janet fisher~writer

Following strong women through history

Going There #2: Crete in Delight and Distress

The second day of my journey I planned a bus trip to Kastelli, a small town east of Heraklion, Crete, that’s probably not on many a traveler’s list. But I wasn’t looking for tourist spots this time. My tummy felt a little grumbly so I had to bypass some of the richer dainties among the fabulous breakfast offerings and hurried to the familiar Heraklion bus station. I had only three more days in Crete, and I didn’t want anything to slow me down.

Heraklion Bus Station

The station is a lively place where Greek exuberance abounds. Yet it can be confusing with announcements in Greek and routes not always clear. The man in blue insisted he would let me know when my bus came. I should sit on the bench and not worry. “Relax. This is Crete. We don’t worry here.”

Okay, but I didn’t want to sit on the bench where people were smoking. So many smokers. The man seemed a little offended, as if I didn’t trust him to remember me among all the other travelers. I wondered how he could possibly remember one among many, but in fact he did.

Delight

I was soon on a fine bus to Kastelli. The Greek buses are great. Comfortable, cheap, and they take you to every corner, it seems, often with Greek music playing as they charge around narrow, curvy roads that make the elderly Greek women cross themselves. How can you not be in good spirits?

The bus sailed by Knossos and was continuing south on a thrilling road when I caught sight of one of the destinations on my itinerary, the ancient aqueduct across the Kairatos River at Spilia. I could see the arches ahead.

Ancient Aqueduct over Kairatos River, Crete

Before the trip I had been trying to figure out if any bridges had been discovered around Knossos besides one that crosses the Vlychia Stream to the south. That stream flows into the Kairatos River, which runs along the east side of Knossos, and for the people to access points east, they needed a bridge across that main river. I wanted to describe them crossing it. I had contacted Dr. Yuri Gorokhovich, Associate Professor at the City University of New York, who brought my attention to this aqueduct across the Kairatos River built by the Romans and later reconstructed by Venetians and then Egyptians. He said the Romans often chose existing structures to build upon, so there might have been a bridge or aqueduct there in the Minoan period. Pantelis Soupios, Professor at the Technological Institute of Crete, discussed with us the possibility of digging for evidence of an older foundation, but that didn’t seem feasible at this time.

Since I’m writing fiction I feel free to locate my own bridges as long as nobody has discovered something real. In choosing a bridge site Pantelis brought up the consideration of where the river may be the narrowest and the logical route between points of interest. The modern road south of Knossos follows the west bank of the Karaitos River, then crosses it below this old aqueduct to continue south on the east bank. Ancient roads might have taken the same route, given the lay of the land.

I decided to adopt the Spilia site for one of my bridges with thanks to Yuri and Pantelis.

The aqueduct is only a one-mile walk from Knossos so I had thought I might walk there the day of my next visit to Knossos. Now, as the bus rolled along the narrow road with no safe place for pedestrians–and cars and huge buses zipping one way and another–I began to rethink the walk. My bus went right by it, crossing the Kairatos River on the low modern bridge just downstream. I did my best to soak in the sight, and snapped photos. I would look for it again on the return bus.

Cretan Landscape near Villa

As we continued eastward I watched the beautiful countryside slip past, places I describe in my books. I had been in the vicinity before and had visited on Google Maps, but I wanted to assure myself I had the right sense of it. I was on my way to Eudora’s villa, a fictional setting. When my settings take me to real places like Knossos, which many people visit and many scholars have studied, I feel the need to have all the particulars as right as I can get them. So I studied Knossos extensively. But for a fictional setting like the villa of the character Eudora, I just want to have the general landscape right.

I’d picked Kastelli on the map because it was about 15 miles east of Knossos, probably a half day’s ride by horseback. Imagine my surprise when I later learned that there’s a Minoan ruin a short walk from the town center. I had to see that. In Kastelli I got off the bus and the driver told me I should meet the return bus in the same place at 3 o’clock, the only bus back to Heraklion that day. I didn’t dare miss it. It wasn’t noon yet. I had plenty of time and I wanted to find the Minoan ruins.

