Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Greece: Ancient and Young Heraklion

The Phaistos Disc, thought to be from the early 17th century B.C.E., has
45 pictorial signs arranged in different combinations into 61 groups (this
side and the reverse side). The repetition of certain groups has led
experts to speculate that it is either a hymn or perhaps a magic
incantation. It's one of the many great discoveries at Knossos.

On our 2019 trip through the Balkans, Jane and I weren't particularly trying to see ancient ruins -- we had seen plenty during three months in southern Italy the year before.  But I was curious about Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, and that put us so close to the Palace of Knossos that we had to see it. We took a high-speed ferry from Santorini to Heraklion, which took less than two hours. Our hotel, the GDM Megaron, was easily visible from where the ferry docked.

The Minoan civilization, which thrived on Crete roughly between 2700 and 1450 B.C.E., is considered prehistoric because there are no contemporary accounts of it. What we know is largely from stories and legends passed down to the classical period, and usually what we have are passing references. One constant, though, is that it was rich, and the jewelry on display at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum seems to back that up.  Our understanding of the reality of the Minoans is almost entirely due to the British archaeologist Arthur Evans, who began excavating a huge mound five kilometers south of Heraklion in the late 1800s and worked the site for 20 years. What he found and his interpretations of what he found received worldwide attention at the turn of the last century: an enormous palace, sophisticated murals, and signs of trade throughout the Mediterranean well before the emergence of the great Greek city-states.

Heraklion, however, doesn't seem ancient at all, despite walls and forts reflecting centuries at the center of battles between civilizations. The people on the streets and in the many sidewalk cafes are young and energetic. There's a vibrancy here that we didn't find at all in the nearby town of Chania, the only other place we visited on Crete.

Our first night here, we sought out a restaurant called Peskesi based on TripAdvisor reviews and its "Fodor's Choice" status in Fodor's. We couldn't get in without a reservation even on a Thursday evening, so we made a reservation for Saturday night. We went around the corner to a little neighborhood place where we feasted on rosemary snails, grilled mushrooms, meatballs and fried rabbit. The next day, Friday, we went to Knossos but were back in time for lunch on the waterfront at Ippokambos (The Seahorse, click HERE), where we had sardines and other grilled seafood in embarrassing quantities. Nevertheless, by dinner time, which in Greece is usually well after 8, and often after 10, we were hungry enough to take a taxi to Erganos (click HERE), a tavern that Fodor's described as a very traditional and catering mainly to a local crowd. We had dolmades (stuffed grape leaves, served warm), grilled mushrooms (always good in Greece), and slow-cooked lamb.
    Finally, the next evening, we made it to Peskesi (click HERE), where we shared a smoked eggplant appeitizer, and Jane had pork with honey and thyme and I had an amazing beef stew. All washed down with hearty Cretan wine.

Here are some photos that don't really do justice to Heraklion or Knossos.

Heraklion is the main port on Crete, and a popular destination for ferries from other
islands. It also has the island's largest airport.

This massive fortress was called Koules by the Turks and the name stuck, though
when Venetians built it in the 1500s, it was called Castello del Molo. It dominates
the harbor of Heraklion and is reached by walking on a long sea wall that
defines the harbor. The strips of blue are the Sea of Crete. This
photo was taken with a long lens from our hotel, the
GDM Megaron, which is right at the ferry docks
and a short walk from downtown Heraklion's
many attractions.

A wooden model at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum
depicts the Palace of Knossos as archaeologists
think it once was.

This clay female figure on what appears to be a swing
suspended from two columns represents the descent
 of a goddess. It's dated to  1500 to 1450 B.C.E. The birds
 atop the columns represent the goddess's attendants.

This isn't Cartier or Tiffany's. These pieces and many more were excavated at
the Palace of Knossos. No wonder that the wealth of the Minoans
was legendary among the ancient Greeks.

This dolphin mural is preserved at the museum
in Heraklion.
A reproduction shows the dolphin mural in its original location, what Arthur Evans
called the Queen's Megaron at the Palace of Knossos. Some parts of the palace
have been restored a bit, giving visitors a sense of what it was like more than
3,000 years ago.

Stairs and partial walls at Knossos. This is just one small section of the sprawling site.

Another restoration at Knossos.

This restoration, complete with a restored fresco of a Minoan bull, has
led some archaeologist to decry the "Disneyfication" of the ruins.

A pedestrian street attracts a young crowd in Heraklion, Despite the throngs
who visit to see the Palace of Knossos, Heraklion itself does not
seem like a particularly touristy city.

I have no idea what these women are
dressed for. This was taken around
five in the afternoon.

A bus ride west of downtown took us to the beaches and lidos of Amoudara, where
the crowds seemed almost entirely local. 

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