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Holes in the Wall: Discovering Hidden Gems in Heraklion

None of what happened that day would have occurred if my sister was not an artist.

My family was spending the summer on the island of Crete, and it was one of the few days we weren’t attempting to do something together. Something about the very concept of the Family Vacation necessitates that every second of every day while out and about must be spent with the group as a whole. This is all well and good, for the most part, up until the point where you’ve found it may be better to take a day to be individuals instead of a cohesive family unit, for the sake of the continued family’s cohesion. You could consider it a vacation from the vacation, if you so choose. My sister, the aforementioned artist, wanted to spend her day drawing and painting some of the landscape, a noble endeavor that required art supplies that she, alas, did not have on her. Not to worry, however: a cousin of ours who lived in Heraklion knew exactly where to go. Since this was the day we’d mutually agreed to split up and explore, the rest of our family did not tag along. But I was curious, and figured a walk around the city would do me good. I happen to believe one cannot be bored in a city, and right when one believes there is nothing new left to experience, you stumble across a happy accident.

“It’s just down this street, until you hit the traffic lights. Then turn left. You cannot miss it, it’s, maybe, two blocks? Yes, two blocks away,” our cousin told us, and abruptly drove off, leaving us to our own devices. It seemed simple enough; go forward until you spot the traffic light. How hard could it be?

Well, as it turns out, it was very hard. There wasn’t a traffic light to be seen.

This was a pretty interesting corner, though.

I wanted to take a couple exploratory turns, every so often, but my sister, (a stickler for directions), wanted to keep going in the general direction of ‘straight,’ much to our misfortune. You see, for those who don’t know how the roads that are next to the city center work, they tend to ‘fan’ out, leading perambulators in a diagonal direction away from the center of town. We didn’t find out until we hit the coast, but the part of the coast that has large, Venetian walls showing the line of demarcation between the city and the rest of Crete. A happy accident in its own right, considering I had never seen the walls up close before, (unless you count quickly driving past them). You’d think that this would be the point where we’d want to turn back, and just retrace our steps? Well…

“Well, we’ve hit the coast. The road just loops around to the harbor. We can grab coffee there. Want to just do that?”

“Yeah, okay.”

Oops…

And so, in silence, we began to follow the road, more or less, with no conception of how far we were walking. We lost the road several times, (please don’t ask us how, because we still aren’t exactly sure ourselves), following the paths that the stray dogs take to navigate the back-ways. It did make for interesting photography, I thought to myself, but I hadn’t expected the hike and so had neglected to bring my camera. It’s just as well. I have a feeling that if I’d lingered in some of those back alleys for too long, the mangy dogs would have been the least of my worries. But we plugged on, thinking north, always north, keep north, (although we were probably going east), when suddenly we’d found the sidewalk once more, and could see the faint outline of the harbor in the distance.

“Oh hey—isn’t this that museum we keep seeing as we drive in?” my sister asked, pointing up to the yellow building that we’d found ourselves in front of.

“It is,” I said. I didn’t bother asking if she wanted to go inside. It was the middle of summer, we’d brought no water with us, and we’d been walking for about an hour. Inside meant air conditioning, water, possibly somewhere to sit. We were going in. Almost immediately, however, we decided to forego the plan to hit the café first, as we quickly became distracted by the wealth of treasures in the museum.

Image by the Historical Museum of Crete via their website. Sadly I neglected to take a photo of the building myself.

For those who’ve never been to the Historical Museum of Crete, (not to be confused by the more well-known Archaeological Museum closer to the town’s center), you owe it to yourselves to pay it a visit. Museums have always held a special place in my heart, a place that both quiets and excites my mind. This museum was a fabulous treat for me; it began as a general history of the island, which has been host to various cultural influences and conquerors, as some of you probably know. It is a fascinating history, filled with political intrigue and real-life folk heroes. From the Minoan empire, to the conquering Greeks, to the invasion of the Venetians, Ottomans, the reclamation of the Cretan people, this museum takes you on a journey through it all. There is even a section of the museum dedicated to the resistance of the Cretans against the Nazis, and it filled me with joy and pride to see how brave these men and women were in their struggle to liberate their island. (On a personal note, I was especially prideful to find two of my ancestors listed as members of this resistance. My sister and I were able to share a moment that, I expect, is rare to museum goers: seeing personal history and global history collide).

