Day 14, Sunday - Ayios Galini, Gortys, Pirgos, Knossos, Heraklion, Rhodes
We were the only tourists at the cafe for breakfast. The town was very quiet. There were just a few Greeks about. We both had coffee and were on our way to Gortys. On the way, I saw a man dressed in his Sunday best; the full traditional Kreten costume of pantalones, high black boots, and a black cap with netting. He had a mustache and was jiggling worry beads in his hand. I begged him to allow me to take his picture. I think he let me because he thought we might take him to a small town an hour away. Unfortunately, we were going in the opposite direction. We left him somewhat disappointed on the road.
Gortys is a very small village which would never lead one to think that this had once been the main city in Krete during Roman times. It is even mentioned in the new testament as the home of St. Titus. We did not find any excavations at Gortys. On vacant pasture land you can see the outline of building foundations. The dwellings are all quite small and white washed. We got out of the car and looked for something more tangible, but could find nothing except two churches.
One church was from the classical period. It had originally been a temple of some kind, but had been rebuilt using the original columns and foundation. Here, ten Christian martyrs were beheaded for defying Rome and professing their faith. Inside, there were two gold chandeliers with small icons along the circumference. The effect was quite opulent. There was an icon of the event inside the church. The icon made the temple seem very large, but the church was actually small by American standards. I took a picture.
The other, smaller church is just a couple hundred feet away from the first. It too was pretty, but simpler. Underneath the church is a grotto, where the remains of the ten Christian saints lie buried. There were incense candles next to the graves. After all this time, they are still remembered.
Again, we found no ruins, although the foundations of old buildings were clearly visible under the ground. During our search, I peeked into a 30' x 20' white washed shack and saw an old woman in a dark room, sitting on a narrow bed dressed all in black with a head scarf. She was starring through her open door into the sunlight. She looked poor and sad. There was an icon above the bed and very little else in the room. The darkness of the room and her clothing contrasted sharply with the white wash color of her home. There were many homes like that one. I could have taken a photo with my camera, but it felt too much like an invasion of privacy. Nevertheless, my eyes snapped the photo which is still vividly etched in my mind.
We continued on toward Pirgos to take the north/south Heraklion road which divides the island in two and went north to Knossos. Near Pirgos, we were stopped by a van. A slim man about 40 asked us if we would take his father to Heraklion. His father was a large burly robust man with gray hair, mustache and a cap. We always like to add a little local color, so we said yes.
He was going home after visiting his son's farm for the weekend. He carried a large sack of herbs and produce which we put in the trunk. After climbing into the back seat, the old man immediately gave us packages of oregano, camomile, and mint in gratitude for the ride. I was afraid he would light up a cigarette, but he was quite discrete. He asked us if we wanted one and when we said no, he put them away. We never saw them again.
He spoke to us in Greek and I understood him most of the time. He told us his name was Mark Petrakis and he was 69 years old. Mark was in Krete during World War II when the island was successively occupied by the English, Germans, and Americans. A third of the population died during that war and Mark was very grateful to the United States for providing food and clothing in its aftermath.
All Greek names ending in "akis" are of Kreten origin. Dilberakis is my mother's father's mother's maiden name. I asked Mark where on Krete the name Dilberakis came from. We got out of the car to look at a map together. He told me that there were Dilberakis people in Rethimnon in the west and in a far eastern region called Lasithi, just south of Tsermiado and north of Psithro. It is near a mountain range called Dikti.
When we went to the palace of Minos in Knossos. Mark came along. They let him in for free, but we had to pay. He knew where everything was. We would have missed a few things if it weren't for him, including a Roman villa and a small palace on the opposite side of the road. It was closed, but I jumped over the fence to take a peek.
