odigitria Monastery and Kaloi Limenes. It was described to me as ‘a perfect place to go seeking solitude’. This is a secluded beach with emerald waters; the shore is covered by small pebbles, and the sea is ideal for snorkelling, which I love. The pristine beach of Agiofarago remains so because there is truly nothing here. Unlike the other beaches I went to, here there were no taverna, parasols, or loungers. There’s nowhere to buy food or water, so you have to carry along all the things you consider necessary. Some people camp here, and it would indeed be the only way to spend the night here, as there are no hotels nearby.

Following a footpath for about 30 minutes, I crossed the gorge towards the beach overlooking the Libyan sea. Hiking along the silent trail took me to the church of Agios Antonios. Its sanctum is inside a cavern. The church was built in the 14th century A.D, and it has been restored three times, but the figures of saints depicted on frescoes on the walls are nonetheless quite faded, destroyed by humidity.

A story goes that Agiofarago was visited by Saint Paul, the Apostle, in 62 BC, when his boat capsized near Kali Limenes. It is said that St Paul spent some time as an anchoret inside the caves scattered within the gorge. Since then, this became a holy place where hermits came to live in the caves, and there are records of this practice from the 7th century A.D; the first known hermit was Agios Kosmas. Agiofarago was ideal for meditation. It’s not hard to picture why: you really seem to leave the whole world and its noise behind!

According to the story I was told, the hermits gathered once a year inside a cavern close to Agios Antonios called “goumenospilios”. They sat around a table, and noted who was absent. Any absentees were considered dead! An oath of silence was imposed on the members of this ascetic community which remained unbreakable. Therefore, they sought solitude even to avoid contact with each other. The austerity of these hermits was extreme. Their life was frugal; in the first place, food was scarce, and only a well outside Agios Antonios provided them with water, as no other springs are found along Agiofarago.

It is said that hermits were seen here until the end of the 19th century. Some claim that they have come across silent monks, and I heard stories that invisible monks appear only to those whose faith in God is strong. You can come and find out for yourself!

I have to say I did not encounter any invisible monks. Perhaps my faith was not strong enough to attract them… Anyhow, I crossed the gorge and reached the beach. Here are absolutely amazing high rocks, ideal to take a dive into the clear waters of the Libyan Sea.

The seclusion of this beach is due to locals’ and tourists’ preference for easily accessible beaches. Since Agiofarago is not one of them, it remains ‘untouched’. It’s also a great place for practicing rappel. I saw several people practicing this on the cliffs as I crossed the gorge. I was really sorry I did not come prepared to join in!

If you want to organise your travel to this remote beach, contact Karma Travel.

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