Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Monday, October 8, 2012

Zeus's Hiding Place

"It’s far away....20 euros!"

"No," says Mihai and walks away. Another taxi driver approaches and gives his price: 15 euros. The first one insists “I’ll take you, 20 euros!” Mihai can’t believe it, there is a lower offer on the table, and the first one insists on his price. NO!

Our hotel is far, far away but it has a kitchenette. While we settle in, Mihai goes to the corner store for a quick grocery shopping. The vendor was eating a pomegranate and offers him a piece, and when Mihai refuses, he puts it anyway in the bag “They are not ripe yet, but they’re sweet.” I’m happy for it, I haven’t had a pomegranate in more than a year, and just before I taste it I say out-loud “Bogdaproste, let it be for the departed souls.” The Greeks are Orthodox Christians, like ourselves, and give alms thinking of the ones who left this life. I don’t know if he intended it as alms, but if he did, I want to recognize it.

We wake up before sunrise, amidst barking and roosters cockle-doodle-dooing. We take a bus, change in town to another one and we arrive at the opening time at Knossos's Palace. The place seems empty, just a few other tourists. We didn’t do our homework, so we don’t know where to go, we’re just following the road. And suddenly we’re there, at the same level with fluted red-browned columns, blue frescoes, mosaics and door jambs made of plaster that imitate the wood grain. And groups of tourists, blocking the view! Suddenly, our main task became to see the bits and pieces in between groups. Their guides talk loudly, and the tourists are hanging on their words, crushing anything in their way. 

3500 years ago people built this palace, employing winds to keep it cool in the summer, the floor plan to be warm in the winter. It had everything, a market, a theater (at least this is what the archeologists believe about some large steps), granary (large pits with huge terra cotta jars), and the official and living spaces. 

The prince of lilies

The most beautiful one is the throne room, its walls covered in seated griffons around the alabaster seat. Frescoes are everywhere, in bright colors, showing different moments of their life with stiff and unnatural poses, but with the suggestion of movement. 

The special ones are at the museum in Iraklion (ee-rah-kli-on). By the time we are done exploring every nook and cranny, finding linear B script, new “tsingy” on a marble column, the place is crawling with people and more are coming in. 

Here you can have a better view and even some frescoes that we didn't have access to

So we’ve seen the walls, it is time to go and see what they were protecting. The museum is actually closed (the children are ecstatic), but it has one gallery open (sad faces, drooping shoulders) filled with their most exquisite treasures. Here is the leaping bull fresco, an entertainment and an art in itself and next to it, an ivory statue, caught in the fleeting moment of leaping. 

Detail. Just the darker parts are the originals.

Next day we start exploring the island of Crete. The legend has it that Zeus was hidden here. Cronos, his father, knew that one of his children will take his place, so he swallowed them all. Rhea, his mother, wanted to have one child, so she tricked Cronos, and gave him a swaddled stone and hid Zeus in Crete. A goat Amalthea nurtured him with her milk. One day he broke one of her horns by mistake and Zeus made it to be a source of unending nourishment.

We drive for a while along the coast. Same cliffs, deep blue sea, the signs are first in Greek and after 50 yds in English. In time we start recognizing the letters, we learned them in Physics and Mathematics, so many years ago: π  (p) for the area of the circle, ρ (r) was the sign for density, θ this for the temperature, and soon enough we can read the signs in Greek.

Afte eating a pita-gyros, we stopped for a little stroll on the streets of Chania (Hun-ya). Here the houses are stone colored, they have a different style, a Venetian one, but the flowers, the cats, the shops cluttered around the plaza are all Greek.

The dog was afraid of the cat.
Our road must climb the mountain, switching back and forth on serpentines, next to olive trees, young or old, straight or gnarled, still bearing their fruits or already barren. The view is made of rolling stone hills cultivated with geometrical rows of trees. 

Tucked between two or three hills are villages, the church in the highest place, all roads leading toward it, steep alleys between stone walls, walked by women dressed in black from head to toe. It’s not a fashion, they are in deep mourning, for a year if someone from the family died, or for a life time, if they are widows. 

We reach Omalos, a few houses and two hotels, facing each other. Ours is the oldest one and we chose it because it boasts traditional cheese making. I want to see how they are doing it, but unfortunately the season is closed. They milk the 1000 ewes from April to July, two times a day, while the lambs are still suckling. They put rennet for curdling the milk, strain the whey and make big wheels of cheese, taking care to turn them every week. The owner takes us to the cellar, opens the door and a smell of sheep cheese thrills my nostrils.