The palace dates to the Minoan era, about 4000 B.C., but the ruins, excavated by Sir Arthur Evans, represent the Mycenean era, 2000 B.C. The palace is below the current ground level. Mark told us that the large mounds that surround the palace were also part of the city of Knossos. We saw the throne room with the oldest known throne in existence, carved from rock. There were intricate decorations everywhere very different from post-Doric Greece (800 B.C.). The rooms were rectangular in a very complex architecture resembling a labyrinth.
There were several symbols used by this culture which can be found on a variety of objects. One is the double axe motif, which is two crossed curving axe heads, one facing right and one facing left. The other is the bull, particularly the horns. There were giant pairs of bull horns, three feet high, all along the perimeter wall surrounding the palace. A picture of Kretens riding bull horns was found on the site. Archaeologists often speculate as to whether the Spanish bull fights have any connection to the Minoian civilization.
After leaving Knossos, we continued north straight for Heraklion, the main city of Krete centered on the northern coast. Here our aged friend directed us to the museum. He told us he regarded us as his own children. He gave us his address and asked us to write. Then he scurried off to a taxi stand across the street, got into a taxi and was off for home. We had gotten used to him as our personal guide and were sorry to see him go.
Inside the museum, there were original frescos uncovered at Knossos as well as many other artifacts. All the paintings reflected the same unique features of the typical Kreten, heavy dark eyebrows and black curly hair. We saw many double axe motifs and lots of bull horns. Unfortunately, the museum did not allow photographs.
Afterwards, we were both tired, so we wandered off to a small square with a Venetian fountain and had coffee and yogurt. Directly across the street was the Venetian Loggia which had been rebuilt to its original condition. We took a walk around the town. We stopped in St. Titus church. St. Titus is the patron saint of Krete. His remains were stolen by the Venetians in the 17th century, but were returned to Krete in 1966. I'm not sure how old the church is, however, it was converted to a mosque in the 15th century and was reconcecrated as a Christian church when the Turks were forced out at the beginning of the 20th century. This is the only instance I know of where a mosque was converted to a church.
Inside, only the vestibule was open. The rest of the church was undergoing renovation. Off to the left was a wooden structure about five feet high and three foot square called an iconototsis which holds an icon. The top was enclosed in glass and held the skull of Saint Titus, his only remains. The priest didn't seem to mind when I took a photo.
We continuing our walk to the end of the pier where there was a small Venetian fort. All around the old section of the city we saw many Venetian structures left abandoned. No effort has been made to restore them because of lack of funds. Because their historical importance, no effort is made to tear them down. The Kretens don't seem to mind if their city looks like a ruin.
We drove to the Heraklion airport to take our flight to Rhodes. We arrived at 7:00 p.m. and I spent the time writing until our plane left at 8:30 p.m.
It was after 11:00 p.m. before our plane arrived in Rhodes. As we taxied to our hotel, we saw and heard many people out carousing. The many bars and casinos were doing a thriving business. Pam read that 25,000 tourist come to Rhodes each day. Bright lights and lots of glitter proliferate. Loud music was blasting from all directions. The atmosphere was one big happy party.
The taxi took a turn into a narrow street with only two inch clearance on either side. Suddenly we were within the intact medieval fortress walls of the knights of St. George of Rhodes. The atmosphere was completely changed. There were few people to be seen. The noise level from the immediate area was quite low, although the sound of bosoukis still echoed in the distance. The streets were completely deserted in the vicinity of our hotel. It was a relief to know that there was a little peace somewhere on this island amusement park. The hotel was clean too. The hot water even worked. The owner, George, was pleasant. He told me that the Turks required a day's notice to review passports. He suggested going tomorrow afternoon to the shipping line. This upset me because it would put us a day behind schedule in a place I really didn't want to spend any unnecessary time in.
His wife was an old overweight Greek woman, very nosy and very cranky. She made fun of me because I didn't know what "chuck" meant. It apparently is a chicken. She was also very suspicious of my writing. She thought I was evaluating the hotel. She spoke to her husband in Greek about it, not realizing that I could understand what she said.
Evan C. Economos
If you have comments or suggestions, email me at