Erofili Theatre in Rethymnon

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The Erofili Theatre is part of the Fortezza complex on top of  Rethymnon’s Paleokastro Hill.  This is not an ancient Odeon; it was purpose-built in the 20th century and retains the beauty and feel of an ancient odeon, whilst benefitting from modern technology for performances.  I don’t know what it is about Greek open-air theatres, but even more than in regular  theatres, I feel like a participant, rather than a spectator.

This theatre was named after a famous play written by a Cretan author in the XVI century, when the Venetians ruled Crete.  It’s a tragedy that tells the story of Filogonos, an Egyptian king who has killed his brother, the legitimate king.  This traitor has taken the throne and his dead brother’s wife.  The king has a daughter, Erofili, who falls in love with a young man from the palace, Panaretos.  It turns out that the young man is the son of a king, no less, but had been kidnapped by enemies and then concealed, as he would be in danger by virtue of being the rightful heir to the throne.  Erofili’s love is returned by Panaretos, and they secretly marry.  Of course, the murdered king’s ghost appears and vows revenge.  And so, the king discovers the secret marriage of his daughter and, possessed by rage, decides to kill Panaretos.  In extreme savagery, he does kill the heir to the throne, and even presents Erofili with his ripped off heart.  Erofili, destroyed by grief, commits suicide, and in the end some form of justice is served when the murderous king is killed by the chorus.

The Erofili theatre has a lively programme of events, which includes classical and contemporary concerts, modern and ancient plays.  To me, the most fascinating are still the ancient tragedies.  It is really not about the well-known myth being represented, whose ending is known to all or most of the audience.  It is about being a participant, and witnessing a hero’s decisive moment, where he battles with his conscience and faces destiny.  It is really about the most human conundrum of  facing one’s music and grappling with fate.

If you would like to visit Rethymnon and use the opportunity to be a true participant in a performance at the Erofili, contact Karma Travel! They will be able to advise on the current programme of events and find you tickets.  Beyond these, Karma Travel can also sort out your accommodation and travel needs, and make your journey a pleasure.

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Pirate stories in Rethymnon

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I’m back in Rethymnon and I have taken a stroll up Paleokastro (‘Old Castle’) hill to the Fortezza.  This is a Venetian fortress with a colourful history.  It  possibly stands on the site of a Roman acropolis which is believed to have included a temple to Apollo and a sanctuary dedicated to Artemis.  The ‘Old Castle’ was built here in Byzantine times.

This small fortified Castel Vecchio was occupied by a Genoese pirate in 1206, when the Byzantine Empire was weak and the Fourth Crusade was in full swing.  This pirate was Enrico Pescatore, an enemy of the Venetians whose high hopes led him to claim Crete for himself briefly and strengthen the fortifications.  He named himself Enrico dell Castello de Candia, and was of course also self-appointed Governor of Candia.   His Cretan endeavour did not last very long, for the Venetians’ naval power surpassed his.  Enrico went on to be hired to protect a German fleet of galleys transporting Emperor Frederick II’s bride, Princess Jolanda of Jerusalem, to him.

The Venetians  used Rethymnon as a strategic base, built a small harbor and stronger fortifications.  In the 16th century, the walls were tested by Turkish invaders and other pirates.  A Calabrian corsair, Giovanni Dionigi Galeni, took the fortress in 1571.  As a child, Giovanni was captured by one of the corsair captains of Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, and served as a slave in a galley.  He joined the corsairs and converted to Islam.  Giovanni was then known by many names, a terror in the Mediterranean.  He even appears in Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha under the name ‘Uchali’.  Apparently, this would have come from his Italian pirate name, Occhiali.  He started operations out of Algiers, where he became a notable follower of the most feared corsair in the Mediterranean, Turgut Reis.  By this time, he was referred  to as Uluj Ali, and was ‘awarded’ the administration of the Aegean island of Samos, and promoted to Beylerbey (Chief Governor) of Alexandria.  The taking of Rethymnon came during an eventful year for him, when he had captured four galleons near Malta, and then faced a mutiny of his janissaries in Algiers, who demanded overdue pay.  In this year, he also participated in the Battle of Lepanto, where he was involved in a campaign to drive the Spanish out of North Africa.  This is probably where the Cervantine reference comes from.  In this context, Uluj Ali probably had enough trouble already and did not quite manage to capture Crete, although he did raze Rethymnon to the ground.

