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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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!

Agia Triada

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I’m visiting the remains of a summer residence of the king of Phaistos.  The site is named after what is now a ghost village, destroyed in the 19th century war of independence from the Turks -Agia Triada.

Archaeological finds have revealed that the site was inhabited as early as 3,000 BC.   The remains exposed to the public belong to a seaside villa, apparently built around 1,600 BC in the heyday of the Minoan civilisation. The palace was then destroyed about a hundred years later, and underwent several transformations throughout time. An imposing Megaron was built upon the remains of the walls of the villa, with further edifications enclosing an inner courtyard where public gatherings and ceremonies must have been held.

Zoom into the future, and a temple to Zeus was erected here.  Further down the line, around 1400 AD,  a Byzantine church dedicated to Agios Giorgos tou Galata, which still stands today, was built on this site.  The church is a small jewel in that it contains some fairly well preserved  and beautiful Byzantine frescoes.

My mind spins at the thought of a small city whose same stone structures were in use for nearly 3,000 years (through successive constructive and rebuilding phases)!  Surely, this is proof that there is something very special about this island, and this site in particular.

Some of the most impressive pieces excavated from this site include delicately crafted clay vessels and sarcophagi extracted from a series of tombs discovered to the northeast of the palatial complex.  I recall having seen them in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion.  Sadly, I don’t think I paid enough attention to them.  I think another visit is due now that I have more context, and I will definitely need to look at the sarcophagi in more detail!

If you would like to come here and discover the mysteries of Agia Triada, contact Karma Travel!  They will be able to advise on transport, guided tours, and accommodation.

Gortyna

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Past beautiful rolling hills covered with olive groves, which will soon be picked, I arrived at Gortyna. We are greeted by a number of massive statues in an open-air museum just by a Byzantine basilica which dates back to the fifth century and is dedicated to Agios Titus, the first bishop of the area, and also the addressee of one of the epistles of St Paul which are contained in the New Testament.

There is also a plane tree with a plaque which tells visitors that it was under that very tree that Zeus seduced Europa, and this tree was made to remain forever green to commemmorate their love.

Across the road and past a grove of olive trees are the ruins of what must have been a spectacular city. Archaeologists have established that the site had been inhabited since Neolithic times. Walking along the paths that criscross the site, I can’t help feeling a sense of humble awe, and wanting to tread carefully. There are bits of the excavated ruins all along the path, and I have a sense of my footsteps echoing those of the ancient inhabitants of this city. Excavations continue on the site. In fact, I’m told, just last year archaeologists unearthed a few huge statues, lamps and mable slabs sculpted with scenes of battles and myths just in the Odeon.

Behind the Odeon, there is a very important document preserved in stone. The myth of king Radamanthus and his code of law, which I mentioned in a previous post, becomes a passage of history at Gortyna: on a wall behind the Odeon is an ancient code of law that dates back to the 6th century B.C.

The Gortyna Code displayed behind the theatre is written in Dorian Greek. The text flows from right to left, then the next line from left to right, and so on. Effectively, the reader must read backwards every other line! The code describes family relationships in this society, including marriage, divorce, inheritances, adoptions, and custody rights; it also describes their approach to property (including slavery as a form of property at the time) and contracts. It does not contain any criminal laws or procedures, which has led archaeologists to think that this is but one fraction of a much longer document. It is also interesting because it represents a transitional period from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society, where women’s rights to property and inheritance were changing to a less favourable stance, but still allowed women to hold the right to their share of property after divorce or after being widowed, and recognised women’s right to hold property independently of their husbands.

The code in the tunnel behind the theatre was preserved when the Romans reused stones from previous buildings to build their own. Some parts have been lovingly preserved and restored when found in excavations. A few slabs were found when digging a water-mill, for example.

Roman Gortyna was the most important Cretan city of its time. When the Romans invaded the island, this became the capital of the island. The Roman Ruins are impressive. There is the residence of the Roman governor of Crete and Cyrene, the Praetor, which dates back to the 1st century A.D. There are also baths, a shrine dedicated to Augustus, a court of law, and a temple dedicated to the Nymphs, which judging by the size of its cistern, must have had fabulous fountains. The Roman city must have been very impressive. It was destroyed in 825 when Andalusian invaders took the island and destroyed Gortyna when its leaders refused to surrender.

There is also an Acropolis on Agios Ioannis hill, which is considered part of Gortyna. This seems to have been ‘holy land’ for a long time, as there are evidences of human activities here in the Neolithic period. A temple dedicated to Athena was erected here, and during Byzantine times, a basilica was built on the site. There are also the remains of a Roman fortress, built here in the 7th century.

If you would like to visit these sites, get in touch with Karma Travel to organise your transportation and a guided tour, as well as accommodation in the area. They will be able to advise you as only local experts can!  They can also advise if your tour of this area can be combined with a visit to the neighbouring olive groves when it’s time for the olive harvest.

Phaistos

Phaistos, Crete, Greece

I’ve arrived at Phaistos and I am gobsmacked by the spectacular setting of this site.  It is high on a hil, overlooking a plain framed by mountains, with the sea rolling just below the hills, and towering Mount Psiloritis just north.   My guide explains that the site had many stages, and excavations have revealed strata that goes back up to Neolithic times.  The topmost layer seems to have been the work of a single architect -unusual, I’m told.  The layout is easy to grasp, which is not the case in other palace ruins I visited, like Knossos.   The latest rebuilding of the palace dates ack to 1700 BC, and it’s evident that ruins upon ruins are layered under the surface.  The final architect built on top of the remains of previous buildings, and in some places staircases belonging to different construction stages merge or converge, giving a picture of architectural intricacy.

