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.

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!

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!

Matala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frangokastello

Frangokastello, Crete, Greece

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Palm Beach of Preveli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kato Zakros


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

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

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

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

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

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

Balos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spinalonga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extraordinary Olives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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