The Venetians learnt a lesson when Uluj Ali attacked, and promptly started works to strengthen the fortifications.  Construction works were ongoing for the next twenty years.  The fortress was then designed to house administrative offices, ammunition storerooms, and a Catholic church which was attended by the Venetian officers and administrators who lived within the walls of the Fortezza.

After the Turkish occupation, the Catholic church was converted into a mosque, and houses were built inside.

The Fortezza was used as a prison at one point, and at another the houses built inside were used as brothels.  The houses inside the fortress were demolished in the 20th century, and the fortress remains, holding the ruins of the armoury, the church which was converted in to a mosque, and the Erofili Theatre, which merits another blog post.

I am sure there are more colourful stories to this place, which is very pleasant to visit and is now used for cultural events.  In fact, it is the home of a Summer Renaissance Festival which has been running since 1987.

If you would like a guided tour of the Fortezza and pretty Rethymno, and need to sort out transfers and accommodation, just contact Karma Travel!  Their expert staff will take care of all your travel needs and you will be able to just focus on enjoying your trip.  They can also provide helpful information about seasonal festivals and special activities to make your holiday more interesting and pleasurable!

The Monastery of Agios Petros

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I’m back in Heraklion since the New Year festivities.  I find that whenever I set foot here, there is something else I had not seen before, and this time I’m writing about one such discovery.

Strolling around the seaside wall, I wandered into the ancient Monastery of Saint Peter (Agios Petros), built by Dominican monks.  It contains the only surviving 15th century frescoes in Heraklion.  This was a Catholic monastery, and one of the most important in the city.

The monastery has two main buildings.  This was not always the case, and the fact that you can see the marks of many different epochs if you look carefully at the building is the main reason that it caught my eye in the first place.  The main and original building dates back to the 13th century as a one-nave basilica, but it collapsed in 1303 and was rebuilt.  Chapels were built into it throughout the next three centuries.  Perhaps this period was not just about building and adding new chapels to the basilica, but also about rebuilding it over and over again, as it is said that it collapsed at least three times between the 14th and 16th centuries.  The two smaller chapels with vaulted ceilings that stand by the southern wall are from this time.

In 1669, shortly after the Ottoman invasion, it was turned into the Sultan Ibrahim Mosque.  A minaret was added at the southwest corner.  New windows were opened on the north and south walls during this period, too.

In the 19th century, the basilica collapsed yet again.  This time, it was rebuilt and a dome was added.  Some signs of this reconstruction can be spotted in the northern wall.

After the Turkish invasion was over, the religious building fell into disuse.  It was then repurposed as a cinema and then a carpentry.

In 1991, a comprehensive restoration started, which concluded in 2010.  The whole area was expropriated and excavations were carried out in the surroundings.  Archaeologists were fascinated by some of the finds from the 2nd Byzantine period. Some objects can be seen in the Historical Museum. The restoration was supervised by the Cretan Archdiocese, and the building’s religious vocation was also restored. In fact, in recognition of its history, it has become an interfaith place of worship, and also a venue for cultural events.

If you would like to explore Heraklion with  local guide, contact Karma Travel!  Their experts can also advise on interesting sights off the beaten track and sort out all your travel needs to make your stay in Crete unforgettable.

Celebrating St Nicholas

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Saint Nicholas (Agios Nikolaos, in Greek) is celebrated on 6th December.  This is a sort of kick off of the Christmas season, particularly in the town of the same name, as the celebration of its patron saint is an important occasion.

Agios Nikolaos, which is normally bustling on any other day, is even more lively on 6 December.  There is music, processions, people milling about, the lights of a massive tree are turned on for the first time in the season, and then the sky rips open and bursts with fireworks in the evening.  Because Nikolaos is also a common name, it’s not rare to see little groups of family and friends celebrating someone named Nikos or Niki on their name day. What a fantastic thing, to celebrate on top of your birthday!  Any excuse to hold a big party!