One of the beautiful exhibits in this museum!

If history isn’t really your favorite subject, you shouldn’t worry. It also plays host to a large amount of art, including some of the most beautiful Byzantine iconography I’ve seen in a single collection. And if post-Byzantine is more your style, you should make a pilgrimage to this place for the sole reason that it is the only play to see the two works by the master El Greco on display on the entire island of Crete: The View of Mt. Sinai and The Monastery of St. Catherine (1570), and the Baptism of Christ (1567). Though he eventually settled in Spain, Domenicos Theotocopoulous (a.k.a. El Greco) was born in Heraklion, and to see him honored in this museum is something truly special. The museum also features a large collection of the works of Nikos Kazantzakis, perhaps one of the best-known Greek writers, (and a Cretan native). For those of you who are bibliophiles, make it a point to visit this part of the exhibit. Books I had never even heard of adorned the walls, correspondence between Kazantzakis and his wife or his friends lie still under a glass pane, and I couldn’t help but admire the covers of the various international editions that all had such beauty to them. It’s a special place for those who love literature and exploring new cultures and voices you may not know to seek out.

A bright road ahead

 

We soon received a phone call from our family, who were all now well-rested enough to regroup and take on the rest of the summer as a family unit. They asked us to meet them at Lion Square, not knowing of our small odyssey that had led us through the side ways and byways of the city. We got lucky, though; the museum was only about 500 feet away from the center. Upon spotting us, our family waved us over to them, where they were enjoying a lovely bougatsa at our favorite café.

“Did you find your art supplies?” our father asked.

My sister and I looked at each other before remembering our journey had an initial purpose that, in the excitement, we’d forgotten.

“No,” she told him, and smiled as she reached for a forkful of pastry. “But that’s alright. There’s always the next trip.”

By Katarina Kapetanakis 

The Hidden Gem of Gortyna

To look at it now, you’d never know that Gortyn, or Gortyna, (or Gortys for that matter), was once the most prominent city in ancient Crete. In fact, from the outside, you wouldn’t think of it much except as a passing roadside attraction. I can’t say I took notice of it until I felt the car slowing down, and looking up I found myself in a parking lot that was most definitely not for the beach I thought we had been en route towards. I discovered, shortly, that though the place is unassuming from the outside, the archaeological site of Gortyna is not one to be missed.

Gortyna is now a small unassuming archaeological site that had been discovered in the later 1800s, but once it spanned so far and wide that it governed the whole southern-central part of Crete, including part of Rhethymnon. It was more important than even Knossos or Phaistos was at a time, and their Great Inscription, a summary of legal code that even today is considered advanced and complex, was a testament to their importance. Gortyna was a city of firsts, it seems: it was the first prosperous and powerful city in Crete during the Hellenistic era, the first Cretan city to fall under Roman rule, (including such updates as a new circular theater, a third agora, and a hippodrome), the first city to become an anchor to Christianity when Saint Titus preached there, and more. And  yet today, a stroll through the grounds of Gortyna is less a trip back in time than it is a wander through a ghost town, where nature seems to have reclaimed the land that once was a great metropolis. Giant lizards scurried in and out of cracks and crevices while cats lounged lazily in the sun, as usual in places they probably shouldn’t have been, and in the undergrowth the hum of the insects set the perfect soundtrack to my exploration. I had no idea the importance of the place at the time, as the placards and information cards were limited. But the site had a weight to it, the sort of calm one experiences when walking through a town that was once alive. The shadows from the columns of the ancient Odeon engulfed me and whispered to me questions of who else had stepped into their shade, who had walked these halls before I had. Who had walked these worn dirt roads before me? Had the people who had built these columns, once so tall, foreseen their toppling? Had they known people would hop on and off ledges, through phantom walls into rooms that no longer existed? I thought about that as I stood in the center of what used to be a house, or maybe a store. I was never to find out.

