Crete 11/06

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Largest of the Greek islands...

Palace of Knossos circa 1700BC

Visiting any of the Greek Islands in late November presents some challenges. The smaller islands like Santorini, Mykonos and Rhodes are essentially shut down until spring. Crete was our best option, promising worthwhile ancient history along with a beautiful countryside. Even on Crete though, we found the off-season meant lots of construction and limited access to popular tourist spots. Surprisingly for such a civilized place, we learned that in the big cities of Crete tap water is not drinkable.

Wednesday November 22nd

We arrived at Heraklion airport just before noon and headed for the Palace of Knossos. There's history as well as questions about what happened there. The original palace dates from 1900BC and was destroyed by an earthquake. The rebuilt palace, circa 1700BC, was surrounded by a large city and represented a center of civilization in its time. In 1450BC an unknown disaster occurred (perhaps from Santorini's volcano) burning down many of the buildings and forcing the abandonment of the palaces and villas.

 

Sunset over Heraklion Harbor

Knossos was excavated by Sir Arthur Evans at the end of the 19th century and amidst some controversy, was reconstructed to resemble the original (first three pictures above). We found the site unremarkable and the reconstructions unrealistic. Heading back into Heraklion, we were disappointed to find that the famous Architectural Museum was closed through April for renovations. Instead, we visited the Historical Museum which was worth a quick walk through if only to see the El Grecos (from Crete's native son) in their collection. We then walked out to the old Venetian fortress, Koules, which guarded the inner harbor (fourth picture above).

 

Driving south to the old city wall we visited the interesting gravesite of Nikos Kazantzakis, controversial author of Zorba the Greek. The inscription on his plain gravestone (first picture below) reads: "I fear nothing, I hope for nothing, I am free". From the same spot looking southward, the "Sleeping Zeus" mountain looms, shaped like Zeus's head in recline (second picture below). Looking northward we got a good view of the contrasting architectural styles of Heraklion (third picture below). Back in the city center in the late afternoon, we visited the large Ayios Minas cathedral (inside view - fourth picture below) and walked through the town.

 

We then checked into our hotel, The GDM Megaron which was billed as the best hotel in the city. It turned out to be overpriced and unable to get anything right. Our guaranteed non-smoking room was a smoking room. Our guaranteed two twin beds were pushed together with one set of covers and despite what their website promised, there was no air conditioning, just a heater. We were glad we only had to endure one night there. That evening, we walked up the hill from our hotel for a relaxing dinner at a Greek/Italian restaurant on Elefterias Square that had been recommended by our driver.

Thanksgiving Day, November 23rd

We met our driver at 9AM and headed southwest through the countryside (first and second pictures below, bearing a remarkable resemblance to California's wine country) toward the southern coast of Crete, stopping along the way at the Greco-Roman city of Gortnya. Its Odeion (third picture below) fronts a stone wall inscribed with the 600 lines of the Gortnya Law code.

Continuing south, we arrived at the Palace of Phaestos which dates back to 1900BC. The site has been excavated, but not reconstructed like Knossos, offering a more realistic walk-through from our perspective. The fourth picture above shows the base of Phaestos' grand staircase. Continuing through the site, we passed ancient buildings (first picture below), open courtyards (second picture below) and rooms containing large clay pots (third picture below) created almost 4000 years ago.

Driving northwest from Phaestos, we crossed the cooler mountainous center of Crete (fourth picture above along the road) heading toward the north central coast. Approaching the city of Rethymnon from the hills (first picture below) the climate shifted from cool and cloudy back to warm and pleasant. Rethymnon has an interesting old town area with shops and walk-streets (second picture below) leading to a picturesque Venetian harbor (third picture below). We finished our Thanksgiving day on Crete driving back to Heraklion airport along the northern coast. The fourth picture below is a "hearts in nature" shot along the coast road. At the side of the road nearing Heraklion, our driver took the large picture top of page right of Craig and I as the sun set over the harbor. All in all a remarkable Greek Island journey.

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