Friday, November 1, 2013

Crete: Be advised: it's hard to leave

Is it Chania or Hania? 

Our first lesson with Greek is that even when written with roman characters, it's still confusing. For instance Chania & Hania are both pronounced the same (sounding most like Hania.) Whatever the name, it is a delightful small city in the West of Crete. 

Chania Harbor - Our "home" is just to the left of the photo, but we did indeed walk around the breakwater and out to the lighthouse (also on the left, just beyond the entrance to the harbor).
In the past, travelers more typically visited the beach resorts on the East of Crete with a brief stop in Heraklion (in the center) to visit the Minoan Palace at Knossos. We were attracted to Chania by the combination of hiking the renowned Samari√° Gorge along with the more recent publicity about it being a hidden gem. The hike is a bit of an ordeal involving a bus ride to the beginning, a cruise back to a nearby town and a bus ride back to Chania.  Oh, and the hike itself is 9+ miles long. Since we are traveling in the off-season, the bus/boat services weren't available. We would have loved to hike through the gorge but who knows, maybe things worked out for the best...

Chania was one of the nicest stops on the trip for relaxing, laid-back style (at least in mid-October). The Old Town is a pleasant walled-town set around a harbor (surrounded by restaurants and cafes). It's quiet back streets are packed with shops (offering useful items as well as souvenirs), hotels and restaurants. The locals are wonderful, helpful people. Tomais, the owner of Madonna Suites where we stayed, is the most gracious host you can imagine. Not only did she provide comfortable & spacious accommodations, she also provided touring advice, cooked wonderful tasty snacks & desserts for us AND even insisted on doing our laundry.

The carriages are cute but everything is such an easy walk it is hard to consider riding...
We had great intentions, but the calm, peaceful atmosphere kept us near town more than we expected. We managed one trip inland to see the rugged terrain, villages and the Crete Botanical Garden. We enjoyed a nice lunch at the tiny village of Therisso. The twisting roads would normally make driving challenging but the lack of traffic and slow pace (it is hard to get out of 2nd gear) made it quite manageable despite the continuous sequence of hairpin turns. It also helped that there also was the occasional stop for a photo shoot.
Yup, that is the road Bill drove.  Note the Sea in the distance (the bay of Chania)
More of the countryside on our drive
Map of the Botanic Garden...what is doesn't show is the vertical aspect.
There was a lot of up and down on the tour.
A countryside church along the way
The local covered market is one of the best we have seen anywhere. The market offers beautifully displayed fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, fish or herbs, spices, oils, wine and locally hand-crafted souvenirs. A great place to prepare for a fine meal or to buy gifts. 
One of the cheese shops at the covered market 
Thursday is the local day market. Vendors offer plenty of fruits and vegetables, fish, and clothing. 
The weekly market...buying fresh fish with the perfect backdrop.
The maritime museum is a complete history of Crete on the sea, several millennia of history.  
Buried treasures...there were also wonderful replicas of famous sailing vessels
...but somehow we forgot to take any photos!?! 
For lunch we went to the town of Stavros on the nearby Akrotiri Peninsula. This was the location of the first sandy beach we've seen in Europe.  After lunch a foto op around the shore and beach. We didn't have a guide so we left with some unanswered questions.
Question 1: what is that square block doing there?

Question 2: How did that transition from red to grey stone happen?
FYI, for scale, the long transitions are probably 15" long and the shorter one is maybe 6".
(Note: this is just something we observed on the shore.)
There are many monasteries on the peninsula. We stopped at one. Basically you tour it like you would any other home or craftsman's business.  In this case the business was winemaking...but they didn't offer tastings. Drat.
Entrance to the monastery.
An icon from the chapel.  Except for the faces and hands, that is all hammered silver.
A vase. Love the way it broke.
There is good seafood and Greek cuisine available along the water and along the secluded back streets. Several things we discovered about dining in Greece:
  • While there are desserts on the menu, it is impossible to actually order dessert following a meal.  But when you ask for your bill, you will most likely receive a dessert along with a drink (raki, coffee) before you will actually receive your bill.
  • They make amazing grilled meats.
  • When you order the House Wine by the half liter, you get it in an aluminum cup which looks like it would be very difficult to use without spilling the wine. Fortunately  it is actually easy to pour from and the house wine is quite fine.
A half-liter of wine served in aluminum cup

Of all the places we've visited on this trip, this was the hardest to leave. We could almost imagine living in Chania...if the locals had not mentioned that in mid November the sunshine turns to rain and the temps drop into the teens (40's and 50's).

Heraklion & Knossos

Heraklion is a city with a wonderful pedestrian walk from the port to the center with shops and restaurants. The port has a loooong breakwater ...good for a stroll to see the cute small boats. 

There's actually a nice shopping district and some good restaurants.  Of course the main reasons to visit Heraklion is it is the primary transportation hub of Crete, it is the base from which to visit the Minoan city of Knossos. Heraklion also hosts a fine archaeological museum with the frescos and artifacts from Knossos.

Knossos is a  Bronze Age site, the reputed palace of King Minos. Legend has it that the palace was built over a labyrinth that was inhabited by a Minotaur (half-man, half-bull). More factually the area was first settled around 7000 BC. The first palace (really a collection of religious, political and civil facilities including workrooms, storerooms and living spaces) was built on the site around 1900 BC. Following an earthquake this was later rebuilt. The "palace" was clearly beautifully decorated and and featured sophisticated architectural features such as light wells (aka open courtyards that provided lighting to surrounding rooms) and plumbing systems that delivered fresh water and met sanitation needs.  

The palace was abandoned at some unknown time at the end of the Late Bronze Age, ca. 1380–1100 BC, and like Pompeii, it was preserved in the ashes of the local volcano. It was discovered in the late 1800's. It was excavated and partially restored under the direction of Arthur Evans in the earliest years of the 20th century. Many people today find Evans work controversial because he rebuilt so much. Whether this was wise or not, he did it in the interests of preservation and it is truly fascinating to see the results.  

Aside from the site itself and the artifacts recovered and restored from the site, we found it fascinating that Evans and team could fill-in the missing areas of frescos based on only a few pieces. Still the restorations seem to make sense… and Pat studied them quite closely. There is so much more we could say about Knossos, but it's time to let the photos do the work...

Fresco of "Bull Jumping".  You start by grabbing the horns, flip over the back and land with
two feet on the ground. Maybe you also turn 180 degrees because
the guy at the back is facing the back of the bull after landing.
The "Queen's Room", decorated with dolphins.

The "Throne Room" (see stone throne on bottom right)
Below: Pieces recovered and preserved at the museum.

From Heraklion, we took the ferry to Santorini. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. Hello P&B, I can see you're having a great time. Thank you for sharing your impressions

    Greetings from Sarajevo
    Sanela & Armin

    P.S. Crete seems to be one of our next "targets" :P