Despite not knowing a bit of the history of the place before visiting, the heat of the day and the surroundings lent itself to dreams of when the city was in its prime, and it was easy to slip into the fantasy of wandering the streets of a busy Grecian city as the theater across the way performed its latest epic drama. I had heard that it was here Europa was finally seduced by Zeus, after he had whisked her away, and the three great kings of Crete were conceived under a plane tree that still stands.  This fine line between myth and reality is so blurred in a place like Gortyna, where the facts are just obtuse enough to make one believe that anything was possible. So much was born in Gortyna: Roman influence, the root of Christianity in Crete and Greece…why not the royal sons of Zeus? Was it so impossible?

But of course, I haven’t even discussed their own unique wonder yet.

The most incredible part of Gortyna is the olive grove. I have never before had the pleasure of walking with trees that were there long before the existence of modern civilization. Trees that are some of the oldest in existence reside here, thick and worn and bent with age, but still strong and firm. Perhaps they’re a reflection of how the people age on Crete, growing stockier and more knobby, but never weaker, never less fascinating, never less beautiful. Imagine being able to reach out and touch a living thing that existed at a time when the ruins around you once stood tall. Imagine feeling the wind blowing through their leaves, the same wind that would have brushed against the faces of the ancient citizens, perhaps as they waited for the shops to open or a show to begin. Imagine placing your hand on the same bark that someone who existed before Christ himself placed his hand. It is a surreal and beautiful experience, this testament to living history. All at once you become a part of it, and a connection is forged between you and the rubble that surrounds you, the cicadas, the cats, the once great pillars and carved legal codes. All of it is connected and alive again, standing there in the olive grove.

 

A landscape reflected in its people is perhaps the most beautiful monument to civilization that stands today. I don’t think even the ruins would dispute this.

By Katarina Kapetanakis

Colossal: A Journey into Rhodes

Up until this point we have exclusively shared with you the wonders of the island of Crete, highlighting its people and surroundings. We’re still committed to sharing our love of the island with you, but today’s post is going to be a little different. Today, we welcome another Grecian island into the fold of the Wine Dark Sea family, the beautiful Rhodes, and with it our newest immersive property…Lemuria Manor.

Gardens at Lemuria Manor

Rhodes does not feel like the Greece you read about in your history books. It’s not Athens, bleached white and regal, the acropolis looming over the city like a sentinel. It isn’t Crete, a wild and lively island with a looseness and excitement that one could associate with a party of dryads and satyrs. No, Rhodes is a strange blend of a medieval world and a garden paradise. It is a land that transcends antiquity and plunges its visitors into a medieval world of Templar Knights and giants of stone that served as a gateway to an ancient kingdom. But you wouldn’t know that from your first impressions of the island. Driving from the airport to the old city feels almost as if you’re driving through a high-end beach town: towering hotels that mirror the mountains behind them, reflecting sunlight into the waves below. The beach is usually busy, packed with sunbathing tourists, and the water looks far away and close all at the same time. But once the taxi drops you off in front of St. John’s Gate, and you look over the wooden bridge that leads into a massive stone fortress, you begin to wonder whether you’re actually in Greece.

It’s a wonder, you think to yourself as you pass through the massive stone gate and walk down cobbled streets that have not changed in hundreds of years. The roads are narrow, the byways narrower still, and it almost feels as if you’ve entered a labyrinth with nothing but the sound of your own footsteps for company. The silence does not last; the sounds of shopkeepers haggling with tourists, the music of street performers, and the hustle and bustle of life permeate every stone and corner of the town. The scents of delicacies float down from the cafes, and suddenly you’re confronted with the most lively and vibrant colors that shops and nature have to offer. You’ve made it to the heart of the Old City. And what a city! Date palms loom over your head, yellows, browns and greens are everywhere, and the most beautiful colored glass lamps and carpets seem to adorn every corner. At the heart is a mosque, a remnant from Greece’s time under Turkish rule, where a tower topped with the strangest spires loom above you.