The celebrations start solemnly with a religious service, followed by processions and parades.  For a taster, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8gfhwTdY5Y

Agios Nikolaos was born in 270 AD, the son of wealthy parents.  However, his parents died whilst he was young.  Whilst he inherited a huge estate, he chose a religious life and moved from Lycia to Jerusalem.  He was ordained priest, then withdrew to an ascetic life and became the abbot of a monastery, and rose through the ecclesial ranks to become an archbishop.  He was not princely, though, but concerned himself with the protection of the poor and the needy.  His charitable works attracted the attention of the Roman authorities at a time when Christians were persecuted, during the reign of Diocletian.  He was tortured.  Later, Emperor Constantine the Great recognised and even embraced Christianity, so then Nicholas was able to return to his parish, where miracles were attributed to him and he was reportedly one who could restore those suffering from all sorts of ill health.

Nicholas died on 6th December 343.  Over six hundred years later, in 1087, his relics were removed from Lycia and brought to Bari (Italy) by a group of sailors.  The relics, vitally transported to this new home, started producing miracles for the local community.  Agios Nikolaos, then, is the patron saint of seamen and sailors, and those who live by the coast.  You may imagine how important his good favour is to anyone living in an island where most important cities come with a seaview!

The Christmas festive season here is solemn and meditative, yet also quite festive and often even boisterous at nights.  You can’t help but join in the celebrations!

If you would like more information about Cretan festivities to make your travel experience more authentic, contact Karma Travel.  You will then be in good, competent hands to organise a trip where you won’t just be an oblivious tourist.

Cavo Sidero

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Cavo Sidero is the Northeastern tip of Crete.  The place is wild and beautiful.  The coast is lined by dramatic, rugged wind-swept cliffs with boisterous waves.  At the tip of the thin peninsula, there is a French-built lighthouse.  The area is also known as Agios Isidoros after the dedication of a church once built here by a monk who had battled the waves in a perilous journey.  The church was his gift of gratitude, having survived after being adrift for many days.

There are also the remains of an ancient temple to goddess Athena, which was destroyed by an ancient tsunami that followed a volcanic eruption in Santorini.  Testament to the trecherous sea on this side of Crete, there are the sunken remains of several shipwrecks, which can be seen from time to time and seem like beached whales.

On the hills and mountains, the land is rather barren mostly due to the winds. But precisely because of the harsh conditions, there are some wonderful rare plants.  The area is protected by the Natura 2000 programme.  Even if the land is arid, it is dotted with bushes of aromatic herbs like thyme, sage and marjoram.  There are also olive trees (now still full of darkening olives).    In this area, there are eagles, vultures and falcons to be seen if you are a keen and patient watcher.

In the east, there is a palm grove beach, Vai, which is very popular with tourists.  The palm trees in this area (Phoenix theophrastii) are native to Crete, and found mainly in Vai and Preveli (see The Palm Beach of Preveli, earlier in this blog).  Sadly, the palms in Vai are suffering from an invasion of red palm weevils, an insect plague which is munching them away.   Notwithstanding the plague, the beach at Vai is beautiful and at particular times of year, there are migratory birds to be seen here.  Even flamingoes, I’m told, but I’ve missed them this time…

The area is close to the airport in Sitia, and it is likely that it won’t remain virgin territory anymore.  A court has awarded a development company the right to build up the area.  There will be resorts and golf courses, and apparently a commitment to manage the area sustainably so as not to lose its biodiversity.

If you are keen on visiting this beautiful area and admiring its natural beauty, come quickly!  Contact Karma Travel to organise your trip.  They’ll sort out your transportation and tell you about the most beautiful spots for birdwatching. If you come in the spring, there will be wild and beautiful flowers to be seen.  A local guide will be most useful, and Karma Travel can find one for you.

Toplou Monastery

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I’ve ventured to the northeast tip of Crete to visit Moni Toplou, also known as the Monastery of Panagia Akrotiriani, or simply ‘the Great Monastery’. This is one of the most important monasteries in Crete because of its history and the vast estate it sits on.

Its current name, ‘Toplou’, refers to a Turkish word, ‘Top’, which means ‘cannonball’. This was, in effect, a fortress-monastery, where throughout history monks repeatedly had to defend themselves and the monastery from the attacks of pirates and invaders. For this reason, it has 10m high walls surrounding it.

