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!

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.

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!

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