Crete – Heraclion & Knossos and 9/11

From our 2001 trip – fun it was in those days, traveling without GPS (or even a good map). Two days of normal tourist activities. Then on the 11th came the attack on the World Trade Center.

On the 9th, we boarded our ferry from Santorini. We settled down to read and doze for the 4 hour ferry trip to Crete. Leaving about 7:30, we docked at Heraclion at 11:30 or so. We’d decided to wait for the first wave to cram its way thru the gates before moving down to find out rental car. From the upper decks I was able to use my zoom lens to find the man holding a card with my name on it. When we finally emerged and regrouped about 30’ later, he took us over to the dark parking lot, went thru the paperwork formalities, and gave us instructions to find the hotel “go out that road, and follow it until you see the hotel, it’s not too far”.

Just after midnight, with only a scrap of a map, never having been here before, disoriented on a new island in a rental car, Heraclion seems to consist of narrow two lane roads. No streets seem to have numbers, and few are named very often, so we drove thru Heraclion, then on thru the outlying glitzy suburbs of hotels, nightclubs and auto repair shops, with strip malls for variety. After driving for a half hour, we realized we’d overshot our hotel when we confronted a large power station that loomed for a long distance.

Turning around, we realized we were in the wrong lane, and were helped out by flashing lights of a group of policemen on the other side of the street. We quickly convinced them we were just lost tourists and they gave us brief instructions on finding our hotel. It took 2 more stops to question locals and another drive by before we finally found the Hotel Santa Marina, tidily and unobtrusively tucked away behind a large but unpretentious and unlit sign. It was now close to 1 am (so much for the 10′ drive the transfer agent promised), and the clerk at the registration desk told us they’d held some cold plates for us – a very welcome courtesy and an unwinding end to a long day.

10 Sep Monday Heraclion, Crete

We barely made it to breakfast before the 9:30 am cutoff time. Our latest rising of the trip thus far. After breakfast we found that Knossos also didn’t open until 12:30. Since we knew the museum had the same late schedule today, we took a brief rest in the rooms until 11:45. Nice hotel, we’re out in bungalow like outer buildings, quiet. Landscaped grounds separating the dining and pool areas from the beach just a short walk away.

Drove out towards Knossos, and with only minimal wanderings, got to the site just after 12:30. Parked in the first ‘free’ area we saw, then walked down the hill past souvenir shops & cafes. 1500 dks for entry, then approached by Pavlos who we hired as a guide for $8 pp. Turned out to be an excellent choice. His knowledge of history and the site gave us an in depth appreciation for the site that we couldn’t have gotten on our own.

Currently restored buildings date to about 1700 BC after an earthquake had destroyed an earlier palace. The restorations were neither as extensive nor as obtrusive as I’d read. They do distract a bit, since you constantly need to wonder at the accuracy of Evans’ work, but they give a good base on which to imagine the site. Parts of Persepolis seemed at least as much restored, also to little ill effect. The main distraction was not the colored columns and concrete painted to look like wood, but the imitation frescoes that show where the originals were found.

There were occasional bits of pseudo-science typical of guide talk, but overall, it was minimal or innocuous – one egregious bit was that Moses parting the Red Sea was the result of the tsunami from Santorini that also destroyed the Knossos site. Little said about the Minotaur myth, probably because it’s considered a slander created by the Doric Greeks. Re the labyrinth, he attributed that to the labryinthos, the double headed axe. It happened to be a common mason’s mark on the precisely cut building blocks. Masons would put their marks on each block and this would allow payment for their piecework.

When archaeologists first found the site, they saw the many marks from a particularly prolific mason, and the name passed to the complex of small, rambling passageways and rooms that formed the palace. (May have some relevance, but that would mean that the word labyrinth wasn’t used in Greek times, or that there was a similar confusion then, when they should have known better) Lots of ‘gray sparkling alabaster’ – aka Gypsum somewhat like the features we saw in Resaca in Syria. In the Hall of Justice, ‘anatomical’ seats shaped for comfort of the administrator that had to sit in them for long hours. The seats are too big to have been comfortable for the average Minoan man, so some recent ‘historians’ have claimed that therefore the administrators must have been female! They also controlled the flow of water by use of flaring pipes to increase pressure.

Had a good lunch at Nostalgia Café (Greek salad and dolmates), then drove back to town around 4:30 to visit the Archaeological Museum – very worthwhile – pieces of major interest include:

  • Fresco — Bull fighting
  • Fresco — Ladies in Blue
  • Fresco — Bull’s head
  • Fresco — Prince of Lilies, fresco from Knossos
  • Minoan coffins
  • Figurines, shrine of double axe 14-12 c BC
  • Chieftain’s cup 16-15c BC
  • Copper ingots (talents, 30 kg)
  • Gold jewelry, tomb, 14 c BC
  • Knossos Palace
  • Minoan Guards
  • Pithoi, 17 c BC
  • Octopus jar
  • Bull headed libation vase
  • Snake Goddesses
  • Kameses ware – pithoi, amphorae, 18-17c BC
  • Griffin
  • Fresco — The Lilies

Weather not as hot and humid as Santorini was, but still uncomfortably warm (high 80’s or more). Got back to the hotel in time for a shower before supper. Decent buffet meal – good selection of mezes, then an array of dishes for main courses, including an excellent octopus.

