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.

Monasteries

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It was my last day in Chania, and a Saturday.   I had promised myself I would visit Moni Agias Triadas and Moni Gouvernetou, which are in the Akrotiri Peninsula, to the northeast of Chania.

I had foolishly forgotten my drivers’ license, so I could not rent a car.  I thought it was easy enough to follow the rough instructions on my Lonely Planet tourist guide and just get there.  So I went and took a bus.  Firstly, I made enquiries at the bus station, and the girl in the information booth sent me to buy a ticket towards the airport, which is south of the peninsula, and told me to get off the bus at a particular point, then take a taxi.  I bought the ticket.  When I was about to board the bus, I looked closely at my map and the guide, and realised that she had sent me to the opposite end of the peninsula, which would make the taxi fare quite costly.  I had to quickly exchange my bus ticket, and boarded a bus to Stavros.

Without knowing the region, traveling by bus becomes a bit of an adventure, as stops are not necessarily called by the driver, and at bus stops, there are no signs to tell you the name of the place.  I was following my map carefully and looking for any signs we passed on the road, as I was not going all the way to Stavros, but getting off two villages before.  I did manage to get off at Horafakia, and called a taxi to take me from there to Moni Agias Triadas.

The monastery of the Holy Trinity is proudly active and still plays a part in the local economy. Monks own a vast amount of land, and they produce olive oil, wine and other products.  You can visit the gardens, a chapel, and an exhibition of Byzantine icons and religious paraphernalia.  The paintings were particularly beautiful.

From there, my book said you could walk about four kilometres to Moni Gouvernetou.  I am a keen walker, and thought of this as a short ‘pilgrimage’ of sorts, so I set off walking.   About one kilometre down the road, an Ucranian couple stopped their car and generously offered me a ride to the monastery, which I accepted.   I am glad I did, as little did I know, a few hundred metres down the road, it narrowed to the point that two lanes became one tightly winding road, which could have been dangerous to walk on, particularly if cars were coming from up the hill at some speed and would not necessarily see you!

We got to the monastery at about 4.20 PM, and the gate was open, but the actual monastery was closed. It would reopen at 5.00 PM.  We could go in and take a walk in the premises, though.  These, I have to say, are spectacular.  The monastery is the guardian of a vast amount of land that includes mountains and valleys rolling towards the sea.  They have some olive groves and vineyards, but the valley, importantly, is home to another monastery which is located closer to the coast, and is where St John the Hermit used to live in a cave at the bottom of a rock staircase.  You can walk down a beautiful rock path towards it, and visit a few caves where his disciples dwelled, which hold small chapels.  Again, the hills are covered in aromatic herbs, so you walk amidst the smell of thyme, sage, oregano, and olive trees.  The natural beauty of the place is breathtaking.  It inspires awe and gives you a feeling of tranquility.

I walked down, then up the path, and returned to the monastery, where you are welcome to visit a patio and a small church in the middle of it. By the time I walked in, it was time for vespers.  It was beautiful.  Chants and sweet incense wrapped around me and engulfed me.  I stayed there quite a while to meditate and pray.

When I got out, I figured I would just call the same taxi company that brought me to Moni Agias Triadas and ask them to pick me up at Moni Gouvernetou to take me to Chania.  By then, I already knew that I had missed the afternoon bus from Stavros to Chania; I was conscious of the need to find my way back.  However, I had not considered the possibility of being unable to call the taxi in the first place.  My mobile had no signal!

Luckily, a French couple walked out of the monastery and made their way towards a car.  I explained my problem, and they kindly agreed to take me down to the first village.  I was really very grateful.   From where they stopped, I called a taxi and finally got back to Chania.

The adventure was worth it.  The monasteries were beautiful and I enjoyed the journey.  However, if you are considering a visit to these wonderful places, I suggest you save yourself some trouble and plan your own transportation ahead.  Contact Karma Travel and get a great deal in car rental, transfers or a guided visit!

Athens

Parthenon, Athens

I thought I couldn’t go to Greece and not visit Athens.  My main interest was in seeing Crete, so this was just a quick hop to see the Parthenon.  You can take the ferry back and forth from Heraklion, and even travel by night, so it is quite convenient.

In Athens, beyond the new museum and the Parthenon, I enjoyed people watching from a café on the way up to the Parthenon.   The world seems to slow down when you are sipping coffee on ice,  for some reason.  I sat down with a magazine to hand and just let time pass whilst my attention idled between the magazine and strangers strolling up the hill.

The visit to the Parthenon would not be meaningful at all without a guide.  In my experience, you need an expert’s briefing to make sense of the torn down monuments. The signage is not very informative on its own, and it takes much background information to fully appreciate the site.  If you are visiting, do think of booking a guided visit.  Ask Karma Travel for advise about guided tours and to book your travel to Athens if you’re interested in hopping to the continent.

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