The description of an architect that took care of creating a functional and yet aesthetically pleasing environment makes me think of an ancient Frank Lloyd Wright, thinking of how to blend his structures with the spectacular views of the hill, planning his courtyards to follow the uneven surfaceof the hill, and walls to almost frame the view of the Messara plain below and Mount Psiloritis.  It seems that the design was such that palace structures were conceived to have one side enclosed by a wall, and the other by a major mountain.

This was one of three major cities in Crete, and seems to have been an important religious site, as well as a hub of economic activity.  My guide explains that archaeologists have found inscriptions and some records, all in Linear A, which remain undeciphered.  The name of the city, Phaistos, has been confirmed by inscriptions on coins and in Linear B inscriptions referring to this site which have been found in Knossos.  One fine example of ancient scripture is, in fact, the Disc of Phaistos, which I saw in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.  I am marvelled by the explanation that the spiralling characters carefully engraved on the disc were in fact ‘seals’ pressed on the clay disc, which have been claimed to be the first instance of a printing press featuring interchangeable signs.  It is mindboggling that the technology was first conceived here in the second millenium BC, but only took off in the 15th century AD!

I imagine myself as a spectator sitting in the theatre and marvelling at the view of the landscape surrounding it.  The dwellers of this ancient city must have felt privileged to live here!

The ancient stories seem to confirm the idea that it was a privilege to live here.  It is said that Phaistos was ruled by King Radamanthus, brother of Minos, the king of Knossos.   Radamanthus was  a just and noble king, and gave the island an excellent code of laws, which was copied elsewhere, not least by the Spartans.  Because of his inflexible integrity, this king was made one of the judges of the dead in the underworld.

It is also said that Phaistos was safeguarded by a bronze giant, Talos, who had been made by Daedalus when Zeus ordered him to craft a means to protect his beloved Europa.  So the bronze giant patrolled the shores of Crete and endlessly watched over Phaistos to protect the queen.  He was also famous for throwing boulders at approaching ships.  The bronze giant, forged much like a lost-wax statue, had one vein which went from his neck to his ankle, and was bound shut by just one bronze nail.

When Jason and the Argonauts approached Crete after snatching the Golden Fleece, Talos guarded the island by throwing massive boulders at the Argo.  The sneaky Argonauts called upon Medea to use her powers to drive him mad. The sorceress drugged him and deceived him, saying that she would render him immortal by removing the nail. The giant bled molten lead until he eventually died.

If you want to visit Phaistos and make the most of your time here, contact Karma Travel and arrange your transport and a guided tour of the site.  It will come alive with stories in a way that you could never appreciate just by looking at the ruins!

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.

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!

Back in Heraklion

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Back from my quick hop to the mainland, I used a morning to visit the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, which has quite a few things of interest.  The exhibits take you back eight thousand years, with objects dating back to 6000 BC.  I was particularly interested in the Phaistos Disk, a clay disk with spiralling inscriptions that resemble hieroglyphs.  The meaning of this ancient text has not been deciphered yet.  There were also samples of Linear A and B inscriptions; of these two ancient forms of writing, Linear B has been partially deciphered because it’s identified with an early form of the Greek language called Mycenaean.  Linear A, on the other hand, pertains to a language that’s lost, so its meaning is uncertain.  Beyond these very interesting artifacts, there were a few sculptures that took my breath away. One of them was a ‘bull rider’ -the sculpture of a male figure that seems to graciously dive on air, whilst grasping the bull’s horns.

Photography was not permitted, so I could not take pictures.  The above is a view of Heraklion.

If you would like to book a guided tour of this wonderful city, including the Archaeological Museum, contact Karma Travel!  Their expert staff can also find you brilliant accommodation and organise your transfers.

Athens

Parthenon, Athens

I thought I couldn’t go to Greece and not visit Athens.  My main interest was in seeing Crete, so this was just a quick hop to see the Parthenon.  You can take the ferry back and forth from Heraklion, and even travel by night, so it is quite convenient.

In Athens, beyond the new museum and the Parthenon, I enjoyed people watching from a café on the way up to the Parthenon.   The world seems to slow down when you are sipping coffee on ice,  for some reason.  I sat down with a magazine to hand and just let time pass whilst my attention idled between the magazine and strangers strolling up the hill.

The visit to the Parthenon would not be meaningful at all without a guide.  In my experience, you need an expert’s briefing to make sense of the torn down monuments. The signage is not very informative on its own, and it takes much background information to fully appreciate the site.  If you are visiting, do think of booking a guided visit.  Ask Karma Travel for advise about guided tours and to book your travel to Athens if you’re interested in hopping to the continent.

Knossos

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A few miles from the center of Heraklion is Knossos, an archaeological site dating from the Bronze Age. Here you can explore the palace of King Minos, and follow in the footsteps of the legendary Minotaur and his labyrinth. The association of the site with the legend is no accident: archaeologists have found ancient Roman coins in the area, one of whose faces are engraved the Minotaur and the labyrinth.

Despite being in ruins, the archaeological site invites you to imagine a huge lively palace where many celebrations were held. The myths of Knossos tell us of a cruel King Minos, married to a woman named Pasiphae. She was the daughter of the sun and a prophetess, who was enchanted by Poseidon to fall in love with a bull and so gave birth to Asterion, the Minotaur. Daedalus was then commissioned to build the labyrinth to contain the beast. However, the beast was hard to appease, and every nine years it was necessary to offer it a victim. For this, King Minos had to choose seven men and seven women to send to the maze…

The experience of visiting Knossos is far more interesting and pleasurable if you have a tour guide to give you a little bit of background information, show you the site and tell you a few stories to make the place come alive.  Book your tours to Knossos and other historical sites in Crete through Karma Travel!

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