On our final excursion of the trip we visited Gortyn, Phaistos and Matala. We rose early and were on the bus for the long drive to Gortyn. It’s a Roman town, built on a previous Minoan one. It’s very extensive, taking in three surrounding villages. In the Roman period it was the capital of Crete and Cyrenaica, and the site includes the house of the Praetor of Crete.
Passing through the entrance we came to a yard which held a variety of stone artefacts – pieces of columns, bits of marble statuary, wine and olive presses.
The buildings are made from dressed blocks of limestone, with some sections made from classical-looking Roman bricks, much shallower than their length. They are handy for pillars, arches and similar features, and they’re used that way here.
There are several really interesting buildings, the Odeion being the most impressive. It’s semi-circular, with tiers of marble seating. Most of the statuary is marble too, looking very classical. Around the theatre is a wall inscribed with the Cretan legal code. It’s written in boustrophedon style – left to right and right to left on successive lines. We wandered over the site until it was time to re-board our bus.
Then on to Phaistos, a massive hilltop site overlooking the fertile plain of Mesara, which seemed to specialise in apples, onions and giant cabbages.
The site hasn’t been reconstructed, and it felt very authentic. It was very warm, and as we walked across the extensive Upper Court the heat radiated back up from the polished slabs. We came to a wide staircase, and across from it the flat ‘theatral’ area. The first palace was started around 2000 BC, destroyed in an earthquake, rebuilt in 1700 BC, and finally destroyed in 1450 BC. In other words, the same patterns as the other Minoan sites we visited. It continued in use as a city, and is referred to in Homer. It was finally wiped out in an attack from Gortyn in 200 BC.
It’s an extremely complex site, with a maze of buildings for different purposes. In one area we came to a small building our guide said was for bronze smelting, and she invited me, knowing my geological background, to tell the group how it would have been used. I spoke about the forge in the corner, heated by charcoal with the aid of a bellows, how the alloy was made from copper from Cyprus and the tin from elsewhere.
On some building stones we saw mason’s marks – a star, and the double-axe motif. I found Phaistos as impressive as Knossos, but for different reasons. The setting is majestic, on a hilltop overlooking the plain, and with the ruins of the domestic buildings covering the slopes. I could imagine ceremonies taking place in the central square, and I wondered again at the lives of the people in those far-off times.
We left for Matala, which had been a hippy resort in the 1980s. Joni Mitchell came here, after the break-up with Graham Nash, and she lived in one of the caves beside the beach. Her song Carey refers to Matala. We didn’t visit the caves ourselves. They’re hand-carved as dwellings, and go back to prehistoric times.
We sat on the beach and ate our packed lunches. Then we found a café for beer and coffee.
The following day entailed a long wait for our flight home. We had time to explore the local area around our resort, and to put some of our thoughts in order.
I had been eagerly anticipating this trip, and I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would. I loved seeing the ancient sites, the museums and the towns. I loved meeting the people – they were so warm and welcoming. I loved the island and its scenery, and I am determined to return, probably in springtime so I can see the flowers.