EUROPEAN TOUR 2010 PART I - Greece
Main Propylaia to Acropolis
Athens to Crete
May 4 to May 11
How many ways can you mess up a flight? How easy is it to turn a 2 day trip into a 4 day trip. When the Greeks go on strike it doesn’t take much to really make a mess of things. We had 2 flights canceled, managed to reschedule 1 flight to Athens, spent hours and hours trying to reschedule the second flight to Crete, gave up, took a refund, rescheduled our hotel on Crete, flew to London as planned, missed our next flight due to a late bus, caught the next flight, our bags stayed behind only to arrive on the following flight. Finally, after 4 days working on impromptu flight plans we managed to get as far as Athens. We still needed to get to Crete.
So much for the best laid plans. It took 4 days for us to finally get to Athens with our bikes and equipment. It was 6:30 PM and rather than assembling the bikes as per one of our many rearranged schedule plans, we got a last minute car rental, drove to the campground, and collapsed from too many nights with almost no sleep. We’d still have to figure out how to get to Crete later.
Greece is a land that has seen the rise and fall of one civilization after another. The remains of these civilizations are all piled atop one another as the new overtook and buried the old. Athens is one of the main centers for this layer upon layer of civilizations going back before the Romans and even the Hellenic ages. The most remarkable is the Hellenic age. This is where we find the iconic structures of the Acropolis. Yet what you see on this rocky outcrop is but the latest rendition of structures built here since about 3,000 BC or even earlier.
Archeological finds suggest that the slopes of the Acropolis have been occupied since Neolithic times. There are springs scattered around the base of the rock which provided the essential water that attracted the first few villages. The top of the rock soon became a sacred place, probably because of the life sustaining water. The top was flattened, retaining walls built, and temples built, remodeled, demolished, and rebuilt over and over again.
The current Parthenon ruin was built by Pericles designed by Iktinos and Kallicrates by 438 BC as a celebration of the Greek defeat of the Persians at Marathon. It took 15 years to complete. Originally it housed the great statue to Athena that stood almost 12 meters tall and was said to be covered with gold and gems whose value matched or exceeded that of the entire temple building itself.
The statue remained in place until 426 AD after which it went to Constantinople and disappeared. The temple suffered a fire, then destruction of many of its friezes and metopes at the hands of the Christians, conversion into a Christian church then a mosque, then an explosion due to gun powder stored by the Turks, and the final insult was when Lord Elgin carted off much of the remaining carved works to place in the British Museum where they remain today.
What pieces of the Parthenon they can find are gradually being returned to their original locations. It’s a project that has taken years and years and probably still has a long way to go. So most visitors will likely see cranes and scaffolding no matter when you go.
We climbed to the top of the rock passing through the main gate known at the Propylaia and then wandered around the top for several hours spending time at the Erechtheion, the building with the female statues guarding a porch, the Parthenon itself, and then the various other temples which are mostly foundations. Wouldn’t it be something to be able to snap your finges and have all the rocks and paint reform themselves back into the temples they once were?
Guards on the temple grounds are very strict. Step over the rope to take a photo and they’ll come over and demand that you delete your photos from memory. Don’t even try it.
In 2009 a brand new museum housing many artifacts from the site around the Acropolis was built. It’s a unique structure having been built right atop some ruins. Although if you think about it, with so many previous civilizations buried under Athens street, you’re always running into something whenever you try to build. In this case they’ve exposed the ruins by using a glass floor. You can actually look down to see layers of history; a mosaic floor of a Roman house and then somewhat deeper right next to it a Hellenic house. This along with the full size display of the Frieze, Metopes, and Pediments of the Parthenon housed on the top floor are probably the museum’s highlights.
Ruins underneath the new Acropolis
Having spent just one day in Athens, we needed to move on. We were still trying to get to our original destination, crete. The ferries were the best way to go at this point. We would depart from Rafina, change boats in Mykonos, stop for the night on Santorini, and then head on to Crete. Originally we were supposed to be in Crete on May 5th. We’d finally make it there on May 11th. Yes those Greek strikes do wonders for schedules.
Mykonos and Santorini
Thira at Santorini
May 10, 11
The alarms buzzed at 6AM and within an hour we had the tent packed, the bikes loaded, and we were headed downhill for meet our 8AM ferry. The seas were calm, much to Caryl’s delight, and the skies cloudless. It was a perfect day for sailing. We rolled right aboard, ate a quick breakfast, and then spent the rest of the trip marveling at the islands we passed along the way. These were the Cyclades, so named because they form a very rought circle around the sacred island of Delos. Delos is supposed to be covered with ancient ruins, but we’d have to save visiting it for another time.
