сряда, 28 септември 2016 г.

Crete - Chasing the Minoans - part two - Iraklio and Knossos

In the previous post I already told you what happened before we get on the ferry so now the story continues the following morning. 

This travelogue is a translation from the original Bulgarian text I wrote for the site patepis.com. I'm writing it in case you wonder why it differs from my previous works - this is a story that happened BEFORE I became a photographer. I was 17 then. 

The original story (published in Bulgarian) can be found here:

We wake up from the shaking - literally - because the ship is in reverse and 'parks'. A few moments later a pleasant female voice announces that we have arrived on Crete. It's around 5.30 a.m. amd we - still sleepy - head for the garage deck to get on the vehicle… The corridors of the ferry are crowded - all that's awake heads for the exit, like us - which means - for the elevator that leads to the garage decks. Crew members knock on the doors of cabins that remain closed and shout 'Kalimera' to those who are not awake yet.

It's a total havoc at the garage. The guy with the radio is responsible for the cargo of the ship (and hence for the disembarkation or in particular what will leave in what order). They tell my mother and me to get out of the ship through the pedestrian exit and to wait for my father and the car outside. And with a good reason - it's quite narrow on the garage decks and if everyone starts getting comfortable, the disembarkation would take not three but thirty hours. It's still quite dark outside and there is light rain. We get in the car and we look for roadsigns. We should be in Chania, a town at the western end of Crete, facing the continent (which means the northern coast). We need Iraklio, the capital of the island because the first point in the itinerary is Knossos - the palace of the mythical king Minos. We find the sign and get on.

Twister Greek style

It's around 6.30 a.m. It's dark, my father drives to Iraklio. I look at the sky and enjoy the fact that you can see much more stars from Crete - Orion is directly above my head and I absolutely love it. At some point my mother screams 'Tornado' and we (my father and I jump). I'm just about to start lecturing how - you see - there are no tornadoes in Greece because it's typical of the US and that is due to air current 9 kilometers high and my mother screams again - "Tornado, there, look!" 

I turn in the direction specified with the most skeptical of faces I can conjure and ... my jaw drops. Because in the middle of the bay, conspicuously close to the shore, lit by the rising sun and painted in pink and red swirls a tornado. A real Twister! My mother starts thinking catastrophic (anyone who has ever watched at least one tornado film, knows what I'm talking about) and imagines the mess if that thing gets out on land. I, on the other hand, have totally different plans - I want to take a picture of it. Of course.

The tornado - just before it vanished. When it was bigger it had a big 'tail' and had 'vacuumed' quite a lot of  water where it touches the sea. If you take a closer look, dear Reader, you can still some water in the air around it. The shot is a bit out of focus but I couldn't do better at that time

We stop and take a picture - we're not the only ones by now - and a few moments later the tornado vanishes as swiftly as it came. Upon arrival on Crete, we're greeted by Aeolus himself, the Greek god of wind. Less than half an hour later Eos also arrives at the party because for us waits one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen.

The sunrise - in the distance you can see (I have no idea if it is another smaller island). We are somewhere just before Iraklio.

We take a picture of that as well and drive off to Knossos.

Knossos - to open the palace

By the time we get to Iraklio - which is right in the middle of the island - the rain has stopped long ago and the sun shines pleasantly. It's a bit to eight a.m. and we head for Knossos, a small village a few kilometers away from Iraklio. There 100 years ago (actulally exactly in 1900) an English archaeologist proves that myths have a historical leg to stand on.

The name of the man is Arthur Evans and the place is Knossos. I'll tell you the story of the excavations later on.

Right now we are waiting for the place to open. It was raining in the morning so right now it's only us. They open a bit earlier - to let the exalted tourists in - and we roam along the streets of the capital of a lost civilization.

King Minos, king Minos - where are your Minoans?

The story of excavations is very funny.

After Heinrich Schliemann discovered Troy and Mycenae and proves that the Iliad is based on real events, the world, in particular the historians, starts wondering if there are some other myths based on real events. An archaeological race starts in which Schliemann is way ahead. Another middle-aged archaeologist named Arthur Evans also gives it a go. He finds a huge hill littered with artifacts, sells the family factory to finance the excavations and starts work. That place is called Knossos and only three weeks later, the name of Arthur Evans remains on the pages of history. The irony is that Schliemann came a few years earlier but the price the local landowners told him seemed too high and he went to seek for treasures elsewhere.

