Erofili Theatre in Rethymnon

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Advertisements

Pirate stories in Rethymnon

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

Toplou Monastery

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Roussospiti and Mt Vrissinas

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Ierapetra

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

 

 

Agia Triada

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

Frangokastello

Frangokastello, Crete, Greece

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kato Zakros


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balos

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spinalonga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extraordinary Olives

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

%d bloggers like this: