Disembarking the ferry at 8:30 on Sunday night, hungry, sleepy and reeking of second-hand smoke from the economy class lounge, we were not welcomed to Iraklio, Crete with open arms. We immediately sought out accommodations for the night (along with the couple hundred other budget travelers on the ferry), and were shocked at the lack of hotels and rooms to let in Iraklio, the largest city on the island, its governmental seat and main transportation hub. We weren't aware of this shortage when we first arrived--our Lonely Planet guidebook recommended five or six budget places near the port in the city's center, which normally means there are three times that many in the vicinity that didn't get their own listing in the book.
So, when we were quoted 35 Euro for a room with two twin beds and a shared bathroom down the hall (exactly double what we had last paid in Santorini for a double with private bath), we took a pass and headed to the next hotel on the list...full. Then to the next...full. Full. Full. Full. Out of guidebook recommended options, not finding any non-guidebook recommended options on our own (other than one battered building with no one manning the second-floor reception area--I expected an opium addict to wander in from one hallway and a hooker to be chased by a sweaty, bug eyed ax-wielding John down the other hallway), and having only the vaguest sense of our location due to the Greeks' absolute refusal to intersect any two streets at niney-degree angles, a maitre d' that couldn't interest us in the evening's specials directed us to a nearby hotel.
As we read the brass name plate mounted on the marble and glass fascade of the Olympic Hotel, we expected, at most, to get directions to a cheaper hotel further from the city. The manager had mercy on us, and we accepted his offer of 55 Euro (down from 105) for a spotless room with cable, a delightfully firm double bed and a good shower, with breakfast included. We couldn't bear the thought of walking anymore to go out for dinner. However, we did stay up for Nicholas Cage's and Angelina Jolie's Oscar-nominated performances in "Gone in 60 Seconds", which may have set a record for the number of unintentionally funny scenes.
The next morning, after making several trips to the continental breakfast buffet (with my shaved head and hiking boots I wasn't blending in with Olympic Hotel crowd in any event) we took a local bus thirty minutes from central Iraklio to the archaeological site at Knossis. The site consists of a palace and surrounding structures built, occupied and rebuilt by the Minoans from 1900 to 1400 B.C. Although the area encompassing the site is immense, the "ruins" aren't all that much to look at: a maze of two-feet high walls, the bases of columns, and a handful (given the size of the site) of original paving stones.
What makes the Minoan ruins at Knossis Crete's top tourist site are not the ruins at all, but the reconstruction of several buildings, parts of buildings, terraces, walkways and art pieces by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans during the early part of the twentieth century. Nearly all of the reconstructions are done in concrete and painted in bold colors, so they stand out from the native stone and mortar construction of the ruins. The interpretive signs placed throughout the site betray the contemporary curators' ambivalence for Sir Arthur's concrete interpretations making Knossis a well-visited site on the one hand (with visitor fees likely supporting many other sites on the island) and somewhat of a disaster with respect to historical accuracy. The gist of most of the signs were as follows: "You are looking at a two and a half story suite of rooms erected by Sir Arthur on this site based on utterly misinterpreted archaeological evidence. Arty and the Boys dubbed this the 'Promenade Court', as all of the wonderous sites they read about in their Archaeology for the Aristrocracy 101 textbook always included a Promenade Court (although none of the sites in said text were Minoan), despite the 438 cases of 16th Century B.C. canned creamed corn that were located in the immediate vicinity. Modern scholars refer to it as The Pantry, though they concede that 'Promenade Court' does have a nice ring to it."