The monastery was built in the 15th century, possibly upon a pre-existing monastery. It is located at the base of Cape Sidero, in an arid and very windy terrain. Despite these facts, the area was a prized possession, and so the monastery suffered constant attacks. In 1530, the Knights of Malta plundered it with little mercy; years later, an earthquake left it in ruins. The Venetians, who then owned Crete, decided to invest in rebuilding it due to its strategic geographical position. In 1646, after unsuccessful efforts to defend it, the monks had to abandon the monastery when eastern Crete surrendered to the Turks. Nevertheless, the monastery continued to be regarded as a strategically important place, and was granted a special permission to operate under the jurisdiction of the higher religious authority, the patriarch rather than local bishop, and was re-inhabited. Again, its valiant monks were tested during the Greek Revolution of 1821 and the Cretan revolt against the Turks in 1866. The monks’ resistance was not only military, but also intellectual, as they housed a school for the local community within the premises of the monastery. During the independence revolts, monks were tortured and many paid with their lives.

In the 1940’s, again the monks played a role in history when they sheltered resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation, and operated wireless radio transmitters for the allies from the monastery. When the Nazis discovered this, their revenge was vicious: they tortured and murdered the abbot and two of the monks. A museum is run by the monks to commemorate the role of this monastery in the history of Crete. The building itself is worth a visit. Even though austere in decor, it is a massive construction with 800m2 in three floors, and a bell tower that survived all the tests and trials since its construction in 1558. There is also the main church (a two-nave basilica).

Despite the plundering, the monastery still houses a remarkable artistic treasure. There are exhibitions of Byzantine icons, engravings, and also brilliant frescoes, like the one that graces the walls of the monks’ dining hall. Some of the Byzantine icons have their own stories to tell, such as one miraculously found by a healing water spring, which is a depiction of Agia Anastasia and the Virgin Mary.

Amongst its treasures, the monastery also counts a document dating to 132BC, which details the settlement of a dispute between nearby Itanos and Ierapetra over the rights to visit a temple to goddess Athena and control of an island where coveted purple dyes were produced.

In their vast estate, the monks cultivate vineyards and olive trees, and produce olive oil, organic wine, and fabulous raki. You can buy their products in the monastery.

If you want to visit Toplou, contact Karma Travel to organise your transfers, accommodation, and a guided tour to make the most of your visit. Don’t miss the opportunity to make history come alive with a knowledgeable and friendly local! Karma Travel’s experts can help you sort out all your travel needs.

Lefka Ori

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I’ve spent quite a while wandering about, around, and between these mountains, so I thought they deserved a post of their own.  The beloved mountain range that sits majestically in western Crete, the Lefka Ori (white mountains), is also known as Madares (bald mountains).  The ‘bald’ side refers to a high desert —unique in the northern hemisphere— which lies at an altitude of 1,800 m.  It is located in the central and southern side of these mountains and can be entered via Anopolis.

The Lefka Ori are made of limestone.  This is why from a distance they look white or blueish -or pink if the sun hits them at a certain angle and you are quick with the camera!  More than this, the ‘white’ probably refers to what the locals think of as wintry white, perennial snow caps, which disappear in late spring.  

The highest peak is Pachnes (Cretan for ‘fog’), which is close to 2,500m above sea level.  There are also Mount Ida and Psiloritis, which I mentioned in previous blog posts.    There are also about 50 gorges cutting across the mountains.  The most famous is the Samaria Gorge.  There are also the Imbros and Agia Irini Gorges (mentioned before).

The gorges, the mountains themselves, and the plateaus between them are fabulous for hiking. In fact, the European E4 path crisscrosses these mountains. During spring and summer, there is stunning vegetation to be seen, not least a few species of flowers unique to this region.  In wintertime, though, it is advised that only experienced hikers and mountain climbers attempt to come here, as it can be dangerous.

Plan your springtime or summertime hikes and contact Karma Travel for advice regarding walking tours where you can take in the beauty of Lefka Ori and also learn about the flora and fauna of the region.  You will not be disappointed!

Milia and a Chestnut Festival

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I thought that perhaps a new experience was in order. Somewhere without TV’s and gloomy news that make me conscious of living in ‘interesting times’. I thought a few days perhaps even without Internet access could do me good.  Mind you, giving up my Internet connection seems like being deprived of human contact, almost like becoming a modern-day anchorite.

So what is really essential for living?  What or how much can you give up?  I thought for these considerations alone, it was worth going to Milia.

