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...

вторник, 27 септември 2016 г.

Crete - Chasing the Minoans - part one - Piraeus

The story I'm going to tell you, dear Reader, takes place in the long past (or not so much) 2009.

The month is September, the destination - Crete. Why Crete? Because I am the person who drags people around to excavations - stones, stones everywhere, walls around 20 centimeters tall and things like that. And no, I'm not an archaeologist. I am a culturologist (but that is subject of another discussion and it has nothing to do with travelogues. Besides, it wasn't in the itinerary in 2009). Back to the point - we're going to Crete.

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:


To be honest, at that time Crete seemed to me as exotic as Bora Bora. And generally as far away from home as it, for that matter... So we start wondering how to get there (to Crete, I mean, not to Bora Bora) - 2000 kilometers are 2000 kilometers everywhere.

My father plays the adamant - "I'm not going anywhere without my horse!“
– so things become clear - there will be driving. Which means HE will drive because neither me not my mother has a driver's license… Still, Crete is an island i.e. surrounded by water so we somehow cannot swim our way to it… Hence we're gonna use the most exotic option - namely - the ferry.

No problem in that. We hit the road a day earlier (because none of use is particularly fond of getting up at 4 a.m. so that we make it for the ferry), we sleep in Gotse Delchev (a town near the Greek border) and we cross the border with the crack of dawn and around 9 a.m we're down the road after Exohi (the Greek village that's given the name to the border check point.)

О tax, O toll – how to be mistaken for a Greek without knowing the language…

There are no vignettes in Greece. But each 50 kilometers or so you have to pay a toll tax. Money can vary depending on the distance - somewhere you'll pay 1 euro, at other places tax rises to 2 or 3 euro. The whole journey costs around 30 euro (now it's more because there are toll stations down Egnatia - the highway that connects Thessaloníki and Kavala, while in 2009 the highway was brand new and there were none). What's interesting, however, is not the pricing but the conversations we have with the people at the toll stations…

We stop at the first one. There is a car in front of us - they drive on, we count the money for the tax.

Kalimera! (Good morning/ Good day in Greek) – says the lady from the booth
Kalimera! – I respond from the back seat – I've bought a Greek textbook less than two weeks ago and I'm not afraid to use it.
Evharisto! – she thanks us.
Parakalo! (you're welcome) – I answer again because my father doesn't.
Kalo taksidi! (have a nice trip) – she says, hands us the receipt and we move further.
I'm very pleased with the short conversation and I don't even think out why, actually, she addressed us in Greek while our car is with foreign registration plates. Same thing happens at the other toll stations - around the forth my father learns the words and starts answering the cashiers himself.

Somewhere just before Athens one lady looks absolutely confused and babbles something in Greek from which I make out only the word 'lepta'. While I'm figuring out that she she doesn't have enough money for the change and asks us if we have some cents (lepta means coins in Greek), we have sorted it out in English. Across (in the booth) we hear laughter and the woman hands us the change with a huge smile wishes us a nice trip, in English, this time.

While we drive on, we laugh our heads off, because here (and in the previous toll stations) they obviously took us for natives - for Greeks… While we joke about having some Byzantine descent we enter the outskirts of Athens…

A surprise is waiting for us there - a traffic jam so big that my father starts oozing saliva as if he's rabid. How could he not - a highway with 4 or 5 lanes in each direction and each and every one is jammed with cars as far as the eye could see. My father really wants to get off the highway and drive along the narrower streets of Athens so there is a big battle in keeping him in the middle of the highway (if he gets off it, we'll roam the streets of Athens forever). The time is around 4.30 p.m., the ferry leaves at 9 (if we actually buy tickets for it). So we have plenty of time…

We sit and wait in the traffic jam when the side window of the car next to us opens and a man starts shouting:

Apo pia to Markopulo? – he repeats but he's chosen the wrong car. My mother shrugs to show without words that she doesn't understand him. He for some reason decides that we didn't hear him and repeats the phrase. I start shuffling the pages of the textbook and it dawns on me…
Den xero elinika! (I don't speak Greek) - I yell a few times out of the window to make him hear me. He does on the third time and starts laughing his head off - the driver literally fell of the steering wheel.