Even more entertaining than the signage at Knossis were the people reading the signage, and, in particular, the clothing they wore to go to Knossis to read said signage. A few of the highlights: (1) skintight denim capris, sporting a pantyline straight out of a 1981 UnderAlls commercial, and five-inch platform heel sandals for touring ruins, (2) a pair of light blue tennis shorts, carefully accented by a perspiration-glistening, three-inches-below-the-belt gut overhang in front, with an auburn thicket of backhair on the other side (he was later asked by a docent to put his shirt on--whether this was the enforcement of a general rule or an emergency act by the Greek Department of Homeland Security, we'll never know), and (3) a lady who was trying to get a dose of culture and a tan in her coral pink bikini top, who should have been warned by her 17 year old granddaughter that this may not have been the look she should be going for. But, these were all just open acts for the archetype of the color-coordinated Frenchman we dubbed "The Purpetrator" -- a name that captured the essence of the Schwarzenegger-esque black sunglasses, the matching purple shorts and top, and the criminal intent that brought him out of the house in that get-up. I haven't seen a fashion show of this calibur since the Griswold's shopping spree scene in "European Vacation."
We wiled away the rest of the afternoon in Iraklio, and took a three hour bus ride to Hania, near the western end of the island. Our guidebook says that the Minoan culture that developed on Crete at around 3000 B.C. was "Europe's first advanced civilization." It is my personal belief that the Minoans achieved this distinction by inventing the switchback roadway. Over the ten hours on a bus during this 48 hour span, I can barely recall a stretch of road over 500 meters that did not have at least one 120 degree plus corner. At least we got to view all of the scenery from a variety of angles. I was surprised by how mountainous the island is, and even the coastal roads skirt cliff after cliff.
We had a short first night in Hania (in a much cheaper, much easier to find hotel, I might add), as we had to get up at 6:30 to catch the second bus of the day to the top of Samaria Gorge. This 18 kilometer gorge begins in the highlands in the middle of the island and descends about 1500 meters to the Libyan Sea on the southern coast. The scenery was amazing, and it was good to stretch our legs out after a couple of weeks of walking only to dinner and the beach; however, the (literally) hundreds of other people on the trail made it seem a little like the march through the zig-zag crowd control ropes at the airport security checkpoint. We stayed the night in Hania again, and enjoyed a nice meal at a little cafe with its seating along a pedestrian street in the old city.
The next morning I got up early to take photos in the Venetian quarter before the hustle and bustle of the workday began. I enjoyed these first views of the harbor with its 16th Century fortifications and lighthouse as the coffee-shop owners prepared for their first customers. We checked out at 11:00, and two busrides took up the remainder of the day as we traveled to Sitia at the eastern end of the island (where we will take the ferry to Karpathos in the Dodecanese island group on Friday).
Upon arrival in Sitia, we were greeted by an older gentleman offering rooms to rent. At 15 Euro per night, the price was right so we decided to walk with him to check the place out. He told us his name was Manuel; that he was a "professor mathematique"; that he had three other rooms (one let to a Belgian couple, and two others occupied by Germans); that he was 61, his wife was 55, and that after 17 years of marriage they have a three year old daughter named Manuela. I can remember all of this because he repeated the spiel three times during the five minute walk to the rooms (and several more times as he popped into our room the next day, identifying us as "USA"). The little girl was adorable, and we saw them walking around town together--Manuel and the miracle baby, Manuela.
Once in our room, a little grey kitten with a white chest and belly named Feta (like the cheese) introduced herself through our opened door. We played with her for quite a while, then put her outside when it was time for bed. A few minutes later, she came back in through the open window. She was clean, looked healthy enough, and was ready to snuggle, so we let her sleep on the bed with us--just like our little cat back in the States, making us feel right at home.
We spent Thursday at the beach at Vai on the eastern coast of Crete. We arrived on the first bus at 10:00 a.m., and climbed over a rocky point to the north of the main beach. There were only four people with us at this secondary beach the entire day. When we went back to the main area at 2:30 to catch the bus back to Sitia, there were probably 250 people there and hardly a sun chair to be found. We were glad we took our extra ten minute walk and had some peace and quiet. We didn't have any lunch, so we split a pizza for dinner on our last evening in Crete.
We still haven't had any rain during our time in Greece, with temperatures right around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (knock on wood).