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.