On Heraklion and the Palace of Knossos

My trip to Crete was fantastic, and a highlight for me was finally getting to see the Palace of Knossos. I’ve wanted to see it since I was in Mrs. Sandberg’s 4th grade ALC class a looong time ago and did a semester about Greek Myths. Not only was I obsessed with Heinrich Schliemann and his discovery of the actual city of Troy, but I also studied Arthur Evans and his excavation at Knossos. I went so far as to do a to-scale model in sugar cubes of the palace itself. Here is a better version, a wooden one that is in the museum I’ll be telling you about.

In fact, the whole reason I opted to go on the SwimTrek trip to Crete was so I could visit a spot that had fascinated me for over fifty years. To follow are a lot of pictures and the verbatim journal entries I made for the day before our Knossos Tour, and the day of it. I was not disappointed. Read on for a slice of life on Crete, and a visit to a 3,500-year-old archeological site, with insights given by a truly gifted tour guide.

Weds. The Trip to Heraklion.

We were up pretty early to check out of our hotel in Chania. Got to bank at 8am to change a hundred into smaller bills so that the people we are trying to pay don’t sigh at us. This was an exercise in patience on our end, and extreme security on the bank’s side of things. You could only go into the bank one at a time, through double security. We then lined up politely and waited for the two people in front of us to do their transactions. One woman, hand to god, had at least ten money orders to wade through. Eventually we each got to change one 100-euro bill into small ones. They wouldn’t change any more than that. So, good to know, even the banks on Crete don’t care for big bills. Then on to a big, filtered coffee Americano (as opposed to the thick Greek coffee that you can practically stand a spoon up in) and a croissant at a shop. There are dozens of these little bakeries scattered throughout Chania. You could try a new one every day. Next to the bakery, there was a fresh fish shop, with mounds of freshly caught fish hanging out on large blocks of ice. The smell of the sea and salt was powerful as we walked by. The next store after that was a café that would cook any fish you just bought for you.

We got our bus tickets. At first the gal gave us the wrong time, but I managed to correct the issue in my terrible Greek, and she fixed it for us. It was a packed bus, and there was a bit of a fuss with an older woman who insisted I was in her seat, even though no one seems to pay attention to the seat numbers. I was getting steamed, but luckily my level-headed friend Barb was with me. She diffused the situation.

It was a 2.5-hour fascinating bus ride. Steep, sere mountains on one side, the Aegean Ocean on the other. The soil is light colored and crumbly, like California soil, but with hundreds and hundreds of olive trees. Arriving in the big city of Heraklion, we disembarked. The bus station is not far from where the cruise liners dock, so the place was packed with people. We had an uphill walk to our apartment, but we took it slowly.

The room wasn’t quite ready yet, so the guy sent his son around to take our bags up while we went and found where our friends were staying in a nearby hotel. Then we hunted down where we would find the number 2 bus tomorrow, the local line that will take us to the Palace. Then we got settled into our very nice rooms, and it was time for a wander.

We ambled down to the sea (as one does) and wound up at a fortress at the port that was built in the 1400s. Fantastic thing, a combination restoration and museum. Dives by Jacques Cousteau brought up all sorts of treasures from the Heraklion harbor nearby, lots of wrecks in this area. The fortress itself looked like something that “Gladiator” could have used as a set. The harbor itself is 4-5 times bigger than Chania’s. It was warm and humid, but the ocean breeze kept things pleasant. As in Chania, cats roam the streets freely. A few dogs here, as well.

We made our way back up to the old section of the city, and into a beautiful Orthodox church. It was stunning inside. A funeral was about to take place, so we didn’t linger long. The mourners were all wearing white, and there were white wreaths.

Dinner was fantastic. Bread and oil to start, of course, and then yet another superb Greek salad. This one had lots of olives in it. The restaurants all seem to bring a free dessert, and an ouzo-type drink called “Raki.” This one was a carob brownie with mango pudding, with a compote of apple and cinnamon on top. As seems to be the norm, dinner takes about two hours, and then you have a pleasant stroll back to your room.

I cannot believe that tomorrow I will be in the place I’ve dreamed of for so very long.

Thursday. The Palace and Archaeological Museum

Woke up to cool and rainy weather. I was so excited about this jaunt, I barely slept. Our place is in the middle of the city, opposite an all-night eatery. It was pretty noisy. We had a bit of a scare getting us all onto the number 2 bus in time to get us to our booked tour appointment, but we managed it. They require masks on the local buses still, but I didn’t mind. I loved watching out the window as we made our way through the outlaying neighborhoods and into the countryside where the Palace is located.

Heraklion is a big, bustling city, a sprawl. In a way, it reminded me of Washington, DC, the way each neighborhood has its own stores, but they repeat. The cheap transportation seems to be used by everyone. Our round-trip ticket was less than 2 euro.

We arrived just on time and had a happy greeting from the tour company guide. She hustled us along, as several cruise lines were coming in right behind us. I was glad I had read about the tours, and that the mornings were the best, least crowded time to go.

