At night there were ghosts in my bedroom. They rattled about as if anxious to get back to sea and back to that other island, the one piecemealed by canals, their true island home.
My room was in a remarkably beautiful hotel called the Casa Delfino in the seaside city of Hania. The building was an inspired maze of mysterious corridors linking secret spaces, some open to the elements, others hidden around corners. The Casa Delfino had all the modern conveniences expected in a fine European hotel, yet 400 years earlier it had been the mansion of one of the Venetian conquerors who literally owned this largest of Greek islands. Crete.
It was here that the great Minoan civilization was born, a people far older than the ancient Greeks. I've come to track down the ghosts of Kriti, as the locals pronounce their island's name. It's not a scholarly endeavor. I'm here for 8 days. I know that most tourists visit Crete for the sun and the sea. But in a place so rich in history, it would be a shame not to experience it, even briefly.
Crete is long, 159 miles, and thin, only 7 miles
wide between Gournia and Ierapetra. So it's
best done by halves. The Elounda Beach Hotel
is my first resting place. An hour from the capital
of Heraklion on a bay on the northeast shore,
my suite is modern in the best sense - clean
unfussy lines, elegant comfortable furnishings,
painted in bright Greek blues and whites. There
are all the necessary acronyms: t.v's (3,) cd, dvd,
vcr, am/fm. The bathroom isn't quite as big as
a skating rink but it does have a jacuzzi on one
side and a shower that doubles as a steambath
on the other and two sinks in between. All in
marble, of course. Here I am intent on immer-
sing myself in Crete's historical legacies and I
don't want to leave my hotel.
But I do. My first visit is to the Archeological Museum of Heraklion where the great prizes of Minoan culture are kept. The relatively few rooms and display cases contain much of the tangible remains of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. In the space of an hour I pass through 1500 years of their lives.
But there are clues to what those lives were like. The earliest works, from the so-called Prepalatial Period, are rich in creative design. By 2,000 BC the first palaces were built, and from an ancient mosaic I see that the surrounding houses were colorfully painted and timbered. In 1700 BC something caused the destruction of these buildings and similar palaces were built on the ruins. Similar, but so much larger they were almost self-contained towns.
Upstairs I see wonderful frescoes and murals that filled the palaces from about 1700 to 1375 BC. Best of all is the Bull Leaping fresco showing women and men grabbing the horns of a charging bull, somersaulting over its back and landing unscathed behind him. In the afternoon, fresh with images of the living Minoan culture, I travel 4 miles out of Heraklion to Knossos. In the museum I was fascinated by a model of the palace. What I expect to see at the actual site is, quite frankly, a pile of rocks.
Well, yes and no. Near the entrance I stop at the reconstruction of a red-columned room. Not content with excavation and discovery, the archeologist, Arthur Evans, rebuilt sections of the palace as he supposed it to be, evoking outcries of archeological angst.
At the central court a young guide has brought a large book of pictures showing the palace in all its glory. Surrounded by massive stone staircases and bits and pieces of rooms, she holds up a painting and suddenly the puzzle comes alive.
Three hours later I've seen the oldest throne in Europe, which looks none too comfortable, dolphins leaping on the walls of the Queen's Chamber, the palace theater where processions and dances took place and even the queen's 4,000 year-old toilet, equipped with a drainage system. In the early 1900's when Evans discovered it he is said to have exclaimed, "Now I am the only person on Crete to possess a toilet that flushes!"
Like all the islands in the Mediterranean, Crete was captured by a succession of invaders who coveted the political power it could give them. In 67 BC the Roman Empire absorbed the island and made Gortis its capital. It's a long way from Elounda to Gortis, and it gives me my first encounter with the arid, slightly
ominous mountains of Crete's rugged interior. An
excellent road removes some of the tension from
hairpin curves. For miles it runs free, checked only
by villages where I slow to a crawl to squeeze by
pedestrians, tractors and oncoming traffic. From the
peaks I gaze at broad fertile plains and whitewashed
hamlets. Everywhere, grasping the rocky soil of the
hills, hanging over the road, dotting the plains by the
tens of thousands are more olive trees than I thought
I'd ever see.
At its greatest, almost a quarter of a million people
lived in Gortis. Then Arab invaders destroyed it. Now
it is mostly scattered stones and olive groves and a
disparate collection of relics. The most imposing isn't
Roman at all but the skeleton of the sixth century Byzantine Basilica of Saint Titus. The foundation of the 2,000 year-old Odeon contains stones bearing the inscription of an even earlier Greek criminal code.