 Our rooms have a private patio from which we can walk in the orchard. We are encouraged to eat as many fruits as we would like. Goats and sheep roam the fields. Shepherd dogs bark for some reason. The air is stratified cold and smelling of fir trees around my head, warm and dense around my feet. We discuss all the details for the next morning with the owner and go to sleep in a lingering sheep smell.

We wake up at dawn’s break, breakfast has fresh squeezed orange juice, homemade bread and  honey from their bees. Then the owner takes us with his van to the Samaria Gorge (Sum-ah-rhea). In the beginning we’re by ourselves. Twisting pines, slippery rocks, sun rays piercing the coronas.

 A thick black hose follows the trail, bringing fresh water to the fountains and hydrants. Every few hundred yards there is a mini fire station, portable fire extinguishers, bags of sand, spades, axes. The danger of fire is high, not necessarily from a tourist’s cigarette, but from the combination heat and highly combustible firs.

The first two hours are the most difficult ones. The descending is steep on shined grey marble (it seems odd, but this is the readily available material), any moment, if we don’t pay attention, we can sprain an ankle or slip and hurt ourselves. Soon enough my knees hurt, especially the right one, the one that I hurt in the Drakensberg Mountains. But we walk onward, through the forest, under canopies of linked wire to keep us safe from falling rocks, between the stone walls of the gorge. 

Water appears and disappears, signs of its spring force pepper the landscape, huge uprooted trees stuck between two boulders. We stop at the vestiges of an abandoned village and eat lunch. People were relocated when the gorge became a National Park and a few houses serve now as an office for a doctor and the firefighters. 

In the meantime we pass and we’re passed by the same people, we walk, they take pictures, we stop for different reasons, they continue their trip. At the end of the gorge, the walls are closing in, like the gates on a lock. A creek and a small bridge keeps their towering height open. Behind, the mountains look down on us.  Wow, we were up there in the morning! 

The small vertical lines are people.
After that, the land flattens and the road takes us between unfinished rock houses and yards with olive trees, in their shadow are flocking sheep. 

We stop on a  black pebbly beach and wash ourselves in the Libyan Sea. The bottom drops abruptly, the water is cool, relaxing our muscles. 

We’re not the only ones, the other tourists are doing the same thing, while waiting for the ferryboat to come. An English girl walks on her towel “I know I look silly, but I don’t want to burn my feet!” This day we established a walking record: 26 704 steps (mine), but I think Ioan took more...

The children fall asleep during the ferryboat crossing.
Next day we check out. “Five person, 15 euro each, two nights, 90 euros,” says the mother of the owner. Almost as tall as me, dressed in black, her face severe, she takes care of the money part of the business. Mihai is surprised and the woman repeats herself. She knows little English, we know almost zero Greek. She frowns, she doesn’t understand why Mihai says no. I try with paper and pencil doing multiplication, but my mumbling doesn’t help her. Eventually, she takes out the calculator, punches the numbers in, seriously, she is not the one to be fooled with, and then, her eyes grow big, her mouth opens in surprise, she softens, looking at a 150 euros total and not 90. “Thank you, thank you!” she holds my hands for a second, before busying herself to give us a big jar of honey and some apples. For us it would have been enough just what her eyes said! Efharisto! (F-ha-ree-stow) Thank you!

We move on, toward Plakias, another beach where we’re trying to recharge our batteries. Driving here was a nightmare of serpentines and unmarked roads. We had the best intention to visit a monastery and to see the monument of a gun-fighting priest, protecting his country. In the end we can’t do it, we are too tired. 

Just a church on the side of the road.

The little vegetation that grows on the side occupies part of the road (never will I complain about mowers on the highway). There are falling rocks and falling roads! From place to place we can see along or across the road irregular oscillations of level, bigger than a speed bump, like a fracture.

Plakias is a quiet and undeveloped town, in spite of a beautiful golf and a fine beach, because of the wind. Now it's not that bad and we enjoy the warmth of the sun together with senior citizens and Nordics. We rent a beautiful apartment and the welcome drink is a bottle of wine! Here we discover something that we’ve read about: the option of wearing the swimsuit. There are no signs telling you this, just people sit more apart and in the buffering zone, sometime people would cover up until you pass.

Our time on Crete is up. We go back on the same strenuous road, toward Iraklion, return the car and board a tiny Olympic airplane for Athens.

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