Wonderful Crete

Charging bull wall restoration (click to enlarge)Mid-February I traveled to Crete on business. As it was my first ever visit to the island I decided to go earlier to allow me to spend part of the weekend sight-seeing. So I traveled from Bucharest to Heraklion on a Saturday. The first surprise was the weather. I was under the naïve expectation that the weather would be mild as Crete is located in the Mediterranean halfway between Greece and the North African coast. The weather was actually rather chilly and windy and later in the week it turned into a strong storm with ferries staying in harbor and flights being canceled and even the Venetian port of Hania being flooded. The view from Heraklion to the south was of snowcapped mountains, not exactly something I expected in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, I wasn’t entirely unlucky with the weather. On Sunday, the morning started chilly but the sun pierced through the cloud cover and by mid-morning it had turned into a bright sunny, albeit not warm, day which remained like that till later afternoon. I could not have asked for more to complete the purpose of my coming early to Crete: the visit of the historic site of the Palace of Knossos. Yet, it turned out I was very lucky with the timing of my visit. A beautiful winter Sunday morning. I was the first visitor at 8 am. As a result of the earliness and the time of the year I had the grounds to myself. I took a guided tour and after the tour took much more time to wander around again. In all, I spent three hours on the site, virtually by myself as I counted only 6 more visitors in the entire time!

The Palace of Knossos is a remarkable site showcasing the degree of sophistication that existed 4’000 years ago. This sophistication is exemplified in many aspects, from architecture, to engineering, over craftsmanship in jewelry to the arts. The Minoans may not have had the “technology” and sophisticated equipment and tools at their disposal as we have today, yet they were able to equal us in thinking and creativity and applying it.

Sir Artur Evans (click to enlarge)We can only guess what brought the demise of this fantastic and impressive civilization in the 14th century BC. We have to thank a local businessman, Minos Kalokairinos, and his passion for trying to uncover the Palace of Knossos as it was known from many old tales. He started excavating in 1877 but was stopped by the occupying Ottomans. Later, however, the Englishman Sir Arthur Evans, was able to purchase the land and obtain a permit from the Ottomans to excavate. He continued to excavate till the 1930’s. The most controversial part however is the bold “restorations” he embarked on the 1920’s. Today. and even then. these were frowned upon, yet they give an ordinary visitor a better idea of the magnificence of the works the Minoans were capable of. Sadly, as a result the site does not qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, even though it should since the restoration does not take away the value of its heritage to our civilization and history. Currently it is only on the “tentative list” along with the other Minoan palaces on Crete.

Canalization (click to enlarge)The engineering qualities displayed are tremendous. The Minoans were able to build 4 floors high, 4’000 years ago! They also brought drinking water in clay pipes from the mountains kilometers away. And even more remarkable, they had canalization in the palace with clean water being separated from sewage. This very much reminds me of the Indus civilization, more than 4’000kms away, which in a similar time period was building cities with unbaked bricks and had canalizations too to separate sewage from drinking water as evidenced in the archeological site of Moenjodaro, in current Pakistan. Quite remarkable when you come to think that in the Palace of Versailles, built in the 17th century for the French Sun King Louis XIV, there were no toilets!

Bull jumping game fresco (click to enlarge)The decorations inside the palace rooms were exquisite by any standard. Plenty of murals many of which have been pieced together again and which can be seen on-site as part of the restoration work Evans undertook while the originals are on display at the beautifully refurbished Archeological Museum in Heraklion. One of the better known frescos is the one with the scene from the bull leaping game showcasing the successive phases of the game in which a contestant is leaping over the bull by grabbing its horns to leap over the back of the bull and land on his feet facing the animal’s back.

Golden bees pendant (click to enlarge)One should not skip a visit to the Archeological Museum of Crete in Heraklion. The museum has very recently re-opened after an extensive refurbishment project. The visit complements the tour of the Knossos Palace perfectly well. It contains a very large collection of items that were unearthed during the excavations and show all elements that were part of daily life in the Minoan civilization.  There are some very refined pieces of gold jewelry on display showing the high level of craftsmanship that was mastered in these days without any of the sophisticated tools available to artisans today. This so well brought to live in the small, a few centimeters across only, pendant with bees dating from 1’700 BC.

In Hania's old town (click to enlarge)Hania on the North West coast of Crete is from a totally different era. Hania’s more recent heritage is Venetian and Ottoman. The origin of the name comes from its Venetian name “La Canea”.  The intricate mesh of narrow winding streets of the Venetian old town surrounding the old harbor showcase the old Venetian and Ottoman architecture very well. Unfortunately, when I visited it was winter, hence no tourist season, and therefore most places were boarded up. With the storm raging it also turned the place rather grim.

Storm in Hania's old Ventian harbor (click to enlarge)Not only was it winter, Crete was also being hit by a severe winter storm. This storm translated into the quays if the old harbor being flooded and the water going into the little streets that lead from the old town into the harbor area. It makes for dramatic scenery, but sadly, also quite a bit of devastation. Clearly a place I would like to come back to under more auspicious weather conditions.
Last Updated: 28-03-2015

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