As old as the Minoans and Romans are, there is someone even older. I've decided to make a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Zeus. For the better part of an hour the only direction is up. My little rental car gets weary, but the views are more eye-popping with every turn. The road finally levels out at the Lasithi Plateau, a vast sky-high farmland. From the parking lot in Psychro a stony path leads upward. Several men wait with donkeys and offer me a lift, but I figure if Zeus' pregnant mother could climb it, so can I.
At a gash in the mountain a concrete staircase falls into the bowels of the earth. The cave is round, womb-like, a sunken chamber dripping with stalactites. I can see at once why the ancients were convinced that this was the birthplace of the king of the gods. Certainly no less likely than some current beliefs.
There are hundreds of Byzantine churches and monasteries in Crete, many packed with medieval frescoes. Head spinning, I ask advice, research sources and make my choice. In Kritsa, the 13th and 14th century frescoes are magnificent they say. I can see the church from far off, its oriental domes looming above houses pasted against a hillside. But when I drive into town it has disappeared. The houses, one attached to another, form a shield above which I can't see. So I follow the road out of Kritsa and there it is just below me.
I park and walk toward the church but am stopped in my tracks. Flowers are everywhere. Grapevines climb to the roofs or hang from rough wooden trellises. A few white as snow houses are smothered in bougainvillea. When I finally make my way to the church it's locked. Next door, at the newly opened Olive Press Cafe, I learn that it is only open on Sundays. It is also the wrong church.
Down on the plain, Panagia i Kera is tiny compared to the great white church on the hill. Faced in beige stucco, it is simple and unadorned. The interior is another matter. Near the entrance a vivid Saint George thrusts his lance into a dragon. Prophets and angels count heads from the ceiling. Created seven to eight hundred years ago, there is no escaping the intense, demanding gaze of their darkly outlined eyes.
When I can think of no more excuses, I tear myself from the Elounda Beach Hotel and head for Hania. I arrive in the late afternoon and for the first time in Crete I'm seriously disappointed. The Venetian harbor is rimmed with tacky restaurants. Signs in English and German tout
mediocre food while bad rock music competes with Greek tapes. Motorbikes scoot through the pedestrians, a large percentage of whom are kids out to party.
The Casa Delfino is a lovely oasis mercifully a little way from the harbor. A beautiful court of patterned cobblestones and flourishing plants is
mediocre food while bad rock music competes with Greek tapes. Motorbikes scoot through the pedestrians, a large percentage of whom are kids out to party.
The Casa Delfino is a lovely oasis mercifully a little way from the harbor. A beautiful court of patterned cobblestones and flourishing plants is flanked by balconied walls. I'm shown to my room, one of only 21, in this 17th century Venetian mansion. It is large, attractively furnished, and from my window I look to the sea.
On my way to dinner I discover that at night the streets above the harbor become magic passageways. On each corner tables are set out on the flagstones. Around the corners comes the sound of live Cretan music. Old folks can be seen through open doors; crafts people work on tomorrow's merchandise; artfully placed lanterns illuminate the bougainvillea. It's beginning to be what I'd hoped for.
I soon discover that to appreciate Hania I have to scratch beneath the surface. Armed with a trusty guide- book I set out next morning for a tour of the town. The recommended route takes me along streets overhung with old wooden Turkish balconies and new ones where housewives are hanging rugs. I pop into little side lanes to visit 500 year old Venetian porticos and churches. In a back alley I discover a beautifully restored 15th century synagogue. "How many Jews are there in Hania?" I ask the young custodian. "Seven," she answers.
It doesn't take long for me to change my mind about Hania. The Old Town is positively overflowing with interesting architecture. The restaurants are pretty and full of color, many of the shops are attractive and the mood in the quiet of the day is serene.
Serene also are the monasteries of Akrotiri, a peninsula not far from the city. The austere outer walls of Gourverneto, which house the living quarters of only three monks, conceal a graceful domed church consecrated in 1537. Father Ioannis - John - sits between my guide Ioanna - Joan - and me. A monk from the age of 18, he says, "I had a flame from God."
From the monastery we walk to the sea past the Bear's Cave where Minoans once worshipped, to a tiny monastery built into the cliff but abandoned when its monks were attacked by pirates. Lastly through a gorge of towering cliffs to a Venetian boat slip by a translucent blue-green inlet.
Though we hurry, we're late for lunch with Father Athanassios, the abbot of the monastery of Agia Triada. We find him in the kitchen, alone at a long metal table, an empty dish in front of him. A man of considerable age, he wears a worn grey cassock that matches his earth-stained hands. A white beard spills over his chest and above heavy eyebrows he wears a blue woolen watchcap. Zeta, the brothers' cook, places a hot plate of meaty white beans in a rich sauce before me. I help myself to fresh cabbage salad, crusty bread and the best feta cheese I've ever tasted, washed down with an aromatic white wine. The lunch, one of the most satisfying I've had in some time, ends with fresh white grapes and juicy pears.