Evans find a stone throne - the oldest in Europe - and writes back to England that he's found an ancient civilization.
The throne room of  King Minos - the oldest throne in Europe - the original, no restoration on  it because it's made of stone. The seat is quite wide (and thus suitable for the ample butt of a woman) Evans toyed with the idea to call it  'The throne of Ariadne' but the discovery of the bull relief tipped the scales in favour of Minos. the stone bowl in front of the throne was used to burn herbs or incense. You cannot enter this room. It look like I'm inside to take the shot but I'm behind a glass - you take your pics through it. Although the frescoes are copies in their original places (the originals are in archaeological museum in Iraklio), the thousands of people that visit Knossos every day can ruin them.

A legend goes on and on in Evans' head - the one about a great king, his promiscuous wife and a beautiful white bull. And about the Minotaur that came to this world as a result of the union. Evans had a throne, so he had a king. All he needed was a bull and the legend would come back to life.

A few days later Evans uncovers a relief of a bull and the legend springs back to life. Knossos becomes the mythical Labyrinth - the palace of king Minos - and the ancient civilization gets a name - Minoans.

The relief in question. When they discovered it, the workers thought it's a demon they had disturbed. Natural motives are quite characteristic of Minoan art - they often draw animals and plants. This relief adorns the so-called 'Ambassadors' gate' - or the main entrance of Knossos. 


We are lucky to arrive before the groups - the advantage we have is largely due to the torrential rain in the morning - so we are virtually alone in Knossos if we count out the tour guides who have gathered for a coffee under a tent. I jump around and play the tour guide - I tell the story of the Minotaur and bull horns - symbol of the king and his might and other interesting things as we go around the excavations.
The throne room of king Minos - viewed from the outside. When we got there, they were just opening so there's no one around but otherwise you have to queue to get a glimpse of the insides. 
Knossos was a prospering city 4000 years ago – indoor plumbing and flush toilets and sewage, multi storey houses and anti-quake construction. The Minoans controlled half of the Mediterranean and traded with the other half.
The main entrance of Knossos - the Ambassadors' gate - the way it looks now. The relief with the bull is 4 meters up on the building.
All in all, I'm talking about so many interesting things but they fall on deaf ears - the people are thinking of coffee and coca-cola - screw archeology…

So we circle around Knossos - at that time it was quite small - and head for the exit. To my regret, the frescoes with the dolphins - another symbol of the royals of Crete - are in restoration and are closed for visitors and the megaron (the main hall where the court gathers) of the queen is closed. I vow to come back and see it.
Multi storey houses at Knossos. In a time when Europe was in the Stone Age, the Minoans knew what multi storey construction is. This house is restored and has at least three storeys (in the hottest of nights, people slept on the flat roofs) Actually, the flat roofs of Minoan houses are the prototype of modern Greek picture-postcard houses. The roof is flat and can be used as living area and as a water collector when it rains (at some places in Crete water is quite scarce). If you take a closer look, you can see the anti-quake structures in the walls - those thick wooded beams (once out of timber but then the Venetians came and cut out all of them - now they use what's available) which bend with ease and thus help the wall be more flexible during a quake (there are a few with epicenter in Crete each day) and protect the house from falling apart.

We buy coca-cola and the conversation cools down a bit. I keep lecturing in the car while we head for Thalassokosmos - the aquarium at Crete, which is the next stop on our program. ТWe're just leaving when they come - the tourist groups. There are HUNDREDS of them. We are delighted that we've come before they do and we move on to the aquarium in god mood.

Thalassocosmos - to dive in the Mediterranean

The aquarium at Crete is certainly worth a visit. This is one of the few aquariums which show the flora and fauna of the Mediterranean that well and besides this one is the closest to Bulgaria (if we count TurkuaZoo in Istanbul).

There are big road signs on the highway, that say Cret@quarium (@ is there for a reason - it looks like a fish, that's the way they spell the name, otherwise it would look like CretAquarium).

Thalassocosmos has a website - where you can find all the info - like ticket prices, working hours and the like.

Muraena - another sea creature you can see at Thalassocosmos. They have a few. The fish is quite aggressive - this one is around 20 centimeters thick and is around a meter long. It's bite is lethal - especially if you are a diver - it drags you somewhere and you drown. The one on the picture looks quite lazy but it kept observing the tourists' every move.

You just follow the signs and you're there - you just can't miss it. In 2009 Thalassocosmos was pretty small but the variety of species inside makes up for that - you can see, sharks, muraenas, corals, exotic fish, octopus and jellyfish. It's very beautiful and captivating. Now the aquarium is three times bigger than it was then and there are many more species. There is even a touch pool where you can touch (as long as you don't poke, pinch or take them out of the water) some of the sea creatures. To my surprise, starfish turned out to be soft. About the beauty of the aquarium, the way it is now - some other time. In 2009 we take a photo of the shark and move on.

