Letter from Crete

Article excerpt

New Year's Day on Crete dawned mild and bleary. All the archaeological sites were closed and deserted except for a small handful of sightseers who clustered disconsolately before the locked gates. We drove our Fiat over a rutted road to Hagia Triada where there are two prehistoric 'Minoan' villas side by side, which yielded a cache of tablets with 'Linear A' writing to the Italian archaeologists who excavated them. The entrance was padlocked. But there were crocuses thrusting up their blooms through the grass on the hill above the site, which served as a consolation prize. We drove on to Phaistos, the site of a 'Minoan' palace which was abandoned suddenly about 1500 BC. The ticket booth was empty and the gates were closed. We pushed on to Miris which has grown into an unlovely borough in the past few years: 'not a superficially attractive town,' says the Blue Guide, 'but the thriving centre of this agricultural region.' There were only a few pedestrians on the main street this New Year's Day, and an occasional dog. Gortyn, further north on the way to Iraklion, has some classical remains and a ruined Christian basilica, for it used to be the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica. Crumbling Roman foundations peep up in an olive grove beside the highway. Two men were sitting in front of the little museum by the entrance to the archaeological site. Hopeful, we parked the car. The two men said kleisto, more or less in unison. Closed. Gortyn has a famous inscription containing its law code, which is engraved on stone blocks in a small Roman odeon, and it is the earliest law code we have from ancient Greece. We left it behind, got back into our car and made for Iraklion which, as the capital city of the island, should display more life.

My wife and I had taken the night boat from Piraeus to Crete just after Christmas, a groggy period in Athens which does not end until Epiphany. The street vendors sell sprigs of holly, the traffic on the streets becomes a trifle less overwhelming, and even the students who have been blockading roads and occupying schools to advertise their dislike of the education reforms which are being put forward by the PASOK government of Costas Simitis, postponed their demonstrations for a brief interval. More than forty years ago, a few days before the New Year of 1955, I made my first visit to Crete, and the night boat I took then was an aged vessel which had served the Canadian Pacific Railway for four decades on Canada's west coast as the Princess Adelaide, and then, renamed the Angelika, it was serving the Brindisi-Piraeus-Iraklion run under the Greek flag. The boats to Crete now are a world apart from the shabby Angelika: they are clean, well-maintained and reasonably priced. Every inveterate traveller in Greece has stories to tell about Greek island steamships. Of late they have been pleasant stories. Fortunately.

Before sunrise, we disembarked in the rain at the port of Iraklion, which has grown into a sprawling city, infected by the impulse to expand and adopt the uglier aspects of modernization. Our rental car was waiting for us, and after a two-minute lesson on the mysteries of the dashboard, I slipped behind the wheel and we headed for Khania, westward along the 'New Road' which takes sun bathers in the summer to the beaches along the north coast. Behind us, the early light of morning grew more perceptible. The sun was watery, but it was promising, and the rain stopped. We bypassed Rethymno, promising ourselves to return the next day. The great Fortetsa at Rethymno is a monument to vanished imperial glory: it was built by Venice at vast expense as the sixteenth century was winding down, and its huge ramparts and six great bastions should have kept an armada at bay, but when at last a Turkish invading force did attack, it fell in only twenty-three days. We continued west, past deserted hotels which were closed for the winter. As the 'New Road' approaches Khania, it runs high above Souda Bay, which is a magnificent anchorage for ships, and then comes the exit for Khania itself, where we planned to await the New Year. …