Milia is a 17th century mountain settlement nestled in the Lefka Ori (white mountains) which has been transformed to accommodate tourists -mostly hikers- in its stone houses.  These have been restored to provide simple and basic yet very hospitable accommodation.  There are wood burning stoves for heating, and the furniture in the bedrooms is rustic. Solar panels generate enough electricity to meet the very basic needs, but there is no access to media or the Internet.  The houses have simple bedrooms, bathroom and a dining room.  Stream water is piped into the houses.  The experience is not about locking yourself up in one of the houses, though -there is a spacious communal dining room, where you can enjoy home-grown organic food lovingly prepared by Giorgos and Tassos.  Their delightful stifado with chestnuts, baby onions and potatoes in red wine sauce will stay in my memory.  I really enjoyed my stay and did not want to leave!  Indeed, it is possible to give up technology and embrace a simpler life without so much as a hiccup.

Then again, here I am, back in ‘civilisation’ and blogging.

From Milia, you can rent a bike or hike to visit the surrounding little towns, called the Innaxorion (‘nine villages’) dispersed in this mountain area, where time seems to be elastic and go slowly.  I found a few gems, such as a 15th century basilica dedicated to Agia Varvara (near Latsiana) and a church dedicated to Agios Nikolaos (near Mouri) which contains beautiful frescoes.  There is also the Topolia Gorge nearby, which makes for a most enjoyable hike.

Elos is the largest of the Innaxorion.  It is a pretty village surrounded by a chestnut forest and several natural springs,  and boasting  a few well-preserved Venetian buildings, such as a governor’s house and a fortress.  There are also fragments of Roman mosaics to admire.

The speciality of Elos are chestnuts.  I arrived in time for the annual Chestnut Festival, which this year was held on Sunday 4 November.   The festival sees everyone in the village get involved.  There was food, wine, music and dancing. A particular form of raki typical of this region was on offer (‘koumaroraki’). Small children had prepared ‘mantinades’ (poems) about chestnuts. Or at least this is what I was reliably informed that they were reciting!   Huge, sweet and juicy chestnuts were on offer, and you could also try them in a variety of dishes, sweet and savoury.  Then, in the climax of the event, the chestnuts are roasted.  What a pleasure!

If you would like more information about Milia or want expert advise to include local festivities in your travel plans, which will make for an unforgettable stay in Crete, contact Karma Travel!  Their expert advisors will help with accommodation, transportation and offer knowledgeable tips to make your travel a true delight.

Roussospiti and Mt Vrissinas

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I have taken a day to wander just south of Rethymnon on a bike. In this area, there is a tiny pretty town, Roussospiti.  I was curious about the name of the town. I know ‘spiti’ means ‘house’, but I couldn’t understand what the name referred to.  My query at the taverna got a couple of locals quite animated. There are at least two competing stories: one is that the town was named after a red house, (in Italian, that’s ‘Rossa’), which was built by a Venetian merchant.  The other story says that the name of the town refers to a house built by a Russian woman (hence ‘Rousso’), who was very ill and came to Crete to recover from her ailments.  Apparently, her house still exists.

Beyond the lively taverna and the gossip, the reason for my wander to this part of Crete today is visiting a number of lovely  churches with Byzantine icons and frescoes I wanted to see, which are nearby, and going up Mt Vrissinas.  Wonderfully helpful staff at Karma Travel helpmed me find a place to rent a bike, and also advised on possible routes I could enjoy.  This proved to be a great tip.  Starting in Rethymnon and on the way to Roussospiti, I passed several lovely chapels worth stopping by to take a look at.  This route is best enjoyed on a bike, as the walk would’ve been too long, and going by car or public transport would have meant that I could not stop to see these lovely chapels on the way.

In Roussospiti, there is a 10th century church dedicated to the Mother of God, which hosts some ancient icons that are sadly not intact, as the eyes of saints depicted were scratched during the Turkish occupation.  Nearby, just by the entrance to a gorge, there is also a 14th century convent dedicated to Agia Eirini (Holy Peace).  The monastery is being reconstructed all thanks to the nuns’ keen efforts, with works ongoing since 1989.  The nuns sell beautiful home textiles (like tablecloths and tea towels) and hand-painted icons to sustain their titanic reconstruction work.   In the estate of their monastery, there is also a 15th century church dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, which is also looked after by these dedicated nuns.

At the top of Mt Vrissinas, there is a church dedicated to the Holy Ghost.  The view from up the mountain is amazing.  It took me some effort going up, even though it’s not particularly high. Anyhow, the bike stayed at the foot of the mountain, and I walked up.

