Thursday, December 04, 2003

At this time, last year : Crete


Last year, at this time, A and I were in Crete. I was doing a bit of a spring cleaning today when I came across a sheaf of papers where I had kept a daily journal of our one week in Crete.

We had just returned from a weekend in the Eternal city of Rome when A spied a great ‘promo’ on Crete at one of the several ‘Agence de Voyage’ and rang me up, first to tell me about it; then a little later to convince me about it and a third time to tell me could I meet him so that we could book it! I felt a bit guilty about going on another trip immediately after one with just a week in between. I told myself that it would be our way of celebrating our 2nd anniversary!

Crete (in the Brochures we got) looked heavenly. Crete Ancient Crete of King Minos and the legend of the Minotaur! Lying at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africe, at the southernmost tip of Greece, the last outpost of Hellenism. Here is a day by day account of that trip.

Day 1
Our flight was in the afternoon, Charles De Gaulle airport. There is a direct bus to CDG from our station. There were only a handful of us going to the airport. We reached it in good time and found out that our flight was from the newly inaugurated Terminal 3. There was no bus to it…we had to walk to it. But it was a short walk. At the dutyfree, A in a very expansive mood bought me a set of nice perfumes!! Onboard our flight, we got a pleasant surprise: The airhostess spoke English despite the full plane load of French passengers. There was a bit of a turbulence which got A quite scared. I wasnt, so I suggested that we play ‘hangman’ to while away the 3 and a half hour flight time. Saw that A got quite angry at this. During our descent into the airport at Iraklion, the captain announced that the temperature outside was 18°C!! What a relief having left behind a foggy, dark, dreary, damp Paris behind.

Once we collected our luggage, which took its time coming (the french passengers stood right under the no smoking sign and lit up) we were herded up into buses by our travel agents. Our hostess gave a short introduction in such heavily accented French that we could hardly understand anything of it and I am sure I could have done a better job. We were handed slips to fill in our passport details which took up all my time it took to reach our hotel about 12kms away, while A took in the view outside the window. Crete reminded him of Delhi or Noida. Our hotel was 3 stories high and very sprawling. It was white with deep brown windows. Both of us got a shock at the registration desk when I couldn’t find our passports. I went and asked one of our attendants who gave me a sermon in french (since most of the tourists were french, they couldn’t be bothered to speak to me in english)to which some of the tourists, around her, laughed. It made me quite depressed. The same language problem here too? Luckily, they were not lost but somewhere in the bottomless pit that my shoulder bag is. Again they asked us for some papers which we didn’t have. Luckily they found our names on their list, scribbled in pencil at the end of their printed list. Phew! Room no 343. It turned out to be at the end of a long corridor, where the rooms started at 371 and went back towards 343!! The room had rough white walls, 2 beds – a single one and the other not quite a double though larger than a single one. And then the problem arose, how to switch on the lights? A had been given a white watch on a blue band without any dials. Had seen others wearing it on their wrists. Do we press that onto the depression by the door? Doesn’t seem to be working. Now what? I asked our Japanese neighbours, who told me it was (as is usual), the key(Stupid)! It was a magnet which had to be put into that depressed area by the door.

We had been asked to meet at the reception at 6.30pm. From there, we were taken to a hall where first, a man gave a short introduction which included him humming the first bars of the track of the Good, the bad and the Ugly and making us sing the “Waah waah waah” refrain. Then we were given a long lecture by the lady (the same one who had sermonised me before), which consisted of practical tips about Crete and transport (very lax, Cretoise don’t like any thing stressful like city routine), roads are OK (but only one lane wide). And people speak only Greek or English (quel horreur). So the unspoken sentiment was don’t venture out on your own, spend all your money on our organised trips!! Meeting over, the convinced tourists immediately swarmed over the tour desk. We and a few others, went our own ways - Presumably, ones who found the trips expensive or were intrepid/ foolish enough to tackle Crete alone!

We went to the lounge for some aperitif. A had a special – a green-pink, very sweet drink with low alcohol content, which came with a straw, a pink swizzle stick, a Greek flag, a slice of lemon and a burning sparkler. A had to wait till it burnt itself out before taking a sip. I had a prosaic vanilla tea. Very refreshing. We bought a tourist map of Crete from the mini-market with the hotel complex. The guide books were all in French though.

Then came dinner. Buffet. A few 1000 of us (or so it seemed). Enormous quantities of food. Salad Bars, breads, soups, main courses – meat, fish, poultry, rice, pasta, deserts, wine. The two of us ate like true descendants of survivors of the Bengal Famine. Very naturally, we didn’t feel like going to the disco. Instead, we returned to our room, settled down to some English TV – BBC and CNN (something we don’t get, not having cable – don’t ask – a long long story).

