Crete 6: Gortyn, Phaestos, Matala

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.

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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.



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.



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.



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.


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.



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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Crete 4: Heraklion Archaeological Museum

The Museum was stunning. Our guide issued us with earbuds as she had to use a radio mike to keep her voice down inside the museum. After waiting in a long queue we started upstairs in the fresco gallery. These were the original frescoes, first excavated by Arthur Evans. They included the bull-leapers, the dolphins, the ‘Prince with the lilies’, and the cup-bearer. For years I’ve seen photos of the originals, and of the reconstructions. Now I could stand in front of them and admire. They did not disappoint.

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Downstairs we went through the galleries in chronological order, from Neolithic to the Classical Period. There’s such a wealth of material that the afternoon just wasn’t enough to take it all in. The material is from Knossos, Phaestos, Zakros, Agia Triada and other sites. We saw the still undeciphered Linear A hieroglyphs, and examples of Linear B. The ceramics were amazing – such quality, such decoration. We saw octopus, snake and bird symbols. Jane wondered about the owl symbolism, and I said I thought it might have to do with the goddess Athena. I’ve since looked it up, and the Little Owl (Athene noctua) is indeed associated with Athena. I loved the bull’s head rhyton, made from steatite, and the lioness head rhyton. We saw the two snake goddesses, one with a cat on her head. I googled the Cretan wildcat, and it’s a fearsome looking beast. The image is copyright, so I won’t post it here, but do look it up. I loved the sarcophagi. So much, just so much. It’s wonderful.







Walking round Heraklion and the archaeological sites I reflected that I had grown up learning the Greek legends. They became part of my history, my culture. The more places I visit, the more things I see, the more languages I encounter, the more internationalist I feel. I’m a Scot of course, and I love the country I live in, but I feel my European heritage and kinship acutely, especially in these times.

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Crete 3: Lasithi Plateau, Krasi, Lato, Kritsa

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.

Lasithi Plateau

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.”

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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.


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Crete 2: Malia and Knossos

At our first briefing from the Saga Archaeology group guide, she said that the Cretan custodians and guards at the sites and museums were all going on strike on the Thursday, so everything would be closed. So the excursions were all rescheduled. It meant that we would be visiting Knossos and Malia that afternoon, so she gave us a talk on Knossos and Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who carried out the work there in the early 20th century.

After lunch we boarded the bus, driven by Nikos, who was our driver for the whole of the week. And we met our Cretan archaeology host, Katerina.

Our first visit was to the Minoan palace site at Malia. According to legend, it was ruled by Sarpedon, one of the brothers of King Minos, if you believe that sort of thing. It’s a large site, spread out quite widely, with some sections of it protected by roofs. Katerina took us into the most recently excavated part of the complex, showing us the workshops (ceramics, seals), and the conjectural wooden roofs. In an island like this, and with the climate then probably similar to the climate today, flat roofs would have been fine. This area gave us our first glimpse of a feature we would become very familiar with throughout our trip – the lustral basin. Essentially a sunken room entered via a short staircase and a dog-leg wall. The archaeologists think they were used for ritual purification, but I’m not so sure. None of the ones we saw had any outlet drains.


Malia is the third major palace in Crete, after Knossos and Phaestos, all started around 2000 BC, subsequently rebuilt, and all destroyed by fire around 1450 BC, after which the Myceneans took over the island. Like the others , it has Neolithic and Prepalatial artefacts and structures. Malia, however, is built on a provincial scale.

I was impressed by the ‘kernos’, a circular stone offering table with a central well, possibly for oil, and numerous circular pits round the circumference, one pit larger than the others. I’m wondering if kernos has the same root as our quern?


After walking along a raised processional walkway, we came to a group of circular storage rooms and a large central courtyard. On one side there is a group of storage ‘magazines’, behind a portico of alternating stone and timber pillars, square and circular. Floors were of limestone, mostly pale, but some were darker and much harder. They’re either argillaceous or more strongly metamorphosed by pressure. I saw one block made of cementstone. We saw the royal apartments – his and hers – and an odd building – the ‘diagonal building’ arranged on a different orientation from the rest, and probably Mycenean.


