The Monastery of Agios Petros

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I’m back in Heraklion since the New Year festivities.  I find that whenever I set foot here, there is something else I had not seen before, and this time I’m writing about one such discovery.

Strolling around the seaside wall, I wandered into the ancient Monastery of Saint Peter (Agios Petros), built by Dominican monks.  It contains the only surviving 15th century frescoes in Heraklion.  This was a Catholic monastery, and one of the most important in the city.

The monastery has two main buildings.  This was not always the case, and the fact that you can see the marks of many different epochs if you look carefully at the building is the main reason that it caught my eye in the first place.  The main and original building dates back to the 13th century as a one-nave basilica, but it collapsed in 1303 and was rebuilt.  Chapels were built into it throughout the next three centuries.  Perhaps this period was not just about building and adding new chapels to the basilica, but also about rebuilding it over and over again, as it is said that it collapsed at least three times between the 14th and 16th centuries.  The two smaller chapels with vaulted ceilings that stand by the southern wall are from this time.

In 1669, shortly after the Ottoman invasion, it was turned into the Sultan Ibrahim Mosque.  A minaret was added at the southwest corner.  New windows were opened on the north and south walls during this period, too.

In the 19th century, the basilica collapsed yet again.  This time, it was rebuilt and a dome was added.  Some signs of this reconstruction can be spotted in the northern wall.

After the Turkish invasion was over, the religious building fell into disuse.  It was then repurposed as a cinema and then a carpentry.

In 1991, a comprehensive restoration started, which concluded in 2010.  The whole area was expropriated and excavations were carried out in the surroundings.  Archaeologists were fascinated by some of the finds from the 2nd Byzantine period. Some objects can be seen in the Historical Museum. The restoration was supervised by the Cretan Archdiocese, and the building’s religious vocation was also restored. In fact, in recognition of its history, it has become an interfaith place of worship, and also a venue for cultural events.

If you would like to explore Heraklion with  local guide, contact Karma Travel!  Their experts can also advise on interesting sights off the beaten track and sort out all your travel needs to make your stay in Crete unforgettable.

Celebrating St Nicholas

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Saint Nicholas (Agios Nikolaos, in Greek) is celebrated on 6th December.  This is a sort of kick off of the Christmas season, particularly in the town of the same name, as the celebration of its patron saint is an important occasion.

Agios Nikolaos, which is normally bustling on any other day, is even more lively on 6 December.  There is music, processions, people milling about, the lights of a massive tree are turned on for the first time in the season, and then the sky rips open and bursts with fireworks in the evening.  Because Nikolaos is also a common name, it’s not rare to see little groups of family and friends celebrating someone named Nikos or Niki on their name day. What a fantastic thing, to celebrate on top of your birthday!  Any excuse to hold a big party!

The celebrations start solemnly with a religious service, followed by processions and parades.  For a taster, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8gfhwTdY5Y

Agios Nikolaos was born in 270 AD, the son of wealthy parents.  However, his parents died whilst he was young.  Whilst he inherited a huge estate, he chose a religious life and moved from Lycia to Jerusalem.  He was ordained priest, then withdrew to an ascetic life and became the abbot of a monastery, and rose through the ecclesial ranks to become an archbishop.  He was not princely, though, but concerned himself with the protection of the poor and the needy.  His charitable works attracted the attention of the Roman authorities at a time when Christians were persecuted, during the reign of Diocletian.  He was tortured.  Later, Emperor Constantine the Great recognised and even embraced Christianity, so then Nicholas was able to return to his parish, where miracles were attributed to him and he was reportedly one who could restore those suffering from all sorts of ill health.

Nicholas died on 6th December 343.  Over six hundred years later, in 1087, his relics were removed from Lycia and brought to Bari (Italy) by a group of sailors.  The relics, vitally transported to this new home, started producing miracles for the local community.  Agios Nikolaos, then, is the patron saint of seamen and sailors, and those who live by the coast.  You may imagine how important his good favour is to anyone living in an island where most important cities come with a seaview!

The Christmas festive season here is solemn and meditative, yet also quite festive and often even boisterous at nights.  You can’t help but join in the celebrations!

If you would like more information about Cretan festivities to make your travel experience more authentic, contact Karma Travel.  You will then be in good, competent hands to organise a trip where you won’t just be an oblivious tourist.

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!

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!

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