Saturday, 1 October 2016

Crete, part four: Monstrous Knossos and Redemption in Malia

Knossos, Crete, Greece (Κνωσός, Κρήτη, Ελλάδα) 
21 July 2016
Knossos is a well-known archaeological site located just south of Iraklio on Crete. Some claim it's the oldest city in Europe (other contenders include Athens, Cadiz in Spain and Plodiv in Bulgaria). Having read that it attracts clamorous hordes of visitors every day, we woke up especially early in order to beat the rush. While our plan was successful and we were able to avoid tour groups fairly easily, it was a horrible place.
Some idiot named Arthur Evans (who first unearthed Knossos), thinking himself a terribly clever archaeologist decided to reconstruct bits of the city even though he hadn't a clue where the pieces should actually go. Though strange and maddening, that would have been fine on its own. After all, you can't help so-called archaeologists from the early 1900's messing shit up. But the worst part was that much more recently, idiot archaeologists covered much of the exposed surfaces in a layer of concrete, seemingly to preserve the ruins while allowing people to walk on top of them. Just block sections off! Don't pour concrete everywhere! They should write a how-to guide titled 'How to Ruin a Ruin 101'. François told us that when he visited in the early 1970's with Bronwyn (Yannick and Fabienne's mum), the site was completely open to the public with no entrance fees, and nothing had been concreted. There were, of course, Evans' reconstructions, but apart from that Knossos was relatively unscathed. They had even been able to sit upon the throne that stands in a part of the old palace, which is now blocked off by a thick plexiglass window. Oh, to be a traveller in the 70's. Trying to rid ourselves of the bad taste on our our mouths, we set our sights on the Archaeological Museum in Iraklio, where most of the artefacts found in Knossos had been deposited.

After a pick-me-up of fresh strawberry juice from the museum café, we leisurely perused the exhibits. The artefacts spanned hundreds of years, allowing us to see the evolution of Cretan art. Some of the pottery was huge - larger than a person!

And some pottery was tiny, meant to hold cosmetics or herbs and spices. Two symbols are best known from Minoan culture: that of the bull, and that of the snake goddess. The bull with golden horns above is the famous Bull's Head rhyton, a vessel for drinking dating from around 1450-1400BC. Images of bulls saturated Minoan culture, as bull-leaping was a popular sport at the time and it's speculated that bulls were ritually sacrificed. From Greek mythology comes the story of the Minotaur, a man-eating beast with the body of a man and the head of a bull, that was banished to live in a labyrinth on the island of Crete and that was eventually slain by the hero Theseus. The first of the snake goddess figurines were found by the brute Evans. It's been surmised that they represent an earth goddess who was fashioned in the typical Minoan style of dress. (Yep, that means that Minoan women walked around with their bewbs out.)

After the museum, we felt steeled to try another ancient palace in the hopes that Knossos was the odd one out in being so awfully preserved. With our expectations dangerously low, we were pleasantly surprised (and relieved!) by the Minoan Palace of Malia, which was first built in 1900BC, but then built over by a better palace in 1700BC. The excavations were largely undertaken by the French Archaeological School, and dare I say that they did an excellent job.

I know close to nothing about archaeology, but there was no concrete to be seen - instead, they fenced off delicate areas and erected structures to preserve the site from the elements. Bravo, Messieurs. We were able to walk around the site, shielded from the sun for a decent amount of time, and read about the palace. In the necropolis, a stunning bee pendant had been unearthed that we had seen earlier displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Iraklio. Having been polished to a high shine and so delicately designed, it looked like it could have been crafted yesterday - it was that well-preserved.
Spirits soaring, we continued our drive inland towards the Lasithi Plateau.

It was rather surreal to climb eight hundred meters above sea level and then find yourself looking out over a vast expanse of farmland. It felt like just past the mountain range in the distance would be the sea, but we were nearly a kilometer above it!
Our main reason for visiting the plateau was to see the Dikteon Cave, which according to legend was where Zeus was born. In ancient times, worshippers would travel to the cave in order to leave offerings to the god, so many artefacts have been found by archaeologists there.

As the cave was located at the top of a hill, we trekked up the narrow rocky path alongside the other tourists. Some visitors chose to pay €10 to ride up atop a downtrodden donkey. 

Once at the top, we then had to descend down a series of staircases into the heart of the cave. Regardless of who supposedly sprung from a womb there, the cave was mighty impressive, with a wide array of stalactites, stalagmites, moss and what appeared to be cave seaweed dangling down from the ceiling.