It is a short three-minute walk from this very square that you find yourself staying. From the outside, the building is hidden by a large stone wall, where only vines and flowers are visible. But upon turning a key, you unlock a path into a garden paradise, a private Eden where the hustle and bustle of the town is shut out. Nestled in the garden is Lemuria Manor, itself is a piece of history that has stood since templars themselves roamed the island, that proves to be a blend of elegance and modern convenience, and upon entering you are overwhelmed by a feeling of homecoming. You wonder if perhaps it is the city embracing you with open arms. You wander its halls and wonder what secrets a place like this holds, what histories it could share with you. It is an insight into the city in its own way.

A sneak peek of Lemuria Manor

But you do not linger there for long, and you set off again to the square, throwing yourself into the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. You are heading to the great stone palace of the Grand Master, the leader of the Templar Knights, the looming stone structure that towers above the square. Long ago, knights held residence on this great island, a stopover before the knights marched on towards the crusades. There’s an energy here that is palpable, as it draws in tourists by the thousands to gaze upon its magnificent halls. You step into a large stone courtyard with staircases that look like they could have been part of an Escher drawing, angular, precise, almost beautifully dividing the empty space created by the archways it passes. Statues grace the walls, of great philosophers and kings, keeping watch over the crowds. Inside the palace are gorgeous stone walls, alabaster floors with inlaid mosaics, with tapestries and religious icons hanging reverently on the wall. This palace is a work of art, a fortress on the outside while its inside suggests a certain European elegance. It is a wonder, that a castle such as this, that looks as if it was carved out of the very island itself, could be so elegant inside.

Of course, any introduction to Rhodes is incomplete without addressing the Colossus, the famed statue that once straddled the harbor. Alas, the statue does not exist today, and to visit the site is to pay homage to a grave. The only thing left of the statue are remnants of the pedestals it stood upon, and a broken weatherworn foot. Talks have circulated in local governments of rebuilding the statue, but if you’re curious to see the original site, take a walk to the harbor. Try to fathom something taller than even the statue of liberty holding its own torch alight, beckoning traders and visitors alike to the ancient island.

Rhodes is more magnificent than a single post can capture, as are all the islands in the Aegean. But stay tuned. The beauty of Rhodes will be covered more extensively in coming posts, and you won’t want to miss your chance to explore it.

By Katarina Kapetanakis

Matala Beach: How to Live For Today

Beautiful beaches are not at all unusual on the island of Crete. The whole coastline is a widely varied, but exceedingly beautiful paradise. From seaside fishing towns with tiny sandy shores, to imposing jagged rocks that loom over you as you take a dip in their coves, Crete’s beaches are a marvel to those seeking a vacation that is out of the ordinary. However, if you’re new to the island, picking a beach to go to can be a bit like playing roulette: you’re never sure what kind of beach you’re going to get until you arrive at the water’s edge. And if you aren’t accustomed to relaxing, you may not know where to go or how to do it. Let’s say you want something refreshing, something totally out of the ordinary. Something so unique and out of your usual comfort zone that you simply must experience it for yourself. So, come with us. Take a drive down, (or rather, up and down) the coastal highways of the island. Ninety minutes or so from the Wine Dark Sea villas, waits an adventure to another part of the island, a beach that, for many, acts not only as an escape to nature, but as a portal to another time…

Matala beach.

Pass through the bucolic mountainside dotted with ubiquitous olive groves, and several small villages. After several minutes you reach the pass leading to Matala beach. As you approach, you drive through a single boulevard entrance into the village, you find yourself face to face…to face…to face…with a giant dead tree that has been carved into multiple faces. It’s mystical, almost like it belongs in some popular fantasy franchise, though you’re not sure you know which one now. It sticks out, and yet, you can’t help but think that perhaps it’s perfect for the bizarre yet calming energy Matala gives off. It’s a message, you see: non-conformism rules this tiny beach town, uniqueness is king, and there are nothing but good vibes ahead of you. The motto of the village is plastered right on a seaside cliff, painted there decades ago when the town was a hippie paradise: Live for Today. You’re going to like it here, you think, as you approach the beach.

