Our next trip was to the Lasithi Plateau, a high, flat region surrounded by mountains. On the way up we saw lots of ravens, hooded crows, and a couple of lammergeyers, the first I’d seen since Tibet. On the way down to the plateau we saw traditional Cretan windmills, built in Venetian times to draw up artesian water and to grind grains. We gave the Diktian Cave a swerve, because our guides both said that the approach track was dangerous, the cave was unmanned, and we’d have to climb a gate to get in. We saw on the way back that the track consists of smooth limestone, polished and made slippery by thousands of visitors. The cave is reputed to be the birthplace of Zeus – but so is the cave on Mount Ida. We were treated to the story of Kronos eating his children one by one – gulp – according to our guide. Zeus was hidden by his mother, and survived to become the God of all Gods.
The plateau is farmed quite intensively, as it has deep soil and a water supply for irrigation. They grow orchard fruits and vegetables, and graze sheep and goats.
We stopped at a very nice café high up on the hillside, and had fresh juice made from oranges and pomegranates, with little warm pastries filled with a curd cheese called myzithra, and drizzled with honey. Each region has its own design for these pastries. They were delicious, as was the juice.
We drove on through several picturesque villages and stopped at Krasi to see an ancient plane tree and the 19th century stone sinks for washing clothes, and the adjacent troughs for watering animals, all fed by spring water. On the wall there is a plaque to the distinguished Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, who loved this village. His epitaph was: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
We drove on through several villages with narrow streets, and encountered some car drivers who didn’t appear to know how to reverse out of the way of the bus.
Back in the hotel we had an interesting conversation with a 92-year-old ex-Marine and his much younger wife. He told us that the Lasithi Plateau was actually the site for the main German paratroop landing during the Battle of Crete in 1940. Many of the paratroopers were shot by British and New Zealand troops as they descended, which put Hitler off future paratroop operations. But landings elsewhere and the lack of re-supply meant that Crete was lost, despite the bravery of the local resistance.
In the evening we had a talk on Minoan Crete talk re-scheduled from the first day because of our Knossos trip.
After an early start the next day we headed east. Lato is a small village high in the mountains, overlooking Agios Nikolaos and the Gulf of Mirabello. Access was up a track with natural and cut stone steps. We entered at a point where featured a stone-cut cistern, once roofed, showing evidence for pillars and steps leading down to the old water level. Near there is the open-air sanctuary and a stone rostrum in the agora. Behind it is a tiered seating area. To the right is the area of workshops and dwellings. Far right there’s the theatre area, again with tiered seats, a temple with an altar, and more rooms. The larger buildings are made from massive squared-off blocks of limestone. I discussed with our guides and members of our group how difficult it must have been to shape these blocks using only granite hammer-stones (and these would have to be imported). But of course by the 4th century BC, when it was built, the Iron Age had begun in some regions, and they might have had iron tools – again imported. I don’t know the answer, but it’s a major feat of stone-masonry for the time, however it was achieved
The whole place is extremely spectacular and atmospheric. It’s of Dorian (Doric) age, 4th century BC, and it was abandoned in the 2nd century BC. Excavation only started in 1967, and it’s clear there’s a lot more to be discovered.
Later we drove the short distance to the village of Kritsa, where we visited the little domed church of Panagia Kera, dedicated to Santa Anna and Saint Antony. The whole interior is covered with wall paintings, which have been extremely well conserved. The earliest date from the 13th century. I loved the long-suffering lugubrious expressions on the faces of the saints and followers.