Holy Peace!

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After my recent visits to archaeological sites, I decided to go to a beach.  A touristy beach.  Anywhere else, ‘touristy’ might be synonymous with ‘tacky’ and can rarely be paired with ‘charming’, yet towns in Crete often manage to make this rarity happen, and this is one of those happy exceptions.

Agia Galini (‘Holy Peace’) is roughly opposite Matala in a small gulf in southern Crete.   It is a little village circling a harbour.  Although it bustles with activity, I didn’t see any cars, so there were children playing and wandering about. I really like the family-friendliness of small towns in Crete.

I sat in a taverna that attracted me with the promise of a ‘thieves’ oven’.  I had lamb cooked in this fashion.  It turns out that a ‘thieve’s oven’ is a clay pot buried in the ground.  The fire sits atop the clay pot and conceals the ‘stolen’ meat of a goat or lamb whilst it cooks without blatantly revealing the mischief through smell and smoke -like a spit roast would.  Well, my verdict is that stealing the lamb was probably worth it!  This was absolutely scrummy.

Wandering up the hill, I came across a mythical take-off platform: the rock where it is said that Daedalus and Icarus set flight.   The story says that Daedalus had come to Crete banished from Athens, where the great inventor had slain his nephew (his apprentice) for fear that he would surpass the master’s abilities.  So Daedalus landed in Crete, where he worked for King Minos.  The king had asked him to build a labyrinth to keep the mighty Minotaur inside.  Daedalus built a maze so complicated that it was impossible to escape from it.

This was the case until young and brave prince Theseus came to Crete and offered himself as willing bait to enter the Labyrinth.  He would attempt to slay the Minotaur.  What he wanted was to end a vengeful ritual whereby a number of youths from his land were presented to the Minotaur every seventh year to be killed by this savage beast.   Theseus was handsome and witty, and stole the heart of King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne.  Madly in love, the princess decided she would help save her prince and flee with him.  She gave him a spindle and instructed him to unravel the thread as he went into the Labyrinth so he could find the way out.  So Theseus slay the Minotaur and successfully fled the Labyrinth, taking Princess Ariadne with him.

King Minos was furious.  Filled with rage at the builder of the Labyrinth, he imprisoned Daedalus an his son, Icarus, in a tower.  There was no way out.

The inventor came up with a solution, though.  He built wings made of beeswax and feathers, and successfully managed to learn to fly.   Daedalus strapped on his wings, and instructed Icarus to do the same.  There was a caveat: they could not approach the sun, because the beeswax would melt, and they couldn’t brush the foam of the sea, because it would ruin the feathers.  Both of them flew high into the sky.  It was so exhilarating that Icarus forgot the warnings and got too close to the sun, whereby his wings melted and he inevitably fell into the sea and drowned.  The island nearest to where the boy drowned is called Icaria, in his honour.

If you want to visit the mythical Agia Galini, or would like to set off to the islands without risking the fate of Icarus, contact Karma Travel!  They will sort out your airplane tickets, transfers, accommodation, guided tours, and organise visits to vineyards, olive groves, raki distilleries, and show you Crete’s traditions.  Come and experience authentic Crete with a tour organised by Karma Travel!

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!

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