Chasing Rainbows

(J-term Trip Highlights Part 2 of 5)

The third day of the trip was by far my favorite. It began in Gortyn, Crete's Roman capital, with a look at some very old olive trees.
The most important thing to see is the Gortyn law code, the oldest Greek code of law, displayed in the back of the theater.
I liked that just beyond the site, sheep were grazing on the hill.
Next we headed to Phaistos, an important Minoan administrative center, which has a spectacular setting overlooking the Mesara Plain. I could imagine Minoan bureaucrats watching over the fields and waiting for the villagers to bring their livestock and produce for counting. Phaistos is a pleasure to walk around. It's easy to get chills walking up the ancient steps from the theatral area into the palace complex (near the center of the picture). Phaistos has three large courts (the photo above shows two) and I was excited to see the treasury area where archaeologists discovered the famed Phaistos disk.

The Phaistos complex was built and rebuilt many times from 1900-1450BCE due to earthquakes and political instability. Here's a view from the central court looking up to the sacred mountain.
From Phaistos, we drove just a few kilometers to Agia Triada, another key Bronze Age site. Under the covering is Agia Triada's main structure, the Minoan "Royal Villa." Interestingly, however, the villa also features a Mycenaean-style structure, the megaron. Outside of the site, which is bounded by a fence, a hillside covered with olive trees and wildflowers hides a Minoan cemetery, comprised of tholos and chamber tombs. Archaeologists found the well-preserved Agia Triada sarcophagus in one of the chamber tombs.
Another wonderful thing about Agia Triada is the view of the Libyan sea.
One of the rooms in the Minoan villa complex shows the benches around the wall and the slots where wooden pillars would have stood.
After our picnic lunch at Agia Triada, we headed north into the mountains to Zaros, a village nestled at the foot of Mt. Psiloritis. In the strong winds, droplets from the day's early rains began flying about, while a great cloud settled on top of the snowy mountain.
We were staying in a family-owned guesthouse in the village and before we could go to our rooms it was imperative that we do the guest-host dance and experience true xenia hospitality. Some cookies and Cretan tea awaited us by the fire. Cretan herbal tea is a mix of savory herbs; oregano and sage seemed to dominant. Over the course of the evening, I became a big fan of the cure-all tea. We still had a few hours of sunlight, so I asked the proprietor where was a good place to take pictures. She drew me a map and said she would drive me there and I could walk back. At a modern outdoor theater, there was a huge rock with a large hole where I could climb in and get a picture of the whole valley. It was frighteningly windy, but I got my picture.
We had one of the biggest and most delicious dinners in Zaros. It featured great vegetarian fare (a potato frittata; salad of cabbage, beets, avocado, hard boiled egg) and a life changing dessert: a quince jam parfait. The next morning greeted us not only with perfect weather, but also a multitude of different filled pies for breakfast. Pies of all shapes, usually finger food sized, filled with cheese or meat or fruit or nuts, some fried, some baked. Heaven.
Our last day on Crete began with a pilgrimage to the Panagia Myrtidiotissa at Paliani, near Venerato. This nunnery is devoted to Mary, Our Lady of the Myrtles. A massive and ancient myrtle tree occupies a whole corner behind the church. None of my pictures came out because little light makes it through the tree's pendulous branches where worshippers hang votives in shapes representing their prayers (so votives are in the shape of babies or houses, etc).
From Venerato, we had a short drive to the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion. Only a greatest hits gallery is open to the public while the museum goes through renovation and earthquake-proofing. I rarely take pictures in museums, but some things I couldn't resist, like this awesome Minoan pottery. If you've taken a Greek archaeology class, this is the place to go to see your textbook images of Minoan objects come alive.
With about seven hours until dinner, a few of us set out to explore the city. I love its mix of modern and Venetian buildings. At the Historical Museum of Crete, I learned that 2013 will mark Crete's 100th anniversary of joining Greece.
An essential dish to try is loukoumades, little donuts drenched in a honey syrup.
Heraklion has a long pier where residents go to exercise and walk their dogs. It makes for a spectacular sunset walk.
After a restrained dinner at the swanky Hotel Lato, we boarded the Knossos Palace, an overnight "ferry" -- though it's more like a cruise ship. This massive vessel transports cars and trucks from Crete to the mainland. If you don't want to sleep in your room, chair, or sleeping bag in the hallway, you can always swim, drink, and dance the night away. With a 6am disembarkation, a party pooper like myself chose to sleep.

Part 3 Off to the mainland….