In 1981 a fellow student and I were fortunate enough to work at the Athenian Agora on an analytical study of several pottery deposits that summer.
When our work at the Agora was completed at the end of August, we took a few days to travel to the Greek islands of Crete and Santorini. We especially wanted to see Minoan archaeological sites and finds.
We traveled from Pireas to Heraklion by ferry. It was a luxury to have bunks to sleep on when night came, even though they were in a tiny metal cabin and we were sharing it with an entire Greek family.
The two adults and three children squeezed into the two bunks on the left side of the cabin and eyed us suspiciously while my friend and I suspiciously eyed them back from our two bunks on the right side – until someone finally turned off the lights and we all fell asleep.
In the morning we docked in Heraklion and walked up the hill to the center of the city and found ourselves a cheap hotel. It had been a beautiful 19th century mansion, but it was now run down and rented out room by room to poor tourists like ourselves. It seemed like we were the only guests staying there.
We were given a huge faded room with two narrow beds, a sink, and tall shuttered windows that looked out over the roof tops behind the main street. Once we opened the windows, the room echoed with the sounds of everyday life – church bells, chickens, kids, motorbikes, dogs, people yelling, sizzling meat.
The bathroom we had access to was a floor up, and the tub was plugged with a thick wad of long, green stringy algae. We were desperate to wash so we worked together to clean the tub and make it bearable for use. (We didn’t have very high standards.)
We spent the first day in Heraklion filling ourselves with the amazing collection of the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, eating enormous ice cream sundaes at a cafe on the main square, and wandering around the market and waterfront.
The next day we took a local bus to Knossos. We were used to taking transit in Athens, but Crete is predominantly rural and we had not yet experienced that side of life up close and personal.
For instance, there were at least two chicken passengers that got on the bus ahead of us, as well as a huge, hairy, mustachioed man in a dirty undershirt who smelled like he’d never bathed in his life, except in raw garlic. He squeezed onto the full bus cradling an entire goat’s head against his chest and took the seat in front of us. He held one curved horn with a giant meaty hand and balanced the weight of the head on the other. The goat’s dead eyes stared at us til we got off at Knossos.
We had a great time at Knossos, but it was the end of August and it was HOT.
The kind of hot when there are waves in the air and everything loses its color – when what you see is reduced to a kind of shimmering black and white.
It was very exciting to see the ruins. We saw every inch of the Palace and walked until we couldn’t walk anymore.
Then we went for a cold Coca (Coca Cola) and waited for the next bus headed south across the Messara.
We decided to spend the night in Matala, a small fishing village and tourist destination located on the south coast of Crete. Matala is perhaps most famous from the Joni Mitchell song Carey in which she sings about the Matala moon.
Matala is also famous for its myriad caves that were once used to house lepers, but were lived in most recently by hippies.
That summer there was a nice little bar located on the tip of the opposite cliff of the bay. To get to it you had to climb carefully along a rocky ledge. It was a beautiful spot to sit and watch the moon rise over the Libyan Sea. But after a couple of beers the walk back across the rocks in the dark wasn’t so great.
(When I returned to Matala in 1983, the bar had been closed and the area roped off – someone had no doubt had a really bad fall onto the jagged rocks below, after a few too many μπύραs* )
The next day we wanted to visit the Canadian/American archaeological dig at Kommos but we had no idea where it was. We were told it was somewhere near Matala, but no one in Matala could help us.
(I later worked at Kommos Excavations for two seasons, and it was located very close to Matala on the next bay over, with the dig house in Pitsidia, the next village up the road from Matala – if we’d known we could have walked.)
So we got on the local bus that was heading north and asked the bus driver in our broken Greek, to let us off at Kommos excavations. The bus driver only understood that we wanted to go to an archaeological dig, and instead of Kommos he dropped us about 30 kilometers farther up the road, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.
Next to a dingy little sign on a crooked pole that said GORTYN, was a guard sitting on a stool. He sat there by the dusty road alone in the heat, swatting flies away. No one else was in sight for miles.
(We had no idea at the time that Gortyn was a significant archaeological site that we could have visited instead.)
We asked him in our awful modern Greek where Kommos was – was it here? was it there? The poor man had no idea what we were talking about and ended up gesturing to my friend to stay put on his little stool, while he gestured for me to get on the back of a little motorbike he had parked nearby.
The guard got on in front of me, and started up the bike with a loud roar and a smoky cloud of exhaust, and we were on our way…
We puttered along dusty back roads and for just a second I accidentally touched the inside of my calf against the tail pipe and got a nasty burn about 2 inches round. It blistered immediately and the pain was awful, but I didn’t want to make a fuss so I clenched my teeth and held on.
We finally went down an overgrown drive to a beautiful house that had a flagstone paved courtyard. The courtyard was shaded by grape vines hanging from an arbor above. There were several very elegant looking people working there on long tables and it turned out that it was the Italian School of Archaeology’s dig house for Gortyn. The elegant people were Italian archaeologists.
There was a great deal of fast fire Italian going on once I made my mission clear, and a map was pulled out to show me the island of Crete and the location of Kommos. They argued for a long time in Italian about whether the archaeologists were still on site or if the dig had closed for the season – and after a phone call or two it turned out that the dig was closed and our quest was at an end.
They insisted on tending to my oozing burn, and then had the guard take me back to my waiting friend who was still sitting on the side of the road by the crooked sign.
The guard had by this time had enough of me and my friend, and told us to walk up the road (gestured) to catch the bus back to Heraklion.
So my friend and I hiked up the long, winding, searing hot, paved road to the top of a high ridge where there was a battered bus-stop sign, and we waited, and waited, and waited for the bus to come. It seemed like hours that we stood there on the road. We were starting to bicker and despair as the sun slowly went down, when a bus trundled to a stop and the door opened and we got on and rode back in silence to our dingy hotel in the city.
The next day we set off by ferry for Santorini.
(click on this link for a close up, contemporary map of central Crete – you can find all the places that I mention)
* μπύραs means ‘beers’ in English