Mykonos was a nice little lunch stop. After wending our way through all hotel touts, and there were some very persistent ones, we cruised on into town. We located a fine dock side restaurant, nothing too fancy, and spent most of the 2 hours between ferries having a long leisurely lunch. We didn’t have time enough to do much looking around so why bother. It was too hot anyway.
The next ferry took us by surprise. We had expected a very large catamaran, one big enough for cars. But it proved to be passengers only. Still they took the bikes. We perched them on the back of the boat, tying them to the railing, and there they sat. Fortunately the catamarans are very stable vehicles. Otherwise we would have been worried sick. Bike overboard was not what we wanted to hear.
Just before arriving at Santorini we got one extra special treat. While all the other passengers had to remain inside the cabin until we were docked, we were escorted to the back, outside ramp so we could get off first. The bikes would be an impediment to passengers otherwise. So this was where we got our first sight of the amazing harbor of Santorini.
The island of Santorini in reality is the very peak of a presently dormant volcano. However, it was once the site of what geologists believe may have been the second largest volcanic explosion known today. Frescoes found on walls in the once buried town of Acritiri show that Santorini was once sort of a double island, a center island surrounded by a ring of sea water, and then a second ring island around the first. It would have been one unique island.
Back some 3 to 4 thousand years ago the Minoan culture appears to have developed that center Santorini island into a major trading port. The fresco shows the island covered with large buildings filled with well dressed people and a lot of ships surrounding it. Also, archeologists have found a bunch of bronze disks. Some 2/3 of all the disks found in the entire Minoan sphere of influence were found in Aritiri indicating this was one very wealthy city.
Around 1513, give or take 10 years, the volcano island of Santorini blew its top destroying that entire center island plus the city at the same time. Not only did it destroy the towns on Santorini the effects of the explosion caused the complete collapse of the entire Minoan culture. A civilization that had existed for over a thousand years collapsed in a period of less than 50 years. The trading center was destroyed, a tsunami wiped out the nearby cities including Knossos, the Minoan’s fleet would have been wiped out, and finally the ash and sulfur spewed into the upper atmosphere caused 10 years of cool, wet climate with the resulting poor crop production. The Minoans fell into savagery which included ritual sacrifice and cannibalism of children. So when the Greeks appeared on the scene some 50 years after the event, there was no resistance.
Today we get to marvel at the results of this volcanic explosion. Santorini is now a crescent shaped island where the inside of the crescent is the steep sides of the caldera. Clustered along the rim of the caldera are white washed villages that look like snow. The ferry boat sailed up into the center of this caldera and we got a great view on the back of the catamaran.
Along the amazing climb to Thira
But then we looked up. Once off the boat we had to climb up that 300 plus meter steep climb up 4 long and 4 short switchbacks in the heat of the afternoon sun. That was a challenge. At least the reward at the top was well worth the climb. As our Lonely Planet guide states, even the most jaded tourist will be amazed by the site.
Santorini and the
town of Thira are absolutely beautiful. There are a couple of parallel
walkways that follow the rim while winding their way through the town’s white
washed buildings. The views from every point along the walk are spectacular. You
look down over the newly created (in geologic time that is) center black lava
rock island. Cruise ships sit in the bay, sailboats and tour boats ply the waters
back and forth. The site is so unique it’s almost surreal.
Phaestos & Knossos
Famous Bull fresco at Knossos
May 11 - May 14
The island of Crete was our next destination and one of our primary objectives was to view some of the ancient Minoan ruins. Now this is really getting into the old stuff.
Crete was home to many Minoan cities including two of the most well known today at least. Phaestos and Knossos are what may have been some sort of palace complex. Phaestos, on the south side of the island was the smaller and less ornate, and Knossos, on the north side, was a palace of grand dimension and distinction.
Both palace complexes shared similar features. They had a main central courtyard to which entry was gained through grand doorways. The main courtyard was surrounded by a maze of rooms that may have been royal residences, store rooms, workshops, places for ritual worship, additional courtyards, and even an area that appears to have been a sort of theatrical area. Both palaces were built on hills giving them commanding views of the surrounding agricultural fields.
Entrance to the royal residence in Phaestos
The residential rooms usually had three parts, the innermost area that was separated from an open porch by doors. Then an outer light well was separated from the other 2 rooms by one or more columns. The light well was enclosed by a half wall. It appears to have been built specifically to give privacy to the residence while providing light to an otherwise enclosed area.