Next we drove to Knossos, not far from Heraklion. I suppose Knossos would be the highlight of any archaeological tour of Crete, so it was a bit odd to be visiting it on our first day. Would everything that followed be an anti-climax? But it turned out all right. It was startling at first to see the red-painted concrete pillars at the site entrance, but it’s entirely possible, given the pigments available at the time, that this had been their original colour. It was certainly the same as on some of the original frescos, now in Heraklion Museum.


It’s a massive construction, around 20,000 m2,, and as an administrative and economic centre it housed the ruler, officials and the priesthood. The range and quality of the buildings is incredible, and I didn’t find Arthur Evans’ reconstructions detracted – I thought they enhanced it.

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As elsewhere, the Neolithic underlies the Bronze Age, but here it hasn’t been excavated because of the complications of unravelling original and reconstructed buildings.

Most of the building stones are limestone, mostly pale, but the dark limestone predominates in the central square. Where a whiter, reflective finish was desired, gypsum has been used, but it weathers badly, so it’s mostly been protected by concrete. At one point we came across a collection of porphyry boulders in a storage area. The closest source I know is Egypt. What were the rocks doing there?

Knossos_porphyry stoneyard

Several of the rooms have reconstructed frescos – the dolphin fresco, bull-leaping, the Prince with the lilies. They are stunningly beautiful. The ‘Horns of Consecration’ are a stylised representation of the horns of a bull. Large storage jars called pithoi are in the storage areas and elsewhere.

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For all that we were awestruck and amazed, I just couldn’t picture the lives of the original inhabitants of the complex. They’re too far removed from us by time and cultural differences.

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We finished our tour at the ‘theatre’ area, sloping and paved with flat slabs.

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Crete 1

I normally use my Lumix camera when I’m away, but this time, maybe because I had a deadline for a funding application, I wasn’t as prepared as usual. I forgot to pack my spare camera battery and charger, so in the wonderful museum at Heraklion, battery power ran out, and I was forced to use my phone camera from then on. It wasn’t a total failure – the camera is actually very good, but it’s a pain in the neck having to transfer the photos from the Gallery to my desktop for processing, and I haven’t finished that job yet.

Our Cretan holiday was an archaeological one, learning more about Cretan and Greek history, and visiting a number of archaeological sites. It was at times breathtaking, surprising, awesome and beautiful. I loved it.

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This is the Doric hilltop site of Lato, a collection of houses and workshops, with a central courtyard, a ‘theatre’, temple, cistern, storage areas and other features.


When you’ve been as familiar, as I have, with the amazing bull-leaping image from Knossos, it comes as a wonderful shock to see the original frieze from the Minoan palace, discovered by Arthur Evans, on display in the museum at Heraklion.

This post is by way of being a taster. I will post more in the days to come, once I’ve edited my notes.

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Writing in Scots

More often than not I’ll drop the odd Scots word into poems and stories, either because nothing else will do, or to make a point that it’s the language appropriate to my culture, ancestry and nationality. I’ll say dreich, or outbye, or any one of a host of Scots words that have no exact equivalent in the English that I use in everyday speech and writing.

But I don’t all that often write a whole poem in Scots – and maybe I should – and nor do I write many stories in Scots. Except that I have written a few poems in demotic Scots (Confession, in The Propriety of Weeding (Red Squirrel Press, 2012), and I recently finished a short story where much of the dialogue is in the Doric of Moray, a slightly different, softer flavour of tongue from my ancestral Aberdeenshire Doric. And I absolutely loved writing it.

But when I write something solely in Scots, I’m struck by the power of the language, its hospitality to thoughts and concepts, and the beauty of it. Read Gavin Douglas or William Dunbar to get the full force.

My first published poem in Scots was A Postcaird Frae Posteritie, but it was a linguistic hybrid. I’m happier with some of the later ones, and my favourite is probably Wrack, published in Sushi & Chips (Diehard, 2006). It’s all Scots.


I’ the herbour a selkie
speirs air, dooks,
nebs the scag
strawn aboot the glaury grund.

Neist the ness, skellie-guttit,
the ‘Blithesome Weedae’ dings a mirkie mark;
the sea’s swoof sooks in an oot
the toom winnocks o the wheelhoose,
howders the tang-quaitened bell
‘at cries the maws
til their roupit saums.

I wrote it at Cove Harbour, near Dunbar, back in 2002, imagining the wreck of a fishing boat submerged below the waves, its barely heard bell still ringing as the tides surge through its skeleton.


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