Day 2
Got up at 6.30am and found that A got up without without any prompting. Breakfast. Then we had a bit of a rush around for our bus tickets to the city of Iraklion. Our hotel was at Amoudara 12kms away. The smiling receptionist told us that we could get them at the mini-market, but not only did the mini-market not have the tickets, the woman behind the counter did not respond to our questions at all (when will you get them, where else can we get them); A thought they were discouraging any sort of experimentation in travelling alone(book our trips)! Back to the reception. This time, we were told that there was a supermarket outside. Sure enough there was. We had to walk past a bunch of heckling geese to get there. They too were out of tickets. But they were renting out cars for 39E for 3 days. A thought we should first get to the tourism office at Iraklion and then decide on the car rental. There was another supermarket (more like a large convenience store) that did have a pretty, young Greek lady selling the tickets. We got a bus at 9 and reached Iraklion at 9.40 but not before we had some palpitations. The road signs were all Greek to us. I do remember a few of them – alpha, beta, gamma, delta, lambda…but try reading directions. Luckily, there were couple of students who told us where to get down – Infront of Hotel Astoria bang in the centre of Iraklion. From there, we took another bus to Knossos. We also picked up a fat, glossy guide book. Knossos is 5km away from Iraklion and is said to be the kingdom of the mythical king Minos. Sir Arthur Evans ( a british archaeologist) who excavated the palace of Minos at Knossos, date this civilisation the Minoan Civilisation from2600BC to 1100 BC.

A bit of history: Interesting details only.
According to legend, Crete is the birthplace of Zeus. And Minos, son of Zeus by Europa ruled from Knossos. Minos’s wife gave birth to a monster(after mating with a bull) – with the head of a bull on a human body – The Minotaur. King Minos constructed a labyrinth under the palace where Minotaur was kept till Theseus, son of Aegeus, king of Athens killed it. While waiting for his son to return, Aegeus mistakenly took the black sail on a ship to mean the death of Theseus and threw himself into the sea and drowned; And thus, the Aegean sea got its name.

Then there is the legend of Daedalus, master craftsman who had incurred the wrath of King Minos and together with his son Icarus, they fled the island using wings glued with wax. Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and he drowned in the sea which was henceforth known as the Icarian sea. Daedelus however reached Sicily.

At the entrance of Knossos ruins, we got a joint ticket for Knossos and the archaeological museum of Iraklion. A guide asked if we could understand English. 'Yes we can'. 'Good. I offer you services for 10E per person'. But we had a book and so we went on ourselves. Well it was all ruins. Here a bright fragment of an ancient fresco, there a broken shard of a pot. And despite the very detailed maps and layout plans in the guide book, we couldn’t figure out much. We tried very hard to imagine where the big palace, the little palace, the granaries or the labyrinth might have been. The only sign we saw was one which said there were no signs due to excavations. But the fact that it was so old, so very very old, was somehow awe inspiring. There was another sign which said Stairways closed. We walked up and down and around, getting a feel of couple of millenia worth of history and took photos in some renovated frescoes and a hugs pair of bull’s horns.

There was a small boutique selling lovely potteries, postcards and souvenirs and was unbelievably cheap. When we walked up to the cash counter to ask about some price, we were told that they were closed. So we had some cold coffee instead and took a bus back to Iraklion and to the museum of archaeology.

It was raining cats and dogs as we ran across heavy traffic to an imposing, flag strewn building which turned out to be a government office (an unemployment exchange, I think) and then a dash back again to where we started from and this time found it. They had a great collection covering some 4000 (or more) years. Downstairs, some 7 to 8 large rooms were full of Minoan pottery, seals, ornaments, urns etc. Upstairs, magnificent frescoes from Knossos, some spoilt due to bad reconstruction jobs.

Afterwards, we took a walk through the shopping area, ate lunch at a small restaurants with exactly two tables. The tourist office was quite useful. We got bus routes and schedules. We sat on the steps of the Venetian Loggia, now Town Hall for some chalking out our plan of action. The Hall was closed (thankgod), otherwise I would have felt obliged to take a tour of it. We walked towards the harbour in the pouring rain (we had bought a cheap umbrella in the morning but after a while, I saw A trying to dump it in a dustbin – it had broken when A had tried to shut it), on the way we did a bit of impulse shopping. I got a great wool carpet in Cretan geometric motifs for 26E, which A said he could have got for 20, had I not sided with the shop-owner so much. There is this long wall running into the sea, dating from Venetian times. We walked by the sea side where there were more Venetian buildings – ancient arsenal, huge arches, 4 to 5 stories high, bus station, ferries, huge ships carrying entire loaded lorries. Found out that most of the tours were closed being off season. We walked back to Astoria, up a series of steps from the sea front past a huge building under construction. A drop cloth hid the façade but we could see the impression of the famous ‘Prince with the lilies’(from a Minoan fresco). Then we took a bus back to Amoudara. Aching Feet. Enormous Dinner. We should have taken that guided tour of Knossos.

To be contd….

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