The Villa

No one at the bus stop knew how to find it, so I went into a store and asked a woman there. She spoke clear English but didn’t know much about the place. An older man knew but didn’t speak English. Between them they gave me directions. Basically head up the hill and go just beyond the top. It’s up there. I headed up the hill, looking for the high point. And there it was. Eudora’s house.

Mountains Seen from Kastelli Ruins

It had turned a little drafty over the years, just the base walls left, but I let my imagination flow. The hills beyond it were just right. I was pretty excited. I spent a long time there, wandering around the fenced ruins to peer inside, sitting on the edge, letting the soft breezes touch me, carry me back to the distant days when people lived here, loved here, bore children here, died here.

Most of the time I had the place to myself. So quiet, except that the cover over the ruins made rippling noises, as if someone were there with me. It was the wind of course, but I couldn’t shake the sensation.

My rumbly tummy sent me down the hill. I told myself I was just hungry. I needed lunch. At a small place not far from the town center I got a lovely gyro sandwich with sizzling meat sliced from one of the vertical roasting spits so popular in Greece (the waiter said it was deer meat), the thin slices wrapped in a pita with tomatoes and yogurt and other trimmings.

My bus arrived early and parked. The driver headed for the taverna–for a coffee, I hoped. I sat in the shade waiting for 3 o’clock, writing impressions in my notebook.

Kastelli Street

The bus ride back was as delightful as the outbound trip and the driver’s hand steady on the winding roads through hills and valleys blanketed in a patchwork of gray-green olive groves and bright vineyards and villages. Forests of giant cypresses once covered many of Crete’s hills, long since depleted even before the years of my stories, having been logged for local construction and ship building and trade. Crete was known in ancient times for its cypresses. Both the pyramidal and a more free-form variety still dot the land, but not many giants.

Rockier slopes had reverted to the scrubby maquis of hardy evergreen bushes and herbs and tufty grasses common in lands on the Mediterranean.

That evening back in Heraklion I asked for a recommendation for dinner and had a fantastic meal–roast pork with a Minoan bean side dish, complimentary dessert of creamy jelled rice smothered in cinnamon and almonds, a small glass of raki with peach. Delicious.

Distress

In the middle of the night the slight nausea that had plagued me for a couple of days hit with sudden force. I lost my beautiful pork dinner. I lost my fresh gyro sandwich. I lost days of previously consumed meals in a siege I thought would never stop. By the time it subsided my mouth was like paper. I felt thin as a post, tummy concave. My bottled water was nearly gone and I wasn’t in the mood to risk tap water despite assurances of its safety. I called downstairs and a sympathetic man brought me a bottle of water.

I was pretty sure I knew what got me. The lukewarm chicken at the Athens airport that had no doubt been sitting out for hours. It had tasted a little off and I’d worried a little at the time. If only I had chosen the earlier flight from Athens to Heraklion I would never have seen that chicken. It could have been something else, but the tummy rumbles had started soon after.

Heraklion Street out Hotel Window

Now I sipped water, unable to sleep. I rested until 10 am or so and went down for tea and dry toast. No pretty dainties. I wished for a banana so I could start on the bland BRAT diet my stomach wanted–bananas, rice, applesauce, toast. They had no bananas. At least I got the toast part. That afternoon after sleeping on and off I ventured out to the market, which wasn’t too far away, and bought two bananas. Lunch and dinner.

The day’s plans were cancelled.

I was glad I had spent so much time that first day in Knossos and that I had gotten a good look at the aqueduct. I only had one day left in Crete, and I still wanted to see Fodhele Beach and the ancient port of Amnisos. Hoping for strength, I gazed out the hotel window and dozed again.

NEXT: Shores of War and Peace

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