Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Into the Heart of Crete

Image of Crete by fotogake via Flickr

“Crete”. The name conjures dreams of travel and leisure along the island’s sunny coasts. Away from the beaches, resorts, and spas, however, is a land of rewarding cultural and historic touring. Last summer, I hopped a cheap flight and went in search of the island’s rich past and charming present. Here are a few highlights from my Crete holiday.

Images of the Ancients: The Palace of Knossos

One of Crete’s top destinations for a reason, the Palace of Knossos is just the sort of site I travel abroad to see. The palace filled me with awe for the ancient Minoan civilization, an advanced power in the Mediterranean 2,000 years before Rome was even founded. Shrouded in mystery, there are large gaps in what historians know of this Bronze Age civilization. Tantalizing clues abound in this palace, including famed frescoes.

I found the best frescoes above the throne room, where old King Minos perhaps sat dreaming up the idea of an elaborate labyrinth to house his pet Minotaur, the frightening half-man, half-bull creature of Greek myth. The works here are reproductions. (The originals reside in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.) They’re nonetheless very engaging.

The Bull Leaping Fresco is a favourite. It depicts a woman grasping the horns of a running bull. Another woman stands behind it, while a man does what looks like a handstand on its back. Some theorize that these are acrobats the bull is tossing up and over its head with a flick of the massive horns. Whether the fresco is a Minoan metaphor, an ancient stab at surrealism, or something entirely else, no one can say definitively. We do have one sure fact about this depiction: if you try to recreate the feat, make sure you have your affairs in order. A few foolhardy moderns who have tried were killed attempting it.

Other gems of Minoan art can be found around the palace. Visit the Queen’s quarters to see the enchanting Dolphin Fresco, a motif so endearing it’s been reproduced down through the ages. It and the grand images in the Hall of the Procession are reproductions, too. Still, viewing them, I realized I was occupying the very spot where, 4,000 years ago, an ancient artist stood back to admire his work.

Current Crete

Not all fascinating artefacts on Crete are ancient Minoan. One day, I decided to splash out for a car rental and roam the mountainous interior on my own. I picked a road randomly. Following it out of town, it began to rise and wind in tight curves. Grey and brown mountains stood above olive groves like austere old men. The touristy glitz of the coast, which reminded me somehow of the Trans Siberian Railway Tours I had a couple of years back, with all its attendant gift shops and spas faded far behind me as I rolled through small villages that spoke of unhurried and less complex eras. Elderly villagers shuffled by, carrying shopping in string bags, or lounged in shady spots. Goats and sheep wandered at will.

On the outskirts of one village, lay curious circles of stone. A local explained: Alonis, or grain threshing circles, that still dot the countryside in unspoiled places. It’s said the characteristic Greek dance step mimics how farmers would kick wheat to separate it from the chaff in these circles. They’ve long fallen out of use in our world of mechanized agriculture, but their echo still rings clear in the circular form of the dance. After this impromptu cultural history lesson, I sat in a Byzantine church, contemplating a quiet as profound as the countless centuries of history spanned in these villages.

Getting My Fill

In Crete, I like to stay in a small, locally owned hotel. Amenities may not be plentiful, but the insider knowledge the proprietor offers makes up for it. One evening I asked which nearby restaurants offered the most authentic local cuisine. I was directed to one up the coast. It took some work to find, but was so worth it. I was sat at a table with a view of dark sea, like a window on the void of space (except for the lights of a passing cruise ship). Then the waiter set the table.

I began with Koukouvagia, which means “owl,” perhaps because the round barley bread sprinkled with cheese, olives, oregano, and tomatoes resembles the face of one. The heavy bread soaking up the flavours of the cheese and oil reminded me of the rich sights I’d seen so far on my Crete holiday. For my main course, the waiter suggested one of the house specialities: snails with tomato sauce. Feeling bold, I gave it a try, and was delighted by another exotic, if a bit salty, dish. Dessert was a pastry called Kalitsounia Kritis, filled with sweet Myzitra cheese. Scrumptious!

Everything was amazingly delicious, and my waiter revealed the secret: all local ingredients. The olive oil was pressed a few doors down (there are sixty olive trees for every one person on Crete!) The cheeses were made with milk of sheep and goats grazed on the stark hills above town. And the dessert featured honey that Crete has been producing for thousands of years – a one-time favourite of Egyptian Pharaohs.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus once said, “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.” Crete certainly offers the curious traveller plenty to enjoy. I went there to learn about its past and experience, its present, and came away with a strong feeling of abundance.

Michael Roberts island hops oceans all over the world, searching for the interesting and the authentic. Writing about his discoveries for Travel Republic, he strives to balance the challenge of keeping to a budget for cheap holidays against absorbing what each location has to offer. Back home, he enjoys spending time with his family and practising meditation. You can connect with Michael on Google+.

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