11 Sep 2001 – Tuesday Heraclion, Crete

After breakfast, drove south towards Mires. Beautiful, but stark mountains. High ridges of limestone, barren on top, then covered with olive groves, vineyards and other agriculture lower down. Colors muted ochres, browns, greens and grays. Stopped several times for pictures. Would have liked to have stopped more, but road’s narrow and traffic zips by. As before in Athens, the locusts are particularly noisy.

As we neared the southern coast, stopped at Gortys, a Roman site, once the capital of the province that included Crete and parts of North Africa. (800 dks entry). It’s actually spread out over a much larger area, only a small part fenced in (and thus more protected). Large, gnarly olive trees after entering the site, leading to the two major sights – the Odeon, and right behind it, the Law Codes, supposedly the largest Greek inscription, written in the boustrophedon style (ox plough) which alternates left to right/ right to left, like the furrows in a ploughed field. Also, the remains of the Basilica of Agios Titos, the eponymous bishop who converted the island.

Others not interested in visiting the other areas of the site, so we moved on down the coast, taking a brief stop at the Monastery of Kaliviani. Brightly colored after the muted tones of the country side – cascading trees of red, purple and white flowers, date palms bending under the weight of new fruit, and a church steeple with vines spiraling up and exploding in color. Beautiful, small church, completely covered inside with frescoes of various ages and competence.

Down a bit further, we pulled into the port of Agia Galini – perhaps once a fishing village but now gentrified, with hotels everywhere on the way down, and the beach fronted by cafes (Café Bozos, Madame Hortense’s). Good lunch at Alikes – Greek salad and excellent grilled octopus.

Drove north from there, thru the Amari valley, past the bare limestone slopes of Mt. Psiloritis, where Zeus may have been born (another mountain on the island also claims him.) The omphalos, navel of the world may be near here, too. Along the roads are strange little shrines – sometimes made from plaster or metal, others of various other materials. Most contain a bottle of water, lighters, candles, other votive materials or printed prayers, and usually a framed picture; most likely these are memorials for people, perhaps at the spot where they were killed in a traffic accident.. One particularly elaborate shrine was about 10 feet tall, with it’s own fence and gate, but no personal effects, so perhaps was a more generalized spiritual comment.

Continued north, thru rugged but spectacular countryside, open valleys, then a narrowing gorge, finally running down to the former Venetian stronghold of Rethimnon. Long beach with brightly colored beach chairs declaring their territorial claims, then around the harbor to park near the Venetian fortress. Found an excellent leather shop, buying belts and a new wallet.

Around 5 p.m we heard about the attack on the World Trade Towers

When we got back to the hotel, all TV stations had it on, but not a lot of info yet, just the horrifying images of a jet flying thru one of the towers, and then, later, the 2 towers crashing to the ground.

After a sombre dinner we tried to decide what we could do next, We were scheduled to fly to Rhodes on the 12th. Walked down the street after dinner and found an internet café to email our agent in Istanbul and family. CNN’s been on constantly while I’ve been typing these notes. M. & R. appear really shaken by the news – R. immediately wondering whether we could visit any Muslim area safely. (She’d just realized Turkey was a Muslim country!); They’re already considering changes to the trip, possibly leaving for London from Rhodes. I’d told them the news had said we wouldn’t be able to fly back to Athens, much less to the US for at least a few days. 

We continued on to Rhodes, then made our planned connection Turkey. About a week later we finished a short hike in Cappadocia near Cavusin and stopped for tea a local chai shop where we talked through Lutfi with several of the old men there in their 80’s (including the mayor). Like just about everyplace we’d been in Turkey, there was a spontaneous consolation and support for the US. (On a return trip to Turkey the following spring, we found the same 4 men at their table!)

It was truly amazing the amount of good will and empathy that we found whenever people heard we were Americans. In was truly sad and disheartening to see how that good will was squandered in the unnecessary, reckless war in Iraq.

By Cascoly

I've been exploring and leading trips for over 40 years. climbing & trekkng in the Alps, Andes, North American mountain ranges and the Himalaya. I'm retired from mountaineering now but world travels in Europe, Africa & Asia continue to expand my portfolio. Besides private travel, I now focus on escorting trips to India & Turkey. Other interests include wide reading in history and vegetable gardening / cooking. You can download digital images here, or find images at We have many thousands of images we haven't displayed yet; so, if you have a special need or request please contact us