Travels in Crete

As the Cambridge winter starts drawing in, the natural response (at least as far as I’m concerned) is to start daydreaming about warm sunny places in the Mediterranean. Fortunately, one of the advantages of Classics is that it provides the perfect excuse to go to said warm sunny places and sit on a beach eating ice-cream benefit from the informative and educational experience of visiting Classical sites and museums. New graduate students may like to know that you can apply for Faculty funding not just for research trips (conferences, library/museum visits, etc) but also for travel to ‘Classical lands’ (i.e., pretty much anywhere the Greeks and/or Romans got to) that’s not directly connected with your research, especially if you haven’t had the opportunity to visit said Classical lands before (information and application forms are on the Classics Graduate Moodle, accessible by current students only via Raven).

In the tradition of Res Gerendae travel tips for students visiting Classical (or not-so-Classical) places, I offer a few  recommendations from my recent trip to Heraklion, Crete, to study some Linear B tablets in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. As the capital of Crete, Heraklion is where you’re most likely to find yourself arriving (by plane or ferry), and this museum should really be your first port of call (like all state museums and archaeological sites in Greece, it’s free for students – take your student card!). Reopened in 2014 after a long refurbishment, it has (as you’d expect) an extremly good collection of Cretan material ranging from Neolithic to Roman, but it’s the stunning Bronze Age artefacts that really steal the show. (As a Bronze Age specialist myself, I’m not biased at all. Honest.) The Phaistos Disc is probably the most (in)famous object on display, but since that’s on every single T-shirt and keyring for sale in Heraklion, I figure it has enough publicity pictures. Here instead are an anchor with an octopus, a ceramic basket covered in double-axes, and a stone ‘libation table’ with an inscription in Linear A (an undeciphered Cretan script):

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Heraklion is a pretty touristy place, but pleasant to stroll around – the walk out along the sea wall to the Venetian fortress is particularly nice (though the fortress itself is currently not accessible). Shopping is mostly the aforementioned Phaistos Disc T-shirts and so on, with the exception of the shop run by the local potter I met last time I was in Crete – for genuinely high-quality (though correspondingly, unfortunately, not cheap) reproductions of ancient pottery, look for the ‘Spirit of Greece‘ shop just next to the museum (and no, I’m not on commission – just repaying the fact that the lovely woman who runs the shop remembered me a year and a half after my last visit). If you’re self-catering, head for Οδός 1866 (1866 Street), site of the market – in amongst the tourist shops are some good places to pick up vegetables, cheese, etc. Speaking of which, two eating-out recommendations: for a proper Greek cheese-and-pastry-based lunch, try Κιρκορ (Kirkor), the cafe with the yellow awning on the main square near the Venetian fountain, who do a good μπουγάτσα (bougatsa – cheese or custard between pieces of phyllo pastry) and τυρόπιτα (tyropita – ‘cheese pie’); and the Αντίποδας (Antipodas) restaurant, on a small side street between the museum and the main square, does fantastic mezze.

Grand Staircase
Knossos – Grand Staircase

Now that you’ve eaten, you can head out on the no.2 bus to Knossos, location of the eponymous Bronze Age palace excavated by Sir Arthur Evans in the early 20th century. Evans’ concrete reconstructions may be controversial, but it’s still a very impressive site, certainly worth a couple of hours’ wandering around. See if you can spot the masons’ marks carved in the walls, and the remains of the (pretty advanced) plumbing system!

 

 

 

Phaistos - West Court
Phaistos – West Court

Without a car, I was worried that getting around to visit more distant archaeological sites might be difficult, but I was pleasantly surprised by Cretan public transport – major sites, at least, are very easy to get to by coach (and the coaches have both extremely helpful drivers/conductors who are quite used to sorting out helpless tourists, and free wifi). If you go to only one site on Crete, it should be the palace of Phaistos, which as well as being at least as impressive a palace as Knossos (and without the concrete) has an absolutely spectacular setting on a hill overlooking the Mesara plain. (Also, lots more masons’ marks to spot, including a double-axe!)

Ayia Triada
Ayia Triada

 

At the other end of the same hill is the ‘villa’ of Ayia Triada – not a palace, but a large residental/administrative site (where, actually, a much larger number of Linear A administrative documents have been found than at Phaistos). You can get a combined ticket for the two sites; the buses only stop at Phaistos, but it’s an easy and very scenic 45 minute walk along the road (though as it’s unshaded, and there aren’t any facilities at Ayia Triada, take water and snacks!). Also, look out for eagles (or possibly vultures? I’m not much good at birds) above the road.

On the same bus route as Phaistos is the Greco-Roman city of Gortyn – almost all the remains that can be seen are Roman, with the exception of the archaic Law Code (which those of you who’ve spent any time in Room 1.02 may already be quite familiar with). Gortyn’s an odd site – the only things inside the fenced area are the Odeon with the Law Code at the back of it, a tree where Zeus’ rape of Europa is supposed to have taken place, and a Byzantine church (under restoration). Although the map shows an agora, it’s a fenced-off field with nothing much visible, and the other theatre and acropolis also marked on the map aren’t actually accessible. Across the road, though, is a huge olive grove all of which is basically the Roman city – so you can just wander around it (sometimes there are paths, sometimes not) stumbling across remains of Roman buildings – usually not literally, as most of them do have fences around them, but see the photograph of the amphitheatre below. It’s all rather charming, in a derelict sort of way.

Gortyn - amphitheatre
Gortyn – amphitheatre
Gortyn - Praetorium
Gortyn – Praetorium

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, the palace of Malia isn’t quite as large or spectacular as Phaistos or Knossos (and it has to be said that the bus ride through the mountains to Phaistos is a lot nicer than the one along the coast through endless tourist resorts to Malia) but it’s worth a visit nonetheless – as well as the palace, two large Minoan houses are preserved in the nearby ‘Quartier Mu’.

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Malia, with giant pithos (storage jar)
Minoan houses under protective roof
Minoan houses under protective roof
Erofilis, the BSA cat, demonstrates how to relax with a book
Erofilis, the BSA cat, demonstrates how to relax with a book

By the way, if you’re in Crete for research purposes, you may well find yourself spending a lot more time in Knossos, because (handily) just across the road from the palace is the British School at AthensCretan centre. As regular RG readers may remember, the BSA also runs a archaeological pottery course at this site over Easter, which I can highly recommend even (or especially) to non-archaeologists (see my previous post about this!); internships are also periodically on offer at the on-site Stratigraphic Museum, so pottery enthusiasts should keep an eye out for those. I can highly recommend the ‘Taverna’ (it’s an imaginatively-named former taverna) as a place to spend some time – it offers accommodation, a library, self-catering facilities, a porch to sit on, and a cat to sit on your lap while you sit on the porch. Pretty much everything you could want from a research trip!

 

 

NB: it can be difficult to find reliable information about Cretan opening hours, bus timetables etc online. The Ministry of Culture website in theory has information on archaeological sites and museums but this is not necessarily up-to-date; links to Cretan bus websites can be found here, but not all routes are listed. It’s best just to check at the Heraklion tourist information office!

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Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

2 thoughts on “Travels in Crete”

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