Wednesday, 13 November 2013

location, location, location

We like Iraklion for the main reason that it does not exist for tourists.  It's Greece's fifth largest city although that's not saying too much, as probably half of Greece's population is in Athens.... The city centre is a maze of narrow streets choc-a-bloc with parked cars and traffic.  There are also quite a few pedestrianised streets to give everyone a breather.  We've come here to visit the ruined Palace of Knossos and then to catch a ferry to Santorini.  We luxuriate in the comfort of a hotel room.  When did we last sleep in a bed? At Peter and Linda's about six weeks ago.  My scabby wounds are smelling.  I check up on the internet for diagnosis and treatment advice.  I pass out.  When I come round I recall reading the words "gas gangrene" and the novels of Pat Barker flashing across my mind.  However, the antibiotics are easy to buy over the counter here, so I am crossing my fingers.

Readers of this blog may have noticed a distinct lack of interest on our part in classical Greek historic sites.  We could  have visited Delphi and Olympos if we had set our mind to it.  Maybe it's because we know too little about Ancient Greece.  Maybe it hasn't captured our imagination sufficiently.  Because imagination is probably what is most required to visit the ruins here.  Not surprisingly, there's not a lot left standing.  However, now here we are at Knossos, the capital of Minoan civilisation.  This is the oldest known European civilisation, existing at the same time to the Egyptians in their prime and long before the classical Greek period.  It consisted primarily of a collection of city states on Crete. Around the late 1800s a German archaeologist found something of interest at Knossos, but an Englishman, Evans, beat him to a deal with the Turks to start excavating here.  Evans uncovered a large palace/temple complex, some of it with well-preserved frescoes.  But most of it was a pile of old stones.  Evans then creatively began to rebuild the site, with a dash of concrete here, a splash of paint there, and went about naming the rooms.  The reconstruction is probably a textbook case for students of archaeology on how not to proceed.  But hey, it gets the punters in.  So here we are, with only a few others, wandering around, looking into The Queen's Bathroom, admiring the recreated Prince of Lillies fresco, and pondering the Throne Room (I was disappointed to find that this was not, as I had hoped, the King's Lavatory.)  The Minoan civilisation ended abruptly, for unknown reasons.  The generally accepted theory is that a nearby volcano erupted spectacularly and the ensuing tsunami and fall-out finished them off.

Minoan olive jars - they grew big olives
That volcano eruption left the remains of a huge caldera poking out of the sea forming a crescent shape chain of small islands.  The largest is Santorini.  Arriving by boat the visitor is rewarded with wonderful views of the caldera and the cliffs on the edge of which sits the main town of Fira.  At least you would if you didn't arrive at nine o'clock at night.  We are instead rewarded with blackness, streetlights floating up above us in the sky and the steep switchbacks that lead up the cliff face.  Happily at the top we find a small church and an empty field next to it.  We pitch immediately and fall asleep.  In the morning we finally get the view, and ultimately this is what Santorini is all about: The View. It is sublime.

Fira is a collection of typical Cycladic white square houses, now overrun with hotels, restaurants and cafes.  In fact Fira seems to have lost any authentic attributes entirely, but what a location.  From here you get the most wonderful view of the caldera, the black and red layers of rock jutting abruptly from the sea, and in the centre a little mound of lava where the volcano has bubbled up again. We find the campsite which is closed, but the owner seems happy to let us stay, and there's plenty of hot water in the shower, so we're happy.  It means we don't have to do our sight-seeing with loaded bikes.  A cruise boat arrived last night and so the town is alive with ageing Americans and British, young Japanese, and assorted other nationalities.  Hmm, maybe 'alive' is the wrong adjective.   We walk along the caldera rim to the next village perched on a high point.  With our backs to the volcano we can see the rest of the island sweeping down to the sea.  It would have been once all fields, but is now peppered liberally with new build - houses and holiday homes and ugly mini-estates of identikit "cycladic" appartments for tourists.  I glance at a cafe menu - 4 euros for a coffee.  Sorry, I mean 4 euros for a Nescafe.  But of course, you're paying for The View.

The next day we take our bikes and cycle up to the north end of the island and the large village of Oia.  There's a different feel to this place.  It feels much more authentic, even though there's still been enormous tourist development here.  Lots of shops, cafes, hotels, but all done much more tastefully.  The buildings all seem quite old and the village has a more organic feel.  Around the twisting back lanes there are still a few old ruins.  And a few old buildings too.  The cruise ship passengers are all pottering about, but we find out from some that the ship only has 2000 passengers, not the full cohort of 5000.  We eat our picnic near to an English woman on her phone home: "and if she goes in one more jewellery shop, I swear I'll kill her......" Cor, we'd hate it here in season. But today we love it.  We want to live here. Except maybe after a week or two we'd get bored.  I wonder what the locals make of The View after all this time living here.

Out of season travel around the islands is a bit awkward.  Ferries run less frequently.  We opt to take a small ferry on to Naxos which leaves at 9 in the morning so that we don't arrive in the dark again on another island.  This boat only goes once a week, so after three nights here, we find ourselves winding our way back around those hairpin bends to the port.  The small ferry turns out to be a big bathtub.  It's mostly Greeks who board and everyone but us heads for the lounge which is curtained and has five televisions on showing the same rubbish.  We sit on the top deck and sunbathe. Naked. It's a lovely spot to enjoy the crossing.

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