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

Going There #1: Into Crete’s Ancient Heart

Welcome to the opening day of my journey, which began in Greece on April 24, 2018. Over the next few weeks I’ll share the highlights of that 37-day trip through Greece, Portugal, the UK, and Ireland, where I traveled to research scenes for my upcoming series of epic historical novels. If you read my last two posts, the overview and backstory, you’ll have a better picture of why I went. Now here’s post #1 of the trek.

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I woke up in the morning in the Greek Isle of Crete after a long, long flight from Eugene, Oregon, via Seattle and London and Athens. Waking in the morning might not seem so remarkable, except that morning in Greece is about 10 hours after morning in Oregon. The flight adds 10 hours to the 24-hour day, so I had leapt a day ahead, and jet lag can do strange things with your sleep patterns. Maybe it was a good thing that I couldn’t sleep on the plane. Some say you get adjusted better that way. In all my travels overseas I don’t remember ever experiencing such a bright-eyed morning on the first day. That turned out to be more important to me than I anticipated.

View from Kastro Hotel in Heraklion, Crete

I checked out the view of the Mediterranean from my hotel balcony and headed downstairs for breakfast. I must say, that breakfast ranked with the best on my trip–lovely Greek pastries, a custardy egg dish, muesli, nuts, fruits, on and on.

My plan for the day was to do a quick visit to the ruins of Knossos if I felt up to it. One of my reasons for starting the trip in Crete, even though it was my farthest point from home, was that it was familiar to me and relatively inexpensive, and I assumed I’d find it easy to deal with a day or two of jet lag there.

I had spent a month in Crete on my first trip to the island, about half of that time in the island’s chief city, Heraklion, and had spent a good part of my second trip centered in Heraklion too. Now, on my third visit, I stepped out onto streets I knew, and I enjoyed getting back in touch with this special place.

Feeling good, I soon headed out for the ruins of the temple (or palace) that graced the ancient city of Knossos on the outskirts of Heraklion. It took me awhile to find the bus. The old bus stop didn’t exist anymore because they had turned the main drag into a pedestrian street. I asked for directions and got many confusing answers. That was familiar too. People so want to help, but communication becomes uncertain when their English is limited and my Greek is almost nonexistent. One woman simply said, “Come. Follow me.” I did. Love it when they do that.

Soon I was on my way, rumbling through the streets of Heraklion on one of their many buses and out to the edge of town to a site that has filled my mind for years as the characters of my books stroll through the corridors and halls and surrounding slopes of that ancient city. Knossos, heart of the early Cretan world. A rush of joy lifted me as I entered the compound.

West Court, Knossos, Crete

I first came out onto the West Court where my first story in Crete opens. I needed to stand on that broad paved courtyard and look around. Could I see what I thought I could from that place? Could I see Mount Youktas on the horizon, the mountain that looks like the face of a reclining person? Were the slopes the way I remembered from my last visit 23 years ago? And from my many recent visits by Google Maps? I stood on the ancient stones and smiled. Yes. I could see the mountain. Rearrange a few trees and I would see it even better. My descriptions held up. I relaxed and let the place wrap around me as it had done so long ago.

View to Mount Youktas from Knossos

I found the spot where I had taken a picture in 1994 that has hung on my wall ever since, an outlook past one of the unique red columns of the site to Mount Youktas beyond the hill of olive groves. This time I took a new picture with the little Nikon digital camera I bought a few years ago to help me illustrate my blog posts.

Note that the column is larger in circumference at the top than at the bottom, a style found throughout Knossos. These pillars once lined corridors and divided rooms. Most of the large ones are red. Others are black with red trim.

I wandered all around the perimeter seeking the settings of many a scene. Some of those scenes grip my heart and I relived them here where they took place, shedding a few tears for my characters.

Since my last visit the throne room has been opened. Such a thrill to see this room I call the receiving room of the High Priestess of Knossos. The alabaster chair gave a clue to researchers that the person who sat on this small chair might be a woman rather than a man, because a woman might more easily fit in that gracefully molded seat.

Visitors aren’t allowed into the room itself. You walk through the anteroom (also described in my stories) and from there you look across a low glass barricade into the inner sanctum. The barricade is low enough to lean over so you get a good feel for it. The space seemed a little smaller than I had imagined from photos but every bit as powerful with the waving swaths of red giving a womb-like impression.

Receiving Room, Knossos

In my stories, and I suspect in reality, this is a sacred room. So much at Knossos shows signs of the people’s appreciation for the sacred. I put this photo on the banner of my Facebook Author Page, and someone asked if the object in front of the chair was a toilet. The Knossians did have flush toilets some 3,500 years ago, with a plumbing system so advanced it wouldn’t be equaled until the 19th century AD. But those toilets were modestly enclosed behind doors. The basin above was interpreted by scholars as a lustral basin for ceremonial bathing. When archeologists dug these objects out of the earth some things were in a jumble and they didn’t know where the basin belonged. On the far side of the room from the alabaster chair, several steps lead to a lower level.

I believe that would be a more likely place for the basin, deeper in the earth, and put it there in my stories. I don’t portray this room in the first part of the book, although there were several lustral basins around the temple, and I managed early on to come up with a steamy scene in one of those.

Steps to Lustral Basin

I depict this room as part of the temple’s reconstruction after a dramatic earthquake. The extension of the room beyond the black pillars tends to create a space both infinite and intimate.

The griffins portrayed on the wall represent three aspects of nature, the eagle’s head for the skies, the lion’s body for the land, the snake’s tail for the deep earth. They were likely considered sacred.

The Knossians seemed to wear their religion comfortably. Frescoes show them enjoying life, sensuous, wearing clothing that clearly reveals their sexuality, but without guile, suggesting a healthy acceptance of this aspect of life. You see no seductive scenes like those found in the Roman ruins of Pompeii. Nor do you see scenes of war and aggression so common in other art of the day. Clearly, Knossos was different. But it would not go unchanged.

I stopped in the afternoon to enjoy a wonderful Greek salad in a restaurant within the compound, perfect fresh-picked tomatoes and Greek olives and more, topped with a thick square of feta cheese, sprinkled with dill and other herbs, and drizzled with Greek olive oil, a delicious sliced baguette on the side.

Grand Staircase and Anteroom, Knossos

Restored, I climbed the grand staircase. The receiving room is just beyond the anteroom on the ground level to the right of the staircase shown above. Then I trudged up the north ramp past the relief fresco of the charging bull. And I peered into column-lined rooms.

Ramp from the North Gate, Knossos

The jet lag I feared didn’t hit. I stayed and saw it all. Sometimes I rested on a low wall and just let the wonder of the place seep in. I took notes. I studied the maps I had copied for the little trip booklet I put together. I imagined scenes and assured myself that I had relayed the sense of place I needed. Unsure of some areas I went back to check them again.

Charging Bull Fresco, Knossos

I began to wonder if I needed to spend another 15 euros for the full second day I had planned for Knossos.

That question of necessity turned out to be a good thing. More on that in the next post.

For this day I felt fully satisfied. Resonant with joy.

Lower Rooms, Knossos

NEXT: Crete in Delight and Distress