The car passes by and a few hundred meters we find out what's so funny.  There is a road sign for that Markopulo, which turns out to be a town near Athens where they make the famous Retsina wine. The guy took us for natives and decided to ask - since the cars were side by side in the traffic jam – but he chose the wrong people.

The Greek alphabet - or how to read your road signs…

In case you don't know, my dear Reader, Greeks write in Greek. Which has nothing to do with ANY other language in the world. Their alphabet looks a bit like the Bulgarian one but similarities end here. Most road signs in Greece are... in Greek. So far, so good, but even the signs that should be in English are actually in Greek.

We have to take the ferry so we need Piraeus - the port of  Athens. Actually Piraeus was once an independent city but the megalopolis grew and now they are one whole. So we're looking for a road sign for Piraeus but we see nothing. Absolutely nothing. The roadsigns on Greek highways are huge but the names don't ring any bells…

At some point an alien name appears. It says PEIRAIAS. Great but what's this? It should be in English but it doesn't sound English. I feel as proud as if I've discovered America when I discover the reading rules of Greek (in that sacred textbook of mine). It turns out that the combination of the letters EI is read as I, and AI as Е. After I've broken the code it turns out that what I'm reading as PEIRAIAS, Greeks read as PIREAS. Eurica! So the sign is for Pireaus! We drive that way.

How to board a ferry - a few DON'Ts

After a few minutes' drive - again in that traffic jam, it was rush hour – we arrive at Piraeus. It turns out that it's not that easy to board a ship though - not like going to a Bulgarian port and jumping in the first boat you lay your eyes on. I thought, to be totally honest, that I'd see something resembling the Radezky ship ( very famous ship from the 19th century connected to Bulgarian history - now a tourist attraction), my father - of the ferry that goes from Thassos to Keramoti (or as he says 'bath tub'). My mother smiles but keeps silent.

The port of Piraeus is HUGE - to find your ship you have to find your gate - and they are all coded - each destination has a letter code and depending on where you're going, you can end up at either side of the port. We find our gate - for Crete - and my jaw drops.

Ships, ships everywhere!!!

Another ship waiting for passengers - for Crete too, probably - at the same gate. Shot taken from the top deck of our ship. Around the time I took the image, most ships at this gate are already gone and that's why it looks so empty (and you can see these great reflections). Otherwise ships are jammed like sardines.

They are so  many and so big that it looks a bit scary! Which one is our ship, though? We get in and we stay at the gate - i.e. at the parking across the parked ships. There are no road signs so my father parks as he pleases and my mother gets off to buy tickets. Two minutes later a truck appears from somewhere and starts circling us. The driver is out of the window to see the idiot who plays a parking bollard.

Less than two minutes later another truck appears and goes around from the other side. I notice that drivers hand in some really long sheets of paper to a man ten meters away and point angry in our direction. The man in police uniform notices our foreign registration plate - which means bushmen who are foreign to all kinds of ports - and send out his younger colleague to talk to us, to save face before the foreign tourists. After a few torturous minutes we sort out that we don't speak Greek and she speaks very little English so we use very simplified and accented English garnished with a lot of gestures to understand that we are a traffic problem, where we're standing.

Another ferry - not ours - for Crete. Notice how big these ships are - you can see a few trucks lining in to get inside to add scale to the whole image. I must point out that these ships are small compared to the big cruse 'monsters' which wait for passengers at the other end of Piraeus - they have 30+ decks. For comparison - our ship has only 8 of which 2 or 3 are garage decks. Embarkation of cars and trucks is a complicated and highly responsible task. The guy with the radio has a MAP of the cargo - which means how many vehicles of which type can be put where. This map is strictly used each time the ship stops at a port. During the voyage, the garage is locked and the vehicles are chained to the floor - you can get when the ship arrives by the noise you can hear from below (where the garage decks are) - you can hear clinking of chains - that means they free the cars and disembarkation begins soon. On this picture you can see the entrance for cars and trucks.