There were other features unique to the Minoans. They had something Evans called a “lustral area”. It looked sort of like a sunken bath but since there was no drainage it’s doubtful they were filled with water. It is suspected they may have had some sort of ritual role.
The columns were plain and tapered to the bottom. Clearly unlike the later Greek order columns. The buildings were 2 to 3 stories high with much of the upper floors made of wood.
The “throne room” of Knossos
The storage areas of both palaces contained these absolutely enormous clay jugs that were often inscribed with decorations and had loop handles for ropes. These clay urns are so large many still sit in situ as they’re too big to move.
Some of the huge storage jars
At Knossos, Evans uncovered many spectacular frescoes. There were the red walls of the throne wall, a procession of celebrants, a fisherman, a man leaping a bull, a man walking through reeds, dolphins swimming, plus numerous other just decorative frescoes. Phaestos for some reason had almost no frescoes.
Part of restored procession fresco from Knossos
Also found at Knossos was Europe’s very first paved road. It leads from the west main entrance and is paved with worked stones. It was originally lined with workshops and smaller residences. It’s been uncovered and can be seen today.
These two palaces were built built back around 2000 BC. Standing amongst ruins this old, ruins that predate the Greeks and Romans is truly a memorable experience.
Trying to uses busses to get to these sites would require a lot of coordination. Also that would limit you as to time and where you could go. So, since our ferry was late arriving at Herkalion, we decided to take a 2 day car rental. We’d get our gear and us to the hotel we were supposed to stay at 6 days earlier and we’d have a little time to explore more of the island.
Sun Rise car rentals owned and operated by one of the most charismatic individuals we’d met on Greece, George, came highly recommended by a Canadian couple we’d met on Santorini. True enough, he was a real find. His office is located down a side alley from the main street in Herkalion. It is literally a hole-in-the-wall place. But who cares. We just wanted a car, not a fancy office.
George gave us a rental at €25/day for 2 days. Had we gone for 4 days it would have been €5 less. Although we had to really convince him that we could get the bikes and bags inside. He offered to hold the bikes for us. But we told him it would be a piece of cake.
Waving goodbye to George
After 2 days
wandering around we returned the car to his little office just in time for an
afternoon drink. Raki was being poured between him, his friend Bobby, and then
us. Raki is strong stuff, probably 100%. To top it off George and Bobby both
told us that when you enter a house you come on both feet. When you leave a
house you leave on both feet. So that means you have to have 2 drinks. Fortunately
they gave us the tiny shot glasses and mine was filled only halfway each time.
I could not imagine having any more.
Well, turns out the only part of the museum open was a single room with just a few hundred items. Starting in 2006 they began a complete renovation of the 21 room museum. According to the staff, the building has now been completed. Just the new display cases need to be built. But even just this is expected to take at least 2 more years. So for a minimum of 6 years this museum would essentially be closed. We have to wonder if it might have been faster to just built an entirely new building. We were disappointed, but it does give an excuse to return many years from now.
Herkalion to Kissamos
A pretty door in Rethymno
May 15 - 20
To the west of Herkalion within just a few km the road climbs over four fairly steep hills. Crete is a mountainous island with the crest running along the length of its center. The highest peaks are over 2400 meters and we can attest to the fact that they get snow. Even in mid May there were still snow pockets clinging to the peaks.
Lefka Ori mountains with snow
Now we had been training for some time in preparation for this summer’s riding. But most of it had been on the flat, level Bakersfield bike path. Our only hill work was a mere 500 ft. climb at the end of the path. These 4 hills more than quadrupled that climb.
After eating a quick lunch we began the climb up the last long hill. The higher we went, the worse the winds became. By the time we neared the top we literally could not stay upright on the bikes. The winds were just far too strong. We pushed up the last 1/2 km. We lay the bikes down and then sat beside the road waiting to see if the winds would abate.
After an hour or so we were beginning to think that the winds were staying for at least the night. A helpful stranger who spoke English stopped by and confirmed that if we attempted to continue west, down the hill the winds would likely get even worse. It was open ocean road further on with no windbreaks whatsoever.
We finally gave up and rode back down the hill to find a nice room in the cute seaside resort town of Bali. All in all this worked out best as we had one fantastic sunrise right from our front porch and it was much easier to climb that hill the second time without the winds.
