Lake Kournas, Argyroupolis and Ancient Lappa

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With Lefka Ori (the white mountains) behind me, and surrounded by greenery, facing Lake Kournas, I’m spending an afternoon in an idyllic scenery.  This is Crete’s only natural freshwater lake, some 1.5 km wide and fed by underground springs.  Its crystal-clear waters change colour, I’m told, according to the season and time of day.  The lake is very much alive: turtles, crabs and fish can be watched from pedaloes or canoes, which one can leisurely paddle about the lake during the summer months.  Since I’ve missed that opportunity and we’re now in October, I’m quite content to spend my afternoon sitting on a lounger and soaking up the sun whilst reading a book.  There are tavernas around the lake, and so I can wander towards them to get myself a fresh portokalada (an orangeade) and sip it in pure bliss.  I’d been told to make sure I tried the myzithropitakia, cheese patties made with Cretan sour myzithra cheese, a staple of this region. So I obediently stopped by ‘Omorphi Limni’ (a taverna aptly named ‘Beautiful Lake’) and gave these heavenly treats a go.

I spent the morning visiting the pretty village of Argyroupolis, which was built upon a hill, and is built on several levels, with Kato (lower) and Pano (upper) sections.  With the advise of my trusted Karma Travel, I was able to hire a local guide to show me around, and knew to look for a particularly interesting herb shop in Argyroupolis, where I found a few cosmetic treasures.

This small town is steeped in history, which is evident from the rocks that make up its houses and public buildings.  As in other places, the building materials have been reused over time, and so these construction blocks were once part of Roman or Venetian structures.  The town’s current name dates back to the 19th century, when it was called Argyroupolis in reference to a silver mine in the neighbouring area.  However, settlements in this area are much, much older: this was once called Lappa, and there are references to its existence in Minoan times.  According to legend, the origin of Lappa can be traced to that era, when it is said to have been founded by Agamemnon, the hero of the Trojan War.

Lappa was a very important city whose territory extended from the north to the south coasts, and boasted two commercial harbours: present-day Dramia and Loutro.  The city was destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout its history. It enjoyed particular prosperity during Roman times (as evidenced by archaeological finds from the period), and also during the Byzantine period, when it was the Episcopal residence of Agios Titus, Crete’s first bishop and patron saint.  I particularly enjoyed a stroll around the Roman ruins of ancient Lappa, with its Necropolis, baths, and  aqueduct.

Down the hill, towards Asi Gonia, lies a particularly beautiful area with ten springs known as ‘The Holy Force’ (Agia Dynami).  Here, water gushes out of the mountains with such force that it was used to power water mills, which in the not too distant past dotted the area.  Nowadays, the mills are gone, but you can still sit to enjoy the view of the beautiful cascades from one of the many tavernas in this gorgeous setting.

If you would like to enjoy the peace and quiet of beautiful Lake Kournas, or are keen to visit the lovely Argyroupolis with its springs and ancient Roman ruins, contact Karma Travel.  They will be able to provide expert information and help you book all the services you need to make this a unique experience.

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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.

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