I’m told that this was always considered a holy mountain. Before the existing chapel was built, there seems to have been a temple to goddess Artemis at the same site.  Even before this, excavations undertaken in the 1960s revealed a Minoan temple of significance.  The digs yielded hundreds of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic clay statuettes, as well as fragments of a stone vase with Linear A inscriptions, which can be seen in the Museum of Rethymnon.

If you would like to obtain advise to make the most of your time in Crete, contact Karma Travel! From accommodation and transfers to tips on enjoyable cycling routes, they are your reliable travel agent in Crete.

 

 

 

 

Cretan Wines

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The history of Greek wine goes back a long way.  As described in previous blog posts, wine presses have been found which date back to the Minoan era.  Offerings to the gods often included wine, as evidenced by archaeological digs in temples. Findings of massive clay jars to transport wine  have been linked to the Roman period, when Cretan wine was exported across the Mediterranean.  During the Middle Ages, wine produced in Heraklion (vino di Candia) was highly valued in northern and western Europe.

In recent years, however, the exports are not quite so far-reaching.  Greek wine is beautiful, yet at least in the UK (where I live) it’s hard to find. I didn’t know much about it before I came to Crete, and it has become a treasured find!

In the 1970s, a plague of Phylloxera caused mayhem.  Whilst in France a similar coup caused the export of some key grape varieties to distant places, in Crete the plague resulted in serious losses of Kotsifali vines.   The plague is long over, and as proof of the old adage, if it didn’t kill local producers, it did make them stronger. Cretan wine production accounts for 20% of Greek wine.  It is produced mostly by cooperatives. This small-scale production doesn’t really have a powerful marketing machine behind it, which explains why it is not more famous.  This, however, may soon be turned around by a new generation of producers, oenologists, and marketers, all keen on making Cretan wine shine.

The two most important protected designations of origin for Cretan wines are Arhanes and Peza.  These protected  designations of origin are for Kotsifali and Mandilaria (which are used to produce red wines) and Vidiano and Daphni (for Peza white wines).  There are several privately-owned wineries, the most important of which are Lyrakis, Miliarakis, Boutaris, and Creta-Oympias.  Small cooperatives, unable to compete with larger companies, sometimes opt to be recognised for their inventiveness.  This is the case of small producers in Sitia, where a new variety of grape, Liatiko, is being explored for red wines, and a recent protected designation of origin status has been conferred to white wines made of Thrapsathiri and Vilana grapes.

If you’d like to learn more about the wine and admire beautiful Crete, I recommend this video.

If you are interested in coming to Crete and exploring the vineyards, discovering the ancient and new wine-making processes, and enjoying tastings of Cretan wines, contact knowledgeable Karma Travel.  They will be able to book wine country tours, visits to wine makers and tastings for you, and provide expert advise so you make the most of your visit to Crete.

Archanes

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It’s been a pleasure of a weekend back in Heraklion, and I have taken the opportunity to visit Archanes (also known as  Arhanes, as its Greek name is Arxanes).  What a gem of a little town!

Barely 14 km away from Heraklion, this could well be just a sleepy agricultural town, but the locals take pride in having meticulously restored it. Their efforts are much appreciated, as the maze of narrow lanes where balcony planters overspill with flowers is quite a joy to see.  You can easily spend an afternoon wandering coffee in hand around these narrow streets and tree-shaded squares.

I was told that the major of the city decided that ‘there is no past without future’, so this is where the restoration came about.  Whilst looking towards the future, this little town has a long-stretching past to show off, too.   Settlements from the Neolithic age have been found here by archaeologists, and there are four archaeological sites within a few kilometres. Fourni is a Minoan graveyard at the edge of the village, where a royal burial was found, complete with sarcophagi and rich offerings including necklaces made of gold, sardium and glass beads, fine bronze and ivory vases.

Vathypetro is outside Archanes, and was probably a palatial complex on a road from Knossos to the Messara plain.  The estate contained a manor house and several buildings, courtyards and workshops.  There are the remains of a Minoan wine press, an olive oil press, and a kiln, as well as vestiges of an ancient pottery shop.   Not a lot has changed in the region’s livelihoods for millenia, then!  Paradoxically, the excavation of this site has been hindered by the development of vineyards…

Archanes is one of Crete’s’ top winemaking regions.  Local producers take pride in their organic vineyards and traditional production methods.  The grape varieties grown here include mainly Kotsifali and Mandilaria, which produce wines described as ‘earthy yet fruity, with a deceivingly light colour’.  Two other adjectives I was given, which are not ones I’d often heard in relation to wine, were ‘honest and masculine’.  I guess that sums up the feel of this wine quite nicely.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how it was produced, and the tasting session was memorable.

