Crete 2, Greece – 2/2014
Tearing ourselves from an idyllic camp near Elafonissis on the far southwestern tip of the island, we headed through the mountains on a tortuous highway that looked like a snake going crazy. Are there any straight roads on Crete? Our next stop was Chania (Xania).
After days of wild camping on remote beaches, the old Venetian harbor and port of Chania with its narrow streets and waterfront restaurants was a delight. The atmosphere had a touch of Florence and Venice combined with the culture and character of Cretan people and traditions. Parking near the harbor, we were walking distance to the fishing pier and the little hole-in-the-wall taverns. We watched an old fisherman mercilessly beating an octopus on the pier to tenderize it. Later we stumbled onto a little restaurant called Hela and were treated to some wonderful Greek music while we dined on fresh barbecued octopus and other specialties. It was still not the height of tourist season so there was no wild dancing or breaking of plates on the ground. Perhaps we didn’t stay long enough.
Further along the north coast we took the short loop back into the mountains to visit the Holy Monastery of Arkadi which dates back to the 16th-century. Built like a fortress, the monastery played an active role in the Cretan resistance of Ottoman rule during the Cretan revolt in 1866. A sad piece of history: 943 Greeks, mostly women and children, sought refuge in the monastery’s old wine cellar. During the revolt against the Turks it had been used as a storeroom for ammunition. After three days of battle and under orders from the abbot of the monastery, the Cretans blew up barrels of gunpowder, choosing to sacrifice themselves rather than surrender. Powder burn marks can still be seen on the walls of the cellar.
Back on the coast we skirted Crete’s capital, Heraklion, to visit the nearby ruins of Knossos, the ancient ceremonial and political center of the Minoan culture, an Aegean Bronze Age civilization that rose on the island of Crete and other Aegean islands, flourishing from approximately 2600 to 1400 BC. It had been referenced in Homer’s Odyssey.
During the Palace’s first period around 2000 BC (that’s 4,000 years ago!) the urban area reached a size of up to 18,000 people. In its peak the Palace and the surrounding city boasted a population of 100,000 people shortly after 1700 BC. Walking along its deserted staircases and over its ceremonial courtyards was an amazing experience. The site was discovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos. The excavations in Knossos began in 1900 by the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans and his team, and they continued for 35 years. Some of the original artwork has been restored.
While sitting in the Knossos Museum parking lot eating lunch, a young Cretan couple, Esmeralda Foutaki and Manolis Makrakis, had many questions about our journey and The Turtle V. Later, they spontaneously invited us for a day of sightseeing near Archanes and a delicious home cooked meal in their tidy apartment.
Climbing further into the mountains we came to the village of Myrtia, the birthplace of the famous Greek poet, novelist, essayist, philosopher, playwright, travel writer and philosopher, Nikos Kazantzakis, celebrated for his novel Zorba the Greek. Of the hundreds of his works, his Report to Greco had, without doubt, more influence on my life that any other book I have ever read.
Seeing the beautiful museum of his life in the center of Myrtia and walking around town—driving around the very narrow streets was an exciting adventure—I could feel his spirit, –his soul–, in the air. We camped just out of town. An old couple saw our truck and invited us for sip of their homemade wine. We spoke no Greek and they spoke no English or any of Monika’s other four languages, but we were able to communicate surprisingly well. The woman picked a sweet smelling carnation of her favorite variety from her garden for our mascot turtle, already halfway on its second trip around the world. A local butcher—she—was a charming lady. Agapi Spanaki saved her last side of fresh lamb chops for us the next day. The little car wash at the entrance to town was the perfect place to give The Turtle V a rinse while the owner of the café across the street invited us for coffee and his wife presented us with a bottle of homemade wine. We left feeling we had seen a special side of Crete.
Our final stop was the port of Heraklion from where we would take the ferry back to the mainland of Greece. We had just enough time to visit the fabulous archaeological and historical museum where many of the treasures discovered during the excavations of Knossos and other Minoan sites have been preserved, clearly demonstrating the amazingly advanced culture centuries before the Ancient Greek Civilization was born.
As a final goodbye to Crete and Nikos Kazantzakis, we visited his gravesite. The Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport in Heraklion is named after the famous author.
Below the photo gallery are a few of my (Gary’s) favorite quotes from Report to Greco. May they inspire you as they did me.
“The truth is that we all are one, that all of us together create god, that god is not man’s ancestor, but his descendant.” – Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco
“All my life one of my greatest desires has been to travel – to see and touch unknown countries, to swim in unknown seas, to circle the globe, observing new lands, seas, people, and ideas with insatiable appetite, to see everything for the first time and for the last time, casting a slow, prolonged glance, then to close my eyes and feel the riches deposit themselves inside me calmly or stormily according to their pleasure, until time passes them at last through its fine sieve, straining the quintessence out of all the joys and sorrows.” – Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco
“Reach what you cannot”- Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco
“Man is able, and has the duty, to reach the furthest point on the road he has chosen. Only by means of hope can we attain what is beyond hope.”- Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco
“Once more I realized to what an extent earthly happiness is made to the measure of man. It is not a rare bird which we must pursue at one moment in heaven, at the next in our minds. Happiness is a domestic bird found in our own courtyards.”- Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco