Phaistos: the most unknown Minoan Crete

DSCN4408We all know the story and legend of the Minoan palace of Knossos, King Minos and Minotaur trapped in the maze. For many, including us, this is and has been one of the first things we visited here in Crete, as it is only right! But today, we want to talk about Palace of Knossos’“little brother”, the perennial runner-up that nobody remembers, but that is going to blow you away once you get to know it! We are referring to the Palace of Phaistos, Φαιστός (Faistos) in Greek.

DSCN4410Situated at 60 km south from Heraklion and 140km from our house, this palace represented the second most important palatial city of Minoan Crete, ruled, according to legend, by Rhadamanthus, son of Zeus and brother to Minos. The structure of the palace (or what is left of it) is very similar to the one of Knossos, but what makes it unique and unmissable is its authenticity and its mysterious ambience. In fact, contrary to its older brother, Phaistos has been brought to light without any restoration work, and for this we are proud to give credit to the Italian School of Archaeology ;-). The excavations, led by the archaeologists Luigi Pernier and Federico Halbherr, started in June of 1900 and dug out the ruins of several palaces that have been protagonists of the area for centuries. As a matter of fact, the first palace dates back to 2000 BC. Two collapses and two restorations followed to this, due to earthquakes and other natural disasters. Since 1450 BC, for centuries, the city of Phaistos represented the nerve centre of southern Messara Plain. The last palace lasted until the 2nd century BC, when the city was defeated by the Roman Gortyn.

DSCN4422The fact that it’s not as known as Knossos, not surrounded by extraordinary legends and without any restoration, makes it more appealing to us, as it stimulates the imagination; besides, it is never too crowded. We really enjoyed the magical atmosphere you will find yourself immersed in once you open the doors of the palace. For instance, let’s think about the Central Courtyard, today a huge and vague open space, once the throbbing heart of the city and centre of any politic, religious, social and economic activity. When you are in the middle of this courtyard and you are surrounded only by an unreal silence and the few ruins of a magnificent and bygone age, it’s quite exciting to imagine that 4000 years ago that same land swarmed with people, performances, voices, merchants, rites, and that all around there were colonnades, porticos, balconies packed with people watching the daily routine.DSCN4412 Carrying on our visit, it was fun to imagine the king and queen washing themselves, combing their hair or having an argument in the Royal Apartments, or the crowd attending a play on the steps of what it’s said to be the first Theatre ever built in the world. DSCN4449All of this is fostered by the surrounding landscape: on one side the immense Messara Plain, with its olive trees, flowers of every species and fields of crops, on the other side the majestic and still snow-capped Mount Psiloritis (or Mount Ida), the highest mountain on Crete (2.456mt).

As if this was not enough to make this place special, there are also some legends around the famous Phaistos Disc, dug out by the archaeologists inside the palace’s storage rooms, and now stored in the Heraklion Museum. This disc of fired clay, carved on both sides with a spiral of 241 symbols similar to hieroglyphics, remains incomprehensible to this day and it is surrounded by mystery. Some assumed it was related to religious and magical rites, others even say it is a fake; the certain thing is that its interpretation is still disputed. timthumb

Besides the palace, it is worth to visit the wild beach of Kommos, which is 15 minutes by car from there, and where there are few remains of what it was likely to be one of the oldest ports of Phaistos.

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DSCN4473At that moment, we headed home, and for lunch (at 3.30 pm, like real Cretan people!) we stopped at this picturesque inland village, at the foot of the mountains, named Spili. In the pretty historic centre, surrounded by majestic plane trees, narrow alleys and fabled houses, stands the beautiful Venetian fountain, refurbished, with 19 lion heads that spurt a water considered by many the best of the island (we can confirm!). The simple and relaxed tavern where we stopped is called Stratidakis: a pretty terrace overlooking the valley, simple and very tasty meals, cooked and served by the elderly melancholic-looking owner. Approved :-)!!

And also today we can definitely say “Super day!”. As always, Crete hasn’t disappointed us…See you next time!!

Mappa Festo

 

 

Lissos and Sougia: where history and landscape come together

We are back, as promised, two weeks late but hey! Better late than never. Today we are going to talk about our last excursion with our mates Laura and Carlo. Crete, end of October, and still warm and sunny. No wonder why we choose Crete as our new home!!

DSCN3520We decided to explore the south west coast of the island. Firstly, we reached Sougia by car and then we followed the stunningly beautiful European E4 path, scattered with mountains, starting from Ai Kyrkos gorge. The trail going from Sougia to Lissòs remains one of our favourite routes here in Crete, the secret of its beauty lying in the diversity of its landscape, which encompasses rills, caves, a small and stony path scattered with pines and shrubs. Its planes summon to memory images of lunar landscapes. Our hike lasted about one hour and a half and then we finally reached Lissòs and the unforgettable bay of Ai Kyrkos. And when on top, you can’t help asking yourself: « What an amazing place is this? ».

But let’s focus on the Temple of Asclepio, the crown jewel of the archaeological ruins of Lissòs. The beautiful mosaic on its floor is the centrepiece of it all; it dates back to the first century and it reproduces geometrical shapes and a big quail. Then, you realize you are in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rock-walls, carob and centuries-old olive trees, facing this human masterpiece. In over 1000 years this complex has faced and survived so many challenges! And there is so much more to come…the entire necropolis lays further in silence, scattered with dozens of arcosolium tombs. Death seems to dominate everything and the deafening silence instills respect for the place we are visiting. But we did not forget to visit Ai Kyrkos chapel and, west of the beach, the incredible church of Panagia (Holy Mary), whose marble rocks belonged to an ancient sarcophagus. There you can find a fine representation of Medusa’s head, the Gorgon monsters beheaded by Perseus.

Last but not least, a well-deserved rest, we finally arrived at the beach! Emerald colour, smooth and sanded pebbles, a surreal transparency…This place will never stop to impress us, no DSCN3635wonder it is so loved by the Cretans. A perfect conclusion of this memorable trip, and was a satisfaction looking back on our steps! After some hours spent sunbathing, and one last swim, at 4.30 pm we caught a ten minutes boat ride back to Soùgia. It was such a wonderful day, and we would like to conclude by thanking our mates Carlo and Laura, who already came to visit twice and that are our favourite kind of travellers, the ones that never say no!

Thanks, mates!

 

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Click on the map to see where all these spots are

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Samaria Gorge: the giant of Crete

After livening up your summer with some of the best beaches of the island, today we want to tell you about our last amazing adventure, exploring the other side of Crete: the mountain.

DSCN2920Have you ever heard about Samarià Gorge? Probably you have, since it’s the longest gorge in Europe and one of the greatest natural wonders of this part of the world. Last Saturday, together with our friend Fernando, we embarked in one of the most exciting experiences of our life!

DSCN2925We left Chania at 7.45 with a bus to Omalos, but it actually continues till Xyloskalo, where the actual excursion starts from. After having paid the 5 euro entrance for the Samaria National Park (founded in 1962), equipped with water, sandwiches and a lot of energy, we were ready to start! The excursion of this gorge is not for everyone: 16 km long, it takes about 6 hours walking, counting the stops for eating, drinking and using the toilet. The road is almost all downhill: you start from a 1200 mt height (from Xyloskalo) and then you arrive at the southern coast of the island, at Agia Roumeli. Every 2-3 km, you can find fresh water springs, toilets and rest areas with tables and benches where you can have a packed lunch and restore your energy.

DSCN2926Our walk started with a steep and marked path that tried our strength straight away. We took about one hour to descend to the bed of the gorge, surrounded by centennial pine trees and breath-taking views over the valley. Going on, the road was a bit more “diverse”, as it was dug in a riverbed that in the winter fills with water. Huge rocks, strangely shaped trees, mountain walls more or less smoothed by the wind, and small brooks to cross. But the most memorable encounter of those first few kilometres was definitely with one of the inhabitants of this gorge and these mountains: the legendary feral goat Kri-Kri, endemic species of Crete.
DSCN2969The examples of the area, most likely used to the amount of daily visitors, are easy to approach: they look like small ibices and their cubs are the cutest in the world!

DSCN3007 Halfway through, we arrived at the old village of Samarià where its inhabitants lived until the opening of the park in 1962. To think that people could live there is really unbelievable! Taking advantage of the service area equipped with toilets and tables in the shade, we had our sandwich and relaxed our tired legs that after 2 hours walking were starting to give up…

DSCN3054Bold and determined to reach the sea as early as possible, we resumed our journey after 30 minutes’ break. The surrounding landscape was changing repeatedly, and this made the walk varied and exciting. DSCN3066

Walking through rocky walls high hundredths of meters and centennial trees that incredibly grow from that rock, we felt very small. In that place and in that moment, we were facing the absolute superiority of Nature over man. Suffice it to say, that Samaria Gorge, together with the Mount Olympus National Park, are the only preserved areas in Greece to be included in the MAB Network, which is the Unesco programme “Man and Biosphere”. This must be the reason why here live nearly 500 species of plants and animals, of which about 70 are endemic of Crete.

DSCN3074After about 5 hours’ trek, we finally reached the most famous spot of this gorge, the “Iron Gates” (Σιδερόπορτες). This passage is known to be the narrowest of the canyon. After kilometres of very wide spaces (up to 150 mt wide), here the sides of the gorge close in to a width of only 3 metres, and the sides soar up to a height of 600 metres…it’s breath-taking!

DSCN3121After the gates, the worst was over! Once at the end of the route, we stopped at a kiosk where we were asked to show our entrance tickets, and we walked the last very sunny stretch of cobblestone separating us from the sea. After about 20 minutes, we finally spotted a mirage at the horizon, our “oasis in the desert”: the Lybian Sea!! Despite our exhaustion and the sore calves, we sped up our pace and in a jiffy we were swimming in the fresh and clear water of AgiaRoumeli, incredulous to finally be there! And in this place of unreal beauty, with volcanic sand and pitch-black pebbles, we spent two hours of well-deserved relax.

DSCN3124At 5:30 pm, we took the last ferry to Hora Sfakion, where at 6:30 pm there was the last bus to Chania. Even in the hour spent on the ferry, Crete has given us some pieces of paradise, with its unbelievably blue sea water and the magnificent White Mountains (Λεφκά Όρι) as a backdrop.

What can we say more about this adventure… the pictures are quite self-explanatory, don’t you think?

Anyone of good will, strong legs and love for the nature should go for this experience. Rest assured, you will never forget it!

Bye, everyone!

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Click on the map to see our path

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