If you would like to come and experience Cretan winemaking and wine tasting for yourself, please contact Karma Travel! Their expert staff will be able to organise vineyard and winery tours which you will surely enjoy!

Lake Kournas, Argyroupolis and Ancient Lappa

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With Lefka Ori (the white mountains) behind me, and surrounded by greenery, facing Lake Kournas, I’m spending an afternoon in an idyllic scenery.  This is Crete’s only natural freshwater lake, some 1.5 km wide and fed by underground springs.  Its crystal-clear waters change colour, I’m told, according to the season and time of day.  The lake is very much alive: turtles, crabs and fish can be watched from pedaloes or canoes, which one can leisurely paddle about the lake during the summer months.  Since I’ve missed that opportunity and we’re now in October, I’m quite content to spend my afternoon sitting on a lounger and soaking up the sun whilst reading a book.  There are tavernas around the lake, and so I can wander towards them to get myself a fresh portokalada (an orangeade) and sip it in pure bliss.  I’d been told to make sure I tried the myzithropitakia, cheese patties made with Cretan sour myzithra cheese, a staple of this region. So I obediently stopped by ‘Omorphi Limni’ (a taverna aptly named ‘Beautiful Lake’) and gave these heavenly treats a go.

I spent the morning visiting the pretty village of Argyroupolis, which was built upon a hill, and is built on several levels, with Kato (lower) and Pano (upper) sections.  With the advise of my trusted Karma Travel, I was able to hire a local guide to show me around, and knew to look for a particularly interesting herb shop in Argyroupolis, where I found a few cosmetic treasures.

This small town is steeped in history, which is evident from the rocks that make up its houses and public buildings.  As in other places, the building materials have been reused over time, and so these construction blocks were once part of Roman or Venetian structures.  The town’s current name dates back to the 19th century, when it was called Argyroupolis in reference to a silver mine in the neighbouring area.  However, settlements in this area are much, much older: this was once called Lappa, and there are references to its existence in Minoan times.  According to legend, the origin of Lappa can be traced to that era, when it is said to have been founded by Agamemnon, the hero of the Trojan War.

Lappa was a very important city whose territory extended from the north to the south coasts, and boasted two commercial harbours: present-day Dramia and Loutro.  The city was destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout its history. It enjoyed particular prosperity during Roman times (as evidenced by archaeological finds from the period), and also during the Byzantine period, when it was the Episcopal residence of Agios Titus, Crete’s first bishop and patron saint.  I particularly enjoyed a stroll around the Roman ruins of ancient Lappa, with its Necropolis, baths, and  aqueduct.

Down the hill, towards Asi Gonia, lies a particularly beautiful area with ten springs known as ‘The Holy Force’ (Agia Dynami).  Here, water gushes out of the mountains with such force that it was used to power water mills, which in the not too distant past dotted the area.  Nowadays, the mills are gone, but you can still sit to enjoy the view of the beautiful cascades from one of the many tavernas in this gorgeous setting.

If you would like to enjoy the peace and quiet of beautiful Lake Kournas, or are keen to visit the lovely Argyroupolis with its springs and ancient Roman ruins, contact Karma Travel.  They will be able to provide expert information and help you book all the services you need to make this a unique experience.

Yoga in Triopetra

Sunset in Triopetra, Crete, Greece creteisparadise.wordpress.com

How can you not be inspired to perform a series of sun salutations when you have a background like this?

I’ve come to Triopetra for a yoga retreat which I booked through Karma Travel.  A perfect way to truly ‘leave everything behind’ and find internal peace.  I know full well how ‘internal peace’ and ‘happiness  from within’ can seem elusive, especially when you are following a 24/7 routine and live an office life -even more so when the ‘rat race’ seems to be the only pursuit you’re leading.  I can’t complain about this being my case at the  moment, when I have a ‘mobile office’. Nonetheless, it’s always nice to make a pause and find time to have a meaningful encounter with yourself.   Fortunately, taking the time off for this yoga retreat has not hit my wallet as a major luxury, thanks to Karma Travel’s expertise and contacts.