A strange town centerpiece

After walking down the hill from where you’ve parked your car just at the edge of the beach, take a look around. You’ll notice almost immediately discovers the cove of that dot the rock wall, and you can’t help but feel a sense of intrigue. Approach the worker selling tickets to these caves, and they’ll be happy to tell you: they are Roman catacombs, dotting the cliffs and intersecting with each other like a honey comb, and they are open to the public. Take some time, explore these caves. Marvel at the sound of the waves washing over the tombs of those closer to the ocean. Wonder what it would be like to be buried at a place as peaceful as this. Take some photos for posterity.

When you finish, exit the caves and take a moment to gaze into the water below. Note the incredible crystal blue color. Let yourself get excited: Matala beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and as you can see, the multitude of people already on the beach and enjoying the water agree with you. But take a moment to breathe it all in, the water, the caves, the painted cliffside. The energy, the mythos of it all, is infectious. You can’t help but picture Jason and his Argonauts trying to escape the bronze automaton Talos, stepping over the beach towards the Argo. The incredible invocation of mythology is palpable in the air. Let it infect you. Let the line between history and mythology be blurred. Then jump into the beautiful wine dark sea, and let the water wash over you. You will be cold, temporarily, but the clearness of the water combined with the alien world that shines just below the surface, of rocks and fish and ruins, will warm you with excitement. Explore it all. Soak it in. After all, you can’t find beaches like this at home. Swim out. Swim far. Climb some rocks, jump off of them. Feel alive.

A coastline dotted with caves. Can you make them out?

A swim in the cool Aegean waters will refresh the soul as one allows the bright sky and hot sun to renew the body with with its life giving energy, but a day at the beach brings hunger. You’re in luck, though. Tavernas are scattered all over the beach, overhanging the dramatic land forms, which allows for all the senses to be fed. Music echoes out from porches overlooking the sea, and smells seep out from the verandas to lure you into their restaurant. Pick the one that enchants you the most, the one that smells the most delicious. Take your seat on one of the blue chairs at a blue table, overlooking the blue Aegean, and allow the wind to kiss your sun warmed face. The joy of eating a Greek salad, with feta cheese and copious tomatoes, drenched in olive oil, while listening to the lapping waves on the beach, 20 feet from your table, is a joy worth remembering for a lifetime. And of course, the varieties of seafood offered hit the spot: you can’t help but consider this a perfect day. Like most tavernas on Crete, don’t expect to eat without making friends with the waiter or the owner, who usually feels compelled to come by and say hello and ask about ones’ trip and origins. Enjoy a dessert of watermelon, at owner’s insistence, the perfect refreshing sweet for a refreshing day. Share a drink or three of Raki, the Cretan “grappa” drink made from grape skins. It’s strong, so one must be moderate if driving. Sitting and watching the lights and colors change in the sky as the meal progresses, is a memory not soon forgotten.

A proud seaside taverna

Explore the village corners and shops where every angle and corner is a painting or photograph waiting to be made. Bright colors and flowers evoke the age of “Flower Power”, and you learn that Matala was and still is a hippie town. Perhaps this is contrary to the way you live most of your life, but here and now you can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be a carefree flower child. Someone tells you that John Lennon once camped out in the catacombs you visited at the start of the day; consider how the history of this place is so alive, and how it has been a place of peace and beauty since the dawn of antiquity. Let it amaze you. Buy a colorful t-shirt with a fun hippie print on it, a memory of the time that you let yourself be completely free. Perhaps grab another drink at one of the colorful bars in the town square. Leather goods and trinkets hang everywhere and saturate the sights on a village walk. Let yourself be tempted to try the ‘fish spa,’ where visitors place their feet in tanks of small fish that nibble away at your dead skin. Maybe succumb to the temptation. After all, if there was a place to try new things, to live to your absolute freest, well….you’ve come to the right place.

A perfectly framed Aegean sea beckons

 

By Katarina Kapetanakis