My father moves the car and we park next to the altar of Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicolas) - after all, we are at a port, it's normal to have a temple of the guardian of sailors and fishermen so I shoot a quick wordless prayer at the saint, you never know what the vessel would be embarking… My mother gets back with the tickets - three for us, one for the car - and we start wondering which one is our ship. A piece of cake for me. The name of one of the ships nearby is KRITI so I decide that it should be going to Crete. How many ships can be leaving at the same time for that island??? My mother goes there.

The guy with the radio looks at the tickets and then tells her that she has to board another ship, not this one. It turns out that apart from our names, the name of the ship is also on the ticket. But who would bother to read that…

A bit of information about the ship

After we board the ship and we're given a cabin - after all the drive from Gotse Delchev is a long one and we'll have to get up very early the next morning to drive again, we have to sleep somewhere.

Most Bulgarians imagine a ship like a платноходка or in my case - as the Radezky ship I told you about earlier. Ferries, however (here I mean the big ones for long distances not those small for Thassos) are much bigger and way different.

Our ship boasts with 8 decks - 2 or 3 are for the garage (cars and trucks are parked down there like a puzzle and ordered around by that guy with the radio - each ship has one like him), the rest are filled with cabins. Each deck has a MAP on which you can see where you are and which cabin numbers are around - like in a hotel.

To us (my father and me, because my mother knows where she's going) its' a jaw-dropper from the moment we get off the car. For the record, they give us parking advice (cars should be parked less than 20 centimeters away from one another so that they don't move around while we're sailing) in Bulgarian. I guess someone in the garage has worked on the Keramoti-Thassos ferry (where most of the tourists come from Bulgaria) before he came to Piraeus.

From the garage we take an ELEVATOR which takes us to reception deck - deck 7. There we meet a  who escorts us to our cabin (after we got the card that opens it at reception) and shows us how to put down the beds and how to operate the air conditioner.

Have you ever watched the TV series 'Das Traumschiff, dear Reader?

Well, this ship (the ferry) is bigger (more decks) and newer (way newer)! On reception deck you can find shops, even a параклис and a few restaurants. They open half an hour before departure and close around 11 p.m. (when you arrive at 5 a.m., that's normal).

The top deck is for those who decided that they don't need a cabin - there are a lot of benches and the Giros (Greek style )and drink booth works 24/7. On board you can find a bit for each taste.

The top deck is crowded, mostly with Greeks who don't share in our nostalgia towards the continent - for most of them, taking the ferry is like taking the bus. They surf the net on their laptops (that was in the ancient times where smart phones were not yet invented), talk on the phone or just sleep and wait for the ship to go. The funniest thing of all is that they are not in the least impressed of the fact that they are moving on water instead of land. But as my father says, Greeks are born on their ships…

Our cabin is equipped as a hotel room - we have towels, glasses and all other things that a tired traveler might need. The fact that we are no a ship shows in two things - the narrow space (we took a windowless cabin, we'll be traveling at night) and the life jackets in the wardrobe. The air conditioner works non-stop and maintains a relatively low temperature - you need some kind of ventilation - but the people are kind and they've left us some blankets.

Inside the cabin, apart from the 4 beds, a TV and a bathroom you can find a wardrobe. Full of life jackets. The stairs are used to get on the upper beds. 

We get a drink - after all that adventure, who would say 'no' to a drink - and then we get out to say 'Goodbye' to the continent and to set off for the far away Cretan land.
Piraeus at departure - the ship has already started and I take a picture of the land. The ship is led by a small boat of the coast guard. They are the boss of the port in some way - they say which ship leaves when and without them, no one can move around the port.
In the next post you'll find out why people (the Dutch in particular) invented Booking.com.