Archive for the 'Crete' Category

Oct 13 2007

Knossos: Dreams Do Come True!

Published by under Crete,Greece

Mark yesterday down as one of those days that significantly increases the level of happiness I’ll enjoy on my death bed. Crete has been my most-desired travel destination for at least ten years, all because of one site: the palace ruins at Knossos. After a month on Crete, we finally visited Knossos on Thursday, and it was a dream come true for me.

Knossos Palace
Knossos was home to the Minoans, who first built the palace here around 1900BC, and were the ancestors to those people that we commonly think of as ancient Greeks. The palace they built on Crete was a labyrinthine home for what could really be called a self-sufficient town. Its sprawling, maze-like blueprint gave rise to Greek legends of a true Labyrinth on the island of Crete. And the Minoans’ reverence for the bull ultimately gave birth to the tale of the Minotaur who inhabited the Labyrinth. I’m happy to say that the description of “maze” fits Knossos quite well. It took me all of ten minutes to become lost in the ruins, without a clue how to get where I wanted to go. I’ll be the first to admit to becoming lost in a supermarket more than once, but that took me at least twenty minutes.

Knossos columns
One thing that sets Knossos apart from other ancient sites is the fact that it isn’t all white. That is, you quickly notice that many columns and walls are painted deep red, gold, and black. This is because the original archaeologist who uncovered the site, Sir Arthur Evans, wanted to bring the civilization to vivid life, for all modern visitors to see. And in fact, his reconstructive decisions have become a major point of contention among archaeologists and other scholars. At the risk of condemning myself to ridicule from certain members of the archaeological field, I appreciate Evans’ decision to re-paint and re-build sections of the site as they would have once looked. While certain renovations were purely based on conjecture, his work goes a long way toward immersing you in what Knossos must have felt like in its prime. And those certain archaeologists who disagree are the boring ones anyway.

Knossos plumbing
The Minoans were way ahead of their time in terms of technological achievement, which has led more than one historian to propose that Knossos was the basis for the stories we have all heard about Atlantis. One highlight that you can easily see today is a subterranean plumbing system. A system of underground pipes carried water away from the palace, which allowed for its royalty to enjoy the first “flushing” toilets, with the water being poured down by hand. Another cool first for Knossos is known as The Royal Road, which led out from the palace toward trade routes and the like. The Royal Road is remarkable because it was Europe’s first road!

The only disappointing aspect of the site is that you are not able to view its famous frescoes in their original locations. But even this is OK, because they are on display in the Archaeological Museum of nearby Iraklio. When we visited (Oct 2007) the Museum was still in the throes of a several years-long renovation, which has forced the majority of the building to close to the public. Fortunately, the Museum has graciously set up some of its best pieces in a single large room, which you may visit in the meantime. Less graciously, they still charged us the full museum admission price for the one room.

No price is too great, however, to see the frescoes and sculptures that were found at Knossos, and have adorned the covers of art history textbooks ever since.

Knossos Bull Jumping Fresco
Final verdict: It’s worth going to Iraklio just to visit Knossos and the Archaeological Museum. And in fact, that’s probably about all you’ll want to do before you’re ready to leave the city. We found Iraklio to be grimy and dull, and a major step down from Chania*. Also, its youth hostel is about as spartan as you can get. If you’re lucky enough to not travel alone, it’s worth it to shell out the few extra euros and share a room in one of the cheaper hotels. Actually, perhaps we should start putting up reviews of accommodations somewhere on this site.

I leave you with this exciting note: we arrived via ferry today on Santorini, where we will be spending the next 5 nights! Found a nice hotel (with a pool!) in Fira, and October being the low season around here, we were able to substantially negotiate the price down to backpacker-level. Will begin much-anticipated island exploring ASAP. Keep you posted…

*After about two days in Hania, we figured out that the most widely accepted English spelling is actually “Chania.” But we didn’t really feel like going back to edit our entries, so we just ignored it. Perhaps one day we’ll go back and edit our spelling. But since we’ve now written lots of entries about Chania, I feel like going back to edit them even less.

Video Tour of Knossos from the Central Courtyard:

The Palace at Knossos from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

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Oct 10 2007

One last note from Hania…

Published by under Crete,Greece

EurosAteMyDollarsFor starters, I’d like to thank the U.S. dollar for continuing to weaken. As our Russian-turned-Canadian friend Sasha was happy to inform us, the value of the U.S. dollar has now fallen below that of the Canadian dollar for the first time in nearly forty years. We now have to pretty much multiply all prices in euros by one and a half to get the dollar value. Can’t complain — we knew what we were getting into (see website title).