Beautiful sunrise at Bali
Within only a couple hours we arrived at Camping Elizabeth just east of Crete’s third largest town, Rethymno. Unlike Herkalion, this town didn’t suffer quite as much damage in W.W.II. It still has a sizable old town quarter with rambling, narrow streets which today are lined with tourist shops and restaurants. we found one reasonably priced snack bar that had outdoor seating on a busy street to eat one of our favorite Greek snacks, Pita.
In the states we tend to call these this just “gyros” or “gyros sandwich”. These sandwiches are based on slices of a spiced roasted lamb meat and a yogurt based tzatziki sauce stuffed on a folded piece of pita bread. In the U.S. we add tomatoes and onions. In Greece they add fries. Somehow those fires feel like they’re just a bit too much. We prefer to pull them out and eat them on the side.
After our snack we went on to explore the huge Venetian fort. Back during the very last of the crusades the crusaders concluded that trying to take on the infidels was too much bother. Instead they decided to sack fellow Christians. So they went galavanting across Crete sacking the villages along the way. The Venetians went right along and helped out.
In appreciation for their help, the crusaders decided to give Crete to the Venetians. As a result the old towns of both Rethymno and Chania have a lot of Venetian characteristics. They built massive fortresses, major port walls, and ship building facilities.
In Rethymno the fortress stood on a hill that back in Roman times was the acropolis. The extensive wall system remains in tact today. Inside the walls there was originally a bunch of buildings, practically an entire town. Most of the buildings have since been removed with the exception of a few that have been rebuilt. The site is worth visiting mainly for its views over the old town.
A tower of the fortress at Rethymno
A reasonably easy 40 mile ride took us to the second largest city on Crete, Chania (pronounced more like Hania). We took the new national road around the city to the campground rather than try to find our way through the confusing, busy city streets. From there it is an easy bus ride into the center of the old town.
Chania has a much larger old town than Rethymno and appears to always have been a larger city. It’s Venetian port, for one thing, is much bigger and even today can shelter a fair number of fishing and pleasure craft. While warehouses and boat docks used to surround the harbor, today it is mostly lined with outdoor restaurants. Rumor has it these restaurants are overpriced and not very good. So if you want the atmosphere of port side seating, just order a drink.
The rebuilt Venetian lighthouse at the end of the port wall is probably the most photogenic aspect of the harbor. But it is all quite scenic.
What we really wanted to see was one of the maritime museums.
In 2004 in preparation for the Olympics a dedicated group of ancient boat enthusiasts got together to build a replica of a 15th century BC Minoan war ship. They spent 15 months building it using tools, materials, and techniques matching what was available at that time. The result was an interesting rowing ship that has been named the Minoa.
Bow of the 15th Century replica Minoan war ship
This boat is not just a pretty display model. It has actually sailed. After construction a group of 24 rowers, 2 steersmen, and 1 captain took the boat on an 11 stop journey to Pireaus. It took them about 1 month to complete. They arrived in Athens just in time to join a replica Kiriene and Trirene in a joint display of ancient boats. The Trirene was carrying the Olympic flame.
It would have really been something seeing these three ancient boats side by side. From the movies and photos shown at the museum, that little Minoa was downright dwarfed by the giant Trirene. We now wonder where that thing is being held as it would be great to see it someday.
After finishing our wandering around Chania we continued on for the last 20 miles or so to our final destination on Crete, Kissamos. This time of year exactly once a week there is a ferry that goes directly to the Peloponese thus avoiding Athens all together. Since we have no desire to ride around Athens again, we made it a point to make this weekly ferry.
Now it’s back to the Peloponese.
Doors in Chania
APPENDIX A – ROUTE
May 9 - To Rafina Ferry, Around Mykonos a bit, To Santorini camping (16.69 km)
May 10 - From Santorini Camping to port, From Herkalion port to Marni village at
May 14 - Old national road Hersonisis to Herkalion, 30 km
May 15 - Old national road past power plant, New national road to Bali, 52.83 km
May 16 - New and old national roads to Rethymno, 29.52 km
May 17 - New national road to Hania, 65.80 km
May 18 - Old and then new national road to Kissamos, 54.80 km
APPENDIX B – CAMPSITES, HOTELS
May 7 - 9: Kokini Limani Camping in Rafina (€16.70/night)
May 10: Santorini Camping, Santorini (€15.00/night)
May 11 - 13: Marni Village Resort, Herisonisis ($108/3 nights)
May 14: Kronos hotel in Herkalion (€50/night)
May 15: Rent room in Bali (€30/night)
May 16: Camping Elizabeth near Rethymno (€14.85/night)
17, 18: Camping Hania near Hania (€18.00/night)
Lonely Planet Greece 2010
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.