The peacefulness of the amazing setting in Triopetra, the caring teacher who has challenged me and my fellow yoga practitioners to push ourselves both physically and mentally, and the amazing harmony they created amongst the group have made me love every second of the retreat.   Having practiced yoga for a few years under a number of teachers, I can say this has truly been a wonderful experience.  You need someone who can balance the mental, physical and spiritual challenges of yoga and push you that extra bit.  I feel thoroughly refreshed both inside and out.

The food offered throughout the week has been amazing, and I’ve also really enjoyed a variety of herbal teas (all collected from the fragrant Cretan mountains).  To enhance the feeling of being one with nature, we’ve been offered vegetarian or vegan food that is organic, grown locally, and prepared traditionally.   Flavourful, nutritious, yet detoxifying. What more can you ask for?

During ‘time off’, I’ve really enjoyed sitting on top of a rock to just watch an amazing sunset by the beach.  It’s incredible how such simple pleasures can really infuse you with such powerful inner strength and energy.

If you would like to come to Triopetra and experience this joy for yourself, get in touch with Karma Travel!

Ierapetra

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I am visiting the ‘Nymph of the Libyan Sea’, as Ierapetra is called by the locals.

This city, I’m told, enjoys fabulous, mostly dry and warm weather all year long.  Certainly, the weather didn’t disappoint when I visited.

Ierapetra is an ancient city, and has existed at least since the Minoan period.  At that point, it competed with Phaistos in terms of its importance.  In the 3rd century BC, its inhabitants sided with King Philip v of Macedon and Spartan Pirates to overtake an alliance including Rhodes, Byzantium, Pergamum, Athens and Knossos in the Cretan War, which in the end was won by Rhodes and Knossos.   Nevertheless, Ierapetra remained an independent city, until it was conquered by the Romans in 67 BC.  Some Roman ruins still remain, mainly in the harbor.

In 824 AD, Ierapetra was invaded and viciously destroyed by the Arabs.  Between the 13th and 17th centuries, the Venetians made it a prosperous city once more.  A few of the Venetian palaces from this era still remain.  As the rest of Crete, Ierapetra was also conquered by the Ottomans. A mosque remains in the old town, ‘Kato Mera’, as testimony of this period of the city’s history.  I’ve spent a good portion of the afternoon wandering about this part of town, with medieval streets, with narrow alleyways and cul-de-sacs which make for postcard-perfect pictures.   I quite liked a church dedicated to St George (Agios Giorgos), with its wooden ‘blind domes’.

If you want to visit Ierapetra and find out more about its history and flavours -I’m told that the raki here is the best in Crete- ask the experts!  Contact Karma Travel and they will be able to sort out your travel needs, from transport, accommodation and guided tours to visits to local raki distilleries and olive groves.

 

 

Agios Nikolaos

Agios Nikolaos, Crete, Greece creteisparadise.wordpress.com

After the peace and quiet of Psiloritis, I thought I needed a spot of people-watching in a bustling, vibrant place, so I came to Agios Nikolaos.

This town has a ‘bottomless’ lake (Voulismeni), which connects with the sea via a narrow inlet.  The lake is  lined with cafés, pizzerias, and tavernas with parasols all along.  On a balmy night, this was quite the place to be!

This was one of the first places in Crete to see touristic development, and it remains very popular with locals and foreign tourists alike.  It still features a commercial harbour, which exists since the times when the Venetians ruled Crete.  This was a particularly good spot for a major harbour, because it is sheltered by two small islands (where fortresses were built to guard the port), and it’s also sheltered from the sometimes vicious northwesterly winds that sweep other parts of the island.  The two small islands facing Agios Nikolaos are also home to an endangered species of wild goats, called ‘agrimia’.

On a morning stroll along the marina, I could see some dazzling yachts docking here.  I must confess I was a bit curious as to who were the owners of such lavish floating palaces.  Unable to find out any gossip worth mentioning, I was rather happy to find a small café selling wonderful crepes just by the slipway and indulge in a nutella-filled pocket of yumminess!

To plan your trip to Agios Nikolaos and obtain all-important information on the wide variety of options of accommodation on offer here, as well as activities including diving, yachting, golf, and visits to nearby monasteries and archaeological sites, contact Karma Travel!  They will be able to offer reliable help and advise.

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