In happier news, we added a Map & Itinerary section to our site! Our itinerary is far from determined and in constant flux, but we’ve given a good general idea.

This afternoon we’re saying our official goodbyes to Hania and catching a bus to Iraklio, Crete, to fulfill one of Ben’s lifelong dreams: to see Knossos. Knossos was home to the Minoans, one of Europe’s first civilizations. Their maze-like palaces spawned the myth of the labyrinth and the Minotaur.

After a couple days in Iraklio we’re taking a ferry to Santorini. The next month will be spent island and city hopping, until arriving in Italy in November. Updates to follow as we locate sporadic internet access points!

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Oct 08 2007

The Top 10 Greek Products We NEED in the U.S.

Published by under Crete,Greece

10. Xboy
Who needs Xbox? For the mere price of 20 Euros, you can have your own Xboy! Is it made by Microsoft? No! Is it a working game console? I doubt it! Is it really just a brick in a box? All signs point to yes! Merry Christmas, Junior!

GameSatation 2
9. GameSatation 2
Sitting right next to “Xboy” in a sleazy electronics shop in Hania is something called “Gamesatation 2.” I really wanted to ask what is actually inside the box, but the store owner chased me off when he caught me taking these pictures and laughing.

8. Gerani Lemonade
Just like lemonade, but with one crucial difference: it’s carbonated! It’s bottled in Greece, so I’ve been drinking it like crazy in case I can’t find it elsewhere in Europe. I tell you this: When I return to the States, all my Country Time lemonade will be made with carbonated water.

chocolate croissant
7. Chocolate Croissant
OK, so these are really only in Greek bakeries in order to appease the hordes of British tourists. In other words, you would be right if you protested that these aren’t really Greek at all. And if you did so, I would say that I’ll eat a chocolate croissant every day of the week if I want to, and no one will ever keep me away from them again, so you just need to BACK OFF!!!

6. Oregano Chips
This sounds sort of weird/unappetizing, which is of course the reason we bought them in the first place. As it turns out, it’s like Sour Cream and Onion chips and Old Bay chips had a delicious chip baby. They favor Sour Cream and Onion chips slightly more though, so I guess that was the mother.

5. Gyros
The ultimate late night snack. I’ve always liked these in the States, but I didn’t know gyros until I tried “Mike’s” on the Hania harbor. Mike knows gyros. Take one homemade pita, and fill it with slow roasted pork, fresh tomatoes, spinach, tzatziki sauce, and the ultimate coup de grace: french fries. Also, it turns out that everyone who tried to tell me that “gyros” is pronounced “yeeros” was right. Gyros ate my dollars?

4. Loukoumades
Beauty in simplicity, which means that you can make these yourself tonight in a few easy steps. Buy some biscuit dough, roll it into balls, and fry it up in a pan. Once it’s looking like golden doughnut holes, cover it in honey and cinnamon. Presto! You just made loukoumades, and that sound you hear is me trying to force my way into your home to steal every single one.

3. TonTon
To be fair, Greece has to share the credit with Denmark for this particular product. Half Greek, half Danish, 100% pure legendary explorer. In the time it takes you to eat your mortal breakfast, TonTon has discovered at least three new ancient civilizations. Whose residents were tinier than Thumbkin. And who tell him the secrets of the galaxy when no one else is around. For more on TonTon, you should probably read this story.

2. Raki
Ouzo is the more famous Greek spirit, but raki is distinct to Crete. You could buy raki in brand-name bottles, but why bother when everyone is willing to sell you their own homemade version at half the price? Raki is made from fermented grape skins, which gives it a wine-like taste. The cool thing about this wine-like taste is that it is exceptionally good at hiding behind the distinct taste of burning. But the people of Crete are tough, and any day when they aren’t drinking raki before noon is a day that they must not have been awake before noon. This can also be attributed to raki.

1. After a full day of consumer electronics scams, oregano-flavored everything, and of course, TonTon, there’s simply nothing quite like…


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Oct 06 2007

Conquering the Gorge

Published by under Crete,Greece

There are two things that Ben and I are definitely not: 1. in shape (motivating myself to walk down the one flight of stairs in my apartment building instead of taking the elevator was an event) and 2. early risers (one memorable day in college Ben woke up at 7 pm, thought it was 7 am, and slept until the next morning. Seriously).