The famous shark - 2 meters long. Looked quite vicious.

Mirthios - God, where are we going to sleep?!

Do you remember, my dear Reader, that we boarded the ferry last night? I guess you do. Well, we are on the top deck and we call my grandfather back home. Who is being kept in the dark when it comes to our final destination. It simply would not do to have the following conversation:

Nooo, Dad, we're fine. Yes, Dad, we got on a big ship. No Dad, we'll travel all night. Yes, Dad, to Crete. No, Dad, it's 1000 away in the middle of the sea. We'll arrive with the crack of dawn but don't you worry...

The next call is to a foreign number. Fine, a Greek one. We loved a small family hotel on the south coast of the island, in a village that looks like a postcard. However, since we left in a hurry, we didn't have much time for reservations so we decide to go and see…

We call, the phone rings and a polite Greek man answers. To our explanation that we had liked them and we want to stay at their hotel he asks why we didn't make a reservation. We explain that we didn't have time and he asks us where we are. We say that we are on the ferry. Understanding pause from the other end of the line and an answer from which a Bulgarian, used to the bad service at the Black sea resorts, gets the first dose of culture shock:
'Come, when you get there, we'll find you a place to stay'

And we got here. The road from Iraklio to Mirthios (that's the name of the village) is short and after we get through a gorge - here we are in the village. We park in front of the hotel we liked and we get the second dose of culture shock.

Cretan hospitality

In any travel book you look, you'll find one and the same thing - Cretans are hospitable people. OK, but exactly how hospitable? To a Bulgarian that means that they won't immediately kick you out of the taverna or the hotel. We were just about to find out. My mother and I get out of the car and look around for someone. An elderly Greek man greets us - he was carrying something - and starts waving us to explain that we have to talk to his wife. A few phrases in Greek follow (addressed to the wife) and a Greek lady above 50 years of age appears from one of the doors. She carries a mop in one hand, a bucket in the other.  She has a work to do, we think and we're ready to hit the road. The Greek lady puts the mop and the bucket down and instead of kicking us out because we come without a reservation, beckons us to follow her on the terrace.

The second culture shock

– in Bulgaria if you drop in on someone, they'll not only kick you out but the police will have to save you from the rage of the hosts. Here - we are given tea. And cookies - great cookies with lime, I can still feel the taste, even though it was 7 years ago. The woman beckons us to take one and make ourselves at home and waves us to sit. She speaks very little English but is hospitality incarnate. We don't dare eat or drink - you don't know what's in there - it might as well be poison, we haven't seen anything like that, even relatives are not that nice. Meanwhile, the Greek lady talks on the phone with someone and from my scarce Greek I get that she explains about some tourists to someone. Then she explains to us that her daughter would come in a minute and find us a place to stay.

Less than two minutes after the daughter - a woman of around 30 years of age - comes in a red car from Plakias (a small resort just below Mirthios). She speaks much better English and explains that since we like them and after her brother explained to her about the conversation last night it's great but they are full. She waits a few moments until all colour has drained from my mother's face and adds that there's no problem and they'll accommodate us somewhere else in the village. Next thing she does is to urge us to drink out tea and eat the cookies because otherwise her mother ... would feel insulted. Culture shocked to the full we eat cookies, drink tea and talk to the daughter. We explain that we come from Sofia and that my father has driven all the way to here. The daughter translates that and the mother disappears inside the house. After a while she gets back with a small packet and the daughter explains that these are cookies for my father who waits in the car. Even more shocked we follow her car in search of a place to stay.

It doesn't take long - at the end of the village the little red car parks in front of a two storey house and we follow. You can see palms in the yard. The daughter gets out and exchanges a few words with a middle-aged woman and after less than 10 minutes we have a room. It's just that this little hotel doesn't have a website and that's why the other one (which HAS a website) sends out tourists. A total contrast with the grannies at the Black sea coast who do everything to prove to the tourists that the other grannies are the worst landladies ever…

The place is a dream - a jaw-dropping view, exotics... while mine are in for the bed. They go to sleep because the whole thing was too much for them and I sit on the terrace - common for all rooms but enormous for compensation - to enjoy the amazing panorama.

In the next post you'll find out what our characters ate and what did they do in the far away Cretan land...

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