In an attempt at an innovative pose for the camera, I pretended to be the babby Zeus happily sucking my thumb, pleased not to be eaten by my infanticidal father Kronos. In the dim lighting, however, the photo came out miserably, as grainy as a quinoa salad and tinged with green from the mossy walls. On the way up we were forced to hang back, as a smellmongerer in floral shorts assailed our nostrils. Somehow this boorish tourist had never seen a shower, let alone experienced one, and he had plonked himself between us and the exit taking his sweet time on cave photography. The closer we got to the trail of stench he left in his wake, the closer we became to upchucking our breakfast.

Having worked up an appetite from all that hill climbing and cave delving, we set out in search of lunch. On the way, we pulled over to check out a line of Venetian-built windmills atop a hill. We had planned to visit on our drive past them earlier, but were severely put off by the small carpark being full up by tour busses. This time around, the car park was empty, so we rocked up. Unsurprisingly, it was considerably windy up there (hence the windmills) and I needed to hold my hair lest it whip around my face like an enraged swarm of bees. 
A roadside taverna we had noticed earlier was still open for business (lunchtime would have been considered done and dusted in many non-European places as it was decidedly late afternoon). We were seated by a waiter dressed in the traditional style: white shirt, beige trousers in that old school style where the fabric around the thighs balloons out from the shiny boots they're tucked into, and a twirly mustache and full beard. 

While waiting for our mezes, we were approached by a highly playful white and ginger kitten who alternated his time vying for our affection with chasing after bees and wind-swept leaves. At one stage he tried to catch a goldfish out of the little pond in the garden. Once our food arrived, he became an adorable nuisance. He would meow solicitously and scratched me when trying to jump up on my legs to reach the table. The food was excellent: stuffed peppers, courgette fritters, dolmades (lemony rice wrapped up in marinated wine leaves), and stuffed zucchini flowers. The others laboured over removing the fleshy nubs of snails from their shells. The locally produced olive oil was amazing and we consumed ample quantities of it mopped up with bread.

After a spell on the road again, we arrived in Myrtos where we had booked a hotel for the night through booking.com. Once we tried to check in, however, the hotel staff informed us that they had no rooms available even though the website showed that François' credit card had been charged. We tried to reason with them, showing them proof that we had paid for the rooms and suggesting that they should refund us. They flat out refused, stating that it was entirely our mistake. Not one to be retiring in the face of injustice, François stood his ground and demanded they make amends.

Seeing that this may take some time, as the hotel staff went about ringing the manager and whoever else might help, Fabienne and I decided to leave the hotel to look for alternate accommodation. We walked all over the village, not having any time to stop and admire the pretty streets and waterfront that a plethora of eateries clung to. We rang the number on every sign that we saw boasting rooms, but none of them had enough space for all of us. At one point a man sitting outside a bar saw us puzzling over one such sign and offered to call for us. When that lead turned out to be fruitless, he rang a friend of his, Suzanne, who he knew ran a BnB. That also didn't work out, but he wished us the best and invited us to return later as the bar was having an evening of live music! Eventually we rejoined the others, who with the help of a multilingual couple had settled the issue of reimbursement by phoning booking.com. We were still without a place to sleep, so we drove away from the seaside into the hills hoping to happen across somewhere suitable at the next village. Once the hills proved a poor idea, we drove back into Myrtos and finally found a hotel that had capacity for us (and a pool too!).

After unloading our baggage into our respective rooms, we felt that we deserved a drink and headed into the village to enjoy a bevvy over some live music at the aforementioned bar. Their live music night was a roaring success, and they had no space to seat us! So instead we went straight to dinner at the Restaurant Katerina, a family-run eatery serving local dishes with tables lining a little alleyway. I was able to try the much anticipated skordalia: a dip made from potatoes (in this case, though it can also be made from soaked bread or nuts), garlic, olive oil and herbs. It was all I could have imagined! For my main meal, I ordered imam, which is a delectable meal largely comprised of slow cooked aubergine and tomato. With their homemade bread on the side, it was heavenly (though a fair bit pricier than most Greek tavernas). Yannick relished in the show put on by the chef when he came out to deliver the ouzo flambéed saganaki. Fire in the hole!
As we had ordered wine with dinner and were given raki to finish our meal, we no longer had any desire to visit the bar and returned to our hotel to fall swiftly into slumber.

Today's post was almost called: 'Calamity Evans and the Divine Troglodytes'