So it was a bit out of character for us to get up at 6:30 this morning to hike 17 kilometers through a giant gorge. This is especially true considering we hadn’t gone to bed until 2:00 in the morning last night. As yesterday was the Danes’ last night in Hania, we’d promised to meet them one last time at The Point. After several failed attempts to catch the early-morning bus to Samaria Gorge, we vowed to have only one beer, say goodbye, and call it a night at a reasonable hour. Unfortunately, Tom and Sandeep have never “called it a night” before early the next morning, so even though we were miraculously able to stick to our one-beer maximum, we didn’t get home until much later than planned. It was difficult to leave our new friends, since we’ve had such a great time with them over the last two weeks. I know the life of a traveler means all new friends are of the make-them-and-leave-them variety, but not being made of such tough stuff, it was with much reluctance (and tearful hugs) that I said goodbye.

starting the trek
We arrived at the bus station this morning out of breath, having had to run to make it on time, and grumpy, as our favorite chocolate croissant vendor was closed at that ungodly hour. We accomplished the mammoth task of buying a bus ticket and boarding the correct bus in record time. This bus from Hania took us up the mountains into the village of Omalos, where the start of the gorge hike is located. (PS: I will say the one good thing about getting up early is that watching the sun rise over the mountains was gorgeous.) (PPS: you know the only thing scarier than driving through the Lefka Ori in a car? Driving through them on a bus with a crazy Greek at the helm!)

The Samaria Gorge is located near the southern coast of Crete and, at 17 kilometers, is apparently the longest gorge in Europe. I don’t really have this whole “meter system” thing down yet, so I’m not sure what that translates to in miles. You could tell me it was 3 miles, or you could say it was 50, and I’d probably believe you. I think a sign said it was around 10 miles long.

The first part of the trek consists of steadily hiking down the mountain into the ravine. By “hiking” I mean “sliding” as many of the rocks were quite slick and the paths can be steep. We quickly became jealous of the gorge-veterans who’d brought walking sticks. One particularly awesome old guy brought two walking sticks and wore a helmet in case of rock slides.

Near the mouth of the gorge lies the namesake village, Samaria. The inhabitants of Samaria were kicked out (or “nationalized,” according to the posted sign) when the gorge became a National Park, but a few buildings and chapels remain.

the gorgeThe gorge itself is incredible. It almost seems like a rocky riverbed (which, I think in the winter, it is), with two enormous cliffs rising perpendicular to the ground on either side. For most of the hike, the gorge remains reasonably wide, but towards the end it narrows and reaches a point no more than three meters across (called the “Iron Gates”).

It was at this point that Ben and I began applauding ourselves for “conquering the gorge!” That turned out to be premature as it was at least another 3 km walk to the nearest village where we could catch a ferry back.

We have some bad news: we did not discover a kri-kri on our road trip. We had suspicions that our kri-kri friend was merely a goat when we saw an actual kri-kri in the Hania city park zoo. Our fears were confirmed when we consulted our guidebook, which informed us that we’d run across wild mountain goats. So the search continues…

goatI, for one, am quite impressed by these wild goats. Occasionally on our hike we would hear the sound of falling rocks from above. Resisting the urge to throw my arms above my head as if that could save me from descending boulders, I’d look up to see a goat perched on the cliff side. In a gravity-defying feat, these goats would scale completely vertical rockfaces with ease. That also put our “conquering the gorge” claims into perspective.

Some helpful hints for those considering the Samaria Gorge:

  1. Wear good shoes! Our athletic sneakers felt inadequate at times.
  2. If you’re coming from Hania, take the bus from the city bus station. It’s less than half the price of those tourist offices offering a “guided tour” of the gorge. Here’s a guide: walk.
  3. Don’t do it backwards. I don’t know what kind of crazy person would attempt to ASCEND the gorge, but I know people do. I can’t see it happening without serious injury.
  4. Bring a small water bottle and some snacks. The have springs along the way to refill.
  5. The gorge isn’t open year round, but I would go early or late in the season. We had about half a bus load of hikers starting the trek at the same time, and we still ran into some traffic jams along narrow parts of the trail. I can’t imagine what it’s like in peak season when they have up to five bus loads three times a day from Hania’s bus station alone. Plus, it would be unbearably hot in the summer.

Our days in Hania are winding down, and we’ll be traveling within the next couple days to the city of Iraklio on Crete, where we’ll stay for a few days before sailing out to other islands. Keep you posted!

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Oct 03 2007

Guess Who’s Back…

Published by under Crete,Greece

It’s currently 3:00 in the afternoon, and we’re sitting in our apartment with the door open to the street. Not five minutes ago, I’m sitting here listening to music and drinking Gerani (carbonated lemonade), blissfully oblivious to the fact that a person is slowly approaching our door. When I saw a shadow in the doorway, I looked up, and found it very hard to believe that I was once again confronted with “TonTon.” How did he find us???