Our group was comprised of ourselves, and another ten people. The tour provided earpieces, so you could easily hear the guide for the whole hour and a half. The guide was a middle-aged woman, full of life, vitality, and who spoke excellent English. She provided umbrellas for those of us who didn’t have them. She kept us moving ahead of the large crowds that were starting to pour in. We were in the front of the lines into the throne room. I had to stand back for a moment, as I was quite overcome with it all. Here was the place I had seen images of for so long, and suddenly I was standing in the middle of it. I got really misty, and was struck again at how lucky I am to be able to do a trip like this. Also, got a good snap in front of the re-painted bull section. I am telling you, not ten minutes later, both of these spots were overrun with long lines of people.

Our guide was so informative. She explained that while the archeologist Evans did a good job for the time and dodged a lot of paperwork by simply funding the dig himself, he still made a lot of assumptions that have later proved to be way off base. The main bit is that this was not a palace, there are no kitchens, no one actually lived here—instead, it was a place people went to work, the center of Minoan commerce and trade, as well as religion for all of Crete.

Only 2% of the site has been excavated. The archeologists suspect there are huge sections under the surrounding mountains. After all, this was the center of commerce for the known world for thousands of years. In the middle of the trading routes between Asia, Africa, and Europe, Knossos thrived under the leadership of “King” Minos, who was actually a queen. The “os” ending gives it away, a neuter verb. Minos simply means ruler, and all indications are that this was a woman-run society. They ran the business and religion end of things, hiring Mycenaean mercenaries to fight their battles for them.

The site is located far away from the harbor, so any attackers had to march uphill to get to it. There are still remnants of that road. The shape and structure of the road reminded me of the one that led to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan that the Maya constructed. There is a rapidly running stream that flows behind the structure, and the temple users used that as well for transportation. They had bathtubs and flushing toilets and advanced sewage and drainage systems. The ruins are extensive. Here are my wonderful travel companions and I in part of it.

Here is where you find the rite of passage all young men (and perhaps women too) did, in the open courtyard in Knossos. They would run at a horned bull and then leap over it by grasping the horns and doing an acrobatic flip. The bull was the main sign of worship, since the constellation Taurus was predominant in the sky then… when Jesus was walking the earth, it was Pisces, which is why the fish represents Christians. Perhaps this is where the saying “take the bull by the horns” came from? Later, we would see the famous fresco of a man jumping over the bull in this ritual. We know the jumper is a man, as they are depicted in red pigment. Women are depicted in white pigment.

Interesting fact about the bathtubs of the rich—they were repurposed upon the death of the owner as their sarcophagus.

The huge jars that were found in large, connected chambers were still in place in some areas of the site. They built them from the ground up, using coils of clay. The decorations on the outside were for measurement purposes. They were good record keepers. Examples of both Linear A and Linear B—the first written languages of mankind — were found here.

There are these markings on the walls, that back in the day, guided you to where you wanted to go. The trident was for trade, the double-headed axe, or Labros was for worship. I found several of these on my own after they were pointed out to me. I traced my fingers along those lines, and imagined myself back in time, a visitor to the Palace of Knossos.

The tour ended at the place where they would do theatrical shows, and I had to smile as we walked the ancient stones just as so many have done before us. The downfall of Knossos was in the form of earthquakes (there are still a lot of them, there are few buildings in the city that are above 3 stories) and fire. Eventually, the priestesses and people of the Minoan civilization gave Knossos up as a bad deal, and let the Mycenaeans have it. After over 3,000 years of rule, it fell to ruin less than 200 years later, and was slowly buried by soil and time.

After an easy bus trip back into the city, we had a coffee and slice of delicious cheese pie. Barb and I headed back to our rooms to do a quick batch of laundry and hung it out to dry. Then on to the Archaeological Museum that was just around the corner from our place (why I picked it). It’s a wowza museum, but it was packed with people. The findings from the palace are there. I saw the snake dancer, of whom I’ve written a short story, and the bull fresco, and so much beautiful jewelry. Their art was stunning.

Later in the day, we had the most marvelous Italian dinner, perhaps the best meal of the trip. Freshly made pasta with a basil and pine nut pesto, crunchy loaves of bread, and sweet olive oil. Dessert was once more “on the house” and featured a sort of chocolate pudding with a cherry jam on top of it.

We wandered back to our rooms through the old town, both bellies and minds full. And I… with a long-held dream fulfilled.

On Chania’s Old Town in Crete

I’ve found in chatting with people about my trip that not many folks have been to Crete. They’ve been to Greece, on the mainland in Athens or on other islands such as Santorini. The first thing to know about Crete is that it’s big. It has a wide variety of terrain, including huge mountains that cut through the middle of it. I’m not talking oh, lovely little rolling hills that are above sea level that one can scramble up. NO. The mountains on Crete are enormous rocky things and are so high they have snow on them for several months of the year. The only things that can scramble up them are the Kri Kri, the local little goats.

It also was an independent country for a long time, only formally joining the group of islands we call modern-day Greece 100 years ago. It played a huge role in WW2 that I’m mortified to admit I knew nothing about, and I’ll fill you in about that in another outing of this blog.