"Late in the 19th century the Revolutionary Committee held its meetings in this room," Ioanna says, translating for Father Athanassios. "It was earlier, in 1821 and again in 1827 that the Turks burnt the monastery and church to the ground." Inside, the church is indeed new, the icons from only 1845. And the cupola and ceiling, the incredible gold filigree framing the paintings and the giant circular chandelier are fresh and gleaming. It is very unlike the Congregational church of my youth.
On our return to Hania we stop at the lovely Chrissopigi Monastery, the Monastery of the Fountain That Gives Life. Inhabited by 25 mostly young nuns who produce and sell organically grown olive oil, the feeling in the small church, after the silver and gold of Agia Triada, is dark and mysterious. Nearby, a chapel is partially painted with new frescoes and icons, created by four of the sisters with great expertise. Our guide, a nun who makes incense, shows us her workshop, then takes us through two fascinating small museums. Outside, the gardens are bursting with color. The sound of chanting accompanies us as we leave.
It is said that just before sunrise on a certain day in late May, Drousoulites, or "men of dew," rise from the ruins of the Church of Agios Haralambos on Crete's southwest coast. Mounted on horses and fully armed they ride to the Venetian fortress of Frangocastello before disappearing into the gloom. Scientists claim that the apparitions are merely a mirage created by peculiar atmospheric conditions. Thousands who have seen them know differently. For millennia cultures have come and gone, invaders have conquered and been defeated while the citizens of Crete have outlasted them all. Who should know better about the ghosts of Kriti?.
HOW TO GET THERE: Delta Airlines, 800 221-1212, flies non-stop from New York City to Athens, Greece. Olympic Airways, 800 223-1226, flies to Heraklion, Hania and Sitia in Crete with a stop in Athens.
WHEN TO GO: The most popular months, July and August, can be the least comfortable, with very high temperatures and huge crowds. April and May have clear but not yet terribly hot weather and are a lovely
time to visit. In September and October it is still hot enough to suntan and swim. Winters are mild, sometimes briefly cold between November and February, the rainiest months.
WHERE TO STAY: To best see the island, it is recommended to stay in both east and west. The Elounda Beach Hotel is reputed to be not only the finest hotel in Crete but in all Greece. Located on a private
beach, it has 258 beautiful rooms, bungalows and suites, 41 with private pools, 5 fine restaurants, transfers by Mercedes to and from the airport, every imaginable amenity and a staff anxious to please. Contact them at 800 223-6800. Website: www.eloundabeach.gr.
In Hania, the Casa Delfino is a gem-like small hotel with 21 rooms and suites in a 17th century Venetian mansion located in the historic quarter. Restored to its former glory, the atmosphere is intimate and
luxurious. Telephone them at (011 30 821) 87400. Fax: (011 30 821) 96500. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.casadelfino.com.
WHERE TO EAT: The restaurants of the Elounda Beach Hotel are among the finest in Crete. In nearby Agios Nikolaos, the owner-chef of Portes, tel: (0841) 28489, has collected traditional Cretan recipes from remote villages and has created his own delicious versions. Highly recommended. In Hania, Karnagio, tel. 53366, Monastiri, 55527, Also Mathios and Tamam.
THE CRETAN DIET: In 1956, the diets of 6 countries and Crete were compared. A 10 year follow-up by the World Health Organization determined that Cretans had "the lowest mortality rates" and by far the healthiest diet, one based on locally grown fruits and vegetables, cheeses, herbs, nuts, very little meat, wine, grape juice and honey as sweeteners and olive oil for fat. With the advent of tourism this has changed, but it is still possible to find restaurants that serve classical Cretan cuisine. One secret is to eat in those that are open year-round, dependant on Greek customers. The staffs of the above hotels can recommend restaurants.
RECOMMENDED READING: Insight Guides publishes 3 excellent guides to Crete: The "Compact Guide" can be slipped in a pocket. Its 15 routes cover all the most important of Crete's cities, villages, beaches,
gorges and archeological monuments. The "Pocket Guide," almost as small, recommends 24 detailed half and full day itineraries and has a handy, pullout map. The book-size "Insight Guide to Crete" covers the
same material and much more and in far greater detail, including many photographs. All 3 describe Crete's history and monuments. The larger has readable and extended essays. For information: 800 993-7600.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION: Contact the Greek National Tourist Organization at 212 421-5777.