He waved to me, blew a kiss to Brittany, and told us he thought our apartment was a shop. It’s been 36 hours since we saw him last, so I was eager to hear about all of the discoveries he must have unearthed in that time. Sadly, he must be taking a break from the bush, as he had no new archaeological finds to record. However, TonTon is happy to report that he met a nice Rasta girl in a bar last night, and they spent the rest of the evening with their dreadlocks tied together. What Jah has joined together, let no man put asunder?

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Oct 02 2007

The Motleyest Crew

Published by under Crete,Greece

Our last two nights have been spent out on the Hania bar scene, with a new motley crew that was assembled at one of the Scandinavian bars, called “The Point.” Much like “Klik” and “Danza,” “The Point” professes to be the #1 Scandinavian bar in Hania. Did I mention that we make one motley crew?

  • Mike: Russian/Canadian Jewish DJ
  • Sasha: Russian/Canadian doorman at The Point
  • Tom – Danish tourist here on dad’s dime
  • Sandeep – Indian/Danish tourist (this makes for an interesting accent)
  • Nikolaus – Danish owner of The Point (at 22 years old)
  • Kathy – New Jersey resident studying abroad
  • And of course, 2 aimless Virginians

As a Russian/Canadian Jewish DJ, it only makes sense that Mike’s musical specialty is reggae. Sunday night was Reggae Night at The Point, which saw Mike at the turntables, and Sasha passed out on an outdoor couch while being paid to act as doorman.

The Motleyest Crew
Nikolaus, Brittany, Tom, Sandeep, Kathy

The Danes, as it happens, are a very generous people. They buy rounds for the group faster than I can keep up with. If the level of beer in my bottle drops below the neck, Sandeep is at my side, thrusting a new bottle into my hand. Early on, we were politely declining their offers of beverages, but were soon informed that this is a faux pax in Denmark. You must accept this generosity, and simply try to buy your benefactor his or her next drink, if you can ever find breathing room between rounds. I have gotten the distinct impression that the true Danish faux pax is sobriety.

Our new friends love to learn American slang and culture, and I believe we may be successful in spreading “y’all” to Denmark, as well as getting Nikolaus to serve nachos at The Point. We are having far less success in trying to get Sandeep to stop using the n-word. He apparently picked it up from American rap music, and I can’t make him understand why it’s not OK to greet new people with “what up my n_____s!”

Some other border-crossing highlights:

  • All of our new friends delight in saying “How YOU doin?”, which they were proud to tell me is a favorite saying of Joey Tribbiani. Want world peace in 2008? It seems you can’t afford not to elect Matt LeBlanc.
  • If a bar plays music, then Tom and Sandeep are guaranteed to request Haddaway’s “What is Love?” Their SNL-style head-banging is enriched by the fact that they are consistently wearing ridiculous hats and/or wigs. Watch out, ladies!

Reggae Night at The Point must have been a success, because the music attracted one character who I must mention here. Toward the end of last night, a middle-aged Rastafarian sat down next to our group on the balcony. He introduced himself as a traveler who speaks eight different languages, and who gives hugs to people who are of mixed heritage. As an Irish and Korean mix, Kathy was the lucky recipient of the first hug.

I asked his name, and he announced that he has two names: a Danish name, which means “the Viking who must die for his cause,” and a Greek name, which he would not share with me. He then decided that he is known in Venezuela as “TonTon,” which means “crazy,” and that I could call him this. When I told him my name, he fell silent, with a teary, far-off look in his eye. I asked if everything was OK, and he told me that he was going to get a tattoo on his back of a tombstone, inscribed with “coincidence.”

The pensive mood was suddenly broken by his exclamation that he had discovered a pyramind in Sarajevo, older than the Egyptian pyramids. Perhaps sensing my skepticism, TonTon quickly produced photographs from his backpack. The first showed him climbing through some trees in the middle of the night, and he described this as a picture of him “searching through the bush.” Next was a picture of him holding a football-sized rock up to the camera. I asked about the rock, and he explained that the pyramid was inside the rock. He then regaled us with the tale of how he cracked open the rock to discover the pyramid hidden inside. TonTon was not out for money, so he donated the pyramid to the restaurant nearest where he found the rock, and he was pleased to announce that the restaurant was re-named in honor of the discovery.

“TonTon” the World Traveler

I guess even TonTon runs out of things to talk about after a while, as he soon fell silent. I thought that might be the last of him, until he suddenly turned to me, and quietly, began singing Bob Marley lyrics in his most soothing voice. I think this might have continued for the rest of the night, but it was around this time that the bar announced they were closing. As we gathered our belongings, TonTon looked into my eyes and sang a new song. As he walked away, he told me that he was singing a speech from 1977. I called after him that I was too young to remember it. He looked back over his shoulder, one last time, to say, “you’re never too young.”

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