Crete 5: Armeni, Rethymnon, Gournia, Elounda, Spinalonga

A long drive today, through Rethymnon to our first site, the Late-Minoan (13th – 12th century BC) cemetery at Armeni. It’s an astonishing place, in an oak wood on a slope. The oaks are Kermes Oaks, with small spine-tipped leaves and large acorns in distinctive fringed cups. The tombs are cut into the hillside – presumably the limestone here is weathered and soft. We went inside a couple of the larger tombs, and it was extremely impressive. We walked around the site fairly gobsmacked, and I made a stab at identifying some of the plants. Our local guide pointed out which of them are eaten on Crete. They have a long tradition of foraging for salad herbs and pot herbs. The site was discovered when a local schoolboy unearthed a pot, back in 1967, and excavation work started in 1969. Around 220 graves have so far been discovered. The location of the settlement has not yet been established.

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Back on the bus we drove into Rethymnon itself and parked the bus by the port – we saw the cruise liner Le Laperuse moored. We had our packed lunches in a café by the port.

Then we had a walking tour of this 17th century Venetian town. The streets are narrow and bustling, but the people seemed friendly. On the other side of large square, on the opposite side from a large mosque, we went through an arch and came to the archaeological museum. It’s a much smaller building than Heraklion, but everything is beautifully displayed. The order is, as usual chronological, from Neolithic through Minoan, Roman and Venetian. We saw some of the sarcophagi which had been unearthed at Armeni.

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We watched a baker making filo pastry the traditional way.

The next day we started by visiting Gournia. Unlike the other sites, this wasn’t a palace complex; it was a town, with streets, homes and workshops. It was built on the side of a low hill, and near the top of the hill there’s a paved courtyard, and a large central hall with colonnades. We walked through the streets paved with flat stones, worn smooth and semi-polished by the feet of people. I could identify with the inhabitants here; I could picture them walking along these same streets. We saw the drainage system. Like the other Minoan sites, it was destroyed in 1450 BC.

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It was quite hot here, and as we gathered at the top of the hill we discovered our guide had brought a picnic for us all – a big bag of crisps, some raki which had been made by her father, with nuts and raisins, the latter from her father’s grapes. It was extremely pleasant, and we all enjoyed it.

Someone asked me about a purplish stone slab, which seemed out of place here. It looked to me like a sandstone, so not local, and one face was darkened, possibly by fire. There was also a slab of a creamy yellow siltstone, with some darker blebs which might be fossil burrows. Among the rubble I found a smaller angular block of purple sandstone. So it’s clear there was some importation of non-local stone for specific purposes.

We drove to Elounda, adjacent to the site of the ancient city of Olous, now submerged below the sea. It had been sited on an isthmus connecting the mainland to Poros, which is now an island. The western end of Crete is rising, while the eastern end is sinking.

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Someone said that Elounda was the place where Leonard Cohen in the Hippy Age (the 1970s) wrote the song Suzanne, but I’ve not been able to corroborate this. We drove on to the small port of Plaka, where we boarded a boat for our trip to the small island of Spinalonga.

Spinalonga’s a former Venetian fortress, converted in 1903 to a leper colony, which was abandoned only in the 1950s after a cure for the disease had been found. It was a bit bizarre, seeing elements of Venetian architecture amid more recent reconstructions, but it was fascinating. The sea was beautifully clear, little waves splashing on the pebbly shore. After the tour we had the chance to walk all round the island before returning to the landing place. We saw the fortifications, which are very impressive, and the massive limestone – even more impressive, for me anyway. It’s a deep water marine limestone, consolidated from ocean floor calcareous ooze. There were lots of signs of compression recrystallization, with calcite veins. There were also signs of slickensides – fault movement recrystallization. The sense of movement was evident from rubbing fingers up and down the fault trace – smooth in the direction of movement, rough against it.

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We boarded the boat again, our guide fending off strangers who wanted to come on board, but we were a private hire. As we set off we heard a whistle from the nearby island of Poros. Someone there was calling for a boat to take them off. My wife was much taken by the blue eyes of our skipper, made more intense by the contrast with his sun-browned face. She was obviously having a Shirley Valentine moment. Long after the film, I remember meeting Tom Conti at a party in Lennoxlove House, after a book festival event. He was charming and friendly.

We disembarked at Elounda for our packed lunch, which we took in the back room of a restaurant. I had a big glass of Cretan beer, which I enjoyed everywhere on Crete. Then we wandered along the pretty seafront, enjoying the warmth and sunshine.

We were back at the hotel in time for me to have another long swim before our evening talk on the Ariadne, Theseus and Minotaur story.

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About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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