Amaury de Valroger - 2011-02-28
Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) is to thank for the international renown of the site of Knossos, near Iraklion. However further to south, yet still in the heartland of Crete, the great sites of the Messara plain are not so well known...
As soon as the plane landed on Cretan soil we had already made up our minds, we would cross the country and head towards the south. It would only be a few tens of miles, but what a wealth of sleeping old towns! It’s difficult to avoid Knossós and we decided to return once again before setting off. I find the site to be exactly as I had remembered it. It’s almost noon and the Cretan sun bears heavy as the site languishes in an irresistible torpor... What’s more there are no guides available. Without as much as a breadcrumb trail, we end up finding our way thanks to a few copies of frescoes which give us some reference points in this labyrinth of rooms and storehouses. Whilst the reconstructions haven’t been made exactly to the rules of the art, they nevertheless give some idea of the magnitude and beauty of the site.
After a picnic near to a beautiful abandoned aqueduct, we start to head south towards Zarós, a small resources town. On the way we make so many detours along the route, visiting little monasteries and beautiful olive groves that we don’t arrive until night falls! The town has a few hotels high in the hills such as the Cottages Eleonas with its cosy and comfortable atmosphere, and a modest looking hotel, Keramos is situated in one of the town’s alleyways. We hesitate a little, however Mrs. Katerina the landlady does not. She makes us sit down, brings us some herbal tea, and makes our mouths water by announcing a gargantuan breakfast of olive oil pastries, flans, small cakes, chontros (yoghurt, wheat and goat's milk) and thyme honey!
This fare which is particularly well suited to the trekkers that frequent the establishment gives us the energy to make a little excursion to the upper part of the village. It’s a very pleasant walk which ends in a little hamlet that looks like it has been crushed by its imposing concrete Church, still under construction. Not wishing to dwell on this, we head off again to visit several of the region’s famous monasteries. We didn’t manage to get the key for the first one but were able to pay a visit to the monastery at Vrondissí. Huge plane trees here provide cooling shade next to the beautiful 15th century Venetian fountain. Adam and Eve have lost their faces, whilst fine marble sculptures give charm to this place which is still far from being the Garden of Eden.
The next stop is the old town of Gortyn, which used to be the capital of the island but which is now unrecognisable. Its salient features include the imposing ruins of the 7th century Basilica of St. Titus, which is a reminder of a very early evangelization of the region. But the treasure of this town is found in the Odeon which houses its precious laws. This legal text, the oldest in the Greek world (5 centuries BCE), is significant because it introduced the concept of proof into trials. If you fancy trying to read it then you should know that it is read in boustrophedon (turning like oxen in ploughing), that is from the left to the right then right to left. Mythology enthusiasts will perhaps prefer to stop in front of the plane tree which has a direct descent from the tree that provided shelter for the union of Zeus and Europa which culminated in the birth of Minos. On the other side of the road, there are no signs but a large fenced-off site where the remains of the town are found and where you can make out the extent of its development in its heyday. Nature has taken the control back here as the columns are embedded with trees and weeds cover the fallen buildings.
A break is now welcome after the successive visits through the morning. A few miles from the site the little village of Ágios Déka owes its name to the martyrdom of ten Christians in the 3rd century. The village is calm, the locals are taking their siesta. In some of the shops the owners can be seen dozing. The atmosphere in the village square is scarcely any livelier. A tiny frisson of curiosity welcomes us at the terrace of the shaded central square. We then take some time to cool off under the curious eyes of a few locals, who are not very talkative.
We regretfully leave this village, taking one last look at the bougainvillea, before going on the trail of the mysterious clay Phaistos disk - a new adventure lying ahead!