I’d always wanted to come to Crete because I read “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” when I was in fourth grade, and fell in love with Greek myths. When the chance arose to come to the place that ignited my storytelling fire, I was all in. So, as I unleash all these gorgeous pictures, please know that nothing, not one moment of the trip, was lost on me. I was grateful with nearly every step I took on its ancient roads and byways. (Except the fifteen minutes when we couldn’t get into our rental house, I’ll tell you about that in a later blog.)

For the week-long expedition that I planned that would occur before the swimtrek week of the trip, myself and three companions would spend two nights in Chania, two in Iraklion, one in Rethymno, and a final night on the south side of the island in Chora Sfakia before nabbing the ferry to take to our swim location.

I put us in the “old towns” of each of these. Now I know “old town” can be a relative term. I lived in Chicago’s “Old Town” for a while, it wasn’t very old. Here on Crete, it means a different thing. It means a spot that looked like a good place to put a town three thousand years ago, or, in the case of Chora Sfakia, 6.5 million years ago (not a typo.)

The streets in Chania’s old town are narrow and winding, and all paths, of course, lead to the stunning harbor. The Venetians placed the big blocks of stone that comprise most of the harbor area along with long walls to protect the city some 500+ years ago. After the Ottomans overran the place and destroyed a lot of it out of spite, the Egyptians rebuilt it. I discovered on this trip that the Venetians were busy builders, and that there are ruins all over the island. It makes sense, as Crete is smack in the middle of some excellent trade routes. The island is located in the shipping lanes between Africa, Egypt, both the middle east, the far east, and Europe, it was the place to hang your shingle if you were into goods and trading.

The old town got bombed heavily during WW2, which ended up unearthing some of the oldest living places ever found in the Mediterranean. Cities built upon cities. Silver lining, I suppose. These are tombs that were in an 800-year-old Christian church. Then the Ottomans came, turned it into a mosque and got rid of the bodies. Now it’s a shop in old town Chania. Above this floor in the domed ceiling hang some of the original chandeliers from the mosque.

It’s like stepping back in time as you stroll through the alleyways. No cars, just pedestrians. There are shops everywhere selling crafts and clothes, as well as restaurants with outdoor seating inviting you to come and have a nice, leisurely meal. Later you can have a gelato and watch the sun set or moon rise over the harbor. By the way, that’s raspberry and Nutella gelato in the picture. It was really good.

The food was uniformly amazing throughout the trip. In 16 days I did not have one bad or even sub-par meal. Most of the food is grown on Crete, so it’s fresh. Tomatoes and cucumbers taste the way I remember them tasting. The cheese is made fresh from the goats; the olives picked from the olive trees out back. The bread baked in the oven that morning. I must have had at least 9 Greek salads on this trip, and each one was slightly different in makeup. All were delicious.

No meal is rushed. You sit, you get beverages, bread and oil and olives. Pick what you want to eat. It eventually comes. You talk, you eat. They bring more beverages. Eventually they bring a little dessert and Raki, a local ouzo-type beverage made from grape seed pressings and shot glasses. That’s on the house. Then they might bring the bill at some point, after you ask for it. No pressure, just hospitality and a fantastic meal. Add in the sound of the ocean hitting the shore, balmy air, and you have a recipe for a perfect place to vacation.

I recommend walking the sea wall to the lighthouse and just losing yourself in the old town streets, you’re sure to see something that interests you. That with sampling different restaurants is good for at least two or three days. Side note. There are stray cats everywhere. People feed them. This was everywhere on the island. I saw no mice, rats, or squirrels, so seems it’s their way of taking care of the vermin problem.

On the last bit of my vacation, I was on my own in Chania, with no real agenda. I walked over to the local beach and swam for a half hour in the clear waters of the Aegean Sea. Chatted in my bad Greek to shopkeepers, got corrected, and had the most wonderful time connecting with people. I wandered the extensive Byzantium Wall that surrounds the old city.

While buying a shirt for one of my sons, I got into a conversation with the owner. She told me that the Chania Archeological museum was walkable from where I was staying, and so I did that the next day. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful museum just outside the heart of the city. The path there lies along the ocean and is a delight. I’ll talk more about this museum in a later installment.

The final thing I will recommend doing in Chania is to go to Al Hammam. It’s an old Turkish bath in yet another restored Venetian home. I’d never done one before. You steam, and then a (woman in my case) bathes you with olive soap and oils, washes your hair, and gives you a back massage. It was an hour and twenty-five minutes from heaven. Being bathed and tended to was never on any list of mine, but I have to say, it is now.

Chania is magical. I hope you get to go there sometime. For reference, I stayed at the close-to-the-bus-station Alena apartments for two nights, and recommend it. Not fancy digs, but comfortable beds, a washing machine, and easy to get around from. Boutique Hotel Doge was fantastic, in the heart of the old town, a converted 14th century home. Lots of stairs, so not for anyone who needs an elevator. Lovely people run both places.