Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Baptismal Party, Kamilari, Crete, Greece

Night was already falling as we drove up the winding road toward Kamilari in Crete. We had spent the weekend touring a part of this beautiful Greek island.  We visited ancient ruins in the fertile Messara Plain, rich with olive trees and vineyards. We hiked through the cave-filled Agiofarago Gorge with only soaring griffins and sure-footed wild goats for companions. Then we swam in the Libyan Sea at the southernmost point of Europe. Now our friend Dimitris was taking us to a small-town restaurant for some local specialities: grilled lamb, stewed goat, stuffed fresh grape leaves and wild Cretan greens.

Approaching Kamilari, we saw that the entrance to the town was barred. An outdoor party was being held and all the streets leading into the center of town were closed. We walked to the town square and came upon a scene straight out of Nikos Kazantzakis' Zorba the Greek. Seated at long tables, standing in groups, dancing in a circle to the haunting music of traditional Greek instruments, the whole town, it seemed, had come out to celebrate the baptism of one of its newest members.

It is still possible to see scenes like this in Crete.  For although it is the biggest of the Greek islands and an economic motor for the struggling Greek economy, Crete still maintains a strong respect for the old ways. 

In Crete, the old ways can go back a very long time. During our stay, we visited Knossos and Phaistos, where more than 4,000 years ago, the Minoans built palaces of amazing splendor. Ancient tablets, written in Linear B script and only deciphered in 1952, show that the palace was used for parties and religious festivals.  Sheep were raised and sheared every year; huge quantities of olive oil were used, mainly as a base for perfume; and brightly-colored cloth was popular, including reds, purples and whites. An older Cretan writing system - Linear A - remains undeciphered.

The Minoans - Europe's first great civilization - were thought to have arrived in Crete from Africa, Anatolia or the Middle East. Recent DNA testing has proved, however, that the Minoans have western and northern European origins and that they arrived on the island about 9,000 years ago. The gods of the Minoans are so old, in fact, that they are the ancestors of the great mythical gods of Greece. Zeus himself, the father of all Greek gods, is said to have been born and raised on Crete. 

The largest collection of the world's Minoan treasures are housed in the city's Archeological Museum. The museum has been under renovation since 2006, but there are still marvels to discover. Stopping before a group of sculptures, I couldn't help noticing the similarity between the hairstyles of the Minoans and the Egyptians. I mentioned this to JR and immediately a museum guard came over to set me straight: these were Minoans, not Egyptians. The Minoans were great traders, he told me, and more likely they influenced the Egyptians than the other way around.    

Over the centuries following the fall of the Minoan empire, Crete was conquered and occupied by the Mycenaeans, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks. It wasn't until 1898, after repeated uprisings against the Turks, that an autonomous Cretan state was declared and not until 1913 that Crete entered into a union with Greece.  

We visited the island for a week in April when JR was invited to give a math talk at the University of Crete in Heraklion. It is a great time to go. The summer crowds have not arrived and restaurant and hotel reservations are easy to get. The weather is heavenly and the archeological ruins, museums and beaches are practically yours alone.

Looking for flights, I realized, once again, how bizarre airline prices can be. A round-trip from Pisa to Heraklion on all the major airlines cost about 700 euros, involved three planes and took 11 hours. On the other hand, Ryan Air, one of Europe's many low-cost airlines, had a two-hour nonstop flight from Pisa that cost only 32 euros! The only drawback to these airlines is that their luggage restrictions are draconian and they often arrive at a town some distance from the major tourist destinations. But traveling light is always a good idea and Chania, the town where our flight arrived, is well worth the visit. 

Chania, Crete's second city, is a beautiful seaside town that retains its old port with a fortress that dates to the Venetian occupation of the island. We spent a day touring the town and then took a bus to Heraklion. Buses are the main form of public transport in Crete and they are very efficient. The three-hour trip was comfortable and gave us great views of the coast on one side and the high mountains of the island on the other. 

While JR worked, I explored Heraklion. The old center is mostly pedestrian streets. They are filled with restaurants, coffee bars, souvenir shops and fish spas. At the latter, for just a few euros you can immerse your feet in a tank of water while schools of tiny Garra Rufa fish - a type of carp - nip them clean and smooth. I was not tempted. 

In among this usual tourist environment is the Venetian-built Morosini Fountain. Dating to 1628, it was central Heraklion's first source of fresh water.  There is also a beautiful Venetian city hall, the town's cathedral and several smaller churches. For an excellent overview of the history of Crete, the Historical Museum near the port has great exhibits complete with English text. 

Up the hill from the sea is Heraklion's old market, a bustling place with stands that fill the small pedestrian streets and spill out on to the sidewalks.  Souvenirs seem to be overtaking the more traditional market stands, but it is still possible to find wonderful fresh cheese and thick luscious yoghurt. We discovered  another market along the sea west of the port that seemed to be where the ordinary citizens did their shopping. Its displays of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, yoghurts and meats made us wish we had a kitchen instead of only a small table on our hotel balcony. 

At the foot of the tourist center is the Venetian harbor built between 1523 and 1540. There is a sea wall where you can take a morning or evening walk or just watch the local fishermen wield their long poles out over the rocks. The port is also home to our favorite restaurant in Heraklion, the Heraklion Sailing Club Restaurant. We went there our first evening and I returned again and again for lunch.  The fish is fresh and grilled to perfection and the other island specialities such as Cretan bitter greens and stuffed fresh grape leaves are delicious.

Outside of the old center, Heraklion is a bustling mishmash of stores, workshops, apartment buildings and traffic. This part of town could do with a bit of restrictive zoning laws, but it's still worth visiting.  The people are more relaxed and willing to talk and the old workshops, especially the knife makers, can't be much different than those that lined the streets outside the Knossos palace 4,000 years ago. 

A week was certainly not enough time to take in all the wonders that Crete has to offer, but after months of cold, rainy weather in Paris and Pisa this past winter and spring, it is perhaps the sunshine of Crete that remains in my mind and bathes the island in a warm, luminous glow.

For more photos, click here.

Εις το επανιδείν


  1. Long time - no read!
    I'm working from home today and your Travel Oyster just appeared. I will read it after work. I clicked on it to get an idea of what was sent. Just to let you know, that is an awesome picture of the baptismal party! Great! Dave

  2. Terrific! You are an amazing photographer, aren’t you? The picture of the celebrants looks like a painting. I want to go to CRETE! Elizabeth

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